What is Bonsai?

Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) is an ancient oriental horticultural art form. The word Bonsai literally means, in both Chinese and in the Japanese language, tree-in- a-pot. Contrary to popular belief, bonsai is not the art of stunting a tree's growth. The characters for "bonsai" translate, roughly, to "pot" and "to plant." As such, bonsai is the art of growing trees in a confined space (usually a pot or a tray), so as to recreate some of natures most stunning and beautiful effects on trees, which are reduced in scale. Originally developed in the Orient almost 2000 years ago, today the sublime art of bonsai is practiced throughout the world. A tree planted in a small pot is not a bonsai until it has been pruned, shaped, and trained into the desired shape. When undertaking bonsai, you may find a new sense of appreciation for nature; you may start looking at trees, bushes and shrubs differently. Bonsai will surely change the way that you look at things.

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. Bonsai are kept small by careful control of the plant's growing conditions. Only branches important to the bonsai's overall design are allowed to remain and unwanted growth is pruned away. Roots are confined to a pot and are periodically clipped. A bonsai can be created from any plant, which develops a woody trunk and tolerates pruning well. Bonsai can be loosely divided into tropical plants, deciduous shrubs and evergreens. There are several classifications, such as formal upright, informal upright, cascade and windswept. It is impossible to write a simple set of care rules. Every species of plant has it's own special needs. Each location and environment is different too, and has to be considered. Therefore it is important, when starting in bonsai, to read all you can on the art.

Basic styles
Bonsai can be loosely divided into tropical plants, deciduous shrubs and evergreens. There are several classifications, such as formal upright, informal upright, cascade and windswept.
Following are five styles that seem to be agreed upon basic or fundamental designs.

Formal Upright (Chokkan)

In a formal upright style, the trunk is kept very straight and the tree has a very balanced distribution of branches. The first branch should be the most developed and should be positioned roughly at one-third the height of the tree.

Informal Upright (Moyogi)

Informal uprights are one of the most common styles. This is the most basic design wherein the idea is to develop a single line of the trunk, starting from the roots reaching the apex while producing a natural structure of branches and foliage. In this style there should be little or no empty spaces. Most deciduous trees will be best suited to informal upright styles.

Slanting (Shakan)

The word Slanting denotes the direction in which the tree's trunk moves. A Shakan bonsai will have a very distinctive slant, with a properly balanced movement of the trunk and placement of the branches so that the tree does not appear to be lopsided.

Cascade (Kengai)

These trees give the appearance of a waterfall or cascade of foliage, which spills, over the pot and down toward the ground and thus the name. The cascade has a long cascading main branch that flows from the lower portion of the trunk to the apex exhibiting both beauty and strenght.


Windswept (Fukinagashi)

In this style, each of the branches appears to be "swept" to one side, as if being blown by a strong wind. These trees are the replicas of trees usually found in coastal areas, where strong environmental forces have given them such a shape.


While starting to work on a tree with a particular style in mind first and foremost start with selecting a proper tree. For this purpose you must carefully consider a few things, which are as under.

  • First thing is to look at the roots of the tree and check to see if it gives the appearance of a strong foundation.
  • Next is checking the trunk. The shape of the trunk will basically determine the style you choose. In almost all cases, however, a thick base, which tapers gradually and gently to a thin apex, will make for a nice tree. Which style you prefer will depend on the movement of the trunk.
  • Third, look at the branching pattern. The lower branches should be thick while the upper ones should be thin.
  • Finally examine the plant to see if it is healthy.


Bonsai are mostly lost due to improper watering than from any other causes. The length of time between watering will vary depending on conditions such as humidify, soil moisture retention, weather conditions, and size of pot. Soil mixtures should encourage good drainage, and will vary somewhat depending on the type of plant. Normally bonsai usually need to be watered every day or two. The best time to water is early in the day or late in the afternoon at the same time every day. The soil should be moist, not soaking wet, and not dry. Inserting a finger into the soil will tell you if the soil is damp, or dry enough to need watering. No bonsai soil should be covered with any material that prevents water from evaporating from the surface, or does not allow you to feel the soil.

Feedings vary from plant to plant depending upon the plant type. Bonsai do not need a great deal of fertilizer, as we do not want to encourage rapid growth. A water-soluble fertilizer is usually applied every 2 to 4 weeks during the growing season, in a half-strength solution. Never fertilize right after repotting. Wait for 3-4 weeks. Don't feed if the tree is in a sicken condition. Never fertilizer a very dry bonsai.

A bonsai must periodically be repotted i.e., after every two or three years to supply a pot-bound root system with fresh soil. This depends on the growth of the tree and also on the size of the pot. Repotting should generally be done in the early spring and water the plant well after it is over. Do not fertilize for 3-4 weeks after repotting. Do not let the roots go dry while repotting.

Trimming and Pruning
Trimming and pruning are essential to keep the bonsai in the style you want and to give it it's miniature form. This involves the systematic removal of vigorous growth of the plant in the spring season giving it proper shape and form. Start with trimming the roots and foliage on the plant. Then wire the tree in order to get the branches to grow in a specific position and direction and to enhance the look of the tree. The wire should be removed after 6 months. Usually the branch should then stay in that position on it's own. Wire should be carefully cut from the branches and avoid unwinding the wires as this could break the branch. Trim branches to expose the trunk and to shape the tree into the look you want.

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