How to Grow Bonsai and Train Them Into Your Own Unique Masterpieces

Learning how to grow bonsai is a process that requires both time and patience. But, it can also be relaxing, therapeutic, and very rewarding. The beauty of your finished work of art will be worth the effort, and the bonsai you create can remain a family heirloom for years to come.

Since bonsai is a reflection and expression of nature, virtually any type of tree will work, although some species are more suitable than others, especially for specific styles.

How to Grow Bonsai from Seedlings in Miniature Containers

As the artist, you can control the finished product from beginning to end by using seeds or cuttings, or you can save yourself a lot of waiting time by purchasing a tree or shrub from a nursery or garden center.

Tips for Growing Trees from Bonsai Seedlings

How to Grow Bonsai from Seeds

While growing bonsai from seeds allows you to be part of the creative process from beginning to end, it does require a LOT of time. In fact, it may be several years before your tree is ready to be trained and formed. It is also more difficult to begin your project in the seed stage, as these little plants are much more sensitive and need extra care to survive.

You can purchase seeds from a store or you can go for a walk through a forest and gather them from their natural habitat. The ideal time to plant is in the autumn so that the seeds can germinate in the spring, just as they would in nature.

Choose a container with drain holes, fill with bonsai soil, and plant your seeds evenly spaced. Water regularly, fertilize in the summer once the seedlings appear, and re-pot when they are big enough, usually at least one year after planting.

Pros and Cons of Growing Bonsai from Seed

How to Grow Bonsai from Cuttings

This method is quite popular since it is less expensive than purchasing a tree yet much faster than beginning at the seed stage. And, when you choose your cutting, you are also able to see the characteristics of the “parent” tree so you have some idea how your new plant will look.

Choose a clipping that is about 5-10 centimeters long and 2-5 millimeters thick. Clear the lower stem of branches and leaves then place your cutting into a bonsai soil mixture.

If you are planting more than one clipping, be sure to leave adequate space between each to allow for growth. Water gently and then place the container outside where it will be protected from direct sunlight and harsh elements.

After about one year, you should be able to re-pot your little trees into larger containers. While much quicker than beginning from seed, growing bonsai from clippings is still a slow process and you can expect at least 2-3 years of unrestricted growth before you will be able to shape and form your tree.

How to Grow Bonsai from Collected Trees

In nature, some mature trees have remained quite small due to growing conditions or competition. If you find one of these trees, you may be able to dig it up and re-pot it for bonsai use. It is very important that you protect the root system, so remove the plant from the ground carefully and then cover the roots with a large cloth until re-potting.

Early spring is the ideal time for this, as the tree is just coming out of dormancy and preparing to begin the growing process. Of course, you must make sure that you obtain permission from the property owners before you use their forest for your bonsai acquisitions.

How to Grow Bonsai from Nursery Stock

This is by far the easiest way to begin your bonsai project. Now that this art is becoming more popular, many garden centers are stocking appropriate trees; however your selection may be limited. If you request, some nurseries may have the ability to order trees for you.

While purchasing a grown tree means that you can begin training right away, it is sometimes harder to shape as some of the branches are larger and quite a bit of pruning and cutting may be necessary.

You must be careful that you do not cause damage or permanent scarring to your bonsai. Also, the trunks of older trees are more difficult to manipulate so you will have to be more selective and know what style you want to achieve before you make a purchase.

Be sure to choose a tree that will fit your vision. Will the plant be indoors or outside? Do you want a flowering shrub or a more “masculine” style? And, what form are you hoping to create? For example, if you want a formal upright bonsai, you will not want to purchase a tree that has a curve in the trunk.

Training Your Bonsai

Knowing the style you want is the first step in bonsai training. Whether you are hoping to achieve an Informal Upright, Literati, or Cascading form, there are specific techniques that you will apply to help create your artistic vision.

Bonsai Pruning

How to Grow Bonsai in the Shapes You Want Them to Grow.

This is the most important training technique. Basically, there are two types of pruning: maintenance and styling.

Maintenance pruning can typically be done throughout the season and is the primary way you will keep your tree looking balanced and formed.

When it comes to styling pruning, it is vital that you choose the appropriate season. Some trees can be cut and trimmed all year long, but most have an ideal time that is best for the health of the plant, usually early spring or late autumn. And, make sure that you provide adequate recovery time afterwards. Some styling can be harsh, and your tree will need at least two months to heal.

  • Defoliation: Removing unwanted leaves from deciduous trees will help encourage new leaf growth and will also keep leaf size smaller.

  • Shoot Pruning: This type of pruning can be done throughout the season when new growth or shoots make the plant begin to look unbalanced or out of shape.

  • Twig and Branch Pruning: Sometimes branches need to be removed to achieve the style you desire. You will likely want to eliminate branches that cross each other or bend back toward the trunk and make your bonsai look messy rather than artistic. Use bonsai shears or concave branch cutters that will allow the tree to heal without scars or damage.

  • Finger Pruning: When maintaining conifers and evergreens, you can use your fingers to pinch back new growth. This will encourage fuller foliage and will also prevent browning.

An important guideline to remember is that whatever you do above ground will also affect what happens underground. If large amounts of pruning are done, you must also cut back the root system or your tree may have a huge amount of growth the next season in an attempt to fix the imbalance between foliage and roots.

Learn more about how to grow bonsai and shape them with these bonsai pruning tips, techniques, and video tutorials.

Bonsai Wiring

How to Grow Bonsai in the Direction(s) You Want Them to Grow.

While shaping your bonsai, you may have to wrap copper or aluminum wiring around branches in order to reposition them. It will take a few months to train the tree, and then the wire may be removed.

Although this can be done at any time, keep in mind that during the growth season, branches will thicken quickly and the wire may grow into the bark, causing damage. Keep a close eye on your plant to make sure your wiring is not too tight.

  • Root Flare or “Nebari”: Your bonsai's surface roots should be exposed, providing balance to your tree and giving it a impression of strength and power.

    Ideally, these roots should radiate from the trunk like the spokes of a wagon wheel, and none should cross each other above the ground. There are two main ways that nebari can be achieved.

    First, when re-potting your plant, you can remove any vertically growing roots which will direct growth to the horizontal, or radial, roots.

    The second method involves applying a tourniquet, or wrapping wire tightly around the base of the trunk. Essentially, this causes a partial blockage of nutrient flow from the roots, and eventually the tree will be forced to grow new roots above the tourniquet.

  • Trunk Tapering: A bonsai trunk should be thicker at the base than at the top. Unfortunately, you cannot thin a trunk, but you can help achieve or restore balance by using a technique that will thicken the trunk.

    If you prune the entire tree except for the branches above the thin part, you will direct an increase of nutrients to this thinner part and it will thicken. This is a very slow process and will usually take at least a couple of years.

    Shaping a trunk can be done in young trees by using wiring techniques. However, the more mature the plant, the harder it will be to reshape or manipulate it. Therefore, you need to keep this in mind when making a purchase.

    Choose a tree with a good taper and well balanced branches, and if you want to do extensive bending or shaping, make sure to purchase a younger, smaller tree with a thinner trunk that is more pliable.

Learning how to grow bonsai trees and train them can be a fun experience, and with a little time and patience, you can create an unique work of art that will grace your home for many years.

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