“The first thing to know about bonsai is that it isn’t a type of tree. That’s a pretty common misconception,” says Justin Hancock, garden expert at Costa Farms. “Bonsai is a way of growing a tree — a specially pruned tree grown in miniature. Regular pruning of the roots and top growth helps keep the plant the size you like, no matter how old the tree or shrub gets.”
Often considered an art, bonsai originated in Asian cultures and has become a living symbol of Eastern philosophy. “Bonsai became part of the ritual for some Buddhist monks before Westerners were exposed to the art of growing mini trees and bonsai went mainstream,” Hancock says. “Pruning your bonsai so it grows into the shape you want at maturity is very much an art.”
Hancock has seen oak, pine magnolia and even citrus trees pruned in the ancient bonsai tradition. “Ficus Ginseng and Fukien Tea are especially popular, but you’ll also find Japanese maples, ginkgo and junipers,” he says. “Virtually any tree or shrub can be grown in bonsai form.”
Do you have the patience to prune? Here are Hancock’s tips for trimming your way to a beautiful bonsai:
Pick your planter There are so many pretty pots to choose from, but the only perfect bonsai planter is the one that’s “about as deep as the width of the trunk and about as wide as the tree’s canopy,” Hancock says.
Mix it up Sure, you can purchase commercial bonsai mixes, but if you’re going to take the time to prune a miniature plant for years, you might as well create your own. “Be sure your mix holds enough moisture that you don’t need to constantly water your bonsai,” Hancock says. “It needs excellent drainage so the roots don’t rot in their confined space and should be loose so the roots get enough oxygen.”
A new root “It’s vital to prune bonsai roots to keep the tree healthy,” Hancock says. “If it gets too root-bound, the tree will eventually weaken and require a lot more watering.” He suggests slipping the plant out of the pot, laying out the roots and cutting them back based on the type of tree and container.
Stay in balance The key to bonsai is keeping the amount of top growth and root growth in balance. “Too much top growth can’t be supported by the roots, and the tree ultimately fails,” Hancock says.
Check the label According to Hancock, watering requirements, pruning times, indoor vs. outdoor placement and light exposure depend on the type of tree. “The key is pruning and remembering to treat it like the kind of species it is,” he says.