A Beginner’s Guide to Bonsai Trees
For those of you who love trees, but simply don’t have the space for them in your yard, have you ever considered bonsai trees?
Bonsai trees, for those of you who don’t know, are small trees that are kept in containers. The word bonsai actually refers to the Japanese art of cultivating and growing beautiful small trees that actually mimic a large tree. This is a tradition that has been carried out for over a thousand years.
These trees look amazing and unique, and they are actually fairly easy to grow and care for. If you are interested in growing them yourself, you have come to the right place. Let’s take an in-depth look on how to grow, plant, take care of, and/or purchase bonsai trees.
There are many different ‘styles’ of bonsai trees that you can have, next we are going to discuss some of the most common ones you will come across.
Informal Upright Style (Moyogi)
This type of bonsai tree grows upright, but it still has gentle curves in its trunk. As the trunk grows out of the soil, it comes out first at an angle, and then curves back and forth a few times before reaching the top of the tree.
You have most likely seen this type of bonsai tree, as it is the most common one typically. It’s perfect for beginners – it is suitable for most species of trees, especially deciduous and flowering trees like elms, prunus, quince, and maples.
Formal Upright Style (Chokkan)
For this style, the tree truck is completely straight and upright, and it has a visible taper with the widest part of the trunk at the base of the tree. This is usually supported by a suitable radial nebari (or its root structure).
This style is found naturally in nature in certain species of trees, like specific Conifers, and when a tree is growing in a open area without having to compete for light.
These are extremely regal and timeless, and will add great quality to the area you are growing them in.
Slanting Style (Shakan)
This style of bonsai tree consists of a slanted trunk that grows at an angle to the surface it is growing on – it looks like the tree was blown sideways with a huge gust of wind. While being very unique and strange looking, this is a great conversation starter if you decide to grow a bonsai tree in this particular style.
How to Get Started
There are several steps to getting started with growing your own bonsai tree.
1. Make sure that you select an appropriate tree species for the climate you live in.
Bonsai trees can be made from almost any type of tree, including some tropical plants and other options that may not be suited for all types of weather. Because of this, you will want to do some research to see what hardiness zone your area is in, and what trees are best for that location.
If you still aren’t sure what you should be choosing, the employees at your local plant nurseries and garden supply stores can help you choose as well.
Some common favorites for growing bonsai trees include the juniper tree, which is a hardy evergreen that can survive in any northern climate and some even warmer regions as well. Spruces, cedars, and pines are also extremely popular choices as well, and we love using trees like Japanese maples, elms, and oaks too.As for tropical plants, jade and snowrose are great choices for indoor bonsai trees in temperate or cool climates.
2. Indoor or outdoor?
While this may not seem like a huge decision, you should definitely know if you are planning on having an outdoor or indoor bonsai tree because their needs will change drastically.
Indoor trees are typically going to receive less light and stay dryer, while outdoor areas receive lots of natural sun and rain. For this reason, there are certain varieties that you should keep inside/outside depending on what they are.
Common outdoor choices: maple, birch, beech, ginkgo, elm, larch, juniper, and cypress trees.
Common indoor choices: gardenia, kingsville boxwood, ficus, serissa, and hawaiian umbrella trees.
3. Make sure that you consider the sizing of everything.
Bonsai trees come in a huge variety of sizes. You can have full grown trees that are as small as 6 inches, and anywhere up to 3 feet tall, it just depends on the species of the tree you go with.
However you shouldn’t stop at just considering the size of the actual bonsai tree. You also need to think about the space you available at your home, your desk, or outdoors, as well as the size of the container you have for it, and the amount of sunlight you will have available.
4. When you are ready to choose a plant to become your bonsai tree, make sure to look for a vibrant and healthy one with a fresh, green leaf/needle color.
If, however, you decide to grow it from a seed, know that you will have much more control over its growth in every single stage of its development. On the other end of this though, you will have to wait up to five years to grow from a seed to a full grown tree. This option is really only if you want something to invest in over a few years and don’t mind not having the final product right away.
You can also grow your bonsai tree from a cutting as well. A cutting is simply a branch cut from a growing tree and transplanted to new soil to start a seperate (but 100% genetically identical) plant. This is a great compromise if you want to have a lot of control over the tree’s growth, but don’t want to start from a seed.
5. Select the perfect pot for your bonsai tree.
Bonsai trees are planted into pots that will restrict their growth. However, you will have to choose a pot that is large enough to hold enough soil to cover the roots of the plant. Having the perfect plant in mind first will make this process a lot easier.
When you water the bonsai tree, it will absorb moisture from the soil through its roots. If you don’t have enough soil in the pot, the tree will not be able to retain the moisture that it needs.
On top of the size, you will also want to make sure you make one or two drainage holes at the bottom of the pot as well. This will prevent root rot and keep your tree healthy.
