From time to time I’m approached by someone who has become excited about bonsai and wants to get into the hobby. Sometimes they’ve been given a bonsai as a present, sometimes they’ve bought one from a roadside vendor or home improvement store – a “mallsai,” as it’s called. From such humble beginnings often comes a fiery passion. All too often, however, the initial surge of excitement crashes headlong into reality as the new enthusiast discovers that bonsai is one of the most complex simple things you can do. Many quit when their tree mysteriously dies; I mean, if you don’t know why, what’s the point in repeating the disappointment and especially when it costs you money to boot?


A Chinese Elm Starter Bonsai

There are key factors the new bonsai enthusiast must know and apply when starting out. While it’s not possible to guarantee success – everyone’s situation is a little different – understanding these factors literally forms the foundation of everyone’s ability to grow miniature trees, from the greatest master to the rank amateur. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that until you truly understand them, you are destined to fail.

Here are my five fundamental bonsai factors for the new enthusiast:

1. Every plant is an outdoor plant, even those that may be kept indoors for a short period of time.

Many a new bonsai enthusiast is attracted to the idea that bonsai are indoor plants, and they envision them sitting on a shelf in the living room. You have to forget this idea. Yes, I know, you’ve read on the Internet about indoor bonsai and there’s lot and lots of information about how to do it. To be sure, many bonsai experts are able to maintain bonsai indoors. You are not an expert (yet). So forget this idea.

2. The most common cause of bonsai mortality is drying out. What’s extra sad about this problem is sometimes the tree dried out before you even got it, but it’s a juniper and they die very slowly and remain green right up to the end. (Not all “mallsai” are junipers. Junipers are popular in the commercial trade because they look like little pine trees, they’re hard to kill and stay green even after death, hence they can be shipped across the country and sold to unsuspecting buyers.)

The tree above is a starter Chinese elm bonsai. If you’ve read my article on Chinese elm as one of the best bonsai trees for beginners, you know how I feel about the horrid “S-curve” Chinese elm. They are the bane of the commercial bonsai industry. If you’ve ever seen one, compare it with the tree above. Though very short, less than 10″, the tree has a solid design and is well on its way to being a small work of art.

3. The second most common cause of bonsai mortality is suffocation of the roots, due to poor soil. Bonsai are not houseplants, which are potted in a completely different type of soil than is used for bonsai. Unfortunately, all too often beginner bonsai, or “mallsai,” are potted in commercial potting soil. This is done sometimes to overcome the likelihood that watering of the tree will be spotty at best during the period of time between creation and retailing to you.

If you have a “mallsai,” one of the first things you must do is understand what’s going on in the pot. Check the soil surface. If it’s rock solid and you can’t move any of the soil, then you have one of the dreaded glued-on-rocks impervious soil surfaces. Watering is impossible. If you have this, your first order of business is to break the entire surface layer off and discard it. Underneath you should find some sort of potting soil, hopefully. Whether or not you had the glued-on-rocks problem, your next order of business is to gently stick your finger into the soil to gauge how much moisture is present. If it’s soggy, you have a problem. Let the soil dry out for a couple of days before watering. If the soil is dry, water thoroughly and watch to see if the water drains out. If it drains well and quickly, you’re in good shape. If it pools and drains slowly or not at all, you have a problem which must be addressed as soon as you can. The fix is beyond the scope of this article, but you can email me if you find yourself in this situation.

4. Learning bonsai involves killing trees. If your first bonsai does not die right away, this does not mean you’re a bonsai expert. It just means you haven’t suffered your first loss yet. If you want to practice bonsai, you have to be prepared to lose trees along the way. Everyone loses trees, even the greatest of the masters. It’s part of the price you pay for the sublime enjoyment of one of the highest of the arts. So get as many trees as you can comfortably fit into your bonsai space and maintain, given your lifestyle. More is better. You learn more by doing more. If you only have a few trees, you’ll tend to overwork them and this is just as harmful as letting them dry out. Overload yourself and your bonsai time.

What’s the average life expectancy of a bonsai? Over the long haul, you an expect your average tree to live between five and 20 years. I know this may sound a bit morbid and perhaps even discouraging, but bonsai exist in a very limited space and as a result are at enhanced risk and exposure. Drying out, root suffocation and freezing are the biggest risk factors and never go away.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, you can learn the skills needed to style and shape a bonsai to “completion” in as little as three years. In five or six years, most average size bonsai are fully developed and showable (if you should choose to pursue showing your work). By the time ten years have passed, barring issues along the way, your trees should be outstanding examples of the art if properly trained and maintained.

5. Take as many classes as you can, with teachers who know sound bonsai techniques. Sooner is better. Very few individuals are successful on their own, without getting advice from some source. I did well with books and magazines back in the day, but frankly I would have been better served if I’d learned directly from someone who’d already made the mistakes I was destined to make. It’s water under the bridge for me, but it needn’t be for you. Find someone who teaches, and first learn techniques. Then practice them faithfully, on every tree you work on.


A Chinese privet bonsai, shaped and styled using time-tested techniques.

Why techniques? Bonsai is a lot like music. The finest musicians play scales daily. Why? Because scales are the fundamentals of the art of music, and fundamentals must be practiced or you won’t get to the art part. With bonsai, wiring, pruning, shaping, root-pruning, and so on are the scales and must be practiced, otherwise you won’t get to the art part – guaranteed.

This last tree is an example of a bonsai just a year in training from a mere trunk. While I knew clearly the basic style of tree it was going to be, I had no way to know the “details.” But I didn’t need to. I simply wired and shaped the branches, and made sure they were moved into the appropriate spots. All strictly based on technique. Even at this stage of its development, I felt there was art in this specimen.

If you’re a new bonsai enthusiast, you have a challenging and exciting road ahead of you as you learn about bonsai. It’s a journey we all take, and the journey’s the thing. But I hope these tips can help you avoid a few of the pitfalls along the way.


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