A Beginner's Workshop Manual

 by Jerry Meislik

The material that follows is designed to help the new bonsai student in preparing for a beginner's workshop. Ideally, this should be read before the workshop to acquaint you with what you will be doing and the materials and tools that you will need. It may also help to have this available during the workshop. This is a simple "cookbook" description of one method to design a first tree. It is not a handbook for the advanced student.

Step 1

Plan your workshop for spring or whenever the plant material is starting active growth. During the time of quick growth the plant will be most tolerant of styling stress.

Purchase a healthy, twiggy, small leafed plant that has been container and not field grown. Figure 1

Figure 1. Container grown material.

Cotoneaster, maple, yew, juniper, and apple or crab apple are all suitable as outdoor trees, and for indoors consider a fig, or Schefflera.

Gently lift the lower trunk of the tree and see if it wiggles in its pot. If the tree is loose then choose another tree. A container grown plant should be nearly immovable in its container signifying that the material has been potted in this container for some time. A loose tree has poor roots or has not been containerized for long enough to tolerate the stress.

Step 2

Remove the plant from the container and place it on some newspaper in an area that can get dirty. Set the container aside as you may use it for the re-potting procedure later.

During this process keep the soil and exposed roots moist by spraying at intervals to avoid drying the roots. Perform the work out of full sun and out of the wind to keep the roots from drying excessively.

Use a sturdy wooden pointed stick or chopstick to pry and tease away the surface soil to expose the surface roots, Figure 2.

Figure 2. Surface root layer exposed.

Do not stop as the first layer of roots are exposed but continue teasing and combing out until the next lower root level is exposed, Figure 3.

Figure 3. Lower root layer exposed and surface roots now cut away.

In most container grown materials the second layer will have better and more impressive roots than the surface layer. This is due to the drying of the surface root layer and the more consistent moisture levels deeper in the pot. Carefully assess the root layer for any imperfections and improve them if possible. See "Improving the Roots of a Tree".

If the bottom root layer is the best then cut of the superficial roots. If a shorter tree is desired then cut off the main tree trunk below the first root layer.

Step 3

Push the foliage apart and examine the bottom branches, Figure 4.

Figure 4. Revealing the lowest large branches.

In most bonsai styles the bottom one third of the finished height of the bonsai tree will have no branches. Notice that branch "B" is vertical while branch "A" is horizontal. Both branches originate at the same level on the tree trunk. All things being equal, keep branch "A" and cut off "B". This leaves branch "A" at the proper angle without having to wire this heavy branch. Some bonsai styles require upgrowing branches, in that case branch "B" is retained and "A" is cut off. Keeping both "A" and "B" as low branches results in a "bar branch" situation which usually is not desirable and can be monotonous. However, if you are styling a pine tree some bar branches may be necessary.

Another consideration is to use lower branches that are in the best scale to the trunk. Generally the smaller diameter branches will make the trunk appear thicker and thus more like a mature tree. If the branches are really tiny then use a heavier branch if available. If many small branches exist at one level then keep several since one tiny branch may die and leave you with no branch at that level. Once the branches thicken you will eliminate all except one in this cluster.

Step 4

Pushing aside more foliage examine the foliage higher up on the tree, Figure 5.

Figure 5. Examine all the branches.

Branch "E" is a low front branch that is jutting straight into your face. Remove this front branch but do not remove all the front branches. Higher in the tree front branches are very necessary to give the tree a more natural look.

Step 5

Branch "D" is a good branch to keep on the side opposite the main branch "A". Since "D" is not on the same level this gives an asymmetric branch arrangement for a natural look. Branches ideally should also decrease in thickness as they ascend the tree.

Step 6

In Figure 5 branch "C" is opposite branch "D" and is also directly over branch "a". Remove "C" since it will shade "A" and cause it to weaken and die. The overall concept is to keep only one branch in any area requiring a branch to fill space. Do not retain multiple branches in one area unless one of the branches is too small to survive. If a branch is missing in an area wire will be applied to bend an adjacent branch and fill the missing space.

