How to Start Your First Bonsai Tree [2023]

Are you ready to embark on the rewarding journey of growing your own bonsai tree? Starting a bonsai tree can be a fulfilling and meditative experience, but it requires patience, knowledge, and the right techniques. In this comprehensive guide, we will walk you through the process of starting your first bonsai tree, from selecting the right tree to caring for it after planting. So let’s dive in and get started!

Table of Contents

Quick Answer

Starting your first bonsai tree involves selecting the right tree species, preparing the pot and soil, planting and shaping the tree, and providing proper care after planting. It’s a rewarding and meditative process that requires patience and attention to detail. Let’s explore each step in more detail.


Quick Tips and Facts

Before we dive into the step-by-step process, here are some quick tips and interesting facts about bonsai trees:

  • Bonsai is an ancient art form that originated in China over 2,000 years ago and later became popular in Japan.
  • Bonsai trees are not a specific species of tree, but rather regular trees that are trained and pruned to stay small and mimic the shape and proportions of full-sized trees.
  • Bonsai trees can be created from young nursery plants, volunteer seedlings, or purchased bonsai gardening kits containing suitable seeds.
  • There are many different species of trees and shrubs that can be used for bonsai, including evergreens, deciduous trees, and flowering trees like azaleas, crabapples, and wisteria.
  • Bonsai trees are grown and trained in shallow pots, which restrict the root growth and help maintain the small size of the tree.
  • Bonsai trees require daily watering in warm weather and protection from drying winds and direct sun in winter.

Now that you have a basic understanding of bonsai trees, let’s delve into the step-by-step process of starting your first bonsai tree.

Background and History of Bonsai

Before we jump into the practical aspects of starting a bonsai tree, let’s take a moment to appreciate the rich history and cultural significance of this ancient art form.

Bonsai, which translates to “tray planting” in Japanese, originated in China over 2,000 years ago. It was later adopted and refined by the Japanese, who elevated bonsai to a true art form. Bonsai trees were traditionally associated with Zen Buddhism and were used as objects of meditation and contemplation.

The art of bonsai involves carefully training and pruning a tree to create a miniature representation of a full-sized tree. It requires a deep understanding of horticulture, aesthetics, and the principles of design. Bonsai trees are not considered houseplants but rather living sculptures that require careful care and attention.

Today, bonsai has become a popular hobby worldwide, with enthusiasts dedicating their time and skills to create stunning miniature trees. Starting your own bonsai tree is a wonderful way to connect with nature, practice mindfulness, and create a living work of art.

1. Choosing the Right Bonsai Tree

The first step in starting your bonsai journey is selecting the right tree species. While almost any tree can be used for bonsai, certain species are more suitable for beginners due to their resilience and forgiving nature. Here are some popular bonsai tree species for beginners:

  • Juniper (Juniperus spp.): Junipers are hardy evergreen trees that are well-suited for bonsai. They have a classic bonsai look with their gnarled trunks and delicate foliage.
  • Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia): Chinese Elm is a versatile tree that can tolerate a wide range of conditions. It has small leaves and beautiful bark, making it an excellent choice for bonsai.
  • Ficus (Ficus spp.): Ficus trees, also known as fig trees, are popular indoor bonsai trees. They have small leaves and are relatively easy to care for.
  • Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum): Japanese Maple is a stunning deciduous tree with vibrant foliage. It requires more care and attention compared to other species but can reward you with breathtaking beauty.

When choosing a bonsai tree, consider the following factors:

  • Hardiness: Choose a tree species that is suitable for your climate. Some trees are better suited for indoor bonsai, while others thrive outdoors.
  • Size: Consider the size of the tree and the space you have available. Bonsai trees can range from a few inches to several feet in height.
  • Aesthetics: Look for a tree with interesting trunk movement, well-proportioned branches, and small leaves. These characteristics will help create a visually appealing bonsai tree.
  • Personal Preference: Ultimately, choose a tree species that resonates with you. Bonsai is a deeply personal art form, and you should select a tree that brings you joy and inspiration.


2. Preparing the Pot and Soil

Once you have chosen the right bonsai tree, it’s time to prepare the pot and soil. The pot you choose should be shallow and have drainage holes to prevent waterlogging. Bonsai pots come in various shapes, sizes, and materials, such as ceramic, plastic, or clay. Select a pot that complements the size and style of your bonsai tree.

When it comes to soil, bonsai trees require a well-draining mix that retains moisture while allowing excess water to escape. Bonsai soil mixes typically consist of a combination of organic and inorganic components. Here’s a simple recipe for a basic bonsai soil mix:

  • Akadama: Akadama is a type of clay soil that is commonly used in bonsai soil mixes. It retains moisture and provides good aeration for the roots.
  • Pumice: Pumice is a lightweight volcanic rock that helps improve drainage in the soil mix.
  • Lava Rock: Lava rock is another volcanic rock that provides additional drainage and helps prevent soil compaction.
  • Organic Matter: Adding a small amount of organic matter, such as compost or sphagnum moss, can help improve the water-holding capacity of the soil.

Mix the components in equal parts to create a well-balanced bonsai soil mix. You can also purchase pre-made bonsai soil mixes from garden centers or online retailers.


