A beginner’s guide to bonsai care

When Queensland went into lockdown last year, Lawson Dibb didn’t bake bread or start making TikTok videos – he got into bonsai.

“I turned 30 and thought…it would be pretty cool if I had kids in the next 10 years to say, ‘Hey, I’ve had this tree for 10 years. Here’s a picture of it when I first got it, compared to now.'”

Now the Gold Coast local has nine trees, having started with just one from his local nursery. He encourages others to take up the hobby.

“I thought I could never have bonsai because it’s so difficult. But here I am, learning little by little and loving it.”

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What is Bonsai?

Bonsai is not just another type of potted plant.

As Bonsai enthusiast Austen Kosasih explains, it is an “art form that involves maintaining a living, miniature-sized tree within the confinement of a pot.”

Mr. Kosasih did a bonsai apprenticeship in Japan with a bonsai master, where “some trees were 1,200 years old and had been passed down from one generation to the next.”

How to start

Mr Kosasih says your first step should be to visit a local tree nursery to “see what kind of trees you gravitate towards”.

You can ask the nursery staff for advice on what type of tree is right for your location and budget, as well as tips for caring for it.

He says that in Japan, some of the trees have sold for $500,000. But here you can find affordable trees for as little as $5.

“It really depends on the age and design of the tree, its beauty and maintenance, and the pot itself.”

Mother and son horticulturists Megumi and Alex Bennett run a bonsai nursery on Sydney’s northern beaches.

If you’re looking for an affordable option, they recommend starting with a younger stock and letting it grow.

Mother and son Megumi and Alex Bennett at their bonsai nursery in Sydney.(Daily ABC: Christian Harimanow)

What type of bonsai to choose

Mr. Kosasih recommends starting with a juniper, as they are hardy and fairly common throughout the country, both in colder regions and in tropical areas.

Ms. Bennett suggests native figs like Port Jackson or Moreton Bay, as they are also hardy and difficult to kill.

Native figs typically grow on the east coast from New South Wales to Queensland. They also do well in tropical climates like the NT, but will find areas like Tasmania too cold.

What you will need

Besides the tree and the pot, you will also need a variety of tools to effectively care for your bonsai.

Mr. Kosasih says you should have a pair of bonsai scissors, wire, wire cutters and branch cutters in your bonsai toolbox.

It is also important to avoid using standard potting soil. He explains if you’re using “from the dirt you get from [major hardware stores]what tends to happen is that it clogs the drainage holes and that will really hamper the growth of the tree” because the roots cannot develop properly.

Instead, visit your local bonsai nursery or search online for a bonsai soil mix.

Mr Kosasih says it is usually “a mixture of pine bark, pumice stones, volcanic rocks and other inorganic materials, just to add drainage to the soil mixture”.

Where to place your bonsai

Although it is in a pot, Mr. Kosasih points out that “indoor bonsai does not exist”.

“Trees are designed by nature, they are meant to be outdoors.”

A sunny position in your garden or on your balcony is the optimal place for most bonsai.

As Ms Bennett explains, bonsai like rain and a “sunny position and ventilation like the wind”.

“Morning dew [is also] very important for plants because they are the same as garden trees.”

If you live in an apartment with no outdoor space, Kosasih says some tropical species adapt well indoors due to the heat and humidity.

Lawson sits on his balcony, showing off his bonsai collection.
Lawson with his bonsai collection.(Provided)

When to water a bonsai

It’s important to remember that bonsai are not like the succulents you might be used to. They need lots of water.

“Eighty percent of all beginner bonsai deaths can be due to lack of watering,” says Kosasih.

In summer you should water your bonsai every day or even twice a day when it is very hot. You can also temporarily move it to the shade during those 40 degree days.

Watering every couple of days in the winter should be fine, but it depends on your climate, so ask the nursery staff how often to water your bonsai when you buy it.

Mr Bennett says that if you keep your bonsai outside and it’s raining, you should always keep an eye on it to make sure the water has penetrated deep enough into the ground.

You can do this by picking up the tree to feel its weight, sticking your finger in the ground, and checking to see if it’s wet underneath.

Ms. Bennett’s advice is to always remember your daily routine: “Wash your face, clean your teeth and water the bonsai.”

Potting, wiring and pruning

These steps are a bit trickier and not essential during your first few months of bonsai care.

You can ask your nursery how often to repot your bonsai – usually every few years.

Mr Kosasih explains that repotting involves pruning the roots to keep the tree healthy, “usually at the end of winter and you usually only do it because the tree has outgrown the pot” .

“You have to remove the tree from the pot, cut the roots and put it back in the same pot or in another one.”

Mr. Kosasih prunes a bonsai.
Austen Kosasih tends to her bonsai.(Provided)

Bonsai tree pruning and wiring is done for aesthetics to create a certain look.

“To make it work, you wrap the wire around the branches, so you can design the shape of the tree,” says Kosasih.

To prune, cut off any branches that don’t match the design you’re aiming for in your tree.

Although bonsai care can seem complicated, Bennett advises to have fun and learn as you go, because “every good bonsai practitioner has killed a few trees”.

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