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Bonsai Trees For Beginners

Updated on November 28, 2010

This is a simple and practical guide for anyone who want to make a start in art of growing bonsai. Complete guide to growing bonsai trees for beginners. Here we will learn how bonsai are grown and information given is related to what is available in our nurseries and garden centers at the present time in the way of containers, soils, manures and so on.

There is a growing interest in these fascinating trees and they can be displayed in a number of places -- living rooms, conservatories, terraces, verandas, and even kitchen windowsills. In fact, the window sill is an admirable place for those that are being trained or those that are not being displayed. There is nothing to prevent flat dwellers from taking up the ‘art’, just as they have been growing ‘house plants’ in profusion for the past few years. Bonsai are even better suited to cultivation in average rooms than a great many variety of plants that people struggle to grow. The expert Japanese bonsai grower Kyozo Morata once said, ‘Like a pet animal, it needs water, sunshine and nourishment.’

What is Bonsai?

Bonsai have been grown in Japan for hundreds of years and their culture is a treasured art which has been passed from generation to generation. There are, in Japan, a number of bonsai specimens which are known to be more than a hundred years old and these are, of course, of very considerable value. One plant is believed to be a thousand years old. This does not mean, however, that one has to wait all that time for them to grow.

The thousand year old specimen was probably looking a shapely and venerable tree at the time of the Northern Conquest when it was a hundred years old, and the centenarian trees were small and decorative by their third year. The species used are not special dwarf ones, but quite ordinary trees an shrubs only some of which come from Japan; they are plants which would attain considerable heights when grown unchecked, and ones which anyone can grow from seeds or cuttings and dwarf by methods described here.

As a rough guide, the age to which a bonsai may grow should correspond to that of a tree growing naturally; in fact, it will often exceed it because the bonsai is given such care and attention, never having to contend with the extremes of nature. As a rule, conifers live longer than deciduous trees and deciduous forest trees outlive ornamental flowering trees and shrubs.

In the bonsai circles of Japan a thirty year old bonsai is looked on as mature, but full beauty cannot be expected in less than fifty years. However, this should not discourage beginners who will take heart as soon as they have their first specimen, even if it is only a year or so old or a newly potted seedling.

Bonsai Tree Meaning

Before setting out to grow bonsai, we must define the meaning the word ‘bonsai’. It is made up of two Japanese words -- ‘bon’ meaning a shallow pan, and ‘sai’ meaning a plant. By being planted in shallow containers trees can be greatly dwarfed, but not necessarily starved. The object of all care and effort in bonsai culture is to dwarf the stem, shoots and leaves of each specimen in order to achieve, finally, a well proportioned miniature. They have sometimes been referred to as ‘those poor little underfed trees in tiny pots’. This idea is quite unfounded as will be seen dwarfing. Bonsai in fact, pot grown miniature replicas of their natural counterparts in wild; they might be beautifully shaped, upright specimens or gnarled, twisted curiosities, and may be grown singly or in groups. In height they vary from two inches to as much as three feet.

Looking After Bonsai Trees

In Japanese homes, including the most humble, bonsai are given a place of honor in the main room. As readers will know, the furniture and furnishings of a Japanese house are kept very simple, but owners always try to have a miniature tree indoors throughout the year. To do this they have a collection of trees, coniferous and deciduous, from which to choose. The plants grown are hardy and thrive best if they can be ‘rested’ in the open for quite long periods of time.

This ‘rest’ is good for their health and helps to widen the interest for the grower, as he does not have the same plant or plants in the house all the time, which is the case with too many house plants. When the bonsai are put in the open, the containers may be plunged to their tops in sand or soil, or arranged on a table, terrace or veranda. The plunging method helps to prevent the soil from drying out quite so quickly in hot weather, and hence cuts down the amount of watering necessary. In winter, however, it would be unwise to decide to put a bonsai out in the open in frosty spells, since the sudden change of temperature, from warmth to cold, could cause the leaves to wilt or fall; the containers also are likely to be damaged by the action of frost. If available a cold greenhouse would be an excellent place for ‘resting’ plants in winter.

Generally, bonsai could well take the place of pot plants and in general have the same requirements; for example, they need good light and careful watering and feeding. With regard to temperature they are not so exacting -- they are hardy and will stand frost provided that they are not suddenly subjected to it after having been in a moderately heated living room. These hardy plants do not, in fact, like high temperatures and they should be kept away from hot radiators. In these days when more and more central heating is being fitted, it is the hot radiators that are more likely than anything else to cause damage to bonsai in the winter.

Good light is one of the main essentials for healthy and even growth, as plants always grow towards the source of light. But it should be remembered that in very hot weather serious scorching can occur through the glass; so at such times bonsai should not be left in the window -- they will need to be moved to a shadier part of the room or, better still, placed out of doors where they will not scorch.

Displaying indoor bonsai
Displaying indoor bonsai

Displaying Indoor Bonsai Plants

Apart from the fact that light is the best in the window, a window sill does not make a good display place as there is not usually a good background against which the beauty of shape and color can be seen to their best advantage. A plain black background is ideal and it color should be governed by the individual bonsai; evergreens will show up best against a pale color, but the question of color will naturally be a matter of personal opinion; green would ofcourse not be a good choice.

If the bonsai is to be appreciated at night, it should be placed, if possible, near a suitable light. A bonsai enthusiast might even go far to have a corner specially wired for hidden lighting. It would not be wise, however, to create a very ‘Japanese’ corner, as this could possibly stand out against rather than blend with the room and its other furnishings.

Since we are thinking of bonsai in European countries, we will not concern ourselves too much with how the Japanese display theirs. In order to appreciate full beauty and interest of bonsai, one should show bonsai individually and not crowded by other pot plants and flowers. In Japan they are displayed on simple but attractive stands, the legs of which vary in height from one inch or so to several feet, an depending on the size and style of the tree, they are placed low down or high up; the beauty of some bonsai, particularly those in the cascading style, is often best seen by looking up at them.

If ordinary bonsai are considered too large, we can grow mame or miniature bonsai, which may be only a few inches high. A very wide range of these can be displayed on specially constructed stand.

Simplified list of suitable subjects for bonsai work

The species and varieties grown for bonsai are selected for interest they offer in one or more of the following: shape, leaf color, flower and fruit.

The list that follows includes some of the easiest species to grow as is intended to give you some ideas upon which to build in your bonsai collection.

Grown on account of interesting shapes

  • Acer - for leaf shape and natural shape of the tree.
  • Conifers
  • Quercus (Oak)
  • Weeping willow

Grown for leaf color

  • Acer
  • Berberis thunbergii ‘Atropurpurea’
  • Conifers
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Taxodium distichum (Bald Cypress)

Grown for flowers

  • Azaleas
  • Chanenomeles lagenaria (Cydonia japonica)
  • Forsythia
  • Jasminum nudiflorum
  • Malus sp.
  • Prunus sp.
  • Tamarix juniperina (Tamarisk)

Grown for fruit

  • Cotoneaster
  • Crataegus
  • Ilex(Holly)
  • Malus sp.


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    • erthfrend profile image


      8 years ago from Florida

      Ive always loved the beauty of bonsai trees. Thank you for the tips! Maybe one day I will make a small arrangement too. Its a great idea for a gift as well!


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