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Bonsai Beginners

Published on April 8th 2021
A close up of a flower
The art of Bonsai has been around for centuries, inspiring generations of newcomers. It is a form of art that transcend generations and a living memory to those that remain behind.
It is a wonderful art form to learn and only requires enthusiasm on your part. In this article, we'll dig into some useful tips, references and quick guides to make this journey less daunting.

Selecting your first

When you start your journey, you will find it useful to know a few tidbits before buying that sapling. Young trees require a lot more attention than mature trees, especially once you pot them up.
Ask yourself the following questions:
  • How much maintenance would you like to do?
  • Would you like to water every day or rather once a week?
  • Are you keen on testing sculpting/wiring skills?
If you are not used to daily watering, it would be best to select a more tolerant species. This would entail selecting succulents like the elephant bush (Portulacaria afra). They require less water, are fast growers and bend easily, allowing you to familiarise yourself with bending and shaping. An elephant bush can reach a whopping 4-5 m, but it is often excluded from the realm of trees due to its succulent nature.
See these posts for mature size vs bonsai trees:


Elephant Bush or Tree? A funny tidbit I love to share. Your average Spekboom or elephant bush can reach some epic proportions. Here are some photo's of one with a 30cm diameter (fallen tree). They have a robust root system that can cope with 250mm of rain per year. #LocalSucculents #Elephantbush #Spekboom For more on Spekboom forests and Klein Karoo succulents:


Beautifully styled Spekboom bonsai belonging to a club member 😍

For more examples of elephant bush bonsai see George-local, Andre Swart’s detailed article.
Another option is by starting off with a Ficus bonsai (one of the most widely available). Ficus species grow at a fast rate, are not prone to many diseases, and rebound quickly. They are another great option for first-timers who will be making many mistakes.
See examples from our Candide enthusiasts:
Some additional easy suggestions:
native bonsai
Bonsai can be created from trees or shrubs. Some SA species such as Eriocephalus africanus have great potential as bonsai.

Indoor vs Outdoor

Bonsai is a predominantly outdoor gardening activity. That said, you can grow all the trees I have mentioned (up until now) in a south-facing window if you rotate the tree consistently. Better yet, if you have a balcony, you can grow them there.
Outdoor bonsai: Almost all bonsai fall within this category. The most common varieties (ones you would have seen at exhibitions) include maples, junipers, pines, cedars, cherry trees.
A vase of flowers on top of a wooden fence
When choosing a bonsai, it can be very tempting to opt for maple or juniper, but make sure you know their requirements before purchasing. I recommend starting with easier species and working your way up. That way you can experiment with anything. Remember, although Japan has 97 tree species, we have a staggering 700. Lots to choose from!
For more ideas see Candide's Bonsai Collection:

What to look for when buying

You can buy curated bonsai from a dedicated bonsai nursery or buy saplings at cheaper prices. The larger or older the trees, the more expensive they will be. Not all tree nurseries stock saplings and few retail nurseries offer a wide selection. If you opt to buy online, here are some tips:
Look for:
  • 20 cm pots
  • 5L -10L tree bags *You can make bonsai from larger trees, although it is an art unto itself.
  • Healthy leaves (no discolouration)
It is easy to get carried away with buying the multitude of bonsai tools, but they can come at eye-watering prices. It is not necessary to jump in and spend money on tools as you can do without quite easily. Rather save the money to experiment with different trees and save up for good quality tools later on.
Tree nursery
Tree nurseries often stock mature specimens, so make sure to ask for saplings or bonsai starters.

Where to buy

You will be able to find a Ficus bonsai at any Checkers or Woolworths, but if you would like to find a wider variety of trees, pop in at local nurseries first. I was wonderfully surprised to find a wide selection of saplings available at places such as:
It is possible to order online at stores such as Bonsai Tree if you are in an area that lacks an association. There is also the option of growing sapling stock from seed. Growing trees from seed may sound like a daunting task, but it is far easier than one would expect. Seeds for Africa offers such an option. For a video on growing Yellowwood trees from seeds, see Gardening with Gabriel’s YouTube tutorial here.

Books, Workshops, YouTubers and Associations

Bonsai is an ancient art, which means the amount of knowledge floating around is endless. In today’s technological age it may seem daunting to find good sources, so I tried to summarise some of my favourite sources for you.
  • Choosing & Growing Bonsai by Peter Chan
  • Bonsai by Peter Warren
  • Bonsai success in Southern Africa by Carl Morrow & Keith Kirsten
Peter Chan, Herons Bonsai
*Several dedicated specialists offer workshops/training/consultation
  • Bishopsford
  • Bonsai Tree SA
  • Serenity farm & Bonsai park
*Also includes other African countries from Egypt to Namibia
Visiting the nurseries is a very inspiring and enriching experience. If you ever find yourself in the vicinity make sure to attend the African Bonsai Convention. It moves around each year but is well worth attending.

If you have your own collection, please add your favourite tips below to help our beginners and as always, happy growing!

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