No matter how much experience you have with gardening, you can probably recognize a bonsai tree when you see it. Whether you’re attracted to the miniature aesthetic or zen atmosphere of the bonsai, the appeal of those tiny trees is understandable. What if you could apply that unique style of gardening to succulents?
The good news is: you can! Succulents are ideal for bonsai, so if you’re looking for a new project or something interesting to try with your plants, give bonsai a chance. If you’re short on space, bonsai is also a great way of keeping your succulents small and more manageable. It’s also a great option for succulent lovers who wish they could give their plants a little more hands-on attention. Bonsai-style gardening is a great way to get creative with your succulents and try out a new hobby.
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What is Bonsai?
Bonsai is a Japanese style of gardening that seeks to recreate the shape and appearance of mature plants, but on a smaller scale. The tradition dates to over a thousand years ago. Bonsai plants are meant to bring the beauty of nature into more compact living spaces.
As you can imagine, bonsai is not a fast-paced hobby. It requires patience and ingenuity from a gardener. Most gardeners get into bonsai because of its peaceful nature. It’s a great stress reliever and many gardeners report a sense of accomplishment when they feel they’ve shaped their bonsai into the miniature plant that they’ve been envisioning.
Typically, bonsai plants are cultivated and trimmed to keep them at a manageable size, while shaping them until they resemble tiny mature plants. The roots are often trimmed as well to keep the plant small and bonsai are usually planted in shallow dishes or planters.
The most common type of plant used in bonsai are woody-stemmed trees or shrubs, but succulents are becoming a more popular choice for bonsai lovers. Any plant that be trimmed regularly with little to no ill effect will make a good bonsai.
Why Succulents Are Ideal for Bonsai
If traditional bonsai plants don’t appeal to your succulent loving soul, the good news is that succulents are ideal for bonsai. Succulents are hardy plants that are often either naturally small or are able to stay small if their conditions do not allow them to reach a significant size.
As a succulent gardener, you can imitate the conditions that limit succulents’ growth, allowing you keep your succulents as small as possible.
The most obvious appeal of succulents for bonsai is their appearance. Their fleshy leaves and often thick stems look spectacular in bonsai form. Succulents vary widely in color, size, and leaf shape, so you have plenty of varieties to choose from.
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Additionally, most succulents respond well to trimming, so you can shape them without worrying about accidentally harming your plant. In addition to shaping your bonsai, trimming will also help you keep your succulent small, which will be easier to maintain in the long run.
Those cuttings can also be used to grow more succulents that you can then bonsai if you wish.
Succulents are also incredibly easy to care for, which can be great if you don’t have a lot of time to spend on your new bonsai hobby. They generally grow more slowly than other types of plants, so you’ll have plenty of time to plan out your bonsai and shape it accordingly.
Unlike traditional bonsai, succulents usually don’t need their roots trimmed. In fact, your succulent bonsai will probably do better if you leave the roots alone. Succulents typically grow well in shallow containers, so root trimming is rarely necessary.
How to Make Succulent Bonsai
The first step in making succulent bonsai is choosing the right plant. Ideally, you want a plant that is healthy, well-established, and features smaller spaces between leaves and branches. Thicker foliage will allow you trim your plant more easily without taking the risk that your plant will look thin and sparse when you’re done. Interesting colors and leaf shapes are great, so if you have a certain color or variety of succulent in mind, don’t be afraid to try it out.
Some succulents that make great bonsai are Crassula ovata, Sedum, and Euphorbia trigona, but this is by no means a definitive list. Some gardeners have even found success with different species of cacti, such as Cereus peruvianus monstrose and Opuntia imbricate. Don’t be afraid to experiment and see if you can create a work of art with other types of succulent.
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If you’re interested in creating particularly petite succulent bonsai, be sure to choose a species that won’t outgrow its container. A major aspect of keeping your succulents small is choosing smaller species, to begin with. If you’re more focused on shape, rather than size, you’ll have more options to choose from, but you may need more room to accommodate your new hobby.
As with any succulent, bonsai need a container and soil that allow for adequate drainage. Technically, you can grow succulent bonsai in a planter with no drainage hole, but it’s not recommended. Use the same type of soil that you would for any other type of succulent or cacti.
Succulents grown for bonsai are typically grown in shallow containers in an effort to keep the succulents small. The less room you give the roots to spread and grow, the less the plant is going to grow. By limiting your succulent’s mature size, you can further control the shape of your bonsai as it grows.
