Basics of Bonsai - A Beginners Guide

Are you a beginner in the art of Bonsai? Want to learn about all the basics of Bonsai Plants?  Well, you’ve come to the right place. In this beginner’s guide you’ll learn everything you need to know about the ‘Art of Bonsai’.

With urbanization happening fast, we are getting far away from nature day-by- day. In this case the only way to fit nature’s essence in our Apartment culture is through Bonsai.In the past 2 years I’ve seen a growing audience for Bonsai as it not only provides an aesthetic look to your home decor but also fulfills your green thumb.

Now the question is: How and where to start your bonsai journey? Well, let’s discuss all you need to know about Bonsai.

Hey before we go further, it would be awesome if you could support us by visiting our exclusive bonsai nursery You, Me and Bonsai in Saket, Secunderabad. We have a collection of over 300+ species and styles of Bonsai. It would be a great place for you to start your Bonsai Journey. We also take Beginners classes for Bonsai enthusiasts.  Follow us on Facebook to stay in touch!

Bonsai for Beginners

Are you struggling to keep your Bonsai plants alive? Or maybe you’re just getting started with Bonsai? It can be hard to know where to start!

In our 2-day Bonsai for Beginners workshop, you’ll learn everything you need to know about bonsai. This paired with our DIY session , we will train you to make your own bonsai. 

Join now and turn your fascination into a reality! Give your information right here.

OCTOBER SESSION

Cost of session: Rs.3500 ( Exclusive of material costs) 

Duration: 2 days

Date:  5th Oct & 6th Oct ( 1:00 pm- 5:00pm) 

Get 20% off on all the workshop material if you pay and book your slot right now . 

BONSAI-FOR-BEGINNERS

So let’s get started with a quick fact. 

Quick Fact:  Bonsai is not a particular species of tree. Translated literally from Japanese, it means “tray planting”. Bonsai are not genetically modified, nor are they a special type of dwarf tree. They are regular trees that have been kept small through regular pruning and training. If left to their own devices, they would become full-grown examples of their species.

History of Bonsai – A Quick tour to the past to know our roots!

Bonsai (盆栽, “tray planting”) is a Japanese art form using trees grown in containers. Similar practices exist in other cultures, including the Chinese tradition of penjing from which the art originated. Japanese tradition dates back over a thousand years. “Bonsai” is a Japanese pronunciation of the earlier Chinese term penzai (“pun-tsai”)‘.

While the art of bonsai has long been associated with Japan, it actually originated in China, and then spread eastward to Korea and then Japan. The art of bonsai was spread by Buddhist monks who wished to bring the “outdoors” inside their temples. From ancient paintings and manuscripts, we know that “artistic” container trees were being cultivated by the Chinese around 600 AD, but many scholars feel that bonsai, or at least potted trees, were being grown in China as far back as 500 or 1,000 BC. Bonsai first appeared in Japan during the 12th century.

Origins of Bonsai

It is no accident that artistic plant cultivation originated in China. The Chinese have always loved flowers and plants, and the country is naturally endowed with a rich diversity of flora. The Chinese also had a passion for gardens. In fact, many of these gardens were on a miniature scale and included many miniature trees and shrubs, planted to reinforce the scale and balance of their landscapes. The Chinese, however, were also infatuated in miniaturization as a science in its own right. They believed that miniature objects had concentrated within them certain mystical and magical powers.

The earliest trees that were collected and containerized tended to be peculiarly-shaped specimens from the wild. These specimens were viewed as ‘sacred’, as they could not be used for practical purposes such as lumber. The forms of these specimens were often thought to be reminiscent of yoga-type postures; bending-back upon themselves, promoting the re-circulation of vital fluids thought to be a catalyst for long-life.

Evolution of the Bonsai Art

Bonsai has evolved and developed along different lines in China and Japan. Chinese bonsai is still very much in the ancient tradition, and often appear “crude” to the uninformed. On the other hand, the Japanese styles are more pleasing and naturalistic. The Japanese trees are for the most part more refined and better groomed. Both types have their own individualistic charms and admirers.

