If you’re interested in growing bonsai trees but worried you can’t maintain them or are not keen on dropping one-hundred-plus dollars on a mature tree… read on! I’ll walk you through my simple steps for growing a great beginner bonsai – the dwarf jade – from an inexpensive cutting to a beautiful tree. This pretty plant is my most forgiving and no-fuss houseplant. It’s also my longest-lived plant and a joy to shape and grow (and show off!).
Bonsai literally means ‘planted in a shallow container’. It’s a common misunderstanding that bonsai trees are a particular species of genetically dwarfed plant. You can actually turn most plants into bonsai, but some are better suited to looking like miniature trees and living in shallow containers than others.
Many of us have come across these beautiful tiny trees, that live in surprisingly tiny pots and are sculpted into charismatic shapes. We ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at their beauty, imagine them as our coffee-table centrepiece, but then feel intimidated by not knowing the ancient art of caring for bonsai.
The hefty price tag doesn’t help our trepidation, especially when we start worrying that it might look more like an amorphous bush than a mini ancient tree once we get our hands on it. That’s how I felt too, until a good friend of mine gifted me a young dwarf jade bonsai and there was no room for waffling or doubt – my hat was in the ring!
I was ten when I received the jade and I honestly didn’t know much about plant care and not a thing about bonsai. Now over 15 years have passed, and Mama Jade and I have grown to know each other quite well. Yes, I named my precious plant and, yes, she propagates like crazy and has many bonsai children now!
So, the following is what I’ve learned from growing, shaping and propagating jade bonsai (also known as elephant bush or portulacaria afra) over the years. It’s probably not a “bonsai expert’s” approach, but through my simple method I’ve had my own brand of success and a lot of fun along the way without the stress or paralysing apprehension of needing to do it perfectly. Without further ado, let’s dig into the details!
Choosing a Cutting
Find yourself a cutting 4 to 10-inches long and as thick as possible. The cutting can be a straight single trunk, or a piece with branching stems. The choice is yours!
If you can’t get a cutting from a friend or store, you can probably find a young jade bonsai tree that is cheap and cheerful. These trees will have thinner trunks and a less established shape than mature trees. That’s all well and good in my books because it offers you a blank canvas to practice pruning, learning its growth habits and developing your artistic vision for its form.
Remove leaves from the bottom 2-inches of your cutting by pinching them off, then pop the stem in a glass with 2-inches of water. The water should come up to, but not past, the bottom leaves of the cutting. And those leaves you pinched off? They’re actually edible and used in southern African cuisine. Give one a taste if you’re feeling adventurous!
Roots can appear in a matter of days or up to a few weeks. Continue to leave the cutting in water until there is a nice network of roots about 2-inches long. Remember to check on your cutting and top-up or change the water periodically.
You’ve got roots! Now it’s time to pot your little tree-to-be in soil. Bonsai soil (often a mix of akadama, pumice and lava rock) is best but I’ve actually never used it. Instead, I use the cactus soil I have lying around, and it works just fine. The main concern is using soil with good drainage and a pot with drainage holes.
Now you need to pick a pot. For mature bonsai presentations, the pot is something to be chosen with artistic intention and thoughtfulness and is often quite shallow, but while you are raising your little cutting that doesn’t matter so much. Find any small pot 3 or 4-inches tall with drainage holes and fill soil in around your cutting.
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At first your cutting might be unstable because its roots haven’t had a chance to create a firm foundation. Not a problem! Just grab any stick, chopstick, skewer – whatever you have at your disposal – and prop that baby up. You can also use some stones around the trunk as supports.
With many plants it’s good practice to give the soil a good soak right after potting, but that’s not always the case with succulents like jade. I don’t have firm advice on whether or not to water your newly potted cutting because the jade should be fine either way. Jade plants store lots of water in their trunks and leaves so it is very drought tolerant and will carry on without water for quite some time. However, I have watered my cuttings right after planting on many occasions and that works too. Experiment if you have a couple cuttings and see which way works best for you. If you choose not to water right away, just keep an eye on it for signs that it is thirsty (for example, withering or dropping leaves).
Let it grow, let it grow!
Your newly planted jade bonsai will like the sunniest spot you can find and is happy in warm, low humidity environments. Think of finding a place in your home that is most like a desert, because that’s where jades come from. But once again, our easy-going plant will still grow in medium light and tough-out a cool draft if need be.
