How To Grow, Care and Maintain Bonsai Trees for Beginners

It can be difficult to know where to begin when you want to start your bonsai journey. After all, there are many things to consider, from what plants you should grow as bonsai, to where you should grow them, and how to start off.

You may wonder how on earth people manage to grow trees as miniature versions without altering anything in the plant’s makeup to achieve this. 

One of the best things about plants is that you’d be surprised at exactly how much they can adapt to, and it’s not hugely difficult to grow bonsai trees yourself.

Interested? Here’s everything you need to get started on your bonsai growing journey.

How to Get Started in Growing Plants as Bonsai Trees

Growing a plant as a bonsai tree can be complicated, but it’s only as complicated as you make it. 

Maybe you’ve tried your hand at growing plants as bonsai trees before, and it didn’t go as well as you’d hoped. Perhaps you were gifted a bonsai tree, and it just died on you, and you want to try again.

The core of gardening – any style of gardening – is that it’s an experiment. 

That’s not to say that it’s an experiment in how long you can keep something that’s wholly dependent on you alive for, but it’s getting to work with nature with what time you can spare, and make it thrive under your care.

So the question you have to ask yourself is how much time are you willing to spend on caring for your bonsai tree?

The Importance of Choosing The Right Plant

What type of plant you choose will inform everything about your bonsai growing journey. It will dictate exactly what growing conditions your plant needs, including whether you should grow it indoors or outdoors, how much sun it needs, and what kind of soil it requires.

And more importantly, how much attention it requires from you. Some bonsai trees will need very little care from you at all. 

Others will require a watchful eye, especially when you consider that some types won’t show signs of stress until about a month after the conditions are wrong for the plant.

You’ll also have to factor in whether you have any available outside space or not. If you don’t have any outside space, you’re better off going for a bonsai that’s commonly grown as a houseplant, such as a ficus, a desert rose, or an umbrella tree.

If you’d prefer growing a bonsai tree outside, any tree species should thrive well. Just make sure you get one that’s suitable for your climate. The wisteria, maple tree, cherry tree, and the Judas tree all love being outside, for example.

While you can overwinter some bonsai trees inside, they may need a cooler, darker environment to allow them to go dormant and rest during the colder months.

Another thing to consider is if you have pets or children, you’ll want to go for a plant that is non-toxic. One that won’t result in any costly medical or vet bills, such as a Japanese maple, which is usually too robust for pets or children to get their teeth into. 

Starting Off: Where Do You Get Your Plant?

If you’re just starting out in growing your own bonsai tree, it’s worth getting an adult bonsai plant from a local garden nursery. Hold off on getting an expensive one to begin with, and go for something a little easier to start with.

The reason for this is that adult bonsai trees are much more robust than juvenile ones, and they are likely to be more forgiving to the wrong growing conditions. 

Also, you don’t want to be spending a huge amount of money and then make a mistake. There are many types of bonsai trees out there, after all, and some can be very expensive.

Another benefit of buying an adult bonsai tree is that the majority of the styling and pruning work has been done well before you decided to grow bonsai. That’s one less thing you don’t have to worry about straight away.

But maybe you can’t find the plant you want as a bonsai tree. Perhaps it’s way out of your price range, especially if you’ve never cared for one before. Here’s how to start off your bonsai tree from scratch.

Growing a Bonsai Tree From Seed

Some types of plant are very easy to grow from seed, and some are extremely difficult to germinate, and it all depends on what species you go for. 

Some tree species can take up to a hundred days to germinate in the right conditions, and others need a very cold stint in a fridge to get started before you sow them, so bear this in mind. 

Always follow seed packet instructions, sowing when the packet recommends, as this can make a great deal of difference to the health of your bonsai tree.

Growing a Bonsai Tree From Cuttings

One very rewarding and much faster way of growing your own bonsai tree is to do so from cuttings. It’s also much cheaper than buying a mature bonsai tree. 

