Contrary to what most people think, a bonsai (pronounced "bone -- sigh") is not a species of tree. The word is actually two words put together: "Bon" which means 'tray' and "Sai" meaning planting or growing. Literally, bonsai is the art of growing plants in a tray. Bonsai appeared first in China and then in Japan. A century ago, Japanese bonsai masters demonstrated the art form in Europe, and bonsai soon became popular worldwide. Here are some suggestions for beginning bonsai gardeners.
Trees or Plants for Beginners
Tropical and subtropical trees and plants make the best starter bonsai projects. They require about the same kind of care as houseplants. Some of the recommended ones are: Japanese Red Maple -- This is a popular tree that is a bit more hardy and forgiving of mistakes in trimming. Semi-tropical Sea Grape - The leaves are large for a bonsai, but they can be cut down significantly and still look lovely. An unusual choice for a beginner bonsai gardener. Chinese Elm -- When people think of bonsai, they think of Chinese Elm. Himalayan Cedar or Brazilian Cedar -- These varieties of cedar grow five or six inches tall. They are sturdy and adapt to a wide variety of bonsai styles.
Watch the temperature and light when you choose a spot for your bonsai.They need to be where they can get some morning sun but be in the shade during the heat of the day. While some will take full sun, it's wise to check. Many will not thrive in full sun. (You can set them outdoors in spring and summer once the daily low temperatures rise above 55 degrees.) Make sure the room has some humidity to prevent the plant from getting parched too quickly. Also make sure the bonsai is on a staple table or other support to avoid damage.
If you make any mistake at all, the first one will likely be to over water. It's the most commomn mistake beginners make. Not enough water can cause your tree to dry up and die, but too much water will quite literally drown the tree, flooding its tissues and stopping photosynthesis. Always wait for the soil to begin to dry out before watering. It should feel dry, but not too dry. When you water, pour water slowly into the pot until the excess begins to seep out the bottom. Then leave the bonsai alone. Wait for it to start to dry out before you water again.
Visit your nearest nursery or garden center. Some specialize in materials for bonsai artisans. Have all the information you can gather on your bonsai (species, size, characteristics). They will help you pick out the right type of soil for the bonsai you have. Elms will need a different pH balance in the soil than, say, a juniper or cedar. Buy the best potting soil you can get. The plant will need all the advantages it can get as you trim and clip and train it to the shape you want.
Buy a very high quality fertilizer, one that is water-soluble and has the nutrient mix that's right for your plants. Apply the fertilizer once or twice a month according to instruction during the growing season and when the soil is wet and loose or the fertilizer won't be effective.
Pruning the Tree
Here's the tricky part -- pruning. Pruning is the visible part of the bonsai art. It is done in two different ways. Branch pruning is done at the start of spring. Clip all the branches from the tree except those you want to keep. Be careful to leave enough for the tree to survive. Root pruning should only be done if the bonsai's roots have bound to the inside of the pot. Study pruning techniques so you don't damage your plant. Purchase a quality set of bonsai pruning tools. Don't try to use makeshift clippers, scissors or knives. Study examples of the bonsai art to help you plan your pruning strategy.