I became fascinated with bonsai while I was in college. I grew little trees in the window of my dorm room and distressed shrubs in the yard of the house my fiance and I rented our senior year.
I worked with local flowering species like Azalea and Bougainville, as well as hardy small-leafed shrubs like boxwood. The trees were unlikely to survive a draught during finals, but my interest was peaked.
When I lived in Taiwan my obsession with bonsai grew, but I was frustrated trying to grow the beautiful specimens I saw at the weekend flower markets and on balconies along the narrow streets. Between insufficient lighting, inconsistent watering, and occasional vacations, the bonsai I bought were doomed, as are so many beginner bonsai.
Over the years I have kept and killed many bonsai, and learned a little in the process. I come to know my bonsai very intimately. I plan their development, worry over their health, and take pride in their beauty. I also mourn the many deaths that I cause. Success, I have found, is more a matter of perseverance than anything else. That’s what is so wonderful about bonsai.
You don’t have to pull from yourself artistic ideas to put into the tree. Rather, the tree emerges as an object of beauty as time passes. As you study a tree, day by day, year by year, you make small choices that result in the singularly beautiful illusion of a miniature tree.
Getting Started with Bonsai
David Prescott’s book Pocket Bonsai helped inspire my enthusiasm for bonsai and has been invaluable to me as I develop my skill.
This book goes over most popular bonsai species, as well as giving knowledgeable advice on soil, watering, potting, pruning, wiring, and pretty much everything else that you need to know to grow bonsai successfully.
I was surprised by some of the techniques that can be used to create a bonsai that looks old in only a few years or even months, like taking a bonsai from the branch of a mature tree, or finding a living stump in a cleared forest to harvest.
The easiest way that I have found to start a bonsai is to choose a hardy, local species from a nearby nursery’s stock of shrubs. Boxwood, juniper, gardenia, azalea, and even orange, lemon, or lime can make beautiful bonsai and come at very reasonable costs for the beginner.
Choosing a Bonsai Tree
Any tree or shrub with a woody stem can be made into a bonsai. Those with naturally small leaves tend to do a better job of creating a convincing tiny tree, but any tree’s leaves can be reduced in size with selective pruning.
If you are just starting out with bonsai, and especially if you would like to be able to forget about your bonsai for more than a day or two without it succumbing, it is a good idea to choose a large specimen that is native to your area. You can also opt for a hardy indoor tree like a ficus.
Find an individual with a good trunk and branching structure. Dig down to find the big roots, or nebari, and make sure they are well-developed and that they fan out naturally. Sometimes you have to push past a lot of root hairs that have grown up around the trunk to find the nebari.
A good style to consider for a first bonsai is a cluster of trees, since nursery shrubs often come with several trunks. They can be framed as a small island of trees, with moss at the base. Trees trained in this style look more mature more quickly.
Whether you are considering a cluster or a single tree, take your time choosing a specimen. If all goes well you will be looking at your bonsai critically for many years to come, so take your time in picking a tree.
A bonsai may live for decades or even hundreds of years depending on the species. I have found that it is possible to keep a tree alive through the years without giving up vacations and while still having a life.
When you bring home your bonsai to be, it is best to give it some time to recover and grow out before you shape it and put it into a bonsai pot. Loosen the shrub’s root ball and plant into well-draining soil in a large pot, preferably of stone, concrete, or clay.
For some time, just watch your tree and make sure it is adjusting well. Move it around to find the exact balance of light it prefers. In order to avoid drying out, it is best to keep trees in as much shade as they will tolerate. If it is winter and the tree is dormant, it may take some time before new growth appears. When you notice robust growth and the tree seems healthy, you can begin training.
- Small saplings that clutter your view in a cluster of trees
- Branches that:
- are dead
- grow at odd angles to the rest of the tree
- grow straight and are too hard for wiring
- grow at a 90 degree angle to the trunk.
- Leaves that grow directly from the trunk and from the base of branches.
The amount of pruning that can be done safely depends on the species, but to be careful don’t remove more than a quarter of the tree.
Choose a wire that has been anodized for bonsai use so that the bark will not be discolored by rust. Make sure that you have several weights available so that you can use the appropriate weight for each branch.
You can wire any branch or trunk that is flexible enough to bend gently in your hand. If you feel unsure, try bending a few tree twigs and shrub branches in your yard to get a sense of when a branch will bend and when it is going to snap.
