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National Bonsai & Penjing Museum Workshop: Bonsai Basics with Tropicals

Wiring A Bonsai {The Tree Topper (CC BY-ND-NC 3.0)}

National Bonsai & Penjing Museum Workshop: Bonsai Basics with Tropicals

On Saturday I visited the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the United States National Arboretum here in Washington, DC. In addition to seeing the collection of bonsai and penjing, I viewed the special exhibit Becoming a Bonsai and dropped in on their workshop Bonsai Basics with Tropicals. The exhibit and workshop complemented each other well as both showed how bonsai are created.

The first part of the workshop was a lecture that covered the horticultural, aesthetic, and cultural elements of bonsai. The lecture was followed by hands-on work where each student created their own tropical ficus bonsai. If you are considering purchasing or creating your own bonsai, or have been given one as a gift, I encourage you to find a similar workshop in your area to attend. The class was very informative and fun.

Bonsai Tools

The art of bonsai requires special tools, some of which should be familiar to any avid gardener. Tools were loaned to the students so they could work with their trees.
Bonsai Tools {The Tree Topper (CC BY-ND-NC 3.0)}


The branches of the tree must be pruned to help maintain the size, shape, atheistic, and health of the tree. Pruning is the primary method for shaping the tree. It was almost scary the amount of cuttings removed from each tree during the class.

Bonsai Clippings {The Tree Topper (CC BY-ND-NC 3.0)}

Cuts are covered with an artificial bark compound to help the tree’s wounds to heal. Trees do need special care when undergoing so much work in such a short time.

Applying Artificial Bark Wound Treatment to Bonsai {The Tree Topper (CC BY-ND-NC 3.0)}

Wiring the Bonsai

Wiring is another technique for shaping the tree. Wire is wrapped around the trunk and branches to allow the artist to shape the tree as they wish. Wire is removed and reapplied as the tree grows in order to prevent damage. Different gauge wire is used for different sized branches.
Student Wires Her Bonsai {The Tree Topper (CC BY-ND-NC 3.0)}

Wired Bonsai {The Tree Topper (CC BY-ND-NC 3.0)}

Student Shapes His Bonsai {The Tree Topper (CC BY-ND-NC 3.0)}

Removing Roots

As with the need to prune the branches, the roots also need to be cut. Larger roots are removed with clean cuts in order to promote the growth of smaller, finer roots. It is the smaller roots that absorb water and nutrients for the tree. Removal of the larger roots also allows the tree to fit in the shallow pots.

Instructor Cuts Bonsai Roots {The Tree Topper (CC BY-ND-NC 3.0)}

There was one tree whose roots contained a surprise- a small colony of large ants. They quickly met the underside of a boot.

Student Clears Bonsai Root Ball {The Tree Topper (CC BY-ND-NC 3.0)}

Bonsai Pot & Soil

The choice of pot is mostly an atheistic choice, choosing one that is in balance with the tree. This is much like choosing a frame for a painting. Soil needs to provide a balance of good drainage and moisture retention. There are many different types of soils to choose from.

Bonsai Soils {The Tree Topper (CC BY-ND-NC 3.0)}

Bonsai pots allow for the roots to be wired down, thus keeping the tree secure. These trees can be kept outdoors in the summer, thus exposed to wind. Stability for indoor placement is also important, ask anyone with children and pets.

Bonsai Pot {The Tree Topper (CC BY-ND-NC 3.0)}

Chopsticks or similar tools are used to help shake the soil as it is placed around the tree. It is important that all the roots be surrounded by soil. Exposure to air will cause the roots to rot.

Potting A Bonsai {The Tree Topper (CC BY-ND-NC 3.0)}

Finishing Touches

Any final adjustments are made and then the bonsai is watered and allowed to drain.
Bonsai Final Adjustments {The Tree Topper (CC BY-ND-NC 3.0)}

I do appreciate the museum’s Assistant Curator Aarin Packard for helping to arrange my visit as well as his fellow instructor and students for allowing me to take photos as they learned and worked. I would have loved to have taken the class myself, but I knew I would get carried away taking photos of the fascinating process of trees becoming bonsai so I could share the experience with you.

Additional Information
Geek Factor

Penjing means literally “tray scenery” and is the ancient Chinese art of depicting artistically formed trees, other plants, and landscapes in miniature. Bonsai means literally “plantings in tray” and is the Japanese art form using miniature trees grown in containers. Penjing specimens differ from bonsai by allowing a wider range of tree shapes and by planting them in bright-colored and creatively shaped pots. Bonsai are more simplified in shape and planted in unobtrusive containers.

  • Good to see so many taking up Bonsai, there is no doubt though that work is required long term to get things right.
    I find it is always best to start with fast growing specimens as this keeps the momentum going.
    Bougainvillea Bonsai, although a little too gawdy for some normally do the trick.
    Lets hope they stick with it.

    • Thanks for the excellent suggestion Andrew. A fast growing variety would keep the grower engaged and provide a lot of opportunity to practice the art.