Bonsai Tree Care - A Beginner's Growing Guide

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by Max - last update on September 4, 2019, 9:37 pm
Bonsai Tree Care

Bonsai trees are a favorite houseplant of people who like to prune them into artistic shapes. They add great depth and beauty to your home and garden. Plus, they’re relatively easy to take care of!

Let's discover which trees are great to make a bonsai.

Then we'll learn in-depth on how to grow and care for the bonsai trees the right way.

Bonsai Quick Facts

OriginChina and Japan
TypePerennial woody-stemmed shrubs and trees
ToxicitySome types are toxic to people and pets
LightPlentiful sun with partial shade in hot climates
WateringMaintain moist but not wet soil
HumidityModerate to high

Bonsai trees are dwarfed trees that are grown as a living work of art, with a history in both China and Japan. They have been used as decoration and points of interest in Japanese homes for centuries, and in recent decades have become popular in western society.

A common misconception is that bonsai trees are genetically dwarfed versions of larger trees, but this is not the case. Bonsai trees are developed using a variety of plant species, using careful pruning and wiring practices to create miniature versions of bigger plants. The plants are manipulated to remain small, always being kept in containers to restrict growth. In fact, the term ‘bonsai’ literally translates to ‘planter in container’.

Any plant with a wood stem and branches can be used to create a bonsai tree, though types with naturally small leaves are often selected as this adds to the miniature appeal of a bonsai tree. Though you might associate bonsai trees with being kept indoors, most bonsai trees should actually be kept outside. This is because many of them are not tropical varieties, and therefore need to be allowed to go dormant over winter in order to prepare themselves for growth the following spring. Life outside encourages this process, as dormancy happens when temperatures drop and daylight hours become shorter.

As these natural seasonal cycles do not happen within homes, it means indoors is not an appropriate place for these bonsai trees to live. However, there are some tropical and subtropical bonsai trees that appreciate a consistently warm temperature and a humid environment, both of which are conditions that can be created year-round in homess.

Types of Bonsai Trees Ideal for Indoor Use

If you’re thinking of cultivating a bonsai tree, consider these types:

Ficus Bonsai (Ficus ginseng and Ficus retusa)

Ficus Ginseng (Ficus Bonsai)

The Ficus tree is by far the most popular type of tree to use as a bonsai tree by beginners. There are up to 2,000 species of Ficus, but the most commonly used Ficus for bonsai trees are the Ficus ginseng and the Ficus retusa. The Ficus ginseng has a rotund trunk that bears a resemblance to the ginseng root, while the Ficus retusa has a curvy trunk which sometimes mimics the shape of a letter ‘S’. Dark green leaves are typical on Ficus trees. These leaves come to a point at the tip, helping rainwater to drip off in their natural habitat. Most Ficus species produce flowers, though some of them remain hidden in the fruit. Other Ficus trees that make good indoor bonsai trees are the Tigerbark, Golden Gate, Microcarpa, and Willowleaf.

Sweet Plum Bonsai (Sageretia Theezans)

Sweet Plum Bonsai (Sageretia Theezans)

This subtropical shrub works well as a bonsai tree as it can be kept indoors all year-round, or kept outside in summer. It cannot tolerate frost, and so will need to be moved indoors over winter with a minimum temperature of 53° F / 12° C. Although this type of tree likes plenty of sunlight, it doesn’t tolerate intense sunlight and so should be placed ideally in a partially protected position, such as in a window with sheer drapes.

As with most indoor bonsai trees, this plant needs high humidity. It is native to China and Japan and is mass produced in South Asia for use as a bonsai tree. It is not recommended for those new to caring for bonsai trees as it can quickly die if it does not receive the correct amount of water. It needs to have the root ball kept continually moist, without being soggy. Too much water will rot the roots, but not enough will cause the tree to suddenly lose its branches and leaves. Just one missed watering can result in the death of this type of bonsai, so it’s best reserved for experienced growers.

In terms of appearance, this tree has pale green oval leaves which are shiny and small. The tree does produce creamy colored flowers toward the end of summer, as well as blue fruit. It has a dark brown trunk that peels away to reveal paler brown patches, resulting in an almost mottled effect trunk.

Fukien Tea Bonsai (Carmona)

Fukien Tea Bonsai (Carmona retusa)

This tree is native to China though is now grown around the world, and is especially popular in the western world as a bonsai tree. It has attractive shiny dark green leaves which have hairy undersides and tiny white dots on top. It is capable of producing tiny year-round blooms in white, as well as berry-like fruit. This tree can only survive in warm temperatures, so it is an indoor bonsai tree, or can be kept outside in very warm climates.

It likes high humidity, so an effort must be made to maintain a good level of moisture in the air all year-round. Dry air in winter caused by heating can be a big problem for this tree, so prevent this by putting humidity-increasing systems in place. It is very sensitive about temperature, so indoor trees must be kept away from open windows and doorways where cold drafts in winter could cause harm.

