How to Care for a Bonsai Tree: Full Guide (5 Steps That Work Every Time)

Woman explains how to care for a bonsai tree while kneeling next to a tiny Bonsai tree planted in a terracotta bowl while a man looks interested with his hand on his chin looking at the plant, standing in front of a watering can.

Learning how to care for a bonsai tree is not as difficult as you might think.

You just need to know five simple steps that work every time!

Interestingly, the term ‘bonsai tree’ doesn’t refer to a specific species…it indicates a form of cultivation.

In fact, the Japanese term “bonsai” literally means “planted in a container!”

Bonsai is the art of cultivating these miniature trees and has been a part of Japanese culture since the early 14th century. But which was once enjoyed only by the wealthiest upper class and high-ranking citizens of Japanese society, has now become an art form enjoyed by people all over the world.1

This guide explains everything you need to know about how to care for a bonsai tree so that you can cultivate this art form to fit your unique tastes and find your own indoor (or outdoor) tree expression!

Bonsai Tree Care: 5 Steps for Healthy, Flourishing Results

Learning how to care for a bonsai tree6 can be intimidating at first. Here are a few pointers to help anyone care for their bonsai tree. It is a well-put and handy guide with quick tips for easy reference.

After you have chosen the variety of bonsai you want to grow (based on the tropical needs of the plant), follow these steps.

Related Reading: How to trim a Bonsai tree perfectly with foolproof technique

#1. Placement: How To Position Your Bonsai Tree

To figure out where to put the bonsai, you’ll need to know what kind of tree it is and whether it’s an outdoor or indoor plant.

Green leafed Bonsai tree in shallow terracotta dish, sitting outside on a wooden patio with white walls behind it.

(Image: Todd Trapani10)

The most popular type of bonsai trees, such as pine, juniper, and spruce trees, are outdoor plants that should be exposed to the elements just like their larger counterparts. Outdoor bonsai trees are also deciduous, which means their foliage change with the seasons. Maples, elms, and ginkgo are among them.

Indoor bonsai trees are typically subtropical species that require consistent temperatures throughout the year to thrive. Jade plants, Hawaiian umbrella trees, and ficus trees are examples of these.1

The rest is fairly simple once you’ve determined what type of bonsai tree. Here are some general guidelines for positioning bonsai trees that should apply to all kinds of bonsai trees.

  • Positioning: Keep the bonsai away from direct heat or drafts.
  • Lighting: Place the bonsai in an area that receives plenty of sunlight.
  • Humidity: Bonsais require humidity to keep their soil moist.

Indoor Bonsai Location Tips

In most homes, the only place a Bonsai will thrive is near a south-facing window, as plenty of light is essential for the health of your tree. Even a few feet away from a window, the light intensity drops significantly, slowing growth and eventually killing your Bonsai.

A bonsai tree planted in a black bowl, sitting on a round piece of corkboard next to a pair of black headphones on a wood table.

(Image: Nubelson Fernandes11)

Indoor bonsai are typically (sub)tropical tree species such as Ficus or Carmona, which necessitates a relatively high humidity level. Placing the Bonsai on a humidity tray will aid in this process. Place indoor trees in a location that maintains a consistent temperature throughout the day.2

Outdoor Bonsai Location Tips

Depending on where one lives, most trees must be kept outside all year. The annual cycle is critical for the health of most trees; for example, overprotecting the tree during the winter season will weaken the tree.

Over five Bonsai trees in various shapes, placed on rounded concrete benches in steps.

(Image: Milada Vigerova12)

As a general rule, place the outdoor Bonsai7 in a bright, well-lit location. If the summers are particularly hot, offering afternoon shade will benefit the trees, but you may need to protect the trees during the winter using clear plastic or bringing them in, depending on you growing hardiness zone.2

#2. Watering: How To Water Your Bonsai Tree the Right Way

Watering is the most important aspect of learning how to care for a Bonsai tree. The frequency with which a tree should be watered is determined by several factors, including the tree’s species, size, pot size, time of year, soil mixture, and climate. Understanding a few basic guidelines will help one understand and identify when a tree needs to be watered.

Under-watering is the leading cause of bonsai tree death. The soil layer is prone to drying out quickly due to its shallowness. Water bonsai trees as soon as the top layer of soil appears dry. Watering frequency can vary depending on the type and size of your tree, as well as the type of soil one uses, and can even be once a day. As a result, rather than following a routine, it is best to water each of the bonsai plants individually.

The main goal of watering the bonsai tree is to completely saturate the root system. Continue watering until water escapes through the draining holes to ensure proper saturation. Many bonsai trees come with a tray to collect excess water to allow for proper drainage.

  • Overwatering can be harmful to the bonsai tree as well. Yellowing leaves and shriveling of smaller branches are signs of an overwatered bonsai.
  • Overwatering a bonsai causes its roots to drown in water and deprive it of oxygen, preventing further growth to support the tree.
  • Overwatering can also be caused by poorly draining soil.

