Ah, little green tree. Easier than imagined. Beautiful to see.
Bonsai for Beginners

Petite and perfectly poised, the ancient-looking tree seems to whisper, "Buy me; I will bring you inner peace." Shaking that thought and rounding the nursery aisles, you search for something hard to kill, such as a pothos or dracaena, but the miniature tree draws you back.

Powerless to resist, you find yourself the proud yet clueless owner of a bonsai. What now? Relax; this will be easy.

To Know Them Is To Love Them

Bonsai are trees made into dwarfs by careful root and stem pruning coupled with root restriction. This is where those little pots come into play. The goal is to emulate nature. A well-shaped bonsai will resemble a very old tree or grove of trees.

Shrubs, vines, and ground covers, (such as junipers) can also be used but are meant for the outdoors. If you're new to this hobby, start with a bonsai indoors, where the controlled climate helps you to achieve greater success.

Consistency Is Key

Regular watering is job number one, so place your plant where you'll remember it. A bright kitchen window or sunny bath tends to have higher humidity, which your plant will appreciate. It will also benefit from an occasional misting.

Small containers dry out fast, so make checking the moisture part of your daily routine--as you load the dishwasher or brush your teeth. If the soil is dry to the touch, water.

A Light Eater

Interior bonsai need very little fertilizer to thrive. Just four to eight drops of liquid 10-15-10 added to a gallon of distilled water does the trick. Saturate your bonsai with the solution once a week in addition to regular watering.

Bright-light plants such as ficus require more fertilizer than low-light ones. Never feed extremely dry plants, as the roots may burn. Water first, and then proceed. Play it safe with new purchases as well; wait six months before fertilizing.

Just a Little Off the Sides

If you love to tinker and the sound of snipping shears is music to your ears, you may have found your calling. But don't jump in just yet. Any master will tell you that cuts require the high-stakes strategy of a seasoned Vegas poker player. Your best bet is to observe your tree for days, even weeks, before snipping the first leaf or branch. Visualize the shape you want, and then prune. Normally, a store-bought bonsai has a developed form that merely needs refining.

Tight Squeeze

Every two to three years, you may want to repot your bonsai. This can be done any time of the year, but prior to the spring growth spurt is best. Cut roots back by half, and then replant using a well-drained potting soil. At the same time, reduce the canopy by half. If you desire a larger plant, select a container one size bigger, and repot accordingly.

Should you splurge on special tools for your newfound hobby? Wait to see if you really get hooked. Though they make the job easier and give a professional look, they tend to be pricey.

Easy Indoor Bonsai

  • ficus (Ficus sp.)
  • Hawaiian umbrella tree (Arboricola schefflera)
  • baby jade (Portulacaria afra)
  • ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata)
  • money tree (Pachira aquatica)

Editor's pick: Chinese banyan (Ficus microcarpa), also known as tiger ficus, is an easy-to-grow houseplant that prefers bright light and makes a forgiving bonsai choice for beginners.

"Bonsai for Beginners" is from the February 2006 issue of Southern Living.