Although bonsai can be very daunting to newcomers when they first start, 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 the appearance of a bonsai and a seemingly unfathomable quantity of do’s and don’ts. But 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 will grow enough to broaden your horizons and successfully learn more advanced techniques such as restyling and creating bonsai.
But don’t run before you walk. The first fundamental rule to learn when embarking on this Artform is that you are dealing with something living and ever-changing; basic horticulture needs to be followed so that you can successfully maintain your tree.
Ligustrum ovalifolium/Common Privet Bonsai. Developed by Harry Harrington from an old hedgerow tree collected in 2004.
There are many bonsai techniques and much advice available to the bonsai enthusiast to achieve the ultimate goal of a beautiful tree.
Confusingly, information on the many bonsai websites, books and sources worldwide 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!
Many of these techniques will work to a certain degree; but unfortunately although not necessarily killing your tree, some advice and/or techniques can result in greatly diminished vigour as your trees cope under stress, whilst some advice, based on simple horticultural fact, can greatly improve the health, appearance and vigour of your tree. It is for you to learn precisely which techniques work for you and your tree in your given situation.
One good way of learning bonsai (although I am biased!), is to obtain a copy of my book The Foundations Of Bonsai. Written over the course of 15 years, they are the ideal book for beginners to intermediate enthusiasts wishing to learn the best ways to keep their trees healthy and vigorous.
Nearly all beginners start their journey by buying a bonsai from a garden centre, shopping mall or bonsai nursery, 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 misconception that beginners have (and many bonsai forum posts can confirm this) is that bonsai can be kept indoors. However, 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 modern day central heating systems can cause many problems.
There are species that will tolerate indoor conditions and with the correct placement and care can be grown; indeed, there are also some species that are not hardy enough to tolerate the winter cold. However, 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 a number of months. However they slowly lose their health and vigour in the adverse conditions they are forced 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 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 species used for bonsai that cause problems for beginners are Conifers and in particular Junipers and Pines. There are NO coniferous species that can tolerate indoor cultivation for more than 1 to 2 years. It is worth referring to individual plant/tree Species Guides to establish whether you have a tree that can be grown inside or not.
This seemingly easy technique is the second most common cause of Bonsai-related problems. Underwatering or allowing the compost to dry out completely will instantly kill, or badly damage, most trees; however ‘overwatering’ can just as equally cause ill-health and eventual death from rootrot and disease.
‘Overwatering’ is something of a misnomer; if a bonsai is planted in a good quality/well-drained bonsai soil it is literally impossible to overwater.
Root-rot is the result of a tree growing in poor-draining soil that remains wet , and more specifically, is airless, causing the roots to die rather than the act of too-frequent watering.
The most important Watering-rule to remember is that trees should be CHECKED for their water requirement at least once every day but should only be watered as required. When the surface of the soil starts to dry out, then the tree can be thoroughly watered again. The time between watering can vary from 12 hours to 7 days depending on many factors such as prevailing temperatures, tree growth-rates, wind and humidity levels.
Small-Leaved Lime/Tilia cordata bonsai. Developed from a pencil-thick sapling by Harry Harrington since 2001
Don’t fiddle! The temptation for beginners is to continually interfere with their tree(s), cutting bits off here and there, continually watering, misting, moving them around etc etc. Checking daily for water requirements and possible health problems is necessary, but otherwise leave the tree to grow and simply enjoy it.
Pruning back to shape is necessary periodically (from every fortnight to every 3 months depending on the species and the time of year) but don’t jump onto every out-of-place leaf. In order to keep the tree healthy and vigorous, it needs to be able to grow freely for short periods of time. It is also essential to remember that timing is very important, don’t carry out jobs such as repotting or major restyling at the wrong time of the year due to impatience, or the temptation to ‘do something’ with your tree. This will potentially lead to poor health in the tree, lack of vigour or even death. A tree repotted at the wrong time of year for instance may survive if you are lucky, it may even grow a little, but it will very rarely reward you with vigour.
Pruning and Repotting
For more detail about pruning and trimming your bonsai see MAINTENANCE PRUNING Part One: The Need for Regular Pruning
Bonsai need to be pruned regularly, this is the straightforward reason why they are small in height. An unpruned bonsai quite simply becomes an ordinary tree.
Learning exactly how to prune your bonsai is something that you need to investigate once the basics of watering and placement are understood. If at first you are unsure, simply prune back your trees’ new growth to its original shape.
By studying your tree, watching its growth patterns and studying other peoples trees on the internet and in books, you will begin to be able to form a mental picture of how you envision your tree developing artistically over the coming years. It may be that you prefer it to remain as it is, or maybe there are areas that could be made taller, shorter or wider. Mentally establish your goals for the tree, so you are able to prune and style it for a future design rather than just randomly cutting areas of new growth.
The other area of bonsai that needs to be addressed by the beginner is repotting; a very straightforward technique if carried out correctly and at the right time. Most trees need to be repotted annually, or at very least bi-annually,in spring as the year’s new growth starts to appear. Trees that are not repotted will eventually lose their health and vigour.
Many beginners trees can also be found to be planted in very poor soils; they will need repotting into better quality soil.
The well-developed roots of a mature bonsai elm.
How old is my tree? The ONLY way of accurately ageing a tree is by counting the tree-rings at the base of the trunk, obviously this is not possible! Normally the age of a tree can be reasonably estimated when a tree has been owned by the same person who propagated it from seed or a cutting; nursery stock can often be estimated reliably at being 2 or 3 years old when bought from a garden centre.
Old branches that are removed can also have their rings counted to give an indication of the age of the rest of the tree.
However, with increased age in bonsai comes increased financial value and this does not always result in complete honesty. There are many bonsai techniques available to the experienced collector that help give the impression of great age; that is after all, one of the principal aims when styling and developing trees.
Field-grown trees for instance will always display far thicker trunks than trees that have always been grown as bonsai. It is fairly straightforward to create a bonsai from a cutting that after 10 years looks older than a 30 year old container-developed bonsai.
When valuing a tree, it is not its actual age that is most important; it is the impression of age that gives it beauty.
These basics are described in greater detail within the related chapters listed below and it is hoped that armed with this knowledge you can keep your bonsai healthy and provide a platform from which to learn a whole new art form. Good luck!