Introduction: DIY Faux Bonsai Tree

I was watching a documentary on Bonsai artists and was inspired to get some friends together to see if we could make our own faux trees. Something pretty and Spring-inspired! This is what I came up with...

Step 1: Materials

  1. Planter: Find something that fits your décor. I found mine at the local Goodwill for a couple of bucks. It is shallow and not too large — the opening is about 6 inches wide. You can go smaller if you don't want to display miniatures on it, but I think miniatures make it seem more traditional, especially little clay figurines (aka "mudmen").
  2. A stone that fits in the planter: It can be completely covered or can stick out a little like a boulder under the tree. This is mainly for stability. Not required, but helpful.
  3. Newspaper: You don't really need that much, but have plenty on hand in case you screw up — plus, you can protect your workspace with it.
  4. 3 18-inch floral wires (16 gauge): You can go thicker, but 16-gauge worked fine. You can also use more wires if you want your tree to have more branches. But I only used three.
  5. Tape: Just a clear giftwrap tape will do. You won't need much.
  6. Floral tape: I found this in smallish rolls, about 30 yards each. I only used one roll for this project.
  7. Fake flowers: For my tree I purchased one larger branch of fabric flowers and 2-3 small sprays of leaves.
  8. Quikrete cement: This comes in a smallish bucket for $5-10. You won't use the whole bucket. Get the kind that "repairs broken corners and edges".
  9. Paint: I just used an ashy brown. This will help cover mistakes, tape creases, and any white plastic that the flowers might have showing.
  10. Mod Podge: For some of the flowers and tape that aren't sticking, and to glue the ground cover and miniatures to the cement.
  11. Ground cover: I found this great tiny gravel in Michael's where the sell miniatures for "fairy gardens". One jar (about a pint) went a LONG way! You can also use moss or fake grass sprinkles.
  12. Miniatures: Have fun with this part ; If you don't glue them down, you can change them out seasonally.
  13. Also: scissors, brushes for the glue and the paint, wire cutters, a disposable pint sized cup for mixing the concrete, something disposable to stir it with (I used chopsticks).

Step 2: Framework

You will need to start the wire structure of the tree by twisting or taping the three wires together in the middle, toward the bottom. Bend the bottoms of the wires into a claw shape so that they will fit around your rock.

Place some crumpled newspaper in the bottom of your dish so that you can keep checking your wire tree for shape — play with the branches and get them into the general shape you want at the top. you can adjust this later, but not too much after the floral tape and flowers are on it. I wanted the "trunk" to be a little bent and for the three large branches on top to be swirling a bit. You can look up pics of real bonsai trees for inspiration!

Step 3: Bulk Up the Tree With Newspaper and Tape

Once you have the general shape, it's time to wrap your wires with newspaper.

Tear the newspaper into workable strips, about 1.5 inches wide. Crumple them into a somewhat pleated band, accordion-style, to make each strip a little thicker and stronger. Tape one end pretty much anywhere on the wires and carefully wrap the newspaper around and around pretty tightly — but carefully — until you come to the end, then tape it down again. Remember that you want the trunk to be nice and thick, so you will go over that part with several layers.

The newspaper will rip now and then; that is okay. Just tape it down — all of this will get covered with the floral tape.

You can even use the newspaper to make thick twisted vine shapes in the trunk. Go ahead and experiment!

Don't neglect the roots ;) Remember to go a little thicker than you want it to end up, because the floral tape will compress the newspaper even more.

Step 4: Floral Tape

Once the tree is covered in newspaper and is looking more tree-like, it is time for the floral tape. If you aren't familiar with floral tape, it is a slightly stretchy material that contains wax, and it is double-sided. You have to stretch it to release the wax — but not too much because it snaps easily — and it helps to heat the tape with your fingers to soften it and make it stickier. Rub the tape onto itself to get it to hold. But I'm not a pro, and this stuff can be frustrating. Just get into your best bonsai-zen mode and know that you can fix any errors!

Try to do this step as neatly as possible. If there are errors, or ends that won't stay down, there is always Mod Podge. Cover the newspaper and wires completely. Then wrap your roots around the rock and see how it looks in the planter.

Step 5: Attach Flora

Now ad your flowers and leaves! I would take a snip of branch from my flower spray that has a flower or two on it. I held it on the tree where I wanted it and wrapped floral tape around it and the tree to secure it. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes not so much. Smaller branches took patience, and sometimes plastic bits on the flowers would too-easily cause the floral tape to break. Step away, sip some tea, come back. Keep a smile on your face. It will eventually submit to your greater plan.

Step 6: The Concrete Base

Time for the cement! I had never used this before, and after contemplating glues, pebbles, sand, foam... I finally decided I wanted a more firm, heavy permanent base.

The Quikrete will firm up pretty fast, so you have to get everything ready before you mix it: stuff the bottom of your planter with newspaper — you can use cement instead, but you'll go through a lot more and I wanted to make sure I had enough for everyone (I had 2 buckets on-hand for 5 people). It just seemed like a waste for the large space I had to fill.

Have your tree nearby.

Mix a small batch (about a cup or two) of the Quikrete with water — Get it to a very pourable state, like a thin pancake batter and quickly pour it into the planter. Then insert the tree where you want it, nestling it into the Quikrete.

Now I mix another batch (or two) and fill the planter the rest of the way, leaving about 1/4 inch or so between the top of the concrete and the top of the planter.

At this point, once all the gaps are filled in, the concrete is still malleable, so if you need to fix anything you can.

I left it to dry overnight, but I think you can add the groundcover at this point if you don't want to make it a 2-day project. Everything will just dry together.

Step 7: Paint

I used a dark brown craft acrylic straight out of the bottle. I didn't feel I needed too much, but I wanted to seal the floral tape a bit, and touch up some areas where the concrete got onto the roots. Everything on the tree is so dark that it doesn't have to be perfect. I don't really have a photo showing this, but I think you can get the gist.

Step 8: Ground Cover

In small sections, I spread Mod Podge (any clear-drying glue should work) onto the concrete where I wanted my groundcover. I chose this pretty black gravel, but you can use other colors, or larger pebbles, or moss, or fake grass — the latter is used in miniature making, so probably can be found in hobby shops. I was lucky and stumbled across a large container of it at a yard sale the day before the craft gathering!

This part is easy, you just glue on the covering and that's that! I did a thin coat of glue over the gravel just to hold it together better. If your container is large enough, you could even use a couple of different kinds of covering so that it looks like a path cutting through some grass.

Then my cat* and I just waited for it to dry — it took the night to make all the glue disappear. Even then, some stayed too white so I just added some more glue and gravel to cover that.

*Note: cats seem to like the smell of floral tape, so keep them away from yours until everything is sealed.

Step 9: Miniatures

Mudmen. Traditionally, bonsai tree gardens may have little scenes in them. Clay figures of Asian gentlemen fishing or thinking or playing games. I wanted mine to be more "me" so I found some little café furniture I made out of champagne cork wires (ála The Fisher King movie scene wherein Robin Williams makes one for Lydia) and because I am a boardgame nut, I printed out and added a miniature Scrabble game to the table. #playmoregames! Then I sprinkled a few "fallen" petals onto the ground. Voilá, done!

I'm also including a photo of the Bonsai Forest that my kraftklub put together. They all came out so cute and so different! It probably cost about $8 per person with everybody supplying their own planters.

I hope that this tutorial was helpful! If you make one of these little trees for yourself, please post a photo! Have a great day :)