Everything About Bonsai Trees For Beginners

Bonsai represents a living form of artistic expression. One of the reasons they fascinate so many people, including me.

There’s more to it than just a quest to miniaturize your tree of choice. Instead, the focus is on creating a sculpture that is both alive and inspired by the natural world.

Newbies are often taken aback when they learn that there is more to tree care than just providing water and cutting off branches.

You’ll have to think about everything from the shape and color of the pot to whether or not to rewire a branch to give it a unique form.

You need to decide if the root breaking the surface of the soil is an asset or a detriment to the overall picture, or if rocks or moss are more appropriate for your tableau.

Consider how to make the display look good in all four seasons if you go with a deciduous plant.

All of this takes place over time, with the ultimate goal of producing a living snapshot of nature that is never truly complete.

Bonsai, unlike photographs or paintings, are never complete until the tree dies. That’s why it’s so relaxing to do this.

You can’t force it, and even if you can see how you want your work of living art to develop, it might never be perfect in your eyes.

This guide will give you an overview of what to expect when you enter the world of bonsai, whether you want to dip your toe in the water or dive right in.

When taking up a new hobby, especially one with such a long and storied tradition, it’s easy to feel a sense of immensity and a sense of being unable to possibly do it justice.

Have no fear. We’ll simplify everything for you so that you can set out on your journey with complete faith in your abilities.

It’s time to get going, so let’s.

What Is Bonsai?

To truly understand this conversation, a brief definition of bonsai is in order.

The Japanese term “bonsai” has been adopted as a verb to describe the practice of cultivating miniature trees through careful pruning and training.

The resulting plants are often referred to by the noun form of the word.

The term “bonsai” is a portmanteau of the Japanese words “bon” (pot, dish) and “sai” (tree). These words together mean “tree in a shallow container.”

Plants that are capable of growing to their normal size are taken and kept small by restricting their roots and pruning their branches; this is not the same as breeding dwarf plants. This is where landscaping and creative expression meet.

Although it was popularized by the Japanese, the practice has its roots in China, where it was known as pun-sai or pen-jing more than two millennia ago.

After Buddhist monks brought bonsai to Japan from China, the Japanese started to make it their own roughly 1,300 years later.

Bonsai has long been used by Buddhist monks as a means of meditation and achieving a meditative state of flow.

While it is appreciated for its aesthetic value and viewed as a visual art form on par with sculpture and painting, it is also a challenging and time-consuming endeavor for those who wish to master it.

After WWII, American soldiers began bringing back artifacts from their overseas deployments, and among them were bonsai.

Commercialization of the arts is inevitable; today, one can purchase plastic replicas that successfully mimic the originals but require none of the efforts. I get that you want to save time, but you could make the case that doing so would be counterproductive.

Bonsai can be done by anyone; you don’t need expensive equipment or a lot of money to start. Take a cutting from a tree in your yard and plant it in a recycled yogurt container to get started. One option is to germinate seeds yourself.

However, you can also buy pre-started trees and a wide variety of decorative pots. Many people choose to stick with the basics, but you can find a variety of tools on the market designed to make your life easier.

Any art lover will find a wide range of prices, from the extremely affordable to the unimaginably pricy. For centuries, some families have cared for the same bonsai tree, never selling it. They have no monetary worth whatsoever.

Others have sold for quite a high price to collectors at auction, including a centuries-old Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora) that reportedly sold for over one million US dollars at the Asia-Pacific Bonsai and Suiseki Convention & Exhibition held in Takamatsu, Kagawa, Japan in 2011.

Young trees, already started for those of us who don’t have the time or space to do it ourselves, can be purchased for less than twenty dollars. Furthermore, you can get bonsai-worthy plant seedlings that haven’t been trained for significantly less money.

It’s simple to get swept up in the fascinating world of bonsai, but try not to let yourself get too overwhelmed. It can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it.

How Bonsai Are Made

The goal of this practice is to make a small piece of nature in a container. The work should look like a tree in its natural environment… only in small sizes.

Some of them look like they are frozen in a strong wind, while others are standing straight up. Some displays only have one tree, but others have two, three, four, or even more.

The majority of bonsai are grown outside, but some can be kept inside.

The chosen plant is put in a small pot, which is usually low and wide but can also be tall and deep.

The tree is then regularly pruned, and the roots are cut back every so often to keep the plant in check. When a plant is young, the wire can be used to train it to grow into a certain shape, but not every artist does this.

Growers get ideas from how the plant grows on its own. Most of the time, a ginkgo tree won’t be trained to hang down, and a weeping cherry won’t be made to grow straight up.

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Some people might think it’s cruel to keep trees in cages. But don’t stress. It’s not bad for the tree.

