Bonsai 101: Choosing, Planting and Caring For Your Tiny Tree

December 28, 2015

For beginners and experienced artisans alike, the ancient art of bonsai can be a fun and rewarding challenge. Our two-part bonsai series will tell you everything you need to know to start, shape, and maintain your own bonsai tree.

In its most simple definition, bonsai is the art of growing a tree in a container. You may assume that bonsai are specific dwarf species or cultivars that naturally retain a small stature, but the only difference from a bonsai and the full-sized tree growing in your backyard are the techniques you apply. In its fully-realized form, bonsai is not simply a small plant; the goal and art of bonsai is to miniaturize the proportions and habit of a full-grown tree.

But, before you can engage in the artistry of bonsai, you have to know the particular challenges with keeping a potted tree alive and healthy. The first installment of the bonsai series will provide an overview of the selection, care, and maintenance of your tree.

Choosing Your Bonsai Tree:

Almost any deciduous or coniferous tree species that produces true branches can be used for bonsai. These plants can come from cuttings you take from your favorite tree or from young nursery stock.

Popular deciduous trees for bonsai include:

  • Chinese and Japanese Elm
  • Trident and Japanese Maple
  • Hornbeam
  • Beech
  • Hawthorn
  • Oak

Popular Coniferous trees for bonsai include:

  • Black or White Pine
  • Chinese Juniper
  • Fir
  • Blue Atlas Cedar
  • Hinoki Cypress
  • Japanese Larch

Do not confuse your bonsai with a houseplant. Like its ground-grown brethren, your plant will require a full four seasons to survive. Find a prominent location in your garden, one that fits the light requirements for the species you’ve chosen, and place a pedestal or table you can use to display your bonsai. Better yet, make use of that tree stump you haven’t yet removed for a natural display stand.

** Bonsai can be cultivated from tropical plants and kept indoors year-round, but most gardeners find these are more difficult to train and maintain due to the reduced levels of moisture and light.

Choosing a Pot For Your Bonsai:

Choosing a planter for your bonsai is one of the most important steps you’ll take! In the early stages, you’ll need a simple training pot – any inexpensive flower bowl or even a basic plastic container will do, so long as it has drainage holes. If you purchase your young tree at a nursery, it will probably come in an appropriate training pot.

But soon, you will want to choose a more permanent home in which to show off your bonsai! While any small, shallow pot can work well for Bonsai, you’ll want to keep in mind the overall aesthetic look of your tree and the look you’re trying to achieve. For instance, the Marseille flower bowl will enhance traditional decor with its elegant, feminine curves; while the clean lines of the Mataro round vessel planter or unique Ondara square planter box would suit a more industrial or masculine scheme. For a flowing, minimalist Zen look, consider the Timbrell double-sided curved planter, which comes with a stand for easy display.

Whatever planter you choose, make sure it has plenty of drainage holes placed low, and that it’s frost-proof, since your tree will likely need to live outdoors during cold weather. Fiberglass planters are a great choice since they can be hand-finished in a variety of shades to mimic natural materials, but can withstand the elements much more easily than clay.

Potting Your Bonsai:

Bonsai is typically grown in a shallow container, which means there is a relatively small amount of soil medium upon which your plant will depend for all of its nutrients, water, and oxygen. Because of this narrow margin for error, many novice bonsai gardeners opt for pre-mixed bonsai soil.

But after a few years, especially if you’ve started more than one tree, pre-mixed soil can get expensive, and most gardeners learn to mix their own. There are three basic components to a bonsai soil mix: Akadama, Organic Material, Gravel.

  • Akadama is a Japanese baked clay, mined specifically for use in bonsai. It provides drainage and compact nutrients. Tree roots will break down the akadama in one to two years, and will need to be replaced. It is expensive, and some alternatives such as pumice and even kitty litter can be used, although will not prove as effective as the genuine article.
  • Organic materials for bonsai can include bark chips, leaf mulch, or peat. Avoid any organic soil that is likely to become compacted or muddy, which will reduce the oxygen available to the roots and prevent adequate drainage.
  • Gravel establishes good drainage and aeration for roots even as the akadama and organic materials begin to break down and lose their structure.

For deciduous trees:

  • Use a ratio of 2 parts akadama to 1 part each of organic material and gravel

For coniferous trees:

  • Use a ratio of 2 parts akadama, 1 part gravel, and 1/3 part organic material.

Once you have your planting medium, sprinkle a shallow bed of your mixture into the bottom of the pot. Place the root ball on top of it, and make sure that the base of your trunk is just above the rim of your pot. Now, sprinkle the soil mixture around the roots, using a chop stick to work the soil into all the crevices between roots. Do not leave any vacant spaces. Once you’ve reached the top of your container, tamp down the soil and water thoroughly.

Feeding and Watering Your Bonsai:

With such a confined space for your roots to grow, both over-watering and under-watering can cause rapid harm to the health of your plant. Follow these tips for a balanced approach:

  • Avoid watering bonsai on a schedule. Remember, your plant is outdoors and is subject to rain and drying wind that creates an unpredictable environment. Instead, feel the soil daily and give a thorough soaking when it feels dry.
  • Use a gentle misting spray to avoid displacing or washing away soil, which can damage delicate root fibers or deprive them of nutrients.
  • If the soil feels damp for several days after watering, despite the lack of rain, consider adding more gravel to your soil mixture to enhance drainage.

In the cramped bonsai pot, there are relatively few nutrients for your plant to snack on, given the considerations for proper drainage and aeration. This makes fertilization critical to a healthy and happy tree.

  • Fertilize beginning in early spring until mid-autumn.
  • In spring, fertilize with a mix relatively high in Nitrogen content (12:6:6), to encourage increased growth of foliage and branch length and thickness.
  • In summer, switch to a balanced fertilizer (6:6:6).
  • In fall, use a fertilizer low in relative Nitrogen and high in Phosphorus and Potassium (3:10:10), to encourage root health for the cold season ahead.

We hope this article has inspired you to get started on the surprisingly satisfying art of Bonsai! In part 2 of our bonsai series, you will learn to prune and shape your tree using bonsai aesthetics and style, to create a beautiful, living sculpture.