According to Japanese traditions, cultivating bonsai trees is one of the noblest acts one can perform in society. After all, it is an art form.
So, next time you’re caring for your bonsai, remember that you’re not just tending to a tree; you’re indulging in actual art, which began around 500 BC and is still used today – this means you’re an artist!
“One of the most important tools of bonsai is patience.” We can’t agree more with that saying.
This illustrious historical practice has taught lessons of patience to millions of people around the world for centuries. Patience is the way to a truly beautiful life, and cultivating and tending to your precious bonsai can help you achieve patience.
If you’re not captivated by such simplicity and magnificence, you will be once you read this thorough and practical guide on growing and caring for bonsai trees.
We cover all the essentials, from A to Z, and we hope you get as much out of it as we did creating it. Welcome to the world of Bonsai!
Table of Contents
What is the Art of Bonsai?
History of bonsai tells that ‘bonsai’ is the art and practice of growing certain species of plants and trees in small planters and pots using admirable horticulture techniques. The plants and trees grown in these small containers are meant to be replicas of normal trees and plants, except these are grown to be short in stature and remain that way throughout their lifecycle.
Indoor Bonsai Trees vs. Outdoor Bonsai Trees
A terribly large amount of bonsai misadventures occur due to the confusion surrounding indoor and outdoor bonsai trees.
Putting this immensely common uncertainty to rest for you, indoor bonsai trees belong to tropical and subtropical species. They require stable temperatures throughout the year, making a balanced indoor environment ideal.
A few examples of indoor bonsai are:
- Ficus Bonsai
- Carmona Bonsai
- Chinese Elm Bonsai
However, outdoor bonsai trees are in the majority as these hardy plants require all four seasons to survive, similar to normal trees. But, they do need a rest period during the winter months.
Some common examples of outdoor bonsai include:
- Juniper Bonsai
- Japanese Maple Bonsai
- Japanese Back Pine Bonsai
Nowadays, people who prefer the ornamental value of indoor plants have dwarfed their outdoor bonsai trees to suit indoor conditions. An example of this would be turning Jade Trees to Dwarf Jades. It’s all a matter of personal preference, though.
The debate between indoor and outdoor bonsai trees has also produced several perplexing questions within the bonsai community. For you to be confident with your distinction between the two paramount types of bonsai trees, here are a few questions answered for you.
Do I Need a Grow Light to Grow Bonsai Indoors?
Although sunlight is unmatched when it comes to providing light energy for your bonsai to grow, sometimes, you are unable to provide the necessary light for your beloved bonsai.
Your windows might be too small for sufficient light to enter, or you might live in a place where daylight hours are limited. Lower light levels may be OK depending on the species of tree you are growing, but typically, you will need at least 6 hours of light per day.
If your bonsai grows during winter, a growth light becomes imperative, given you can not rely on outdoor daylight for your tropical and subtropical bonsai species. This does, of course, change with the region you are based, but generally speaking, daylight is limited in the winter months.
Where Should I Put My Bonsai Outdoors?
Beginner bonsai enthusiasts often ask this vital question. The simple answer is: it’s your house and your bonsai; you can put it wherever you want as long as your bonsai’s growing conditions are met.
Still, we recommend you put it on your balcony, which is an elevated area that likely receives plenty of indirect sunlight. If not, try to find a location that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight year-round.
If you live in cold climates, however, the freedom to put your bonsai wherever you want may be taken away from you, as some bonsai species will be kept indoors during the colder months.
The 5 Basic Styles of Bonsai
Bonsai styles refer to the various angles of growth taken by a miniature tree as it grows from its small container. These five styles are all found in nature, and we discuss their modifications (different shapes) below.
Formal Upright Style (Chokan)
Chokan is a fitting example of trees growing freely in nature without any external stress. Its characteristic design elements consist of a vertical trunk and branches descending in length as you move to its apex, with lower branches being the lengthiest. A suitable example of the Chokan style bonsai is displayed with coniferous trees.
The broom style is a variation of the Chokan method of bonsai and depicts old trees lining city canals and streets. Several branches form a broom at the apex of a deciduous bonsai species using the broom variation of Chokan.
Informal Upright Style (Moyogi)
The Moyogi style displays a weathered tree, which has experienced natural depletion at the hands of various forces of nature, such as snow and wind erosion. Moyogi’s original depiction of naturally weathered trees makes it the most popular bonsai style. It is achieved through wiring the bonsai and using other training measures.
