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.

Juniper Progress.

This Juniper was lifted in June 2015 and planted in a plastic container. It came from a garden and was planted in a very sandy soil which came away during the lifting process. It was basically bare-rooted at the time which in my mind was not ideal at the time. I did bring some of the soil with me to add to the new mix with the hope that it contained some michoriza. At this stage I also removed some of the long, whippy branches with very little foliage on it to try and balance the foliage to root ratio.

From this point on it was watered and fertilised and received plenty of sun. A few branches died over the next twelve months, but plenty of new growth showed as well. All of this was of the needle type and then reverted to adult growth. The tree was also planted into a Bonsai pot at which time the roots were reduced a bit.

I had to move my trees three in the last six months. First from a colder, wetter part of New Zealand to an almost subtropical climate. The first place was a temporary place while we were shifting our household, then to a rental until we shifted into our own house three months later. Eighteen months after the lifting (January 2018) it was time for its first styling. Deadwood was created on the cut branches and then the wiring started. This took about six hours with not more than two hours done per day. I find it is best to start at the bottom of the tree and then work towards the apex of the tree. I have just used aluminium wire and varies from 1mm thickness to 4mm thickness. Quite a few guy wires were used to pull larger branches down. I use plastic tubing to protect the branches. Due to a few harsh bends, light cracks appeared and these were sealed with cut paste.

Now it is time to let it rest. Water and fertilise, keep an eye on the wire to prevent it from cutting in give it plenty of sun. It could be show ready in about three years. The foliage pads must mature and I have left a bit of new growth on the main branch from where another branch or two can be formed to fill some gaps.

Some of the Jin are too long, but I will leave it as it is for now. It is better to shorten them later. It is not that simple to make deadwood longer later. Lime Sulphur will also be applied later after some carving, burning and light sanding.

I like to study my trees from the top as I used to style very flat trees in the past. Probably because I look at too many trees in photos. A top view shows you the depth of the tree.

I like to look at my trees from the top as I used to style very flat trees. Probably because I look at too many trees in photographs and this made my designs look very two dimensional and flat. From the top, it is easy to see the depth. You can do the same by looking at the tree from the side, but from the top you can also look for branches and foliage pads shadowing the ones below them.

Basic Identification of Conifers

Conifers make up a large percentage of most Bonsai collections across the world. To me, one of the difficult things with conifers, is to identify the tree to the correct species level. The reason for this could be that my early Bonsai education was on broadleaves and not so much on conifers. Conifers as a large group are identified by the fact that they do not flower, but in the place of this, they produce cones that contain the seeds. This makes them part of the Gymnosperm taxa, along with ginkgo and cycads. These are some of the oldest known plants in nature.

It is not that difficult to identify conifers to genus level, as this can be done mainly on leaf type and shape. Here follows my take on what this looks like (An arrow points to the next table for that category).



Have scale-like or awl-like shaped leaves.


Have needle-like leaves



Have leaves that are flat and feather-like in arrangement and shape.

Junipers and Thuja Pines, Spruce, Fir and Douglas fir



Cupressaceae family

Leaves are scale-like or awl-like.

Fruit is a berry-like cone with scales fused together

Leaves are scale-like or awl-shaped. The foliage is arranged around the branch, rather than flattened and cones are berry-like with scales pressed together.

Juniper (Juniperus)

The leaves are small, scale-like and pressed to the stem. The foliage is flattened and plate-like in appearance. The cones are berry-like with thick scales.

Thuja (Arborvitae)


Pinaceae family

Leaves are needle-like

Single needles.


Needles sheathed at the base in bundles of two to five. Cones have thick scales and are woody with swollen tips.

Pine (Pinus)

Short needles in tufts of ten or more and could be deciduous.


Larch (Larix)

Needles are flat in cross-section and quite flexible.

The needles are square in cross-section and quite stiff.

Spruce (Picea)



The needles leave an oval leaf scar and the bud tips are pointed. The cones have a three-pronged lobed tongue-like bract that extend out beyond the scales.

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

The needles leave a round leave-scar and the bud tips are roundish. The cones grow upright on the branch and usually breaks apart before falling off completely.

Fir (Abies)



From here the classification can be further refined to identify the specific conifer to species level. This will come in a future blog.