Tips on Bonsai Making

Selecting Plant Specimens/Species

You can buy plants from a nursery, or else get a half-grown bonsai. You can, of course, grow them from seeds or by asexual propagation like layering, marcotting and grafting. Marcotting or layering produces quick results because you can start with a mature tree right away. Generally, outdoor plants are preferred by bonsai masters. These plants are trees, shrubs or even vines. Look for those with small leaves, and are known for longevity and sturdiness (ficus family like balete, Chinese holly, tsaang gubat or fukien tea, most fruit trees except mango, avocado & other large-leaf plants, etc.) Another alternate is to hunt for them in the wild where many are available for bonsai making. Or, right in your garden there may be old plants you can use for a start.

My favorite specimens are balete, especially those that grow in the wild (Ficus Benjamina). They are sturdy, easy to grow, and live very long even under harsh conditions. Although folk beliefs associate these plants with unknown spirits, they are not that dangerous to humans. I have lived with these plants for years and they have given me nothing but pleasure.

I recommend the following plant species (with their scientific names in italics), many of which are indigenous to the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia, as appropriate for bonsai:

  • Balete family (Ficus Benjamina, Ficus Retusa, Ficus Rotundifolia,Ficus Philipinenses, Ficus Concina )
  • Tsaang Gubat or Fukien Tea (Carmona Microphylla, Erethia Buxifolia)
  • Kamuning or Orange Jasmin (Murraya Paniculata, Murraya Exotica)
  • Kamachile (Pithicolodium Dulce)
  • Kalyos (Streblus Asper)
  • Bantigue (Pemphis Acidula)
  • Bougainvilla (Bougainvillea Glabra)
  • Guava (Psidium Guavaja)
  • Narra (Pterocarpus Indicus)
  • Five Fingers (Schefflera Actinophylla)
  • Chinese Holly (Malphigia Coccigera)
  • Spineless Chinese Holly? (Serissa Foetida)
  • Japanese Bushida
  • Pine tree (Aguho) (Casuarina Equisetifolia)

Horticultural Practices

Here are some practical guidelines to follow, which I do in my more than 20 year of experience in bonsai-making:

Soil – bonsai grows on rock or soil, but all bonsai plants need soil to live. Some have tried bonsai trees on rocks without soil, but these trees still would require more frequent nourishment(by fertilization)and watering than usual. Also, nobody as of this date, I believe, has experimented on hydrophonics or using water as a medium for growing bonsai. Most bonsai growers use soil, but what kind? The soil must be sterilized, and properly sifted or screened, taking out the very fine (powdery) and coarse particles. The soil is formulated with this mixture: 60% garden soil, 30% river sand, and 10% peat or humus. Peat comes in the form of compost, coco peat, partially decomposed rice hulls and other organic wastes. The amount of peat may be increased for grow-out bonsai, consequently reducing the amount of soil.

Watering – water daily or 2x a day (except during winter), the indicator being that the soil is already dry and that the leaves begin to wilt. Careful now, overwatering is just as bad as underwatering. Use rain or deep well water as this is free of chlorine, which is responsible for the white spots on the leaves once they get dry. If you got no option but to use tap water from your faucet, collect water and let it stay for about 24 hours before using. This way, chlorine evaporates or is degraded.

Sunlight – expose the plant to abundant sunlight as far as possible (except for indoor plants). Sunlight helps in stunting the growth of bonsai plants. Putting of nets over the bonsai plants must be avoided. This does not apply to newly repotted bonsai, which must be put in a shaded area until it is established. Ditto for indoor plants like schleffera (five fingers).

Fertilization – moderate, once a week or bi-monthly fertilizing will do (1 tbsp of complete fertilizer for every gallon of rainwater or water from a deep well). Other things equal, apply complete fertilizer (12-24-12). For flowering bonsai, increase the potash content, while for grow-outs use urea instead. Urine may do if commercial fertilizers are not available, or you can’t buy them, but make sure that you dilute it with adequate water (2 gals.). Don’t fertilize newly transplanted bonsai, or during winter season.

Insecticide/fungicide – avoid it if you can, else consult an expert what to do when your bonsai shows some unusual symptoms. I do it in the natural way, by physically removing the pests (aphids, worms, molds, etc.) and spraying the leaves with some biodegradable soap.

