Step 2 Styling your Bonsai

Styling Your Trees

After you have selected your tree take some time to look at it. All bonsai have a front and a back, see if you can decide which side will become your front. There are five basic bonsai styling techniques. Your tree will fit into one of these categories.

Formal upright or chokkan

bonsai formal upright

Informal Upright or Moyogi

Informal upright Bonsai

Slanting or shankkan

Slanting Bonsai

Cascade or kengi

Cascade Bonsai


Semi cascade bonsai

Step 1

Remove weeds and the surface soil so you can see where the main roots for your tree start. If your plant is in a black pb bag, cut the top of the bag away, this will allow you to see how much trunk you have before the first branch.

Step 2

Take a sharp pair of pointed scissors and remove any dead wood or old leaves. Then remove any leaves growing from the bottom of the branches.

Step 3

Stop and look. Have you decided which side will be the front yet? The front should have the first main branch growing about 1/3 of the way up your tree to the left or right. Try to find a branch that fits this description, that will narrow your angles down to two. From the front of your tree you should be able to see a lot of the trunk but still have branches at the back to give depth. (Remember you can remove branches to achieve this.) You should not have roots or branches coming straight out at you from the front of the tree. No two trees are alike and all are unlikely to fit this description perfectly but keep all these factors in mind when deciding.

Step 4

Choose the branches you wish to use in your design. It is common for beginners to retain too much foliage, remember you want your plant to look like a tree not a manacured shrub. The gaps between the foliage are just as important as the foliage itself. The first branch is 1/3 of the way up your tree to the left or right and the next branch should be slightly above and out to the other side. Avoid if possible branches that are opposite and at the same height. This is called a bar branch and is undesirable. The third branch should be at the back and slightly higher again. Follow this pattern as best you can up your tree. When you have choosen which branches will remain, remove all the unwanted branches. The basic shape of your tree should be triangular. It can be any shaped triangle but must conform to that basic shape. Lightly trim your remaining branches so they are longer at the base of the tree and shorter towards the top. You should now have the basic outline of your tree.

My Juniper procumbens 'Nana'

Stock plant Juniper

This plant would be fine for several of the above styles, including informal upright, slanting, cascade and semi cascade. I have chosen to train it in an informal upright style, using that curve in the trunk.

Juniper bag fold down

If your plant is in a PB bag you can cut and roll down the top to expose the roots. Quite often the main roots start well below the surface of the soil. The structure of the surface roots of your bonsai can be an attractive feature so it is important to find where the main roots start. If your plant is in a plastic bucket or hard pot you may have to remove it from the pot at this stage. If you do you will have to take extra care not to let the roots dry out while you are working on them. A small spray bottle filled with water to mist the exposed roots every so often will help with this.

Juniper remove soil

Carefully remove the soil from around the roots until you find a thicker set at the trunk. This will usually be quite obvious and is even more pronounced on cutting grown stock. I am using an old wool bailing hook that I found in a second hand shop, vicious looking tool. You can use a bent fork, chop stick, bent piece of wire or you can buy Bonsai root hooks if you like. On smaller trees like this the soil will fall away easily. Remember if you have removed you tree from the pot keep the remaining roots damp.

Juniper amount of soil

You can see from the amount of bag that is rolled down how much soil has been removed before the true roots were found. This is a large amount and probably more than usual. If you are unsure don't worry you can always bring them up on the next repot or they may become clearer when you come to plant your tree in your Bonsai pot.

Juniper trim roots

Trim away the small exposed roots. This will allow you to see the full extent of the trunk you have to work with. Stand back and examine your tree, try to imagine the finished bonsai. If you still cannot see the finished tree in your minds eye don't be discouraged, I often change direction half way through. At least try to determine the best front for your tree. Have a look at step 3 above.

Juniper front of tree

This shows the front of my tree as I see it at this stage.

To enhance the branch placement you may use wire. This is not always necessary but it can improve a tree quickly and dramatically. See Stage 3 wiring and potting for more help with this.

Any questions

Share this page: