How to care for a bonsai tree and make it live forever

It could outlive you . . .

By Camryn Rabideau

Published April 5, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

 (Suphattra Phonsen / EyeEm / Getty)
(Suphattra Phonsen / EyeEm / Getty)

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If, like me, you're always on the lookout for fun new plants to add to your home collection, chances are that a bonsai tree has caught your eye at one point or another. These miniature trees are stunning — there's really no other word for it — but they're also extremely intimidating for beginners. Bonsais require very particular care, and they're not very forgiving. However, if you're willing to put in the effort to shape and cultivate one of these miniature trees, you'll be rewarded with a breathtaking plant that can be passed down to future generations.

Before you decide if bonsais are right for you, here's everything you need to know about these cool plants, including where to get one and how you'll care for it.

So what exactly is a bonsai tree?

For the longest time, I thought bonsai trees were a special species of tree! As I've discovered, I wasn't alone in assuming that.

"Bonsai is a set of practices used to shape a tree artistically," explains Eric Schrader, who teaches bonsai basics at the Bonsai Society of San Francisco. The practice involves a lot of pruning and wiring to help shape the miniature tree, and bonsai trees also need to be kept in specific pots to stunt their growth.

Which plant should you use?

Naturally, my next question was, "What type of tree is best for beginners?" Like many questions in the plant world, there's no one definitive answer here, either — experts say it really depends on the climate where you live, and where you plan to place your tree.

Particularly, you'll need to decide whether you want an outdoor or indoor bonsai. Schrader explains that fewer bonsai varieties thrive indoors, since "the temperature doesn't change much inside and it's fairly dry." Just like a regular, full-grown tree, most bonsai do best when exposed to four seasons, as this allows them to go through a stage of dormancy in the winter (we feel you, bonsai).

A few examples of easy-to-care-for indoor bonsais include: Varieties of ficus, such as Ficus Retusa and Ficus Nerifolia, Jade trees, and Dwarf umbrella trees.

If you're lucky enough to have an outdoor space where your plant can live, your choices get more interesting. Schrader recommends the Cotoneaster, saying that "if you're attentive to watering, it's a good plant to start with."

Other easy outdoor bonsai for beginners include: Junipers, Boxwood, and Deciduous tree species (especially if you live in the Northeast).

Remember, different trees have different needs, so be sure to visit Bonsai Empire's list of bonsai tree species to identify and optimize care for your plant.

Can you start a bonsai tree yourself?

If you're new to bonsai, you might want to start from scratch, growing your tree from a seed or sapling. This option is certainly appealing from a financial standpoint, as you can likely find a tiny tree growing in your yard — I know my gardens are flush with saplings during the summer! However, if you go this route, Bonsai Empire explains that it usually takes between three to five years before a young tree is ready to be styled. That's a big commitment, especially if you're not even sure that you'll like working on bonsai.

A much better option for beginners is finding a pre-bonsai, which are often sold online and at certain gardening centers — you can even find them on Etsy. Pre-bonsai trees are simply small, young plants that have potential to be turned into bonsai. They're generally quite inexpensive, and you'll be able to grow and shape the tree into a beautiful bonsai without having to wait years and years for it to be ready.

Of course, you can also purchase a true bonsai tree, which are typically older and will have already been shaped. The downside with this method is that established bonsai trees can be extremely expensive — we're talking hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

The 411 on bonsai technique

As it turns out, taking a regular tree and turning it into an artistic, miniature version of itself is less complicated than I initially thought! It just requires diligent care, regular maintenance — and a whole lot of patience.

Here is a breakdown of the techniques you'll need to grow a happy, healthy tree.

Watering

What sounds like the simplest of tasks just isn't. You don't want to put your tree on a watering "schedule" — instead, monitor it closely to assess exactly when it needs water. "The most common causes of death are underwatering, followed closely by overwatering," says Schrader.

Your tree's watering needs will depend on the species, climate, pot, and its overall health, but in general, you don't want to let your bonsai tree's soil dry out completely between waterings. Bonsai Tonight explains that because these plants have small root systems, letting the soil get too dry can cause roots to die. As such, it's best to water while the soil is still slightly damp.

Also, because bonsai trees are in shallow pots, their soil will likely dry out faster than your other house plants. Keep a close eye on your tree, especially when you first bring it home, to ensure you don't go too long without watering.

Pruning

This next technique is key — after all, this is how you keep your tree small.

For an indoor bonsai, there are no hard-and-fast rules on when to prune. "If you get a couple inches of growth, you can usually be confident that it's healthy enough to be trimmed back," says Schrader. With an outdoor bonsai, you'll generally want to do any maintenance pruning only during growth season — aka, spring and summer.

When pruning, you'll want to remove broken and crossed branches and cut back twigs with more than three or four nodes (the joints where leaves grow). You can also use pruning to shape your bonsai tree and improve its aesthetic, removing branches too close to the base of the tree, as well as those growing in the wrong direction.

You can either pinch off or use small scissors to remove foliage, but you'll likely want concave cutters for larger branches, which leave a smooth, indented surface that the tree can easily heal from. The general rule is to prune no more than a third of a healthy tree's foliage at a time — taking more will ultimately hurt the plant.

Fertilizing

If your bonsai tree isn't the desired size yet, you'll need to put it on a regular feeding schedule. Fully-grown bonsai require fertilizer, too, but not as frequently.

Schrader explains you can use either organic or mineral fertilizer — or a combination of the two. (Organic fertilizer tends to smell, so think twice before using it indoors.) He recommends applying a tablespoon of organic fertilizer or a "dose" of liquid fertilizer every couple of weeks.

Wiring

As a beginner, you might be content to let your bonsai do its own thing, shaping it through pruning. Once you graduate into an advanced bonsai artist, you'll want to use wiring.

"There are a couple of tools for creating shape," explains Schrader. "You can remove things, and you can move things. Wire is used to create shape and move branches from one place to another."

Essentially, you wrap branches in wire, then bend and reposition them, encouraging them to grow in certain directions. Anodized aluminum wire is recommended for beginners because it's easy to work with, and you can wrap branches in water-soaked raffia fiber before wiring if you're nervous about damaging them.

Bonsai Empire provides a thorough guide on wiring your tree if you want to learn more.

Repotting

Finally, a repotting schedule — not only will this give the tree healthy, new soil, it will also allow you to trim back the plant's root system.

A growing bonsai should be repotted roughly every two years, while a mature tree may be able to go three or more years without repotting. You can see if your bonsai needs repotting by examining the root system — if it's circling around the pot, it needs a trim.

Generally, you'll want to repot your bonsai tree in the spring before it starts growing in earnest. During the process, remove old soil from the roots using chopsticks and trim back any roots that have grown too long. Take care not to remove more than a third of the root system.

Once you've completed this, you can add fresh bonsai soil — typically a mixture of akadama, pumice, lava rock, organic potting compost, and fine gravel.

Get the help you need

Feeling overwhelmed? Me too! It's a lot to learn, but once you get the hang of it, growing bonsai feels like it could become an obsession.

Many experts recommend finding a bonsai workshop, class, or society in your area to connect you with enthusiasts and give you a place to troubleshoot. Alternatively, there are plenty of great bonsai resources online, including tons of videos that cover everything we've spoken about here.

So, are you ready to try your hand at growing your own bonsai? I know I am — I'm signing up for my first workshop today!


Camryn Rabideau

MORE FROM Camryn Rabideau


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