Pets – not really horticultural in a strict sense but still an agricultural one. Don’t allow animals or your pets (dogs, cats and chickens) to visit your bonsai garden unattended. If possible, enclose your bonsai garden with hog or chicken wire, or else restrain your pets from moving about.

Repotting/changing the soil – most plants need new soil (the one whose formulation is prescribed above) after a period of 2-3 years, depending on species. Bougainvilla, Chinese holly and Kamachile have to be repotted every 2 years, and balete 3-4 years, among others. Keep the repotted plant under the shade for 1-2 weeks and gradually expose them to full sunlight when new leaves have begun to sprout.

Cleaning – Clean up the tree regularly, taking out ugly cobwebs, dried leaves and fallen flowers, and brush the trunk to tidy it of molds and dark spots. Remove the weeds and other dirt that gather on the base as they serve as host to insects and pests. Ditto for the underside of leaves, where aphids and molds hide almost undetected. Gently use your fingers to clean them up.

Tools – You must be ready with your tools, many of which are dedicated to bonsai culture. Pruning shears, trowel, bucket sprayer, ice pick, wire cutter, knife, and many more must be ready for use. Some bonsai shops sell a variety of these tools. Realize that you can use many of your carpentry tools like carving knives, saw, and many more.

Artistic Techniques

Shape (or form) and balance are largely a combined function of manipulation techniques, notably wiring and trimming. In general, the form of most bonsai follows that of a triangle: the apex represents heaven, the lowest branch, earth, and the middle, man. Its balance is asymmetrical triangle. The triangle is an overarching form in most of the ten or so bonsai styles known so far.

Wiring – is a method where a copper wire is tied around the trunk or branch with the aim of bending it to give the plant a desired shape. Sometimes, hanging of weights may do if what is needed is simple bending of a branch or twig. Ideally, wiring is combined with pruning techniques although one can resort to the easier cut-and-grow-method. Together, these techniques make a plant appear truly like a bonsai tree, styled according to some standard pattern.(See

Being an art, bonsai requires manipulation and creativity. The plant’s branches and twigs have to be wired and bent along desired directions (as in cascade, for example, where the branches drop down as if a tree hangs on a cliff). Another technique is to puncture holes in the trunk, or twist it by bending (short of breaking the trunk) until one hears a creaking sound inside it. But this can be a dangerous procedure and must be done with utmost care. Some purposely remove the bark and leaves of treetops or undesirable branches to create a sari or jin effect, like those struck by lightning or battered by elements in the wild.

The ultimate aim of wiring is to produce curved branches following a triangular shape or conical form, or some other styles or natural formations. Done prudently, wiring makes the plant look older than what it actually is due to the drooping of its branches and the uneven marks of wiring left in the trunk/branches of the plant. Bonsai plants shaped by wire look tortured or badly beaten, but this is what makes them lovely and unique. “Bad” look sometimes makes a beautiful bonsai. In deformity, there is beauty.

Pruning – constantly prune or trim your bonsai. Depending on plant variety, some would need monthly or bimonthly “haircut”. It’s time to prune when you see new shoots sticking out wildly. About the only rule to follow in pruning is this: cut those twigs and leaves that grow out of an imagined shape (outside of the triangular or broom pattern you have assigned to your bonsai plant). When cutting, prune the twig as close to the branch as possible, with just 1-3 leaves left above the affected twig. This will produce a zig-zag effect or snakelike pattern that simulates aging. (An excellent discussion of wiring and pruning techniques is made in

Harmony – all things said, one important consideration is whether the bonsai specimen exudes harmony. Here, size, style and form of the plant, the stone on which it stands, and the pot where it is planted combine aesthetically and harmoniously. For example, there must be color harmony between the pot and the plant. Bonsai experts prefer light colored pots to brightly colored ones (red, violet, yellow, etc.) as the latter compete for, and more likely succeed in getting attention among viewers. Also, the size of the pot and that of the plant should strike a happy balance. The plant (or the pot) should be proportional to the pot (or the plant). More of these aspects are presented in bonsai styles. Harmony is admittedly difficult to detect unless one has a trained eye. Ask some friends or experts to judge your work. Better still, attend bonsai exhibits and see how experts observe harmony.

Plant Nursery:

Manila Seedling Bank
EDSA cor. Quezon Ave., Quezon City
(near MRT Quezon Ave. station)

source: This article is originally published at Bonsai Pinoy by Fred Magdalena.


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