Growing Bonsai Indoors

An introduction to beautiful tropical and subtropical bonsai that can thrive inside your home year-round. Tailored to the needs of first-time bonsai growers, this hands-on guide explains step-by-step how to make indoor bonsai flourish. You'll find a thorough overview of the most common bonsai styles-fully illustrated with color photos and line drawings-along with advice on wiring and pruning from renowned experts.

  • Bonsai Moves Indoors, by Pat Lucke Morris
    • How to Purchase a Bonsai, by Pauline F. Muth
  • Bonsai Styles, by Pauline F. Muth
  • Pruning Primer, by Robert Mahler
    • Bonsai Tools and Good Sanitation
  • Wiring Basics, by Robert Mahler
  • Encyclopedia of Bonsai for Indoors, by Robert Mahler and Julian Velasco
  • Indoor Bonsai Care, by Jerry Meislik
    • Ventilation and Humidity
    • Watering Bonsai
    • Fertilizing Bonsai
    • Growing Media
    • Soil Moisture and Container Shape and Size
    • Repotting and Root Pruning
    • Natural and Artificial Lighting
    • Summering Bonsai Outdoors
  • Starting Your Own Bonsai: Seeds, Cuttings, Air Layers, and Nursery Stock, by Robert Mahler
  • Bonsai Health Care, by James F. and Mary Kay Doyle
  • For More Information
  • Contributors
  • Index

Bonsai Moves Indoors

by Pat Lucke Morris

Visit any of the great bonsai collections around the world, and you quickly come to understand that a large number of fabulous specimens like a cold climate. They are cold-temperate deciduous and evergreen trees native to northern lands and need a dormant period of cold and rest every year in order to lead a long and healthy life. That these temperate species should make up a great deal of the world's bonsai is not surprising, given that the art is traditionally considered an outdoor pursuit. In Japan, extremely low temperatures are rare beyond the northernmost regions, and the temperate trees popular for bonsai there live outdoors all year long.

Asian jasmine

Tropical plants like Asian jasmine lend themselves to indoor bonsai. Styled as a cascade, this 23-inch-tall specimen has been in training for 50 years.

Even though the art of bonsai has traditionally been practiced on hardy plants outdoors, since the middle of the last century, growing bonsai indoors has become increasingly popular. If you'­d like to begin cultivating bonsai in your home but are not in the market for a cool greenhouse that can accommodate cold-hardy northern trees, the tropical and subtropical bonsai found in the southern U.S., most of South and Central America, Taiwan, southern China, Southeast Asia, and India are much more promising options to start with. In their native locales, these trees are also cultivated outdoors year-round. The fortunate bonsai artists in those balmy regions do not need special techniques for cultivating and protecting their creations. The good news for cold-climate bonsai enthusiasts is that it's quite easy to emulate the growing conditions for tropical and subtropical species, plus a number of warm-temperate species, inside the average house or apartment. Whether you wish to purchase your first bonsai and learn to nurture it or shape one yourself from a nursery plant, this book can start you on the path to bonsai artistry. But beware, bonsai can become a passion.

A Few Notes on the History of Bonsai

The beginnings of the art we know as bonsai trace back almost two thousand years. Its roots are visible in depictions of floral arrangements in early Chinese art dating to circa AD 200. These early floral and garden images already indicate a blending of horticultural skill with aesthetics to evoke the spirit of nature. The 17th-century Chinese text The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, with references to floral arts dating back to 495, is still useful and popular with contemporary bonsai artists and teachers.

The Japanese word bonsai translates as "to train in a tray." The term is penjing in China, where the art form has flourished and developed into a variety of schools, including landscape bonsai, in which elaborate displays are built with trees and stones combined to create landscapes in shallow trays. The Chinese representations of mountains and water in these landscapes often include tiny structures and figures of men and animals.

During the Tang dynasty (618 to 906), delegations of Japanese officials traveled to China, beginning an extensive exchange of arts and ideas that continued for centuries. In time, the Japanese developed bonsai styles and techniques suited to their own native plants and their distinctive artistic and cultural concepts.

Initially, all the trees that became bonsai had been formed and shaped by nature. As suitable, good-quality trees became more difficult to find, the Japanese devised techniques for growing and training bonsai from young plants. By the mid-19th century, they had refined the styles and techniques for bonsai training and codified the aesthetic principles. These rules still guide modern bonsai artists.

In the United States, the first bonsai artists were Japanese immigrants who had settled on the West Coast in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although a few early merchant ships to China had brought trees in containers to Great Britain and North America, these early imports were essentially curiosities and did not spark the interest that occurred later, perhaps because they lacked wide exposure.

