Ficus retusa bonsai tree

Your Personal Tree

New England leaves are falling as we approach winter. Yet in some houses there sits a miniature tree — the indoor bonsai — that will remain green. Owners experience joy in taking care of these little trees that often look exotic and are indigenous to warmer climates. Shaping them provides an opportunity to apply creativity and compliment the design of a living space.

“It’s more like having a pet or a dog than it is a house plant,” says Roger Huebner.

Huebner has been working at Bonsai West in Littleton, MA for almost 20 years. The store has hundreds of bonsai in stock, ranging in price from $18 to close to $10,000. They offer classes and workshops on bonsai care.

Huebner says that people buy bonsai when they want something to take care of, or when they want to try the art form of shaping.

“[Bonsai] need daily attention. [You] have to look to see if they need something.”

Many people like how the branches and roots bend and curve in accordance with Asian aesthetics. “[Bonsai] better the quality of mental and physical status." This usually isn’t the main reason people buy one; like other plants, bonsai consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

Choosing an Indoor Bonsai

Huebner says that he recommends Schefflera Arboricola, a Dwarf Umbrella Tree, or a Portulacaria, a Dwarf Jade Tree, for people who are just starting because those trees require less water and sunlight than others.

“The thing with trees is, if you look at one and fall in love with it, you are going to learn everything about that [kind of] tree to keep it healthy.”

Caring for the Bonsai

Beyond water and sunlight, fertilizer is used to feed the tree every two weeks during its growing season, which for indoor bonsai is usually late spring, summer, and early autumn. Grow lights are a good idea for the tropical trees.

Before Shaping

If an owner wants to shape the bonsai artistically, knowing the horticulture of the tree is crucial.

“If you’re not keeping it growing in the right spot, no matter what you want to do artistically, you're not going to achieve it.”

Huebner advises that an owner wait an entire year before beginning shaping. Bonsai are about patience. Some of the most magnificent trees at Bonsai West are over 65 years old and were passed down between generations.

Get Creative: Shaping the Bonsai

Shaping is done through a variety of techniques that include trimming leaves, pruning, and the use of wires. Trimming and pruning in places causes denser regrowth. Wires pull branches closer to each other, or the trunk closer to the pot. The tree's parts eventually get used to the the new positioning, and no longer require assistance.

There are a number of bonsai styles, some which make the tree more contorted, and another—forest style—which looks exactly like it sounds. Formal or informal straight and cascade are common, but drastically different, styles.

Formal or informal straight styles are similar to the ways most trees in New England look. Cascade has a tree bend downwards beneath the top of the pot, with the bunches of foliage imitating a cascading waterfall.

Longterm Ownership

“A tree has to be transplanted every 3-5 years, because the roots fill in the pots. Change the soil, so they have new soil to grow into.”

Bonsai, which translates to “plantings in tray," is an ancient Japanese art form derived from the similar Chinese penjing. Traditionally, bonsai are grown outdoors. Both indoor and outdoor versions each begin as a seedling or cutting from another tree.  In this way, some bonsai may be hundreds of years old, with their lives extending from pot to pot. 

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