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Indoors vs. Outdoor Bonsai: What’s the Difference?

Many people tend to think of bonsai as primarily indoor plants. This misconception was helped along by the movie “The Karate Kid” in which one of the main characters had a bonsai that he kept in the house. The truth is that the vast majority of trees and plants suitable for bonsai must be kept outdoors. These temperate species must go through a period of dormancy during winter, just as they do in nature.

There are, however, a few species that can be kept inside and lend themselves to the classic bonsai shaping and training. These are mostly tropical or sub-tropical plants which must be sheltered from weather below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the best indoor species include:

  • Ficus – the beloved ficus – or fig tree – is easy to care for and can be shaped beautifully, offering the traditional look of the bonsai we know and love. They require high humidity, and should be monitored for water needs rather than following a schedule. The leaves are poisonous to animals so keep out of reach of pets.
  • Jade – the Portulacaria afra is a succulent that is much less fussy than many tropicals. It retains a lot of water in its leaves so you probably won’t need to water frequently. It should be repotted every other spring and needs good drainage.
  • Privet – often used for hedges, privet is hardy and great for beginners. It requires average watering and fertilizing and bright light for at least some of the day.
  • Carmona – known as the Fukien Tea, this China native has small dark green leaves and can produce little white flowers, and sometimes berries, year round. The water level should be kept well-balanced, as it is sensitive to both over- and under-watering.
  • Sageretia Theezans – known as the Bird Plum, and another native to China, this tropical evergreen also produces white flowers. It needs to be kept moist all the time, and should at least have sun in the morning.

Outdoor species like juniper, maple, and flowering bush species are typically easier to care for because they are used to being in their natural, temperate climate, one with seasons and a period of dormancy in winter. Some outdoor species can be converted to indoors but it usually requires a very seasoned bonsai artist and special procedures. It’s better to start out with the kind of bonsai you want right from the start.

Keep in mind that indoor species will still need adequate light – this can be achieved by putting the plant in a sunny window for long periods during the day or by artificial light systems. If your species requires high humidity you can use a fish tank or other clear plastic container to provide the required level.

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