Bonsai plants

"A method of pruning and shaping to create an illusion of a very old tree in miniature"

Bonsai does not refer to a type of plant, but rather describes a method of pruning and shaping to create an illusion of a very old tree in miniature. It is placed in a small pot which further restricts root growth and therefore plant size. A bonsai can be created from any plant which develops a woody trunk and tolerates pruning well. Bonsai can be created from tropical plants, perennials with woody stems, deciduous shrubs and evergreens. There are several forms, such as formal upright, cascade, forest and windswept.

The easiest bonsai to care for, if you are a beginner, is a tropical plant. A weeping fig, for example, grows well in our homes, so will continue to do so after it is pruned and repotted. Also suitable are boxwood (Buxus), Fukien Tea (Carmona), myrtle (Myrtus), Natal plum (Carissa) and Tree of a Thousand Stars (Serissa).


Deciduous shrubs and woody perennials need a cold, dormant period in the winter, just as if they were growing outdoors. Plants such as white or paper birch (Betula), crabapple (Malus), Siberian elm (Ulmus), Cotoneaster, and pygmy caragana form attractive bonsai. During the winter they need to be kept in a cold but frost-free place and need little light after they have lost their leaves. Close to but not touching a cold window in a cool room is suitable. A garage heated to just above freezing, or a root cellar, may be appropriate, or the plant may be buried in the ground to just above the pot rim and mulched well over winter. They can't be kept outdoors in a pot above the ground during the winter, as the soil temperature fluctuates dramatically during our weather changes.


Evergreens are the most challenging. Because they need high humidity in the winter and a temperature just above freezing, they cannot be grown successfully in the living room! They will tolerate a windowsill if kept close enough to the glass to be quite cool, as long as the needles don't touch the glass if it is very cold outside. Keep warm air away from the plant and be sure there is no hot air register under it. A tray larger than the pot, filled with water and topped with 'egg crate' (used on fluorescent lights) or strong metal screening will increase humidity. Set the pot on the screen and water will evaporate around it. An alternative is to sit the pot on a tray filled with pebbles and keep water to just below the top of the pebbles so that water cannot get into the pot through the drainage hole. Pine, juniper, and spruce can be used successfuly if the winter requirements can be met. Larch lose their needles in the winter, so must be kept cold and moist but do not need light when they have no needles.


The amount of light a bonsai needs depends on the type of plant. Tropicals have the same requirements as a bonsai that they do under normal conditions. Figs, for example, need medium sunlight, while azaleas require bright filtered light and citrus needs bright direct sunlight. Deciduous trees need no light when they have lost their leaves in winter, and a bright, sunny spot when in leaf. When evergreens are cold in the winter, they are semi-dormant, so need little light, but need bright light when warm enough to grow. Many bonsai are grown under fluorescent lights, usually one warm white and one cool white bulb. The lights must be quite close to the plants and the length of day depends on the type of plant. One that needs winter dormancy needs a short day in the winter and a long one in the summer, but a tropical coming from the equator prefers a twelve hour day all year round.


Because bonsai are in small pots in relation to their root size, watering is critical. Soil mixtures should encourage good drainage, and will vary depending on the type of plant. Inserting a finger into the soil will tell you if the soil is damp or dry enough to need water. No bonsai soil surface should be covered with any material that prevents water from evaporating from the surface and oxygen from entering the soil, or does not allow you to feel the soil. In hot weather, most bonsai will need checking for water daily, as once a plant's roots become too dry, they may not be able to absorb water and the plant may die. After many years of care, that can be devastating! Bonsai do not need a lot of fertilizer, as rapid growth is not appropriate. The type of fertilizer used depends on the type of plant, but is generally a balanced one, such as 20-30-20, for deciduous plants, and 30-10-10 for evergreens. Use half the recommended strength, and do not fertilize in the winter unless the bonsai is a tropical being grown under fluorescent lights.


There are a few specific rules, but much is learned by experience and visualizing what image is desired. If the plant evokes a feeling of age and strength, or long time survival under less than ideal conditions, it represents reality in miniature. That is bonsai.

Choosing a Bonsai Plant

Bonsai - a miniature version of the real thing!


There are many plants to choose from. Any plant that has a trunk, and branches that can be pruned, can be used to create a bonsai. Many bonsai in Calgary are tropical plants that do well indoors all year round, such as azalea, ficus, bougainvillea, fuchsia, etc. Others are deciduous shrubs and trees, such as elm, birch, apple, ginkgo, spirea, etc. that lose their leaves in the winter when the days are short. They need to be cool but above freezing in the winter, but don't need light when they don't have any leaves. They can stay in a cold room in a basement, or a very cool window, and do well. The most difficult here are evergreens (juniper, spruce, pine, etc.) because they need a very cool place but above freezing, as much humidity as possible (not easy - it freezes on the windows so the air is dry) and a short day length. A hole through the wall to the outdoors in a cold room, a fan to bring cold air in, and fluorescent lights on a timer to mimic the short day outdoors, is one answer, or a greenhouse heated to just above freezing, but neither are common or easy.


Evergreens are not the best plant for a beginner.


Pots are generally shallow and the length is approximately the height of the plant. Usually a plant is situated in an outer third of the pot, and an extending branch grows over the unplanted two-thirds. Cascade and semi-cascades bonsai are planted in deep, narrow pots so that the descending branches are above the base. Color is personal taste, but generally flat-finish neutral colors are used for evergreens, and flat or shiny ones may be used for deciduous trees. Brighter colors are sometimes used for flowering plants. Be sure that the pot is not more obvious than the plant.