Hawaiian Umbrella Bonsai (Schefflera arboricola)

hawaiian umbrella bonsai (Schefflera arboricola)

In spite of its name, this tree is actually native to Australia. As a dwarf tree it works well as an indoor bonsai tree, though as a tropical tree it cannot be kept outdoors unless in a very warm climate, with minimum temperatures of 10° C / 50° F. One big benefit of this tree is that it is easier to care for than most indoor bonsai trees. It can tolerate dim lighting and low humidity, making it much more accessible to more people who might struggle to keep humidity high or find an appropriately well-lit spot for a demanding bonsai tree.

If you do have a sunny position for your dwarf umbrella tree, it will appreciate the extra light and reward you with smaller leaves. The tree likes to have its soil kept moist but not soggy, and care should be taken to ensure it doesn’t dry out. Pruning these trees into the desired shape can take more thought than other indoor bonsai trees, but with some preparation, they can be developed into very attractive trees.

Jade Bonsai (Crassula ovata)

Jade Bonsai (Crassula Ovata)

This tree is very similar in terms of looks and care to the Dwarf Jade (Portulacaria afra). It is difficult to distinguish between the two, but as their care guidelines are so similar, it doesn’t matter much if you mistake one for the other. The Jade Bonsai works well indoors all year-round but can also be kept outdoors in warm climates. As a succulent, this plant retains water in its foliage, and so can go longer between waterings than many other bonsai trees. Allow the soil to dry out a little between each watering, and when you do water, it only uses a little at a time.

Unlike most succulents, this plant is tolerant of a little over-watering, so don’t be too worried about getting it wrong while you figure out your plant's needs. This plant will need pruning regularly as the tree can bend over under the weight of the water held in the leaves.

Juniper Bonsai

an itoigawa shimpaku bonsai juniper bonsai)
An Itoigawa Shimpaku Bonsai 

If you have looked for a bonsai tree, you may have encountered the Juniper Bonsai as it is among the most popular types of bonsai available for sale. And there are roughly more than 50 species within the Juniper genus. Some of the typical ones include the Japanese Shimpaku (Juniperus sargentii), the Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis), the Japanese needle juniper (Juniperus rigida), etc. And you can category the Juniper bonsai by its foliage - scale-like or needle-like.

Caring for Your Bonsai Tree

Bonsai Tree

Water

Watering your bonsai needs to be done in response to the conditions of the trees, and not on a schedule. Check your bonsai trees soil regularly by dipping your finger gently into the soil and feeling for moisture. If the top inch of the soil is dry, then you can add water. Be careful not to overwater, as this will harm the plant. Over time, you will become familiar with how often your bonsai likes to be watered, though environmental factors will alter this.

During winter, the bonsai tree will slow its growth and enter a period of rest and should be watered once a week at the most during this time, potentially even less. During summer or periods of high sunlight and high temperatures, the watering frequency will need to increase in line with the seasonal adjustment. It is recommended that the bonsai tree should not be watered in the morning, and aim to keep watering fairly steady so that the bonsai tree can adjust and become expectant of when it will be watered.

To water your bonsai tree, use a fine-nozzled watering can and water from above; this will prevent the soil from being flushed away. The entire container of soil needs to be thoroughly watered, and as the root system of a bonsai is very fine, it will likely flow through quickly. To make sure the whole pot gets a thorough watering, you need to water until water flows out of the drainage holes. You can repeat this process a few minutes later to ensure all soil gets wet in the watering process. Ideally, use rainwater to water your bonsai tree as it will be free of chemicals, but tap water will suffice if rainwater is not available.

Light

Bonsai trees need lots of light to grow, and without it, they will gradually begin their demise. They require at least 6 hours or direct sunlight a day; any more than this is fine, but any less, and their growth will slow. If the light is indirect or not very intense where your bonsai is positioned, then it will need more hours of light to compensate. Some varieties need even longer in the sun, up to 16 hours a day. Light is one of the most important care requirements for bonsai trees, so ensure you are positioning yours in a bright windowsill where it will receive the full benefit of the sunlight.

Temperature

Tropical bonsai trees like to be warm all year round, and this is why they are well-suited to life indoors. As long as you are comfortable with the temperature in your home, then your bonsai will be too. Just be sure to keep it away from heating vents where it may dry out, or open windows where it may be caught in a cold draft. Subtropical bonsai trees will tolerate lower temperatures in the winter months, so they will cope well if left in unused rooms that are not heated over winter, such as spare bedrooms. However, they will still do just fine if you want to keep them in a warmer room in the house.

Humidity

One of the hardest things to get right for bonsai trees is the humidity. Tropical and subtropical bonsai trees, which are the only types of bonsai you can grow inside, require high levels of humidity, as this is what they would experience in their native tropical habitats. Homes are not usually very humid environments, so this is something you will have to create in order to help your bonsai tree thrive.

There are several ways to increase humidity in your home. The easiest way is with an electric humidifier, which you can simply plug in and mostly forget about, though the downsides of this are the initial purchase cost, the running cost, and the fact that it will increase the humidity in your whole room, which may not be something the people in your home enjoy.

