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You Can Be Successful at Bonsai: 7 Concerns Debunked

January 20, 2022Beginners, General

successful at bonsai

Many people are interested in the hobby, but worry they won’t be successful at bonsai. They fear killing their trees and are apprehensive about the difficulty and expense. We’ll address some of these concerns and demonstrate that the hobby can be approached with confidence. 

Ah, bonsai!  Those engaging miniature trees captivate imaginations. They motivate many people – probably including you – to consider taking up the hobby. However, many folks aren’t clear about what’s involved, and they lack confidence that they can be successful at bonsai.  

Today, we’ll explore seven common concerns and questions about the hobby that hold people back from trying it. We’ll provide the real scoop in order to set realistic expectations. If you’re on the fence about whether you have what it takes to practice bonsai, read on and put your mind at ease.

1: It must be a long process to create those cute little trees.

No and yes. A very respectable-looking, “bonsai-in-training” can be created within an hour, while a “finished” bonsai can take many years.  

All bonsai go through a period of training. During this time, the hobbyist works to develop the style and presentation of the tree above the soil line and the proper root structure below. This can take a few years or many, depending on the size of the tree and the degree of the styling it undergoes. 

Once the bonsai artist’s vision for the tree is fulfilled, the tree is considered finished. At that point, routine care for the tree focuses on keeping it healthy, maintaining its final style and repotting every few years. 

For bonsai beginners, the good news is that you don’t have to wait years to develop authentic-looking bonsai. By wisely choosing starter material that already displays desirable bonsai characteristics, and then applying pruning, shaping and styling techniques, you can achieve a tree-in-training that already looks like a bonsai!

2: If I tried to do bonsai, I’d probably kill my trees.

Virtually every bonsai hobbyist loses a tree from time to time.  It’s almost a rite of passage into the world of bonsai! 

Losing a tree is always difficult. The key is to try to understand what happened and learn from the experience. Did you forget to water it, or water it too much?  Did it succumb to a disease or perhaps have a pest infestation that did not become apparent until it was too late? Figuring out the problem helps you learn from experience and makes you more successful at bonsai long-term. 

3: Practicing bonsai is expensive  – have you seen the prices for trees?!

You may have seen trees priced in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars on the internet or at bonsai retail shops. Forget them!  Here are two reasons why:

You are not ready to own them. As a beginner, you absolutely should steer clear of purchasing pricey, finished bonsai. Trees that have been in training for years by skilled and seasoned bonsai artists do command premium prices. However, an expensive, developed tree in the hands of an inexperienced caretaker often results in decline or death of the tree. When first starting out, stick with inexpensive stock. As your skills, experience and confidence grow, you can step up to more expensive trees if you care to. 

You may be overpaying. Unfortunately, bonsai with substandard design are sometimes priced similarly to better quality trees. Beginners lack the necessary experience to be able to discern differences in quality and make wise purchase decisions. 

4: How much does this hobby really cost and how do I get started?

Getting started in bonsai is not difficult and it doesn’t have to be expensive. You can start learning bonsai techniques and how to care for your trees through the resources on this site, books and even local bonsai clubs. 

If you start with inexpensive stock and repurpose items you already own, you should be able take up the hobby at a very reasonable cost. You might want to grab our handy resource, “Getting Started in Bonsai for Around $100”. Available free by signing up with your email address at the bottom of this page, it walks you through the supplies and equipment you need to start.

Check out our article about bonsai books for beginners for recommendations on helpful guidebooks. Before going shopping for stock at your local nursery or garden center, read our articles about varieties to consider, basic bonsai styles, and how to choose nursery stock suitable for bonsai

We also recommend you take a look at our articles about tools, soil and choosing an appropriate bonsai pot for your project. 

Once you have your first couple of trees, you’ll want to expand your collection!  Over time, you can acquire new tools and trees as your interests, experience, and budget will allow. As with all hobbies, you can spend as much as you care to or can afford. Just make sure you have sufficient experience before buying expensive finished trees.

5: Isn’t it difficult to make a tree grow the way you want?

It doesn’t have to be.  The degree of difficulty involved in shaping trees depends largely on three factors:  Where the tree is now, where you want it to be and the age and species of tree. 

If the current look of the tree differs greatly from your vision of the end result, it will take some time to achieve. Experienced bonsai practitioners often do quite radical restyles with good results. However, it sometimes takes several growing seasons for the tree to get close to their ideal.

Beginners who choose material that naturally inclines towards one of the basic styles will find it easiest to use that style. If your subject grows upright with graceful curves in its trunk, refining it into an informal upright style will probably be the easiest and quickest way to achieve a realistic, mature-looking bonsai. Turning such a specimen into a cascade, on the other hand, requires more training and time.

Some species tend to have more brittle, less flexible wood. Older trees have less flexible wood as well. Brittle branches require extra care when styling, as they can be prone to breaking. Losing a critical branch constitutes a major styling issue, and can even permanently ruin a tree. That’s why beginners are better off using younger, more flexible stock.

6: I don’t have a lot of room in my house/apartment to bring my trees in from the garden /patio over the winter. 

Not a problem! Simply choose to collect tree species suited for overwintering in your climate. While many tropical species are popular for bonsai, the majority of species used for the hobby are supposed to overwinter outdoors.

To stay in optimum health, most temperate species actually require the dormant period brought on by cold winter months. You will still need to provide some protection for your trees during winter, but they will live outdoors year-round. 

Nurseries generally stock plants appropriate for the local climate zone. So, if you acquire most of your starter material from nurseries in your area, hardiness shouldn’t be an issue. 

Still, it’s best to check the zone requirements for any species you acquire for bonsai. This is particularly important if you purchase pre bonsai online or from a specialized bonsai nursery. Some popular bonsai species that need a dormant period may not be cold hardy in your area. If you left them outside, year-round, they might not make it through a typical winter. These species should be overwintered in a garage instead of outside.

7: I live in an apartment with no patio.

Those without outdoor space can still practice and be successful at bonsai! The key, again is to choose species compatible with your environment. Apartment dwellers can focus on tropical species such as ficus and jade for their bonsai subjects. Just be sure to dedicate space by bright window for your collection.

People interested in bonsai might be hesitant to take up the practice for a variety of reasons. We’ve covered seven of these concerns, providing information to help ease apprehensions about being successful at bonsai.

Ready to Start?

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