Getting Started with Bonsai
Bonsai is an enjoyable hobby and form of art. However, unlike most other
art forms bonsai is unique in that one's canvas is alive and changing. Aside
from the art side of things one needs to develop some knowledge of
arboriculture. Along with knowing how to make the tree look appealing one also
needs to keep it alive. This article will serve as an overview of bonsai
basics to help beginners get started with the hobby of bonsai.
Selecting a bonsai tree
From a high level one can classify bonsai trees into two groups; indoor and outdoor. Outdoor bonsai should never be kept indoors for more
than a few days as the lack of light and temperature difference will cause it
to weaken and it may die. Therefore, if one wants an outdoor bonsai they
should make sure they have a suitable outdoor location for it. Outdoor bonsai
typically tend to be evergreens and conifers. One of the most popular bonsai
trees is the Juniper which is an outdoor tree.
Indoor bonsai can survive indoors, but even they will grow best when kept
outside. They tend to have lower light requirements than outdoor bonsai, but
still do best outdoors like an tree. If one has a very sunny spot in their
home or office that receives a good amount of indirect sunlight from the East
or West they should be able to grow an indoor bonsai without any problems.
Indoor bonsai are typically tropical trees like ficus, hawaiian umbrella, and
succulents like jade.
Can I grow outdoor bonsai inside with grow lights?
One can try to supplement light requirements using grow lights if one wants
to grow outdoor bonsai inside. However, most trees that grow in colder
climates naturally still need a wintering period. Unless one can simulate that
every season the tree will eventually die.
The main items one will need are a tree, a pot to put it in, bonsai
soil, sharp shears, and a root rake or root
hook. Anything beyond those items are optional, but will make certain
tasks easier to accomplish.
If one plans on growing their bonsai outdoors in areas with cold winters they
should invest in a stoneware pot. They are fired to a very high temperature when
they are made which allows them to better resist cracking in extreme
temperatures. Most people will use mica
or plastic pots when they are training their bonsai and switch them to ceramic
stoneware when they plan on displaying them. Shallower yet wider pots tend to
promote growth of thicker trunks. If one wants to train their bonsai into a
cascading effect they would want to use a deeper pot.
One always needs a pair of sharp shears for doing any kind of pruning on
their bonsai. It is also recommended that one pair for pruning branches and
another pair for pruning roots as the soil and grit on roots may dull the
shears. One will always want branch pruning shears at their sharpest.
The root rake is used for combing out the roots of the bonsai prior to
placing it in the pot. It allows one to gently break apart the root ball so
that they can work fresh soil between the roots when they place the bonsai in
Lastly, the soil selection is very important. Bonsai are unnaturally forced to grow in a relatively confined space so the soil has special requirements. The soil must be free draining yet retain moisture. It must also hold nutrients and resist compaction. More information on bonsai soil can be found here.
Once one has their basic supplies they are ready to begin.
Placing the bonsai in the pot
Start off by covering the drainage holes in the bonsai pot with drain hole covers. This will stop the soil from washing out. Most people will also hook wire through the drain holes at this point so that they can twist them down on the roots later to keep the newly planted tree stable. The proper technique for this is not covered here. Next, start to rake out the roots using the root rake or a chopstick. This should untangle the roots and free them from the compacted soil. After, form a small mound of bonsai soil in the center and place the tree on top of it. Gently twist the tree back and forth and try to work the soil between the roots. After, clamp down the root ball with wire and fill the remainder of the pot with soil. More detailed information can be found in my repotting article. At this point one should avoid moving the bonsai in order to allow the roots to heal.
Once the bonsai is in the pot
Once one has successfully potted their bonsai they should familiarize themselves with the requirements of that tree and do their best to keep it alive and healthy before styling it. A healthy tree always looks best. One should primarily concern themself with keeping the tree alive. Once they have fulfilled that requirement they can start learning about styling it. Most beginners have difficulty when it comes to watering so reading in this area is recommended. I wish you the best of luck in continuing your bonsai hobby.