Bonsai Tree Care

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Benefits of Great Bonsai Tree Care

Bonsai in Formal upright - Bonsai tree care

At first glance, it seems like caring for a Bonsai tree is a complicated, time-consuming hobby. The reality is, Bonsai care is easy as long as you know a few of the key things going in. Bonsai trees span a wide range of species and styles, but they all follow the same basic guidelines. Bear in mind that each species has preferences for light, water and position, and looking up information about your particular species is a good idea.

For more information about Bonsai care, you can also pick up books like Bonsai Basics, The Bonsai Handbook or The Complete Book of Bonsai. It never hurts to have a reference on hand when you can’t access the Internet.

Watering your Bonsai

If you ask me, there are two main risks to your Bonsai. The first is that you get a little too keen and prune back WAY too much, the second is that you are not watering your tree enough (or even too much). Happily, a bit of knowledge about these two things will help your Bonsai stay alive for a long, long time.

This is a VERY important part of Bonsai tree care, so let’s look at a few common questions about watering your Bonsai:

How often should I water my Bonsai Tree?

This can depend on many factors such are how big your Bonsai is, what season you are in, how thick your soil is. Because of all of these factors it is much better to learn to tell when your Bonsai needs to be watered as opposed to setting a schedule (in my opinion, you should never follow a schedule).

So how do you tell if your Bonsai needs to be watered? Get a small pick (or any digging tool will work, as long as you don’t disturb the soil too much) and dig down about a half inch (or just over a centimetre) and simply have a look at the soil, is it moist? If it is than no need to water, but if it looks dry then grab your watering can and water away! Here comes the catch though, you don’t want to keep digging up bit of soil every few days just to see if your Bonsai needs watering, you don’t want to disturb the soil too much. Eventually you will be able to tell when your Bonsai needs watering just from instinct, you will be able to see the surface of the soil getting dry, the foliage getting a slight hue to it and you will just know your Bonsai needs a drink.

When is the best time of day to water my tree?

The simple answer to this is, either mornings or nights. You have to adjust to your environment, but remember that your Bonsai generally won’t like extreme conditions, during the summer I like to water at nightfall and during winter I like to water in the mornings. Doing this means that the water isn’t dried up too quickly during the hot summer days, and that it doesn’t freeze (or frost) during the winter nights.

The water seems to go straight through the soil, is this right?

This is a pretty good sign actually! This means that your soil has good drainage. When you are looking at a Bonsai soil you will notice it is sometimes a little grainy, or even seems to have little rocks in it; this is because the soil needs to be able to retain water, but not to the point where the roots start to rot in it (too moist). Ideally you want a few seconds between pouring the first of the water and then having it start to drain out of the bottom. You can also use a humidity tray for your Bonsai to catch the drained water, this will help keep your display clean while also giving the Bonsai a little bit of humidity around it to absorb through it leaves (it is also a good idea to mist the leaves every now-and-again when you are watering).

Quick Tip: The green moss you see on some Bonsais looks great doesn’t it, but it also helps keep the moisture in the soil.

Watering your Bonsai is a bit of an art in itself and one of the main pillars of caring for your Bonsai, and while it may seem a little more complicated than you though remember that as long as you keep an eye on your Bonsai tree, you will be able to tell when it needs a good watering and not run the risk of watering too much or too little.

Bonsai SoilChoosing the Right Soil For Your Bonsai

It is entirely possible to buy pre-mixed Bonsai soil online or in stores that have supplies for Bonsai care. However, buying the base ingredients and mixing them yourself allows you to customise your soil mixture for different trees, seasons and uses.

The three main components you will need are Akadama, organic potting compost and fine gravel. Akadama is a special clay used primarily in bonsai pots. If you cannot locate any Akadama, you can substitute in other hard clay products or even cat litter.

Different Bonsai trees will need different mixtures. Deciduous trees, for example, prefer a mixture of fifty percent Akadama and twenty-five percent each compost and grit. Coniferous trees prefer a higher sixty percent Akadama and thirty percent grit, with the remaining ten percent rounded out with compost.

You can also adapt your soil to your climate. Wet climates should use more Akadama and grit, to enhance drainage. Drier climates should use more compost to help retain moisture so your tree doesn’t dry out.

When caring for bonsai trees, remember that every tree is different. Age, climate, species and season all play a role in determining which soil mixture to use.

Fertiliser for Bonsai Trees

Trees that grow naturally in the wild use their root systems to hunt for nutrients in the soil, expanding when the nearby soil is used up. Bonsai trees do not have this advantage, because they are kept in small pots. This means that, as part of the process of Bonsai tree care,  you need to restore the nutrients in the soil with fertiliser.

Fertilisers are categorised by the NPK (Nitrogen/Phosphorus/Potassium) ratio. You will need different ratios for different points in the growing season. In early spring, a mix with more Nitrogen is valuable for promoting growth. The summertime is best for a well-rounded mix of elements. For the autumn, a low Nitrogen mix helps prepare the tree for winter. Other mixtures are good for specific purposes. A high Potassium content is good for encouraging flowers to bloom, if you have that kind of tree.