Maybe someone you know already has the plant that you’d like to grow as a bonsai, or have a look for a local or postal cuttings swap, which costs you nothing. 

You have the added benefit of the cutting being more robust than a seedling once it grows roots, being able to withstand any less than ideal conditions easier. 

Take several cuttings of the plant you want to grow as a bonsai tree, as this helps your chances of success. 

It also means that you can try out various growing bonsai styles on the same type of plant, but you should wait awhile before styling it.

It’s important to note that some cuttings won’t form huge trunks like in some bonsai styles. That’s the nature of growing bonsai trees in containers, that the trunk doesn’t thicken as much as it would in the ground.

If you’d like a thick trunk on your bonsai, and you’ve chosen a tree species, you can let it establish roots in a pot. Once it’s strong enough, plant it outside in the ground for a while, until the trunk thickens up.

Foraging a Bonsai Tree From the Wild

It’s critical to note that bonsai trees don’t grow in the wild, as bonsai is the art form of growing a tree to look like a wild tree but in miniature form.

What you can do, however, is pick a young plant that’s already been growing wild for a while. This has many benefits, especially if you consider the wise words from Alexander McQueen, ‘There’s no better designer than nature.’ 

This method is only for those who have a lot of experience in bonsai growing, and have the time to dedicate to a wild tree, as they need a watchful eye.

You do have to be careful how you select your bonsai plant. It’s essential that you only take one plant, and to make sure you don’t take anything endangered or rare in the wild, as this can cause damage to the ecosystem, as that’s not why we’re here.

Make sure to take a good long look at the plant you want to take. Ensure there’s no disease or pests, any open wounds or signs of damage. This is vital. If you’re not careful, you could spread disease and pests to your own plants or garden, causing a lot of harm.

Only take a plant during the early spring months, and include at least some of the plant’s original soil, and this should help prevent the plant from getting shocked. 

You’ll need to move it into its forever home as soon as possible, and be patient. It can take a couple of years before the plant is at its best, once the roots have fully established and the plant has recovered.

Where Can You Grow a Bonsai Tree?

Where a plant needs to live in order to survive completely depends on the species you choose to grow as a bonsai. It also depends on the climate that you live in as to where it will survive.

For example, if you live in a cold climate, you may want to grow a conifer bonsai (see also Spruce Bonsai Care) or a pine bonsai for outdoors, and save the tropical or succulent bonsai trees for indoors.

Growing a Bonsai Tree Outdoors

Any tree species that goes into a state of dormancy really needs to be kept outside. Wisteria, cherry trees, and pine trees all need outside weather conditions, where they can get the brightest light possible, as well as the humidity and colder temperatures that indoors simply cannot provide.

Which outdoor bonsai tree you should go for depends on the climate and the type of garden you have. 

If you live somewhere warm, ficus trees, olive trees, bougainvillea shrubs, fruit trees (see also Fruit Tree Bonsai Care) such as apple, fig, or lemon, and rhododendrons all make good bonsai trees.

In colder parts of the world, you’d be better off picking a tree that is cold-hardy, and requires a winter dormancy period. 

These trees you cannot keep inside, and they include the Japanese maple or acer, the juniper tree, the cypress (see also Lemon Cypress Bonsai Care), or an ornamental cherry tree.  

Some bonsai trees will need a more sheltered position than others, as they may get windburn, such as some pine species (see also Pine Bonsai Tree Care Guide) and most maple trees. 

Not all bonsai trees like direct sunlight, and this is also dictated by the type of tree you go for. 

It’s worth having a look at the type of tree you want to grow, and a species that’s particularly resistant to any problems or harsh conditions that your garden may have. 

Growing a Bonsai as an Indoor Plant

For growing bonsai trees indoors, you need to select a tropical species, as those which are traditionally grown outdoors simply cannot handle the dry, warm air that circulates in our homes.

