Bonsai Design Principles


Adhering to Bonsai Design Principles is a past time of discipline. It takes patience and control to resist the urge to push too far while pushing as much as your tree can stand. This art form really hasn’t changed for thousands of years so the design principles that are embedded in the art demand our attention in order to capture the true essence of nature in our own creations.

Since the original way to create bonsai was from a tree you quested to find, it became a symbol between Man, the Earth and your God. So in this article I want to talk about the principles behind bonsai design as well as a few guidelines the beginner should keep in mind.


Bonsai Design Principles and the Rule of Three

Tradition states that the bonsai shape symbolizes earth (the lowest point), man (the midpoint) and Heaven (the top) and all three of these points would form an asymmetrical triangle. The key is to ensure your bonsai has balance and the proportions are correct. This will come from your placement of the branches.

Using Bonsai Design Principles to Shape and Conform Your Bonsai to Nature

The official shapes or styles of bonsai all originated in Japan. They found they most common shapes in nature and gave them a names. It is your job as the bonsai enthusiast to conform to a chosen shape or style by reproducing the characteristics these trees would have if found growing in the mountains or country side.

General Bonsai Design Principles and Guidelines

1: The Trunk of Your Bonsai– The height of your trunk will depend on factors like your chosen style, the thickness of the tree and how wide the lowest branches spread out. A good rule is to make sure the trunks height is six times it’s width at the base and should gradually taper to a point at it’s apex.

2: The Branches of your Bonsai– The branches of your bonsai are going to follow rules dependent on it’s styling characteristic.

  • Upright bonsai will have the first and largest branch start about 1/3 of the way up the trunk. If it’s a slanting upright the first branch should be on the opposite side of the slant.
  • The second and smaller branch will start on the opposite side of the first branch a little higher then the lowest.
  • Then you have a third branch that sits at a height between the lowest and second lowest branches. It’s the smallest one yet and grows from the back of the trunk.

This pattern is repeated all the way up the tree. Sometimes you can have a smaller branch come forward toward the top of the tree but generally they are not desirable on the lower part of the bonsai as it’s better to showcase the form of the trunk.

If it’s a cascading style you need to make sure that the lowest branch extends in the opposite direction of the curve.

3: Bonsai Foliage– First and foremost. You want to have enough foliage on your tree to make sure it doesn’t look or become unhealthy. I say this because the true role of the foliage is to showcase the trunk and branch structure of your bonsai. You don’t want to overwhelm it, it must be a balance that reflects the essence of your trees mature form. As a beginner in bonsai, try to find trees with compact foliage and small leaves. Here’s a list of a few examples.

  1. Cotoneaster
  2. Dwarf Hemlock
  3. Dwarf Pomegranate
  4. Juniper
  5. Pyracantha or “Firethorn”
  6. Roots– When you see a tree in nature with a roots system that sprawls across the surface you get a sense that the tree is well rooted and there for the long hall. That the same feeling you want to evoke in with the roots of your bonsai tree. First, you want to make sure that the crown (where the trunk meets the roots) is visible at the surface. Next, make sure that the roots are spread out evenly across the pot to give the illusion of being will anchored. Last, if possible, expose the surface of some of the larger roots as the decend from the trunk into the soil, making sure the largest of the roots are toward the back of the bonsai so it wont compete with the balance of the trunk and branches.
  7. Front and Back– Speaking of back, your bonsai should always have a front “best view” and a back view that adds depth and balance. The front should…
  8. Be open, having no branches pointing forward for at least 2/3 the way up the trunk.
  9. Always have the apex of the bonsai pointing towards it.
  10. Should have no large section of roots visible.

The back on the other hand should…

  1. Have the foliage maintained just as regularly as the rest of your plant.
  2. Have no crossed or overlapping branches that would deter the viewer or draw his/her attention from the front.

Even though the back isn’t the part of the bonsai that is viewed, it is essential in the balance of your tree. When trying to determine the back from the front it’s best to let the plant do most of the determination through it natural state and the state of it’s mature counterpart in nature. Beyond that, you can also think about the amount of work involved in making a particular side best and opt for a different front view.

  1. Containers– The pot of a bonsai should pretty much disappear when your viewing the art work. It’s common practice to use glazed pots for flowering and fruiting deciduous trees. The shade of color should blend easily with the foliage. The use of dark brown, grayish unglazed pots is going to balance best with evergreens. The width and height of the bonsai pot matter greatly to it’s balance. Choosing the right size is a must. Here are some guidelines.
  2. Depth– The depth of the bonsai pot should be equal to the length of the trunk at it’s base.
  3. Length (upright)– The length of the bonsai pot should be 2/3 the height of the tree.
  4. Length (group planting)– The length of the bonsai pot should be 1/3 the height of the tallest tree.
  5. Length (multi-Trunk)– The length of the bonsai pot should be 2/3 the height of the tallest trunk.
  6. Uprights– Upright Bonsai should be planted in rectangular or oval pots.
  7. Cascades– Cascading bonsai should be planted in round or equilateral pots.