Inspect your bonsai tree on a daily basis to ensure that it is properly watered. The general rule is to water as soon as the soil appears to be dry.3

How Often Should You Water the Bonsai? (Practical Tips)

The frequency with which a Bonsai should be watered is determined by a variety of factors, and providing an exact guide is impossible.

The key is to examine each tree individually. The guidelines below outline what to look for and how to determine when to water the Bonsai:

Green watering pitcher with a yellow smaller one behind it sitting on a concrete walk next to weeds.

(Image: Egor Myznik13)

  • Water The Trees When The Soil Gets Slightly Dry

Don’t water the tree if the soil is still wet, but also don’t let it dry out. As a beginner, one must check the soil moisture with their fingers about one centimeter (0.4 inches) deep. Water the tree if it appears to be slightly dry. This will become clearer as one gains experience. When the tree needs watering, one will be able to see it rather than feel it.

  • Never Water On A Regular Basis

Keep an eye on the trees individually to see when they need to be watered. Avoid watering all of the trees on a daily basis until you are confident about the tree’s needs.

  • Use The Proper Soil Mixture

The soil mixture has a significant impact on how frequently trees need to be watered. Most Bonsai trees thrive on a 12 to 14 to 14 ratio of akadama, pumice, and lava rock. If you’re unable to water plants on a regular basis, use a mixture that retains more water by using more akadama or even compost in their potting.3

Self watering planters can be used, but make sure to check out the full instructions and capabilities before using it. Another option is to chose mist for plants sprayers to help keep your Bonsai tree hydrated.

#3. Fertilizer Ratio: Fertilizing Your Bonsai Tree

Regular fertilization during the growing season is essential for Bonsai survival and growth. Trees can usually extend their root system in pursuit of nutrients, but because Bonsai are limited to the fairly tiny pots they are planted in, they require proper fertilization to replenish the nutritional content of the soil.

Fertilizer’s Fundamental Components

Any fertilizer contains three basic elements: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK.) Nitrogen promotes the growth of leaves and stems, as well as above-ground growth.

Phosphorus promotes healthy root growth as well as the growth of flowers and fruits.

Potassium improves plant health in general. Different NPK ratios are frequently used by growers for various plants and at different times of the year.

Experts, on the other hand, advise using the same NPK ratio throughout the Bonsai growth cycle. In addition to the three macronutrients (NPK), fertilizers can contain a variety of micronutrients such as iron, manganese, boron, molybdenum, zinc, and copper.

When Should Fertilizer Be Applied?

Many Bonsai trees should be fertilized throughout the growing season, from early spring to mid-fall. Based on the variety, time of year, phase of growth, and health of the tree, older and more mature trees are often fertilized less frequently. All year long, indoor trees can be fertilized.3

Which Fertilizer Should You Use?

It is critical to select the proper fertilizer for the Bonsai plants and apply it in the proper quantities. For outdoor bonsai, use a fertilizer with relatively high nitrogen content, such as NPK 10:6:6. In the spring, a more rationed fertilizer like NPK 6:6:6 is preferable for summer, and a low Nitrogen fertilizer such as NPK 3:6:6 is preferable for autumn.

Experts recommend using a balanced fertilizer across the growth cycle and gradually decreasing the amount applied toward the end of the growing season.

Subtropical tree species are typically kept indoors and are not subject to seasonal changes. They grow all year and require consistent fertilization, so use a balanced liquid fertilizer for indoor Bonsai and follow the instructions on the product packaging.

There are a few exceptions to using different NPK ratios that should be mentioned. A high Phosphorus fertilizer, such as NPK 6:10:6, can aid in the flowering growth of a Bonsai tree. For older or more mature Bonsai, using a fertilizer with a significantly reduced Nitrogen content or minimizing the volume of fertilizer used can be beneficial.

Bonsai fertilizer is similar to other types of fertilizer, but purchasing from an online Bonsai store ensures you get the proper NPK values to encourage Bonsai growth.

Biogold is a popular fertilizer among Bonsai aficionados, but any fertilizer with the appropriate NPK value will suffice. Fertilizers come in liquid, solid, synthetic, and organic forms.

What Amount of Fertilizer Should You Use?

The amount of fertilizer8 one uses and the frequency with which they apply it can differ depending on the fertilizer they purchase. To ensure that one feeds their Bonsai correctly, they should follow the instructions on the fertilizer packaging. To avoid salt buildup, they should make sure their Bonsai is planted in proper, well-draining Bonsai soil.

Instead of stimulating growth, one can choose to consider reducing the recommended quantity of trees that are no longer in training. If using solid fertilizer, it is beneficial to use fertilizer covers to ensure that the fertilizer remains in place. Overfeeding the trees will have grave ramifications for their health.

#4. Pruning and Shaping Your Bonsai Tree

Pruning is necessary for maintaining bonsai trees’ small and compact shape. Pruning is classified into two types: maintenance pruning and structural pruning.4

Maintenance Pruning

Maintenance pruning helps to strengthen the tree by stimulating new growth. By removing young shoots and leaves, one exposes the leaves beneath to sunlight and air, which strengthens the tree and improves its overall health.

A close up of open, handheld pruning shears with a metal spring between the red handles, laying on a piece of canvas.

