Age-Old Wisdom meets Modern Tools
How to Grow a Bonsai Tree
Bonsai Tree Care for Beginners
A few years ago I was given a beautiful bonsai container and decided to try my hand at growing a compact plant to fit it. I had an old azalea growing in a too-small pot that I thought would be perfect for my experiment. Here’s what I learned about bonsai, a living art form!
I envisioned my pretty pink azalea looking something like this
What Is Bonsai?
Bonsai is said to be one of the oldest horticultural pursuits, originating in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).
Many people have a misconception of what bonsai really is. The typical question many people ask is: “Are bonsai their own species of trees?”
No, bonsai is a sort of craft or living art form. Techniques including shallow planting, pruning, defoliation, grafting, and root reduction, along with wiring the trunks and branches into desired shapes, all help to create the look of a mature tree in miniature.
With proper care, a bonsai can last for centuries, but even a relatively young plant can give the illusion of great age. The Lars Anderson Bonsai Collection at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston has some bonsai trees from the 18th century.
The word “Bonsai” means a pot (bon) that holds a plant or plantings (sai).
Indoor and Outdoor Bonsai
There are indoor and outdoor bonsai plants. Most bonsai should actually be placed outside, where they are exposed to the four seasons just like normal trees are. Outdoor ones are made from hardy evergreens or deciduous plants that need a cold period of dormancy during the winter. They are not meant to be indoors year-round.
These trees grow outside year-round near my son’s home in Texas.
Only tropical plants can survive in the indoor climate of your house; they don’t need a cold period and are better suited to growing indoors. My azalea was not a hardy species and would blossom in late winter in the house, making it perfect for an indoor bonsai. Jade plants are easy to train as bonsai by pruning and removing new shoots to get the look you want.
You can use flowering and fruiting shrubs as well as houseplants.
Can Bonsai Be Created From Any Plant?
Almost any tree or shrub can be turned into a bonsai. The key is to prune the roots and the foliage so the plant remains (or is pruned) to be dwarfed.
Specifically, bonsai is created from perennial woody-stemmed tree or shrub species that produces true branches and can be cultivated to remain small through pot confinement with crown and root pruning.
Which Is the Best Bonsai Tree for Beginners?
I admit that my azalea did not respond well to having its roots severely cut back and crammed into that shallow pot and promptly died!
Ficus is probably the easiest to grow for beginners; it’s tolerant of the low humidity indoors.
Here is a short list of good subjects for bonsai:
- Ficus (many species)
- Crassula (jade plant)
- Carmona (tea plant)
- Sand pear
- Chinese elm
Ancient tradition required you to return to nature to find your potential bonsai, but nowadays, we can just head to the local nursery or greenhouse for a bonsai-worthy plant.
What a wonderful way to enjoy bougainvillea in a small space!
How Long Does It Take to Grow a Bonsai Tree?
Have patience, it can take 4 to 6 months to create a pleasing appearance. To avoid breaking a branch, clip the wire to remove it rather than trying to unwrap it from the plant.Caring for Bonsai
The shape of your bonsai depends on the material you are using. Some plants such as jade are too soft to wire into shape and will instead need to be pruned appropriately. After deciding on the look you want to achieve, prune branches starting from the base of the tree to expose the trunk. The root mass may need to be reduced to fit into the new container. If the roots are drastically cut back, the top growth will need to be cut way back as well. When the roots are newly cut, the plant will need to be kept out of the sun while it recovers. Branches and pliable trunks can be wrapped with wire to train them into the appropriate shape.
Hard to believe such a striking plant is growing from such a tiny rootball.
With such a reduced rootball, proper watering is critical to keep your bonsai growing and healthy.
- Feel the soil and water when it feels dry just below the top.
- Water with a hose sprayer until the soil is saturated or dunk the whole pot in water up to the rim.
- Either way, let the excess water drain from the newly watered plant, since sitting in a wet saucer can rot the roots.
Fertilize with a bonsai-specific liquid fertilizer diluted to half strength twice a month during active growth—April through September—and cut back to once a month October through March.
This little evergreen shrub, native to Puerto Rico, is a popular bonsai subject.
Your established bonsai will eventually need repotting.
- Each time you repot you will need to cut the roots back.
- Put the plant in the shade and stop fertilizing until it recovers to avoid burning freshly pruned roots.
The look of your plant will change over time as it matures. You can continue snipping the growing tips back and even removing some of the leaves to keep it in the shape you desire.
Enjoy indoor plant projects! See how to make a terrarium garden under glass.
About This Blog
Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.