How-To Ideas

Getting Started with Bonsai

Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) is a centuries old Japanese art form. You may have seen one at your local mega-mart, mall kiosk or nursery center. You may have even bought one once, had it die and decided you couldn’t do Bonsai. Don’t despair, I’ve met very few Bonsai artists who still have their first tree and I’ve never met any Bonsai artist who hasn’t had at least one tree die.

Bonsai can be a very rewarding activity. If you’re willing to give it a try, you’ll find the suggestions I give below helpful.
The first thing anyone preparing to try bonsai should do is go to your local library or bookstore and get a book or two about bonsai (Sunset Bonsai is a very good book for beginners and is carried by Wake County libraries).

Sargents Juniper bonsai/Dan Cormican

Sargents Juniper bonsai/Dan Cormican

If you have gone the route of buying a bonsai someone else has started you will have likely bought it from a “big box” store. If this is the case, then you will likely need to take a flathead screwdriver and hammer out of your toolbox. Use these tools to break off every rock glued to the top of the soil. I’m not sure whose idea it was to pave the top of these pots, but since the rocks make it impossible to water your tree, they need to go right away.

If you want to create your own bonsai from scratch, the first thing to know is that almost any woody plant can be made into a bonsai. It’s a common misconception (which I had myself, at first) that bonsai are a special type of tree that only grows to a small size. It’s actually the talent and knowledge of the bonsai artist that creates the image of a small tree meant to be that size.

As a beginner, you can use common gardening and household tools to get started, and if you really enjoy it then you can buy the specialized bonsai tools that make the work easier.

The best material for a beginner to work with is Juniper, as they will take fluctuation in watering habits as you learn to take care of them. A Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata) is also very good bonsai material.
Before starting on your tree, there can be a lot of value in looking at other bonsai for inspiration and to study the structure.  You can learn about the various Bonsai forms from formal upright to slanting and cascade, special Bonsai soil needs and monthly care tips. You can look at photos on the Internet, visit a Bonsai club or go to a Bonsai show or demo for this information.

The three best pieces of advice I can give to anyone wishing to try bonsai are:
1. Read a bonsai book or two.
2. Join a club so you can learn from more experienced members.
3. Never keep a bonsai indoors for more than a few days (unless it is a tropical tree, in which case, it should stay indoors until the daily low temperatures stay above 40oF).

The Triangle Bonsai Society meets the first Sunday of every month at 4011 Carya Dr in Raleigh. For more information, visit

Dan Cormican is a member of the Triangle Bonsai Society.

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