There are several types to choose from, including several ficus species, pachira aquatica or the money plant, the dwarf umbrella tree, and succulents such as the desert rose, and the jade tree (see also Dwarf Jade Tree Bonsai).

Depending on the type you go for, it may require the brightest light possible and the highest amount of humidity you can give your bonsai tree, or more normal temperatures and a bright windowsill which gets no direct sunlight. 

Keep your indoor bonsai trees away from sources of heat or drafts, and check the soil every time before you water the plant, and this will help make sure you don’t overwater it.

Something else to consider when you want to grow an indoor bonsai is how big it might get. 

For most plants, they will grow to what the size of the container allows. With the right growing conditions, they will outgrow these containers, but half of the art of bonsai is making sure they stay healthy at a certain size, by careful pruning and repotting.

Exactly what type of plant you choose to grow as a bonsai tree will determine exactly how much trimming you’ll need to do.

Training and Styling Your Ideal Bonsai Tree

Ah, the best part of keeping a bonsai tree. Deciding what style to train your bonsai tree to grow in is a task in itself, as there are many.

Not only will you make your bonsai tree look particularly striking, but growing a bonsai tree into a certain style can also help ground you and focus on the task in front of you, instead of any worries that you think may come down the line.  

There’s a lot to be said for combining your sense of creativity and self-expression with the hobby of caring for plants, and both are proven to reduce stress and anxiety, while boosting your sense of well-being.

You do have to be careful how you prune and style your bonsai tree, however. If you go about it wrong, or take too much off at a time, you could run the risk of injuring your plant or even causing premature plant death.

That’s not to say you have to follow a strict bonsai-training guide if you don’t want to, but regularly pruning and styling your tree will mean that it stays on the miniature side, keeping it healthy. It also makes your bonsai tree look as tree-like as possible.

Here are just a few ways that you can style your bonsai tree.

Broom Style: Hokidachi

This is perhaps the easiest form to start with for your first bonsai tree. The broom style essentially looks like a broom held upright, with a straight trunk, which then branches out into a circular crown of many smaller branches.

This style looks particularly stunning on bonsai trees which lose their leaves during winter, really showing off the architectural form of the broom style.

With some bonsai trees, you won’t need to train these plants to make them form a broom style, you’ll be able to trim them into this shape.

Cascade Style: Kengai

This is not a style for complete beginners just starting out in their bonsai growing journey, as it is a little complicated.

Consider the fact that trees grow upright, naturally. Up towards the light. Shaping a bonsai into a Kengai style is to encourage it to grow downwards, which can be difficult to achieve.

This happens in nature when snow sits too heavily on the foliage, causing the trees to be weighed down, and it can also happen as a result of rocks falling on the tree. 

You do need a specialist container in order to grow your bonsai tree into this style, as the wide, shallow containers don’t work for Kengai style. 

You’ll need to begin by letting the plant grow upright for a little while, and then gradually and gently grow it downward. The trunk should form a shape similar to the letter ‘S’, with the branches growing alternately on the biggest curves.

In this style, the bonsai tree can grow much longer than the pot, so it’s important that you let the branches grow out horizontally, otherwise the tree may topple over.

Double Trunk Style: Sokan

One of the least common but very beautiful styles is training your bonsai to grow a double or forked trunk. 

The easiest way to do this is to allow a lower shoot to grow out of the main trunk near the base, and let it thicken, rather than trying to divide one large trunk into two.

These two trunks don’t need to be uniform, and it looks better if they are completely different lengths and widths. Make sure you let the second trunk grow its own leaves, which you can style to compliment the foliage on the main trunk.

Forest Style: Youse-ue

The forest style makes a particularly beautiful focal point for bonsai trees. You need a very wide and shallow bonsai container for this one, as it needs to comfortably house several bonsai trees of the same species.

