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Bonsai FAQ: An Overview of the Hobby

June 09, 2020Beginners, General

Pre-Bonsai in pot

This bonsai FAQ answers some basic questions for those new to the world of miniature trees. It also covers the first steps to take if you’re interested in trying the hobby, including the skills needed for practice, sources for acquiring a bonsai tree, and necessary tools and equipment.

What is bonsai?

“Bonsai” refers to the ancient practice of growing miniaturized trees in special shallow containers. The term also applies to trees involved in the practice, whether used as singular or plural. “Bonsai” is a Japanese word that means “tree in a tray”.  

How old is a bonsai?

Bonsai range in age from just a few years to many centuries old. 

Is a bonsai a type of tree?

No, bonsai are not a particular species or type of tree. The practice involves training a tree to grow in a shallow container in a particular style. Many people picture a juniper when they think of bonsai, however many species can be cultivated as bonsai.

What special skills do I need to practice bonsai?

None that you can’t learn! As with most hobbies, bonsai involves some specialized techniques and knowledge that you acquire over time with study and practice. 

Of course, some basic knowledge about growing shrubs and trees is certainly helpful for shortening the learning curve. However, it’s not critical to have prior to starting bonsai. Likewise, an eye for aesthetics can help when making styling decisions, but that can be developed with practice.

Personality traits play a greater role than prior knowledge for success with this hobby. Bonsai requires the ability and commitment to routinely care for your trees. Patience is also a key factor, as it can take years to develop a tree to its full potential.

How do I acquire a bonsai tree? 

There are four basic sources for becoming the proud owner of a bonsai tree.  Let’s explore the various options:

Buy a Bonsai Tree

Some folks start the hobby by buying a mature, trained bonsai tree. However, I recommend that beginners postpone buying expensive trained trees until they have practiced keeping bonsai alive and thriving. Mature trees are expensive, risky purchases for those inexperienced in caring for bonsai.

Start With Nursery Stock

My favorite source for bonsai material is ordinary nursery stock from garden centers and nurseries. These places carry many varieties suitable for training as bonsai. Nursery plants come in a variety of sizes, and are generally healthy and inexpensive. They offer beginners the opportunity to learn training and care techniques with a minimum investment.

Purchase Pre Bonsai

Another route for beginners to consider is purchasing “pre bonsai”. Pre bonsai refers to young trees that have received some initial light training to prepare them to eventually become bonsai. Pre bonsai cost more than ordinary nursery stock, but the

Field Collect

“Field collection” involves plants dug directly from the ground. I include in this category both trees found growing wild and repurposed landscaping plants. Both can be a great source of promising bonsai material, although they require more care at the beginning of their training. Plus, “free” is hard to beat!

Every hobby has a learning curve, and with bonsai, the downside of that curve is that practitioners sometimes lose trees. Starting with less expensive and lower risk options offers beginners the most potential for both learning and success.

How do beginners get started in bonsai?

As mentioned earlier in this bonsai FAQ, one of the best ways to start is by purchasing a small nursery plant and a few of the specialized tools and supplies made for the hobby. The resources on this site can help you decide what supplies you need and provide guidance on the type of trees you might want to consider. 

Once you have gathered everything you think you need, consult this site for further help with styling and potting your creation.  There are also books that can assist, and be sure to check to see if there is a bonsai club in your local area.  Clubs can be invaluable in helping beginners get a solid start on their bonsai journey. 

What special equipment/supplies do I need to get started in bonsai?

In addition to your project tree, a bonsai pot and special bonsai soil will be needed. The pot will require screens for the large drainage holes that are held by wire. Some retailers include screens with their pots, but in most cases, those are purchased separately.

When it comes to tools, you will need to start your bonsai tool kit with at least a concave pruner. That tool can be supplemented with a few common household items for early projects, and you can acquire more specialized bonsai tools over time.

Wiring branches is a major technique used in bonsai, and it requires wire of varying strengths, depending on the strength of the branch being reshaped. Beginners who feel intimated by wiring can always concentrate on shaping their first few projects through trimming alone.  Wire can always be applied later once the hobbyist gains more confidence.

After reading the overview in this bonsai FAQ, explore additional articles on our site that provide additional information about practicing the hobby of bonsai.

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We'd love to help! Sign up to receive emails from Bonsai Made Simple, and we'll send you a copy of "Get Started in Bonsai for Around $100". It outlines supplies and equipment you'll need to begin practicing this rewarding hobby.

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