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A Beginner's Guide to Bonsai

Updated on February 1, 2017
Trident Maple planted in root over rock style.
Trident Maple planted in root over rock style.

Introduction

When asked, many people have a misconception of what bonsai really is. The typical question many people ask is: "are bonsai its own species of trees?" The answer is no. To understand bonsai, we first have to understand the term and there are various terms for the craft.

For example:

In Japanese "Bonsai" means a pot (bon) that holds a plant or plantings (sai).

In Chinese "Penjing" means a pot (pen) that holds scenery.

And finally in Japanese "Saikei" which means planted scenery.

Almost any tree or shrub can be turned into a bonsai. The key is to prune the roots and prune the foliage to keep the plant looking dwarfed.

Ultimately, bonsai is a living art form that can bring many hours, days, weeks, months, years, basically, a lifetime of enjoyment. All that can be achieved by having just a little gardening knowledge, just a hint of creativity, and most importantly, an endless amount of patience. With the fundamental prerequisite, anyone can enjoyably practice bonsai.

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Pine Bark

Pine bark, quarter is for size reference.
Pine bark, quarter is for size reference.

Decomposed Granite

Decomposed granite with quarter for size reference.
Decomposed granite with quarter for size reference.

Coarse River Rocks

Measuring spoon for reference.
Measuring spoon for reference.

Oil Dri

Oil Dri material shown in wet and dry form.
Oil Dri material shown in wet and dry form.

Soil Composition

To start literally from the bottom up, we have to start with soil.

Soil is one of the most important aspects of bonsai. A bonsai tree is bound to a pot and the soil placed into the pot is the only medium to its existence. To say the least, many would agree that bad soil is the undoing of many bonsai trees. But what is bad soil? Bad soil is soil that does not drain well and that often leads to retaining too much water and that is the true "root" of all problems. Allowing water to stay in the soil for an extended amount of time can cause root to rot. A good example would be to imagine soldiers fighting in WWII who were hiding in trenches. After a good amount of time without proper aeration and constant moisture, the soldier's feet were vulnerable to various diseases. It's the same principle.

Good soil allows water to drain very quickly; however, is still able to retain water. A good gritty and loose soil will also allow for roots to form more densely. Sharp particles like lava rocks, a soil additive, can help split roots; therefore, causing the root system to get even denser. To help with drainage, many hobbyists add several other soil additives to help water drain away quicker.

Soil additives can be divided into organic and inorganic mediums. The difference is that some inorganic matter (rocks) is simply there to allow aeration. Organic matter like tree bark and clay (clay almost always contain organic matter) is added to help retain water.

Inorganic Example Soil Components:

- Akadama (Naturally formed clay-like mineral that is mined and typically dried and does not require to be fired and then packaged and sold)

- High Fired Clay (Oil Dri granules found at Auto Part Stores, Turface)

- Decomposed Granite

- Coarse River Rocks

- Kitty Litter

Organic Example Soil Components:

- Dead plant and leaf matter

- Potting Mix

- Peat

- Tree Bark

As all trees require well draining soil, different trees have different water requirements. Some may like more moisture than others. It is best to do a little research on your tree. For example, it goes without saying that a cactus would need less water than a tropical tree so plan accordingly on how much is added to create that perfect balance for your tree.

For a more in depth description of soil composition, visit How to Mix Your Own Bonsai Soil.

Bonsai Tree Characteristic Gender Features

Masculine
Feminine
Heavily tapered trunk
Delicate trunk
Mature Bark
Smooth Bark
Angular Branching
Sleek and smooth Branching
Deadwood
Some deadwood
Very Dense Canopy
Light and Delicate Canopy
Features of masculine vs feminine features of a bonsai tree.

Bonsai Pot Selection

Majority of the time, a bonsai pot is not needed until it is ready to be displayed as a bonsai. So it is technically not a bonsai until it is in a bonsai pot. Many people choose to plant trees into a plastic or ceramic big pot to grow the tree to achieve denser growth, thicker trunks, develop roots, or just overall build up the health of the tree. But when you are satisfied with the overall look of the tree; then is it ready for the bonsai pot.

When a tree is ready for its pot, it will be repotted and it's best to understand the reasons as to why we repot bonsai trees.