Tools can be specific for bonsai, and there are many available. This isn't necessary for a beginner. Basics to start include a pair of fine pruners with pointed tips, a pair of toe-nail clippers to cut off small branches cleanly, a pair of wire cutters, small pliers to twist wire, and possibly larger pruners if bigger trees are being used. Fibreglas screening is very useful to cover drainage holes to prevent soil from falling out and still allow water to escape.


Soil used is appropriate to the plant, so an azalea needs soil that is high in plant fibre - it comes from a rainforest where what falls from a plant becomes the soil they grow in. A desert plant would need soil with sand or very fine bark added, which is suitable for its normal growing conditions. Avoid potting mixes that are mostly light, fluffy peat moss. One I like, called 'Pamper Your Plant', contains earthworm castings and has more body than most, and also some nutrients. We use very little fertilizer, as we don't want it to grow very quickly. Water when your finger into the soil indicates it needs it, don't leave water sitting in the saucer, and be sure there is a drainage hole in the pot.


Where can these plants grow in your home? Many tropicals are grown in windows and they adapt to varying light levels as our typical houseplants do. Those that need a lot of sun (citrus, hibiscus, etc.) do not bloom much in the winter, but they survive and welcome longer days and more intense light. Many, such as weeping figs, require bright light and no hot sun, so are relatively happy indoors. Fluorescent lights are a great way to give tropical bonsai a happy place to live all winter long. If the lights are on twelve to fourteen hours a day, and it is warm, they have 'summer'! The lights must be quite close to the plant - approximately four to six inches. One warm white and one cool white bulb create a good light spectrum. A timer helps if they are not in an area where they are easily turned on and off.


Once deciduous and evergreen bonsai are brought back from cooler winter homes to our living areas, they can be kept in a sunny window until the temperatures are consistently above freezing outdoors and they gradually introduced to living where they prefer to be. Don't, however, put them directly into the hot sun - they'll fry! Put them in a shady area during the day, and move them in at night until night temperatures are well above freezing, the gradually move them to some early morning sun, then into the light requirements each plant needs.


Pruning is done to create an image of an old tree. and to keep the plant the size we want it to be. Azalea is an excellent tropical plant to start with, as it takes to pruning well. Typically, it is purchased in a pot about 6-8 " across, and 6" deep, and can be root pruned it to fit into a bonsai pot about 6" by 4" and 2" deep. The top and the roots must be in balance, so if you prune off half of the branches and leaves, you can remove half the roots. The flowers are too large in proportion to the "old" tree we are trying to create, so they are removed. Old trees do not have leaves or needles close to the trunk - they are the oldest, and die as new growth develops on the ends of the branches. So, lower and inner small branches are removed. A 'front' of the potential bonsai is chosen, and branches that cross or are too close together are removed. Each branch must have its own place to be in, and no branch should grow directly toward the viewer. You are trying to create a look of an old tree in miniature. Go outdoors and look at old trees and see their shape. Bonsai are not usually moved to larger pots as they grow, but their roots are pruned periodically, to allow the plant to remain in the same size pot. Larger, older roots are removed to allow room for the fine, hair roots that absorb water. Large roots seen at the surface, however, give the bonsai an appearance of age. They may not extend far into the pot.


Wire is used to hold a bonsai in the pot, by extending up through the drainage hole, across the root or around the trunk, and downward through the hole again, wound together or spread out underneath the pot. It is also used to shape branches, by spiraling upward or outward along a branch so that when the branch is bent to create a particular pattern it holds that position. It must be checked regularly to prevent it from cutting onto the bark as the tree grows.


Bonsai styles are traditional and come from the Japanese. They include formal upright, informal upright, windswept, cascade, and forest, and several others that are less used. There are specific rules for each, which have a purpose, but this is an art, not a scientific experiment, and the most important rule of all is that it must please you.


  • Formal upright represents a tall, straight-trunked tree that stands alone. Stress does not affect it, and it does not compete with other trees for light or space. Think of a mature oak or spruce tree and try to create this feeling in miniature.

  • Informal upright trees have a side-to-side curved or angled trunk that is not completely vertical, but the tip is still in a line with the base of the tree. This tree might be an apple, pine, or azalea, or an herb such as rosemary.

  • Windswept bonsai reminds us of a tree where wind is always present from the same direction, such as a seacoast. There will be curves and angles in the trunk, but all branches sweep to the side away form the wind. A root may extend backwards from the trunk on the windy side, to act as an anchor. The shore pines on the west coast of Vancouver Island area good example.

  • Cascade bonsai represents a tree that is found on a hillside or at the edge of a lake or ocean. Branches above the hill are dwarfed, slanting away from the wind, to either side of the viewer, while those below the top of the hill are less exposed and growing outward over the water or lower part of the hill. A branch may be broken off at the top by wind. The trunk is slanted upright to above the tall, narrow pot, and then angles downward. This tree would be easily visualized as growing on windswept hillsides of our foothills and mountains. Examples of cascade bonsai could be fuchsia, cotoneaster, English ivy or juniper.

  • A forest bonsai is a collection of small trees of the same type planted in a shallow oval or rectangular pot. They are often cuttings of larger plants, such as small-leafed varieties of weeping fig, birch, or larch, and almost always an uneven number of trees. The taller trees are placed in the front and the smaller ones towards the back, to create a feeling of depth - smaller trees appear to be farther away. Additions of scattered rocks, driftwood, etc. give the feeling of an outdoor forest floor.


Remember that a bonsai represents an old tree in miniature. If it reminds you of a tree you have seen, or a picture that you remember, then it is of value to you. You created it, and it pleases you, so enjoy it and appreciate the culture that developed it, but still be open to new ideas that may make bonsai even more worthwhile.

Check out some of our Bonsai tools

available in store on our Bonsai Tool Catalogue page

Bonsai Classic Shears