Gardening

How to Grow a Bonsai Tree & Make It Live Forever

It could outlive you.

July 18, 2019
Photo by Beth Coll Anderson (bethcoll.com)

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of growing a bonsai. Me and a growing tribe of enthusiasts that keep “bonsai for beginners” trending on Pinterest all year. If you’re one of us, the idea of growing a miniature tree in your home excites you no end.

However, it’s no secret that I’m not always the best at caring for plants, and bonsai trees are known to be quite finicky (You mean it’s not enough to just water them?). Even so, I wanted to find out if these miniature trees are really as complicated as they seem, so I reached out to a few bonsai experts to pick their brains about the art form.

So What Exactly Is a Bonsai Tree?

For the longest time, I thought bonsai trees were a special species of tree! As I've discovered, I wasn’t alone in assuming that!

“Bonsai is a set of practices used to shape a tree artistically,” explains Eric Schrader, who teaches bonsai basics at the Bonsai Society of San Francisco.

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Young Japanese Maple bonsai

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You can use these techniques on just about any type of tree, from cherry blossoms to redwood. Some species, though, are harder to turn into bonsai trees than others. There are also several bonsai “styles,” that include informal, formal, and slanted. These refer to the general shape and stature of the tree, which you can manipulate through wiring and pruning (more on those in a minute).

Which Plant Should You Use?

Naturally, my next question was, “What type of tree is best for beginners?” Like many questions in the plant world, there’s no one definitive answer here, either—experts say it really depends on the climate where you live, and where you plan to place your tree.

Particularly, you’ll need to decide whether you want an outdoor or indoor bonsai. Schrader explains that fewer bonsai varieties thrive indoors, since “the temperature doesn’t change much inside and it’s fairly dry.” Just like a regular, full-grown tree, most bonsai do best when exposed to four seasons, as this allows them to go through a stage of dormancy in the winter (we hear you, bonsai).

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Top Comment:
“Get a book. Get two books. That and a few years' practice will get you started. I'm certainly not going to try to teach bonsai in a comment, but a few notes on what's covered here- indoor bonsai isn't really a thing; most bonsai can spend some time indoors, for exhibits etc., but they're not houseplants; you'd do better with faux- bonsaiing caudiciform succulents. Several nodes on a new branch is generally way too much for a bonsai; it's usually one- and remember, the spaces may grow considerably after the leaves have formed. And bonsai are usually not repotted, they may stay in the same pot all their lives, but they need to be root pruned every year. This is usually done in early spring when new buds are just starting to open- a time when it's often not fun to be dealing with wet soil, buckets of water etc.”
— Smaug
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A few examples of easy-to-care-for indoor bonsais include: Varieties of ficus, such as Ficus Retusa and Ficus Nerifolia, Jade trees, and Dwarf umbrella trees.

If you’re lucky enough to have an outdoor space where your plant can live, your choices get more interesting. Schrader recommends the Cotoneaster, saying that “if you’re attentive to watering, it’s a good plant to start with.”

Other easy outdoor bonsai for beginners include: Junipers, Boxwood, and Deciduous tree species (especially if you live in the Northeast).

Remember, different trees have different needs, so be sure to visit Bonsai Empire's list of bonsai tree species to identify and optimize care for your plant.

The 411 on Bonsai Technique

As it turns out, taking a regular tree and turning it into an artistic, miniature version of itself is less complicated than I initially thought! It just requires diligent care, regular maintenance—and a whole lot of patience.

Here is a breakdown of the techniques you’ll need to grow a happy, healthy tree.

Watering

What sounds like the simplest of tasks just isn’t. You don’t want to put your tree on a watering “schedule”—instead, monitor it closely to assess exactly when it needs water. “The most common causes of death are underwatering, followed closely by overwatering,” says Schrader.

Your tree’s watering needs will depend on the species, climate, pot, and its overall health, but in general, you don’t want to let your bonsai tree’s soil dry out completely between waterings. Bonsai Tonight explains that because these plants have small root systems, letting the soil get too dry can cause roots to die. As such, it’s best to water while the soil is still slightly damp.

