A Delicate Art in Horticulture

Ashley Vangsness


According to the Bonsai Brothers website, the word bonsai is actually composed of two Japanese word phrases, bon and sai. The word "bon" is the tray, pot, or container. "Sai" refers to the tree, shrub, or plant. A literal translation may be "tray tree" or "potted planting." Bonsai can be applied to include both indoor and outdoor plants. The purpose of bonsai is to evoke an image of an ideal tree in nature or imagination. The practices of bonsai began in China. However, it was the Japanese who refined the practices for nearly 600 years before this horticultural practice became popular worldwide in the mid-twentieth century. The art of bonsai has become an international phenomenon with enthusiasts found in many countries around the world.






This is a photo of a Black Pine from
the Yasukunai Bonsai Garden website.

Care of Bonsai

The four main things you need to consider when taking care of bonsai trees include:
1.) Light
2.) Water
3.) Humidity
4.) Fertilizer

By providing adequate amounts of these four essential items, your tree will remain healthy while providing you years of visual enjoyment. In addition, you need to take into consideration any special requirements that your tree may require for proper care and growth.

This is a Bougainvillea Bonsai
photo from the Bonsai Brothers website.



When caring for your bonsai, you must remember that you are in fact cultivating a tree, not a houseplant. Most bonsai need about six to eight hours of light each day. All bonsai can benefit from living outdoors during the late spring months through summer and early fall, depending on where you live. As a result of raising your tree outdoors, you will be able to see increased health that will be shown through growth, color, and blossoms in species having flowers. If you do not have an outside area in which to grow your plants, you should place them in a south-facing window on a humidity tray. If artificial light is used, it should be provided for 14-16 hours daily.



Adequately watering your bonsai can be one of the most difficult skills you will obtain through your experience with bonsai. Daily morning watering is recommended during the warmer months. Do not water twice daily unless the weather conditions are very hot or windy. Remember to water less as the temperature declines and trees begin dormancy. You should test soil daily to be sure dry-out does not occur. Watering should be done with either a hose or a watering can that will distribute the flow in a gentle shower over your plant. Some tips for watering that the Yasukunai Bonsai Garden website suggested include dipping the trees to the depth of its pot in a tub of water every other day and let it drain before returning it to it's normal growing place. They also suggest spraying the soil surface vigorously to break dry surface tension before watering with your watering can.

This Casuarina Equisetifolia Bonsai is 80 years old.
The photo is from The World of Bonsai website.


A regular fertilizer routine is recommended as a result of the limited amount of soil and space. The fertilizers help provide necessary nutrients and trace elements. A combination of time-released fertilizer and half-strength water-soluble solutions is suggested. The amount of nitrogen you apply should be decreased in late fall in order to encourage dormancy. Nitrogen level should be raised around April to prep the plant for the growing season.



Pruning, trimming, repotting, and wiring are all things to consider when caring for your bonsai. Pruning and trimming techniques are used to cut away unwanted branches and to help shape the tree into a more desirable shape. Not only are the plant parts above the soil susceptible to pruning, but also the roots. It is necessary to prune roots because they become pot bound and the soils in which they grow need to be refreshed. It is suggested that you repot your bonsai every two years. When repotting, it is widely accepted to remove about 30% of the old root mass before repotting in the new soil.

There are five basic bonsai styles. They include formal upright, informal upright, slanting, semi-cascade and cascade. Each style has its own unique characteristics. To achieve the desired shape of your bonsai, you will not only need to prune and trim, but also wire the branches. When using wire, check regularly to make sure the bark is not swelling around it and producing scars. Also, remember to let the branch get a little drier than usual before attempting to bend the branch and wire to place it in the desired spot. A drier condition is desired as plant cells that are full of water break easily.



Whether you are just getting interested in starting a bonsai of your own or have been practicing the art for many years, you will find enjoyment in this area of horticulture. When given proper care, these tiny trees can bring you, and generations to come, visual enjoyment and personal fulfillment.


Resources and Related Links

NDSU Homepage

The Bonsai Brothers

The Bonsai Site

The World of Bonsai

Yasukunai Bonsai Garden