If you’re new to bonsai, welcome. I’m so glad to share the meditative peace I’ve found practicing bonsai. It’s also frustrating as hell, so it’s got that going for it too.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN: KNOWING WHAT YOU’RE GETTING INTO
To excel at bonsai you need to know how to grow plants and trees, and be able to get them to thrive. Then you learn to push their boundaries – growing them in small pots, cajoling extra growth cycles out of a tree in a year or season, knowing when to defoliate. Knowing how to fertilize to encourage flowering, how to thicken a trunk. If you’re not good with plants, this is going to be a set back.
Practicing bonsai can be time consuming and expensive. Yet the hobby is immensely satisfying. It can produce stunning living works of art, and it’s also good cocktail conversation. At best you can produce something stunning. At worst your bonsai dies. The upside though is it’s fairly easy to make something that looks nicer than what you find labeled “bonsai” at a big box store.
FOR THOSE WITH BIG BOX TREES
Those who cultivate bonsai as a hobby rarely start with something like what is sold in big box stores as “bonsai.” They usually start with a shrub or tree from a cutting, from the wild or sold as a regular plant at a nursery. From there they usually have at least one and likely a few rounds of substantial cuts to shape the future tree into a bonsai. They develop and thicken trunks and primary branches. Sometimes this involves letting branches grow long to thicken and then cutting them back strategically to develop close spaces between the leaves and to shrink the size of the leaves. They may repot into a bonsai pot right away or repot into something else. They will train the roots to more of a wide flat network of fine feeder roots as well. This website is dedicated to that process. This process can be done with a big box “bonsai” as well as any other shrub or tree.
DOLLARS AND TIME
It is absolutely possible to do bonsai for free, and to practice with very little time.
But it’s a bit like wanting to make croquembouche (those towers of little puff pastries made into the shape of a cone tree). Is it possible to do it perfect your first time? Sure. Is it likely? No fracking way. Maybe if you’re a baker, but for the rest of us no.
Realistic time commitment involves regular maintenance. Lets say you spend two minutes per tree. If you have 10 trees that’s 20 minutes a day. Some days it’s less, other days it’s more. Phoning it in and watering them when the soil looks dry it might take only five minutes, another day when you see a few need pest control spray takes half an hour. Time depends on how long you spend and how many trees you have. Repotting takes an hour or so once a year or so per tree.
Financially you can get all your trees for free if you know where to get them, or buy them at a nursery, that’s up to you. Bonsai tools will likely cost you somewhere in the $50 each ballpark. But if you take care of them they’re a one-time cost. You also don’t NEED “bonsai” tools or can do most tasks with just a concave cutter. Other tools do the job better but you can get by for quite awhile with just the one. Pre-bonsai soil is cheap. You don’t need a pot until you have something to put in it. The costs that are unavoidable are wire and bonsai soil mix. Neither is crazily expensive, but both are constant and can add up depending on how much you use them. It’s difficult if not impossible to put a price on bonsai. Early on I had years where I spent less than $100. But at that level I wasn’t purchasing supplies and tools that would have helped guide my development. However, if I had all the supplies I wanted, was comfortable in my knowledge on cultivating bonsai, and had access to yamadori or I was not adding new bonsai material, it would certainly be possible in the future to return to spending just a couple hundred a year.