Creating a Bonsai - The Process Outline

(Starting with a young nursery plant)

Anne Spencer

Emphasize What you like best about the tree.
Keep in mind the memory of trees you've seen and the biological reality of growth.

1. PREPARE THE POT: Clean the pot, wire screen over the drain holes if it is needed. The pot should fit the developmental stage of the plant. Usually I plant young plants in larger than needed mica pots or bulb type plastic pots, which are shallow and wide, to develop good roots before confining the plant in a small bonsai pot where it won't grow much.

2. CHOICES T0 MAKE: Take the plant out of its pot and put it on a turntable. You can put the pot upside down under the plant to raise plant to viewing level. If the root ball is loose keep the plant in its original pot.



The STYLE has to do with the angle and branch patterning. You can make your bonsai formally or informally upright, leaning slightly or seriously cascading down. It can look like an old oak in a field or a pine tree on a mountain. It is your choice based on the kind of plant material you are using.

TRY to LOOK AT ALL THE TRUNK BASE WITHOUT TAKING MUCH SOIL OFF. If possible, note the direction the trunk bends and the placement of any existing surface roots to help pick a front. [You may use a chopstick to feel the top of the main roots but leave the soil around the root ball until after wiring branches..] Ideal trunk bends should be more side-to-side, with roots growing outward in all directions except directly toward the bonsai front.

CLEAN OUT/REMOVE EXCESS BRANCHES AND FOLIAGE that interfere with being able to see to make choices about branches you are going keep and where the front will be. If in doubt, leave it on. Mainly, clean out dead stuff, and cut off growth that is too downward or not part of the bonsai style you are envisioning. Work from the bottom branches upward and from the inside outward. Think of it as subtracting what you won't need.

LOOK AT BRANCHING to help pick the bonsai's front. The front has to do with what is the best view of your tree; from which side it looks best. Mark the possible fronts with a chopstick or wire.

3. PROP THE PLANT at the angle it will be growing as a bonsai. Verify the front and then CHOOSE HOW TALL YOUR BONSAI WILL BE. You probably need to CREATE A NEW APEX (tree top) using a lower branch. Cut the trunk off above the branch that will form a new top.

4. PRUNE/REMOVE (cut) off unnecessary branches starting at the bottom of the plant. Use the alternating branch principle, if you wish. Keep extra branches for extra vigor. They can be taken off later. Using appropriate bonsai tools helps cuts to heal properly.

5. PRUNE/SHAPE/TRIM (cut and/or pinch) unnecessary branch foliage and/or secondary branchlets. Don't overdo. The goal is to remove about the same percentage of top growth as root growth. You can always remove more of either in the future.

6. WIRE BRANCHES but do not move them into place yet. Remember, if the trunk is straight, the primary, secondary, etc., branches should also be straight. If the plant trunk has curves the branches can, too. You can use 2 to 3 small branches to make one foliage pad.

7. REMOVE REST OF THE ORIGINAL SOIL unless the plant is weak, or a conifer. You may choose to leave some original soil on, depending on the season and the plant species. The following is how to work on young deciduous plants. If the plant is weak, or a conifer, less root pruning is the rule.

Generally, cut the bottom half of the root ball off to speed up the soil removal process. WORK FAST.

COMB OUT ROOTS: Remove tangles, if possible, with chopsticks so they hang straight. SPRAY to keep the roots moist; don't let the roots dry out. TRIM the roots making sure cuts face downward. To develop surface roots, a good rule of thumb is to shorten large fat roots and leave small ones long.  CUT OUT LARGE ROOTS UNDER TRUNK: They aren't necessary, unless they are the only roots you have. This can be done over a period of years if you don't want to rush the process.

8. After root pruning PUT SOIL into the bottom of the pot, mounding it in the center. Place the plant in the pot.

9. WIRE PLANT INTO POT. Lean plant apex slightly toward the front rather than straight upward. Adjust roots to radiate around the trunk. None should point straight forward..

10. Gently WORK NEW DRY SOIL INTO ROOTS, using a chopstick. Don't pack soil in too tightly. Quit before that point when you feel every air pocket has soil. Tighten the wire holding the plant in the pot.

11. ADJUST WIRED BRANCHES. Have someone else eyeball it, too. A fresh viewpoint can pinpoint flaws.

12. DO FINAL FOLIAGE TRIM IF NECESSARY so the plant doesn't look shaggy, and adjust wired branches placement.

13. WATER from the top until the water runs clear. Once you water you can't touch or wiggle the plant until the roots are growing well. Definitely don't wire the plant at this point

14. WATER AGAIN 20 MINUTES LATER. You can use a Vitamin B-1 or Superthrive in the water if you wish.

15. DON'T TOUCH OR PRUNE THE PLANT UNTIL IT SHOWS NEW GROWTH. Keep in light shade if temperature goes up. Keep under cover if it rains a lot.