For many, the act of caring for a bonsai was a way to instill serenity. It allowed those who practiced the chance to take an active role in creation, by caring, growing, and pruning their tree into a beautiful living work of art.

Below is a passage from “The Tale of the Hollow Tree”; it serves to illustrate the desire to improve on nature’s beauty:

“A tree left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire beauty and be able to stir the emotions.”

Bonsai has now evolved to reflect changing times tastes and times. With a great variety of countries, cultures and conditions in which it is now practiced. The current generation of Indian Bonsai Artists are all inspired from the culture and ideals of Japan Bonsai. As opposed to the past, Bonsai is no longer reserved for upper-class, but it is a joy shared by each and everyone.

A word from our heart!

We personally in You, Me and Bonsai are selfish in believing in the concept of ‘Bonsai for all’ . We strive to bring this beautiful art closer to you everyday.

Getting Started with Bonsai

Choosing a Bonsai

There are several things to keep in mind when choosing a bonsai tree. The first is whether you are going to keep the tree indoors, outdoors or both. There is no right or wrong choice, however where you place it is going to dictate how you will care for it.

However, Indian Bonsai should not to be placed indoors. The varieties which grow in our country need a good 4-5 hours of sunlight. We will learn about this more in this article

Quick Tip: Not all plants are equally effective as bonsai

To produce a realistic illusion of a mature tree, look for plants with the following characteristics:

  • Small leaves or needles.
  • Short internodes, or distances between leaves.
  • Attractive bark or roots.
  • Branching characteristics for good twig forms.

All parts of the ideal bonsai — trunk, branches, twigs, leaves, flowers, fruits, buds and roots — should be in perfect scale with the size of the tree.

Plants used for bonsai should have small leaves, or leaves that become small under bonsai culture.

Make sure you choose plants with attractive bark, and the trunk must give the illusion of maturity. The trunk should have girth, but must remain in proportion to the entire tree. The trunk should taper gradually toward the top of the tree. 

I’ve written a small post about ‘What makes a good Bonsai’. Make sure you check it out.

Choosing a Style: 

Now let’s get into the next important step in your Bonsai education, choosing the style of Bonsai .

We can broadly classify bonsai into five basic styles

  1. Formal upright
  2.  Informal upright 
  3. Slanting
  4. Cascade
  5.  Semi-cascade

We base these classifications on the overall shape of the tree and how much the trunk slants away from an imaginary vertical axis.

The many Japanese bonsai styles are principally variations of these five basic styles. The styles given in this bulletin apply to trees with single trunks. The single trunk style is the basic design that is simplest to shape because the one trunk determines the overall composition.

Formal Upright  (chokkan style)

The formal upright style has classic proportions and is the basis of all bonsai. It is the easiest for a beginner to develop because it requires the least experimentation, avoids the problem of selective pruning, and should almost immediately become a displayable bonsai.

In this style, the form is conical or sometimes rounded and the tree has an erect leader and horizontal branches. One of the branches is lower and extends a little farther from the trunk than the others.

Quick Tip: If you are choosing a nursery plant for this style, make sure the trunk rises from the ground in a fairly straight line. The trunk should be straight and not fork or branch out for the total height of the tree. 

Informal Upright (moyogi style)

The informal upright style has much the same branch arrangement as the formal upright style, but the top — instead of being erect as in the formal upright style — bends slightly to the front. This bend makes the tree’s branches appear to be in motion and enhances the look of informality.

The informal upright style looks best in an oval or rectangular container. It should be planted,not in the center of the container, but a third of the distance from one end.

Quick Tip: Many nursery trees are naturally slanted. This makes them well suited to the informal upright style. If you choose a vertical tree at the nursery, and want to train it in the informal upright style, simply tilt the plant when potting it.

