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The ancient art of bonsai continues to attract beginners, experts, old and young alike. This is an opportunity to bring nature indoors or in your garden. It is also a meditation technique and a way to slow down. Bonsai mixes sculpture and gardening, adding in a dose of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi (the beauty of imperfection).

Bonsai can be simple and complex, easy or challenging, wild or curated. Like life itself, bonsai is a journey: enjoy each step and don’t worry too much about perfection. Bonsai teaches us that even the smallest, seasoned tree is beautiful. Ready to learn more?

pick a tree

One of the sweetest aspects of bonsai is the way it nurtures creativity in older gardeners or those with limited mobility. When my grandfather’s old heart stopped him from working on his meticulously crafted rose garden, he turned to bonsai.

The little trees gave him something alive to raise from his kitchen table. Last spring, when my mom’s cancer treatment left little energy for her sprawling garden, I sent her a gardenia bonsai to live indoors.

The beautiful tree needed only a little care, and it blossomed next to it through chemotherapy, surgery, and, eventually, remission. Bonsai trees are living works of art and cool companions. They are also an easy hobby to take up at any stage of life. There are many ways to get started with bonsai.

It is important to choose the tree species first. Choose one that can grow well in your climate, or make sure you have an indoor climate that suits it. I gave my mom a gardenia bonsai, which is not suited to her climate but will thrive in her sun room. For my own bonsai, I stick to hardy juniper and willow trees.

Bonsai has a lot of trees to choose from – almost any tree can be grown as a bonsai.

The best species for beginners looking for an indoor tree are ficus, jade, umbrella, ginseng, money or Chinese elm trees. Outdoor options include juniper, cotoneaster, olive and rosemary.

indoor or outdoor

Where you are growing your bonsai indoors or outdoors will play a major role in choosing the species. In northern climates, many tropical, flowering bonsai can only be grown indoors. Native trees such as birch, oak and juniper like to spend at least part of their time outdoors.

Since I live in a yurt, in the Far North, none of the more tropical varieties of bonsai will thrive through our long, dark winters. But with a nice, sunny room—and plenty of warmth—tropical trees do well indoors.

Consider both the light and heat of your home when planning an indoor bonsai. Tropical trees will also need a good amount of moisture. If heating in the winter dries out your home, use a humidifier to keep your trees happy.

Outdoor trees will also need care during the winter. Bonsai are small. This means they may be at greater risk from deep frost, heavy snowfall, and snow storms. Make sure your bonsai pots are protected when the temperature is too low. A cool mud room, garage or entryway is a great place for bonsai trees that need to be protected from winter weather.

seed, stalk, plant

When you are a beginner bonsai fan, it is easiest to buy an established plant and simply let it grow. Established bonsai trees are shaped and cut to a pleasing size. All you have to do is keep cutting, watering and feeding the tree.

These established plants will still give you plenty to do, but they also instantly add the beauty of bonsai to your home. Established bonsai make beautiful gifts, but they can be expensive. Measuring anywhere from six inches to nearly three feet in height, bonsai can fit into any decor.

Or, choose a plant from a nursery that already has the size of your choice.

A Guide to Getting Started

starting from the stalk

Most beginner bonsai kits have stalks rather than established plants. A bonsai stalk is simply a cut from an established tree. The cutting – a healthy branch – is then rooted and planted in its own pot. It is 100% genetically identical to the parent plant.

Cuttings are a great way to grow your own bonsai without starting from seed. It takes very little time for cuttings to mature into established plants. They give you more opportunity to shape and form a bonsai than to buy an established tree.

seeding in bonsai

Of course, the ultimate beginner bonsai experience involves starting your trees from seed and involving yourself in every aspect of plant growth. It can be a long, slow process, but bonsai are known to be slow, lifelong companions.

Starting from seed can take years for your tree to grow before it looks like an established bonsai. This is the least expensive and most practical way to work with bonsai. It is also the most challenging.

pick a pout

A Guide to Getting Started

Traditionally, bonsai trees are kept in earthen pots. Most bonsai farmers still prefer to go with glazed clay pots. They’re beautiful, and the clay helps keep the soil healthy without all the BPA and chemicals that can leach out of plastic.

Make sure your bonsai pot has drainage holes. Drainage is essential for healthy bonsai roots. Ideally, the pot should have several drainage holes so that all excess water can drain away from the roots.

Bonsai pots need to restrict root growth. Your bonsai pot should be large enough to hold both the roots and enough soil to cover them. You may need to prune your bonsai roots to prevent them from overtaking a smaller pot.

creating a beauty

Pruning is one of the universal requirements for bonsai, whether you are a beginner or have decades of experience. Whether you have purchased an established plant, rooted a cutting, or started your tree from seed – pruning is essential.

You will need to continually prune growing and established plants to keep their growth and size on track. With bonsai, you will be pruning for both beauty and maintenance.

A Guide to Getting Started

beauty pruning

Pruning for aesthetics involves training your plant to grow toward a certain form. You should only prune aesthetically when your bonsai is dormant. The dormant season is usually from November to February. Aesthetic pruning can be simple or showy, depending on your preferences.

Maintenance

Maintenance pruning should be done regularly. This involves gently removing dead leaves, twigs and weeds from your bonsai; As well as trimming broken or crossed branches on the tree. While maintaining your bonsai tree, you will want to prune the twigs back to make sure they have a limited number of leaf nodes.

After pruning, it is important to keep your bonsai well watered. If any of your pruning cuts are weeping, cover them with a small dab of plant wound paste. Wound paste will help the bonsai heal and protect against disease and insects as it does.

wiring

One way to shape bonsai trees is to wire the trunk and branches with flexible aluminum or copper wires. The strings allow you to shape and hold the branches as they grow. However, it is important to keep an eye on the wires and remove or rewrap them as the plant grows. We definitely don’t want the strings to dig into the bark of your bonsai.

You can wire your bonsai tree any time of year. It usually takes a few months for wired branches to be established in their new condition. If you are wiring in early spring, watch carefully, as the spring and summer growing seasons can cause your branches to grow more quickly.

feeding bonsai

Bonsai trees need regular fertilizer. The small pots and minimal soil needed to keep a bonsai growing mean that the soil doesn’t have a lot of room to hold nutrients. Try to feed your bonsai at regular times depending on the type of tree. A 7-7-7 fertilizer is usually ideal, but you can purchase pre-made bonsai fertilizer.

A gentle liquid fertilizer is usually the best option for small bonsai trees. It’s usually also ideal to dilute the fertilizer to make sure it’s not too much for your little plant to handle.

reporting

A Guide to Getting Started

You will need to re-pot your bonsai every 2-5 years. By living in such small pots, the bonsai easily gets tied to the pot and the soil freezes. Without regular repotting, the bonsai’s roots will be too tightly packed to absorb nutrients, and the tree will starve.

Repotting your bonsai gives it a chance to breathe, refreshes the soil, and opens up the roots to absorb nutrients. Before replanting, gently lift the bonsai to inspect the root mass. If the roots are still within the soil, your tree is satisfied. If the roots are clearly visible, circling outside the root mass, and not within the soil, it is time to re-pot.

Early spring is the ideal time to re-pot. The tree is still dormant, but spring growth will quickly repair the damage of repotting.

You may need to re-pot your tree’s roots, especially if they have been growing unruly for some time. Then, mix some fresh potting soil — like most beginner bonsai enthusiasts — of akadama or other soil, pumice stone, or lava rock, and equal parts potting soil — and put your tree in its new home.

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