Your First Juniper Bonsai Tree

For most people, a juniper bonsai is their first introduction to the ancient art. Junipers make a good choice for first-time bonsai owners, as they’re inexpensive, hardy, and easily accessible. In this article, we’ll explore junipers as bonsai.  We’ll deep-dive on problems that mass produced junipers face, but more importantly, how to repair them and be successful with these majestic little trees.

Your First Juniper Bonsai

The Ubiquitous Bonsai Tree

Junipers are the quintessential tree that most people associate with the word “bonsai.” In fact, it’s a common misconception that all bonsais are junipers.

Juniper bonsai trees can be found in popular culture in television commercials and Hollywood movies, often placed in an ultra-modern executive office, or as part of the japanese decor at an upscale health spa.

These beginner trees are widely available at nurseries, shopping malls, home improvement stores, roadside stands and grocery stores. Long time hobbyists have jokingly nicknamed these trees “Mallsai” as a combination of “Mall” and “Bonsai.” These junipers get their nickname partially because the trees often come with problems, and unless you correct these problems, your tree won’t thrive, and might not survive.

But don’t worry – we’re going to explore these topics in-depth, and show easy ways to correct them.

Let’s dive in.

What They Don’t Tell You About Juniper Bonsai

Commercial nurseries that produce bonsai follow some unfortunate practices that can prevent your tree from flourishing. These practices help the nurseries get the trees safely to the retail stores and protect them during shipping, but provide a poor environment for your bonsai after you have it home.

Juniper Bonsai in Supermarket

Here are the top five issues that juniper mallsai commonly face:

1. They’re Incorrectly Marked as “Indoor Bonsai”

Most care sheets fail to mention is that juniper bonsai are exclusively outdoor trees. That’s right, the well-produced commercials and Hollywood blockbusters have been lying to us for years. Junipers simply cannot survive for any extended period of time indoors, even if you provide them a bright windowsill.

2. Moss is Used on the Trunk

While moss is commonly used when “showing” bonsai at exhibition, it is generally not a good idea to pack moss around the trunk of the bonsai tree. Nurseries add the moss for decoration, but the moss can lead to problems, as it remains very wet for a long time.

3. They have Glue Rocks to the Soil Surface

The only way to know if your bonsai needs water is to check the moisture level of the soil. If you have rocks glued on top of the soil, this is impossible.

4. The Pot Doesn’t Have Proper Drainage Holes

Watering bonsai involves saturating the soil to the point that water runs out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. Many commercially available trees come in pots that lack these basic drainage holes.

5. The Soil Doesn’t Drain Well

Since the roots of your juniper bonsai are confined to a small space, they require a freely draining soil to ensure that the roots don’t rot over time.

Improving Your Bonsai

The good news is that all of these problems can be fixed.

First, let’s use what we just learned and take a look at a typical example of a tree purchased from a retail store to identify problems:

What's Wrong with This Bonsai

Looking at this juniper bonsai, you can see three things immediately wrong with it. Fortunately, this tree does live in a pot with drainage holes, so we can dismiss that concern. However, be sure to check your own tree to ensure holes are present on the bottom of the pot for proper drainage.

Let’s look more closely at the problems and talk about how to fix them.

1. It’s Living Indoors

This is the easiest to fix, and has the highest impact on the tree’s health. Conifers, like junipers, need a lot of sunlight to thrive. They also need a period of rest, called dormancy. Without it, the tree becomes weak.

Fix: Move the tree outside.

2. Moss is Covering the Trunk Base

Here is a closeup of the trunks:

Moss Covering Trunk Base

This moss absorbs a lot of water, and holds that water against the trunk of the tree. It may also prevent water from properly getting to the roots directly below it.

Fix: Remove the Moss

3. The Soil is Covered in Rocks

Rocks like these are commonly glued down to hold the soil in place during shipment. Luckily, this particular tree has rocks that have not been glued.

Decorative Rocks on Malsai

A lot has been written about removing rocks. There are a couple theories as to why they cause a problem:

  • They prevent proper oxygen exchange in the soil, thus starving your tree of oxygen
  • They prevent water from getting into the soil adequately

The former might be true, but doubtful. The latter is probably more true, but it depends on the rocks. If there is literally a single mass of rocks held together by glue, then yes, it would be very hard to get water into the soil. But that doesn’t seem very common.

The real reason to remove the rocks is this: having these rocks in place will make it very difficult to check the moisture level of the soil. For that reason, they have to go.

Fix: Remove rocks

4. The Pot Doesn’t Have Drainage Holes

In our case, this pot came with adequate drainage holes. So no further holes are necessary. If you find yourself with a tree that has no holes in the bottom of the pot, you have two options:

  • Drill holes (difficult with ceramic pots)
  • Repot it into a different container will holes

Fix: Give the pot drainage holes.

5. Incorrect Soil is Used

Most juniper bonsai come in either potting soil or a mix of soil, peat moss, and compost. While your tree can live in this soil for a period of time, it’s best to provide it an alternative, free draining soil. This will help you regulate the amount of water it receives.

There are many, many variations of soil used for bonsai. One of the most widely accepted bonsai soil mixes for junipers is equal parts Lava Rock, Pumice, and Akadama (a clay product produced in Japan).

Bonsai Soil Mix

Fix: Repot your juniper bonsai in the Spring.


A juniper bonsai can be a beautiful addition to any garden, but special attention must give to so-called “Mallsai” trees. With the information you’ve learned here, you’ll now have a critical eye toward the plants you buy, and if you see any of the common problems listed above, you’ll have the knowledge to fix them.

With proper bonsai tree care, your tree will provide years of enjoyment and tranquility.