When I was young, I thought bonsai was a certain type of tree that, through genetics, remained small while still resembling a larger, mature tree. As I got older, I learned more and more about what bonsai is and what it takes to create it. And I have grown more and more interested and fascinated by the art form.

The word bonsai is a Japanese expression that literally translates to “tray planting.” The name may seem mundane, but the true beauty and joy behind bonsai is in attempting to perfect the craft. Bonsai is the art of growing certain trees and shrubs, of many varieties, in small, shallow containers.

Through careful and precise training and pruning, the plant is slowly shaped and manipulated to give the appearance of an older, mature tree growing in nature. Creating bonsai combines growing, creativity, philosophy and foresight. Training a growing tree or shrub into a desired shape over several years takes patience—every aspect must be well-thought-out and every action precise and deliberate.

Several species of plants are suitable for bonsai growing, including citrus trees, jade plants, many fig trees, some pine trees, juniper trees and even culinary herbs such as rosemary and basil. Most can be started from seed or cloned by rooting cuttings from a growing plant.

Experienced bonsai growers will often buy young plants from a nursery grower. These trees or shrubs will still have their young, natural look, allowing the grower to take complete creative control over training or pruning plants however they want. For the novice bonsai enthusiast, it may be easiest to purchase a pre-started plant from a reputable nursery.

These plants are usually moderately trained or trimmed and may come in a bonsai-style pot, often adorned with rocks or little Japanese figurines that add to the overall aesthetic value of the bonsai tree. Pre-started bonsai plants are a great way to begin learning bonsai. Although the plants are already pruned and slightly trained, the grower can still create any shape desired as it grows.

After choosing which plant to grow in the bonsai tradition, the next step is to decide which training style the plant will be grown in. Bonsai growers incorporate an array of widely recognized shaping and training styles. Two popular styles are: the upright style, where the trunk is the main focal point with branches growing out from the left and right sides, usually alternating; and the cascade style, a style in which the grower carefully shapes the tree so it cascades out of the pot and gently down towards the ground.

Another important aspect of bonsai is choosing the proper container to grow in. In keeping with true bonsai tradition, the container should be relatively wide and shallow in relation to the plant. This gives the plant the appearance of growing in a natural setting and allows the grower to position the roots in a way that is expressive and visually appealing. Think about the roots of a mature tree in nature—they are often exposed near the trunk due to soil erosion, giving trees a unique appearance, which is something bonsai growers strive to achieve.

The container should be big enough to allow adequate root growth and, as the tree grows, should be replaced with a larger one as needed. The shape and design of a container can really add to the overall feel and look of a bonsai plant, so the choice of container should not be taken lightly.

Best Grow Mediums for Bonsai Trees

As for growing mediums, it is important to research the ideal soil type for the plant being grown. Some potting mix companies carry a general purpose bonsai mix as part of their line. I have tried a couple and been happy with the results thus far. If the grower decides to create a custom mix, there are a few things to keep in mind.

The mix, in most cases, should have fairly good water-holding capacities. Organic materials like coco coir and compost can assist in creating a mix that retains water and nutrients so they are available to the plant when needed. However, a mix that holds water too well can lead to an oversaturated root zone that is lacking in oxygen, resulting in poor root growth and possible plant death. It is important to have proper drainage working in harmony with ample water retention.

Adding inert ingredients such as fired clay particles, perlite, coarse sand or small lava rock can help a custom mix achieve proper drainage capabilities. As a general rule, bonsai plants should be repotted or have their medium changed and roots trimmed every two years for optimal growth.

Watering Requirements of Bonsai Trees

When it comes to watering and fertilizing bonsai, it is once again important to research the unique water and fertilizer requirements of the type of plant being grown, as the needs can vary drastically from plant to plant. It is best to use an alternative to tap water for regular watering.

Purified water, such as reverse osmosis water, is a great choice, but rainwater is best. Bonsai can be fertilized organically, but it will take time for organic materials to break down before the nutrients are available, so it may be wise to inoculate the plant with micro-organisms in advance to help speed up the process.

Synthetic fertilizers should be used at half strength since the containers are so small and residual mineral salts tend to accumulate. Granular, slow-release fertilizers are also an effective choice, but the grower needs to be careful not to overdose.

Pruning a Bonsai Tree

Through proper training, the skeletal structure, where the overall bonsai shape begins, is manipulated with the use of wires into desired positions. When using wire for branch training, first start by wrapping the wire around and up the trunk like a snake. Start below the desired branch to be trained and lead the wire onto or around the branch.

Once the branch is wrapped in wire, it can be bent into the desired position. After some time, the bark on the branch will grow woodier and the wire can be removed with the branch remaining in the intended position. The rest of the shape is created through precise pruning of the smaller branches.

During the growing season, smaller branches can be trimmed with pruning scissors or, with softer, newer growth, even the grower’s fingernails. It is usually recommended to trim the branch and not the leaves. Careful, dedicated pruning will help develop and refine the shape of the bonsai tree.

Most bonsai plants can be grown both indoors and outdoors, depending on the time of year and the type of plant. When growing indoors, a sunny window will often be sufficient, but at times, a fluorescent T5 light may be needed, unless the bonsai variety is a flowering/fruiting type. For these, a different spectrum bulb may be necessary such as a high pressure sodium bulb. When growing bonsai indoors, growers should do their best to re-create the plant’s natural environment to achieve optimal growth.

Creating bonsai is much different from growing an average, run-of-the-mill house plant. It takes patience, dedication, foresight, creativity and care, but this should never scare anyone away from trying it. As the years go by and the plant takes shape, the grower will find the rewarding feeling that comes with creating bonsai is more than worth the effort put in.