Choosing a pot for your bonsai is not exactly an easy task. But a pot is a pot is a pot right? Not exactly. In bonsai, a pot will finalize the tree creating harmony between the tree and the pot. Bonsai pots are used purely for aesthetic reasons; therefore, it is important to understand the rules of pot selection.

Dimensions:

A general rule typically requires that the depth of the pot is equal to the diameter of the trunk after it's planted into the soil, so the surface of the soil.

Masculine vs Feminine:

As trees can be categorized into having gender features; pots can also be categorized into these two categories. Because pot shape and depth determines the gender of the pot, it is important to know how to pair it up with your bonsai.

- Rectangular Pots:

These pots are typically associated with masculine trees (featuring all the traits listed in the table). The one tree that fits the rectangular pot are conifers, almost exclusively, as they typically have a more robust trunk and mature looking bark.

- Round Pots:

These pots are associated with more delicate and more feminine trees. This pot shape can suit both conifers and deciduous trees.

- Oval Pots:

This pot shape can be associated with delicate bonsai as well. Typically used in group or to display a scene, due to the elongated pot to offer more depth.

Color and Texture:

Bonsai pots come in an array of colors and textures. Combinations of colors and textures are used to; yet again, compliment the tree. Though, not as important as the shape of the pot, colors are a final touch to adding that final harmony to a tree.

As many pots come glazed or not, it is good to know how the glazing of the pot can further help define the prospective tree.

- Glazed/Colored

Typically used for flowering trees to further accentuate the special feature of that tree.

- Glazed/Earth Toned

Can be used to suit any tree that is of the feminine quality.

- Non-Glazed

Typically used for conifers. Masculine quality.


Conclusion:

A bonsai pot certainly means a great deal when it comes to pairing it up with a tree; therefore, the task of picking a pot is often not easy and now we know why. But most importantly, picking out a bonsai pot is often a very exciting time because you are picking the vessel that will house your tree. With a little bit of rational thinking and knowledge of the basic rules, a bit of personal interpretation can help with the selection process.

Conifer tree before and after styling.
Conifer tree before and after styling.

Tree Selection

Selecting a tree is by far the most enlightening experience for any bonsai hobbyist. No matter where a potential bonsai "Poten-sai" is acquired, the hobbyist can spend hours analyzing and designing the tree in their head, even before it's purchased or dug up.

Tropical and Temperate:

Even before selecting a tree, the hobbyist needs to be aware of their geographical location. Knowing this will help them better gauge what to acquire. By understanding their geographical location their tree selection can then be narrowed down to two categories: tropical or temperate. Does it belong to the tropical category, where these trees need protecting from the winter based on if your surroundings dip below 60 F? Or is it a temperate tree who need that winter to go into a dormant sleep until spring? Knowing if your tree is a tropical or temperate tree, can help you acquire trees accordingly so that you won't have to provide extensive protection for a horde of tropical trees for the coming frost.

Do a bit of research on the species of tree, as this can help the hobbyist in taking care of the tree. Knowledge on the species can help with understanding: moisture requirements, pest and diseases, light intake, and growth speed.

Selecting a tree or shrub to become a bonsai is a very big step for the plant. Because you are taking it out of the ground, you are the sole provider for it. Unlike a house pet who will whine and grab your attention if their food bowl is empty, a bonsai tree will not come to you for help when their soil is dry and need watering. Therefore, once it is out of the ground and into a pot, the hobbyist should develop a tentative watering schedule and should tend to the trees religiously.

Styling

Once a tree is obtained, the design of the tree is often decided even before it is bought or dug out of the ground. When deciding on a design, it is best to remember that styling a bonsai tree is a practice that captures natural features of life sized mature trees and replicated in miniature scale.

- Leaning

Similar to the formal upright style, this tree emerges from the soil at an angle with the tree canopy developing opposite of the base.

- Semi-Cascade

The apex of the tree does not go any further down past the pot.

- Formal Upright

Tree has a straight upward growing tapering trunk. Branch thickness is styled accordingly with the thickest on the bottom forming a triangular shape tree.

- Informal Upright

Trunk has slight curves, the apex is generally located in line with the trunk base. Branch thickness is similar to formal upright.

- Cascade

The apex of the tree grows downward reaching well past the pot base.

- Root Over Rock

Roots are exposed and allowed to be wrapped around a rock.

