Roots – The key to beautiful bonsai

Fine Bonsai Roots

We hear it all the time from new practitioners, One of the most frustrating aspects of bonsai for people who are new to the art is the aggravation of looking at images of all the amazingly refined perfectly styled trees online and dealing with the often let down that their own bonsai creations don’t look like that. In this article were going to take a look at why and help you take the biggest step in improving your bonsai game and taking it to the next level.

The not so secret to amazing bonsai rests below the soil line and is often the most neglected and not thought about part of bonsai trees for new practitioners, ROOTS! There is a direct correlation between the roots in your pot and the branch structure you see above the soil. Often times new practitioners are hyper focused on styling their trees with wire and pruning, trying their hardest to make their bonsai look like those spectacular specimens they see in books, magazines, and online and they overlook the aspect that actually makes those trees so full. In short, as illustrated by the drawing at the top of this article, to have many fine branches you need many, many fine roots.

Order of operations

The first step is determining how your tree was grown prior to you acquiring it. We will add here the caveat that if your tree is not healthy and thriving, then you should address that issue before doing any work on your tree period, roots or otherwise. Otherwise proceed as follows in the spring. If your tree was started from a seed it will have a tap root. The tap root is a long, thick root that grows straight down into the earth. If your tree has one of these you need to remove 2/3rds of it, put it back in a pot and you’re done. 

If you have no tap root, next is identifying your primary, secondary, and tertiary roots. Primary roots are thick, coarse and stiff, secondary roots usually branch off primary roots and are a bit thinner and more flexible, and lastly tertiary roots branch off secondary roots and are typically very fine and often pinkish white in color. Tertiary roots are the most efficient roots of all roots. They are young, growing, and still at peak efficiency. The goal is to grow as many secondary and tertiary roots as possible. To do this you start by removing 1/3rd of the primary roots, and 1/3rd of your secondary roots being careful to not remove more than 2/3rds of the overall root mass of the tree then rake out the remaining roots to be as evenly spaced and distributed as possible, and plant it back in a pot. Do not fertilize for 2 weeks and keep the tree in partial shade for 2 to 3 weeks.

Do nothing

Step two is the easy one. Do nothing for 2-3 years. Water and fertilize your tree as usual, but other than that let the tree grow unchecked to gain vigor. Every piece of foliage in the canopy of your tree is driving energy to grow roots. 2 to 3 years of unchecked growth will drive a bunch of new root growth from the roots that remained from your prior pruning. If you were looking for more from step two, here’s where your going to be disappointed because that’s it. Feed, Water, and let grow.

Prune

Step three is where it starts looking like a bonsai. After 2-3 years of uncontrolled growth you will have a fair number of branches to select from. This is not the time you are going to turn your tree into a masterpiece for the ages, but it is the time when you will set the bones for your masterpiece in the future. No two trees are alike so we can’t tell you exactly which branches to cut, and where but we can talk in generalities to help guide you.

The main objective here is to select and set your primary branch structure. There is something you need to remember here, first and foremost is to remember, you’re not making a work of art all in one day with this. Your bonsai tree may very well look like a shaggy dog after step 3 and that is perfectly O.K.

Before selecting the primary branches, you want to remove any underperforming foliage as it is inefficient to keep. Tiny buds growing from the trunk, branches that are weak and being out competed by other branches, foliage that is being shaded out by other branches, ect. Those are usually the first things to go, we call this cleaning. Once your bonsai tree has been cleaned. Select your primary branches, use wire only if needed to set a branch in place and only on the primary branch itself not on any of the other branches.

Wait

The next step is another easy one and is simply to just wait. Give your tree a year to settle in after its cleaning and primary branch selection. Let it heal its wounds and get ready to drive growth again. Continue to feed and water your bonsai tree and let it recover and grow. That’s it.

Steps 5,6,7 to infinity

We’re going to combine the rest of the steps into a brief set of instructions. After letting your tree recover for a year you will go back to step 1. Cut back more primary and secondary roots remembering not to take off more than 2/3 of the root mass then pot it back up, let it sit for 2-3 years and grow unchecked. After that jump back to step 3 but this time work on selecting and setting your secondary branches instead of your primary, then again give it a year to recover, and jump back to step 1, cut back primary and secondary roots, give it 2-3 years of growth, then back to step 3 but this time selecting your tertiary branches and presto you have a beautiful bonsai all be it 10-12 years from when you started. After that, the same steps can be repeated into infinity to continue refining your tree.

Summary

The most important take away here is a simple concept. Many fine roots equals many fine branches. There are a lot of shortcuts to speeding up the path to owning a high quality bonsai but all of them will cost more money up front. There is a lot of nomenclature used in bonsai which are used incorrectly so you have to be careful when you shop, something we will cover in a later article but to summarize, buying a pre-bonsai should shave 4 years off your path as a pre-bonsai should have had its first root reduction, primary branch selection and been through its year of recovery at minimum, sometimes when you buy them they have already had their second root reduction and are in the “let it grow” phase for the second time. A lot of time bonsai stock and bonsai starters are mislabeled or misrepresented as pre-bonsai and all you end up with is a tree in a nursery pot, but if you are buying from a source which knows their bonsai then you can usually trust that buying a pre-bonsai although more expensive than starters or stock will save you time.

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