Two or three larger bonsai trees are planted in the center, with smaller ones on either side. They shouldn’t be standing to attention in that they are planted completely straight, as this ruins the forest look.

Instead, make the spacing almost seem random, allowing enough room between each bonsai tree for them to grow properly.  

Formal Upright Style: Chokkan

Another popular style that reflects nature, the formal upright style mimics a tree that doesn’t need to compete with its neighbors for light or space. 

It looks pretty similar to Moyogi, or the informal upright style, but Chokkan is much straighter and doesn’t feature any bends in the trunk. 

At least some of the trunk should be clearly visible to show off its upright form, and it should get thinner as the trunk grows upright.

When it gets to the top quarter of the trunk, it should establish a single branch to separate the trunk from the top of the tree.

Informal Upright Style: Moyogi

One of the most common bonsai forms is the informal upright style. You’ll see it in many adult bonsai trees which are sold commercially, with the trunk creating an S-shape, twisting with every branch.

Like many elaborate bonsai styles, you need to start shaping your plant early, when the tree is robust enough to wire, at around one or two years old.

To follow this style, the shape of the trunk needs to be visible, and the bottom of the trunk should be thicker than at the top. 

Slanting Style: Shakan

When a tree lives in partial shade and cannot get enough sunlight, or the wind steadily and consistently blows in one direction, it can cause the tree to lean to one side.

In terms of bonsai trees, in order to look ‘right’, the plant should lean at an angle between 60 and 80 degrees.

This style requires the roots to be very well-developed along the side of the tree which doesn’t lean as much, and this helps the plant stay well-anchored into the soil. 

To balance the bonsai tree out visually, the first branch should grow in the opposite direction that the tree leans into. 

Shari Style: Sharimiki

Perhaps one of the most interesting but difficult styles to achieve is the Shari style, which reflects trees that have died in places, because the weather has caused them to suffer, such as lightning, drought, or stress.

To protect the rest of the plant, the affected wood dies, and it becomes white in the sun.

Shari refers to a bonsai that features a barkless section of the trunk, usually completely devoid of color. 

The Shari style is often only used on evergreen plant species to mimic nature, as deadwood will fall away from deciduous trees. 

This is a process that’s done over several months by hollowing out a small part of the trunk and coating it in lime sulfur, which not only turns it white but also prevents the bonsai tree from becoming vulnerable to infection.

It can be difficult to get right, hence why bonsai growers take months to choose exactly the right part of the plant, in order to prevent any unintentional damage or risk of death to the plant.

Windswept Style: Fukinagashi

In nature, some trees will only grow branches on one side of the trunk, and the trunk will lean into the same direction if the wind is strong enough.

The Fukinagashi style, or the windswept style, mimics this in miniature form. The trunk is trained to lean to one side, and while the branches will appear on both sides, you can train them to go in the same direction, pruning off any that are unwanted. 

Hawaiian Style: Fuku Bonsai

The Hawaiian style of bonsai growing completely throws out the rule book of traditional bonsai tree styling.

This style is all about encouraging aerial roots to form on ficus and umbrella trees, and then shaping them as desired, making for a bonsai tree that wouldn’t look out of place in Avatar or Indiana Jones, or a tree that’s lived for thousands of years.

To get aerial roots to form on these plants, the key is growing them under glass, where you can create the most humid environment possible. 

Wiring a Bonsai Tree

Wiring is one of the main components that help shape your bonsai tree into your preferred shape and style. Without it, you may find it difficult to shape your bonsai tree with just pruning.

It also takes some patience. Plants that have been wired will not be ‘set’ in their new forms until a few months after you have wired them. If you remove the wire before then, they will revert to their natural shape.

It’s important to use wire that’s been designed specifically for bonsai wiring, as it’s gentle enough not to cut into the tree, as long as you use it for no longer than necessary.

There are two types to choose from: annealed copper, and anodized aluminum. For beginners, use anodized aluminum, which is easier to use. 

