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Bonsai 101: A Plant Care Guide For Bonsai Beginners

These small, elegant plants require an expert's touch so make sure to master the basics of bonsai plant care!

If you get bonsai tree planting right, you'll earn yourself the bragging rights for mastering the Japanese planting technique that's been around for at least a thousand years!

Bonsai trees of topnotch quality are notoriously expensive, so purchasing any one of them requires lots of love and attention; the person who oversaw their growth before handing them over to new owners was likely a full-time bonsai grower, spending much of their day in and out of a bonsai tree greenhouse or garden ensuring that these potted beauties are kept healthy happy. In other words, do know that bonsai care isn't for the casual plant parent! (Brown thumbs, step back. You are now entering a green thumbs zone only). 

Bonsai tree growing and planting demands true dedication, and if you're up for it, consider yourself a real trooper. 

In spite of the challenges attached to bonsai tree care, the appeal remains. After all, bonsai are absolutely beautiful and they never fail to reward plant parents that have taken on the mission of caring for them. 

Now for anyone wishing to start their bonsai tree journey with the right knowledge, we share with you the most important things to know about the art and science of bonsai tree care below. 

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Choose the right bonsai tree

Bonsai "trees" aren't actually just tiny potted trees—they're just made to look like them. Bonsai plants can actually be grown from shrubs, bushes, and other flowering plants (though tree species are also often used), and the goal is to shape them into the recognizable miniature tree look as they grow over time.  

So how do you pick the right one? 

First and foremost, you're going to want to inspect the evenness of branch distribution, symmetry, and un-tangledness. You don't want a plant that looks knotted and messy because that indicates unwieldy growth in the future. You want a plant that's already on the right track in terms of form while it's still small. 

Next, make sure you bring home a healthy plant. Be wary of bonsai that have weak branches (i.e.: dry, hollow, can't spring back with gentle bending) and leaves that easily fall off branches and generally look uncared for (leaf discoloring, spotting, and fading are telltale signs of an unhealthy plant). A bonsai like this may be sick or too weak to live through a change in environment. 

Thirdly, when you're out bonsai shopping, you should already know where it's going to go in your house and what environment it's going to be in. (Is it going to be an outdoor or indoor bonsai? Are you bringing it to your city home, or is it going to your rest house by the beach or a mountainside cabin in a cooler place?). This is important as different environments have largely differing levels of sunshine, humidity, and even air flow. Collectively, these factors will determine what kind of bonsai specie is right for you and your bonsai breeder will happily advice you on your options. 

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Shop for a suitable pot 

Your bonsai tree will have two homes: the bigger environment you bring it home to, and its pot. Both are equally important. 

Remember that a bonsai tree is a plant that was carefully and deliberately stopped from growing into full size. But even though you bring home a bonsai that's less than a meter tall and wide, it will still continue to grow! How much and how fast it grows is a result of a combination of several things, including the pot it sits in. 

Bonsai purchased from breeders usually come in basic pots, so if you want to transfer them to another more aesthetically pleasing one, remember these rules of thumb: 

  • The depth of the pot should measure the same as the trunk's circumference at its thickest point.
  • The width should more or less measure the same as the width of the widest branches. (Measure branches tip to tip, as if you were measuring a bird's wingspan).

Paying attention to pot details isn't just for the heck of it. If you choose a pot that's too shallow or too small for instance, your plant could suffocate as it grows and this could cause infections (think of how you eventually replace your puppy's kennel with a larger one as he matures!). A pot that's too big on the other hand might make your plant grow too fast, and it could lose its shape. 

Make a mental note about repotting, too. A bonsai needs to be repotted every two years or so. Repotting supports growth, but before you do, check for the need to prune dead or damaged roots. 

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NPK: The fertilizer combo you need 

Have a stash of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium-rich fertilizer on hand, especially if your bonsai is of the flowering or fruit-bearing variety. Your plant needs these to bloom and blossom, especially because the potted environment they're in provides limited naturally occurring nutrients in the soil. 