Step 7

As we examine the rest of the tree we find many suitable and small branches. Ideally keep one branch at each level to fill spaces, but do not fill all the spaces since this will look like a Christmas tree and have a boring static shape, Figure 9.

Step 8

Searching higher up in the tree we find a knobby apex, Figure 6.

Figure 6. Original apex is quite knobby and bulbous.

A knobby apex in the containerized trees is common due to the typical pruning of landscape material in the growing nursery. Even if the apex is not bulbous reduce the height of the plant thus creating more taper in the trunk and making it look more mature. In shortening the tree look for an apex that is a good transition from the trunk below. Try to avoid a really thick lower trunk and then a drastic transition to a thin apex, since it will not look believable. Also try to get the final apex to be a front branch of the tree. In this way the cut on the original trunk is not visible from the front of the tree. The apex selected in this case is branch "N" on our schematic tree. Figure 7.

Figure 7. Old apex is removed.

Step 9

Remove the old apex and use some wire to hold the new apex up, or leave a stub of the original apex and use some twine to tie the apex up, Figure 8.

Figure 8. New apex is brought up with wire.

Do not taper off the shoulders of the old trunk but wait 6 months until the new apex is stronger and then whittle back the shoulders of the trunk to make the transition look more natural.

Branches on your tree should normally be at the same angle. In some styles the branch angle changes as the branches ascend to the apex.

Step 10

Now that the tree has received its basic shaping all the original soil will be removed from the root ball by gentle but strong combing motions of your chopstick. Remove about 50% of the fine hair roots from the tree but try to leave as much of the fine hair roots attached as they do the real work of feeding and hydrating the tree. Large woody roots are only structural and do not do much other than support the tree.

A general rule is to remove as much root as foliage has been pruned. For pines do not remove more than 30% of the branches or roots since the tree may not survive a more drastic pruning. More roots and branches can be removed on future re-pottings and as you gain more experience.

Use a bonsai soil mix that is suitable to your area of the country. Check with your instructor to see what works well in your climate.

The plant then needs to be secured into its new container. Use cotton twine or wire to hold the tree down into the pot. A suitable sized bonsai container may be used or if you do not have a bonsai pot then cut off the sides of the original plastic pot wit heavy scissors or wires snips to half its original height. Use dry bonsai mix and fill the spaces around the roots of your tree. With very gentle motion use chopsticks to settle the soil around the roots. Do not jab the soil and roots too vigorously with the chopstick.

Immerse the container into a tub of water and allow it to remain there for 15 minutes. Then place the tree and container into a shaded spot where it will receive several hours of early day sun and then partial shade for the rest of the day. After two weeks the tree may be eased into its final position in a sunny spot.

Step 11

Aluminum or copper wire may be applied to the branches to get them situated into the alignment that you desire,( Figure 9).

Figure 9. Branches wired into their new positions.

Normally wiring the tree at this first session may be too much stress for the tree so wiring may be held off for 6 weeks until the tree shows signs of vigorous new growth. Wiring is only a temporary device used to place branches into their desired position. After a few months or sooner the wire on the branches is removed with wire cutters, and then the branches should remain in heir new positions. If the branches do not stay positioned then wire is red-applied to get them situated in the best locations again. Wire is never left on long enough to scar the branch. Scars ruin the natural look of your tree. It is always better to remove the wire too early and to re-wire than to scar the branch permanently.

Step 12

After a year and with lots of new growth the bonsai may be put into its new pot during the spring. The tree is now well on its way to being a well-styled and enjoyable tree, Figure 10.

Figure 10. Bonsai placed into a suitable pot.

The pot type you select depends upon the tree style and your preferences. Remember that some plants will do best in a deeper pot so do not get carried away by selecting too small or shallow a container.


With good luck and some horticultural skills your new bonsai is well on its way. This introductory workshop will help you get a reasonably styled tree but is not meant to be the only technique to follow. No formula will produce a masterpiece tree, only your own artistic vision can do that. 

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