Learn to create different styles of bonsai. Choose suitable plants, train and maintain them to produce a work of living art. An in-depth course for passionate amateurs or professional gardeners and nurserymen.

Course Code: BHT320
Fee Code: S2
Duration (approx) Duration (approx) 100 hours
Qualification Statement of Attainment
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Unleash Your Creativity

Bonsai involves growing plants in a confined situation. In contrast to the beliefs of some, growing bonsai is not an act of cruelty - although it involves confining root growth and regularly pruning the roots and top of the plant, it can be kept in a miniature form for hundreds of years (in some cases) and can vastly outlive its relatives which are growing in the wild or in gardens. Like other trees and shrubs, the bonsai is still able to produce flowers and fruit if it is given suitable care and attention.

The bonsai should look like a miniature tree, with not only the trunk and branches scaled down, but also the leaves. As such, it is preferable for bonsai to utilise smaller leafed plants.

Learn the art & craft of bonsai

Bonsai is often used to describe dwarfed plants.  However, in a historical context, bonsai was the name given to potted, styled trees created by Chinese and Japanese artists.  In fact, it is widely acknowledged that it was the Chinese who first began collecting and transplanting dwarfed trees which they discovered growing naturally on mountain tops and hillsides, but the Japanese perfected the art of Bonsai. Although bonsai trees are indeed dwarfed, they are also trained and cultivated to look like an aged miniature tree. Everything from the leaves to the stem resembles a scaled down tree. The actual bonsai includes both the pot and landscape created by the artist.

This comprehensive course in Bonsai covers the many aspect of selecting, growing and maintaining Bonsai under a range of conditions.  

  • Learn about the styles and techniques for pruning and training used to create bonsai plants
  • Learn to identify more plants, and to select specimens suited for creating bonsai
  • For passionate hobbyists, through to anyone wanting to operate a bonsai nursery
  • 100 hour, self paced course -tuition by expert horticulturists from both the UK and Australia

Creating Bonsai follows the 20/80 rule.
"As with most things in horticulture; growing bonsai requires 20% knowledge that is specific to bonsai (ie. equipment, techniques, using the right plants, understanding the traditional forms); and 80% general horticultural skill (ie. soil, nutrition, water management, pest control, plant identification, etc)"

Lesson Structure

There are 8 lessons in this course:

  1. Introduction
    • Plant Taxonomy Botanical/Horticultural Nomenclature, The Binomial System, Botanical Classification, Plant Families and Species, Hybrids, Varieties and Cultivars
    • Pronunciation of Plant Names
    • Groups of Plants
    • Resources reference books, organisations, magazines and journals, nurseries, bonsai shops, seed suppliers and the internet.
  2. Propagation
    • Introduction
    • Methods of Propagating Plants sexual propagation, asexual propagation
    • Seed Propagation collecting seed, storing seed and sowing seed
    • Cutting Propagation stem cuttings, hardwood cuttings, semi-hardwood cuttings, leaf cuttings, leaf bud cuttings, root cuttings, factors affecting rooting of cuttings, striking cuttings, after care.
    • Propagating Mixes and potting mixes
    • Other Propagation Methods layering, air layering and grafting.
  3. Plants for Bonsai
    • Introduction
    • History of Bonsai
    • Types of plants suited for use as Bonsai sourcing Bonsai material
    • Some plant choices
  4. Bonsai Styles and Techniques
    • Classification of styles of Bonsai eg. formal upright, informal upright, slanting or leaning, semi cascade, cascade
    • Other styles of classification eg. sakei
    • Japanese classification
    • Bonsai Techniques
    • Bonsai Containers preparing the container
    • Wire wiring a bonsai
    • Pruning
    • Tools needed for Bonsai work pruning tools, potting tools and wiring tools.
  5. Creating Bonsai
    • Principles of Design roots, trunk and branches.
    • Evaluating the Bonsai and assessing additional features
    • Pruning and shaping the bonsai plant prune and grow techniques
    • Wiring wiring techniques and grooming
    • Branch Patterns in Bonsai jins, shari and driftwood
    • Root Evaluation in the Initial Stages of Bonsai potting the Bonsai, rock planting, clasped to rock design and root over rock.
  6. Bonsai Culture and Maintenance
    • Soils Soil composition, colloids, structure, texture, chemical properties, improving soils, improving texture, improving structure, improving fertility.
    • Soil for potted bonsai principle components
    • Particle characteristics particle size, sorting, particle shape, particle surface texture
    • Growing Medium Mixture functions of a growing medium, properties of a growing medium, drainage, water retention and colour and appearance.
    • The Nutrient Elements macronutrients and micronutrients
    • Common Pest Problems on Bonsai eg. aphids, borers, caterpillars, scale and thrips.
    • Common Fungal Diseases of Plants eg. Anthracnose, Powdery Mildew and Rust
    • Watering and Fertilising Bonsai symptoms of water deficiency, symptoms of excess water and fertilising.
    • Repotting and Root Pruning the Bonsai
    • Maintenance Pruning for Bonsai removing dead/diseased wood, controlling the type of growth, controlling shape and size, rejuvenating, leaf cutting, basic rules of pruning, points to consider when pruning.
    • Placing the Bonsai
  7. Landscaping Principles for Bonsai
    • Principles of Landscape Design - Unity, Balance, Proportion, Harmony, Contrast and Rhythm
    • Qualities of Landscape Components - line, form, mass, space, texture, colour and tone
    • Creating Landscape Effects
    • Landscape Applications for Using Bonsai - group plantings, saikei, bonseki, bonkei, miniature gardens, rock gardens, water gardens.
    • Bonsai in Tubs and Landscape Features
  8. Special Assignment
    • Research a particular aspect of bonsai of interest.

Each lesson culminates in an assignment which is submitted to the school, marked by the school's tutors and returned to you with any relevant suggestions, comments, and if necessary, extra reading.


  • Demonstrate knowledge of the plant kingdom, an understanding of the taxonomic hierarchy, and an appreciation of the types of plants suitable for bonsai.
  • Understand methods of propagation used in bonsai.
  • Learn the species of plants most suited to bonsai.
  • Learn a range of bonsai styles and techniques used to achieve them.
  • Understand the process of creating bonsai.
  • Understand the basics of successful bonsai culture.
  • Understand landscape design principles to better create bonsai landscapes.
  • Carry out research into a particular aspect of bonsai of interest to the student.

What You Will Do

  • Develop plant review sheets for different plants suitable for bonsai.
  • Make up a list of resources/contacts useful to a bonsai grower.
  • Research what constitutes a good propagating mix.
  • Visit a nursery and observe the nursery stock present to assess suitability for bonsai production.
  • Propagate different species of plant that have the potential to be used as Bonsai.
  • Select different plants and determine the style of bonsai each plant lends itself to.
  • Make a list of the most commonly grown varieties of plants you consider as being used for bonsai today.
  • Visit a bonsai house, bonsai farm, bonsai nursery or other facility where bonsai are available for viewing and classify the style of different bonsai plants.
  • Evaluate, prune, wire, shape and pot different plants as bonsai
  • Obtain soil from two different types of soils; test the soils for drainage, and name the soils.
  • Obtain (or make up) a potting mix which you consider appropriate for growing bonsai in.
  • Conduct tests to name the potting mix you have obtained. Test the drainage of the potting mix.
  • Visit a nursery or garden growing bonsai plants to assess the plants for pests, diseases and environmental anomalies.
  • Design a miniature garden pot incorporating a bonsai plant
  • Using your knowledge of landscaping principles, decide on the best outdoor locations three different bonsai, and the optimum indoor locations for short term display. Take photographs or sketch the locations in which you would place the bonsai. Submit these photographs with your assignment.
  • Obtain plants of different varieties and using what you have learned in the course, turn your chosen plants into bonsai and either photograph or draw what you have created; then report on this work.