Slanting (shakan style)

In the slanting style, the trunk has a more acute angle than in the previous styles. The lowest branch should spread in the direction opposite to that in which the tree slants. The top of the tree is bent slightly toward the front. The lower branches are arranged in groups of three, starting about one-third the way up the trunk.

We call slanting trees in nature as “leaners” — these trees are forced by the wind and gravity into non vertical growth. The attitude of the slanting style falls between the upright and cascade styles. This style looks best planted in the center of a round or square container.

Cascade (kengai style)

In the cascade style the trunk starts by growing upward from the soil, then turns downward abruptly, and reaches a point below the bottom edge of the container. For this reason, the container should be placed on the edge of the table, or on a small stand.

The cascade style has most of its foliage below the soil surface. This style is representative of a natural tree that is growing down the face of an embankment.

Semi-Cascade (han kengai style)

The semi-cascade style has a trunk that is allowed to grow straight for a certain distance, and then the bonsai is cascaded down at a less abrupt angle than in the cascade style.  I think the cascading branches a as the front of the tree, and we train the back branches closer to the trunk than in the other styles. The semi-cascade should not reach below the bottom of the container, but should go below the level of the soil surface.

This covers our basic styles of bonsai. If it interests you in learning more about Bonsai styles , check out this post.

Final Pro Tip:  Before potting a tree for bonsai in any of the five styles, keep in mind the image of how the tree will stand in the container. Don’t plant a tree one way, and then uproot it to make a change. Keep your overall theme in mind when planting bonsai. Upright trees should have a stabilized look in the container; slanted and cascaded styles often have their upper root surfaces exposed to imitate plants that grow this way in nature.

Choosing a Bonsai Pot:

A tree is a tree; a pot is only a pot. It does not become a Bonsai until we combine these two and form a harmony together. A large part of the art of Bonsai is the experience of a tree that has become detached from its ground bondage and now lives a life in a pot. It fascinates me. Hope you feel the same way. 

When choosing a pot for your bonsai, keep in mind that the decision will influence the overall effect of your bonsai tree. If you are growing from a seed, you can postpone choosing a pot until it has reached a point where it is large enough to stabilize (1-3 months depending on the species).

Traditionally, bonsai artists prefer placing their trees in ceramic pots; glazed or unglazed. Proper bonsai pots will come with drainage holes at the bottom so  we can avoid over saturation, and you can filter out excess water easily out of soil. Bonsai pots are typically designed so that the grower can easily remove the tree and re-plant elsewhere if required.

I wrote a post which elaborately explains the ‘Right pot for your Bonsai’. Make sure you check it out.

Cultivating your Bonsai

Pick up a nursery plant

The easiest and best method for the beginner to get bonsai, is to buy nursery stock and develop his own. When searching for potential bonsai among nursery stock, do the following:

  • Look for plants that are well rooted and well branched. The plant must be able to withstand severe initial pruning.
  •  Inspect the overall plant and then push back the foliage and examine the base from all sides. See if the foliage is full enough to be shaped into an interesting bonsai. Check to see if branches are where you will need them.
  • Do not purchase a plant that cannot be easily transplanted to a pot.

We have many varieties of starter bonsai’s available for your convenience in our You, Me and Bonsai nursery. So feel free to drop and pick them up.

Repotting your Bonsai plant 

Once your Bonsai and is stable and established, you’ve  to re-pot. It is a relatively straightforward process to transplant a bonsai from one pot to another. However, for the tree, it is a stressful ordeal.

 It will take a bonsai a few weeks to adjust to its new home. During this time, make sure to give it special attention. Place your Bonsai in a spot where it wont get disturbed, and give it extra water.

Spring is an appropriate time of year to transplant the tree from one place to another.

