A Full Guide on How to Care for a Bonsai Tree

A Full Guide on How to Care for a Bonsai Tree

When most people think of bonsai, they imagine miniature trees whose care is far too complicated for the average person. Bonsai, most people imagine, is a mysterious hobby of living sculpture that only expert horticulturists can practice.

In reality, caring for a bonsai is more demanding than, say, a spider plant, yet far less time-consuming and complicated than a puppy. When you purchase bonsai plants from Jackson & Perkins, you get to know your tree’s needs more fully than a mere houseplant. Bonsai is a means of creative expression anyone can practice. Bonsai gardening also happens to be the apex of a houseplant revival spearheaded by Millennials and accelerated by the pandemic.

What Is Bonsai?

Bonsai specifically refers to the Japanese art of growing miniature trees in containers. But in its popularity, Bonsai has come to include any kind of miniature landscape of pruned and sculpted trees as well as shrubs.

What Is Bonsai?

Bonsai can live for decades or even centuries. In Japan, some families have cared for their bonsai trees for generations.

Incorporating a bonsai in your space will certainly add interest and spark conversation. But the real appeal of bonsai is in its meditative and contemplative roots.

Indoor or Outdoor Bonsai

The tree or shrub you select will depend on whether you plan to keep your bonsai outside or indoors.

Trees that are native to tropical climates will do best indoors. Conifers, hardwoods and other trees native to colder climates must be kept outdoors. The cold temperatures enable these trees to enter into a dormant state that is essential to stay healthy.

As always, the key to successfully growing bonsai is to research and mimic the tree species’ natural environmental needs.

Choosing Your Bonsai 

Bonsai enthusiasts have several options for starting their bonsai garden.

If you’re just starting out with bonsai care, consider one of the easy types of trees from Jackson & Perkins.

  • Juniper are outdoor bonsai that can handle cold weather. Juniper trees are good for beginning bonsai gardeners because they’re tolerant of over pruning.
  • Rosemary is a great economical choice for beginner bonsai enthusiasts. It’s easy to start from seed and its woody “trunk” and branches are strong, yet pliable enough to shape. As a bonus, as you trim your rosemary bonsai, you’ll have herbs for your favorite dishes.

Transplanting a small tree or shrub from nature. In the Japanese tradition, bonsai gardeners went out into nature to select a yearling tree. Make sure you have the owner’s permission before choosing and digging up a tree already growing outside.

Grow a tree from seed. Growing your bonsai tree from seed requires the most patience, but is also the most rewarding. However, you’ll have to wait for your seedling to be about three years old before you can start pruning and shaping it.

Purchase a young tree or shrub from a nursery. Any tree or shrub that is less than about two feet tall can be transformed into a bonsai. Starting your bonsai from a nursery plant is a way to experience the creative and calming benefits of bonsai without waiting for seeds to mature or trekking into the woods.

Purchase a pre-made bonsai. With a pre-made bonsai, you’ll have the aesthetics of a bonsai immediately. 

Preparing Your Bonsai

Unless you’ve purchased a pre-made bonsai, you’ll have to prepare your tree or shrub to become a bonsai. 

Basic Aesthetic Principles of Bonsai

Basic Aesthetic Principles of Bonsai

Being an art form, there is no right or wrong way to prune and shape your bonsai. However, there are best practices to help you develop an aesthetically pleasing bonsai.

Consider these principal guidelines as you work with your bonsai.

  • Bonsai is meant to look like a mature tree that has been shaped by the forces of nature. For example, oftentimes, wind causes a tree to lean.
  • The shape of your bonsai should be reminiscent of the shape of the full-sized tree in nature. Always draw on full-sized trees of the same species for inspiration when shaping your bonsai.
  • Bonsais have a “front” from which the tree is meant to be viewed.

How to Shape Your New Bonsai

Just like the trees planted in your yard, bonsai trees should be pruned in early spring or late fall. Check your tree’s species for the best time to prune.

The first step to pruning your new bonsai is to cut the dead branches and leaves. From there, you can examine your new bonsai. Decide on the overall design you’re going for based on the existing branches. Keep in mind that, in the next step to shaping your bonsai tree, you’ll be using wires to shape branches.

Generally speaking, you’ll want to remove branches that are close to the base of the tree. Aim to have thicker branches toward the bottom of the trunk, with thinner branches on top. Also, trim any branches that are growing at odd angles from the tree trunk.

When you are finished cutting branches, you should be able to see the trunk of the tree from the front of the bonsai.

You can safely trim up to one-third of your tree’s branches and leaves. If you trim more than one-third, you risk harming or even killing your tree. 

Using Wire to Shape Your Bonsai

You should use wire that is about a third or half the thickness of your branch. Wrap the wire around the branch snugly, but without damaging the branch. Trim off excess wire at the end.

When you have the branches wired, you can gently move them in the desired direction. Keep in mind that you’re creating a living sculpture. Just like any other sculpture, you’re limited by the malleability of the material.

Once your bonsai is wired, examine the branches closely. Remove the wire just before it embeds into a growing branch — anywhere from three months to a year.

Bonsai Pots

Preparing Your Bonsai Pot

Your bonsai pot should be small enough to make the tree look large by comparison to mimic the proportions of a full-sized tree in nature.

