Whether you’re looking at picking up your first tree, or buying a tree as a gift, finding the perfect bonsai tree for beginners can be difficult. It’s definitely overwhelming with all these words being thrown around, tropical, hardy, subtropical, deciduous and many more! In this article I break down the best bonsai tree for beginners and how to care for it!
The Best Bonsai Trees For Beginners
The best bonsai tree for beginners is the Chinese Elm. There are many potential good bonsai trees for beginners but I’m just going to show you the two I have personally dealt with. My first and best recommendation for beginners is the Chinese Elm bonsai. I maybe slightly biased as this was the first bonsai I ever owned but I think for good reason as this species has all the characteristics to make it the best bonsai for beginners!
So, what characteristics would make a bonsai perfect for someone just getting into the hobby? It needs to be:
-Cheap to buy
-Hard to accidentally kill
-Easy to look after
-Require simple living conditions
The Chinese Elm ticks every single box! Just picking one up online as a starter kit or actually going through a local nursery I would estimate you’ll be looking at paying around £40-£70, which is much cheaper than a lot of species out there! I’ve actually found the exact bonsai tree I got from Amazon all those years ago, as my first tree! From personally owning one when I knew absolutely nothing about caring for a bonsai, I can tell you that they’re definitely a resilient tree and hard to kill. Baring in mind it’s an outdoor growing species, I had it indoors next to a radiator for a long time and it still didn’t keel over! (Disclaimer, it probably would have if I had left it a few more months).
I have written a brief Chinese Elm care guide below so you can get an overview on how to care for the tree. As far as bonsai trees go, caring for this species is pretty much as easy as it gets. It requires very little care besides watering and it doesn’t need any sort of special growing conditions. Some trees like sub-tropicals will require a high level of humidity to really thrive, which is hard to artificially recreate in the U.K. for instance – this tree requires none of that! It can be grown outdoors all year round so if you have limited space indoors, it’s still the perfect tree!
Chinese Elm Care Guide
If you’re leaning towards the idea of getting a Chinese Elm, have a read of this brief care guide so you know what you’ll be dealing with!
As far as watering, it requires a standard watering for a bonsai. This means pushing your finger an inch into the soil, about once a day to check for moisture. If the soil is damp but not too wet, this is the perfect time to water the tree. You’ll need to water the top soil from a low height until water is streaming nicely out of the drainage holes. Once this is happening, place the tree down to drain for 2 minutes. Repeat that same process once more and the tree will be perfectly watered! Last year I wrote a full watering guide that you might find useful.
The amount of times you’ll need to water really changes depending on the time of year, size of the tree and a lot of other factors. It’s very simple to know when this species needs watering, so it’s perfect for beginners. Also as piece of mind, if you forget the odd day, the tree is very resilient so it should be fine if you water fully the next day. Strive for a consistent watering routine, not a perfect one. If you are watering wrong, the tree is going to let you know about it with a few different signs – usually brown leaves. I’ve put together a little guide to diagnose what is causing brown leaves on your bonsai tree and the steps you can take to fix it.
This species is typically grown outdoors for most of the year but it can tolerate being grown indoors at certain times. For beginners it’s advised to grow the tree outdoors, in an area it is going to get a lot of light throughout the day. During the coldest days of winter and cold snaps you can bring the tree indoors for a short while and it should be absolutely fine. The most important thing is going to be making sure it gets a lot of natural light as this is really going to keep the tree thriving.
When I got my first tree I had it in the wrong environment for the first few months without even knowing. It certainly wasn’t thriving but it didn’t die either as this species is pretty resilient as long as it’s getting good light. My point being it’s a very resilient tree, hence why it’s the perfect bonsai for beginners. I have a full placement guide here if you need more information.
The Chinese Elm is a very fast growing tree so if you want to keep it under control, regular pruning is going to be necessary. The tree responds very well to this so nothing crazy needs to be done, just a standard pruning technique with some pruning scissors or ripping them off by hand. A good rule of thumb is waiting until a shoot has grown 3 new nodes before pruning it back. There is a lot more advanced things to talk about such as the best time to prune a sacrificial branch but for a beginner, none of that will be necessary, just the basic pruning. Pruning can sometimes be daunting for newer owners as many people are worried about damaging the tree – click here to read my full pruning guide with all the tips and tricks you’ll need to know to safely prune your Chinese Elm.
You won’t be a beginner as such by the time the tree needs repotting as typically this will be about every 2 years. Again, it’s a very simple process that this species tolerates very well. You’re safe to remove about a third of the root mass when repotting a Chinese Elm and a standard potting mix will work perfectly well. If you’d rather create your own soil mix for the best results, learn how to here!