To ensure you get the best mixtures for your trees, you can shop for specific bonsai fertilisers. These fertilisers will have specific instructions for fertilising your Bonsai tree. Different trees will need different amounts of fertiliser, so make sure you neither over nor under feed your trees.

Should I use a fertiliser?

Yes! I like to use a natural fertiliser on the trees (I have a worm farm so have ready access to a source of good natural fertiliser) generally before spring to make sure there are plenty of nutrients in the soil, and then about one a month through the growing season. It is important not to over fertilise though, you are growing a plant in a way that it doesn’t grow in the wild and you don’t want to burn the roots with too much fertiliser.

For a new tree you should test a small amount and then increase little by little through the growing season and monitor your Bonsai tree. If it looks like the tree is reacting badly to the fertiliser, flush it through with water and cut back fertilising so the plant can re-adjust.

When looking to get a fertiliser for your Bonsai, make sure it contains nitrogen, phosphoric acid, and potash. Here is a link to some great Bonsai specific fertilisers to take out the guesswork.

bonsai root scraping - Bonsai tree careRe-potting

A critical part of Bonsai care is regular re-potting  Re-potting your Bonsai allows you to refresh the soil and keep your tree from starving. How often do you need to re-pot  The answer, like most aspects of Bonsai care, depends on the tree. Fast-growing young trees may need re-potting once every couple of years. Older trees that have reached maturity will only need re-potting every five years or so.

To determine whether or not your Bonsai needs to be re-potted  check in the spring. Carefully remove the tree from the pot. If the root system is wrapped around the soil at the edge of the pot, the tree is struggling to stretch outwards in search of fresh nutrients. This means you need a new pot. If there is no sign of struggling roots, you can simply replace the tree in the pot for another year.

If your tree does need to be re-potted  the early spring is the best time to do it. The tree is still dormant from the winter and damage to the roots will be minimal and easily repaired.

Selecting a Bonsai Pot

Lots of the appeal of Bonsai tree care and art comes from the pot. You have a whole tree, though a small one, contained in an incredibly tiny pot. It is a display of how adaptable nature is to living in all circumstances. Choosing a pot, therefore, is of primary importance. The pot is as much a display piece as the tree itself.

Pots are often imported from China or Japan. Chinese pots tend to be more brightly coloured and glazed, while Japanese pots are often more subdued and made of unglazed ceramic.

Young trees have not yet been trained to grow in small pots, so a larger Bonsai pot is ideal. Larger pots tend to be less decorative as display pieces, as you are training the tree for later in life. Older trees that are used to growing in a small space will thrive in a small pot. For these, the pot should suit the tree itself, which is a large decision all its own.

As for size, a general rule of thumb is that the depth of the pot should be around the same as the width of the trunk of the tree. The exceptions to this rule, of course, are younger trees that are not adapted to shallow pots yet. Knowing this is an important part of Bonsai care.

leaf scale - Bonsai tree carePests and Diseases

Bonsai trees are living things, and just like any other living thing, there are diseases and pests to watch out for as part of general and basic Bonsai tree care. Some of them are merely unsightly, while others will damage or kill the tree entirely if left unchecked. Overfeeding, under-feeding and over-watering all encourage pests. Under-watering, of course, presents problems of its own.

Fungi and viruses can also infect bonsai trees. This is characterised by a sudden dieback of branches and leaves. Quarantine the plant away from your other plants and treat it with a fungicide for best effect.

Tree Positioning and Sunlight Levels

As with anything else regarding Bonsai care, each individual tree is unique. Season, tree species, local climate and humidity all play roles in determining where to position your tree.

As a general rule of Bonsai care, most trees should be kept out of strong winds. For freshly re-potted trees, this helps prevent them from dislodging from the soil. For other trees, you simply avoid wind damage and possible tipping. An outdoor Bonsai species should be placed in a bright, sheltered area where it can receive direct sunlight for about half of the day. Indoor trees should be placed in sunny spots, though some species prefer more sunlight than others.

Caring for Bonsai Trees iWinter Bonsai - Bonsai tree caren Winter

Winter is a special time for most trees and the time you should pay most attention to your Bonsai care methods. Subtropical and tropical trees should be brought inside to protect them from the cold. Other trees enter a state of dormancy. During this dormant state, new growth is hardened and deciduous trees drop their leaves to prevent excess moisture loss. This is an important time for your tree, and preventing this dormancy can cause issues later on.

Normal outdoor trees have roots buried so deep underground that they do not freeze in winter. Bonsai trees do not have this luxury. It is best for a Bonsai to be kept in a cold frame or in a greenhouse during the winter.

Dormant trees do not need as much water as active trees, and so you should watch how much you water. You should also frequently check for insects and diseases. Later winter or early spring is the ideal time to re-pot your tree if it needs it, as well.

The Reward

red maple bonsai

Bonsai tree care is a very rewarding experience. You are taming nature and training it to live in an incredibly enclosed space. Old, well-tended Bonsai trees are beautiful pieces of art as well as living things, and the state of the tree is a visible representation of the care the owner puts into it. Bonsai care may seem like a complicated endeavour  but all it really comes down to is careful management of soil and water, well-timed pruning and re-potting and a little imagination. The result is a beautiful tree and an ongoing experience of caring for a living thing.

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