Follow the steps below when you decide to transfer your bonsai from one pot to another:

  1. Cut back on watering for a few days before you plan to transplant it. Dry soil will be easier to remove from its roots.
  2. Prepare the new pot beforehand, so you can cut back on the amount of time the tree will not be in soil.
  3. Place a base layer of soil at the bottom of the pot. Add additional soil on top of the base layer of soil while forming a hollowed-out space for the transplant.
  4. Remove the tree from the pot it is in. Gently clear away the dirt (you want to be able to see the roots), and be careful not to damage the roots.
  5. Prune the roots. Cut the larger and thicker roots, and rid your tree of any upturned roots. For bonsai, you want the roots to be long and thin, and stay near the top of the soil.
  6. Gently place the tree into the hollowed-out space, and make sure the soil covers the roots. Some growers like to add moss or tiny rocks on top of the soil. This adds to the overall visual appeal while also helping the roots stay secure.
  7. If the Bonsai seems a bit unstable, consider using copper wire to secure the tree. A common method is to run a bit of copper wire through the drainage holes, and then gently wrap it around the trunk of your tree to help stabilize it.

Wiring your Bonsai Plant

We have to  shape most of the bonsai trees you see now into their existence. The open secret to that is a beautiful yet tricky technique called Wiring.

Wiring is a crucial technique to shape bonsai trees into their desired shapes. Using a specific wire, we wrap the branches of our bonsai and direct their growth in a specific direction. 

We have to repeat this process several times until we achieve a desired final shape. Naturally, it is a time taking process because of slow plant growth and recursive characteristics of the technique, but the results achieved are undeniably brilliant.

What wire to use?

The best material for the job in our Indian market is soft aluminum wires. We shape all our plants in our nursery using these wires. You can buy them at our local Bonsai Nursery.

When to wire a bonsai?

The best time to wire a bonsai is winter, more particularly at the end of winter for Indian variety of bonsai. The wires are to be left on the plants to settle for 60-90 days, although  we have to take care from preventing them from cutting into the bark of the plant. We have to remove the wires before this happens.

How to wire?

Begin wiring from the base of the trunk, anchoring the wire in the soil. You may need two wires to hold the trunk in position. After securing the base of the trunk, proceed to the main, and then the smaller branches, ending with the highest twigs. You should wind the wires at about 45 degrees to the line of the branch. Gauge the wire carefully as tight wiring will cut into the bark, and loose wiring will slip.

Regular Maintenance

To promote growth, the Bonsai needs regular watering. When watering your Bonsai, take into consideration the species, climate, weather, size of your tree, type of soil, and the size of the growing pot. These factors will help establish a guideline for determining how much to water and how often. Careful and frequent observation are key for Bonsai maintenance.

Watering your Bonsai:

Water when slightly dry. Don’t wait until the soil is bone dry before you water, and don’t be afraid to put your finger in the soil to check. If the soil feels slightly dry, then it is time to water. If the soil feels wet, do not water.

Pro Tip: Do Not Follow a Watering Routine.

It is best to water your Bonsai based on a needs basis rather than a watering schedule. The rate that the tree consumes water will vary. If you follow a watering routine, it could cause over-watering or under-watering. Check regularly.

How to Water

Pour water into the pot until it flows out of the drainage holes. Wait, a few minutes and repeat this process. Use a watering can with a fine nozzle so it gently waters the soil and does not wash it away.

Fertilizer

It is important to fertilize your bonsai during the tree’s growing season, which is early spring until autumn. Fertilizing is important, as typically bonsai roots have a limited area to expand and search for food.

When searching for a fertilizer, it’s best to look for mixes with a high phosphorus content (like NPK 6:10:6). For more mature bonsai, a slightly lower nitrogen content is appropriate.

Want to learn more about ‘ Nutrition and Fertilization of your Bonsai’? Check out our masterguide here.

Well, that sums up most of the basics of Bonsai. I hope that after reading this guide: You have become better versed in how to grow, shape, and maintain your bonsai. Know that going from seedling to full grown tree is no easy task. Even the masters struggle. However, with enough time, patience, and determination, I hope that you will come to know the true joy of bonsai and maintain it as a lifelong hobby.

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