- Double Trunk

Two trunks that arise from a single root base typically slightly above the soil line. The branches are positioned out in all different directions except towards each other.

- Windswept

A tree styled to appear to have grown in an environment of strong and harsh winds.

- Raft

A tree styled to mimic a tree that has fallen but is still growing on its side to produce multiple trunks.

- Group Planting

This style has an odd number of plantings of loose single trunked trees. The goal is to convey a dense forest.

Bonsai wire rack.
Bonsai wire rack.
Illustration showing how multiple wires should be situated.
Illustration showing how multiple wires should be situated. | Source

Wiring

When asking some people what is the one of the most interesting thing about bonsai, they typically comment the wires wrapped on the trees. Tree styling is made possible by wrapping wire around the trunk and branches. In the previously mentioned styles portion, wires can be used to achieve some of the more complex styles.

Wires come in many gauges. They range from anywhere as thick as a pencil to as thin as a needle. The one most important rule about wiring a tree is that a healthy tree is the only tree that should receive any wiring for bonsai training. Wire training an unhealthy tree is pointless.

Why can't an unhealthy tree be wired? Because a healthy tree when wired will cause some tears in the cell structure of the branch or trunk. With damage, the tree will ramify due to the tear and will stay in that shape. Bonsai training is all about ramification. Because an unhealthy tree is in poor condition, any training done to it may stress the tree causing more harm to the tree. You wouldn't train your body by running in the cold and rain when you're sick, you wouldn't want to train a tree that isn't healthy either.

How to Wire:

Wiring can be tricky as working with miniature trees can be fragile. You will typically leave wire on a tree for as long as it takes for the tree to ramify and stay in that position. Wire is typically applied late spring all the way to late summer, during the time the plant is growing and is active; anytime after that is not recommend.

Wire should be applied wrapped in a slanted 45 degree angle and should be spaced accordingly based on how much bending is needed. By changing the distance between wrappings, the strength of the wire is changed. More will allow the wire to bend more and hold its shape. Less and the wire will lose strength and will not support the bend as efficiently.

You would always want to start with the thickest and work your way up to using thinner and thinner gauge wire. Do not cross wires as crossing wires will damage the tree and wire marks are not aesthetically pleasing.


Illustration of a ramification.
Illustration of a ramification. | Source
Illustration of maintenance pruning.
Illustration of maintenance pruning. | Source
Illustration of Twig Pruning
Illustration of Twig Pruning | Source
Illustration of pinching pruning.
Illustration of pinching pruning. | Source
Illustration of leaf pruning.
Illustration of leaf pruning. | Source

Pruning

Pruning is essential to maintaining the shape of the tree. By not pruning a tree regularly, the tree will slowly disappear and the shape will be hidden in the dense foliage. Other types of pruning neglect can lead to the tree producing long stringy branches that will grow in all direction which is also very unsightly.

Pruning still follows the styling rule, you would not want to prune a tree if the tree was not healthy. Doing so will, again, stress the tree and cause harm.

Pruning is loosely used as it is a broad term in the hobby of bonsai.

- Maintenance Pruning

This type of pruning will remove those long growths to keep the tree shape in check.

- Twig Pruning

Twig pruning is used to thin out a thick pad or a thick canopy. By doing so will let more light into the tree and reach other leaves within the tree.

- Pinching

Pinching is pruning without using the aide of scissors. You do literally punch off buds to stop growth. Typically used on conifers where the bud, end of the growth, is punched off to encourage growth elsewhere on the branch.

- Leaf Pruning

Leaf pruning or defoliation is used typically on deciduous trees where the whole tree is stripped clean of leaves. This type of pruning typically is done once every two years as this is a very stressful pruning. When conditions are perfect could a complete defoliation be done twice a year. The goal of a complete defoliation is to reduce leaf size. Typically a complete leaf pruning is done 3 weeks prior to competitions for bonsai trees that compete in shows.

Fertilization

The key to significant growth is fertilization. When talking about bonsai fertilization, we run into the term organic and inorganic again. When fertilization is being used in bonsai, it's important to know that the tree is unaware of what its receiving, organic or inorganic. The plant will take what you give it and will thrive.

Organic Fertilizer

- Organic fertilizer is basically derived from decayed plant or animal matter.

