Our 3-Step Guide to Bonsai Gardening and Keeping Your Plant Alive

This ancient technique for creating miniature plants and landscapes isn't as hard as it looks. Here's what you need to know.

The living sculptures of bonsai (Japanese for "tree in a tray or pot") never fail to look elegant and impressive. However, they're just regular trees that have been intentionally dwarfed by pruning the branches and roots, then shaped into various forms or even miniature landscapes.

Bonsai gardening originated in China more than 2,000 years ago before becoming popular in Japan. The art form reflects Zen ideas of nature, elements, and change, uniquely expressed on a small scale. With regular care and attention, many prized specimens grow so old that they're handed down from one generation to the next.

conifer bonsai on steps and gravel base
Matthew Benson

You can create your own bonsai from young nursery plants or volunteer seedlings you find in the garden, like from a maple tree that drops a ton of its little helicopters everywhere. You can even buy bonsai gardening kits that contain suitable seeds. Evergreen or deciduous trees and shrubs work equally well. Seasonal bloomers, such as azaleas, crabapples, or wisteria can also make pretty bonsai.

Buy It: Brussel's Bonsai Green Mound Juniper ($22, The Home Depot)

How to Begin Bonsai Gardening

Bonsai plants are grown and trained in shallow pots, so they often need daily watering in warm weather. In the winter, tender bonsai need to go indoors or in a greenhouse; hardy plants can stay outdoors as long as they're protected from drying wind and direct sun.

bonsai tree on table with spray bottle and prunes
William N. Hopkins

Step 1: Prep Root Ball

Remove the plant from its nursery container, and cut off the bottom two-thirds of the root ball. Rake through the soil on the surface to expose some roots. Moisten all the roots using a spray bottle.

bonsai tree roots on wood table next to small purple scissors
William N. Hopkins

Step 2: Put Root Ball in Pot

Remove dead branches and branches that distract from the vision you have for your tree. Remove any dead roots and any large roots that will interfere with potting. Position the plant in the pot, and work the soil in around the roots. Top the soil with gravel or moss, and water well.

bonsai tree in square pot
William N. Hopkins

Step 3: Start Shaping Tree

Decide which branches would benefit from shaping. To achieve the desired shape, wrap wire snugly but not so tightly that it inhibits growth (this will help guide the branch to grow in the direction and shape you want). Remove the wire when the branch has grown enough to hold its new shape.

Bonsai Care After Planting

Once you've planted your bonsai, you'll have to treat it a little differently than a regular houseplant. Follow these tips to keep it in top shape.

Watering

Type-A plant parents won't love this tip, but it's the best way to ensure your bonsai gets the right amount of water: Never water on a schedule. With some other houseplants, you may know that Saturday is your watering day, but that doesn't work for delicate bonsai gardening. Instead, water when the soil feels slightly (not totally) dry.

Fertilizing

As a rule of thumb, most bonsai trees should be fertilized throughout their growing season (early spring to mid-fall). But, fertilizing needs can vary based on the type of tree you are working with. You can use a granular or liquid fertilizer and fertilizers made specifically for bonsai trees ($21, Walmart). Follow the instructions on the package for the best results.

Soil

Most bonsai soil mixes are a combination of Akadama (hard-baked clay), pumice, lava rock, and soil. There are endless combinations, and you'll have to experiment to figure out which works best for you. A good bonsai soil mix ($9, Etsy) needs to retain water well without drowning the roots.

Repotting

Most young bonsai trees need to be repotted every two years, while more mature trees can be in the same pot for up to five years. You'll know you need to repot if you see that the roots are exposed and circling around the bottom of the container. If you need to repot, do so in the early spring when the tree is still dormant. As you upgrade to a larger pot, be mindful of your soil mixture to make sure it isn't too different from what the tree is used to.

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