Bonsai as an art form originated over 2,000 years ago, when ancient Chinese horticulturalists would create detailed and whimsical miniature landscapes called penjing or penzai. These landscapes incorporated various natural elements, including trees, rocks, water, and tiny figurines, and often varied depending on geographical location. Inspired by this incredible art form, the ancient Japanese developed what we know today as the art of bonsai. Based heavily upon Japanese Zen Buddhism principles, bonsai focuses mainly on growing miniature trees instead of entire landscapes as peaceful displays of balance, harmony, and simplicity. It’s also a spiritual practice that inspires bonsai artists to contemplate nature and forge a connection with the natural world.
Bonsai continues to be a popular art form across the globe, and its many practitioners speak to its calming, meditative qualities and positive effects on their mental and spiritual well-being. If you’re interested in taking up this incredibly rewarding hobby, but aren’t sure where to start, we’ll walk you through everything you’ll need to know as a beginner. Read on to learn more about the best trees to choose from, essential supplies, and basic bonsai care tips!
Best Tree Varieties For Bonsai Beginners
For anyone just starting out with bonsai, the importance of choosing the right tree cannot be understated. Choosing a hardy, forgiving, and easy-to-maintain variety will help ensure your early efforts are successful, providing positive feedback and keeping you interested and invested in the practice. Here are some of the most beginner-friendly varieties to choose from:
- Ficus: Ficuses are terrific low-maintenance indoor bonsai trees perfect for beginners. Their branches are easy to shape, and they’re incredibly tolerant of inconsistent watering schedules and low humidity levels. The most popular varieties are the Ficus retusa and Ficus ginseng.
- Chinese Elm: The Chinese elm is an indoor or outdoor bonsai tree that is great for learning and fine-tuning your pruning and maintenance techniques. Because their trunk shape is already set, artists focus more on sculpting their secondary branches and developing pad layers. Ulmus parvifolia is the most popular Chinese Elm variety for bonsai.
- Juniper: Perhaps one of the most iconic bonsai options, the juniper tree is quite forgiving when it comes to heavy pruning and is a great choice for those interested in learning wiring techniques. The Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis) and Shimpaku varieties are especially popular bonsai choices.
- Japanese Red Maple: Celebrated for its stunning foliage colours in the fall, the Japanese red maple is great for beginners as it is incredibly forgiving of pruning errors. It’s worth noting that they do require a lot of moisture, however, so you’ll need to stick to a strict watering schedule if you choose to go with this variety.
Basic Bonsai Supplies
Bonsai trees are specialized plants, which means you’ll require some specialized supplies to properly care for and enjoy them. Here are a few bonsai basics you’ll need to get started:
- Container: When choosing a bonsai container or pot, it’s important to match its design to your tree’s masculinity or femininity so your final arrangement is as harmonious as possible. For instance, a bonsai tree with a thick trunk and branches has more masculine traits and will fit best in a more rugged-looking container. On the other hand, a tree with more delicate branches and a curved trunk is seen as more feminine, and is best suited to a similarly elegant container.
- Soil: Bonsai trees require a special potting medium that typically consists of lava rock, pumice, fine gravel or grit, organic potting compost, and akadama – baked Japanese clay crafted specifically for growing bonsai.
- Wire: Wire is essential for holding your bonsai in place while its roots develop and for shaping its branches. Annealed copper and anodized aluminum wire are the two most common you’ll come across, and it’s good to keep in mind that, while copper works better with conifers and pines, aluminum is better for deciduous trees.
- Pruners: It’s worth investing in a pair of smaller shears designed specifically for pruning bonsai trees. In particular, we recommend concave shears for beginners, as they are less likely to leave behind noticeable scarring.
Bonsai Care For Beginners
Here are a couple of key points to keep in mind when maintaining your bonsai tree to ensure its health and longevity:
Bonsai Trees Live in Shallow Pots
Unlike other houseplants, which are transplanted into larger pots as their roots develop, your bonsai tree lives permanently in a shallow container and must therefore remain compact. As a result, pruning your bonsai tree’s roots is just as important as pruning its leaves and branches, as they’ll continue to grow and constrict each other if left unchecked, eventually suffocating the tree.
Your bonsai tree’s shallow pot also influences the watering and fertilizing care it needs. Your bonsai container’s smaller volume means there’s less room for your tree to store water and nutrients, so you’ll need to water and fertilize it more often. The general rule of thumb is to fertilize your bonsai tree at least once a week during the active growing season.
Bonsai Trees Need Lots of Light
Bonsai trees require a lot of light to stay healthy, and so south-facing windows where they can get at least 5-6 hours of sunlight every day are the perfect places for your bonsai to live. Be careful, however; if your tree hails from a tropical or subtropical region, it will be sensitive to our cold British Columbia winters, so avoid keeping your bonsai in front of any drafty windows. When temperatures start to get warmer outdoors, consider moving your bonsai out to a protected area on your deck or patio, where it can safely enjoy the fresh air, some bright, natural sunlight, and a little bit of rain. Exposure to the natural elements during the summer months will go a long way toward keeping your bonsai happy and healthy year-round!
If you’re looking to shop for bonsai in the Powell River area, swing by and visit us at Mother Nature today! Our top-notch selection of plants and supplies, combined with our expert advice, will set you up with everything you’ll need to kickstart your bonsai journey.