Exposed Root Style
This style is an extreme yet realistic example of Moyogi. When trees go through immense weathering, their roots get exposed. Like natural weathering over a long period, it takes several years for these roots to be revealed by bonsai artists, as only a partial amount of roots are exposed at a time.
Slanting Style (Shakan)
Trees slant naturally in nature due to severe wind erosion or creeping for sunlight as it is one of the plants that love full sun, and Shakan bonsai trees are the product of careful visualization of this.
Double Trunk Style
This iteration of Shakan bonsai depicts one tree having two separate trunks. These trunks grow together at the base. However, one trunk slants to an angle of around 80°.
Semi-Cascade Style (Han-Kengai)
This style displays a tree growing on a hillside. The trunk bends downwards, crossing the container’s rim but not the base of the container.
Full Cascade Style (Kengai)
The Kengai style follows the same rules governing the Han-Kengai style. The only difference is that the trunk is allowed to descend below the base of the container. A stand is required to put it on display.
How to Care for a Bonsai Plant
As a beginner, there is no need for intimidation from bonsai care; it’s not as difficult as it seems. All you need to do is follow these basic guidelines. Good luck!
The soil needs to possess a few basic traits necessary for achieving superior soil quality for most tree species, including all bonsai trees.
- Drainage. The soil needs good drainage to prevent a lack of aeration and salt buildup. You can achieve proper drainage by adding stones and volcanic rock to the soil.
- Water Retention. The soil must hold water for enough time to provide moisture to the bonsai. Water retention can be achieved by adding clay to the soil.
- Well-Structured Inorganic Soil. Also known as particle-based soil, this type of soil is optimal for bonsai growth as it offers superb aeration and rapid drainage.
To attain the best watering regime, you must check your bonsai’s soil regularly. If it appears dry, water it, as dry soil is the worst enemy of a bonsai. Watering is vastly dependent on positioning; the positioning of your bonsai should be such that it receives plenty of sunlight but no direct heat.
Pro Gardener Tip: Don’t opt for a strict watering routine since the external environment is dynamic.
Most bonsai trees prefer temperatures ranging from 64°F to 75°F during the daytime and 57°F to 61°F at night. Most bonsai trees can withstand cold temperatures. Nonetheless, tropical plants adapted to tropical climates should be treated with relative caution as they are not adapted to substantial drops in temperature.
Every bonsai tree requires sufficient indirect light for at least 5 to 6 hours daily. Most outdoor plants, including bonsai species, thrive during the warm months of May through September. Albeit indoor trees prefer the indoor’s partial shade all year round, you can fulfill their lighting needs using a grow light as direct sunlight is not a viable option.
You can tend to your bonsai’s humidity needs by misting it with water a couple of times on a regular basis, using a humidity tray, and ventilating the bonsai’s surrounding environment by simply opening a nearby window during the daytime for a high humidity surrounding.
USDA Hardiness Zones
Conventional bonsai species belong to temperate regions, so they are placed in hardiness zones ranging from 7 to 9. The vast majority require moderate temperatures, humidity, and ample daylight.
Fertilization is critical during the growing period, which typically lasts from spring to the summer months, as bonsai trees have no other means to obtain nutrients being confined to a container. Appropriate fertilization is required to enrich the soil with nutrient content.
How to Shape and Style Your Bonsai (Pruning 101)
Perhaps, this is the most common question asked by beginners entering the bonsai world. As expected, beginners’ minds get baffled by the intricacies surrounding bonsai styling and shaping.
For your assistance, here is the pro gardeners’ guide to regular pruning.
- Equip your tool arsenal by getting these tools: concave pruners, traditional bonsai shears, tree training wire kit, and tree branch bender.
- You should think of recreating a tree in its exact natural appearance in nature, except in a miniature version.
- Pick a style to cut with.
- Make sure your tools are sharp and clean for sheer accuracy.
- Cut the overgrown shoots and leaves with a bonsai shear. (Around 20% of leaves will be removed.)
- A concave pruner will be used to prune large branches.
- Prune the bigger chunk of the branch to make space.
- Now that you have more room to work with, make a cleaner cut at the stud of the stem in a precise manner.
- The hollow point can be tended to by cut paste, allowing the inflicted wound to heal quicker. Every pro gardener urges you to do this, as no one wants to hurt a bonsai.
- Pruning for maintenance can be done throughout the year. On the contrary, structural pruning should only be done during the growing season.
Wiring is an entirely different ballgame, which helps train and shape the branches of your bonsai tree. Here is how the experts use a bonsai wire:
- ⅓ wiring rule requires wiring a 9mm branch with a 3mm wire. The angle of the wiring should be 45°.
