“Bonsai” is a Japanese word that literally translates to “tray gardening”, and though they can look intimidating, there are just a few fundamentals you’ll need to keep in mind in order to successfully care for your bonsai tree. Though getting the right type of tree, soil, pot, watering and fertilizing schedule are important, pruning is the key to achieving just the right look.
Getting the Right Tree
You can either purchase a tree from a nursery or grow one yourself, as long as you get the right species—some of which are better off indoors entirely, outdoors entirely, or a mix of the two. Get the one that makes sense for you, your USDA zone, and the way you want to garden. Some species you should consider include: Alpine Totara (USDA zone 7-friendly), Dwarf Bamboo (does well indoors or outdoors), Japanese Pagoda (small and great for beginners), Chinese Juniper (more traditional, great for outdoors), Boxwood (very versatile), or a Japanese Snowdrop (another great option for beginners).
Location & Potting
Regardless of which tree you choose, you should make sure that your tree is in a fairly well-lit area, though away from direct sunlight, so that it will be kept pretty warm during the day. Use a general purpose soil mixed with a little bit coarse grain sand, or a store-bought potting soil specific to bonsai trees. Fill your pot at first about a quarter of the way full with oil and place your tree inside. If you choose, you can wire your root ball to your pot if you’re worried about stability. Then, place some slow-release fertilizer inside before covering up the rest of the tree and filling the rest of the pot with your soil. Because bonsai pots are shallower than regular plant or flower pots, you might want to dilute any fertilizer you add with some water.
Watering & Fertilizing
Of course, depending on what species of tree you have as well as what sort of climate you live in, the amount of times and quantity to which you’ll water your tree may vary. Generally speaking, though, because bonsais are planted in small pots, they tend to get dried out pretty easily. It helps to re-pot every couple of years in a similarly-shaped but slightly bigger container, and while you’re watering, make sure that you’re doing it thoroughly and that your soil is absorbing the water properly.
When you’re re-potting or planting for the first time, it helps to add some fertilizer before you cover up the rest of your plant with soil. After that, once you start to see some new growth, or when your leaves start to open fully, it’s a good idea to feed it with a bit of fertilizer. A 20-20-20 balance is best, and make sure that it’s in liquid form and time-released—you might even want to dilute it with water a little bit. You’ll definitely not want to over-feed your bonsai tree, and only take care to feed it when it’s in need of a growth boost, about once every three weeks. During the winter, though, you should not feed it at all with fertilizer.
Pruning & Other Maintenance Tips
Pruning is most definitely the most essential part in getting the right look to your bonsai tree. One tip for re-potting, about once every two years or so, is to prune back the roots. Depending on their size, you should aim for about 1/3 to 2/3 of the way up from the tips.
In terms of the branches and leaves, you’ll need to regularly prune and pinch off regularly in order for it to keep a proper shape. It’s most ideal to start this process in the spring, and then continue through the end of that season. The way that you’ll prune will depend more on the species of tree you get, so make sure you know what the bonsai version is supposed to look like.
In general, because bonsais grow in such a small and shallow area, you’re going to want to pay more attention to it when it comes to pests and diseases. You should clean your bonsai tree with a small brush, getting off any moss, residue, or pruning clippings that may be on or around the trunk and branches. You can also use a spatula or hard nylon toothbrush to scrape off anything hard to get. In terms of weeds or grass that could steal away nutrients, because they’ll be a bit smaller and you’ll want to be more delicate in removing them, it’s best to use tweezers.