People have been cutting back plants’ leaves and branches for hundreds of years. In horticulture, cutting back a plant’s roots is a time-tested way to keep it small. And people have grown plants in pots ever since pots were made.

Bonsai plants get so much care and attention that it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that they are better cared for than many trees.

You might also be wondering how long it will take to make something beautiful enough to show off.

Depending on the species (hello, rosemary!) and the age of the plant you start with, it can happen in just a few years or take decades.

Styles of Bonsai Trees

In general, plants can be trained to grow in 15 different ways. These can be put into five groups: formal upright, informal upright, slanting, cascading, and semi-cascading.

Don’t feel like you have to make yours fit into one of these groups. Follow your tree’s lead if it tells you it wants to be something different.

Bonsai is an art, and there is no official rule for it. You are only limited by what you can see and think of.

But it can help to know the different styles so you have a place to start. Let’s take a look.

Bunjingi (Literati)

When you think of the bunjingi style, think of a forest with many trees.

It has to beat out other plants by growing tall, and its lower branches won’t be able to grow because they’ll be in the shade of the trees around it.

Most trees have curved trunks that make it look like the tree climbed up to find the best light.

What does the name mean? Some might say that these look like the thin, abstract, flowing trees that are often shown in paintings by famous Chinese scholars in the literati style.

Chokkan (Formal Upright)

This is a popular style in both nature and bonsai.

The plant grows straight and tall, with a tapering, upright trunk and a dense network of branches.

Fukinagashi (Windswept)

The fukinagashi tree appears to have been cultivated in a very windy location throughout its lifetime.

It will be leaning to one side, and even though the branches can emerge from any side of the trunk, they will all grow in the same direction as the trunk.

Han-Kengai (Semi-Cascading)

This style, also known as semi-cascading, is meant to evoke the appearance of trees that are growing on the side of a cliff and have been blown over by the wind.

In contrast to the cascading style, the semi-cascade grows both horizontally and vertically, but it never extends below the bottom of the container.

Hokidachi (Broom)

The plant will take on the appearance of a broom, complete with a central trunk and many fine branches that fan out from the top, which is referred to as the broom style.

The shape of a ball is achieved by shaping the branches through training.

Ikadabuki (Raft)

Have you ever noticed that when trees fall down in the forest, new trees sprout straight from the trunk? You may say that this aesthetic is reminiscent of that.

Several trunks emerge from a single trunk that runs parallel to the pot’s surface. It is not uncommon for the lower trunk to decay away, leaving the new trees to establish themselves at a higher elevation.

Unfortunately, not all plant species can benefit from being grown in such a spectacular manner. To a greater or lesser extent, juniper, quince, spruce, ficus, beech, olive, and pine trees are the most effective.

Ishizuki (Growing-in-Rock)

Styled similarly to seki-joju (explained below). To be more precise, it establishes roots inside the crevices of a rock, as opposed to nurturing a tree that grows on top of the rock.

Because of the difficulty of this style, careful attention to watering and fertilization is required.

Kabudachi (Multi-Trunk)

More than two trunks emerge from the main trunk and share a single root system in this design.

All of the trunks are from the same tree.

Kengai (Cascading)

This dramatic cascade style makes the plant look like it’s growing on the side of a cliff, where it’s being periodically trampled by snow or boulders. It is recommended that the trunk extend upward for some distance before bending downward.

Plants in this design require a tall container, and continuous training to keep them growing downward against their natural inclination to do so when exposed to bright light. But if executed well, it may be stunning in its elegance.

Moyogi (Informal Upright)

The moyogi trunk is conical at the base and tapers to a point at the top. A branch emerges out of each curve.

This is a typical presentation for juniper and other evergreens. The apex should be situated in line with the base of the trunk, although the trunk can weave and curve all it wants in the middle.

Seki-Joju (Growing-on-Rock)

Think of a rugged mountainside where trees have learned to survive by scavenging for food in the crevices and crannies. In an attempt to recapture the aesthetic, this style adopts those elements.

The rock serves as a support for the tree, which has roots that reach down into the dirt below.

Shakan (Slanting)

In this fashion, you can imagine a tree being blown around by a gentle breeze. A tree growing in the shadow of a large structure or another tree might also look like this.

The tree’s trunk will be angled as if leaning into the sun or shielding itself from the wind. To counteract the lean of the tree, the lowest branch should extend in the opposite direction.

The trees in this style are gently leaning at an angle of 60 degrees to 80 degrees with respect to the ground, but those in the windswept style appear to be in the process of being blown over by strong gusts of wind.

Sharimiki (Driftwood)

Sharimiki doesn’t so much describe a shape as a style in which pieces of bark are peeled away to make a tree appear injured, partially dead, or elderly. After being stripped, these components will be whitened with lime sulfur.

