Starting out with owning or growing Bonsai is a multi-step process. Often people will buy a fully fledged plant from a seller that requires minimal care, and a lot of people are content to remain at this level.
This is fine, a Bonsai is a Bonsai, and you don’t need to be immersed in the art to care for its beauty. However, there’s more to Bonsai if you’re willing to explore it.
What you’ll need
A plant that has the potential to become a Bonsai is called a pre-Bonsai. These are young cuttings from selected plants that can, with care, be kept in a smaller form.
To start off you’ll need a pre-Bonsai, of which the most important step is finding the right tree (more of this to come), some pruning implements, and some wire.
Alternately, you can get a starter kit that’ll streamline this process and let you concentrate on getting down to brass tacks.
After this, there’s a question of style. More accurately, the style by which you allow the tree to grow, which have their own specific terms in Bonsai. There’s a few of these, and most starter packs will talk you through the steps of cultivating them correctly.
Via Container Gardening on Flickr
First is Chokkan (upright). These are single Bonsai that are grown upwards like a regular forest tree. Their dignified standing is usually maintained by cutting them into a pyramidal shape, or by carefully cultivating overhangs.
Image via Jinja Temple
Image via Badger Bonsai
Third is Kengai (cascade). This type of Bonsai flows over the pot and downward as if it were trying to adhere to the side of a mountain.
Image Aido Bonsai
Fourth is Hankan (gnarled). Like a combination of Kengai and Shakan, Hankan are gnarled, windswept pieces.
Indoor or out?
The vast majority of Bonsai trees require direct sunlight and outdoor conditions to thrive, and don’t do so well inside. However, there are a couple of plants, particularly tropical plants that don’t mind a consistent indoor heat, that do fine and even thrive there.
If you want an indoor Bonsai, you should check out which plants work, and which ones you’d be consigning to a short, dehydrated fate.
Meet the plants
Choosing a plant is the most important part of your initial foray into Bonsai. Not only does it have to look good, but it has to suit your specific circumstances. An Australian won’t necessarily see a plant thrive in the same conditions as Alaska, and vice versa.
Good indoor plants need heat, and can usually be used as outdoor plants during hot seasons. Be very wary of doing the opposite though unless explicitly mentioned:
Ficus: The Ficus Bonsai are a marvellous looking, easy maintenance bonsai for beginners that you can just as easily keep indoors due to their tolerance for high, consistent heat. In hotter areas, Ficus are often kept outside anyway as they love full sun.
Hawaiian Dwarf Umbrella: This plant is essentially impossible to screw up. They’ll live through anything short of hacksaw, and they grow quickly. However, they’re tricky to shape into traditional forms, and are therefore sometimes ignored by traditionalists.
Brazilian Raintree: Another stemming from Tropical bonsai culture, this legume has very hard, muscled wood has a great texture when miniaturised. If you can get ahold of one, they’re also on the critically endangered plants list, so you’re doing the world a favour by growing one.
Plants more suited to the outdoors that a beginner can get their hands on include:
Juniper: Juniper is an extremely popular beginner plant, but not one that should ever be kept indoors. When made into Bonsai, they resemble gorgeous ancient pines.
Japanese Red Maple: If you’re after something a bit different, the striking red of the Japanese Maple seems like it’d be an expensive option, but is actually a fairly cheap beginner’s Bonsai variety. The red of the leaves starts a deep, rich colour in Summer and lightens to more orangey tones in Spring, still maintaining the same undercurrent of crimson throughout the year.
Cottoneaster: This might actually be the easiest plant to care for as a beginner. It’s an extremely durable species that flowers red in Spring and has naturally tiny leaves.
Chinese Elm: These can technically be grown indoors, but they’ll never reach their full potential. Most famous for their extensive strings of roots, they work perfectly for someone trying to incorporate rocks into their pot or just to make their peace interact more with their scenery.