Bonsai Guide Landing page banner

How to Grow a Bonsai

Bonsai Guide Landing page banner

In summer 2018 Japan House hosted two drop-in sessions where Peter Warren explained the art of bonsai cultivation, while demonstrating with live trees. Warren talked through his own experience as a bonsai professional, from his time as an apprentice in Japan, while giving an outline of bonsai history, tree varieties and styles, and practical maintenance and care.

Regarded as a horticultural art form, the definition of bonsai can be found in the etymology of the word itself. ‘bon’ (盆) means tray or container and ‘sai’ (栽) planting. The main difference between growing a house plant and a bonsai is that bonsai are intentionally minimized and shaped through pruning and training. Although premium bonsai take many years to develop and perfect, getting started on your own bonsai is a relatively simple process.

Read on for Peter Warren's suggestions for growing your own bonsai.

1. Choose the pots

"Picking the right pot is a trade-off between what is horticulturally correct and what is aesthetically appropriate for the stage of development of a bonsai. Once the tree reaches a state of high refinement, it deserves an attractive, quality pot to achieve visual balance with a suitable size to restrict coarse growth whilst keeping the tree healthy."

"Bonsai pots need holes in the base to allow excess moisture out and feet on the pot base to let air in. While looking for the right pot, it is important to understand the tree’s character and gender. Colour and texture are other two key factors to consider before buying a pot. The colour really depends on the bonsai features, like spring blossoms, fruits or vibrant autumn foliage. In general, it is better to avoid going for an exact match and instead look for colours which complement the character of the tree. Deciduous trees are traditionally planted in glazed pots whereas evergreens and conifers prefer unglazed containers."

2. Pick the right tree 

"When choosing a tree, it is vital to keep in mind the climate, the amount of time you have to care for your trees and the level of skills required. For new bonsai enthusiasts, it’s better to opt for easy-to-grow trees with a more relaxed attitude to life. In this group, we find the Cotoneaster, a vigorous plant that will send out shoots of old wood and flower and fruits with ease, the Trident Maple really easy to style for beginners and the Chinese Elm one of the first buy for many early practitioners. For a year-round interest, the Potentilla is suggested for its resilient nature and the Chinese Juniper with a distinctive oriental look and its responsiveness to shaping."

3. Mix the right soil 

"There is not a perfect bonsai soil. The mixture to use is governed by the local climate, the tree’s stage and the species. Each component serves a different purpose and often finding the right mixture to use can be the result of different attempts to find the right combination. While Keto is used for creating rock planting and moss balls, Akadama assists root development retaining water. Kanuma is an acidic and soft soil whereas Pumice and Volcanic lava are ideal for improving aeration. Kiryu, a Japanese river sand, is perfect for conifers and compost can be used to make a highly retentive soil."

4. Equipment and care
As a starting point, the basic toolkit from a specialist bonsai nursery including cutters, scissors, bonsai saw and brush will be sufficient. The bonsai tools pictured here are 100% crafted in Japan by SUWADA, precision metalworking specialists headquartered in the Tsubame-Sanjo area of Niigata Prefecture, northern Japan. 
"Each bonsai is reliant of its owner’s care and for this reason, it is important to learn the right amount of water, the use of fertilizers doses, and that everyday seasonal tasks can dictate the overall bonsai health and growth. It is important to learn how to read the tree and respond to their needs."

5. How to feature your tree 

Despite what many people think, bonsai trees should be kept outdoors to get enough light and experience seasonal changes in light and temperature just like normal trees do. Pictured here are trees by bonsai master Kobayashi Kunio, Peter Warren's teacher, displayed outdoors at Shunkaen Bonsai Museum in Tokyo.
If you plan to keep your tree indoors you must choose tropical and subtropical plants. If you want to grow a tree outdoors, deciduous species are good selections. "It is important to create an attractive setting for the location of your tree, such as adding benches or creating a landscape around them that frames the tree well. Accent plants are a great way to complement your bonsai tree and also help to complete the narrative of the display."

On display

To celebrate Japan House London opening on Kensington High Street, a series of four of Peter Warren's bonsai were displayed in The Shop at Japan House London from 18 June to 15 July 2018.

The first bonsai on display was a 70-year-old Japanese Larch (Larix Kaempferi) collected in Northumbria. Next was an elegant and feminine 55-year-old Japanese Maple, followed by a characterful, 350-year-old Itoigawa juniper. The final bonsai in the series was a 30-year-old European Beech with a forest like appearance. 

About Peter Warren

After completing a traditional six-year apprenticeship in Japan under bonsai master, Kobayashi Kunio - at his world-famous nursery in Tokyo, Shunkaen Bonsai Museum - bonsai artist Peter Warren returned to the UK and settled in London, where he created his studio and nursery, Saruyama Bonsai.

Since then he has travelled far and wide, teaching and working with bonsai collectors and enthusiasts across the globe on a mission to elevate the art of bonsai. Some of Warren’s works have been exhibited at the highest level in Japan, the US and Europe.

If you would like to read more about bonsai, DK's Bonsai by Peter Warren offers a comprehensive introduction to bonsai trees, with illustrated step-by-step projects to make bonsai for beginners simple and achievable. Saruyama Bonsai offers a full and comprehensive service for all bonsai needs, from teaching, styling and routine maintenance to sales and sourcing the best trees, pots and materials from around the world.