A lot of beginners choose to grow their bonsai trees in more plain, practical containers, then they transfer them to more aesthetically pleasing when the trees are fully grown. This is a great idea if you have a fragile tree species to work with, as it makes you hold off from buying a more expensive container before you know it’s going to be successful.
How to Pot Your Bonsai Tree
To plant your tree in the container you want it to grow in, you will first want to remove it from the container you bought it in and clean off its roots. Be very careful when you are removing the tree not to damage or break its main stem – consider using a potting shovel to pry the plant out without damaging it.
Make sure that you brush away any dirt that has caked itself in and around the root system of your trees. You can use chopsticks, tweezers, and root rakes to make this process a little simpler for you.
You will also want to prune the roots as well. If their growth is not controlled well, the bonsai tree may very well try to outgrow its container. Simply cut any extremely large, thick roots, as well as any that face upwards off of the root system. This will leave behind a network of long and skinny roots that will sit near the surface of the soil.
Since water is absorbed through the tips of the roots, it is better in a small container to have many thin root strands instead of only a few thick ones.
Next you will want to prepare the new pot that the bonsai tree is going into. Make sure that the tree has a base of new, fresh soil to be placed in that gives it the height you desire. At the bottom of the pot, add a layer of coarse-grain soil as its base, then add a much finer, looser medium soil above this. Make sure it is a soil that drains well, that way the roots aren’t going to be drowned when it gets watered.
At the top of the pot, make sure to leave a small amount of space so you can cover the trees roots when it is placed in the container.
When potting the tree, make sure that the tree is positioned just how you want it to look. After that you can cover the roots with the remaining, well-draining soil to hold it in place. You can also add a final layer of moss and/or rocks for a nice aesthetic.
If you are having difficulties keeping the tree standing upright, simply run a heavy gauge wire in from the bottom of the pot through its drainage holes, and tie the wire around the root system to hold it in place.
You might also want to install mesh screens over the drainage holes on the pot to prevent any soil erosion from happening. This occurs when water carries soil out of the pot through the drainage holes.
Pruning and Shaping
Your bonsai tree will need consistent and frequent pruning in order to look right. There are also several different types of pruning to consider for your plant to look and feel good.
1. Pruning for Aesthetics.
To make sure you don’t cause too much damage to the tree, or stunt its growth, you should only prune for aesthetic purposes while the tree is dormant. This means during the winter months of November to February typically.
Make sure to cut back any large branches that protrude from the tree, as well as branches with unnatural twists or ones that are just ugly. To do this, cut each branch above a node in a place that keeps the tree looking balanced. Use branch cutters to keep it looking neat.
If you want to have light able to filter through the canopy and reach the lower branches, trim back the twigs and branches on top of the tree. This also allows you to shape the canopy to the desired shape and size. Use your branch cutters to trim down any out of place branches so that the canopy is balanced and shaped nicely.
If you come across any suckers, which are small offshoots that tend to grow on branches or the base of the trunk, pluck them off with your fingers to keep the tree looking neat and trimmed.
2. Pruning for Maintenance
For general maintenance for your bonsai tree, which should be done regularly, there are several steps to take as well.
Make that you remove all of the dead wood/weeds/leaves from around the bonsai pot and on the tree itself. Carefully remove all the weeds too, but do so carefully so you don’t damage the roots of your bonsai.
Also trim any broken or crossed branches that you find. Branches that cross each other may leave wounds that will allow diseases or pests into the wood of the tree. This also goes for broken branches, which should be carefully removed to allow the tree to direct all its energy to new growth.
You should also cut back twigs so that they only have between 3 and 4 nodes. Nodes are the joints that leaves grow out of, and there shouldn’t be over four of them on each branch. Simply make a clean cut over the remaining nodes with branch cutters.
For this type of pruning, you should of course do it all year round, but especially during the more active months for the bonsai trees. Typically spring and summer is the best time for this.
After your tree has been pruned, there is some aftercare you should consider as well.
Cover any cuts that come from pruning with wound paste. This will prevent too much sap from leaking out, and will help the cuts heal. Simply squeeze out a small amount of cream onto your gloved hand and spread lightly over the wound.
To promote new growth, water your bonsai tree immediately after pruning it as well. Water it deeply to fully moisten the soil. Typically you will want to regularly water your tree lightly once a day, and a little more deeply after pruning.
Lastly, apply a 7-7-7 fertilizer every two weeks while it is actively growing. If you have a smaller bonsai tree, use a liquid fertilizer, and use a granular fertilizer for larger trees. Either dilute the fertilizer to half strength, or use half as much as directed on the fertilizer packaging.
Our Final Thoughts
We hope you found our guide helpful in growing new bonsai trees. These trees are gorgeous, unique, and fairly easy to keep up with as long as your consistent. Have you ever grown one before? If not, what type of tree are you most excited to try out for your bonsai tree?