(Image: cottonbro studio14)

Branches, buds, and leaves are examples of areas that require maintenance pruning. Pruning encourages the growth of smaller branches and gives one control over the shape of the tree. Trimming buds away from branches encourages the growth of smaller leaves by producing more compact leaf growth.

Typically, one should prune their bonsai tree when they notice new growth that is changing the shape of their tree in an unfavorable way. Pruning flowering bonsais should be done in the spring to encourage more flowers to grow the following year.

Structural Pruning

Structural trimming is a more innovative method that should be performed only while the tree is dormant. It entails the removal of the tree’s basic structural branches and necessitates the expertise of a professional to ensure the tree’s recovery.

Wiring the branches of the bonsai tree is another way to properly shape it. Wrapping a thin wire around certain branches allows one to control their shape and growth pattern. Wiring is best accomplished in the winter when the bonsai tree’s leaves have fallen off. Keep an eye on the branch’s growth and consider removing the wire as needed. If the branch grows too quickly, it may grow into the wire, causing scarring.

#5. Soil Selection: Choosing the Correct Bonsai Soil

The secret to selecting the right soil for the bonsai is to select one that provides adequate drainage. To improve drainage and incorporate air into the soil, add large granules to the soil mix, such as volcanic rock or stones. The ideal soil combination should also be capable of retaining water, which can be enhanced by the addition of clay.

Fertilizing the bonsai ensures that it receives the nutrients it requires to stay healthy.9 A wholesome bonsai fertilizer is composed of equal measures of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Before fertilizing, thoroughly watered the tree, as it is detrimental to fertilize the tree while the soil is dry. To avoid overfertilization, read the fertilizer’s instructions carefully.

Repotting Your Bonsai

Repotting is an important part of keeping the bonsai tree healthy. Repotting is done to eliminate excess roots that can end up causing the tree to starve or not obtain adequate nutrients for its size. Repotting also guarantees that the tree can continue to flourish in a small container. Repotting bonsai trees should be done every two to five years, depending on how quickly they grow.4

Two gardeners wearing white gloves mix and hold handfuls of rich, black soil next to varigated potted plants.

(Image: cottonbro studio15)

The following are the fundamental steps for repotting a bonsai tree:

  • Remove the tree from its pot with care.
  • Trim away the outer layer of roots with sharp shears.
  • Inspect the root mass for rot and cut away as needed. These areas may indicate that the bonsai is not receiving adequate drainage.
  • Remove any brown or green spots from the pot itself.
  • Cover the drainage holes with mesh squares to keep the soil from falling out.
  • Place the tree on top of the soil at the bottom of the pot.
  • Soil should be used to fill any remaining holes or gaps where the root once existed.

Which Bonsai Grows Best Indoors?

Indoors, one can grow a variety of subtropical and tropical trees. The Ficus Bonsai is the most common and easiest to care for. The Ficus is very resilient and tolerant of low humidity, making it a great option for beginners.

Dwarf jade, Hawaiian umbrella (Schefflera), Fukien tea (Carmona), and Sweet plum are also popular indoor Bonsai (Sageretia). The tree will thrive indoors if one can master how to care for a bonsai tree and look after it properly.4

Why Can’t You Keep Non-Tropical, Temperate Bonsai Indoors?

As previously stated, temperate trees undergo a bit of dormancy in the winter. The yearly growth cycle ends during this period of dormancy, and the tree prepares for the next cycle, which begins in early spring. Weather conditions and light intensity gradually decline over several weeks, which does not occur if temperate trees are kept in the house. This period of dormancy is unnecessary for tropical and subtropical trees.

Bonsai trees not only look lovely and graceful, like all trees, they sequester small amounts of carbon emissions. While a Bonsai garden may not have a giant impact, you can go even further and invest in tree planting carbon offset strategies that are designed to rebuild existing ecosystems. Offered by the best carbon offset companies, these types of plans work to rebuild the planet while also reducing your eco footprint.

Knowing how to care for a bonsai tree is all that’s needed to jump into this wonderful, artistic and natural hobby.

Frequently Asked Questions About How To Care for a Bonsai Tree

What Bonsai Tree Should I Buy?

A Bonsai tree should be chosen based on personal preference and whether it will be placed indoors or outdoors. The most highly regarded tree species for growing indoors are Ficus and Carmona trees; for growing outdoors, the most common tree species are Pines, Maples, and Junipers.

What Is the Best Bonsai for Beginners?

Ficus Bonsai is ideal for growing indoors, whereas Juniper Bonsai is perfect for growing outdoors. Both species are tough and thus a good bet for novices.5

How Hard Is It to Care for a Bonsai?

Taking care of a Bonsai requires a little more effort than caring for a regular plant. However, if a person places their tree in the proper location and waters it properly, they should have no trouble caring for a Bonsai.

How Can I Start With Bonsai?

You can buy a Bonsai tree online or make one yourself for the full experience.5


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14Photo by cottonbro studio. Pexels. Retrieved from <>

15Photo by cottonbro studio. Pexels. Retrieved from <>