The art of growing and cultivating Bonsai trees is well over 1,000 years old. This tends to scare some people off because they believe that these unique plants are very difficult to maintain. The most popular way to get a Bonsai is to buy one already grown online, but this can be expensive. It’s more cost-effective and rewarding to grow your own. The goal is to give you all of the knowledge and tools you need to successfully take a creative role in growing and maintaining this beautiful plant.
An Introduction to Bonsai Trees
The term “Bonsai” literally translates into “potted plant.” But, there is a broad range of bushes, plants, and trees that you can train to keep as a Bonsai. Typically associated with Japanese culture, the tree originated in China. Eventually, these trees became symbolic of the Zen Buddhism religion. However, the Japanese did improve and help develop the art of growing the trees you see today.
Today, Bonsai trees are typically kept for recreational and decorative purposes. There are therapeutic values associated with growing these trees, and it teaches patience. The ancient Chinese believed that anyone who could care for this plant for a long time would gain eternity for their soul.
An example of a mature Bonsai tree in an oriental pot.
Unlike the widespread belief, Bonsai are not actually genetically dwarfed plants. Instead, there is a specific series of techniques and steps that stunt the plant’s growth while allowing them to live as long as their counterparts. You can grow any tree as a Bonsai, but there are several steps you have to take into consideration to get there.
Pick the Correct Species
Did you know that there is more than one species of these plants and some are easier to grow than others? Additionally, some do better indoors or outdoors. This is why it’s so important to choose the correct species from the start. Consider the climate your plant will be in. For example, some species require the temperature to go below freezing so they can enter a dormant state while others will die if the temperature dips too low. Some require more humidity than others, and some need special soil conditions. Also, some species are more prone to insects and disease than others, and this makes them more challenging to grow.
Juniper trees are very beginner-friendly. They’re very hardy, and they can survive the temperate regions of the southern hemisphere and all over the northern hemisphere. They respond very well to training efforts like pruning, and they don’t lose their leaves. However, they grow very slowly.
Spruces, pines, and cedars are three other relatively easy species to grow and cultivate. Japanese maples are very beautiful, and so are oaks, elms, and magnolias. If you live in cool climates or want to grow your Bonsai indoors, non-woody tropical species like jade are a good choice. If you’re not sure, ask at your local nursery.
Choose an Indoor or Outdoor Location
Once you decide on a species, choose whether you want the plant to live indoors or outdoors. You don’t want to send it into shock by moving it between these two areas. Indoors is usually drier and has less light, so your tree will need less moisture and light to grow. I picked out several varieties for both indoor and outdoor growth for you below.
- Indoor – Camellia, Ficus, Gardenia, Hawiian Umbrella, Kingsville Boxwood, and Serissa
- Outdoor – Beech, Birch, Cedar, Cypress, Elm, Ginkgo, Juniper, Larch, and Maple
Several different species of trees you can choose from to grow your own depending on your location and climate.
Starting a Bonsai from Seed
First up, I’m going to outline how you would start a tree from seed. You’ll need patience to go this route because it can take three to five years of care before your tree gets big enough to start shaping. However, it’s worth it when you can see the fruits of your labor pay off.
1. Get Your Seeds
Try to get fresh seeds for your plant. The window of time that these seeds are viable for germination is shorter than typical vegetable or flower seeds. Oak seeds are best when you harvest them in early autumn, and they need their green color.
Deciduous trees like maples, oaks, and beeches have seed pods that are highly recognizable. They shed these seeds each year, and they’re very easy to get your hands on. This is why they’re so popular for anyone who wants to start a tree from seed.
2. Let the Seeds Germinate
When you gather up your seeds (and you should gather several), you have to care for them so they sprout. If you live in a non-tropical area and you have defined seasons, seeds usually fall in the cooler autumn months. Then, they go dormant until spring. You have to mimic colder temperatures for a few months before gradually warming them up to mimic spring weather.
If you live in an area that has defined seasons, bury your seeds in a pot of soil and set it outside throughout the winter and into spring. If not, put your seeds in a bag with a slightly damp growth medium like vermiculite. Leave them in the refrigerator until spring, and remove them when you see them start to sprout.
When they’re in the refrigerator, start them at the bottom. Over the course of two weeks, slowly move them up until they get to the top shelf. This will stimulate temperature fluctuations. Come spring, reverse it and move the seeds down the shelves until you get to the bottom.
Seeds sprouting and beginning to grow after a proper germination cycle. You’ll replant these eventually once the roots establish themselves.
3. Plant the Seeds in a Starter Pot
Once you see sprouts, you can place the seedlings into a start pot or tray. If you germinated your plant outside, you can leave it in the pot. If not, buy a starter tray and fill it with rich soil. Dig a hole and place the seed in so the sprout points up and the roots face down.
Water it right away. Try to keep the soil damp, but avoid overwatering. You should avoid using fertilizer for five to six weeks. After this time passes, use a very small amount to give you plant a boost, and avoid getting it on the leaves. Amazon has starter trays available if you can’t find them at your local nursery.
This starter kit comes with 15 trays with 10 cells each. It uses a biodegradable material that helps retain soil moisture to keep your plant healthy. It’ll break apart to allow for the plant’s roots to break through the bottom and continue to grow.
As your seedlings start growing, it’s essential that you carefully monitor the temperature. Cold will kill any growth, and you’ll have to start over. Tropical species do better in greenhouses. Just make sure they’re in a semi-shaded spot and keep the moist.
