Easy Bonsai Tips For Beginners

Economical Bonsai

A plant that you think must have taken hours and hours of care. And you would probably be correct in most cases.

However, there is a way to grow bonsai plants that provides a relaxing form of gardening at an easy and economical price.

What follows are a few tips that we use for growing our own mini-trees.
But first, what is “Bonsai”?

Merriam-Webster.com definition of Bonsai is: a potted plant (as a tree) dwarfed (as by pruning) and trained to an artistic shape; also: the art of growing such a plant.

Economical Bonsai
Economical Bonsai

When you think of a bonsai plant, you see an image of a miniature tree. You might picture a plant that was grown slowly over a period of years.

Dictionary.com describes bonsai as: 1) a tree or shrub that has been dwarfed, as by pruning the roots and pinching, and is grown in a pot or other container and trained to produce a desired shape or effect. 2) the art or hobby of developing and growing such a plant or plants. Mature bonsai plants can command a high prices and are not as readily available in your local nursery. If you want a slow grown mature plant, you will need to go out and search for it. If you are lucky enough to find one, you will, most likely, buy one, take it home, and then what?

People get apprehensive about caring for bonsai. There seems to me some mystery about the process. Caring for bonsai continues to make some people shy away, missing the pleasure that the art of bonsai brings to the grower. One of the tips to growing bonsai is to realize that the process will teach the grower more patience and a greater respect for the living tree.
I’ve always had an interest in these graceful plants, but never invested in or became a care taker for any of the more expensive mature specimens. Keeping with the idea of a miniature tree, I have transformed some everyday local nursery landscaping evergreens into pleasing examples of what can be done economically, easily and with little care, once established.

Parsons Juniper Bonsai
Parsons Juniper Bonsai

Now, for you true “bonsai” artists, which I am not, I commend you on your abilities and patience. I ask that you smile and not judge my methods. These were developed out of a desire to experience what all bonsai growers enjoy. Those meditative moments one gets by slowly, with purpose, trimming, shaping and envisioning this “tree” from a small scale perspective.

This is an economical plant project that anyone can enjoy with one gallon plants from the nursery and recycled pots, reused from holiday decorations or picked up at yard sales.

If you scout the clearance racks at the big box home improvement store nurseries or stop at roadside plant sales, go ahead and pick up a few small blue rug junipers or parsons junipers. Junipers are a good starter plants for the beginning “bonsai artist”. Look for ones with swirling or arching branches. Thick stems at the base will develop into nice trunks for your mini trees. If the plants are thick and bushy, look past all the green. Look at the structure and shape of the trunk and branches. Remember, you are not buying one gallon plants to turn into full grown shrubs. You are envisioning a small tree. Think as if you were very small and it is much bigger than you…………”small scale perspective”.

Easter Mums Pot
1 foot in dia. & 5 inches deep

As for the containers, bonsai dishes can be just as pricey as the mature plants. Yet I’m the first to admit that a well developed bonsai can double its beauty when planted in an exotic looking dish. But, since I wanted to keep this part of my gardening life affordable, thus allowing me to repeat it more often, I decided to use what was easily available and low budget. I have used old shallow planters that contained Easter mums. You know the kind. They’re about a foot in diameter and four to five inches tall, stuffed with flowers for Easter weekend.

Old Christmas Tree Stand
Old Christmas Tree Stand

I’ve also found that old Christmas tree stands have nice shallow basins. After popping the basins off the legs and drilling a few drainage holes, these are perfect for bonsai dishes.

Discounted Clay Planter
Discounted Clay Planter

One of the odd lot stores had a bunch of these clay pots/dishes on clearance. These were too good to leave at the store.

Salvaged Fountain Basin
Salvaged Fountain Basin

We found a broken water fountain at a nursery’s back lot. It was originally an Asian themed fountain. All that remained were the square black basins. One look and I knew that, once again, with a few holes drilled into the bottoms, these would give us some nice weatherproof containers.

 I have found that blue rug junipers are fairly easy to grow. You do not want a heavy soil that will retain too much moisture. Plant them in a light soil mix. I use a high quality potting soil from Kerby’s Nursery, our local garden supplier. Additionally, if there is a bag of cactus mix lying around, I might add some of that to the mix. Our junipers have never done well with wet feet, so make sure you have good drainage holes. It’s best not to water or feed them too much.

Clay Dish Bonsai
Completed clay dish bonsai

Remember, junipers are not hungry plants. We feed these every 4 to 6 months. But mostly, we just watch the health of the plant. We’ve been fortunate to have some that are in balance with their environment and require little care or maintenance.

Expect the shape of your bonsai to evolve over time as your decisions about what to prune and when to prune will change as you witness this shrub grow into a small evergreen tree-like image.

Bonsai in water basin
The finished water basin bonsai

I usually repot ours once a year or so. Sometimes I move them to a slightly larger pot. Other times, I just pull them out, clean and trim the roots a little, add some fresh soil, and place them back into the same pot.

DIY Bonsai Collection
Economical DIY Bonsai Collection

When you plant, keep the base of the plant a little bit higher than the rim of the container. This will allow you to mound up the soil, creating a much nicer effect. It draws more attention to the shape of the trunk and branches. After I get the mound the way I like it, I place a piece of weed block across the top of the soil. Weed block has become quite economical, with a small roll costing no more than five to ten bucks. (I keep the scrap cutoff pieces from larger bedding projects for use in our potted plants.) This layer of weed block not only keeps those stray weeds out of your nice display, but helps keep the soil in place. And to ensure things stay relatively undisturbed, I keep a three dollar bag of pea gravel around to spread a few handfuls over the weed block.

Now, for the more enlightening part of growing your own bonsai: You’ve found a suitable container. You picked up a few cheapo junipers. And, you make it past hacking off some roots and branches. The plant is in the dish and you have let it set for a few weeks, adapting to its new home. As with many plants, just as you begin to see new growth, meaning any shock leftover from transplanting is past, pinch the very tiny tips at the ends of each little branch. This will encourage growth further back down the branch. This is where the “zen” of bonsai can begin to be experienced at a deeper level. It takes patience and focus to keep track of what has or has not been pinched. You are no longer pruning a shrub. You are shaping the future of this plant. Set aside moments of time to study the shape of your bonsai. Don’t be afraid to snip a branch here and there. It’s YOUR bonsai because you are the one that is creating, along with nature, a shape that you envision. I have found that with as little as fifteen minutes, a good cup of coffee, some micro pruning shears, and a comfortable seat, the stresses of the day can disappear by focusing on this little plant.

Older Juniper Bonsai
Our DIY Juniper Bonsai

Probably the most important tip I have to offer concerning growing any kind of bonsai is to slow down and take the time to appreciate what these little trees have to offer each and every day of your life.

One book that helped me a lot was the Bonsai Survival Manual
And those Fiskars Micro-Tip Pruning Snips?
……. …..They sit beside my coffee cup.

Good books, good tools, good coffee……………ahhhhh, life is indeed good!

Happy Gardening,
Dave and Trish

Dave

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Updated on December 23rd, 2013