When you’re just getting started with bonsai, you’ll have no problem finding information about specific care techniques. A quick Google search—or better yet, a visit to the Bonsai Resource Center blog!—will teach you all you need to know about tending to these lovely specimens.
But finding answers to foundational bonsai questions can be tricky: What is it? How does it work? Does it hurt the tree?
Enjoy this quick guide to 10 common beginner bonsai questions — then put that green thumb to work!
1. What Is a Bonsai Tree?
Simply put, bonsai are dwarf trees grown in shallow containers. But this ancient Japanese practice is over 1,000 years old—and it’s so much more than gardening. The goal of bonsai is to create a miniature replication of the natural world, seeking to embody simplicity, harmony, and balance in a single specimen.
Read more about the rich history and style of Japanese bonsai trees.
2. How Does Bonsai Work?
One of the most common bonsai questions is “What kind of tree is a bonsai?” The answer? Any kind! Bonsai is not a specific type of tree; any type of plant can be grown in bonsai form by limiting root growth, soil availability, and intentionally trimming it to prevent upward growth. By planting in a shallow pot, trimming and pruning, and providing adequate nutrients, you can create the stunning shapes and styles for which bonsai is adored.
Learn how to make a bonsai tree and how to wire and train like a bonsai pro.
3. Does Bonsai Hurt the Tree?
Rest easy. Bonsai is not a cruel art form. Much like trimming your hedges, or growing houseplants, bonsai techniques don’t hurt the tree at all. In fact, bonsai trees actually receive much more tender loving care than trees growing in the wild. Trimming, pruning, and repotting aren’t harmful, they’re what keep your tree strong and healthy for years (and years and years!) to come.
Master 6 simple secrets to expert bonsai tree care.
4. Are Bonsai Trees Easy to Keep Alive?
Although they need to be grown in very precise conditions, bonsai aren’t fragile! With the right care, your bonsai can easily outlive you. Some species are particularly resilient: one famous bonsai even survived the blast at Hiroshima! While some trees are more finicky than others, the basics of bonsai tree care ring true for most varieties. By keeping a close eye on your tree, you’ll learn to intuit what it needs, and catch issues before they become life-threatening.
Read about common bonsai tree problems (and how to nip them in the bud!).
5. How Do I Pick Out a Bonsai?
When you’re getting your first bonsai, you’ll want to answer a few key questions before you pull the trigger: Where will you buy it (garden center vs. specialty bonsai nursery)? How can you tell if it’s healthy, or the right plant for your space? Which species will work best for you? And…how much will it cost?!
Our guide How to Buy a Bonsai will help you pick the bonsai pal that’s best for YOU.
6. What Kind of Pot Do I Need for Bonsai?
The bonsai pot must not be overlooked. The right container is essential for two reasons: 1) It helps stunt growth. 2) It’s a key part of the “bonsai” aesthetic. Juvenile bonsai require shallow training pots with adequate holes for proper drainage and places to affix wires. Once they reach maturity, the real fun begins! You’ll choose a pot that complements your tree’s masculine and feminine qualities and exemplifies harmony and balance.
Take a closer look at choosing the perfect bonsai container.
7. What Is the Best Bonsai Tree for Beginners?
While all bonsai will thrive with the right care, some are more forgiving than others. When you’re just getting started, look for trees that are hardy, low-maintenance, or easy to train. A few of our favorites include: juniper, Fukien tea, ficus, and Chinese elm. These novice-friendly varieties are perfect starter plants as you learn the deeper aspects of bonsai care.
Read about the best bonsai for beginners (and how to give them proper TLC).
8. Can Bonsai Trees Live Outdoors?
Bonsai trees, like all trees, love to be outdoors! But you can’t put just any variety in your backyard; it must be compatible with the outdoor elements where you live. Bonsai that thrive in warmer regions might not be cut out for the great white North—and vice versa! Before you purchase an outdoor bonsai, make sure you can provide adequate sun, water, moisture, and temperatures for that specific type of tree.
Our guide to outdoor bonsai by region takes a closer look at the best varieties.
9. Can Bonsai Trees Live Indoors?
Even though they’re pint-sized, bonsai trees are still trees; so they’re usually happier spending most of their time outdoors. But some species are well-suited to indoor growing if you can provide the right conditions. Tropical and subtropical varieties like it warmer year-round, and those that prefer less sunlight and lower humidity are particularly amiable to life inside. We recommend ficus bonsai, carmona, schefflera, Chinese elm, snow rose, and jade.
Take a closer look at the best indoor bonsai trees.
10. What Is the Oldest Bonsai Tree?
Because bonsai is a restrictive practice, you might think the trees have a shorter life span. But they can actually live for hundreds of years in the right conditions. In fact, the oldest bonsai tree is reported to be over 1,000 years old. This ficus tree resides at the Crespi Bonsai museum in Italy, and has been tended to by generations of renowned bonsai growers. While your bonsai tree may have a long way to go to contend with this ancient specimen, the love you give it today is a gift that can be passed down for many lifetimes.
Antsy to get growing? Check out our guide to quick-growing bonsai trees.
Did we miss one of your pressing bonsai questions? Start a conversation in the comments below!
Bonsai With Us!
The Bonsai Resource Center is here to help you learn the best bonsai tree care and provide you with the tools you need to keep your tree healthy and strong. Explore our other articles, visit our online shop, and connect with other bonsai lovers in our Facebook group to learn everything you need to know about this rewarding hobby!
More Bonsai Tree Resources
How Long Does it Take to Grow a Bonsai Tree?
Ultimate Resource List: How to Start a Bonsai Tree
Growers Guide: How to Make a Bonsai Tree
Bonsai Resource Center Online Store