Starting Out in Bonsai

Page 1 of 2

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Starting Out in Bonsai: Page 1 of 2

Although bonsai can be very daunting to newcomers when they first start out, in reality it is as simple as you make it. There are many species and varieties of trees available to grow, many new techniques that can be learnt to improve bonsai appearance and a seemingly unfathomable quantity of do's and don'ts, the most important aspect as a beginner is to learn how to simply maintain the shape of your tree and keep it alive.

Learn to look after your first tree successfully and your confidence grows enough to widen your horizons and successfully learn more advanced techniques such as reselling and creating bonsai. But don't run before you walk. The first fundamental rules to learn when embarking on this Art is that you are dealing with something living and ever-changing; the basic rules of horticulture need be learnt before you can successfully maintain your tree.

There are many bonsai techniques available for the bonsai enthusiast to use to reach the ultimate goal of a beautiful tree. Confusingly, information available on the many bonsai web sites and books can often be contradictory. It should be understood that for every objective such as repotting, pruning or styling there are a 100 different techniques or viewpoints. Some are based on horticultural fact, some are based on horticultural myth and some are based on horticultural luck!! In fact many of these techniques will work to one degree or another; unfortunately though not killing your tree, some advice and/or techniques can result in diminished vigour as your trees cope under stress, whilst sound advice based on simple horticultural fact can only improve the health, appearance and vigour of your tree. It is for you to learn which techniques work for you and your tree in your given situation.

Nearly all beginners start out by buying a bonsai from a garden centre, shopping mall or (hopefully) a reputable dealer and are often given summary advice.

Unfortunately, unless you buy your tree from a reputable bonsai dealer, you may well have started on the back foot. The most common misunderstanding that beginners have (and bonsai forum posts can confirm this) is that Bonsai are still trees and need outdoor living conditions. Trees need good light, good humidity levels, good air circulation and importantly, many species NEED the cold of winter to go dormant. Inside our homes, trees receive comparatively poor light levels and the dry air /low humidity levels created by central heating systems can cause many problems. There are species that will tolerate indoor conditions and with the correct placement and care can thrive; there are also many species that are not hardy enough to tolerate the winter cold. But, these are in the minority. It is far more difficult to cultivate indoor Bonsai than outdoor Bonsai. Outdoor species very rarely die immediately when grown inside, they can survive for months. However they slowly lose their health and vigour in the adverse conditions they have to cope with, and become susceptible to bugs and disease until they finally start to show outward signs of ill-health; yellowing leaves, lose of foliage and eventually death.

Unfortunately, unscrupulous dealers take advantage of this delayed response to poor care and will display and sell outdoor trees as indoor bonsai. A tree purchased from such a retailer may have been grown inside for weeks or months and can be near death without any outward sign. The most common bonsai to cause problems for beginners are Conifers and very often Junipers. There is NO coniferous species that can tolerate indoor cultivation for more than 2 or 3 years. It is worth referring to the Species Guides at to establish whether you have a tree that can be grown inside. Also refer to the section on indoor bonsai cultivation.

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