Bonsai Trees – A Beginner’s All You Need To Know Guide

Two of my favourite gifts this Christmas were little Bonsai Trees. One is a flowering Crab Apple, the other a Japanese Maple. They are both super cute, even without any new growth on them. I’m so looking forward to seeing the new shoots appear and the blossom in the Spring. I can’t wait to get my special Bonsai scissors out and start pruning, something which is very important – I’ll explain later. If you’re thinking of buying a Bonsai tree, growing one from seed, or pruning and training an existing standard tree, then read on to find out how to grow Bonsai Trees.

Lockdown has seen a huge resurgence in interest for Bonsai as people are searching for something to keep them occupied and sane! Nurturing something, training it, pruning it and showing it love is such a rewarding way to spend your time.

My Little Crab Apple Bonsai. I’ve named her Cynthia.

Now, I must point out that I am no expert at this. In fact, I’m a complete novice, but I do have years of gardening experience, which I’m sure will come in handy. It can’t be too hard, right? What I also have is lots of enthusiasm and a willingness to learn new tricks and techniques. I’ve done quite a lot of research for this article, so hopefully you don’t have to. What I discovered is that Bonsai is an art that has been studied and perfected over centuries. However, don’t be disparaged by this. I believe it’s perfectly possible for almost anyone to grow and care for their own little pot of Japanese Joy.

Dispelling The Myth

Most people think that Bonsai Trees are special miniature varieties of normal, full-sized trees. That’s why so many people are fooled into buying “Grow your own Bonsai Tree” kits, which consist of three or four perfectly ordinary tree seeds, some compost and a container. If you’ve done this then you have just been conned! Now, that’s not to say that you can’t create a Bonsai Tree from the seeds, but you could have just bought your own ordinary seeds much cheaper. There’s nothing special about the seeds and they will not grow into a miniature tree unless you make them!

Bonsai Trees are living trees or shrubs which have been grown in such a way as to give the impression of being a full-sized, mature tree. It is, in fact, an artistic representation of a full-sized tree in nature. Bonsai is not a species of tree and many normal varieties of tree can be turned into Bonsai. It must be in a pot, or container as Bonsai actually means: “the art of growing artificially dwarfed trees and shrubs in pots.”

Where to begin?

The most important thing is to work out which species of tree suits your circumstances and environment. Choosing whether to grow an indoor or outdoor variety first of all, will have the largest impact on the species you choose.

There’s nothing special about them being indoor or outdoor. Just like house plants, no Bonsai Tree has been specially cultivated to be grown indoors. House plants and indoor Bonsai Trees are just varieties of plant that are usually grown in sub-tropical climates outside and would not cope with sub-zero Winter temperatures.

No plant’s natural habitat is inside a house, but indoor varieties of Bonsai can cope due to their climatic origins. Choosing an indoor variety will, however, severely limit your choice of species. Personally, as a beginner, I would opt for the outdoor variety.

Most non-tropical trees are perfectly suited to being outdoors as long as they are protected from intense sunlight and freezing temperatures. Choosing an indigenous species is the easiest option. I’ve chosen Crab Apple and a Japanese Maple, the latter is not actually indigenous, but the Field Maple is. I’ve had lots of success growing the Japanese variety in their fully grown form outside in the U.K and they have all coped with sub-zero temperatures. Other great “beginner” options to choose from include: Pines, Junipers, Redwoods and Pyracantha.

In my opinion, the best thing you can do is go to a reputable Bonsai nursery to choose a tree that one of their experts has already grown and started to train for you. That’s what we did. We went to Herons Bonsai in Surrey, run by acclaimed expert and author, Peter Chan. It’s important to get the best advice on the type of tree that’s right for you, the right pot, soil and accessories. All the staff there were incredibly helpful and didn’t blind us with jargon, or treat us like we were stupid.

You can, of course, grow Bonsai Trees from seed, which would be lots of fun. As it grows you can learn to train and prune the tree to create the classic Bonsai shape mimicking a fully grown tree in miniature. I have no experience of this yet, as first of all, I’m quite impatient and wanted something “ready-baked”, but secondly, I thought I would be easier to learn from a more mature specimen and then maybe go on to growing my own from seed.

How to care for your Bonsai

The main thing to remember is that Bonsai are just like any other potted plant. They need regular watering and feeding and are best in a bright position that doesnt get baking sun. This goes for whether they are inside or outdoors. They will need repotting when they become root bound.

If you have your Bonsai inside, then you will need to water it all year round. You can tell if it needs watering because the soil will feel dry. Sounds obvious, but under-watering is the main cause of death to a Bonsai. Stand it in a shallow gravel tray and water till you see the droplets coming through to the gravel. Don’t ever stand your pot directly in water for long periods though as this will rot the roots.

For outdoor Bonsai it’s a good idea to water regularly from March to October. Remember that the pot is very shallow, so on sunny days they may need to be watered twice, early morning and in the evening. Place them in a sunny position, but not too sunny and away from strong winds. Feed them at least once a month in the growing season. For outdoor Bonsai, pellet feed is the norm.

Trimming the shoots

A Bonsai Tree’s shape is maintained by regular trimming of the shoots. A deciduous tree (a tree that sheds its leaves in late Autumn) will need to be trimmed at least four to six times a year. Every time you trim away some of the new shoots, you will encourage more bushy growth. The more you prune, the smaller the leaves will become, giving your tree the appearance that it is a miniature fully grown specimen. If you don’t do this, then before long your tree will lose its shape and start to grow into a normal sized small tree with standard-sized leaves. If you have an evergreen variety then you can prune less frequently as they grow much slower.

Trimming the roots and repotting.

A young tree should be repotted every two to three years as the plant becomes pot bound. When you re-pot it is also time to trim the roots to maintain health and keep the plant vigorous. It is a myth, however, that Bonsai keep their miniature shape by constant trimming of the roots.

Begin by teasing out the roots with a small rake. You can buy these from good Bonsai specialists. Take away about an inch of the soil and then trim all the long shoots that have grown around the shape of the pot. This will create room for new nutrient-rich soil within the pot. Early spring is the best time to trim the roots.

My Bonsai is held in to the base of it’s pot by a wire to support the trunk as it’s in such a shallow pot. Even subtle movements can disturb roots and weaken a Bonsai Tree, so it’s important to secure it into place.

All Bonsai pots come with holes in the bottom for drainage and to secure your tree with wire. The process is slightly complicated, so I’m not going to go into the detail this time, but essentially, a wire is threaded through the two holes at the bottom of the pot, then twisted around the base of the tree to secure it. Heron’s Bonsai offer to do this for you.

Essentials

You’re going to need the right tools for the job, but also, if you are anything like me then you’ll love collecting all the paraphernalia. It’s part of the fun and who doesnt like a little shopping spree? I only have the basics at the moment, but I’m planning another online shopping trip soon!

The classic Bonsai shape is created by a combination of pruning and bending techniques. Copper wire is used to manipulate the shape of the tree, bending it and twisting it to gradually, over time, give it the appearance of being a very old dwarf tree.

The most commonly used tools are:

  • Pruning scissors
  • Wire cutter
  • Branch cutter
  • Rake
  • Root pruning shears

Most of all – Have Fun!

Lockdown is the perfect time to start a new hobby and that’s what it is – a hobby. Remember to have fun and enjoy learning about Bonsai. Plants are forgiving. If you get it wrong don’t worry, the chances are your tree will recover. You don’t have to be green fingered. Anyone can do this with a little patience, a little reading and learning, but most of all enthusiasm. Have fun!

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