Inorganic Fertilizer

- Inorganic fertilizer is synthetically made fertilizer that is artificially manufactured.

There are a few pros and cons in using organic and inorganic fertilizer. Organic fertilizer is typically the safer route because it does not harm the environment; while inorganic fertilizer can leach into the ground water and cause harm. Inorganic fertilizer can also cause a lot of damage if the fertilizer is not diluted properly, it can burn the root system and weaken the tree tremendously. However, the inorganic fertilizer can yield tremendous growth because the fertilizer is so potent.

Organic fertilizer also has its cons. It takes a very long time for it to release, sometimes takes weeks as it requires heat to activate the fertilizer. They also rely on the organisms that break down the organic matter so it takes organic fertilizer a very long time to release its nutrients.

Use what you can handle and follow the directions when using inorganic fertilizer. The pro is the fertilizer is ready for use immediately. While organic fertilizer will take time mixing and time to release nutrients.

Watering

It goes without saying that water is very important to a tree. Some trees like to dry up a little bit before they need more water; therefore, it's hard to follow a schedule. You won't be able to put on the calendar when to water and you shouldn't want to do that. Summer seasons will require you to pay extra attention to the moisture level as soil can dry out very quickly and with well draining soil, the tree will need extra attention.

To check on the moisture level, it's best to insert a chopstick into the soil to be a gauge of how wet the soil still is.

There are two ways to water a bonsai, it can consist of either just showering the plant or immersing the whole pot into a pot of water so the holes on the bottom of a pot will allow water to soak up through the holes.

Remember the bonsai is now out of the ground and that you are now the sole provider. The tree will not whine to you if it is thirsty, attention to soil moisture is very important.

How to create a Bonsai in Steps

With the fundamental basics out of the way, a listed process in creating a bonsai should now be clearer.

- Choose a tree you'd like to start training. Make sure the tree is healthy and is suitable for your geographical location. If not, be prepared to make accommodations for the plant when the frost arrives.

- Decide on a style you would like your tree to become.

- Prepare soil mix based on tree species. Mix the additives together in a large container.From here there are two possible paths you can follow.

- Not satisfied with the tree currently, place tree or shrub into a pot or leave it in the ground for further growth. If you don't put it in the ground, place it in the pot and add the free draining soil into the large pot and allow the plant to mature for a few years.

- If you're satisfied with the plant, prep the bonsai pot that you have picked out. Mix in soil and layer a small layer of soil on the base of the pot.

-Take wire and fish wire at both ends so wire can hold down root ball.

- Take plant and dislodge tree from pot. Prune back roots, use water to wash away any dirt left on the root ball.

- Take plant and situate the tree in pot and wire both ends to hold down root ball.

- Fill in soil and cover root ball. Use a chopstick to probe soil and force soil into root system. Keep on filling soil in and keep on forcing soil into root base.

- Based on the season wire the tree at a much later time after potting the tree.

- Water plant and allow plant to recover.

** Do not fertilize plant as repotting has stressed the tree quite a bit.

Conclusion

As stated before bonsai is a very rewarding craft. It can calm the mind and bring endless amounts of pleasure to those who like to see their actions rewarded with beauty. Bonsai doesn't have to be scary, we fear what we don't understand. I hope that I've cleared the air a bit and able to coax you out of the cave of fears and into the open. Bonsai can cause a bit of frustration; however, this leads to challenges that are fun to tackle. Like any hobby, interpretation is key. This hobby relies on interpretation and in the end, that is the beauty of it because in the end, it is something you created and time sweat and blood has gone into this wonderful organism.

My last piece of advice is to advice anyone who is in the hobby to join a forum or a group, because doing so will help tremendously. Should any questions arise, there are always someone there who can help you get those questions answered. I wish you Good luck! and may you enjoy every moment you spend with your trees!

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      Herman Dekker, hermande@iinet.net.au 2 months ago

      Love your explanations. Did you publish a book? If not, can you recommend a book for me. I love gardening but have always been in awe of bonsai experts as I have never had to courage to try it. Until now. I am 83 but still full of life and intent to live another 10 years. For starters. Thank you so much for your clear explanation. I live in Perth West

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      Choon Mah 7 months ago

      I am relocating to Nevada and would the climate there be unsuitable for bonsais either indoors or outdoors?