A Beginners Guide to Bonsai


Kifumi Keppler, owner of Exotic Plants, has a special relationship to the art of Bonsai. This Japanese art form utilizes the ability to grow “miniature” trees in small, shallow pots. The art is not limited to Japan and has been expressed in other cultures as well, including China. But for Kifumi, it all began in Japan.

Though she does not claim to be an expert in Bonsai, Kifumi was formally trained in Ikebana – the Japanese art of flower arrangement – in Japan, beginning at the young age of six.

Dating back to the 7th century, Ikebana focuses on the importance of proportion and asymmetrical aesthetics. However, many of the properties that are appreciated in Ikebana are similar to those respected when growing Bonsai. As a child, Kifumi marveled at her uncle’s ability to grow beautiful Bonsai on a shelf in his home and also watched her mother successfully grow them in her home. Ultimately, she learned from her family many of the tricks to growing these amazing plants.

To grow a proper Bonsai, the roots of the plant must be cut back every couple years and the plant is then placed back in the same-sized pot. Bonsai pots are preferred because they are the specific proportions (small and shallow) that allow for ideal growing conditions, confining the roots within the given space. Additionally, the branches of the plant must be trimmed at specific times to ensure that they stay the correct length as well. Ultimately, the end result after years of growing a Bonsai is a tiny tree with a thick trunk.

Specific types of plants are preferred for Bonsai. In general, those with smaller leaves are ideal. These include:  


  • The Fig tree

  • Juniper

  • Japanese Maple

  • Trident Maple

  • Dwarf Pomegranate

  • Chinese and Japanese Elm

  • Wisteria

  • Crabapple

  • Oak

  • Chinese Pepper

  • Ginkgo

  • Jade, and

  • Japanese Winterberry


Those are just a few! It is very important to pick the right species for your surroundings, indigenous are preferred – and Kifumi can help you determine what grows best if you are local to Sacramento (or feel free to give her a call if you’re not!).

If you are a beginner, once you’ve started cultivating your Bonsai, be patient. It will take anywhere from three to five plus years before the tree is properly “trained” to grow in its compact environment. Shaping and styling techniques can begin after this period – and now the fun really begins! The short answer is that the asymmetrical properties mentioned earlier are ideal, but be advised that it can take decades to refine more advanced pruning and wiring techniques if you decide to go that route. If so, we definitely suggest taking a class or two.

Kifumi Keppler and Exotic Plants often enlists the help of a “Bonsai Guru” named Tim Johnson who teaches classes periodically at the store. Kifumi refers to him as “the expert” and does not claim to know everything there is to know on the subject. She continually marvels at the awesomeness of his Bonsai creations and is very humble in terms of her own knowledge. Her only complaint, jokingly, is that Tim “doesn’t share enough of his Bonsai with her.” However, giving credit where it is due, Kifumi has extensive knowledge on the subject herself and is happy to answer many of her customers’ questions – or at the very least, refer them to The Guru.