What are the Different Types of Bonsai?

There are different ways of classifying bonsai. One way (used in Japan) is as follows:

  • Chokkan (straight trunk) - one straight trunk, with an even taper from the base to the top. Once established the lowest branches commence at about one quarter of the way up the trunk from the base. Branches alternate from side to side as you progress up the trunk.
  • Shakan (bending trunk) - a single main trunk leaning slightly to the left or right.
  • Bankan (curved trunk) - a single twisted trunk (e.g. bending in 4 directions).
  • Sokan (twin trunked) - a single tree with two separate trunks, one longer and thinner than the other.
  • Saikei - a living landscape: often combining plants, rocks and water.
  • Kabudachi (group of trees) - several trees growing together (up to 9). The bases are all together so they might almost appear to be the same tree. Trunks are branched on each tree to form odd numbers (1, 3, 5 etc. trunks) per tree.
  • Netsuranari (several trunks from the one root) - one plant that is split into several trunks at the base. There are usually between 3 and 5 trunks, but never more than 10.
  • Yoseue (collective plantings) - several plants in one container to give the appearance of a forest.
  • Kengai (drooping trunk) - a tree leaning to one side, and contorted. This is copying the appearance of trees growing in exposed conditions such as a rocky outcrop on a mountainside. These plants can be unstable, which is a disadvantage when displaying them.
  • Ishizuki (tree with a stone) - the roots of the tree grow over the top of a rock and into the soil below.
  • Suiseki (stone without plant) - here a stone, or several stones, is arranged in the bonsai pot without any plants at all.

Tips for Choosing a Bonsai Pot

An integral part of bonsai is the container which is used to present the art form. The bonsai may remain in the same pot for several years or, in the case of older tress, for many years. It is important therefore that the pot suits the tree or composition within. You might like to think of it as being somewhat similar to a picture frame. It must complement and not take away from the picture by being too brightly coloured, too fancy, or too large. Likewise, a bonsai container must enhance the contents within. Although bonsai containers are usually quite shallow, it also needs to able to hold sufficient growing media for the plant. For instance, a fruit tree will need a deeper container in order that there is sufficient water for fruit development. They should also be frost proof so that they do not crack and break outdoors, and they must have adequate drainage holes.

Choosing a Container

  • Deeper pots have fewer air spaces between the soil particles. The weight of the soil on top squashes the soil underneath. Deeper pots therefore need a more open soil mix.
  • Wider containers are more stable (less likely to tip over).
  • A pot needs to have a sufficient number of large drainage holes to allow water to drain quickly away from the bottom of the pot.
  • Roots tend to coil more in a round pot than a square pot.
  • Root coiling at the bottom of a pot is reduced if the base is more tapered.
  • Roots tend to grow through the bottom of pots when there is moist soil, compost or mulch under the pot. Pots are therefore best stood on top of a dry, paved or flat stone surface.
  • Sprinkling a layer of coarse sand over the pot surface will reduce weed problems, and control the growth of moss.

Choosing a Bonsai Container

All bonsai containers will have drainage holes, and occasionally containers will have sealed compartments to hold water (to form a lake), or holes to poke wire through when re-potting the bonsai. Drainage holes are of paramount importance to enable sufficient root aeration. Waterlogged plants will not thrive, and may even die. If you like the look of a container without drainage holes, then drill some into the base.

Traditionally, bonsai pots are made of clay based substances such as porcelain, stoneware, and terracotta. The inside of a bonsai pot should never be glazed, although the outside can be. Unglazed pots in earthy tones usually look more pleasing than bright colours, although bright colours can work provided that there is some unity with the contents. Subtle glazes can work well, or crackled and speckled glazes - but not with all specimens. In some countries, it is possible to obtain marble, soapstone and other stone type containers. There is also a range of other pot materials (even including plastic) that can be perfectly acceptable provided they meet the needs of the bonsai. Remember that the pot is an integral part of the bonsai.