- Cut the wire with a wire cutter.
- To wire the side branch using a 2mm wire, you will neatly wrap this 2mm wire with the previously discussed 3mm wire.
- Subsequent smaller branches can be wired with 1mm wires using the similar technique in steps 1 and 2.
- After the wiring is completed, you will bend the branch into your desired shape.
Potting and Repotting Bonsai Trees
Potting and repotting your bonsai can be tricky, so we outline a few basic things below.
When Should I Repot My Bonsai?
With time, your bonsai’s roots will start to clutter inside the small pot as they will have nowhere to escape, so repotting is necessary to discard excessive roots that cause the bonsai to starve.
Ideally, you should repot your bonsai tree every 2 to 5 years.
How to Repot Bonsai
Follow these steps when repotting your bonsai.
- Delicately lift your bonsai from its pot.
- With sharp shears, trim away the outward and wild rootlings that are distant from the main root mass.
- Inspect the root mass for signs of root rot. If you find rot, trim it away.
- Thoroughly wash the pot by clearing it of any dark and green smudges.
- Upon a layer of premium soil at the bottom of the container, place the tree on top.
- The spaces left by the excessive roots will be filled with soil.
What Type of Bonsai Tree Pot Should I Use?
According to your preference, you can get your bonsai pot made from a wide variety of materials, including:
Pro gardeners do not recommend potting your bonsai in metal because of the risk of toxins leaching into the soil. A classic Japanese bonsai pot is made from either porcelain or ceramic that is stoneware burned to prevent the material from absorbing and retaining water.
Creative Ways to Display Bonsai in Your Home
Bonsai is one of the most attractive ways to boost the aesthetic in your indoor or outdoor space, so you should consider all of your options so that you can add the most flare.
A Bonsai Museum for Your Guests
Give your revered bonsai trees the recognition they deserve by putting your bonsai collection on elevated pedestals around your living room for your guests to admire. This is a splendid idea for bonsai aficionados, as it creates a museum-like environment for your guests to walk around amidst botanical glory.
Elevate Your Modern Bathroom with Bonsai Aesthetics
Nothing screams elegance and minimalism more than a luscious bonsai situated as a centerpiece inside a bathroom. As you enter your bathroom to revitalize yourself from all your worries, your own bonsai tree will add to the calming vibe.
The King of Your Dining Table
The perfect dinner or lunch will not be complete without an alluring bonsai in the middle of it all. Add another layer of magnificence to your table to grace your guests. Besides, every bonsai lover wants to stay with their bonsai 24/7, even when it comes to dining.
Common Problems with Indoor Bonsai
While the art of bonsai has certainly withstood the sands of time, they are like any other plant in that they can develop problems with weeds, pests and diseases which can be controlled by insecticides or weedicides. Below are some of the most common problems faced by bonsai plants.
During summers, spider mite spread increases due to an increase in temperature and a decline in humidity. These pesky mites lay webs all over the bonsai, especially a small shrub type, and eat it. To deal with a spider mite infestation, neem oil is the best way to go as it suffocates them.
Naturally, aphids infect an indoor bonsai if it is kept in the dark for prolonged periods without proper care. Aphids are known for eating the leaves on bonsai trees and hindering new leaves from growing. You can easily eliminate this infestation by removing the aphids with an insecticide, then spraying once a week for three consecutive weeks.
Pro Gardener Tip: Always spray the insecticide under the leaves.
Stressed or ill trees fall prey to mealy bugs, so it is necessary to maintain your bonsai tree at all times. The cure for a mealy bug problem is not to over-fertilize your plant, as high nitrogen levels attract them. You can also repot your bonsai for immediate results.
The appearance of brownish leaf spots on the cherished green leaves of your bonsai is a sign of fungal infection. You should treat your bonsai immediately by pruning the affected leaves. Then, treat your bonsai with an antifungal medicine from your local gardening store.
Root rot occurs due to the root system growing excessively inside bonsai containers. It can also be caused due to fungal infections and a lot of water retention inside the root system. To prevent this calamity, you can trim the root rot by repotting your bonsai. Healthy new growth of the root system will occur once the bonsai is repotted.
15 Best Bonsai Trees for Beginners
1. Japanese Maple
One of the most glamorous bonsai trees found anywhere, the Japanese Maple is known for its bedazzling foliage. Coupled with incredible beauty, this bonsai plant is beyond practical due to its ease of care. Growing this tree indoors is relatively easier as most deciduous trees are steady growers. All you have to do is prune them regularly. All of these reasons combine to make it the best beginner bonsai tree.
