Bonsai: How To Care And Design One

You've probably seen a bonsai before: a small tree in a shallow bowl that looks like a miniature version of a large tree. Maybe you've wondered how it stays so small and how it gets shaped that way. Or maybe you even have a bonsai at home yourself or want to get one. But what actually is a bonsai and where does this fascinating art form come from?

In this article you will learn everything you need to know about bonsai: their history and origin, their care and design, the different forms and types of pruning. You will see that bonsai are more than just plants in bowls. They are living works of art that can connect you with nature and give you a lot of pleasure.

What are bonsai and where do they come from?

The word "bonsai" comes from Japanese and literally means "plant in a bowl". It describes an art form in which trees or shrubs are kept small enough to fit into a bowl using certain techniques. The aim is to bring out the natural beauty and character of the plant and create a harmonious composition.

Although the word "bonsai" is Japanese, the art originated in ancient China. There, the practice of "Penjing", which means "landscape in a bowl", began over 2000 years ago. The Chinese collected wild plants that were small or bizarrely shaped by natural influences such as wind, snow, or animals, and planted them in shallow vessels. They supplemented them with stones, moss or figures to create miniature landscapes that were symbolic of nature or mythological scenes.

A photo of a dark brown bonsai with spruce-like needles in a small clay pot. The pot is placed on a wooden table in a sunny garden with flowers and grass in the background.
A dark spruce bonsai in a round bowl

The art of penjing was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks, where over time it evolved into what we know today as bonsai. The Japanese placed more emphasis on the individual plant than on the entire landscape and developed their own styles and techniques for creating it. They were also influenced by the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes simplicity, harmony and respect for nature.

Bonsai were long considered a privilege of the elite and were a sign of status and taste. It was not until the 19th century that they were made available to a wider audience and presented at exhibitions. In the 20th century, the art spread outside Asia and became a worldwide hobby for many people.

How to care for a bonsai?

If you have a bonsai or want to get one, you need to know how to take care of it properly. It is not an ordinary houseplant, but a living tree that has special needs. Caring for a bonsai requires patience, attention and attention to detail.

The most important aspects of bonsai care are:

Choosing your bonsai

Theoretically, any tree can be made into a bonsai, but you must pay attention to your local climate and weather. You should choose a species that suits your climate, location and taste. There are bonsai that can only grow outdoors, such as maple, pine, or juniper. Other bonsai can be kept indoors, such as ficus, jade or fucientee. You can buy a ready-made bonsai or grow one yourself from a cutting, seed or garden tree.

Three bonsais in contrasting shapes and colors in simple white pots. The pots are placed on a wooden bench in a glass greenhouse with a variety of plants and flowers in the background.
Three different bonsais in white pots


Bonsai need to be repotted regularly to control root growth and renew the soil. The frequency of repotting depends on the species, age and size of the bonsai. Young bonsai need to be repotted more often than older ones because they grow even faster. Repotting is usually done in the spring or fall when the tree is not in its growing season. When repotting, the roots are carefully shortened and the tree is placed in a fresh soil.

Repotting also has the positive side effect of loosening the soil and improving aeration. This allows the roots of your tree to absorb more oxygen and excess water can drain away better. Small insects such as springtails, woodlice or worms can also help.

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You can of course take normal potting soil or some from the garden. In most cases you are well positioned with it. But if you want to be on the safe side, there is also special bonsai soil, which provides all the nutrients for your trees and is very loose.


Watering is the most important part of bonsai care. A bonsai should not be too dry or too wet. How often you need to water your bonsai depends on several factors, such as the species, size, season, soil and climate. You can't just water on a set schedule, you need to check the moisture of the soil. One simple method is to poke the soil with your finger. If it feels dry, it's time to water. If it feels moist, you can wait. You should always water your bonsai thoroughly until the water runs out of the drainage holes that your pot has at best.


Bonsai need regular fertilizer to replenish the nutrients in the soil. The fertilizer should be specifically for bonsai and contain a balanced amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. You should only fertilize your bonsai during the growing season, which is spring and summer. The frequency and amount of fertilizing depends on the type of fertilizer. You can use a liquid fertilizer, which you add to the water, or a solid fertilizer in the form of pellets or sticks, which you place on the soil.

Pruning the bonsai - maintenance pruning and aesthetic pruning

Bonsai need regular pruning to maintain their shape and control their growth. Pruning is done with special bonsai scissors or tongs and requires some skill and experience. There are two types of pruning: maintenance pruning and aesthetic pruning. Maintenance pruning is used to remove excess shoots and leaves and to preserve the silhouette of the tree. The aesthetic pruning is used to change or improve the structure and style of the tree.

Maintenance pruning

Maintenance pruning is used to preserve and refine the existing shape of the bonsai. It is performed regularly during the growing season to control new growth and encourage fine branching. Maintenance pruning is less radical than design pruning and requires less knowledge and preparation. It can be done with scissors, pliers, or fingers, depending on the tree species. Maintenance pruning should be completed no later than August to give the bonsai enough time to prepare for winter.

