Bonsai Quick Care Guide: What To Do With Your New Plant

Couple with Bonsai

Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) means “Potted Tree” in Japanese. This living art form started in the Orient several thousand years ago. A Bonsai is a tree or plant, grown in a small container. Even though it is small in size it expresses the beauty, elegance and proportions of a tree growing in a natural environment.

Bonsai can be grown for many years following some basic but not difficult growing procedures. Bonsai are considered as tropical, temperate or hardy according to their ability to survive in either warm, cool or cold climates. An understanding of basic plant requirements makes it easy to grow the Bonsai of your choice. The world of Bonsai opens up a fascinating new dimension to the plant lover and hobbyist for it is both art and science, horticulture and sculpture or hortisculpture.

Watering

The single most important factor in keeping your Bonsai alive is water. If the soil ever dries out to the very bottom of the pot, some if not all the roots will dry up and the tree could die. To prevent this from happening, it is necessary to check the soil everyday. The opposite is also true. The soil should not be kept moist all the time otherwise the roots will rot and the tree could die.

The regularity of watering will vary greatly, depending on the conditions surrounding the tree. Sun, wind, rain, humidity, air conditioning or dry winter air will affect the frequency of watering of any plant or Bonsai. In summer when Bonsai are outdoors in the sun and wind, the soil will dry up much faster than in winter, indoors, when there is less sun and no wind. Do not assume a Bonsai can be watered according to a schedule, because seasonal conditions will affect the watering needs; more often as we approach spring and summer, less in fall and winter.

When the stones (Bonsai soil) on the surface are dry (beige in colour), this is not an indication that the Bonsai needs water. All this means is that the surface is dry. This can happen a few hours after the soil is watered and the tree returned to a sunny spot. The way to tell if a Bonsai needs water is with your finger, dig a hole into the soil, half the depth of the pot, near the edge of the pot. Move your finger from side to side until a hole has been created. If Bonsai soil is stuck to your finger once you remove it from the hole, the hole stays open, and the stones are dark in the hole you have dug, this is a sign that the soil is still moist and no water is needed. If however your finger is free of Bonsai soil, the stones tumble into the hole, and the stones are beige in the hole you have dug, the Bonsai soil is dry and watering is essential. In warm weather conditions, if the soil seems dry, but you are not sure whether or not to water, it is better to water.

To water a Bonsai, it is necessary to completely saturate the soil. This is best achieved by submerging the pot into a sink or container of water (cool to room temperature) so the water level rises to any point above the upper lip of the pot. The tree should be left in the water at least until the rising air bubbles stop, usually 5-10 minutes. Watering this way is fast and efficient, but some of the stones may float away from the surface of the soil. This is normal and will continue to happen for a few months, until the soil has become compacted. Another way of watering which is slower but just as efficient, is to submerge the Bonsai pot into water, so the water level rises to a point just below the edge of the pot. The water will soak up through the hole(s) at the bottom of the pot. The tree should be left in the water for at least 15-30 minutes, or until the stones on the surface have changed to a dark (wet) colour.

Roots need air to grow, so Bonsai soil should be very porous and well draining. It should retain a lot of water but also have the capacity to dry out quickly. There is no reason to time how long the tree has been in the sink or container. Bonsai soil is like a sponge. It will absorb all the water it can, and no more. The tree can even be left in water for up to an entire day if you forget it or are in a rush to go out. This is not over watering. Over watering (damage) occurs when the soil does not dry out partially between waterings. Misting the leaves or needles is an excellent practice and should be done at least once a day in winter, indoors. During the summer, when the air outside is humid it is not necessary to spray, although it is not harmful. Another way of augmenting the humidity level around your tree is a ‘humidity tray'. A flat tray or dish without holes can be filled with stones and water, and the ‘feet' of the Bonsai pot can be placed on the stones, not in water. Spraying your Bonsai and keeping it on a humidity tray in winter are an excellent combination.

Fertilizing

Bonsai soil has little nutritive value. For this reason it is necessary to fertilize your Bonsai once a month from April to October with a regular fertilizer at full strength, or twice a month diluted to half the recommended strength. For flowering leaf-bearing trees such as Snow Rose, use 15-30-15. For leaf-bearing trees such as Elm, use 20-20-20. For conifers such as Juniper and leaf-bearing evergreens such as Boxwood, use 30-10-10. For acid loving types such as Azalea, use a fertilizer that has a high acid content. During the winter months, November to March, fertilize the trees once or twice a month with a milder fertilizer such as Liquid Seaweed or fish emulsion.