3. Planting and Shaping Your Bonsai Tree

Now that you have your bonsai tree, pot, and soil ready, it’s time to plant and shape your tree. Follow these steps to ensure a successful planting process:

Step 1: Prep Root Ball

  1. Carefully remove the bonsai tree from its nursery container, gently loosening the roots if necessary.
  2. Inspect the root ball and remove any dead or damaged roots using sharp, sterile pruning shears.
  3. If the roots are tightly wound around the root ball, use a root rake or your fingers to gently tease them apart.
  4. Moisten the roots using a spray bottle filled with water. This will help prevent the roots from drying out during the planting process.

Step 2: Put Root Ball in Pot

  1. Place a layer of bonsai soil mix at the bottom of the pot, creating a small mound in the center.
  2. Position the bonsai tree in the pot, making sure that the tree is centered and at the desired angle.
  3. Gently work the soil mix in around the roots, using a chopstick or your fingers to ensure that there are no air pockets.
  4. Continue adding soil mix until the roots are covered, leaving a small space at the top of the pot for watering.
  5. Press down the soil gently to secure the tree in place.
  6. Top the soil with a layer of gravel or moss to help retain moisture and provide a finished look.

Step 3: Start Shaping Tree

  1. Examine the branches of your bonsai tree and decide which ones you want to shape.
  2. Wrap bonsai wire snugly around the selected branches, starting from the base and working your way up.
  3. Bend the branches gently into the desired shape, using the wire as a guide.
  4. Avoid bending the branches too sharply or applying excessive pressure, as this can damage the tree.
  5. Leave the wire on the branches for a few months or until the branches have grown enough to hold their new shape.
  6. Once the branches have set, carefully remove the wire, making sure not to damage the bark or branches.

4. Bonsai Care After Planting

Congratulations! You have successfully planted and shaped your bonsai tree. Now it’s time to provide proper care to ensure the health and vitality of your tree. Here are some essential care tips for your bonsai tree:


  • Bonsai trees have specific watering needs. Water your bonsai tree when the soil feels slightly dry to the touch. Avoid overwatering, as this can lead to root rot.
  • Use a watering can or a gentle spray nozzle to water your bonsai tree, ensuring that the water reaches all parts of the soil.
  • In hot weather, you may need to water your bonsai tree daily. In colder months, reduce the frequency of watering, as the tree will require less water.


  • Bonsai trees require regular fertilization to provide them with essential nutrients. Use a balanced bonsai tree fertilizer during the growing season, following the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Avoid fertilizing your bonsai tree during the dormant period, as the tree will not be actively growing.


  • Most bonsai trees require ample sunlight to thrive. Place your bonsai tree in a location that receives at least 4-6 hours of direct sunlight each day.
  • If you are growing an indoor bonsai tree, place it near a south-facing window or provide supplemental grow lights to ensure it receives enough light.

Pruning and Trimming

  • Regular pruning and trimming are essential for maintaining the shape and health of your bonsai tree. Remove any dead, damaged, or overgrown branches using sharp, sterile pruning shears.
  • Prune your bonsai tree during the appropriate season for the species you are growing. Some trees are best pruned in spring, while others are pruned in late winter or early fall.


  • Bonsai trees need to be repotted every 1-2 years to prevent root-bound conditions and promote healthy root growth.
  • Repot your bonsai tree during the dormant period, just before the start of the growing season. Carefully remove the tree from its pot, trim the roots, and replant it in fresh bonsai soil mix.

Remember, each bonsai tree species has its own specific care requirements, so it’s important to research and understand the needs of your particular tree.


wilted tree during daytime

What is the easiest bonsai for a beginner?

The easiest bonsai tree for a beginner is often considered to be the Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia). It is a hardy tree that can tolerate a wide range of conditions and is forgiving of beginner mistakes. Chinese Elm bonsai trees have small leaves, beautiful bark, and are relatively easy to care for.

Can you start a bonsai with any tree?

While it is possible to start a bonsai with any tree, not all tree species are suitable for bonsai cultivation. Some trees are more challenging to train and maintain as bonsai due to their growth habits, leaf size, or other factors. It is recommended for beginners to start with tree species that are known to be more forgiving and adaptable to bonsai cultivation, such as Juniper, Chinese Elm, Ficus, or Japanese Maple.

Read more about “Can You Start Bonsai with Any Tree? …”

What time of year should I start my bonsai tree?

The best time to start a bonsai tree depends on the species you are growing. In general, the dormant period during late winter or early spring is an ideal time for planting and shaping bonsai trees. This allows the tree to recover from any stress caused by pruning and repotting and promotes healthy growth during the upcoming growing season. However, some species may have specific requirements, so it’s important to research the optimal timing for your particular tree.

Read more about “Are Bonsai Trees Better Inside or Outside? …”

Can you start a bonsai tree from a cutting?

Yes, it is possible to start a bonsai tree from a cutting. This method involves taking a small branch or twig from a mature tree and encouraging it to root and grow into a new tree. Hardwood cuttings are typically taken during the dormant season, while softwood cuttings are taken during the active growing season. Starting a bonsai tree from a cutting can be a rewarding and challenging process, requiring patience and careful attention to the rooting and growth process.


Starting your first bonsai tree is an exciting and rewarding journey. It requires patience, knowledge, and a deep appreciation for the art of bonsai. By selecting the right tree species, preparing the pot and soil, planting and shaping the tree, and providing proper care, you can create a beautiful and thriving bonsai tree that will bring you joy for years to come.

Remember to research the specific care requirements of your chosen tree species and adapt your care routine accordingly. Each bonsai tree is unique and requires individual attention. With time and practice, you will develop the skills and expertise to create stunning bonsai trees that reflect your personal style and creativity.

Happy bonsai gardening!

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