Bonsai is very rewarding; but getting started can be frustrating. It is hard to get enough specific information so you can begin when you can't even find out what kind of soil to plant in or where to get it. Bonsai experts are quite friendly and as helpful as possible; but bonsai is second nature to them, so they generally think beyond the basics. In addition, there are so many ways to do things and so much variety in tree styles, plant types, fertilizers, etc., that sometimes it is hard to get a straight answer about what is needed just to get started. This booklet is designed to help beginners get started before they get discouraged. They say you don't get good at bonsai until you've killed a hundred trees. That may be true; but no one kills the first hundred trees they own and stays in bonsai.

This booklet attempts to do three things. First, it will tell you how to grow successful bonsai in terms of choosing material, shaping it for bonsai, planting it and caring for it so it stays alive and grows properly. It is written with reference to a temperate climate such as Pittsburgh. Second, the book will give you explicit information so you can converse with experienced bonsaists in a common language, without being intimidated. Third, it will tell you what materials you need to get started.

How to gain confidence in bonsai early.

You will find members of the bonsai societies, clubs and other groups to be wonderful people. It must be something in the fertilizer they use! They will try to answer any questions you have. However, there is only so much time to talk to them; and you don't want to bore them to death talking about peat moss. The following suggestions will help you and obtain the information you need to get started:

  1. Join the local Bonsai Society or club. These are not secret societies! Anyone can join, usually by going to a meeting. Dues are reasonable. Attend the meetings, listen to the demonstrations and pay particular attention to information about special events. As fascinating as the business meetings are, the workshops, demonstrations and special trips are even better. In return, if you meet someone in the course of your travels who could give a talk or demonstration to the club about bonsai or a related subject, notify the club President or Program Committee. To find out about a local club, contact a local garden club, or check out the American Bonsai Society club listing or Bonsai Clubs International web page. For more about the Pittsburgh Bonsai Society, see our home page or membership information.
  2. Read! This booklet will get you started; but also consider buying one or two books. There are book listings provided on the web by the ABS and the BCI. The books will provide information, inspire you with pictures of beautiful bonsai and give you an author's name to drop.
  3. Subscribe to one of the bonsai such as Bonsai Today or Bonsai Magazine, the official publication of BCI. The pictures can be inspiring, you will gradually increase your knowledge about particular trees and the advertisements give you lots of places to spend your money. Isn't that what a hobby is all about?! The Pittsburgh Bonsai Society maintains a library of books, journals and videotapes for members to borrow, and other clubs may do the same.
  4. Take a class. You will hear about them at club meetings, and information is often posted on our web page. You will get an overview and have the opportunity to ask a lot of questions. After the first few classes, you can take some of your plants to the instructor for suggestions about styling and care.
  5. Get a friend interested in bonsai. It's more fun; and you can critique each other without being intimidated by a bonsai master.
  6. Keep more than one plant. Growing at least ten trees of different types and ages will hold your interest better. It takes someone more patient than most to start with all seedlings and have nothing of interest for five or more years. After you have some confidence and know what kind of plants you like, consider buying a nice bonsai in the $50-$150 range. That way you can get the feeling and emotional involvement from the art of bonsai while waiting for your creations to mature.
  7. To find resources for supplies around Pittsburgh and elsewhere, check out our bonsai links page and our Local Resources page.

A few facts about bonsai everyone should know:

  1. Bonsai is pronounced bone-SIGH, not banzaiiiiiii. It is a Japanese word meaning, "tray-tree."
  2. Bonsai originated in China about 2000 years ago and was taken to Japan about 600 - 900 years ago. Americans became interested in bonsai from the Japanese after WWII; this is why most of our techniques and vocabulary are Japanese.
  3. In the United States, there are no religious practices associated with bonsai as there might be in Oriental cultures. It is a living art form, a hobby combining horticulture and artistic technique.
  4. Bonsai range in size from a few inches to four feet tall.
  5. Any woody perennial plant with small enough leaves can be bonsai, even herbs such as rosemary.
  6. Most bonsai are outdoor plants. Do not try to keep an outdoor plant in your living room, particularly during the winter; it will die (juniperis mortalis). Some tropical plants, however, such as ficus may be trained as bonsai and kept indoors.
  7. It doesn't matter how old a bonsai is; what matters is how old it looks. Years of dedicated care and training do, however, give a bonsai special character.
  8. The wood, not the leaves, makes a bonsai look old and gives it character. Don't worry about the leaves; they will grow.
  9. What you plant in is called "soil," not "dirt."
  10. Bonsai are planted in clay bonsai pots, which are relatively plain (unpainted) and usually rectangular or oval in shape. They also have feet and drainage holes. They come in all sizes and range from $2-$600 or more. Sometimes, the pots are glazed, usually in a subdued tone.

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