Different times of the year dictate different fertilizer needs, as well as different stages of your bonsai growth cycle. It doesn't always need the extra nutrient boost, so be careful about over-feeding your plant. (Yes, it's possible to over-fertilize a plant, and doing so could spell disaster!).

Take note of the different ratios of fertilizers: 

  • 10:10:10 for bonsai that stays indoors year round 
  • 12:6:6 during the hotter summer months (though observe how your bonsai reacts to this, because these measurements are best for outdoor plants)
  • 3:10:10 during its dormant, non-growing season 

Extra tips: 

  • Purchase fertilizers from reliable bonsai shops. Don't make your own, and certainly don't dump kitchen compost in your bonsai pot! They're a much more sensitive plant, and they should really only be given bonsai-specific concoctions. 
  • When it comes to soil, believe it or not—the best bonsai soil isn't actually soil. It's ideally made up of organic waste and inert aggregate all mulched up to create an ideal potted environment that encourages proper water drainage and aeration. A mixture like this also works best with fertilizer in comparison to regular gardening soil varieties. 

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The how tos for shaping your bonsai

You'll only need three things for this element of bonsai care: some copper wire, good garden sheers, and a ton of patience. 

Most bonsai grow slowly, but there are some that outpace than other species so always make sure to ask your bonsai breeder about this. The slower the growth of your bonsai, the less trimming and shaping you'll need to do. 

Before you start chopping away at your bonsai's branches, know that there are two trimming techniques to employ: maintenance trimming and structural trimming. By these terms alone, you'll learn that bonsai plants need to be pruned but also need to be shaped. 

If you notice an ailing branch or browning leaves, prune away. You can also prune to maintain a bonsai's basic shape. Pruning can be done almost any time but not during a plant's dormant phase.

On the flipside, structural trimming is performed when your bonsai is in its growing phase. At this point in the plant cycle, your bonsai will grow branches thicker and faster than usual and you're going to need to guide their growth in order to keep the shape you want (or restyle your bonsai into a whole new shape, for more advanced plant parents). It can be a tricky process, and it's one best explained here.  

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How to figure out a watering regimen

Here is where bonsai trees share commonalities with plants that are much more low-maintenance. 

There's no prescribed watering schedule for bonsai, and every bonsai is different! Generally speaking, how much or how little water you give your bonsai most often depends on the season. 

Things to remember include: 

  • Water less during the dormant, non-growing season. 
  • In the summer, some bonsai may even regulate their respiratory systems to avoid excessive water loss, so you have to be careful about overwatering despite it being very warm and dry outside. 
  • Summer humidity might be too harsh on bonsai so when it's the hottest time of the year, so be ready with a spray bottle containing room temperature water to mist leaves and roots with. Spray/mist at regular intervals and wait until the top soil (about an inch or two of depth) becomes dry before doing so. 
  • Water bonsai in the early morning, preferably when the sun is just rising.

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Giving your bonsai enough light

Almost all bonsai species will need lots of light. They don't survive in low-light surroundings or with artificial light indoors. Only consider bringing a bonsai home if you have a window or room that will afford them ample light, or for outdoor bonsai trees, a garden where they can get their fill of good old sunlight while also being protected from the elements (like gusty winds, strong rains, and yes, even birds and bugs). 

Your best bet is a south-facing window for indoor bonsai plants. They need direct light, so you cannot afford to place them even just a few feet away from a sunny window.

As for outdoor bonsai plants (often outdoor bonsai plants are tree species), put them in spot that's still bright but has a bit of shade or larger plants that provide a protective canopy that can filter midday sun. 

And with those tips, we hope you get a better grasp of what it takes to care for a bonsai! It's not an easy task, but an admirable feat indeed once you achieve it. 

Opening images from Unsplash and Pexels