How to keep bonsai leaves small

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How to keep bonsai leaves small

Keeping the leaves of your bonsai tree small is an important aspect of bonsai cultivation. There are three general approaches to achieving this, depending on the age and health of your bonsai tree.

In this post, we will explore the different techniques and resources available for keeping bonsai leaves small, including pruning, wiring, and careful maintenance. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced bonsai enthusiast, this post will help you create the perfect bonsai shape.

Let’s dive in and create beautiful, miniature works of art together!

Understanding root mass and leaf size

When it comes to bonsai trees, it’s all about finding the sweet spot between the roots and the top growth. Think of it like a dance, where the roots and leaves are constantly doing the cha-cha to stay in sync.

In early spring, the roots pump all their energy into producing a full canopy of new leaves, and then more leaves. But during early summer, the roles reverse and the leaves give back to the roots by providing them with food and energy for increased top growth.

It’s essential to understand this dance when pruning your bonsai tree. How you prune will impact how the tree responds:

  1. If you top prune while the tree is dormant, you’re essentially cutting off the buds that will receive food in spring. And that’s like taking away a dancer’s partner mid-performance. The result is over stimulation of the remaining buds, which leads to long internodes and giant leaves. And nobody likes a giant leaf stealing the spotlight.
  2. On the other hand, if you only root prune a dormant tree, you’re cutting off part of its food supply, which means the remaining buds will form smaller leaves and shorter internodes. It’s like taking away a dancer’s snacks, they’ll still perform but they’ll be a little less energetic.
  3. And if you top prune a tree that has just leafed out, you’re taking away its food factory, which means the roots will have to use whatever energy they have left to produce new leaves. This can severely tax the roots and the new growth will have shorter internodes and smaller leaves.

By understanding this dance between the roots and the top growth, you’ll be able to manipulate the growth of your bonsai tree and control its speed and character.

It’s not always easy to do though. That’s why it’s a dance.

See this Redditor ask for advice on trimming the root mass and spark a lively debate about the best approach:

Three ways to keep small leaves on your bonsai tree

Keeping those tiny leaves on your bonsai tree takes a little bit of TLC, but don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it sounds! You can use a combination of pruning and defoliating techniques, as well as playing around with the light to achieve that perfect miniature look.

1. Place the tree under bright lighting

One of the best ways to keep the leaves on your bonsai tree small and delicate is by giving it plenty of bright light. You see, when a bonsai tree is exposed to bright light, it goes into survival mode and produces smaller leaves to protect itself from too much sun exposure. This process is called “etiolation” and it’s a natural response from the plant to protect itself from too much light. Not only will the leaves be smaller, but you’ll also notice more buds and branches growing, which creates a miniature canopy effect and more shade for the tree. To do this, I love to place my bonsai tree near a sunny window, or even use grow lights to give it that extra boost of light. Just make sure to keep an eye on your tree, as too much light can be harmful. 

2. Defoliate the bonsai during the spring (for mature trees)

Defoliating your bonsai tree in the spring is a great way to keep its leaves small and maintain its shape.

In spring, when the tree is in its growing season, I like to remove most or all of the leaves on a mature tree with established branches. This allows more light to reach the branches and trunk, which in turn, causes the tree to produce smaller leaves. The new growth comes in at the base of the leaf stalks that were cut during the defoliation process.

Not only that, but it also promotes the growth of new shoots that can be trained to create the desired shape of your bonsai tree.

It’s a simple process, you can either pluck the leaves off by hand or use scissors. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Gather your supplies: sharp scissors or a sharp blade, a small watering can and a fertilizer.
  1. Begin by removing the larger, older leaves first. Using your sharp scissors or blade, make a clean cut, leaving the leaf stalk intact.
  2. Continue working your way through the tree, removing the smaller, newer leaves.
  3. Be mindful not to remove too many leaves at once, as this can stress the tree.
  4. For the roots, use a root hook or a rake in a radial shape to gently loosen the bonsai soil and remove any roots that are too long or too dense. Spritz the exposed roots with filtered water.
  5. Once you have finished defoliating, give the tree a good watering and fertilize it.
  6. Lastly, place the tree in a location with good lighting and proper watering.

But be careful! This can be stressful for the tree so make sure your bonsai is healthy before you begin and do it gradually…

…which is where partial defoliation comes in handy. It’s like a little sister of defoliating, with a softer touch.

To partially defoliate a bonsai tree means removing some of the leaves instead of all of them, it can help to reduce leaf size and maintain the small leaves on a bonsai tree without putting too much stress on it. It’s a great way to keep bonsai leaves small and improve the overall health of the tree. It can be done by cutting the leaves, being mindful to leave the leaf stalk intact, allowing the remaining leaves to receive more sunlight and nutrients.