Since the appearance of your bonsai is a priority, you may consider covering your soil in decorative pebbles or crushed rock. Different types of small stones or gravel are ideal because they’re available in a variety of colors and textures and they do not seal moisture in the soil below. Try to avoid any material that may prevent water in the soil from naturally evaporating.
When trimming your succulent into its new bonsai shape, try to picture what you want your finished product to look like. Having an ideal image in mind will help you decide which stems or leaves need to be trimmed. If you’re interested in propagating your cuttings, set them aside to plant after you’ve let them dry out a bit.
The best time to trim succulents is before their growing season, so if you anticipate your succulent growing throughout the summer, try to start shaping your bonsai in the spring, so that you can continue to shape the plant as it produces more leaves.
If you want to keep your succulent small, you’ll want to make sure you start trimming before the plant has a chance to produce a significant amount of new growth. If you wait until the end of the growing season, you may find it more challenging to maintain your succulent’s size.
As you shape your succulent bonsai, you may notice that your plant is struggling to stay upright once you’ve trimmed some of the lower branches and leaves. You can help support your bonsai by carefully supporting it with aluminum wire. Aluminum is ideal because it’s strong enough to support most succulents but is pliable enough that you can shape it however you need to.
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Caring for Succulent Bonsai
Now that your succulent bonsai project is underway, you may be concerned about how to care for your uniquely shaped plant. Don’t worry, if you know how to keep a succulent alive, you’ll be able to keep your succulent bonsai growing and thriving for a long time. Succulent bonsai do not need any specific type of care due to their shape or size. Your bonsai will require the same sunlight, water, and soil as any other succulent of that species or cultivar.
While it’s important to provide your succulent with appropriate care, you don’t want to give the plant too much love. If you already know how to keep succulents small, then you know you want to give them minimal care. By limiting the succulents’ care, you’re simply imitating conditions in nature that limit plants’ growth. A plant will not grow if it doesn’t get enough nutrients or water to sustain itself at a bigger size.
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However, you need to be sure that you are providing your succulent bonsai with enough sunlight. Without enough sunlight, your succulent may become etiolated, or stretched out. If a succulent doesn’t receive enough light, it will grow in height, rather than produce more foliage, in an effort to reach more sunlight. If you want to keep your succulents small, then be sure they’re placed in an appropriately sunny are. Unless, of course, stretching the succulent out is part of your final bonsai design.
Maintaining your succulent bonsai’s size will be an ongoing effort. You’ll have to continually monitor your plants to make sure they’re receiving enough care to survive, but not enough to grow too much. It’s a delicate balance of enough light, just enough water, and barely enough nutrients.
You’ll also need to continue trimming your bonsai if you want to keep its small size and unique shape intact. Bonsai is not a hobby that you can work on for a few weeks and forget about. You’ll need to commit to your new hobby on a regular basis. Succulent bonsai is not a hobby for the casual enthusiast. If you want to maintain your succulents’ appearance, you’ll need to dedicate time in your busy schedule to caring for your plants.
The art of bonsai is as fascinating as it is rewarding. Combine that with your love of succulents and you just might have the perfect hobby. So, now that you have the knowledge needed to create a living work of art, choose your succulent and get started. With a little creativity and a lot of patience, you can create the bonsai succulent of your dreams.
Great article! I was wondering if you knew what species of succulent that first Instagram post is? Also I see you are in Scottsdale, I'm currently a senior at ASU and am interested in getting started in bonsai. Do you know any good places around town with plants I can get started with?
Thank you for your time!
I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I believe the succulent in the Instagram post is Aeonium 'Irish Bouquet'. It's just perfect for bonsai, isn't it? My favorite place to buy succulents locally is Moon Valley Nurseries. They have several locations around the valley but they always seem to have a good selection of succulents and cacti. If you do get started in bonsai, let me know how it goes!
A great article. I notice that you love what you do. Thanks for sharing.
There is no bonsai if there is not a great love for nature.
I started growing trees in my garden and now I do it in pots. Thanks for the ideas.
Thank you Tarah for this great article!
VERY well written & easy to follow.
I am a succulent newbie.
Will wait & see how my succulent cuttings do over the winter before trying anything more ambitious.
BTW:Searched YouTube for more of your work & couldn't find anything.
Your a natural & ALOT easier to follow than any of the others now presenting plant vids.
Start w/ a succulent bonsai video.
You'd be a BIG hit!!!!