How To Pot & Care For a Bonsai

How To Pot & Care For a Bonsai

Kimber Watson
Feb 4, 2010

In Chinese, the word bonsai means 'tree in a pot'. Bonsai are just your typical tree, shrub, or vine cultivated and groomed in a very confined space. They are not 'dwarf' plants as many beginners believe and they go through the typical seasonal phases of flowering, fruiting, and dropping leaves.

What You Need

Tree, bush, or vine starter plant
Ceramic container
Tray or plate
Bonsai specific soil
Mesh or screen
Copper wire

Wire cutters
(Note: There are bonsai-specific tools such as a root hook, bud scissors, and concave pruner. They are designed smaller and for more precise cuts. You can use ordinary tools - and save money - as long as you are careful. Just clean tools prior with alcohol.)

Instructions & Guidelines

The basic steps to potting your bonsai are pictured and described in the thumbnail gallery above. Here are a few basic guidelines for selecting your plant as well as keeping it alive and thriving.

1. Selecting Your Plant: Since we are talking about indoor gardening, I'm only covering information related to tropical bonsai. For beginners, the Ficus species may prove to be your best bet as they can withstand a lot of abuse. Serissa and Bougainvillea are also widely available and relatively easy to maintain. A well-stocked garden store should carry starter plants, but you can also order them from many sites on the web, just be sure to choose a reputable one.

2. Light: Your bonsai will need ample light, but remember to keep them away from radiators or drafty windows during the winter months. South or west facing windows are your best bet to make sure they are getting a sufficient amount of sun exposure (You can also use fluorescent and incandescent bulbs if your home lacks light). Your bonsai will benefit from being placed outside after the threat of frost has passed. At first, put them out for a short period, slowly increasing the length of time they stay out. This will prevent them for going into shock by gradually acclimating them.

3. Water: During the growing season, your bonsai should be kept moist at all times. Misting the upper part of the plant is also beneficial. In winter, water sparingly never allowing the plant to dry out.

4. Soil: It's important to use a soil specifically designed for bonsai because it drains much faster than typical potting soils. You should be able to find the soil in any reputable garden store or nursery. As you can see, I'm using a soil specific for tropical bonsai.

5. Fertilizer: Fertilize with a weak mixture once or twice a month, but discontinue during the winter months. Fertilizer with either a bonsai-specific fertilizer or a general houseplant fertilizer.

6. Pruning: This is were the art form of bonsai comes into play. You will need to prune the roots and the crown of your bonsai tree to ensure your plant grows healthily. Re-potting after root pruning will promote growth as well. For root pruning, remove around 1/3 of the roots each year so new soil can be added to the container. This will also allow new roots to grow. For crown pruning, the most important part of pruning is revealing and accentuating the trunk line. To do this, give thought to which branches you will want to keep and then remove competing trunks and branches. The easiest point to remember is branches go on the outside of the curves. Also, try not to cut too much at one time as this can kill your plant. When it comes to choosing a style for your plant, there are five categories to choose from. They are formal upright, informal upright, slanting, cascade, or semi-cascade. Click here to view the five different bonsai styling categories.

Additional Notes: There are many resources and books out there that cover this topic in great detail (I like The Complete Book of Bonsai by Harry Tomlinson). If you would just like a little awe-inspiring inspiration, and you happen to be in the Washington DC area, take a trip to the National Arboretum's Bonsai and Penjing Museum. They have a collection with over 150 plants and it's simply breathtaking!

One key point to remember, bonsai is not just about owning and growing a bonsai plant. Moreover, it's nurturing and artistically creating a living sculpture.

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(Images: Kimberly Watson)

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