Plants - Indoor Plants

Bonsai for beginners

Hilary Haupt

Learn what it takes to care for a bonsai and perhaps try your hand at training your own tree

The Japanese term bonsai can quite literally be translated as potted plant. But is the beautiful art of bonsai as simplistic as its definition?
Bonsai trees are not dwarfed species; they are trees that are trained to remain pot-sized. Beginners needn’t be daunted. Like any new interest, one can choose to dip a toe or dive right in. For those that want to experience the elegance of a bonsai tree, but lack the time or the patience to start from scratch, many nurseries offer bonsai that have already been shaped and trained by an expert. Starter kits are also available, along with care instructions to equip the buyer with the confidence to tend to their newest green addition.   

Choosing a tree

Whether you’re planning on your own creation or opting to buy a pre-trained bonsai, Mark Volman, owner of Ontario’s largest bonsai supplier, Tropical Expressions in Hamilton, recommends the store’s best-selling tree, the Japanese juniper (Procumbens 'Nana'), as an excellent species with which beginners can flex their artistic muscle. “There is so much potential with this evergreen to create unusual shapes with its many pruneable branches,” he says. “The juniper is also very forgiving.” Of course, it’s a matter of taste. Any tree, can be selected, pruned and trained to remain pot-sized.

Choosing a container
Pots for indoor bonsai should always be shallow, thick ceramic to provide the tree’s root system with the humidity it requires. The pot should have, at the very least, two holes in the base for drainage. Screening is required to cover the holes in order to prohibit the soil from escaping the pot. Slabs and rock planters have also become quite popular, creating the perfect natural setting for your own miniature forest. Volman suggests repotting every three to four years to accommodate root growth and to provide fresh, nutrient-rich soil.

Watering and fertilizing
Your bonsai will benefit from a weekly watering routine. The soil should never dry out completely. Dip your fingertip into the soil and quench your tree’s thirst when the soil is dry within half an inch to an inch of your fingertip. Since bonsai pots are designed for good drainage, don’t be afraid to thoroughly soak the soil. Trees draw in moisture from their leaves so be sure to mist your bonsai weekly, as well. Mister beware: the water runoff from misting can dampen the surface of the soil, which may falsely indicate that your tree does not need watering.

Fertilize your watered tree every three to four weeks to ensure it’s getting adequate nutrition. However, only fertilize when your tree is healthy and thriving. Fertilizer is not medicine and can do more harm than good to a tree that shows signs of distress.


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