The end product is a tree that appears quite old and weathered.

Sokan (Double)

The trees in this design each consist of two separate specimens of the same kind of tree.

Both trunks ought to come together to produce a single consistent canopy.

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Yose-ue (Forest)

In English, this style is sometimes referred to as the forest style, and as you might think, it has several trees of the same type in a single container.

They are not required to utilize the same root system. The trees are distinct from one another, hence there is no continuous canopy created by them.

The majority of artists strive for odd numbers, and they want all of the trunks to be of varying heights.

Where to Get a Bonsai

You can find many stores that offer pre-started bonsai plants online as well as in your local area. These retailers can be found in both settings. These can be as little as one year old or as old as several hundred years.

To begin, though, you will need to source your own seeds, seedlings, or cuttings if you intend to have a hand in the creation of your work of art from the very beginning to the very end.

You should be able to acquire seeds from any reliable purveyor. It is possible that you may be able to locate the plant species that you desire to cultivate in your neighborhood nursery; but, it is also possible that you will be required to conduct additional research either online or at specialty retailers.

You can take a cutting from any plant that you own or from plants that are growing in the wild; but, before you do so, you should make sure to check with the landowner or the local rules in your area that governs the harvesting or foraging of portions of plants. When selecting cuttings, be sure to only use those from healthy specimens.

There are several excellent candidates available, including beech, boxwood, cedar, fir, hemlock, juniper, yew, birch, elm, ginkgo, maple, willow, wisteria, cotoneaster, and fuchsia.

Lastly, you also have the option of going to a nursery and purchasing young seedlings to cultivate on your own. Some nurseries also sell seedlings, especially for bonsai. Choose plants that are healthy and steer clear of anything that has yellow foliage, is wilted, or is otherwise ill-looking.

Some internet sellers, such as Bonsai Boy of New York, have an entire product category on their websites that is devoted to “pre-bonsai,” which are seedlings that are considered to have excellent potential as bonsai plants.

These are an excellent choice for anybody who is looking to begin growing their own plants independently, away from the guidance of an expert cultivator, but who does not want to begin from square one.

If all else fails, you always have the option of purchasing a bonsai that has already been begun and proceeding from there. This is the one with the highest price tag.

Basics of Growing Bonsai Trees

Once you’ve chosen your plant and thought about the style you want, here’s what you can expect when it comes to taking care of your new project:

Soil

For a bonsai to be healthy, the soil must be healthy.

It’s easy to think of soil as just something to hold the roots down and hold food and water. But the soil is alive. It is made up of solids like microorganisms and other organic matter, as well as air and water.

The roots of a bonsai plant need to be able to get air, so using heavy or packed soil is a quick way to kill your plant. Most soil from the garden is too compacted for plants in pots to do well.

Instead, we use a medium that is made so that the roots can get air and water at the same time.

The opposite is true for short pots: they hold more air and less water. Round pots can hold less water than square ones, and their surface area is also smaller. This is something to think about when picking a growing medium or making one.

Most people who are just starting out with bonsai should buy soil that is already made. But the quality and make-up of these products are not the same.

If you can, look at how much peat, hummus, perlite, or vermiculite is in the medium. The more of these things they have, the more water they will be able to hold.

For example, they sell a quart-size conifer mix that is great for growing evergreen plants outside.

Fertilizer

Since these tiny plants only need a small amount of soil to grow, they can’t get as many nutrients as they want. They count on you to meet their needs.

In addition to the big three (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, or NPK), they also need sulfur, chlorine, boron, zinc, and magnesium.

If you want to grow bonsai, controlled-release fertilizer (CFR) pellets are your best friend. When you water, nutrients can easily wash out of the soil, but with a CFR, you only have to fertilize twice a year and that’s it.

The ideal is something with a little bit more nitrogen. When you look at a package of fertilizer, you’ll see three numbers: N, P, and K. These numbers stand for nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) (K). Choose something that has a ratio of about 13:11:11.

Because there are so many different species that you might want to work with and because scientists haven’t figured out exactly how much iron, sulfur, calcium, zinc, and magnesium each species needs, fertilizing is not an exact science.

Choose something with small amounts of these minerals, but don’t worry too much about the exact amounts.

The slow-release fertilizer from Bonsai Boy is made to give your plant everything it needs, making fertilizing easy.

When your plant is young and you repot it often, you will need to replace the soil as well. But as your plant gets older, the soil stays where it is for a longer time.

It’s a good idea to test the soil every once in a while to find out what nutrients it needs and then add them.

Watering

Depending on how much soil your bonsai has compared to how many roots it has and whether it is growing inside or outside, you may need to water it often. Some plants may need to be watered every day during the hot summer months.

