Newbie Bonsai Help.

It is very common to see a photo of a seedling or small nursery stock on social media with the following comment: “I am new to Bonsai, please help with advice”. Where to start? What the follows is a number of people writing one liners or a bit more with a genuine interest to help.

I have been demonstrating and teaching Bonsai now for many years and am following what I think is a logical series of steps to enable the new Bonsai enthusiast to work towards a specific goal. It is almost paint by numbers, but in the absence of knowledge and skills, it is the best way to get the basics across in a short period of time. Here are the steps:

  • Unearth the topsoil to look at surface roots.
  • Determine the front of the tree.
  • Decide on a natural flow of the trunk dependent on the style envisaged.
  • Decide which branches / side shoots to keep.
  • Remove excess branches and foliage.
  • Some of these can be selected for deadwood (jin).
  • Create Jin.
  • Wire main trunk if required.
  • Bend trunk to desired shape.
  • Wire branches into position.
  • Clean hanging foliage up.

Each of these steps require a lot of knowledge to get to the end result. This is part of the conversation as the design unfolds. Small nursery material can take up to three hours to style with a new enthusiast in a workshop situation. The hands-on work takes only about thirty minutes to complete, but the explanations and answering of questions, in my mind the most important part, takes up a lot of time.

This Juniper is nursery stock and is 20cm high from the top of the soil. It has been standing around here for a year or so and received very little attention.

The first step is to scrape some of the soil away to see if there are any prominent, larger roots that can help to make a decision about the front / viewing side of the tree. In this case it only contained a whole lot of fine fibrous roots.

It is therefore now up to the trunk line to give an indication of what could be a possible front. For newcomers, we usually look for good movement and flow.

Once the best angle is determined to show things like flow and movement as well as taper or interesting features, it is marked and excess branches and foliage can be removed to reveal the trunk line. The conversation at this stage will include things like removing branches growing from the same height, branches on inside curves and crossing branches.

Some of the branches are identified as possible deadwood branches and these are kept a bit longer. Bark is then removed.

All of these steps have cleared the path for the trunk to be wired. Just the basic of wiring is explained and demonstrated at this stage as this skill is seen as a bit more advanced for a newbie. I think it is important to allow the person to start on their wiring pathway as it is an integral part of Bonsai design. As said, we stick to the basics at this point. It is more important to talk about design and flow at this point.

The branches can now be wired.

The next step is to place the branches in position while a conversation about safe bending takes place. Overall tree health is emphasized at all times. Once the placement is done, excess foliage, especially those growing downwards or upwards is removed. The concept of foliage pads is also touched upon. I find it is important to at this stage point things out like depth (back branches) and negative space. These are all explored ta more advanced workshops.

The last part of the workshop is focused on future growth, the role on foliage in feeding the plant (photosynthesis) and then the very important aftercare of the tree. Protection of small buds and the removal of older foliage as the tree buds over the next few months is discussed as well as feeding requirements and protection over the next month or so.

Potting, root management, carving, severe bending and more advanced wiring techniques are all part of more advanced techniques to be covered at advanced workshops.

Nebari – The Root of the Matter


These roots have grown over time, dropping of the side of a cliff.

No, we are not talking about the Nebari fictional alien race from the planet Farscape, but the Japanese term generally used to indicate the roots and specifically the root flare at the bottom of the trunk where the root region starts. It also indicates the visible surface roots.

Wikipedia refers to it as: “Also known as “buttressing”, nebari is the visible spread of roots above the growing medium at the base of a bonsai. Nebari help a bonsai seem grounded and well-anchored and make it look mature, akin to a full-sized tree.”


My idea is to write three or so Blogs focusing on Nebari and the development of roots. There is no doubt in any Bonsai artist’s mind that the roots of a plant is where it all starts. Healthy roots = healthy plant (generally). A plant absorbs most of its water and nutrients from the soil through the roots. We therefore have to know something about soil and its water retention and draining properties. Not all soils are created equally. We also need to know something about the physiology and anatomy of roots. This knowledge will help us to understand many of the concepts around root pruning. This will come in later Blogs.

Autumn bonsai images 2014 (17)

A tree growing in a woodland area. These roots definitely add to the character of the tree and indicate that it has been there for a while.

Getting back to the Nebari, the main aim of establishing a root flair at the base of a tree is to indicate age. A wider base caused by a flaring just above the roots, helps to establish the taper of a tree. One way to develop taper is to increase the circumference of the tree at the base and to keep the top of the tree relatively thin. Young trees do not have a huge flair at the base, but older trees show this without fail. In saying that, there are trees that are used for Bonsai that do not show a big root flare. Junipers come to mind here.


The roots are spread over a flat surface and tied to this surface.

There are multiple methods to improve the Nebari of a Bonsai tree. The first one is the continuous root pruning of downwards growing roots. For the health of the tree it is advised that this is done over time to enable the tree to grow new roots in the place of the removed roots. A second method is done through air layering. This is simply done through preparing the bottom of the trunk as one would for air layering and heaping up the soil or packing sphagnum moss around this area. Roots will over time establish themselves in that area. I have read about a method where a wire is bound tightly around the trunk just above the roots. The flow of nutrients will be impeded and that will cause new roots to grow from above the wire. I have not tried this method myself before and cannot comment on how successful it is. Other methods include drilling holes through flat tiles and tying the roots of the tree in a horizontal direction to the tile with wire through the drilled holes. It could also be done through grafting.

In the end, the Nebari plays a vital role in the aesthetics of the tree. It is crucial thfotolia_2553306_XSat some sort of Nebari be established as it indicates age, shows that the tree is balanced and sturdy and has been there for a long time.

The next Blog will address the science behind root development.