A Primer for the First-Time Bonsai Owner

by Michael Levin

When I got my first Bonsai in 1982, I made the mistake of thinking that Bonsai were hard to grow. I also made the mistake of listening to people who had tried to grow bonsai unsuccessfully and had given up, instead of talking to people who were enthusiastic and in love with their trees.

In this day and age of fast Internet info another problem exists as well: too much contact with too many people, all preaching different things.

One visit to a bonsai chat room can be very discouraging, with people talking about vague topics such as ‘turface’ in soil mixtures and pine needle pinching, directional pruning, metal halide lighting, super feeding, reverse taper, candle pruning, aluminum vs. copper wire, defoliating techniques and on and on—it’s enough to make you wish you never started.

What all these people forget is that people have grown Bonsai for centuries, and that it’s the magic in the little tree that mesmerizes you. . . .  I wish experienced bonsai people would just stop for a minute and try to recapture the beauty that they saw in their early bonsai experiences and their first bonsai tree.

If you’re a newcomer to bonsai, realize that it’s not hard to be successful, and just remember: Bonsai are a little challenging, but that’s exactly what makes them worth growing.

Here are some helpful excerpts from our book “ASK DOCTOR BONSAI!”

General Questions

Q: What is Bonsai?
A: The exact origins of Bonsai are difficult to determine, but it is generally believed that the artform began in China, and from there spread to Japan.

Trees from the wild were collected from cliff faces and rocky ledges, trees that had naturally been growing in limited amounts of soil. A tree grows differently under such adverse conditions: it grows more slowly, it develops definite bark character, smaller foliage, windswept branches, a rugged aged appearance. A small Bonsai pot imitates those adverse natural conditions.

In simplest terms, a Bonsai is a tree, shrub, tropical plant, grass, or herb, grown in a small container and shaped to recreate an older tree in nature.

Over the years, the Bonsai acquires the character of age. Originally referring to just a “plant in a shallow pot”, the term has now come to include the whole art form: growing trees or plants in a dish, with the aim of having it appear as if it had grown that way purely as a result of natural forces, as if the design had happened completely on its own.

Growing a tree in a container, watching it go through the seasonal changes, makes you more aware of the natural world, even if your trees are grown indoors.

And there is never an end to the process: even when you feel the tree is really “finished”, you might see it from a different angle, a different view might catch your eye, and you will want to restyle your tree.

Q: How hard is it to grow Bonsai?
A: It’s not very hard at all: there are just a few things you have to understand when you start. The most important thing, the one you can never allow yourself to forget, is that you are dealing with a living tree, that changes and grows, and requires some kind of interaction with you. You need to be in contact with it every day, even if it’s just for a minute or so. The key to success is checking your tree daily, being careful not to ignore it or to forget about it, just as you wouldn’t forget to brush your teeth or feed your pet.

Q: Is there a big difference between growing Bonsai and growing houseplants?
A: That’s not an easy question to answer, because for either hobby you need some horticultural awareness. Mainly, I would say, the difference lies in the fact that the plants that are sold as houseplants have been hybridized over many years. The goal of the plant industry is to develop individual plants, which won’t dry out so fast in indoor conditions, and also will take lower light conditions.

Furthermore, houseplants are encouraged to grow and get bigger and bigger, whereas the aim of Bonsai gardeners is to keep the trees very small, or grow bigger only under tightly controlled conditions. Many of the plants used for Bonsai have, generally speaking, not been considered for hybridization at all, and so have not been bred for indoor conditions, though the care and maintenance may be comparable for all plants grown indoors, they are not really the same for both house plants and Bonsai.


Q: How often do you need to check your tree for water, every two days, once a week, or when?
A: Certainly when you start out you want to check your tree at least daily to see if the soil is dry. Until you are more experienced, the easiest way to do that is to press down on the moss or the soil, or, if there’s a rock in the landscaping, lift the rock out and feel the soil. Indicators of moisture in the soil are sponginess, dampness, and the color of the soil itself: a dry soil will be much lighter in color than a wet one. Even the weight of the pot itself can let you know whether it is time to water: a watered tree will feel considerably heavier than a dry one.

As time goes on, it will become easier to notice dryness or wetness.

Q: How dry should the tree get?
A: It depends to a certain degree on the variety of the tree as well as on the time of year, and therefore it is difficult to be really specific. Imagine your pot as translucent: you dunk the pot in water and soon the soil will be completely saturated, a dark color. With time, the level of saturation drops. Generally speaking, a “half-way-dry” point is the time to water. It’s important to make checking the tree for water a part of your daily routine. It might help to place the tree in a spot where you are not likely to overlook it, to help remind you to check its dryness level.

But it’s also very dangerous to overwater Bonsai.

A lot of people confuse over watering with a thorough saturation of the soil: but over watering refers purely to watering frequency. To overwater a tree means to saturate it consistently before it’s had a chance to begin to dry out at all. As a result it’s always soaking wet, and the roots may begin to rot from lack of oxygen.

