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7 Easy Steps to Bonsai a Plant (Complete Guide)

Bonsaiing a plant can seem intimidating, but with the proper guidance, anyone can make one of these gorgeous creations. 

To bonsai almost any species of plant, you’ll need to:

  1. Pick a plant to bonsai
  2. Gather your tools
  3. Remove the top layer of soil
  4. Prune your bonsai
  5. Wire and train the branches of your bonsai
  6. Pot your bonsai
  7. Follow appropriate care instructions

In this article, you’ll learn how to bonsai a plant from just about any tree species, making the process highly customizable to your taste, climate, and circumstances.

What Is a Bonsai Plant?

Bonsai tree is a horticultural craft and art where one creates a miniature tree from a full-sized plant by pruning, wiring, grafting, shallow planting, and defoliation.

The art of bonsai dates back to the Han Dynasty in China, between 206 AD and 220 AD, making it an ancient tradition.

And depending on the plant species, some bonsai can live for centuries.

Can You Make a Bonsai Out of Any Plant?

Almost any species of tree can become a bonsai plant. 

However, some species do better than others in this miniature form.

Overall, you should choose a hardy tree with roots that ball and knot up rather than spread out and grows well in your region.

What Are the Best Bonsai Plants for Beginners?

While almost any tree can become a bonsai plant, some species work best and should be the top choices for bonsai beginners.

Juniper bonsai, maple bonsai, ficus bonsai, boxwood bonsai, cotoneaster bonsai, and beech bonsai are some of the best options. 

Each offers its own benefits and drawbacks, but these are typically the greatest choices for those just starting out.  

But remember that your climate should also be a top consideration when deciding which species is best for you.

How Old Should a Tree Be Before You Bonsai It?

You should pick a tree to bonsai that is at least a couple of years old and at the approximate height of which you want to keep it.

If you’re planning to grow your bonsai from seed, know that it will take anywhere from three to four years to develop a plant sturdy enough to bonsai.

7 Steps to Bonsai a Plant

Now that you know you can turn just about any plant into a bonsai, it’s time to make your choice and start creating. 

So, without further ado, here’s a seven-step sequence to bonsai a plant on your own.

Step One: Pick a Plant to Bonsai

When picking a plant to bonsai, you should first choose whether you want an indoor or outdoor plant.

If you prefer an indoor variety, choose a plant that can thrive in a temperature-controlled environment. 

If an outdoor bonsai works better for you, consider your climate and the location where the bonsai will live.

And remember that non-tropical trees can survive outdoors, whereas tropical species are best for indoor planting.

Then, once you’ve decided on a species, you need to pick the seeds, a nursery stock, a pre-bonsai plant, or a bonsai tree starter kit.

Generally, the kit is the most expensive option but will allow you to jump right into crafting your bonsai. 

Pre-bonsai and nursery stock will be ready for crafting into bonsai quickly as well, but they require a bit more care and work.

Seeds, on the other hand, can take anywhere from a year to four years to produce a plant that’s ready to bonsai.

Step Two: Gather Your Tools

To create a bonsai and maintain it, you’ll need a good pair of concave cutters, a wire cutter, and a chopstick or other long singular stick-shaped item to loosen the soil.

And speaking of soil, choose one mixed specifically for bonsai. 

Your soil should have a neutral pH combination of fine gravel, compost, pumice, akadama, and lava rock.

Lastly, you’ll need wire for shaping your bonsai and a pot with at least one drainage hole to put your plant inside.   

Your pot should be about two-thirds the size of the height of your bonsai tree.

Additionally, it’s best to cover your drainage hole with mesh so that your plant’s roots don’t come out of the bottom of your container. 

Step Three: Remove the Top Layer of Soil

Next, carefully remove your bonsai plant from its starter kit or nursery stock container if you’ve chosen one of these options.

If you planted your seeds instead, you’d need to wait until the plant has matured before performing this step. 

Then, when everything is ready, use your chopstick to loosen the soil at the top of the plant and remove any excess dirt until you see the first top roots.  

Also, based on where the primary roots are, how the branches fall, and the general visual appeal of your plant, decide which part will be the front.

