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Bonsai Tree Tips
for Beginners

These bonsai tree tips come from many years of growing bonsai. You will see examples, and in some cases further explanations, throughout this site.

I gathered them here as a way of encouraging beginners to think about the many possibilities while enjoying bonsai as a hobby. They are not in any particular order.

Two of my basic favorites are:  

1.  Expect your bonsai to change. No bonsai ever stays the same!  So, take pictures along the way.

2.  When creating a bonsai, always turn your tree around several times . . .  and even position it at different angles. Think before you cut!

The most difficult part of creating bonsai is 'learning to see the future' 

Many of us learned the ‘Rule of Thirds’ in our basic bonsai lessons. It's not the perfect answer, but it is often a great guideline, especially for traditional upright trees. 

Once you determine where the first branch is, consider that the first third. By mentally adding the two thirds above the first branch, you will know approximately where the top should be. 

Cover anything above that imaginary line with The Magic Cloth 

Now you can see what it could look like. It may be a little taller or shorter but this is still an excellent guideline for finding the top.  Then, as always, remember "rules are made to be broken!" 

What's going to happen when you remove that branch?  Will it change where the top should be?  Will a new branch grow where you want it?  Think about what the extenuating results will be!

About Wire

One of my favorite bonsai tree tips is a wire analogy:

Bonsai Wire is to bonsai as braces are to teeth.  Both are occasionally adjusted; removed when the job is done and neither is permanent.

In addition to creating jins, bonsai pliers are perfect for handling wire, especially in tight spaces.

Deadwood Bonsai Techniques

Jins and Shari  

It is especially important for a bonsai jin (dead branch) not to look like you stuck it in a pencil sharpener!

bonsai tree tips, jin and shari

Before you cut off any branch (especially junipers) jin it.  You can always remove it later. 

Take advantage of recently stripped long branches while they are still green!  Give them additional shapes with wire.  When they dry, they will hold the new shape.  Wiring after they have dried out will do no good.

Thinking about how you want to shape the shari?  Not sure?  Use chalk to draw on the bark and fill in the area you are contemplating.  Chalk makes it much easier to "see the future," and it's erasable!

Bonsai Tree Tips for 'Sappy' Plants

Pine bonsai sap is especially difficult to remove with regular soap.

bonsai tree tips, mayo is used to remove sap from your hands

Try rubbing your hands with mayonnaise.  It will help dissolve the sap.  Then you can more easily wash it away with soap and water.

(Save a few of those individual packets from restaurants,  keep them with your bonsai supplies.)

Ficus sap?  Lightly water the Ficus bonsai leaves before starting to trim - misting will work just fine. Your hands will not end up so badly stained.

Watering Bonsai Tree Tips

Take a tip from nature when watering bonsai - a nice slow rain waters our trees thoroughly. It also cleans the leaves.  Potted plants, in general, stay moist longer after a nice gentle rain.  

The late Joe Samuels spent a long time experimenting with "indoor" bonsai.  He often gently watered them in the shower.


bonsai tree tips, turntable for bonsai

Turntables are so valuable, they should be on your bonsai tools list.  How often do you forget to bring one to workshops? The small flat "innards" of a lazy-susan will work miracles (these bearings are available online and at most builder supply stores.) 

The 6" inch size will hold up to 500 pounds, so no need to get a larger one.  Slip it into your tool bag and leave it there!  You will always be ready. 

I discovered these by accident, and these bearings are one of my favorite bonsai tree tips.

A Word of Caution :  edges are somewhat sharp, wrap with a small towel when storing and be careful handling.


Fertilizer directions are not all the same !

bonsai tree tips, fertilizer for bonsai

When using the dissolve-in-water types be especially careful to read instructions. 

Some brands call for one tablespoon, other containers may look very similar but suggest one teaspoon  (which of course is 1/3 of the amount.)  

Ask me how I know!

Bonsai Tree Tips for Styling

Finding the front -  Sometimes you think you found the front and then when you expose more of the base of the tree (nebari) you discover your choice doesn't work!  Always check the nebari first.

Finding the Top - The two most valuable ways to determine the top of a bonsai are “taper” (where does it stop?) and “the rule of thirds”.  Study your tree before cutting.
First Branch - Don’t get stuck on always using the existing first branch.  Sometimes you will have a better (usually taller) tree if you remove the obvious first branch.

Rita and Marc Cooper's white pine with low, long first branch.White Pine

On the other hand don’t be too quick to remove an especially low first branch. 

Take a look at Japanese bonsai books and calendars for ideas on using that very long, low branch.

This white pine by Rita and Marc Cooper in England, is a very good example. 

Compound Leaf Notes

Compound leaves can easily be made to look smaller by cutting the leaves in half. Cut in between leaflets.

Two compound leaves with many leaflets

It will make them appear smaller without obvious cuts and it will not damage the plant.  Learn the difference between leaves and leaflets. 

There are only two leaves in this illustration, there are many leaflets.

Don't try to photograph compound leaf plants at night.  The leaves are closed up and not so attractive.

The Disappearing Branch

The Magic Cloth is the bonsai tree tip that always got a laugh in my workshops.  Everyone knew it was coming.  Read more about it and find how valuable it is.

Where to Go From Here

After reading these bonsai tree tips,  see 'Ten Steps to Good Bonsai.'

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