2. Juniper Bonsai Trees
Another sturdy species, Juniper Bonsai Trees, are known for their ability to be shaped and wired extensively, making them one of the easiest bonsai trees to grow. Their voluminous needled foliage is a unique sight for all bonsai lovers. Favorably for you, they require little human involvement to reach maturity and are hardy enough to survive the outdoors and indoors, given you regularly tend to them.
3. Ficus retusa (Common Fig/Chinese Banyan)
Ficus retusa is an excellent choice for beginners as it is well-adapt to all conditions since many of these ficus trees are found on every continent. They thrive outdoors during summers, but you can also keep them inside without a worry in the world. Due to these reasons, the Ficus Retusa is the first bonsai of many bonsai lovers.
4. Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia)
With a natural S-shaped trunk and classy textured look, the Chinese Elm bonsai tree is the most popular type of tree from the botanical Elm family. It is highly versatile as you can grow it both indoors and outdoors without breaking a sweat, making it an appealing option for beginners – especially as an outdoor tree.
5. Jade Plants
If you are into thick trunks with boundless character, you should get this wise-looking hardy bonsai. Their foliage, consisting of glossy oval leaves, is a sight to behold due to their leaf type’s rarity. Jade Plants are extremely sensitive to pruning, growing even more foliage after you prune them and helping you achieve a fuller look.
6. Pine Trees
Out of all the five styles of bonsai discussed previously, you can shape your Pine Tree Bonsai into any style you want, which makes them exceptionally gifted. Pines are one of the most rigid species in the flora world, so they can be grown anywhere with relative ease.
7. Chinese Juniper
Possessing thick stems in the shape of barks, the Chinese Juniper Bonsai is well-versed in survival skills. It can easily grow indoors if the right conditions are provided: regular fertilizing and watering when the soil gets dry and kept at the right temperatures. If all these conditions are met, there is no stopping these hardy trees.
8. Japanese White Pine
Cultivated in Japan for centuries, this bonsai is as authentic as a bonsai can get. The Japanese White Pine has soft needled leaves that grow in bundles of five to six. Since they are widely regarded as the driest bonsai species, you should always be vigilant about their regular watering needs, as the Japanese White Pine favors growing under full sun.
9. Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)
The Weeping Fig is a readily available bonsai that tolerates all weather and can grow in low-light environments, making it an ideal choice for beginners. This solid, hardy, and appealing bonsai is known for being incredibly low-maintenance, which allows it to grow easily in the poorest conditions.
10. Hawaiian Umbrella Bonsai
With its unique shape, thin aerial roots, and a natural dome crown of dense foliage, you will never go wrong with this robust bonsai species. To the benefit of beginners, it is suitable to grow in an indoor environment. According to the Bonsai Guru himself, Hawaiian Umbrella trees are one of the most beautiful trees for bonsai replication.
11. Norfolk Island Pine
Norfolk Bonsai Trees are excellent for styling. Specifically, they champion the upright style. Due to their richly thick foliage, they are known as THE ideal bonsai tree for making a Christmas tree.
12. Fagus crenata
If you’re looking for a bonsai that can grow outdoors or indoors, Fagus crenata would be a great choice. Not only does it tolerate full and partial sunlight, but it also produces beautiful flowers when given the right conditions. Don’t worry if you see your bonsai shedding leaves in winter, as it is a deciduous plant that will regrow its fallen leaves in spring.
13. Ficus ginseng
With its unique thick aerial roots that imitate several legs, this bonsai is specifically suited to those who prefer a rare bonsai aesthetic and an easy-to-grow option, as this is a subtropical species, which favors growing indoors at room temperature. Ficus Ginseng also produces small white flowers that are a treat for all bonsai beginners.
14. Ficus salicifolia (Willow Leaf Fig)
With its lengthy trunk and green elongated leaves, this lanky bonsai has a splendid visual characteristic that makes it greatly aesthetic. You can place it indoors or outdoors, depending on your preference.
15. Dwarf Jade
With its handsome thick small leaves and hardy stem, the Dwarf Jade Bonsai originates in South Africa. It strikes a wonderful balance between minimalism and beauty. To your advantage, it is a great choice for a beginner thanks to its reliability in every climate. And, since it is one of the small trees of the bonsai universe, you can easily take adequate care of it. Lastly, these adorable tiny trees can be the perfect gift item for your loved ones.