How to grow and care for a bonsai tree

Are you keen to experience a new side of gardening? How about one that turns precision and control into an art form? Welcome to the world of bonsai.

What you need to know about a bonsai tree

Name: bonsai

Plant type: various. Some of the main traditional species used include figs (Ficus sp.), Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), Juniper (Juniperus sp.), Pines (Pinus sp.) and Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia). Many Australian and New Zealand native plants are also well suited, including banksias (Banksia sp.), bottlebrush (Callistemon sp.), the figs (Ficus sp.), pohutukawa (Metrosideros sp.) and totara (Podocarpus sp.).

Height: from 3cm to 203cm

Foliage: various

Climate: any zone except for arid and semi-arid, depending on species.

Soil: very free-draining specialist mix.

Position: half day’s sun, depending on region, sheltered from wind.

Flowering: some varieties flower seasonally.

Feeding: small doses of controlled-release fertiliser and occasional liquid feeding at peak growth times.

Watering: must be checked daily. Allow mix to become slightly, but never totally, dry before watering. 

bonsai

Appearance and characteristics of a bonsai tree

Bonsai is sometimes described as growing miniature trees. While this is technically correct, it doesn’t tell even half of the story. Bonsai is intended to create feelings of peace and tranquillity, while also symbolising patience, perseverance and determination. The artistic goal of bonsai is to develop a realistic representation of a mature, often ancient, tree in miniature. This might include a gnarled trunk, textured bark, spreading branches—even dead wood in the trunk. There are a number of important yet simple aspects to growing bonsai.

How to plant and grow a bonsai tree

There are two ways most people first try their hand at growing a bonsai tree: ready-made, or DIY start plants.

  • Ready-made: this is the recommended way to go for beginners: buying a bonsai as a completed, potted project. This allows you to concentrate on learning care techniques without having to worry about the technicalities of pruning and shaping.

  • DIY starter plants: if you do want to start with the full experience, you can buy pre-selected bonsai plants ready to go. You’ll also need a bonsai tray (those low pots), training wire, bonsai potting mix, bonsai tool kit and appropriate pruning tools.

Ideal conditions will vary based on the species you are growing and your particular location, however as a general guide, choose a spot with half a day’s sun—morning sun is preferable.

A shade-house or full-sun area covered with 50% blockout shade cloth is ideal.

Many varieties can be grown indoors with good bright light, but the temperature must be stable.

Caring for your bonsai tree

How often you need to water your bonsai tree will vary according to a number of factors, such as the time of year, the weather, the size of the plant and its pot, the type of tree and the type of potting mix.

Get into the habit of checking your bonsai at least once a day—more in warm weather. Poke your finger into the potting mix. If it’s dry below the first centimetre, it’s time for watering. Use a watering can with a fine nozzle, aiming to water slowly but thoroughly. Water once, leave it to settle for 5 minutes, then water again.

With regular pruning and tight, well-drained pots, a bonsai tree needs reliable fertilising. In late winter, apply controlled-release fertiliser for pots. For older trees, only use around half the recommended application rates.

As new foliage is developing, especially on deciduous bonsai such as maples or elms, and across peak growing periods, apply a balanced liquid fertiliser at the recommended rates. For a flowering bonsai, before buds are expected switch to a liquid formulation that is balanced for flowering.

Faster-growing varieties may need re-potting as often as once a year, but more mature trees and slower growers will only need re-potting every three to five years.

Before growth kicks off in early spring, lift your plant from its pot and inspect the roots. (You may need to undo or cut the wire securing it through the base.) If roots are starting to circle back around the main roots, it’s time to re-pot. Once the bonsai tree is free from the pot, use a chopstick to carefully break away the soil and tease out the roots, being careful not to damage them. Remove most of the soil, except on pines, which need at least half of their root ball left untouched.

Use sharp, clean gardening scissors to prune away straggly roots. Do not remove any more than 30%. Add mesh over drainage holes, slip tie-wire through the holes (if used), add a layer of fine, clean drainage gravel to the base of the pot, then a thin layer of bonsai potting mix.

Position the plant on the mix and gently secure with wire (if using). Add more bonsai mix, using a chopstick to work it in through roots. Continue until the desired shape is reached before watering well.

How and when to prune a bonsai tree

There are two main types of pruning;

  • Maintenance: this is regular pruning, to keep your plant in shape and to remove any wayward shoots.

  • Structural: this is the major work you do to shape your tree into the form you desire.

You’ll need to research correct techniques for your particular species, as there is a lot of variation in appropriate practices. With both types of pruning, use quality, sharp, clean tools.

Shaping is done both through pruning and training. Bonsai training wire is gently bound around branches to shape them. The wire is available in various thicknesses. It’s crucial that you regularly check wire and adjust or remove it during peak growth times so it’s not cutting into and scarring the bark. 

If you like this then try

Indoor plants: house plants can bring colour, texture and character to your home. They can clean the air too!

Fuchsia: one of the most gorgeous flowering potted plants, and it’s easier to grow than you might think.

Clumping bamboo: a stunning practical problem solver that’s perfect for Asian-influenced gardens too. 

Start planting today

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