Make a Great Bonsai in a Few Easy Steps

bonsaiFor many, the term bonsai is equated with the concept of dwarf trees. In reality though, dwarf trees are those who have been grafted so that their short nature remains. This is very different from a bonsai that is pruned and remains in the same container for its entire life.

The birth of the bonsai can be found in Japan as early as the 14th century where only the rich could afford the “tree in the pot.” When Japan opened up in the mid-19th century, tourists from around the world had their first glance at the miniature trees growing in pots. For those who could not afford the trip to Japan, the 1900 Paris World Exhibition introduced the rest of the world to bonsais.

Today, creating a bonsai is relatively easy to do and once you get started this hobby will continue to grow. The following steps will help beginner create a successful bonsai on the first try.

Plant Selection

Plants for bonsais can easily be found in your local nursery or home improvement center. The easiest species to start with includes anything in the Juniperus family, Acer palmatum (Japanese Maple), or gardenia radicans.

When selecting your plant material always choose one that is disease free and not distorted in shape. Also, make sure that the trunk is wider at the base and then tapers up to the top. The tree furthermore needs to have plenty of braches and leaves that are proportional to the size of the tree.

Before walking away with your selection, check the root ball by gently pulling the plant out of the container. If the soil is dry, this will be an easy task. While the plant is out of the container, examine the roots for any disease, damage, and root thickness. The main trunk root should be thick.

Study Your Tree

Once you get your tree home it is time to decide on the style. Trees are easier to design if you utilize their natural shape. There are five styles to choose from. This includes formal upright (chokkan), informal upright (moyogi), slanting (shankkan), cascade (kengi) or semi-cascade.

After you have selected your style, it time to begin creating your bonsai. The first step requires you to remove the weeds and the first few inches of soil so that the main root can be seen. Next, remove any dead material from the plant using a pair of sharp, pointed scissors. Then, get rid of leaves from the lower branches so that the trunk can be seen.

Now it is time to decide which will be the front. Once this is decided, select a branch that is 1/3 the way up the trunk and either on the left or right of the trunk. Next, select the second branch by choosing one that is on the other side slightly above the first. The last branch will be positioned in the back and should be slightly higher than the second branch. Remove all branches in between the three listed.

Prune the remaining branches so that they are longer toward the base and shorter moving up the tree.

Wiring The Tree

The key importance of forming your bonsai is the wire. Copper or aluminum wire is typically used and only needs to be 1/3 the diameter of the branch you plan to bend. Before using the wire, practice on a branch you have already removed or one from the yard.

Another consideration is the fact that the wire needs to be secured. If wiring the trunk, secure the wire into the soil. If wiring a branch, secure it to another branch. Once you decide which branches will be wired, gently wrap the wire and slowly bend the branch in the process. Many times this procedure will have to be done several times over a certain period to achieve the look you want.

After the tree is wired, watch the condition of the tree and remove the wire when the branch does not snap back. Do not let the wire girdle the branch.

Planting Your Bonsai

Prior to planting your bonsai, you will need to do two things. First, you will need to select a container that is large enough to hold the root mass and has several drainage holes. The style of the container should go with the style of the bonsai and the container should be supported on feet. The second thing that must be done is the soil selection. You can make your own soil from a combination of potting soil and small stones or already prepared bonsai soil can be purchased.

Before planting, prune the roots back so that the root mass will fit into the container easily.

Once the container and soil as been acquired, the next step in the planting process is to cover the drainage holes with wire mesh. Then, place a layer of potting soil in the bottom and place the bonsai off center and toward the back in the container. Place soil around the root mass and pack down.

After the soil has been added, place a layer of decorative stone on the soil surface. This is decorative and functional in nature.

To water the bonsai, place the container in a bucket of water or garden sink until the water level reaches the top of the soil. Allow the bonsai to remain in the water until all bubbles stop breaking the surface.

While the process may seem complicated, it is actually very simple once you begin and the best part of this process is that “beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.”


Mindy McIntosh-Shetter has been an Agricultural Science educator, and is a horticulture and/or environmental blogger who earned a degree from Purdue University in Agriculture Education with a minor in biology, and natural resources. Presently she is finishing up her Masters in Environmental Education and Urban Planning for the University of Louisville while working on her own agriculture/environmental blog.

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