Also, because bonsai trees are in shallow pots, their soil will likely dry out faster than your other house plants. Keep a close eye on your tree, especially when you first bring it home, to ensure you don’t go too long without watering.

Pruning

This next technique is key—after all, this is how you keep your tree small.

For an indoor bonsai, there are no hard-and-fast rules on when to prune. “If you get a couple inches of growth, you can usually be confident that it’s healthy enough to be trimmed back,” says Schrader. With an outdoor bonsai, you’ll generally want to do any maintenance pruning only during growth season—a.k.a. spring and summer.

When pruning, you’ll want to remove broken and crossed branches and cut back twigs with more than three or four nodes (the joints where leaves grow). You can also use pruning to shape your bonsai tree and improve its aesthetic, removing branches too close to the base of the tree, as well as those growing in the wrong direction.

You can either pinch off or use small scissors to remove foliage, but you’ll likely want concave cutters for larger branches, which leave a smooth, indented surface that the tree can easily heal from. The general rule is to prune no more than a third of a healthy tree’s foliage at a time—taking more will ultimately hurt the plant.

Fertilizing

If your bonsai tree isn’t the desired size yet, you’ll need to put it on a regular feeding schedule. Fully-grown bonsai require fertilizer, too, but not as frequently.

Schrader explains you can use either organic or mineral fertilizer—or a combination of the two. (Organic fertilizer tends to smell, so think twice before using it indoors.) He recommends applying a tablespoon of organic fertilizer or a “dose” of liquid fertilizer every couple of weeks.

Wiring

As a beginner, you might be content to let your bonsai do its own thing, shaping it through pruning. Once you graduate into an advanced bonsai artist, you’ll want to use wiring.

“There are a couple of tools for creating shape,” explains Schrader. “You can remove things, and you can move things. Wire is used to create shape and move branches from one place to another.”

Essentially, you wrap branches in wire, then bend and reposition them, encouraging them to grow in certain directions. Anodized aluminum wire is recommended for beginners because it’s easy to work with, and you can wrap branches in water-soaked raffia fiber before wiring if you’re nervous about damaging them.

Bonsai Empire provides a thorough guide on wiring your tree if you want to learn more.

Repotting

Finally, a repotting schedule—not only will this give the tree healthy, new soil, it will also allow you to trim back the plant’s root system.

A growing bonsai should be repotted roughly every two years, while a mature tree may be able to go three or more years without repotting. You can see if your bonsai needs repotting by examining the root system—if it’s circling around the pot, it needs a trim.

Generally, you’ll want to repot your bonsai tree in the spring before it starts growing in earnest. During the process, remove old soil from the roots using chopsticks and trim back any roots that have grown too long. Take care not to remove more than a third of the root system.

Once you’ve completed this, you can add fresh bonsai soil—typically a mixture of akadama, pumice, lava rock, organic potting compost, and fine gravel.

Get the Help You Need

Feeling overwhelmed? Me too! It’s a lot to learn, but once you get the hang of it, growing bonsai feels like it could become an obsession.

Many experts recommend finding a bonsai workshop, class, or society in your area to connect you with enthusiasts and give you a place to troubleshoot. Alternatively, there are plenty of great bonsai resources online, including tons of videos that cover everything we’ve spoken about here.

So, are you ready to try your hand at growing your own bonsai? I know I am—I’m signing up for my first workshop today!

What are your pro tips for bonsai care? Let us know in the comments below.


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1 Comment

Smaug July 18, 2019
Get a book. Get two books. That and a few years' practice will get you started. I'm certainly not going to try to teach bonsai in a comment, but a few notes on what's covered here- indoor bonsai isn't really a thing; most bonsai can spend some time indoors, for exhibits etc., but they're not houseplants; you'd do better with faux- bonsaiing caudiciform succulents. Several nodes on a new branch is generally way too much for a bonsai; it's usually one- and remember, the spaces may grow considerably after the leaves have formed. And bonsai are usually not repotted, they may stay in the same pot all their lives, but they need to be root pruned every year. This is usually done in early spring when new buds are just starting to open- a time when it's often not fun to be dealing with wet soil, buckets of water etc.