I’ve been interested in bonsai for over 25 years but only actually got involved less than a year ago. Like so many others it seemed daunting to me to get into the hobby. Sure, I bought the occasional bonsai tree at a department store or Amazon (derisively referred to as “mallsai” by many bonsai enthusiasts) but they all inevitably died. Now, ten months after taking my first beginner workshop, I have around 20 trees in various stages of development.
So, how do you get started if you’re interested in finding out if bonsai is the right hobby for you? There is no one right way but here are some things that helped me get started.
For me, the first step was the aforementioned beginner workshop. I had seen one several years ago at a local greenhouse but coudn’t attend so was waiting for the next one. The next one never came. Finally, I decided to take matters into my own hands and contacted the Cleveland Bonsai Club. One of their members, Dale Harder, responded and worked with me to put on a beginner workshop. I learned a lot and was immediately hooked. I had so much fun that I worked with Dale to host a second one the following year and I attended that one, too!
I acquired a few starter trees that first season but it was late in the year so there wasn’t much I could do before it was time to overwinter them. But, the winter did give me plenty of time to learn!
I bought several books off of Amazon (all out-of-print) and read them all cover to cover. Some were useful for the text, others were simply inspiring for the pictures. My selections were Sunset Bonsai Illustrated guide to an ancient art, BONSAI: The Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees, Bonsai (A Care Manual), and The Living Art of Bonsai : Principles and Techniques of Cultivation and Propagation.
I watched a lot of videos on YouTube. As expected, some were better than others. My favorites were the ones put out by Ryan Neal of Bonsai Mirai. I really liked how he explained things and the level of detail he would give. I ended up learning so much from the free videos that I paid for a membership to be able to see more of them.
Earlier this year, I joined the Cleveland Bonsai club. The club is full of friendly, knowledgeable members and I’ve learned a lot from talking to them and watching them work. Some meetings have a theme and a presentation, some are field trips, and some are workshops. Each provides its own opportunity for expanding your skillset.
At the workshop I received a couple of beginner bonsai tools. Getting cheap tools is a good way to get started because you’re not out a lot of money if you decide it isn’t right for you. I was hooked immediately so I asked for and received a bunch of really nice mid-level tools for Christmas. I immediately noticed the difference in quality and I imagine the higher end tools are even better. But while they’re nice to have they aren’t really necessary. Many people get by with garden shears and pliers.
The last tip I’ll give was that I joined an online forum. There are many out there but I found my home at Bonsai Nut (look for Cable, that’s me!). While some of the members can be a little harsh to newbies that’s usually only when a beginner posts like a know-it-all. They even have a section of the forums dedicated to beginners (New to Bonsai) and I could ask the dumb beginner questions and get them patiently answered. You can post pictures to get help with identification, disease or pest issues, and get styling advice.
So, that’s how I got my start. If you’re a beginner like me hopefully some of that advice will help you get on your way. Most bonsai folks are passionate about the art and happy to get someone else hooked so don’t be afraid to ask questions!