Bonsai pots come in a wide range of sizes from as small as thimble sized mame pots to containers of eighteen inches in depth. Wide, shallow containers are well suited to group plantings and landscapes. Tall containers, which may be round, square, hexagonal, and so forth are best suited to cascade style plantings or semi-cascade bonsai. Plainer shapes such as these are better than more elaborate types, regardless of the bonsai style. A rectangular or square container would suit a more formal style than a round or oval container. Most bonsai specialist retail outlets offer a range of containers originating from the Tokaname area of Japan.

A bonsai container should have a width which is approximately the same as the spread of the branches. The tree should never look lost by placing it in a container which is too large for it, nor should it look too big for the container. As a very general rule of thumb, the depth of the pot should be approximately the same as the width of the base of the trunk, the obvious exception being the cascade shaped bonsai which require deeper pots to balance their cascading form. Another approximation is that a vertical tree needs a container that is two thirds to three quarters the height of the tree in width, or a horizontal tree needs a container that is two thirds to three quarters the width of the tree. Smaller containers need to be deeper in proportion to width than do wider containers in order to provide sufficient soil and water for the bonsai plants. One should also bear in mind when potting up bonsai that a dormant deciduous tree will look more expansive once it comes into leaf.

Some pots will be more effective with legs or a base stand. Such legs can assist with the drainage of a pot, as it raises the pot up above the level of the shelf. It is important that the pot is level to allow for optimum drainage. Uneven pot base stands can be corrected by filing or adding filler as needed. The bonsai display can be finished off by the addition of a bamboo mat or by placing it on a simple stone slab or plank of wood.


For some people, bonsai is a hobby and for others it is their life work.
If you are passionate about bonsai, it can become a business. Small backyard bonsai collections can grow into a lucrative part time business if that is what you desire. Many retail garden centres will have a bonsai section. Some buy in the bonsai they sell, but others may create their bonsai on site. Some nurseries will specialize in bonsai, and others deal exclusively with bonsai plants.

If you learn to create bonsai properly and understand what you are doing, you will be able to pass on your enthusiasm for this art form to others; and that will generate customers.

You may enter this course for any number of reasons; but when you finish it, you will be aware of so much more about bonsai and will be seeing possibilities for an expanded hobby, business or career -well beyond what you see now.


Principal of ACS Distance Education, John Mason, is fellow of the CIH.
Principal of ACS Distance Education, John Mason, is fellow of the CIH.
Member Nursery and Garden Industry Association.
Member Nursery and Garden Industry Association.
Since 1999 ACS has been a recognised member of IARC (International Approval and Registration Centre). A non-profit quality management organisation servicing education.
Since 1999 ACS has been a recognised member of IARC (International Approval and Registration Centre). A non-profit quality management organisation servicing education.

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Course Contributors

The following academics were involved in the development and/or updating of this course.

Marie Beermann

Marie has more than 10 years experience in horticulture and education in both Australia and Germany. Marie's qualifications include B. Sc., M. Sc. Hort., Dip. Bus., Cert. Ldscp.

Adriana Fraser (Horticulturist)

Over 30 years working in horticulture, as a gardener, propagator, landscape designer
, teacher and consultant. Adriana has spent much of her life living on large properties, developing and maintaining her own gardens, and living a semi self sufficient lifestyle. She has decades of practical experience growing her own fruit, vegetables and herbs, and making her own preserves. She is well connected with horticulture professionals across Australia, and amongst other things, for a period, looked after Australia's national collection of Thymus. Advanced Diploma in Horticulture, Advanced Certificate in Horticulture.

John Mason (Horticulturist)

Parks Manager, Nurseryman, Landscape Designer, Garden Writer and Consultant.
Over 40 years experience; working in Victoria, Queensland and the UK.
He is one of the most widely published garden writers in the world.

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