Aesthetic pruning

The aesthetic pruning is used to change or improve the structure and style of the bonsai. It is performed mainly at the beginning of the development of a bonsai, in order to shape a bonsai from an initial plant or to completely revise an existing bonsai. Aesthetic pruning is more radical than maintenance pruning and requires more knowledge and preparation. It can be done with scissors, pliers or a saw, depending on the tree species. Design pruning should preferably be done in the spring or fall when the bonsai is not in the growing season.

If you're housing your bonsai in a closed terrarium, you might just skip the pruning altogether. If not, however, you can find a very helpful video on the subject of bonsai pruning here.


Wiring is a technique used to bend the branches and trunk of a bonsai to give it a specific shape. Wiring is done with special bonsai wire made of aluminum or copper that is wrapped around the branch or trunk. The wire must be tight enough to hold the branch, but not so tight that it hurts or constricts it. The wire must be checked and removed periodically before it grows into the round.

Caring for a bonsai is not difficult if you follow these basic rules. You will soon notice how your bonsai grows healthy and beautiful and gives you a lot of pleasure.

How to design a bonsai?

Designing a bonsai is a creative and exciting task. You can let your imagination run wild and give your bonsai an individual shape and character. The design of a bonsai also requires some knowledge and skill about the different styles and techniques that exist.

The most important aspects of bonsai design are:


Bonsai should bring out the natural beauty and character of the plant and create a harmonious composition. There are some basic principles of bonsai aesthetics that you can follow, but of course you don't have to. For example, the trunk of a bonsai should become narrower from the bottom to the top to create visual balance. Branches should alternate left and right of the trunk and not grow on top of each other or behind the trunk. The crown should be about one third of the total height of the tree and have a triangular shape. However, you can of course let your imagination run wild and shape your bonsai as you wish.


There are different styles you can choose for your bonsai. These are based on situations in nature, such as a tree that grows straight or at an angle, or a tree that hangs over a hillside. The traditional styles are:

  • Formal upright (Chokkan)
  • Informal upright (Moyogi)
  • Siant (Shakan)
  • Cascade (Kengai)
  • Semi-cascade (Han-Kengai)
A photo of a Kengai style bonsai with cascading branches in a small ceramic pot. The pot is placed on a wooden table next to a window in a cozy cafe with rustic furniture and decorations.
A Kengai style bonsai with cascading branches

But there are also newer styles, such as:

  • Broom (Hokidachi)
  • Literati (Bunjin)
  • Windswept (Fukinagashi)
  • Multiple trunks/clump (Kabudachi)
Kabudachi bonsai tree with multiple trunks growing from a single root system on a wooden table in a modern and cozy cafe.
A kabudachi bonsai with multiple trunks

In fact, these are still not all growth forms of bonsai. These are still divided into groups such as the upright form, aerial forms, character forms and rock forms. If you are interested in all of them, you can find a lot more information about it on Wikipedia.

What species of trees as bonsai?

While all trees can be made into bonsais, not every type of tree is suitable for every style. You should choose a tree species that fits your desired style. For example, deciduous trees such as maple or beech are good for the broom style because they have dense branching. Coniferous trees like pine or juniper are good for literati style because they have long and flexible branches. You should also pay attention to leaf size, bark structure and flower or fruit formation.

Deciduous bonsai also have the property of shedding their leaves in winter. If you want to have a green bonsai all year round, you should rather go for a variant with needles.

Different pot forms

The pot is an important part of a bonsai. It should fit the tree and complement it. It should not be too large or too small, but should be about two-thirds the height or width of the tree. The pot should also not be too flashy or too plain, but should be of a suitable color and shape. It should match the style of the tree. For example, round or oval pots are good for upright or sloping styles, while rectangular or square pots are good for cascading styles.

A bonsai in a shallow angular bowl. Source: Quang Nguyen Ving,
A bonsai in a shallow angular bowl. Source: Quang Nguyen Vinh,
Windswept bonsai in a vase
Windswept bonsai (fukinagashi) in a vase. Source: Quang Nguyen Vinh,

Integrate bonsai in creative ideas

Besides the traditional styles, you can also implement your own creative ideas and give your bonsai a personal touch. For example, you can arrange several different little trees into a forest or group design. Or you can create a rock or cascade bonsai, where the tree grows out of a rock or hangs over a rock. Or you can integrate a bonsai into a terrarium and create a miniature world.

For example, here you can see a miniature landscape with two bonsais that really look like real big trees on the rocks.

A bonsai on a miniature terrain
A small landscape with a bonsai as the main focal point. Source: Quang Nguyen Vinh,

Bonsai terrariums

Integrating a bonsai into a terrarium goes even beyond what has been addressed in this article here. If you are interested and want to know how best to plant your bonsai in a terrarium, then read this article here. It also addresses whether a bonsai can even be considered for a closed terrarium.


Bonsai are fascinating miniature trees that have a long history and tradition. They require careful care and design that can bring you a lot of fun and fulfillment. In this article you learned how to choose the right species, pot and soil for your bonsai, how to water, fertilize, prune and wire it and how to shape it into different styles

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