How to Get Started With Bonsai Trees Without Killing Them

How to Get Started With Bonsai Trees Without Killing Them
Photo: TONG2519, Shutterstock

When you hear the phrase “Bonsai tree” you probably think of those tiny, ornate trees that people often keep as a sort of desk ornament. But in fact, Bonsai is not a type of tree at all — the word “Bonsai” refers to the art form and horticulture method of growing miniature landscapes. The art of Bonsai originated in China and evolved when Japan narrowed the technique to focus on miniature trees rather than on entire gardens.

Bonsai cultivation became a trend that spread to the U.S. in the years after World War II and is now practiced in homes around the world. The cultivation method requires precise pruning and exacting plant care in order to keep the delicate trees alive and to maintain their petite structure. For first-time growers, this process involves a bit of a learning curve, but the mental health benefits can be profound. Here are three types of plants that help beginners master the art of the bonsai.

What are the benefits of Bonsai gardening?

Bonsai plants are also known as the “tree of life.” Caring for them is said to reduce stress, promote focus, and help relieve the symptoms of depression. Less tangibly, some believe the miniature trees lend a home magical properties and that their care can bestow prosperity and good luck. It’s a surprisingly deep hobby that you can pick up with little initial investment — just a plant and a pair of small shears will get you going. (Of course, as with any other pastime, you can also pour a lot of money into the art.)

How to care for the different types of Bonsai trees

Magical thinking aside, the plants themselves require no unusually burdensome care. Depending on the variety, they need very little light, which, coupled with their small size, means you put them almost anywhere in your home. With proper attention, the unique trees thrive as indoor plants.

With all plants, some are more complicated than others. Because the Bonsai is an art form, different style plants require specific care. As a beginner, you first and foremost want the plant to live while you are learning the ropes.

How to keep a ficus Bonsai alive

The ficus bonsai is an upright style of tree with flat, bright green leaves. While the bonsai plants can survive in low light, this one should be placed near a bright area in your home where it can get at least occasional moments of sun. Ficus are typically tropical plants that are used to a moist climate, but these resilient specimens only need watering once a week, and enjoy an occasional light misting. Most bonsai plants require similar soil types , including lava rock, pumice, or organic potting compost. These soils allow for proper drainage and moisture retention. Bonsai soil can be purchased at most gardening stores and will cost anywhere between $US9 ($12) and $US15 ($19) or a bag (depending on the type.)

Pruning requires snipping older leaves after new growth has reached 7 to 10 cm. You will want to cut off the older, yellowing leaves before they fall off to make room for new growth and keep the plant’s miniature stature and shape intact. A ficus will generally run you $US20 ($26) to $US60 ($77), depending on the seller and initial size. Ficus are pretty self-sufficient and will stay fairly small (varying with their pot size), making them perfect for the beginner still developing their Bonsai skills.

How to grow a Chinese elm Bonsai

The Chinese elm Bonsai is unique in shape, with a twisted trunk that grows upright and produces small dark green leaves. These slow-growing plants give the beginner planter ample time to try out their technique. Chinese elms love direct sunlight in the spring, but the summer sun is overpowering, so keep them in a bright area of your home, but remember to give them shade during the summer months. Watering is fairly simple — they don’t require a lot of moisture, so overwatering could lead to root rot. The site Bonsai Tree Gardener advises: “Check on it every few days, [and] water when the top one inch of soil is dry to the touch.”

Pruning is only necessary during the spring months, to promote sprouting during the growing season and help the tree keep its petite shape. The Chinese elm needs little wiring (the name for the process used to shape bonsai plants); pruning alone will keep their shape. Since these trees are popular for their unique look, they can be a bit pricer, running anywhere from $US35 ($45) to $US100 ($128). For under $US100 ($128), beginners can buy a starter kit with everything from pruning shears to fertiliser to begin their journey.

How to care for a jade bonsai

One of the easiest Bonsai to care for is the jade variety. Because jade trees are succulents, they need very little attention, but have an unusual and appealing look and feel. They grow upright and their small, plump green leaves grow along the stem. They can be treated just like a succulent, requiring very little water but an excellent drainage system. Water them about every 10 to 20 days. In contrast to other varieties of Bonsai, you’ll want to place them in a dry, hot area with a lot of sun to mimic the desert-like conditions in which they thrive.

Pruning a jade plant is fun because you can’t really go wrong. You can cut it down to its stems without killing it. Pruning maintains the plant’s smaller size, promotes new growth, and thickens its trunk. Jade plants take easily to wiring, allowing you to shape the tiny plants in any direction you like, making them one of the most durable Bonsai for beginners.

Jade plants aren’t the cheapest variety of Bonsai, but they are more affordable than Chinese elms. A jade Bonsai will cost you anywhere from $US45 ($58) to $US80 ($103), depending on the size. You can practice pruning to your heart’s content, and if you forget to water them, that’s OK — they can easily be revived with a little water.

Log in to comment on this story!