Bonsai is an enjoyable hobby and form of art. However, unlike most other art forms bonsai is unique in that one’s canvas is alive and changing. Aside from the art side of things one needs to develop some knowledge of arboriculture. Along with knowing how to make the tree look appealing one also needs to keep it alive. This article will serve as an overview of bonsai basics to help beginners get started with the hobby of bonsai.
From a high level one can classify bonsai trees into two groups; indoor and outdoor. Outdoor bonsai should never be kept indoors for more than a few days as the lack of light and temperature difference will cause it to weaken and it may die. Therefore, if one wants an outdoor bonsai they should make sure they have a suitable outdoor location for it. Outdoor bonsai typically tend to be evergreens and conifers. One of the most popular bonsai trees is the Juniper which is an outdoor tree.
Indoor bonsai can survive indoors, but even they will grow best when kept outside. They tend to have lower light requirements than outdoor bonsai, but still do best outdoors like an tree. If one has a very sunny spot in their home or office that receives a good amount of indirect sunlight from the East or West they should be able to grow an indoor bonsai without any problems. Indoor bonsai are typically tropical trees like ficus, hawaiian umbrella, and succulents like jade.
One can try to supplement light requirements using grow lights if one wants to grow outdoor bonsai inside. However, most trees that grow in colder climates naturally still need a wintering period. Unless one can simulate that every season the tree will eventually die.
The main items one will need are a tree, a pot to put it in, bonsai soil, sharp shears, and a root rake or root hook. Anything beyond those items are optional, but will make certain tasks easier to accomplish.
If one plans on growing their bonsai outdoors in areas with cold winters they should invest in a stoneware pot. They are fired to a very high temperature when they are made which allows them to better resist cracking in extreme temperatures. Most people will use mica or plastic pots when they are training their bonsai and switch them to ceramic stoneware when they plan on displaying them. Shallower yet wider pots tend to promote growth of thicker trunks. If one wants to train their bonsai into a cascading effect they would want to use a deeper pot.
One always needs a pair of sharp shears for doing any kind of pruning on their bonsai. It is also recommended that one pair for pruning branches and another pair for pruning roots as the soil and grit on roots may dull the shears. One will always want branch pruning shears at their sharpest.
The root rake is used for combing out the roots of the bonsai prior to placing it in the pot. It allows one to gently break apart the root ball so that they can work fresh soil between the roots when they place the bonsai in the pot.
Lastly, the soil selection is very important. Bonsai are unnaturally forced to grow in a relatively confined space so the soil has special requirements. The soil must be free draining yet retain moisture. It must also hold nutrients and resist compaction. More information on bonsai soil can be found here.
Once one has their basic supplies they are ready to begin.
Start off by covering the drainage holes in the bonsai pot with drain hole covers. This will stop the soil from washing out. Most people will also hook wire through the drain holes at this point so that they can twist them down on the roots later to keep the newly planted tree stable. The proper technique for this is not covered here. Next, start to rake out the roots using the root rake or a chopstick. This should untangle the roots and free them from the compacted soil. After, form a small mound of bonsai soil in the center and place the tree on top of it. Gently twist the tree back and forth and try to work the soil between the roots. After, clamp down the root ball with wire and fill the remainder of the pot with soil. More detailed information can be found in my repotting article. At this point one should avoid moving the bonsai in order to allow the roots to heal.
Once one has successfully potted their bonsai they should familiarize themselves with the requirements of that tree and do their best to keep it alive and healthy before styling it. A healthy tree always looks best. One should primarily concern themself with keeping the tree alive. Once they have fulfilled that requirement they can start learning about styling it. Most beginners have difficulty when it comes to watering so reading in this area is recommended. I wish you the best of luck in continuing your bonsai hobby.