Bonsai for Beginners: How to Try This Stunning Botanical Art Form

These living sculptures are long-lived and make beautiful houseplants.

Bonsai add an element of sophistication to any space with their majestic appearance. By artfully sculpting these tiny trees over time, you can create a miniature landscape right on your tabletop. A bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) is simply a plant that has been intentionally dwarfed by growing it in a small container to limit its stature, along with regularly pruning the branches and roots. Some are even shaped to give them a windswept appearance, like a gnarled tree in the wild might have. Almost any tree or shrub species can be made into a bonsai if you start when it's young enough. With careful pruning, you can shape the plant's branches to create a unique living sculpture for your home.

conifer bonsai on steps and gravel base
Matthew Benson

Choosing the Best Bonsai Tree for Beginners

Many different trees and shrubs can be sculpted into beautiful bonsai. A mighty maple trained into a bonsai creates visions of an ancient landscape, while a trimmed boxwood bonsai can take on just about any whimsical appearance you can imagine. Some tree and shrub species are evergreen and hold their leaves year-round, while other species are deciduous and drop their leaves in fall. A few types, such as flowering cherries, may even bloom in their bonsai forms.

The easiest plants for beginners to use for indoor bonsai include ficus and juniper. These resilient plants tolerate heavy pruning and shaping, and aren't overly demanding about care.

How to Plant a New Bonsai Tree

Small, shallow pots are an essential part of bonsai culture. There are countless pots specifically designed for growing bonsai. Just choose a color and shape that complements your space. Then, either start with seeds or young starter plants ($13, Etsy). You can also find bonsai kits designed specifically for beginners that should have everything you need to start shaping your own mini tree.

Buy It: Bonsai Tree Grow Kit ($33, Walmart)

Bonsai trees will easily thrive for many decades when their growing needs are met. Light and water needs vary by the type of bonsai tree you're sculpting. A beech tree bonsai, for example, thrives in moist but not wet soil, while a juniper bonsai grows well when its soil is allowed to dry out slightly between waterings.

Bonsai as Houseplants

It's the strong structure that makes a bonsai plant especially eye-catching as a focal point on a tabletop or in a window. A bonsai can be sculpted to stand just six to 10 inches tall or grown to a much larger size. For a perfect fit, choose a bonsai that is proportional to the place where it will grow.

From credenzas to patio tabletops, bonsai plants are at home both indoors and outdoors. Many bonsai thrive when moved outdoors during the growing season. They are often moved indoors in winter since freezing temperatures are dangerous to bonsai plants. Moisture, combined with temperatures below 32°F, can damage stems and leaves or cause the soil to expand and pots to break. When grown indoors, bonsai grow well in medium to bright light and consistent soil moisture.

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