Step Four: Prune Your Bonsai

Pruning is perhaps the most critical skill you’ll learn when it comes to the art of bonsai. 

Pruning is what keeps your bonsai miniature while still looking like a full-sized tree in shape and scale.

Plan to prune your bonsai in spring, when the plant is out of dormancy and ready to heal from any pruning you may do.

Overall, you should prune: 

  • Thick branches that are near the top of your tree
  • Limbs that have unnatural turns or twists
  • Branches that have grown to the same height (it’s best to keep just one of each height)
  • Any limbs you feel will help make your bonsai aesthetically pleasing
  • Dead branches and foliage 

Usually, you’ll want to prune branches about a third of the way up the plant’s trunk to give it a tree-like aesthetic.

Furthermore, keep the front of your plant in mind and prune it so that it is the most visually appealing part of the tree and so you can show off the trunk.  

You should also remember never to remove more than one-third of the tree’s branches and foliage at one time. 

Step Five: Wire and Train Your Bonsai

Wiring your bonsai tree means giving its trunks and branches a shape that will eventually become permanent as your bonsai grows and matures.

To do this, you should first decide how you want to design the trunk and branches of your bonsai plant. 

If your tree has two trunks, consider wiring one trunk so that it grows away from the other trunk to allow more openness in the design.

But, no matter what design you’ve chosen, it’s now time to wire your tree to your liking. 

So, start by taking your wire and sticking it into the soil and roots near the trunk to anchor it as well as you can. 

Then, begin wrapping the wire around the trunk, starting at the bottom until you reach the top of the trunk.

Now, shape the trunk carefully as you’d like it, taking precautions not to crack or break it.

After you have wrapped the trunk, you need to wire your branches. 

So, with each branch that you want to reshape, you need to 

  • Wrap your wire once around the trunk to keep the wire stable 
  • Wrap your wire around the limb, beginning at the innermost portion (near the trunk)
  • Continue to wrap until you make it to the end of the branch

Once you have wired each limb, begin carefully bending them into your desired shape, working from bottom to top.

Step Six: Re-pot Your Bonsai

Wait to re-pot your bonsai until spring to ensure it has the strength and health to recuperate from pruning and wiring.

At this point, you should use chopsticks to carefully untangle the roots of your bonsai plant so you can identify any roots that are too long. 

You can then prune up to a third of the root system to allow your plant to fit nicely in your chosen pot.

Afterward, add new soil to your pot and insert your bonsai plant. 

Additionally, some growers use wire to attach and secure the bonsai plant to the pot. 

You can do this step if you want. 

But overall, you need to finish re-potting by topping the roots with additional soil and using your chopsticks to fill in any remaining air pockets.

Step Seven: Care for Your Bonsai

Water your tree immediately after re-potting, then place it in a shady spot for approximately four weeks. 

Continue to care for your bonsai plant as you would the original plant species you’ve chosen.

Also, keep in mind that as your bonsai plant begins to mature, the wires are at risk of digging into the branches and creating permanent scars.

To avoid this, remove the wires after approximately three to four months.

How Big Should a Bonsai Get?

Once you’ve pruned, wired, and potted your bonsai, you’ll be in control of how big it gets.

Some owners allow their bonsai to grow upwards of 80 inches (203 cm) tall, while others prefer micro-bonsais that only reach two to six inches (5-15 cm) tall.

But, whatever size you choose, just make sure you don’t let your bonsai outgrow its container. 

Generally, the length of the container should be about two-thirds the height of the tree to keep the tree and its root system miniature.

If you want your bonsai to grow taller, re-pot it to a larger pot.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to bonsai a plant is an art form, but that doesn’t mean beginners can’t partake. 

Really, it is fairly simple to bonsai a tree with the proper steps, and as you create more bonsai trees, your pruning and wiring techniques will improve.

To recap how to bonsai a tree, you first need to choose a tree that works well in your environment and fits your preferences. 

Afterward, you’ll wire your tree so that it takes on the style you want. 

Then, follow the proper care instructions and pot-to-plant ratios to keep your bonsai miniature.

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