How to Shape Bonsai Trees


The word bonsai is taken from the words bon sai, which literally mean tray plant. Almost any woody plant from azaleas to Japanese maples can be used for bonsai. Bonsai is the art of making a small plant in a container look like a very old, large tree. Bonsai gardeners do this through careful shaping and pruning, a constant process.

Step 1

Wrap a coil of annealed copper wire loosely around the trunk and limbs of the tree in a clockwise spiral. Gently bend the tree into the desired growing position. Re-wrap the trunk as the tree's girth expands to avoid girdling the tree. Bend the wire gently and gradually into shape over time to avoid breaking the tree, especially if the tree is not real flexible.

Step 2

Time hard pruning of the bonsai tree for spring or summer, or during the optimal pruning time for your tree variety.

Step 3

Remove weak growth, dead limbs and any undesirable limbs.

Step 4

Stop pruning after removing each branch and view the tree from several angles to ensure that the tree is conforming to the desired shape.

Step 5

Pinch back the too-large foliage of coniferous evergreens such as Juniper or cedar between a thumb and forefinger. Pinching back foliage will encourage a bushier shape and will cause the needles will grow back smaller. Pinching also gives evergreens a more natural shape than cutting with shears.

Step 6

Head back the branches of deciduous trees that grow too long for the overall shape of the tree by cutting the branch with shears just above a live bud, leaf or branch.

Step 7

Remove 60 to 90 percent of the leaves from deciduous trees in mid-summer by cutting the leaf off with scissors directly behind the leaf petole. This process, known as leaf pruning, causes leaves to grow back in a size more proportional to the tree.

Things You'll Need

  • Annealed copper wire
  • Pruning shears


  • "The Reader's Digest Illustrated Guide to Gardening"; Carrol C. Calkins; 1978
  • Texas A&M University Extension: Bonsai
  • University of Georgia Extension: Bonsai

Who Can Help

  • Iowa State University Extension: Consider the Art of Bonsai
Keywords: pruning a bonsai, shaping bonsai trees, bonsai tree care

About this Author

Tracy S. Morris has been a freelance writer since 2000. She has published two novels and numerous online articles. Her work has appeared in national magazines and newspapers, including "Ferrets," "CatFancy," "Lexington Herald Leader" and "The Tulsa World."