Another way to increase humidity around the bonsai tree is simply to spray it with a fine water mist. This is an easy and low-cost solution. However, bonsai trees love humidity so much that you will need to spray them several times a day. This might not be possible for you if you lead a busy life or are not home often.

An easy-care solution is to set your bonsai tree on a pebble tray. This is simply a tray filled with decorative pebbles, on top of which you pour water. Place your bonsai pot on top of the pebbles, and as the water evaporates, it will create humidity around the plant. Make sure you keep the water in the tray topped up so that it can continuously create higher humidity and make sure the water level never reaches the top of the pebbles, as it will get absorbed through the drainage holes and could make the soil much too soggy.

Soil

Bonsai trees should be planted in soils specifically formulated for use with conifers or bonsai plants, which will ensure the soil has a texture and nutrient value appropriate for these types of trees. They like to be in well-draining soil with good air circulation, where water is able to flow through and out of drainage holes to prevent soggy soil and root rot.

Fertilizer

Bonsai trees require fertilizer to ensure they have appropriate nutrition to thrive. Outdoor bonsai trees will only need to be fed during the growing season, while indoor bonsai trees can be fertilized all year-round. Use a fertilizer specifically formulated for use with bonsai trees to ensure the correct levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are present.

Repotting

Bonsai Trees in Pot

To allow your bonsai tree to continue to thrive, it will need repotting so that its roots have space to spread out. However, you must be careful not to repot too frequently, as restricting the space it has to grow is one of the ways that you manipulate a plant in order to create a miniature version of the original. You need to strike a fine balance between restricting the plant's growth but also giving it a little growing space so that the roots don’t suffocate each other and lead to the plant's demise.

Young bonsai trees will need repotting annually, and the length of time between repotting can be drawn out further as the tree gets older. A mature bonsai tree will only need to be put into a new pot every five years. There are some signs to look out for that indicate your bonsai tree needs to be repotted. If the leaves on the tree start to yellow, then this is usually a sign that the bonsai tree’s roots need more space and fresh soil. Another sign to watch out for is if buds start to form on the stem. If this happens, you should trim the roots during the repotting process.

The best time to repot is always immediately after winter, at the very beginning of spring. The plant's roots will be storing energy from its dormant season and should be potted on before they use this energy to grow the roots. To repot your bonsai tree, carefully lift it out of its current pot, being careful not to disturb the delicate roots. Select a pot only one size bigger than the current pot so as not to overwhelm the plant, and fill the bottom with fresh bonsai or conifer specific soil. Lower the root ball into the new pot and pad the edges out with more fresh soil. Water the tree thoroughly to help it settle and continue care as normal. The tree should be at around the same height in the new pot as it was in the old pot.

Propagation

Propagation of a bonsai tree depends on the type of plant you are using. Most can be grown from both seeds and cuttings, though you will need to identify the species of your bonsai and follow the specific propagation guidelines.

Pruning

You can prune your bonsai tree year-round for general maintenance to keep it neat and tidy, but an annual structural pruning will need to be done at the beginning of each spring. Cut away any dead or damaged growth, and any branches or shoots that grow outside of your desired shape. Be sure to use clean, sharp tools to prevent the spread of infection or disease, and ensure you don’t cause any harm to the tree.

Pruning a bonsai tree might seem overwhelming at first, as it is an art form and any mistake made could be obvious and make the tree look messy. If you don’t feel able to learn to prune your bonsai tree, you could hire a professional once a year to carry out a structural prune. For most people with green fingers or a creative touch, pruning a bonsai tree should be within their capabilities. A tip for success is to go slow and steady and continue annual maintenance pruning throughout the year as this will make the annual pruning sessions much easier.

Common Problems for Bonsai Trees

Bonsai Tree Problem

Leaf Loss

A bonsai tree that suddenly starts to lose its leaves, or have leaves turning yellow before falling off, is usually a sign of a lack of water, or an irregular watering pattern. Water your tree more often, and see if this problem improves. Conversely, leaves that turn yellow very slowly are usually caused by continual overwatering. Most bonsai trees like to be kept in moist but not soggy soil. Try to fulfill this requirement by checking on the condition of the soil as often as possible, usually every few days. If the top of the soil is dry, you should water the plant until water runs out of the bottom drainage holes. Discard any excess water so that the plant is not sitting in water.

Pests

If you maintain proper care of your bonsai trees, then the chances of getting a pest problem will be reduced, but sometimes, plants can still get infested with pests despite our best efforts. Pests that can affect bonsai trees include scale insects, spider mites, meal bugs, and aphids.

Unfortunately, much like bonsai trees, many pests tend to like high humidity, so always be on the lookout for pests. A pest problem spotted early before it has had a chance to become a heavy infestation will always be much easier to treat and resolve. In the first instance, washing the plant with soapy water or hosing it down can remove most pests. Repeat this daily until all signs of pests have gone. If this doesn’t work, you can try neem oil, which is a natural and completely safe oil that kills most pests, effectively without causing harm to plants, people, or the environment.

Are you excited to grow a bonsai? Let us know if you have any questions, and share with other plant-sculptors you know!

Bonsai Tree Care - A Beginner's Growing Guide

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