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 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 three years.
     

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 rewarding.
 


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