The Bonsai Primer was founded in August 1995

This guide is aimed at beginners or those who are thinking of starting out in the Art, Craft, Hobby or Obsession of Bonsai.


Keeping and growing Bonsai is not as hard as you may believe. They are no more difficult to look after than most houseplants, needing food, water and light to survive. However most bonsai are NOT houseplants. If you live in a part of the world subject to frosts, bringing them indoors over winter in the mistaken belief that they need to be warm to survive is a sure way to kill them.

That is not to say that all species will survive a hard winter outdoors, generally any species native to Europe, N. America, China or Japan will be OK outdoors in all but the worst winter conditions. Deciduous trees are somewhat hardier than conifers when the pots are frozen. Conifers retain their foliage throughout the year, if they freeze in the pot, wind passing over their foliage takes moisture from it and 'freeze dries' the tree.

You must however be guided by either advice on any label, or when purchasing the tree the seller. When buying either a ready made Bonsai, or a tree for conversion, only buy from reputable dealers who can advise you how delicate the species is in your area. You should also bear in mind that a non specialist supplier will probably advise you to "Water it every couple of days", rather than water it when it needs it.

Keeping the tree healthy is of course just a part of the craft of bonsai, The aesthetic side of the craft needs to be born in mind. A bonsai is often described as "living art", an appropriate expression I feel, for if not for the beauty of the trees why do we take up the hobby.

The aim of the Primer is expressed in the word 'Primer', it means an undercoat, a base on which to put a finish. The Primer will not turn you into an expert (i'm not), I still learn from friends and teachers.

What I hope the Primer will do, is to help you understand some of the things you will need to know to help you, not just keep your trees alive, but turn them into the work of living art we all want them to be.


Is an ancient art form that originated in China, known as Penjing, where it is still popular today, however the Japanese were the major influence on Bonsai in western culture. Chinese Trees being less styalised than their Japanese counterparts.

The term bonsai literally means 'a plant in a tray', the generally accepted meaning, however is a tree in a pot.

The aim of bonsai is to capture the beauty and strength of an ancient tree.

The art of bonsai involves the bringing together of tree and pot in visual harmony. Bonsai may have one or more trees, these being referred to as group plantings. Trees in a group planting should be of the same species, mixed species plantings with rocks and ornamental figures are called 'Saikei'

Bonsai are classified by styles, relating to the trunk angle, shape or the number of trunks, formal upright, informal upright, slanting, cascade and group planting. They vary greatly in size from shito bonsai trees grown in containers the size of a thimble, to trees needing several men to move.

A bonsai should have a well tapered trunk and have branches all around the tree to give the bonsai visual depth. The lower part of the trunk should be visible to show its 'power',

It is assumed that age is a prerequisite for bonsai, this is not the case. There are several techniques available to the bonsai grower to increase the apparent age. Branches on young trees are wired down for as long as needed, to encourage them to set into the desired position, increasing the impression of age. Jin and Sharimiki are two techniques involving the removal of some of the bark and subsequent carving of the exposed wood to add to the effect of an ancient tree that has suffered a trauma many years ago.

Bonsai do not differ genetically from trees found in nature and stay small because they are confined in a container, however they are well fed and watered. Their tops being pruned as needed to ensure they do not appear out of balance with the pot and that the foliage pads indicative of a mature tree are maintained. Both Coniferous and Deciduous trees are used in bonsai, with Pine, Maple and Juniper forming the 'Classic' bonsai, however with the spread of the art throughout the world many indigenous species have been used to good effect.

How often the tree it is repotted and the roots are pruned depends on it's age, younger trees may be repotted every year, older trees perhaps every three or four years . This causes fine new roots to develop near the trunk, increasing the trees vigour. This operation is usually carried out in the spring, prior to the new buds opening.

The elements of a bonsai

Place the cursor over a number for an explanation

Like most people who have larger collections of trees, I keep mine on wooden staging on brick built piers. During hard frosts/snow they are put under the staging and polythene sheeting is draped over the staging. If you only have a few trees consider putting them into an unheated greenhouse, or conservatory, a shed (by the window), or enclose them in a clear plastic bag (only during the worst conditions). Do not bring them into a heated and lit environment, as this will start them growing at the wrong time of year.

Living in a flat, with only a balcony or windowsill to keep plants on need not exclude you from keeping bonsai, but you will need to be a little 'creative' with your use of space. Or if you intend to keep them indoors be aware of their lighting needs..

Bonsai need not be an expensive hobby, if you create your own trees, as all but a few of my collection were created, you will find that you will only be buying pots and sundries such as wire and feed.

I hope you find the information useful if you are interested in bonsai and in time are able to pass on the knowledge you acquire to someone interested in the hobby.

Allen. C. Roffey 12:09 May 1, 2018