For the past few months, we’ve been experimenting with the idea of growing and displaying succulents in the Japanese tradition of the bonsai. Bonsai is an ancient Japanese art form which seeks to evoke the essence of nature through miniature trees. But we are in no way traditionalists, so we bend the rules a little. In this article, we want to tell you a little bit about the basics of the bonsai aesthetic, adapted for succulents and cacti.
Tiny Versions of Nature
We recently started adding several succulent bonsai products to our store, so we’re excited to tell you a little more about our fascination with Bonsai. In Japanese, the word bon means “tray”, and the word sai means “to plant”, and that is exactly what practitioners of bonsai do; plant trees in trays, or shallow pots. Most people probably associate bonsai with small, or even teeny tiny plants. Traditional bonsai trees range from 6 inches to 4 feet tall. The bonsai artists use techniques to keep their plants small, while mimicking the natural growth patterns of larger trees. It’s very possible that you’ve been fascinated by these little trees enough to buy a tiny one from the mall only to have it die a couple weeks later. While the tradition of bonsai has a very robust set of principles to follow, our succulent bonsai projects only loosely mimic the basic bonsai aesthetics so that they are much easier to create and to care for. And because succulents usually start pretty small, they’re perfect for bonsai projects. We like to call our succulent bonsai projects “bonsai for black thumbs.”
How to Start a Succulent Bonsai
Succulent bonsai “trees” can begin a number of ways, including from seeds, cuttings, or by training a grown succulent plant into the desired form. Growing from a seed is definitely a time investment and it’s for the pros, so today we’ll just focus on the latter two options, which are to find a cutting or a whole plant that would be suitable for “the bonsai look” with a bit of work. For succulent bonsai, we recommend choosing succulents that have a hardy trunk to help you achieve “the look.” When you order a DIY succulent bonsai kit from Juicykits.com, we’ve already selected the plants that have the basic qualities which make it suitable for bonsai. So you get a kit that’s ready to go.
Basics of Bonsai Aesthetics
Several aesthetic principles have been passed down through the ages, suggesting what’s attractive and what’s not. The most general principles focus on:
- Form: The general shape or silhouette of the plant; usually an asymmetrical triangle with the leaves pointing upward.
- Balance: Location of branches and foliage and location of the plant in its pot, avoiding perfectly symmetrical proportions in favor of natural proportions inspired by the golden ratio.
- Proportion: Relationship of the elements to each other.
- Line: How the apex (the tip) relates to the trunk.
- Details: We’ve added this one ourselves in order to group several of the smaller things that make a nice bonsai. These elements include the size of the leaves, exposed roots or nebari, and how the base of the plant has been decorated.
Main Bonsai Styles
These basic aesthetic principles, when utilized and combined in various ways, produce quite different results. In our illustration, you can see a few of the many different shape classifications, or bonsai styles, including:
- Formal Upright or Chokkan: A perfectly straight, upright trunk.
- Informal Upright or Moyogi: The trunk may have a curve or slight slant.
- Slanting or Shakan: A more severe curve, with the apex extending outside of pot.
- Windswept or Fukinagashi: Similar to slanted but all branches and leaves look like they’re being blown to one side by the wind.
- Cascade or Kengai: The trunk grows upward with an abrupt turn downward, sometimes extending far below the pot.
- Semi-Cascade or Han-kengai: A trunk that grows upward then cascades slightly lower than the top surface of the pot.
There are also some grouping styles for when you are using multiple plants, but we won’t go too deeply into that other than to say that it’s mainly about giving the appearance that multiple trunks are growing from the same root system. If you’re curious, here’s a link with more cool styles like “raft style.”
How to Achieve The Desired Form
Or “How to make the plant look the way you want it to,” in human language. A core principle in the art of bonsai is to train the “tree” to look natural, while staying small. But since we’re using succulents instead of pines and maple trees, we interpret “natural” to mean that it’s copying the form of larger non-succulent trees. For example, training your jade plant succulent to sort of look like a juniper bonsai tree. Here are a few things that bonsai artists do in order to make the plant conform to the shapes that we want:
- Pruning: The most basic activity is to trim away leaves and branches to only keep the ones that will grow provide you with the right form. This can be done by simply plucking some leaves from your succulent using your fingers or the tweezers that come in our Terrarium Toolkit. Another helpful tool is a super sharp small blade like an X-Acto blade or Olfa utility knife.
- Wiring: Using wires, string, clamps, and other tools to shape the “tree” is usually done when very young. With succulents, we’ve found that you can continue to shape the plant when it’s older. Wiring consists of wrapping a stiff wire around parts of the plant, then carefully bending the wires and plant into the desired position. This can be done in stages, so that you don’t stress the plant too much all at once. Just give it some time to adjust. Your first priority should be to shape the main trunk, then move onto the other branches.
- Watering: Since we want to keep our plants small, it’s a fun challenge to find a watering schedule for your succulent bonsai that balances keeping the plant healthy but not growing too quickly. It’s not that hard – just wait until the soil is dry before watering and use a fast draining potting soil mix designed for cacti.
- Repotting: When the form of your succulent bonsai plant gets larger and is no longer balanced with its pot, you can repot it into a different home to achieve balance. Repotting every couple of years helps provide the plant with newer, more nutritious soil.
- Trimming roots: Each time you repot, you can manage the root system, cutting away the smaller roots and trimming down the larger roots. This helps keep the plants small, while encouraging new root growth. Traditionally, bonsai artists use a chopstick to tease out the old soil from the roots, but we’ve found that the end of the paint brush in our Terrarium Toolkit works just as well.
- Presentation: Decorating the base of the plant with moss, rocks, sand, or small pebbles helps the overall presentation of your succulent bonsai. Our Jet Black Lava Rock is perfect for most bonsai plants and so is the moss that comes with the terrarium materials in The Basics.
We’ve really enjoyed learning about bonsai and find it relaxing to practice the patience required to train our plant into form. We’ve been influenced by succulent bonsai lovers online, including Nick Stipcevich (@nicco_67), a few of whose Instagram pics appear in this post. There’s also a good book called “Totally Bonsai: A Guide to Growing, Shaping, and Caring for Miniature Trees and Shrubs” that goes into just the right level of detail for our short attention span. And also this book about “Bonsai Succulents” that goes into a lot more detail.
The art of bonsai is rewarding in lots of ways, and now you can get a small taste with succulent bonsai projects from JuicyKits.com and our awesome selection of succulents. We’ve got a new line of DIY succulent bonsai kits all influenced by the art of bonsai, complete with everything you need to get going. Our kits are easy, relaxing, and add a bit of zen to whichever space you choose to show off your plant. But beware, succulent bonsai is so fun and easy that it might lead to an obsession. Hehe, see ya! <3