Never fertilize when the soil is dry, as this may burn and damage roots. So, after you have taken your Bonsai out of the water, add fertilizer to the water and submerge again.

Light and Temperature

Trees come from outdoors, therefor it is important to maintain them in their natural environment. All trees and plants grow best when put outdoors, throughout the spring and summer. This change of location is best achieved after the danger of a late frost has passed. Put the tree outside during the day and inside during the night for about one week. After this period, the tree should be left outside day and night. Knowing whether the tree is tropical, temperate or hardy will determine when to bring it in or whether to leave it out for the winter. All Bonsai can easily tolerate the sun in spring and the beginning of summer. By the end of July through August, when the sun is hottest, trees will benefit most from a half day of sun. This does not mean moving it in and out of the sun. Find a place that receives half a day of sun and leave it there. Tropicals such as Snow Rose cannot tolerate freezing. They should be brought in gradually (using the same schedule as mentioned above) before night-time temperatures drop below 10°C (50°F). They should then be placed in a sunny window in a warm room, until the following Spring. Temperate trees, such as Junipers should be left outside until the middle or end of November. They can tolerate the freezing conditions and snow of late autumn and early winter. After they have had this brief dormancy they can be brought indoors and placed in a cool (2-5°C, 35-45°F) dark place to extend their winter, or placed in a warm sunny window until the following spring. Hardy trees such as Pine, should be left outdoors all year. In winter, they should be protected from extremes of temperature in a cold-frame, or buried into the ground on the north side of your home.

If you wish to show-off your Bonsai in any season, by putting it on a coffee table or dining room table for an evening, you can do it safely, for up to two days

Pests

Insects are a part of nature. No tree or plant is immune to them. To ensure the continuing health of your Bonsai, check it for insects regularly. The 5 most common pests and ways of detecting them are listed below. Spider Mites are quite difficult to see, but their webs are small ‘wooly' masses often seen on the undersides of leaves and needles. Once a week, hold a white piece of paper under a branch and knock off of ‘fluff' the branch, gently. Repeat this process at several branch sites. Check carefully. If the tree has spider mites, you will see tiny red or black dots (the size of a pin-prick) moving slowly across the paper. If you are not sure if you have mites, rub your finger across the paper. If you see red streaks, you have mites. Aphids secrete a sticky honey dew that looks like a wet spot on a leaf. If you see a leaf that appears to have water on it, squeeze the leaf gently between your thumb and index finger, then squeeze those same two fingers together a few times. If that ‘water' is sticky you have aphids. The insect is about the size of the head of a pin and often appears on new growth. Mealy Bugs coat themselves with a white fluffy substance. Usually they can be seen in the intersections of branches or where twigs meet branches. Scales are insects that cover themselves with a hard, tortoise shell-like covering that is often similar in colour to the bark. By familiarizing yourself with your tree you should be able to spot scales on the trunk or branches. White Fly will often fly away from then back to the tree after you have fluffed the foliage. They are small white flies that fly quite slowly and their eggs appear as small bumps on the underside of leaves.

A mild insecticidal soap is a good way of preventing bug problems. However, if your Bonsai has insects, you must identify the problem and spray with an appropriate insecticide as soon as possible. Some insects reproduce very quickly, all the while sucking strength from your Bonsai. In winter, indoor air can be dry and stale with little or no air circulation. These conditions are favourable for insect infestations.

Special Notes

  • Do not place your Bonsai near a source of hot or cold blowing air such as a radiator, air conditioner, a very windy spot or the top of a T.V.
  • Tropical and temperate trees that are placed in windows during winter should never have their leaves or needles touching a cold window or wall.
  • To ensure even growth all around the tree rotate the tree twice a month (two weeks with one side facing the sun, the next two weeks the other side facing the sun).
  • Once you have found a good location for your Bonsai, move it as little as possible.
  • A brief readjustment period (1-4 weeks) is normal when the tree changes locations.
  • Leaves dropping or needles turning brown, especially underneath or within areas of dense growth, is normal.
  • In summer when your Bonsai is outside, if it rains heavily, it is not necessary to water, but if it drizzles, you may have to water.
  • During the summer months the tree will benefit more by watering it in the morning, than in the evening.
  • The benefits of putting your Bonsai outdoors for the summer far outweigh the possibilities of getting insects.
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