Category Archives: Growing

Getting Started with your first Bonsai Tree

You’ve decided to enter the beautiful and zen-inducing world of bonsai. You’re probably eager and excited to jump right in. But wait – first there are a few things you need to know in order to have a satisfying, rather than frustrating, bonsai tree experience.

How to Choose the Right Plant

Bonsai isn’t a dwarf tree or a special breed of plant, it’s the art of forming a miniature tree with a cutting or a small plant of a regular species. There are several types that are good beginners:

  • Ulmus parvifolia, or Chinese Elm – tolerant and hardy, slow growing and easy for beginners to care for, beautiful tiny leaves.
  • Jade plant, aka Portulacaria afra – this succulent can be grown indoors and may be easily shaped into a traditional bonsai tree with appropriate pruning.
  • Chinese juniper, or Juniperus chinensis – this evergreen juniper is a very popular bonsai plant due to its hardiness and the miniature pine tree look that can be achieved.
  • Ficus – these tropicals (technically fig trees) are the plants people often think of when they think bonsai; they are easy to wire and actually grow fruit that is in scale with the size of the tree.

What to Look For

You obviously want to choose a healthy plant. Leaves should not be dead or wilting (except specific types which drop leaves at certain times of the year), and they should be relatively small in comparison to the size of the plant. Large leaves do not make for easy bonsai shaping. Check for pests and spots – these can indicate an insect infestation or fungal infection. Remember, a bonsai is just a regular plant or tree, which means it can suffer from the same maladies as anything in your garden.

The trunk should be solid and larger at the bottom than at the top. Trunks that are like telephone poles do not generally make good bonsai. The branches should begin about a third of the way up the tree and they should get smaller as they go up the trunk, not larger.

The Root of It All

If you can examine the root system, it’s a good idea to do so. The roots should be firm, spaced evenly, and should be gathered close to the tree – not spread all over or sticking out of the soil. A healthy root system is vital to the health of the bonsai. Root rot from improper watering is one of the main causes of bonsai death and even though a plant is alive when you buy it, that doesn’t mean it’s not in a slow demise.

It seems like a lot to take in before even getting to the fun part – the shaping and growing of your tree – but if you start with a good plant (or cutting or seeds) – you will have a much better chance of developing a bonsai that will give you many years of beauty and enjoyment.

Spring is in the air!

Wow, what a winter huh? Even here in the Lone Star state we had it rough. Temperatures way below normal most of the time and a crazy ice storm right at the beginning to start things off.

Well that’s a thing of the past now as we move right along into spring. As soon as the first week of March arrived,I could hardly wait to repot my one year old Japanese Black Pine seedlings. If you remember from last years posting on the blog you saw the seedlings as they were planted and then as they blossomed forth into new life. Take a look back if you need a refresher.

They were babied in last years Texas heat as they were so tender at that time. Then when winter came it was in and out of the garage to protect those tiny roots from freezing. But now their tender little stems have hardened and the fun begins.

Here they are getting ready to be released from their little home together where they will go on by themselves to become an each individual tree that hopefully will show forth their beauty.


The potting soil I like to use for my J.B.P’s is 1 part Akadama, 1 part Lava, and 1 part Pumice. But because of the cost of these three components, I decided to do half with this mixture in individual colanders, and the other half in a mixture of haydite, sand, (not play sand) and sifted pine bark, and a little turface thrown in for good measure. This was put into two large containers where the seedlings would be planted together with enough room for them to spread their roots individually.

Temporary tub

But before they were replanted, they began to be trained into the shape I wanted them to be. Their stems although hardened, were still a bit tender for a radical change. I decided to try anyway because if you remember what I said last year about these seedlings, that my plan was to make most if not all into cascade JBPs. Just sticking them in the soil straight up was not an option for me. This next pic shows me applying #16 copper wire around the trunks of each seedling. (notice that nice candle on this one?)

Cleaned roots

After the wire was applied came the moment of truth; the bending process, and whether or not the trunk would be able to withstand such a harsh bend. As you can see it worked out perfectly. I was totally surprised to see how flexible each seedling was in my twisting and bending.

ready to plant

So from this point on we’re going to try something new here. From now on whenever it’s possible I’ll be taking you to a video of some of my work as part of the blog. The small video will allow you to see the final part of this blog. You’ll be able to see up close the little seedlings in their new home along with their new shape as they start their beginnings into cascade Japanese Black Pines.

See you there. 🙂

Building a Tropical Enclosure (via Tom’s Bonsai)

For anyone thinking about venturing into tropical bonsai, check out Tom M’s tropical bonsai enclosure.

Tom M’s Tropical Enclosure. View the post for more photos.

I wanted to have a nicer piece of furniture around the house so that it doesn’t look so messy when I winter my tropicals indoors. My wife has been very supportive, and I think she appreciates the steps taken in order for the display to be a bit nicer.

Read more at Tom M’s Blog.

Getting a 3 gallon Maple into a Bonsai pot – The process

I love to buy high quality Japanese Maples and turn them into bonsai. The problem is they come in large pots – typically 3 gallon. That’s a lot of roots! Way too many roots for a bonsai pot. After much trial and error, I realized that I could slowly (I mean slowly) reduce the roots each month in a series of raking’s and soakings. I like this method because I don’t have to wait for the plant to go dormant to do root pruning and then hope I didn’t do too much root pruning. Because If I do too much root pruning while the tree is dormant, It will die, but slowly as it comes back to life.

In the photo below, you can see how I have been taking soil out slowly.


Here is the root ball after the tree has been pulled from the pot. As you can see, the root ball is too large for a bonsai pot and I have gotten to the point where it is all roots.


Here, I am taking a rake and lightly dragging it across the outer surface of the root ball. I’m keeping the pressure light so I don’t do a lot of damage, but since the root ball is down to the roots, I know I am doing some. But here is the inspiration that made me realize this would work: Bugs and critters eat the roots from time to time and do moderate amounts of damage, yet the tree recovers. If I simulate this small damage and give the tree time to recuperate, then not only am I expediting the time it takes to get the tree into a bonsai pot, I am helping the tree strengthen itself.


Here is a photo of the root ball in process.


Here is the finished root ball. In all, I probably took off about a ¼ of an inch. The outer roots were damaged, but it will actually stimulate new growth. This is why I have found I need to alternate raking with soaking on alternate months.


Below is the tree and root ball back in the pot. You can see how there is a little more space in the pot. Next month, I will take my garden hose to the root ball and let the water wash away some dirt. This way, the roots will have 2 months to heal back before I rake them again.

This process will actually keep the roots the same size because they grow back at the rate I am removing them, but the soil will be dislodged from the roots and the root ball will be more compact. When the tree goes dormant, then, I can cut 15-20% of the roots back as normal. Then, the roots will fit into a bonsai pot, and I won’t have to be too aggressive with the root pruning.

After you do this, you will have to keep your plant in the shade, and keep it well watered. If you remember nothing else, remember this:

Less is more!

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