Wire from the base of the branch or trunk, holding the wire securely with one hand as you wrap with the other. If the branch becomes much thinner, you may need to change to a lighter weight of wire as you go. If this is necessary, double wire for a few wraps to securely anchor the new wire.
Only wire several branches at first and watch them closely. If the tree is growing the branch will set in several weeks. After that the wire will begin cutting into the bark. The branch can recover from light scarring but will be strangled if the wire is left too long.
When your bonsai has recovered from pruning and wiring you can put it into a bonsai pot. Trees will grow quicker if left in a large grow-out pot and are much easier to care for, but they don’t look much like bonsai when kept this way.
The Bonsai Pot
A quality bonsai dish is made of thick ceramic or clay and has good drainage. The thicker the ceramic, the less prone the pot will be to drying out, but you will still need to water your bonsai often. Bonsai in thin ceramic or plastic pots will have a much harder time standing up against the elements.
Here in Gainesville, we don’t have to worry too much about hard freezes, but if you would like to leave your cold-hardy bonsai outdoors year-round, make sure that you have a frost-resistant pot.
You can safely cut up to a third of a tree’s root mass. Cut to fit the pot, and also cut out medium-sized roots that neither store much moisture nor have many root hairs. The bonsai must settle into the pot with its first spreading roots just below the lip of the pot.
If you are doing an island style bonsai, you can let the trees rest above the lip, but there must be a significant surface area beneath the lip of the pot to catch water. The roots should not be bent to fit, but should end shortly before the edge of the pot.
To achieve a realistic shape a bonsai must be aggressively pruned and wired. For the enthusiastic beginner hobbyist, the temptation to overdo it can be powerful. Remember that bonsai is meant to be a slow art, so don’t rush pruning. I have killed more than a few trees by cutting too much.
Stanwood Bonsai 10-Piece Carbon Steel Shear Set and Tool Kit
Effective tools make shaping your bonsai a pleasant experience that you will look forward to. I have the Stanwood Bonsai 10-Piece Carbon Steel Shear Set and Tool Kit. This kit was a gift from my fiance about five years ago and it is still going strong. I keep the tools in oiled sand to keep them sharp and rust-free.
You can make a smaller investment in only a few key tools if you like. Of my Stanwood kit, the Ashinaga Shears are by far the ones I use most often. This versatile tool can cut smaller branches off close to the trunk or snip off leaves. It can do most of the work in shaping and maintaining your bonsai.
The other important tool for shaping nursery stock is the knob cutter. This curved blade takes out the stump of severed branches so that the wound will heal smoothly and vanish altogether in time.
The non-slanted version is the most useful as a stand-alone tool, although the slanted version is great for removing branches close to the trunk.
Bonsai don’t have much soil available to them, so the soil quality is important. The reduced root area in the small pot can quickly overheat and dry out, so it is essential that soil conserves water well.
Soil should be coarse enough to allow for good drainage, but the size of particles should be more or less consistent. Large pieces of mulch or debris that aren’t nutritionally available to the tree take up valuable room and stop delicate roots from finding available resources.
Whether you want to buy a high-quality bonsai soil or make your own, make sure that it both retains moisture and drains well, that it is rich with micronutrients, and that it is of a consistent texture.
Kill Some Trees
If you are excited about getting into bonsai, you must accept at the start that you will kill a few trees. Don’t let that discourage you. Start with hardy shrubs that you see growing well in your area and which are typically used for landscaping, so you know they will respond well to pruning.
The enjoyment of a bonsai is constant tinkering. Surely this is why they appeal so much to gardeners, who can never leave anything alone. Continuously develop your bonsai’s branching structure by pinching the tips of branches as they grow. Pinch large leaves and leaves that grow from the woody parts of the tree.
Arrange moss and pebbles at the base of your bonsai to exaggerate the illusion of a tiny tree, being careful that the moss doesn’t cover more than half of the overall surface area, as it can lock in too much moisture and not allow for proper drainage.
Enjoy and maintain your tree in a bonsai pot for a year or several years, then put it back in a grow-out pot for a year or so to rest and recover from training or trim back the roots and repot. Very hardy bonsai species can tolerate being trimmed and repotted in the same pot for many years.
Do you have questions or comments about my beginner bonsai? Don’t hesitate to contact me! I love hearing from beginners like me as well as more experienced hobbyists.