Experts weigh-in on how to create and care for the unique plants.

By Emily Goldman
Updated January 27, 2021
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bonsai tree on table
Credit: Getty / Cory Voecks / EyeEm

Bonsai, which translates to "planted in a container," is the Japanese art of growing, caring for, and shaping miniature trees in trays, says the New York Botanical Garden. If you ask us, it's one of the most interesting ways to bring a little more greenery into your home. If you've ever thought about growing a bonsai tree at home, now is the time to get started. You don't need a ton of gardening experience to cultivate a small version of one of your favorite trees, which is actually what you'll do when caring for a bonsai tree—there's no set variety of plant required, but some types of trees do work better than others. "A bonsai tree is actually any sort of plant (often with a woody stem) that is trained through extensive pruning and shaping to mimic its larger form," says Blythe Yost, co-founder of Tilly, an online landscape design company.

Ahead, experts share their top tips for tending to the particular way of cultivating a bonsai tree in your own home.

The Best Types of Trees for Bonsai

As with any tree, it's important to consider the amount of care and the kinds of conditions that your plant will need. "Many trees can be trained as bonsai, but just because they can doesn't mean they should, especially for those just getting into the hobby," warns Ryan McEnany, public relations and communications specialist for Bailey Nurseries. "There are a number of species of both deciduous and evergreen trees that do especially well because they have naturally more refined leaves or needles, have more trainable branches, or are adaptable to indoor or outdoor growing. "Some of the best species, especially for new bonsai enthusiasts, include Fig Tree, Fukien Tea Tree, Chinese Elm, Juniper, and Japanese Maple Trees," says McEnany. Two of the easiest for beginners are Fig Trees for their adaptability to be grown indoors and out, and Japanese Maples for the trees' hardiness to grow outdoors across much of the United States and ease of recovery from accidental pruning or watering mistakes, explains McEnany. Meanwhile, Yost says varieties of ficus such as microcarpa, retusa, and Golden Gate make great bonsai trees.

How to Plant and Grow Bonsai Trees

"Starter plants for bonsai are relatively affordable ($36.97, amazon.com) and provide the easiest way to get started with immediate satisfaction," says McEnany. Starting from seed can take up to five years to yield a sizable plant, so buying an established plant is more of a time-efficient option. "Unless you want control of shaping your bonsai from the start, purchasing a starter plant is the best option," he says. Propagating works too, says Yost, but this also takes a lot of time to yield results. "Classic bonsais are trees grown from cuttings (small branches that are put in a rooting hormone so they grow their own roots) and carefully shaped to grow into miniature trees," she says. Similar to seeds, starting from a cutting is an involved process that can take a number of years before you can begin shaping it to look like a bonsai plant. "Growing bonsai from seed or cuttings will be a true test of patience but can be incredibly satisfying to create this art from the beginning," he says. To start with a cutting, McEnany says to cut a small section of your desired tree species at a 45-degree angle, remove the lower leaves, and stick into bonsai soil. "Keep that soil moist as roots develop over the coming weeks and then space out watering as dictated by the tree species," he explains. "It may take three to five years before you can truly start pruning and shaping into your desired bonsai style."

When to Grow a Bonsai Tree Outside Versus Inside

If you've chosen to create a bonsai plant from a deciduous tree—trees that lose their leaves in the fall and winter months—it's a good idea to grow the tree outside. "While deciduous bonsai typically prefer the outdoors, most do best by avoiding full sun since it's smaller and more delicate than its natural [habitat]," says McEnany. "Providing some filtered sun will give you the best results without burning the leaves or needles and not drying out the roots too quickly."

If you've chosen a subtropical species, growing indoors is most likely your best move. "Check on the exact needs of your species, but indirect light from a south- or west-facing window are great for many bonsai species in the winter months." If you live in a cold climate, be sure to check for any window drafts that might negatively affect your plant, "and either use a humidifying tray or place a small houseplant humidifier nearby so the recycled air from your furnace doesn't dry out your bonsai," says McEnany.

How to Care for Bonsai Trees

"Much of the concept of bonsai centers around keeping a tree small," says Yost. "Therefore, too much fertilizer and water can be detrimental and cause rapid unwanted growth." The same is true for when it's time to repot your bonsai. "Constricting the roots is a good way to help keep the upper parts of a tree or plant in check," Yost adds. So this might actually be one of the few incidents where containing roots is a good thing.

"Fast-growing trees will need to be repotted more frequently to avoid becoming rootbound and unable to absorb nutrients and water," says McEnany. "This is a great time to check if the plant needs to be root pruned as you put it in a new or larger pot."

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