Can you keep your bonsai outdoors? Jades are hardy in USDA zones 10 and 11 so if you are in the right area you can give it a try – but – I recommend keeping your fragile new tree inside where wind and animals can’t batter it around.
You’ll know your cutting is established in its new home once it starts to grow new leaves and branches. At this point let it grow and grow! Water when the soil is dry with a good soak and let the excess water drain out. Jades can handle long periods of drought but if the leaves become limp, dull, or wrinkled you’ve waited a bit too long to water. On the other hand, if you see leaves turning yellow or transparent you might be watering too much.
Jades grow fast! It’s another wonderful perk as a first-time bonsai parent. Growing bonsai is a practice in patience, but when you’re just starting your bonsai collection (I bet you won’t be able to stop yourself from propagating more!) it’s nice to see a tree taking shape within the first few years of growth.
After some time, your bonsai will start sprawling, getting top-heavy and flopping over due to its own weight. When this happens, just support it as best you can, and don’t be disheartened if it looks nothing like a tree! This is exactly what you want and here’s why: the main goal for bonsai is to give the trunk time and nutrients to thicken a bunch. It will take many years and a cycle of grow-prune-repeat for the trunk to become thick and sturdy enough to support many branches and leaves.
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A Prelude to Pruning
The first prune! Are you nervous? Don’t be. You can’t mess up because the jade plant is such a vigorous grower and anything you cut away will come back soon enough!
I prune once a year in spring or early summer when my plant is actively growing. However, if you are in very hot conditions, the active growth seasons for your jade might actually be winter. Either way, your plant will tell you when it’s shifting from dormant to actively growing and that is the best time to prune because it will have the energy to put out new growth after you basically strip it back to looking like a twig.
Yes, I want you to prune it back to almost a twig. Eeek! Scary, I know. Cutting off all that beautiful growth can feel extreme. Kind of like you’re taking two steps forward, ten steps back. However, pruning back most branches and pinching off some leaves is just what the jade needs to stay miniature and thicken up its trunk.
Before you clip into the tree, give some thought to the shape you want your tree to grow into. Maybe browse the internet and consider the look of a single straight trunk, a branching trunk, and a bonsai forest (multiple bonsai in one pot), etcetera. There are lots of options, but don’t fret if you can’t decide – shape is completely changeable as your jade continues to grow.
And remember, trees can really take any shape in nature. So, while the idea is to make a miniature tree, what it ends up shaping into is in the eye of the beholder. I, for instance, appreciate when trees look a little whacky and have some interesting draw or character that doesn’t fit the image of the ‘perfect tree’.
Now it’s time for your jade’s first haircut! Take some sharp scissors or bonsai shears and trim in between the bars/lines that wrap around the branches. The stem will die back (dry out/seal up) to the first line below your cut. The lines are where you can expect new growth to come from.
You can also try pinching leaves in choice places as this can result in an entire branch forming where the single leaf used to be!
Keep in mind that pruning and shaping your bonsai is inherently a dance with nature. You can somewhat predict where new growth will emerge, but your plant will never cease to surprise you. That’s part of the fun and challenge of sculpting something living! Enjoy the process.
Rinse & Repeat
Every year let your bonsai grow its heart out, and then prune it back.
Every two years or so, repot into fresh soil. This will give the roots fresh nutrients and oxygen.
You can experiment providing a light fertilizer during the growing season. I do this periodically when I already have fertilizer in my watering can, but it’s not necessary.
Eventually, you may wish to start shaping your bonsai with bonsai wire. Wire can help you achieve cool windblown and twisted shapes. I have yet to use wire on mine, but I encourage you to check it out if you are interested!
Potting the Mature Tree
Seeing as you won’t get to this stage for many years, and as I’ve talked your ear off already, I’ll save instructions for potting a mature tree for another time.
I hope this tutorial has you raring to go start your very own bonsai tree or forest! Growing bonsai teaches patience and provides an outlet for artistic expression. And with jade bonsai in particular, it’s an opportunity to dabble and experiment with the ancient horticultural artform with a lighthearted and adventurous attitude, because you can really do no harm with this vigorous and resilient plant. In fact, if you care for it right – or maybe even if you don’t – your bonsai can actually outlive you!
So, here are my parting words:
If it turns out whacky and you don’t like it, eat it!