Start Day 1: How to Grow a Bonsai Tree

Most people started growing Bonsai after buying a tree in an (online) shop. Though this is without doubt a nice way to get started, it might be more interesting (and less expensive) to learn how to grow and style a tree yourself.

Don’t let the fact that ‘bon-sai’ is an art studied and refined for many centuries scare you off, because you are perfectly capable to learn how to grow Bonsai trees without green thumbs. Make sure to pick the right tree species for your surroundings and stick to the basic care guidelines.

In this article I’ll explain how to get started with growing Bonsai and introduce you into the three main parts of this section: Bonsai cultivation, styling and care.

Grow and cultivate trees

How do you make a Bonsai tree? First step is to acquire a tree, which can be done by buying a preBonsai (rough material to be pruned and wired) or by using one of several possible cultivation techniques. Very important however is to select a tree species that fits your circumstances. Are you keen on keeping the tree indoors (which limits your options to (sub)tropical trees that can survive indoors) or would you like to put your Bonsai outside? In the latter case, most non-tropical trees will grow perfectly fine as long as they are protected from either intense sunlight or freezing temperatures. A safe bet is to select a indigenous tree species. With this short introduction you should be able to select a tree that fits your wishes, either an indoor Bonsai or an outdoor.

Now that we have selected the kind of tree, let’s proceed with ways to actually get one! One way is to buy a ready-made Bonsai tree from an (online) Bonsai store. These stores often have a wide variety of tree species as well as shapes and sizes, but this comes at a price. As mentioned above you could also buy a preBonsai, which is ‘rough material’ (with potential for Bonsai) to be shaped by yourself, a great way for quick results. Similar to buying preBonsai is collecting trees from nature; but this can be tricky and should only be done with permission. You could also get a Bonsai starterkit, enabling you to create your own tree and learn the basics of Bonsai.

A less expensive, but slow method is to cultivate a tree yourself; using seeds or cuttings. It will normally take around 3-5 years before the tree can be trained, so you might want to do this as a side project (and buy a preBonsai to get started with training techniques already now).

Learn more about the cultivation techniques mentioned above, or continue reading about training and shaping Bonsai below.

Shaping and styling techniques

Now that we have either bought or cultivated a tree, it’s time to get started with shaping and styling it. This is the creative part of growing Bonsai trees, as well as the difficult part. Although it took many decades to refine techniques like pruning and wiring to keep trees miniaturized, some basics can be learned quite easily. Right now we will look at the basics of pruning and wiring, but make sure to read the “styling” section for more detailed information on these subjects.

Bonsai is not a race, nor is it a destination. It is a never-ending journey.

Let’s begin with the single most important technique to Bonsai; pruning. Pruning is crucial in keeping trees miniaturized as well as to shape them. The goal is to create a Bonsai that resembles nature as close as possible. The spring and summer are the seasons to proceed with significant pruning; though this will depend on the type of tree you have. Make sure to buy a good concave cutter when pruning thick branches. The hollow wounds these cutters leave behind heal much better than normal cutters would. Though it is impossible to tell you which branches to prune to form your tree without actually seeing it, it helps to look at some example Bonsai progressions, and start from there. Some examples of instances in which a branch should be removed include:

  • If two branches occur at the same height of the tree, keep one of them and remove the other.
  • Remove branches with unnatural twists and turns.
  • Remove disproportionately thick branches from the top of the tree.

Another important technique to shape Bonsai trees is wiring. By wrapping anodized aluminum (or annealed copper) carefully around branches it is possible to bend and shape them, at least to a certain extent. Wiring can be applied all year, but make sure to remove the wire before it starts scarring branches that grow thicker. Make sure to read the wiring page in the training section for a detailed explanation.

Learn more about the training and styling techniques mentioned above, or continue reading about how to Bonsai; Bonsai care.

Care and maintenance

A crucial part of information about how to grow a Bonsai tree is its maintenance and care. Though each tree species has specific care guidelines (make sure to check these for your Bonsai!), in this part I will discuss some of the basics, starting with watering.

How often Bonsai trees need to be watered depends on a wide range of factors, including species of tree, pot-size, soil and climate. Over-watering can result in root-rot, one of the most common causes of death. However, as Bonsai are planted in such small pots they also tend to dry up very easily. Choosing the right soil mixture and re-potting regularly (on average every two years, to make sure the trees don’t become pot-bound, making it hard to soak up and store water) is crucial to keep your tree healthy. An important rule for watering is to check frequently on your tree (instead of simply watering it once per day), and when watering to do this thoroughly (to make sure the soil absorbs the water properly).

Besides watering and repotting, fertilization is another important thing to keep in mind. Since the trees are put in small pots, with few space and nutrients available, fertilizing regularly in the tree’s growth season is key to keep it healthy. Again, it depends on the tree species when, how much and how often it needs to be fertilized. The brand or type of fertilizer (fluid or solid) doesn’t matter all that much, as long as you make sure to apply smaller quantities than normal plants would require.

Finally, placing an outdoor tree inside (or vice versa) is a sure way to kill it. Before buying (or cultivating) a Bonsai, think where you like to place it! Sub-tropical trees generally need much light and relatively high temperatures and can only live outside if you live in a warm enough climate; these trees will do perfectly fine indoors though. In case you prefer an outdoor tree, a safe bet is to choose a tree that is indigenous to your environment. In case winters get very cold some additional protection from frost is required, since a Bonsai is put in a small pot.

Learn more about general Bonsai tree care or check out specific Bonsai species care guides.

Conclusion, how to make a Bonsai tree?

In this introductory article the three steps of growing a Bonsai were explained; cultivation, training and care. Though Bonsai is a centuries-old form of art, getting started with this fascinating hobby is not at all that difficult! This website will help you to get started and the Bonsai forum is a great place to ask for advice. If you have a tree, but need help, read our “Help! My Bonsai is dying” article.

We have created several online courses with well-known Bonsai experts, for more information and free lessons, see our Bonsai Courses. Also, local Bonsai clubs organize courses and workshops that come highly recommended. Good luck!

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2 responses to “Start Day 1: How to Grow a Bonsai Tree”

  1. I’m growing silver maples, fire maples and sugar maples but their trunks are skinny. If I cut the tops will it help thicken the trunks?