Make sure there is at least one drain hole in your bonsai pot. Cover the hole with a mesh screen.

Many bonsai pots have smaller holes through which wire is fed. This wire wraps around the base of the tree for stability.

Soil for Your Bonsai

The soil you choose for your bonsai is extremely important to its health. Bonsai roots live in a compact container. The limited space for soil means the mix must be able to provide adequate nutrition, aeration and drainage for the growing tree. 

Bonsai are prone to root rot. Your bonsai’s soil is just as important as its container to ensure just the right amount of drainage and water retention. A bonsai mix will contain both organic material and inorganic material, such as volcanic material. The organic material will retain water and nutrients, while the inorganic material will provide both drainage and air pockets. 

Trimming Your Bonsai’s Roots and Replanting

Many bonsai experts recommend that you wait a full year after your initial shaping before repotting your tree into a bonsai container.

Before you repot your bonsai, you must remove the excess dirt in the root system and, if necessary, trim the tree’s roots to fit in the smaller pot. Don’t remove more tree roots than foliage. For example, if you removed a quarter of the tree’s original foliage, don’t remove more than a quarter of the tree’s roots.

Start by using a bonsai rake, a chopstick or even a fork to gently dislodge dirt from the root system. Once most of the dirt is removed, determine if you need to trim the roots. If so, trim the roots evenly from the bottom.

Place a layer of bonsai mix in the bottom of the pot. Place your bonsai in the pot. By placing it off-center, you’ll create a more pleasing composition. Wrap the wires attached to the pot around the base of the tree. Surround the tree with bonsai mix. Add rocks and moss as desired.

You’ll need to repot your bonsai every two to three years. 

Watering Your Bonsai

The art of caring for bonsai isn’t just knowing how to prune your tree. Knowing when to water your bonsai requires a bit of intuition. In this way, taking care of a bonsai is different from taking care of a houseplant. Houseplants will adapt to the watering schedule you set. Bonsai, on the other hand, set their own watering schedule. Bonsai owners must get to know their plants to understand their tree’s needs. 

Check your bonsai daily. Bonsai soil should never be dry, nor should it be wet. Bonsai grow best when the soil is slightly moist. When you water your bonsai, avoid soaking it. Pay attention to how your bonsai reacts when you water it. If your tree’s leaves are drooping or turning yellow, you could be over or underwatering it. 


Maintenance Pruning

Once you’ve completed your initial structural pruning, you’ll use maintenance pruning to keep your bonsai tree small and in your desired shape. Maintenance pruning improves the health of your tree and increases foliage growth. 

Depending on the type of tree, you only have to perform maintenance pruning one to three times per year. Pruning should only be done during the growing season in late spring or late summer. 

Maintenance pruning does more than improve the beauty of your bonsai. By select pruning new growth, you’re also encouraging the tree to devote resources to become stronger and healthier.

Bonsai Defoliation

Bonsai defoliation is the practice of pruning the leaves. There are several reasons to defoliate your bonsai. 

First, defoliating your bonsai is a way to encourage your tree to grow “miniature” leaves. The young tree you selected for your bonsai was planning on growing into a full-sized tree. Even after you’ve performed a structural pruning and repotted the tree in a bonsai container, its leaves will be too large to be aesthetically pleasing. When you cut the large leaves off, smaller leaves will grow back in their place. 

Defoliating your bonsai after repotting will also slow your tree’s metabolism. Just like losing its leaves during winter, defoliating gives your newly repotted tree a chance to rest and heal. Defoliation also slows the evaporation process. Finally, defoliating your tree will also help prevent damage to the branches caused by the shaping wires. 

To defoliate your tree, simply trim the leaves. Leave the leaf stem to avoid wounding the tree branch. Most species of bonsai should only be defoliated in June to allow regrowth during the growing season. 

Fertilizing Your Bonsai

Because their small container doesn’t allow for a lot of nourishing soil, bonsai trees must be fertilized regularly. 

Most species kept outdoors should be fertilized weekly during their growing season. If your bonsai is a subtropical tree, its growing season is year-round. You should fertilize your subtropical bonsai throughout the year. 

Bonsai fertilizer should contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Nitrogen will help the tree grow, while phosphorus strengthens its root system. Potassium will encourage a flowering bonsai to bloom. 

The best fertilizer will be bonsai fertilizer for your tree’s species. 

Tips for Caring for Your Bonsai

Tips for Caring for Your Bonsai

Aside from pruning, feeding and watering, your bonsai has special requirements. Use the following tips for a happy bonsai. 

  • Position your tree away from your heating and cooling vents.
  • Place your tree in a sunny location.
  • Misting your bonsai with water will help ensure it has enough humidity while indoors.
  • Give your deciduous and conifer bonsai a little less water and fertilizer during the winter season.
  • Even if you keep your deciduous bonsai indoors, give it outdoor time during the fall to encourage winter dormancy. 

Bonsai Is Rewarding

Bonsai is certainly more demanding than houseplants. But the level of care and attention a bonsai needs is part of its allure. More so than houseplants, the art of bonsai requires that you slow down and pay attention. By noticing the tree’s soil, leaves and general health needs, you get to know your bonsai. By bringing a bonsai into your life, you can get to know and care for another living organism. The bonus of bonsai is that, unlike a pet, you can still easily go on vacation. 

Image Credits

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