Q: What is the best way to water Bonsai?
A: One of the most efficient ways to guarantee the amount of saturation that your tree needs is to dunk the pot. You simply take the entire Bonsai in its pot and literally dunk it into a basin of water, preferably up to the base of the trunk. The tree will be saturated very quickly. Dunking is an especially good method to use when trees are kept indoors, where it is very difficult to water adequately; pouring water on from the top as with house plants is likely to make the water run off tightly compacted soil and you simply cannot assure that the roots get the moisture they need.

Q: How much light do Bonsai need?
A: Light is essential for keeping plants healthy. Universally, Bonsai like good amounts of direct sunlight. That’s a starting point for deciding on proper placement for your trees.

When the trees are inside, make sure they get good, strong sun for at least a couple of hours every day. Light intensity is reduced considerably by window glass, and if the tree is in a poorly lit area, it will not do well. If light is not adequate, over watering becomes a danger as well, because the tree will dry out a lot more slowly.  Since plants photosynthesize nutrients from sunlight, strong sun will result in smaller leaf size as well, since the foliage does not need to expose as much of it’s surface area to the light for adequate nourishment. And of course, small, compact foliage is what we want to produce!

Consider buying a high quality OTT grow light available in our store to supplement light during our long winter months.


Your Bonsai should be mildly fertilized once or twice a month throughout the year. With the exception of December and January when the days are so short. You can use a Bonsai fertilizer, such as Pokon, at the recommended strength. You may also use a basic houseplant fertilizer, such as Miracle Gro or Peter’s, at half the recommended strength. Remember to feed more in the spring and summer and less in the winter.


Bonsai don’t need repotting very often; they can stay in one pot for several years at a time. If you have purchased a tree within the last half a year, it would be very safe to say that you won’t need to transplant this tree unless you don’t like the pot it is in, or for some other cosmetic reason.

Pruning – Shaping – Styling

Pruning really falls into two categories: maintenance pruning, which mainly means thinning the tree out occasionally, to keep it from growing out of its shape, and heavy pruning as a means of styling a tree.

Q: Do I have to prune my Bonsai?
A: Leaving a tree unpruned can be a big mistake with Bonsai. The new growth each year at the tips will cover up the existing growth inside. This might be alright for a houseplant, but with a Bonsai, it is essential that you can see into it: it is the fine, detailed ramification, the fine branching, which is going to give the small leaves the illusion of having a really powerful canopy of foliage, the illusion of a full-blown tree.

Q: So what is the purpose of pruning?
A: Pruning maintains a silhouette, the outer shape of the tree. A shoot that grows wild, for example, is trimmed back to keep the foliage to certain proportions. We have classes at the nursery to show you just how to maintain the appearance of your tree to show it off at its best. Check our Calendar for more information.

Insect Control

Misting your tree’s foliage with soapy water once or twice a month is a good preventative against insect problems!

Q: What is the best way to check for/monitor insects?
A: There is no substitute for looking at your tree often, monitoring it closely, coming in contact with it regularly to check for any signs of insects. A good way to check for insects is to shake the tree foliage over a sheet of paper. If you notice tiny specks moving around on the paper, there are insect pests present on your tree.

Q: What can I do to minimize insects?
A: The best thing to do, as I said before, is to keep a close eye on your trees, and try to provide optimal conditions for them. Misting is crucial, as is keeping the trees in a well-ventilated room. In fact, your misting bottle is in many aspects your number one Bonsai tool, even before a pair of scissors or a watering can. It is inevitable that you will run into insects again and again over time, and it may be that sometimes you won’t notice an insect until damage has already occurred to your tree. That is why it is a good idea to give the occasional preventive spray, maybe even as frequently as once or twice monthly, with an organic insect controller, such as rubbing alcohol either straight or mixed with a mild soap.

Vacation Care

Q: What can I do to take care of my tree if I have to go away for a while?
A: If you are going away for a brief period, up to 1 week, you can put a plastic bag around the pot so the soil stays moist. Close it around the trunk with a wire tie. It’s not necessary really to enclose the whole tree, but at least enclose the soil, so it won’t dry out. As for placement, a spot with lots of bright light but not too much direct sun, where it will stay relatively cool, is probably the best when you’re going to leave it unattended like that.

At Bonsai West we have a complete boarding service so you don’t need to rely on friends. Bringing your trees into our greenhouse is like treating your bonsai to the spa.

These hints will get you a long way into the hobby. At Bonsai West we have a full class schedule and always are working on trees and happy to help you with your questions.

Be sure to get on our e-mail list so that we can keep you posted as to the many free demos and open houses that we have throughout the year.

We hold classes, clinics and open house events throughout the year. Check our Calendar for more information and don’t miss these informative and interesting demonstrations that cover many of the basic tips, but that will also teach you how to get started in making your own Bonsai.

Bring your trees by for a visit anytime, we will be happy to help.