Other Popular Tree Options
Another very popular bonsai tree for beginners is the Ficus. Not only is this the most popular bonsai tree species for beginners, it’s also grown in hotter climates, meaning you can grow this tree indoors. Beginners can usually pick this tree up online or at a nursery for a pretty good price, usually in the 7-10 year old range and it shouldn’t be too much more pricey than a Chinese Elm.
Ficus can look absolutely amazing with not too much hard work from the owner and this is due to the fact this species can grow aerial roots. These aerial roots can add thickness to the trunk, as well as providing a great look for the tree. To achieve these roots it’s said that you need to achieve a pretty high level of humidity, to replicate the tropical conditions in which they are grown, so this may not be too important for beginners as that is easier said than done.
The Ficus may be the best option for a beginner purely because of the fact it’s an indoor tree. When you’re first getting into the hobby it might be annoying to have to trawl outdoors for some people, so this could easily solve that issue. This species can be grown outdoors during the hottest weeks of summer, however the rest of the year it really must be grown indoors – it can’t tolerate a cold climate or cold snaps and won’t respond well.
Ficus Bonsai Care Guide
The Ficus is typically very easy to care for, hence why it’s a great tree for beginners. Here are a few tips you’ll need to know if you’re going to be picking up this species. If you want a more in-depth guide, I have put together a really interesting Ficus Bonsai Care Guide with all the handy information you’re going to need as a new owner!
We’ve created a full watering guide here if you’re interested but I’ll do a brief run down anyway. The Ficus should be watered with the standard practice, it doesn’t have any special requirements. Every day, push your finger about an inch into the soil and check for moisture. If the soil feels dry or just barely moist it’s time to water the bonsai. Water from a low height until water is freely pouring out of the drainage holes on the bottom of the pot, then leave it to sit for 2 minutes. Repeat this process once more and that is more or less all that is needed.
The Ficus, being tropically grown, does need a high level of humidity to thrive, so ensure that you have the humidity tray below the bonsai pot always filled. If you have the urge you can give the tree a daily mist as some people believe this increases the humidity – I think it’s completely pointless beyond the 30 seconds of humidity it’ll provide.
The Ficus needs to be indoors for the majority of the year, being a tropical species. In the hottest weeks of the summer you can leave the tree outdoors should you wish, but make sure you are bringing it back indoors before temperatures start dropping. This species is pretty resilient to things such as pruning or pests but it won’t respond well at all to a cold climate or cold snaps.
The ideal positioning will be somewhere with a great amount of sunlight everyday and a decent level of humidity. The more sunlight, the better! I would advise trying not to place it or any bonsai near a radiator in your home during the colder months, this constant dry heat really doesn’t do too many favors for bonsai in my experience. Again, feel free to check out my full Ficus Specific Care Guide for more in-depth techniques.
The Ficus tends to grow very nicely, so you are going to need to be fairly constantly pruning the tree through the growing season if you want to retain the shape of the bonsai. Defoliation can be used if you are looking to achieve a better ramification of your tree as the Ficus can sometimes grow leaves that will look way too big for the tree, as most bonsai will. After defoliating partially or fully, the leaves should grow back healthy at about half the size of before, as they will have less time to grow during the growing seasons. For more information on this, check my defoliation guide here!
Most Ficus I have seen over the years will typically have quite a thick trunk, so most people won’t need to worry about trying to thicken it up. If for whatever reason you are looking to increase the trunks girth, letting the Ficus grow for a 3-4 years with no pruning will be a viable option.
From it’s last repot, you’re going to need to repot a Ficus every 2-3 years. This should be a pain free process as this tree can handle having up to a third of it’s root mass removed very well, so no health problems should occur. A standard bonsai potting soil mixture from Amazon should be absolutely fine but if you are interested in mixing your own for optimum results, check out our guide here.
In summary, I would highly recommend getting a hardy, resilient tree for a beginner, most likely a Chinese Elm bonsai. A species like this is relatively cheap to buy, very easy to look after and actually pretty hard to accidentally kill. For whatever reason if you don’t like the idea of the Chinese Elm, have a look for other easy to look after and cheap trees such as the Ficus. The Ficus is an indoor tree, whereas the Elm is an outdoor species so make sure to tailor your decision in terms of what space you have at your disposal.
There is no real ‘best’ bonsai tree for a beginner, I can just personally recommend you to buy a Chinese Elm as this was my first tree, so I can share my experience. The most popular bonsai trees for beginners are the Elm for outdoors and the Ficus for indoors!