4. Care for Your Tree
Keep watering and giving your seedlings semi-sunny conditions as they grow. Once you reach this stage, it’s a year-round project. By year four and five, you’ll start to get a plant that you can train. Tropical species should stay inside, but if you picked a species that can survive in your location, you can set it outside in a space it gets morning sun and afternoon shade.
Potting a Grown Bonsai
If you decide to skip growing your plant from seeds, you can purchase a grown plant from an online store. Some speciality greenhouses have them available as well, but they are more expensive. You’ll want to put it in a different pot when you get it to allow for growth
1. Remove the Whole Tree and Clean It
Carefully remove your plant from its current pot without breaking the stem. You’ll cut a lot of the roots before you put it into a new pot, so don’t worry about them as much at this stage. Once you get it out, carefully brush away any stuck-on dirt that blocks your view of the roots. You want to clean enough dirt away so that you can see what you’re doing when you start to prune them. They don’t have to be spotless.
If you don’t control your Bonsai’s growth, it can outgrow it’s container. This is why you’ll prune the roots before you repot it to help keep it small, tidy, and neat. Cut away any upward-facing roots, or roots that are overly large. You want to have slender, long roots left that will stay close to the surface of the soil. This is how your Bonsai absorbs water, and it works well in a small container.
2. Get Your Pot Ready for the Bonsai
Add a fresh new base of soil to the new pot. This will give your plant a better height. There should be a thin layer of coarse-grain soil in the bottom of the pot to help it drain. On top of this layer, add a loose, fine layer of growing medium. It should drain very well, so avoid regular garden soil. Check and see if your Bonsai came with a recommended soil. If so, use this.
Here is an example of a loose soil that you would add to your pot. It allows for great water drainage, but it stays moist to keep your plant healthy and thriving.
3. Add Your Tree to the Pot
Carefully position your tree in the pot. Add in a thin layer of well-draining, dry soil to cover the roots. You can add a layer of moss as well to help hold it in place and give it a pop of color. It’s also a good idea to install small mesh screens over the pot’s drainage holes. This will prevent the soil from eroding over time. If it won’t stand upright, you can run a wire from the draining holes up through the root system.
4. Care for Your New Bonsai
Leave your plant in a semi-shaded area for two to three weeks after you repot it. Water the plant to keep the soil moist, but avoid fertilizing it until the plant’s roots have time to re-establish themselves. This time will help you tree adapt to the new pot. If you have a deciduous species, repot it in the spring for best results. You can add smaller plants to the pot if you’d like after a few weeks to create an aesthetically pleasing look. This is completely optional.
Now that you know how to plant, grow, and care for your tree, I’ll go over how you train it. Wiring and pruning are necessary to keep your plant healthy and thriving. It can be intimidating for new growers, but it’s a relaxing process that allows you to shape your tree.
Pruning Your Bonsai
You prune your tree’s branches to maintain it, and you prune it to shape it. Maintenance pruning takes place during your tree’s growing season in the spring and summer months. Each species has a different pruning routine. However, you generally want to get rid of any leaves that are too large for your plant. If you have vertical branches that are too big to shape, prune them away. Cut as close to the body as you can to remove the most stray branches.
When you remove the branches, you want to apply a healing paste to the cut area. These pastes work to stop disease from reaching your Bonsai, and it encourages it to stay healthy. Amazon has the CUTPASTER Bonsai Cut Paste available that works well. Once you prune it, give it a few weeks to recover. Trim the roots when you give your Bonsai a maintenance trim. If you don’t, the tree will grow a huge amount to try and grow the branches back you cut away.
The CUTPASTER Bonsai Cut Paste is a thick paste that adequately seals any cut areas on the plant to lock out diseases and encourage healing. It can protect an area for over a year with one application, and it’ll allow the plant to form a callus after one or two months to complete the healing process.
For shape pruning, the goal is to get a balanced look for your tree. Don’t take a lot off one side and not a lot off the other. This can lead to a lopsided look. If you have two thick branches that are the same height, trim one away. Get rid of any thick branches on the top of the Bonsai, and cut away and branches you can’t twist. If you added smaller plants to the Bonsai container, don’t forget to prune those too to keep them healthy.
Wiring your Bonsai allows you to bend and curve the branches, and you use either aluminum or copper wire. You have to keep a careful eye on it and be very careful in general because you can injure your tree. Also, remove the wiring after you get the results you want. Bigger branches will need thicker wire, and it’s best to wire your Bonsai during the growing season from spring to autumn.
To start, anchor your wire to the tree’s base or the pot. Decide which branches you want to train to grow in a specific direction. Start with the thicker branches and wrap the wire around them, leading them into the shape you want them to stay in. Wire branches that are the same size together. If you want to do the whole Bonsai at once, start from the trunk and work your way out.
Once your tree gets into the shape you want, carefully remove the wire. Allow your tree to rest and recover for three to four weeks.
This is what a Bonsai tree looks like when you use wire and correct pruning techniques. You can make the tree grow in any direction you wish, and the pruning adds balance while making it seem full.
Growing a Bonsai tree is a labor of love that requires patience and dedication on your part. However, I’ve outlined all of the basic care and growing techniques you need to try with a Bonsai of your own. If you don’t succeed the first time, try again. It takes time to learn the art of Bonsai growth and maintenance, but the beautiful results are well worth it.