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What you need:
  • Good bonsai candidate
  • Tray
  • Sharp pruners (or specialized bonsai pruners.)
  • Bonsai root hook or garden claw
  • Copper wire
  • Misting bottle
  • Bonsai potting soil
  • Wire mesh
  • Decorative stone, moss, or gravel

The ancient art of bonsai is a beautiful blend of knowledge, soul, and nature that originated in China more than a thousand years ago. The Japanese brought this study to its current level. Starting a bonsai is less difficult than it seems.
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Don't expect your first bonsai to be perfect; experience will bring skill. Nursery bargain areas are perfect places to find suitable bonsai candidates. Look for misshapen plants with thick trunks like this ceanothus, a good beginner's bonsai plant. Or start with cotoneaster, Japanese holly, evergreen azalea, or escallonia.
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Next, select a tray in a style that suits you. Aim for one that is proportional to the size of your plant, and more or less as deep as your plant's trunk is wide. A little deeper is acceptable with a younger plant.
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Remove the plant from its pot. Gently loosen the roots and comb them out carefully, working your way around the plant using your fingers. If necessary, a bonsai root hook or similar tool can be used.
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Once the roots are untangled, use a sharp pair of pruners and prune off -2/3's of the root system. Focus on cutting back large and downward-pointing roots. Leave as many of the slender white feeder roots as possible. Aim for a flat root system to fit in your bonsai tray.
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Now study your bonsai candidate. Look for its natural form. Once you have a picture of that form, begin pruning with care, holding the plant at eye level and regularly examining your results from all sides. Mist the roots if they start to dry out.
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Use copper wire to position a branch, or to create dramatic bends or twists. Use a thickness that is suitable to the width of the branch and easy to bend. Carefully wrap the wire around the branch and bend it to the desired angle. Remove the wire once the growth of the plant has conformed, or it will cut into the bark leaving a scar.
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Next, prepare your tray. Place a fine screen over the bottom of your tray. Avoid using a metal screen. Synthetic window screen material works great. Then add a layer of bonsai potting soil.
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Position your bonsai carefully on the soil looking for a natural balance between plant and tray. For a traditional look, position it off-center.
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Once you are satisfied with the placement of your plant, fill the tray with soil. Drench the soil with a misting bottle. This settles the soil around the plant. You may need to top it off and mist again.
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For the final touch, add moss, an interesting stone or two, or bonsai gravel. Then place your bonsai in a cool, protected place to recover, misting the soil regularly to keep it moist.