The art of bonsai

Aubrey Taylor, a bonsai enthusiast, guides you through the basics of growing and caring for the much admired bonsai tree.

The history

The origins of bonsai might be lost in the mists of time but paintings on Chinese screens dating back some 2,000 years are proof that the art of bonsai has been in existence for many years. Whilst it was the Chinese who are thought to be the originators of the art, it is the Japanese who have developed and made bonsai trees more popular worldwide.


The word bonsai means a tree in a pot. However, a common misconception about the bonsai tree is the size, as most people think that bonsai trees should be very small as most pictures in books don’t always adequately illustrate the size of the tree. However, a four hundred year old bonsai is likely to be in the region of a metre tall. For those interested in the growing of very small bonsai trees, there is a branch of the art called Mame bonsai that focuses on the miniatures.

Another misconception is that it is cruel to keep a bonsai root bound and confined in a small container, which stunts or miniaturises the tree. In fact, the opposite is true – a well potted and nurtured bonsai is probably happier and better cared for than its counterpart growing in its natural state, landscape or garden.

Starting off

When starting a bonsai tree, you can either choose a young developed plant or start from seed. There are plenty of tree varieties, either indigenous or exotic, to choose from. From personal experience, indigenous trees such as the Ficus sp (Wild fig), Celtis africana (White stink wood), Erythrinas (Lucky bean) and most Acacias lend themselves to making good bonsai trees that will develop faster than exotic species. Most importantly, no Zimbabwean collection should be without a baobab. However, steer clear of Msasas as they are trickier to grow and develop.

Most people are inclined to try any and every species when starting a collection. With time and experience, this enthusiasm is curbed and a more practised eye will focus on more rewarding species.

If you are new to bonsai and not feeling too confident starting from seed, it is best to find a newly developed bonsai. A newly developed tree is considered three to seven years old. The older the tree, the more costly the tree will be. Despite the cost, maintaining a bonsai can be very therapeutic.

How to form a bonsai

  1. First of all, plant the seed in a small pot or tray. Once the seed has germinated and looks established, transplant it into a large pot.
  2. Once a year prune the roots and foliage during the growing season.
  3. When it looks like a more developed bonsai tree, which can take up to five years, it is time to transplant it into a bonsai pot.



Every year, young trees are root and foliage pruned, as well as re-potted . As the tree develops and a balance is reached between the canopy and the roots, this exercise becomes less frequent and might only be necessary every third or fourth year or may be re-potted just to give the tree fresh soil.

Regular pruning of the foliage throughout the growing season achieves two things: firstly, it works towards developing the canopy and secondly helps to reduce the size of the leaf. Prune the foliage by pinching out the growing tips but make sure you leave two or three leaf nodes on each twig.

Root pruning helps to develop a healthy fibrous root system, which in turn enables the plant to take in more food faster in order to grow and develop faster. To prune the roots, start by cleaning the soil off the roots by placing it in a dish of water. Once the roots are clean, cut off a third of the root mass and then re-pot it in a fresh potting mix.

Soil mix

The soil mix should be a mixture of well sieved compost and topsoil to achieve a good friable mix.

The bonsai pot

The size of the container is important for both appearance sake and more importantly, it needs to be an adequate size to accommodate the roots comfortably.  A rough guide to the size of the pot is the depth of the pot should be approximately the same size as the width of the trunk, and the diameter of the pot should be the same size as the canopy of the tree. However, this can vary with the subject and style of the tree.

For the more advanced bonsai enthusiasts, the roots of a bonsai, especially an indigenous fig, can be wrapped around driftwood or rocks, and then placed back in the pot to produce a pleasing effect and give the bonsai more interest.

Watering and drainage

The most serious part in the care of the tree is the watering. In summer, they should be watered daily and they might need to be watered twice a day in hot dry weather. In winter, they can be watered less often depending on the type of tree, for example, a baobab or Sabi star might only require watering once a month or even less.

A good soil mix and adequate drainage is essential as it ensures that the tree will never be overwatered. Bonsai pots are made with fairly large drainage holes much the size of a 20 or 50 cent coin. These are normally covered with a fine plastic mesh or gauze. If a tree is not re-potted after a few years, the fibrous roots can completely block the holes of the gauze and stop the drainage. To prevent this from happening, place bits of broken pot over the drainage holes to ensure good drainage.


Bonsais should be fed every two weeks with a weak mix of Compound D or Vegefert fertiliser; a handful of fertiliser in 20 litres of water will be able to water all your bonsais and the left over can be used on your pot plants. It is important to feed your bonsai throughout the growing season.

There are many short cuts to achieve a respectable bonsai fairly quickly. Always remember whatever you do is for your satisfaction.

By Aubrey Taylor

Bonsai consultation and care

  • Contact Aubrey Taylor to help you re-pot, prune and advise you on the maintenance of your bonsai tree
  • Seven-year-old bonsai trees for beginners for sale
  • Baobab DIY kits for sale including instructions, seeds and growing medium
  • If going away, Aubrey can care for your bonsais.


Aubrey Taylor 0776 798 232

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