Getting Started with Bonsai

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Getting Started with Bonsai

In Japanese  “Bon-sai” means planted in a container. Trees and shrubs are trained in miniature forms and grown in special containers.

While the plant becomes miniaturized with training, the flower and fruit remain normal size.

This can make for a dramatic display with many plants. Like their full size cousins growing in the landscape, temperate-climate bonsai will survive outdoors where they can go through the four seasons and experience dormancy, set flower buds, etc.  

The container you choose should be “frost proof” and have drainage holes. There are both formal and informal styles of bonsai. The type of plant and its growth habit will in part determine the style of your bonsai.

In Zone 6 or regions with even colder climates, beginning in late fall and through the winter, you can keep your bonsai in a cold frame or unheated greenhouse. It is best to keep your bonsai from freezing and thawing.  Once temperatures get above 40F you can bring them back outside.  

In the fall of 2013 I had the pleasure of visiting Rodney Clemons and his wife Charlie, who have a large collection of bonsai at their home in Atlanta, Georgia. During our visit Rodney, a bonsai expert, teacher and international speaker, shared some tips about bonsai.

Clemons Bonsai collection

When creating a bonsai, Rodney takes his cues from nature and translates this to the particular bonsai he is creating. He says he likes to “look at a tree and let it tell him what to do”.

While many trees and shrubs make good candidates for training as bonsai, Rodney likes Kingsville boxwood, Buxus microphylla ‘Kingsville Dwarf,”and junipers. Both of these plants are good for beginners to try their hand at because they will look like a tree in the shortest amount of time.  

23 year old Kingsville Boxwood

Tips for Caring for Your Bonsai
1. Locate your bonsai where it will receive plenty of light and protection from drying winds.  Shade loving plants like camellias, azaleas and others will benefit from some shade during the hot summer months.  

2. The best time to prune foliage plants is when they are actively growing.
If you know whether plants bloom on old or new wood you can avoid removing potential flowers and fruits.  

3. Repot one to seven years, depending on the size of the pot, the variety of plant, type of soil media and the age (older trees need repotting less frequently than younger trees).  Roots should be pruned when plants are repotted.  

4. Water when the soil is dry to the touch.  Many bonsai will require daily watering especially during warm weather. Adjust your watering according to the season.  Use a watering can with an attachment that breaks up the water like the Fiskars Easy-Pour Watering Can, 2.6 gallons, or a hose with an adjustable spray nozzle.  

Ironically, shallow pots drain more slowly than the deeper ones.  

5. Fertilize when plants are actively growing according to the needs of the individual plant.

Trees and Shrubs for Bonsai
Outdoor (temperate climate) –Plants that are adaptable to a range of environments

Beech—Fagus species
Box—Buxus species
Chinese elm—Ulmus parvifolia
Crabapple varieties—Malus species and cultivars
Ginkgo—Ginkgo biloba
Juniper –Juniperus chinensis var. procumbens ‘Nana’ and other selections
Larch species—Larix species
Maples including  Japanese maples-Acer palmatum  selections and Trident maple—Acer buergerianum
Pines—Pinus sylvestris and other species
Spruces—Picea species

Acer-palmatum-'Koto-Hime'