Even more, water is needed for plants that grow on rocks than for plants that grow in soil.

If the substrate is light in color and the container feels light, it’s time to water. If there isn’t much water in the container, you can tap the side and it will sound hollow.

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Check to see if the soil is wet by touching it. If the leaves start to droop, it’s a good sign that you didn’t water them soon enough.

Still, you don’t want to water too much. The roots will be ruined. If the soil feels wet, don’t add more water. You should also water your outdoor plants less in the winter when they are sleeping.

Pruning

pruning is a big part of the art of bonsai. But it’s not just the stems and leaves that we’re talking about. You must also cut back the roots.

At least once every few years, you should take the plant out of its pot and prune it to get rid of any dead, diseased, or broken roots and help the plant grow into a tight mass.

Above the ground, you’ll need to prune the branches, stems, and leaves to give the plant a nice shape, make it grow bushier, and get rid of any growth that looks bad or is unhealthy.

Supplies

At the very least, to grow your plant, you’ll need a substrate and a pot. From there, you can shape your tree with soft, bendy wire. You could also use raffia to protect the plant and help shape it even more.

Because bonsai are so small, many people like to buy pruners made just for them. The best pruners are those with a concave shape because they are less likely to leave scars.

Locally, these can be hard to find, so if you don’t have a specialty shop nearby, you might want to look online at Bonsai Boy or another similar site.

Amazon also sells a great pair made in Japan by hand from steel that I find to be essential and very strong.

For the finer work, you might also want to buy a pair of shears, but kitchen shears will also work.

You can get a pair at Bonsai Boy if you want to add them to your collection of tools.

You can also buy shapers, which can bend branches more dramatically than wire alone. Bonsai Boy also has these useful tools with him.

Depending on the species you are raising, you may also want to use grow lights and a watering can with a narrow spout that makes it easier to get water into the small containers.

Some people like to add small figurines, but in traditional Japanese bonsai, this is not a good idea.

“Modern Bonsai Practice” by Larry Morton is a great book to help you learn more about how to master these elements.

It uses scientific research and the experience of dozens of bonsai experts to dispel many of the myths and common misunderstandings about how to grow bonsai.

It also has a lot of pictures of beautiful bonsai that you can look at to get more ideas.

The American Bonsai Society is also a great extra resource for both beginners and more experienced bonsai fans.

Managing Pests and Disease

Because there are so many different kinds of plants that can be grown as bonsai, there are just as many different kinds of diseases that can affect them.

The best way to figure out what might be hurting your plant is to learn more about the fungi, bacteria, and insects that may be attacking it.

In general, you should always remove any leaves that are damaged or have spots on them, and keep an eye out for bugs or eggs.

Basic Bonsai Aesthetics

We won’t talk too much about the basic artistic parts of bonsai here because that’s a whole other world, but the parts that make up the visual art of bonsai are the same as the parts that make up photography and painting.

You should try to keep things in check. That doesn’t mean that your tree has to be the same on both sides. Empty space or an uneven layout can be very striking to look at.

You should also try to make lines that move the eye, whether that’s down the cascade of a weeping style or up the line of an upright style.

Proportion is another important thing to think about, but you have a lot of room to play with it.

Lastly, strict practitioners usually follow a few “rules,” but you should feel free to break the rules if it makes you happy.

Just know that if you want to show off your tree, breaking any of these rules will probably get you kicked out of the competition.

These things are:

  • Never grow anything else besides the bonsai and moss in the pot.
  • Other than wood, rocks, soil, and moss, there are no other decorations.
  • From the bottom to the top, the trunk should get thinner, and the branches should get smaller as they get closer to the top.
  • The branches and trunk should be about the same size as the leaves.
  • Don’t grow more than one kind of plant in a single pot.

Remember that bonsai is both a way to be creative and a way to relax. All kinds of gardening are great for relieving stress, and every gardener has their own ideas about what looks good.

You’re On Your Way to Becoming a Bonsai Shokunin

I know it’s a lot to take in, but hopefully, you feel like you understand the basics of how to grow bonsai trees now. Don’t worry, even people who have done this for a long time don’t usually think of themselves as experts.

This is because practicing the art also means having the humility to know that you are always learning and to admit it.

Just like your piece of art will never be done, neither will your journey to becoming a master artist. This is a good thing.

In fact, the Japanese word shokunin is a great example of this idea. It means “craftsman” and refers to someone who is trying to become the best at their chosen craft.

The most important word here is “quest,” which shows that this is a process and not a goal to reach and move on from.

Once you start your first project, we’d love it if you’d come back to share your progress or ask any questions you have. Leave them in the comments below so that we can all learn about each other’s journeys to mastery.

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