Aluminum wire works better for those tree species which lose their leaves in winter, and copper is more suitable for trees which are tougher, such as pines and conifers.

Always keep an eye on any branches you’ve wired, as they will outgrow the wire quicker than you think. 

If you leave the wire on for too long, it can cause injury and ugly scarring on your poor bonsai, so always remove it once the wire has set the branches in place. 

Pruning a Bonsai Tree

When it comes to trimming your bonsai tree, you must treat it differently from a normal plant, by pruning it in a way that makes it resemble a tree as much as possible.

Shaping it into a specific style goes a long way in making this possible, as each style has guidelines on how to prune your bonsai tree in order to get the style right.

It’s important to consider how trees grow, in order to be able to mimic their appearance in a miniature form.

Most trees will form a central stem which grows better than side stems, and the same is true for branches. This has a function, of course, to help the tree grow higher, and get as much light as it possibly can to ensure healthy growth and its ultimate survival against any competition. 

This will mean that the lower and inner branches will die off, and the top branches will grow thicker, which doesn’t exactly make for the ideal, miniature tree. 

To counteract its natural growth habit of pouring its energy into top and outer growth, you need to prune these parts back, which encourages the plant to fill out the parts it doesn’t normally grow as much or as quickly, specifically, the lower branches. 

Remove any top branches that are too large, or any which look damaged or diseased.

Of course, how and when you should prune your bonsai is dictated by the species you choose, too. Depending on what you go for, you may not have to prune your bonsai as much, but twist aerial roots into place, such as on a ficus plant. 

You should also take care to wear gloves, and keep your secateurs or scissors clean (see also Essential Garden Tools), and apply wound paste on certain types of plants to prevent infection from occurring. 

When you should prune your bonsai tree is largely dictated by the species you go for. Some fare better when they are pruned when they are dormant, while this will shock other plants, so do your research before taking the scissors to your tree!

How to Make Sure Your Bonsai Tree Thrives

Go Easy on the Care to Begin With

It’s important to allow your bonsai tree time to adapt to its new surroundings, especially if you’ve just bought one from a nursery or bonsai seller, as where you place it will probably be quite different from where it has been growing up until now.

The Right Soil For Your Bonsai

What kind of soil your bonsai needs depends entirely on the type of bonsai you’ve chosen. For example, a desert rose bonsai will need entirely different requirements to a maple tree bonsai.

If you’re growing a tree as a bonsai, a standard bonsai potting mix will do the job just fine to begin with. 

Above all, the soil needs to drain well. Water cannot pool at the roots for too long, otherwise the roots will rot, and the plant will die. In the case of growing a succulent bonsai, this is especially important. 

You’ll also need to consider how much goodness is in the soil. In a standard bonsai compost mix, there’s not a lot of goodness compared to general compost, and this is on purpose, to stop the tree growing too tall too quickly.

In which case, you need to supplement the nutrients with a feed, but we’ll get to that.

Sunlight and Position

When it comes to light levels, this is entirely dependent on the type of bonsai tree you choose. As a rule, most bonsai trees need as much light as possible, at about 6 hours of bright light a day. 

Not all bonsai trees love direct sunlight, so you will need to check what your specific bonsai requires.

Bear in mind that a bonsai tree sitting on a windowsill gets much less light than a bonsai tree growing outside. If you go for a type that needs to stay indoors, make sure to put it in the brightest position possible.

When and How to Water a Bonsai Tree

Watering is perhaps one of the trickier things to get right when it comes to growing a plant as a bonsai tree. Depending on what you go for, it may need watering quite a bit, or nearly never.

If you go for a succulent species, such as a jade tree, or a desert rose, these plants are pretty forgiving when it comes to underwatering. 

These hardy plants can go for a few weeks without watering, so don’t worry if you forget, just make sure they get a decent drink now and again.

One thing they cannot tolerate, however, is completely wet feet for long. 