Trust me, your bonsai will thank you for the extra TLC!

3. Prune and shape young bonsai trees

For younger bonsai trees, defoliation may be a bit traumatic for the plant. It’s important to allow the branches to establish themselves before removing all of its leaves. The leaves will be a major food source for a developing trunk and branch system. Once the tree is established, then it’s ready for more nuanced shaping.

See how this Reddit user defoliated a bit prematurely:

First, wire out all branches and give it a light trim at the tips. This will help reduce the stress on the branches and minimize die back. Once the leaves start coming back in, you can then start wiring. Over time, you can keep the same canopy and let the tree grow out. Leaf reduction won’t be something to worry about for at least 8-10 years. Don’t forget to keep a close eye on any wire you put on to ensure it doesn’t cut in too deeply on the branch.

Use only tree species with small leaves

Using tree varieties with small leaves is crucial in the art of bonsai, as the goal is to create miniature versions of mature trees. Using trees with naturally small leaves will make it easier to maintain the desired scale and proportion of the bonsai tree.

A few bonsai trees that naturally have small leaves include:

  1. Ficus microcarpa (Chinese banyan)
  2. Carmona (Fukien tea)
  3. Serissa (Tree of a Thousand Stars)
  4. Ginkgo biloba (maidenhair tree)
  5. Portulacaria afra (elephant bush)
  6. Crassula Ovata (jade tree)
  7. Privet (Ligustrum)
  8. Sageretia (Sweet plum)
  9. Wisteria sinensis (Chinese wisteria)
  10. Ulmus parvifolia (Chinese elm)

Note that this is not an exhaustive list and other species of trees can also have small leaves but these are some of the most common and popular choices for bonsai cultivation.

Deciduous trees are great because they naturally lose their leaves during fall season, which makes it super easy to reduce leaves and maintain them during the dormant period. Some of my personal favorite deciduous bonsai trees include the Chinese elm, Japanese maple, Beech, and Hornbeam.

But keep in mind, not all deciduous trees are suitable for bonsai cultivation, some might have leaves that are too big or grow too fast to be easily maintained as a bonsai.

Common questions

Where do you cut bonsai leaves?

When it comes to cutting bonsai leaves, the key is to focus on the buds and new growth. The buds are the little nubs that you can see on the branches, and they are the future leaves of your bonsai tree. By cutting just above the bud, you’re encouraging the tree to grow new leaves in that spot. This is called “pinching” and it helps to keep the leaves small and the tree in shape. It’s also important to remember that every tree is different, so you’ll want to study your bonsai tree’s growth patterns and decide where to make your cuts. A little bit of experimentation may be needed to get the desired shape, but it’s all part of the fun of being a bonsai enthusiast! And don’t worry, your tree will recover quickly and will be stronger for it.


Should you remove dead leaves from your bonsai?

Absolutely! Removing dead leaves from your bonsai is an important part of its maintenance. Dead leaves can not only detract from the appearance of your bonsai, but they can also harbor pests and diseases that can harm your tree. By regularly removing dead leaves, you’ll not only be keeping your bonsai looking its best, but you’ll also be promoting its health and vitality.

Now, I know it can be a bit tedious to go through and remove every single dead leaf, but trust me, it’s worth it! I like to do this task every few weeks or so, it’s just a quick check-in with my bonsai. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to get up close and personal with your bonsai, really take a good look at it and notice any changes or issues that may need attention.

Just a gentle reminder, it’s important to use clean and sharp scissors or pruning shears when removing dead leaves to avoid damaging the healthy parts of the tree. And always make sure to sanitize your tools before and after use to prevent the spread of any disease.


How do you reduce the leaf size of a bonsai tree?

Reducing the leaf size of a bonsai tree can be done through a variety of techniques. One popular method is pruning, where you can remove unwanted leaves and branches to keep the tree small and maintain its shape. Another technique is called defoliating, where you remove most or all of the leaves from the tree during its growing season, typically in the spring. This stimulates the tree to produce smaller leaves as it responds to the increased amount of light reaching the branches and trunk after leaf removal.

Another way to reduce leaf size is by adjusting the environmental conditions that the tree is grown in, such as providing the right amount of light and water. Bonsai trees grown in low light may have larger leaves in order to absorb more light, while those grown in bright light tend to have smaller leaves.
Lastly, fertilizing is also an important aspect to consider. Using the right type and amount of fertilizer can help to control the leaf size, as well as promoting overall health of the tree.

It’s important to note that these methods can be stressful for the tree so it’s important to be careful and patient when doing it. And always keep in mind that reducing the leaf size is just one aspect of bonsai cultivation, and that it’s important to maintain a balance between leaf reduction and overall tree health and beauty.

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