Bring out the inner beauty of the larger natural world in a small tree styled with ancient techniques. Learn how to plant a bonsai tree in three easy steps.

By BH&G Garden Editors
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The living sculptures of bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh, Japanese for tree in a tray or pot) are potted plants that are intentionally dwarfed by pruning the branches and roots, then shaped to resemble miniature landscapes. Bonsai originated in China more than 2,000 years ago, before becoming popular in Japan. In bonsai, Zen ideas of man, nature, elements, and change combine in a unique method of meditation and expression. With regular care and attention, many prized specimens grow to be so old that they are handed down from one generation to the next.

Bonsai plants can be gathered from volunteer seedlings in the garden, created from nursery plants, or bought ready-made from bonsai nurseries. They can be evergreen or deciduous trees or shrubs, and even seasonal bloomers, such as azaleas, crabapples, or wisteria.

Bonsai plants are grown and trained in shallow pots, so they do require attention and may need to be watered daily in warm weather. In the winter, tender bonsai go indoors or in a greenhouse, while hardy plants can stay outdoors but are protected from drying wind and direct sun.

Many botanical gardens offer classes and demonstrations in growing and training bonsai. Although it is a very individualistic practice, there are many artists willing to advise.

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 the roots. Moisten the roots using a spray bottle.

Step 2: Put Root Ball in Pot

Remove dead branches and any 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 soil in well around the roots. Top the soil with gravel or moss. Water well.

Step 3: Start Shaping Tree

Decide which branches would benefit from shaping. To achieve the desired shape, apply wire snugly but not so tightly that it inhibits growth. When the branch has grown accustomed to its new shape, remove the wire.

Bonsai Care After Planting

Watering

Type-A plant parents won't love this tip, but it's the best way to make sure 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. Instead, only water when the soil gets slightly (not totally) dry.

Fertilizing

As a rule of thumb, most bonsai trees should be fertilized throughout their growth 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 solid or liquid fertilizer, and you can even find fertilizers made specifically for bonsai trees. Follow the instructions on the package for 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 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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