When it comes to the traditional tree species grown as bonsai, the easiest way to tell is to stick your finger into the soil, up to the second joint. If it feels dry, it’s time to water your plant. 

Don’t allow species such as maples, pines, and conifers to dry out completely, as this can do more harm than good. These plants haven’t adapted to long dry spells, so they will suffer for it if you forget. 

Always water your plant early on in the morning, before any sun hits the soil. This will stop the plant from scorching, and it also means that any excess moisture will evaporate during the day, preventing fungal diseases.

Feeding a Bonsai Tree

Bonsai trees do require some fertilizer, as typically their soil contains very little nutrients, so you’ll have to supplement this.

Use a balanced, and organic, slow-release fertilizer that’s been especially formulated for bonsai trees, if you’re growing any classic tree species as a bonsai. 

This will ensure that the growth stays balanced for any style that you’re trying to achieve, and the organic, slow-release aspect will also prevent the roots from burning.

Only feed your bonsai tree when it needs watering, but not when it’s absolutely crying out for water. The soil needs to be dry enough that the plant requires a drink, but not that it’s absolutely desperate for one.

This will also ensure that the roots don’t burn, going a long way to keep your bonsai tree healthy.

Always feed your bonsai tree during its growing season, and never when it is dormant. Exactly how often you should feed your bonsai tree depends on the type of tree you choose, as some are more demanding than others.

When it comes to growing succulents as bonsai trees, only use a specially formulated cacti or succulent feed, as these plants are very delicate to over fertilization. 

Too much fertilizer can result in improper growth or even plant death, so be careful!

Dormancy

Some plants go dormant, and when they do, it’s important to scale back nearly all aspects of their growing conditions in order to encourage them to rest.

Typically, temperatures need to be cooler, the light needs to be weaker, and you should water your bonsai tree very sparingly during this period, and never feed it when it is dormant.

You’ll soon notice when your plant has gone dormant. In deciduous tree species, the bonsai tree will lose all of its leaves. Growth will slow down and stop pretty much altogether when your plant goes dormant.

It’s critical that your bonsai tree – if it goes dormant in the wild – receives this period of rest. 

Without it, it will still put out some growth for a while, giving a false impression of not needing a dormant period. 

This growth will soon become irregular, spindly, and weak, and the plant will exhaust itself, and this could lead to plant death.

How to Repot a Bonsai Tree

Repotting a bonsai tree isn’t exactly like repotting a normal plant. For one, you will probably aim to repot it into the original container, and you’ll need to replenish the soil, and trim the roots back.

Taking out all of the old soil helps to replace the spent nutrients that the plant has taken from the old compost.

Trimming back the root ball helps to keep the plant’s roots healthy, while also making sure that the plant will continue to live in the same pot without its growth being affected. 

Exactly how much root pruning you can get away with depends on the species of plant you grow as a bonsai, but the general rule is to cut back the roots only by a quarter.

If you’re growing a succulent bonsai tree, use a cacti or succulent compost. Otherwise, use a standard, pre-mixed bonsai compost.

Exactly when you should repot your bonsai tree depends on the age of the tree, and how fast the species grows. On average, it will be between two and five years, the longer period for more mature and slow-growing species.

Final Thoughts

While growing a plant as a bonsai tree is definitely a challenge, and it can be much trickier than growing and caring for normal plants, it is a satisfying and beneficial hobby which will give back what you put in more than you can imagine.

Once you get started in growing your own bonsai trees, it is difficult to know where to stop! The biggest difficulty you’ll have is finding the right type of plant to grow as a bonsai, and then learning its specific ‘language’ of care that it requires.

When you’ve mastered that, you’ll notice that bonsai trees can be hugely long-lived and rewarding plants. 

If you’re very lucky and gain enough experience that you don’t give up on it, your bonsai trees may even outlive you as pieces of living art, living things that you’ve cared for and put your own creative stamp on.

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