Bonsai Baby Steps - Your First Tree
By Erik A. Olsen
Bonsai originated in China although it became popular when Buddhist monks took
the art form to Japan where it became excessively popular. In Japanese, the name
Bonsai translates to “tray gardening”, which is the growing and training of
trees to create them in miniature form. While the process is beautiful and
detailed, it takes years to develop a single tree.
If you were interested in trying your hand at bonsai, the first thing you need
to do is get your hands on some excellent resources pertaining to soil,
fertilizer, water, pots, and so on. In addition, you want to set yourself up for
success from the beginning by choosing the right type of tree. To help get you
started, we have provided information on some great considerations for your
first bonsai tree.
Alpine Totara – This conifer is
the perfect choice for zone 7. The appearance includes short, dark green
needles. You can grow this bonsai in full sun although it also does well in
partial shade. For fertilizer, the Alpine Totara needs to be fed before and
during the active growing season only to fall. After that point, feeding
should occur every two weeks, using water-soluble solutions with trace
elements. As far as repotting, this bonsai does best in early spring months
for about two to three years, keeping the tree in the same pot. At that
time, the plant needs to be removed, along with the root ball. At that
point, trim the root ball with sharp scissors, removing about one-half inch
from the sides and bottom. Once done, the bonsai would be replanted in a new
container with bonsai soil.
Chinese Quince – This deciduous
makes a great outdoor bonsai that produces pink flowers with large yellow
fruit. The nice aspect of this bonsai is its hardiness and long life. In
fact, the tree looks more beautiful with age, actually looking elegant. For
this bonsai, you want to grow in full sun to partial shade. However, it is
important to keep the tree from direct sun, along with the cold winter
months. In addition, the root ball system should never be allowed to dry
out. As far as fertilizer, this should be prior to and during the active
growing season. The one thing to keep in mind when growing the Chinese
Quince is that the root system is highly aggressive, meaning it will require
more frequent pruning.
Dwarf Bamboo – The interesting
thing about growing this tree for bonsai is that the appearance is very
different from what you typically think of associated with this art form.
However, the Dwarf Bamboo is very hardy, has beautiful green leaves, and
depending on the training, can grow upwards to 18 inches. You will find this
tree grows best in bright but indirect light with a little bit of shade. For
fertilizer, we highly recommend you use a liquid form in the spring when new
growth appears. Once you get ready to repot the Dwarf Bamboo, it can be
divided if you like.
Japanese Pagoda – This deciduous
tree is a nice choice for people just getting started with bonsai. Since the
tree is naturally small, it is relatively easy to work with. One of the most
beautiful features of the Japanese Pagoda are the white to blue/violet
flowers that bloom during the summer months coupled with the tiny leaves.
For best growth, this tree likes full sun and partial shade, as well as
fertilizing before and during the growing season, until fall when feeding is
reduced. The three things to remember when choosing this tree for bonsai is
that the root ball system should never dry completely, the tree does not
like hot sun or cold winters, an the root system grows fast so it would need
to be pruned more often.
Japanese Snowdrop – This
deciduous tree is another that makes a great starter bonsai. The overall
appearance of this tree is slender and elegant. The leaves are actually
large in comparison to the trunk, often measuring up to three inches in
length. The beautiful aspect of this tree is that during the fall, the edges
of the leaves will turn a yellow or red, coupled with the growth of white
flowers that have a magnificent fragrance. The key to successful growth is
to use a water soluble fertilizer, grow in full sun to partial shade, never
let the ball root system dry completely out, and prune every other year due
to the aggressive root system.
Trident Maple – This deciduous
tree is fast growing and while good for a beginner, it is a little more
challenging. The leaves consist of three lobes, which are glossy, turning a
gorgeous red in the fall. As with other deciduous trees, the Trident Maple
should be grown in full sun to partial shade and the root ball system should
never be allowed to dry out. As far as fertilizing, the best times are prior
to and during the growing season until fall at which time the frequency is
reduced. With an aggressively growing root system, this bonsai tree would
need to be pruned annually.
Boxwood – In this species of
trees, you will find a number of options. For instance, the Kingsville Dwarf
is a great choice for people just getting started with growing bonsai.
Falling within the evergreen family, this makes an excellent choice for
outdoor growing. The Boxwood is a slow-growing broadleaf evergreen that
produces small but bright green leaves. The bark on the trunk and branches
is a beautiful contrasting white. Because the Boxwood requires little
maintenance and is easy to grow, most bonsai experts recommend it without
hesitation for those just getting started. Care requires semi-shade, regular
watering and a liquid fertilizer with a 10/15/10 balance.
Green Mound Chinese Juniper –
This conifer is a great outdoor species considered your “traditional bonsai”
choice. The nice aspect of this tree is that it can be trained easily in
just about any style you want. Regarding basic care, the Juniper prefers
full sun to semi-shade and liquid fertilizer monthly or semi-monthly from
spring until fall. With this being a slow growing tree, repotting is only
required after three years.
Japanese White Pine – Also in
the conifer family, the Japanese White Pine is a unique tree used for
bonsai. As a five-needed pine, this tree grows relatively slow and is as
broad as it is tall. This particular bonsai tree loves full sun and should
be fertilized prior to and during the growing season. When repotting this
particular tree, it is highly recommended this be done in the early part of
spring but only after the tree has been grown in the original pot for two to
When it comes to growing bonsai, the
most important thing is to learn the basic steps of care first. For instance,
you will need to learn the specific amount and frequency of watering,
fertilizing, and pruning for each individual species since they can and do
differ. Bonsai also must be repotted, generally within one to three years.
During this time, the trees are maintained in their original container but once
repotted they can be transferred to a smaller container.
The great thing about bonsai is that most species are suitable choices. The
shaping and dwarfing of trees is accomplished through special training methods
and then maintained through consistent care or pruning and trimming. Typically,
aluminum or copper wiring is used to wrap around the trunk and branches, which
keeps the tree in the desired shape until it eventually stays there on its own.
Please keep in mind that growing bonsai is not like any other type of
horticulture. These trees are not your ordinary houseplants but specially
trained trees. Therefore, while the results are a magnificent work of art, it
takes years to achieve the goal. However, the time and money spent is extremely