At the end of World War II, American servicemen stationed in Japan were exposed to the art of bonsai, and many brought examples back home with them. (Chinese versions of bonsai and penjing reached the West later because of political upheaval and restrictions.) Since then, and with typically American exuberance, the art of bonsai has been embraced and extended to many species of American trees, including many tropical and semitropical species.

Bonsai at Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Brooklyn Botanic Garden'­s own bonsai collection started with 32 trees in 1925 and now numbers about 350 trees, encompassing hardy as well as tropical, subtropical, and warm-temperate species. Starting with the leadership of bonsai curator Frank Okamura, who was responsible for the collection from 1947 until his retirement in 1981, Brooklyn Botanic Garden has been at the forefront of popularizing bonsai for indoors and out. Realizing that many bonsai lovers were eager to grow dwarfed potted trees in their homes, Mr. Okamura started to experiment with nontraditional species suitable for indoor cultivation in the 1950s and taught widely on the subject. This current handbook follows in the steps of two BBG classics on the topic, published in 1976 and 1990, respectively. Each has been reprinted many times.

James F. and Mary Kay Doyle own Nature's Way Nursery and Bonsai Studio in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a small nursery that's big on little trees. Their love of plants began with a landscaping business in 1973, which led them to the art of manipulation and pruning of tiny trees and all that goes with it. They credit bonsai with introducing them to an ever-widening group of similarly afflicted people around the planet. Their interest in an organic approach to living has led them toward earth- and people-friendly options for pest and disease control.

Pat Lucke Morris, a student of bonsai since 1974, has worked at a variety of jobs, including editor and graphic designer, before retiring from the workforce to spend her time on "important" pursuits such as bonsai. Pat has been an active member of the American Bonsai Society since 1985; she has served the ABS as a director and currently is its secretary. She is a past president and longtime member of the Brandywine Bonsai Society and also is a member of the Delaware Valley Bonsai Study Group and the Pennsylvania Bonsai Society.

Robert Mahler started his bonsai career at the age of 15. An apprenticeship under Chase Rosade of Rosade Bonsai Studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania, led to full-immersion study in Japan under the direction of the late world-renowned bonsai master Susumo Sudo. Within a year of returning to the States, Robert was granted the position of curator of bonsai at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Rob left the Garden in fall 2005 to pursue his own bonsai business. He is fluent in Japanese and available for lectures, classes, and private tours abroad (

Jerry Meislik has been actively involved with bonsai for more than 30 years. He is particularly interested in tropical/indoor bonsai and plant material native to the U.S. He has authored two bonsai books: Ficus: The Exotic Bonsai and Introduction to Indoor Bonsai. He has held board positions in the American Bonsai Society and the National Bonsai Foundation and chaired the American Bonsai Society editorial board, in addition to serving as Northwest editor of the North American Bonsai Federation website. Jerry teaches bonsai at Flathead Valley Community College, travels around the country teaching and lecturing about bonsai, and contributes articles to the major bonsai journals. For the past seven years, he has also been involved in running an active internet bonsai site at and participates in many online forums.

Pauline F. Muth has been an ardent bonsai enthusiast for over three decades. She has been a member of her original club (Mohawk Hudson Bonsai Society in the capital district area of New York) for more than 25 years and now serves on the board of directors. Beyond her local affiliation, Pauline is active in many organizations and contributes to publications dealing with bonsai and the advancement of the art form. She currently is the president of the American Bonsai Society, secretary of Bonsai Clubs International, and on the board of directors of Mid-Atlantic Bonsai Societies. She is a contributing writer for local newsletters as well as Bonsai Online Magazine, Bonsai: Journal of the American Bonsai Society, and Bonsai Magazine. Pauline has also taught classes, workshops, and demonstrations in between owning and operating a bonsai teaching studio for over 18 years. She has also been the recipient of several local, regional, and international bonsai awards. More about Pauline and her work in bonsai can be found online at

Julian Velasco is currently curator of the bonsai collection and C.V. Starr Bonsai Museum at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. He began his bonsai studies with Chase Rosade of Rosade Bonsai Studio, then apprenticed with then bonsai curator Robert Mahler among Brooklyn Botanic Garden's world-renowned bonsai collection. Julian was appointed to the position of curator in the spring of 2006. His main interests are the philosophical and spiritual aspects of bonsai.

Sigrun Wolff Saphire, senior editor in Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Publications department, has been editing handbooks since 2000.


April 20, 2015
henry schonefeld

I have a 125 gallon fish tank that I would like to change to an indoor bonsai garden. In the past i have had good success with the outdoor bonsai. However, indoor cultivation is new to me.

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