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Beginner Bonsai Tips

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Bonsai is the art of pruning and training a tree, planted in a small pot, into a desired shape, with careful attention to scale and proportion. Both the roots and the top growth are clipped on a regular basis to create a miniature replica of a full-size tree.


Bonsai, a Japanese tradition, stems from the Chinese art of penzai (miniature trees) and penjing (miniature landscapes), which originated before 960 AD. Bonsai gained a foothold in the United States after World War II, when military and businessmen working in Japan took an interest in local culture and design and brought what they saw home to the States.

Today, bonsai—slow, small scale, low tech—doesn’t jibe with our popular culture, yet it remains a vibrant art. Membership societies exist on the national, regional and local level and serve seasoned artists as well as beginners. Botanical gardens across the country hold impressive collections or host special shows where bonsai enthusiasts display their own plants. It’s difficult for anyone to look at a bonsai and not be captivated by its miniature perfection.

Getting started & bonsai care

1. The best way to get started in bonsai as a hobby is to attend a meeting of a local bonsai society and/or take a beginner’s class in training and caring for a tree.

2. You can start with a “finished” tree from a reputable dealer, like, or start from scratch with a young tree or shrub from any nursery. If you go the latter route, the best options are dwarf cultivars, species with busy, fine branches or naturally small leaves, and specimens with thick trunks, visible root flares above the soil line and branching that starts low.

3. Typically, bonsai are shaped once or twice a year, in late spring to early fall; fed once or twice annually, in spring and early fall; and root pruned and repotted every two to four years. Bonsai need special soil that’s very grainy and offers quick drainage and resists compaction.

4. Bonsai may need to be watered three times a day in the summer, since their small containers will dry out quickly. The traditional advice holds to water once for the pot, once for the soil and once for the tree. Cooler weather lessens the need for frequent watering, but it should still occur at least once a week.

5. Before buying a bonsai, decide between a tropical or a hardy species. For help in choosing, refer to "Indoor Bonsai: Choose Wisely for Success." This is especially essential reading if you plan to keep your bonsai within your living space for the winter.