Caring for Your Bonsai

Caring for your bonsai requires time and patience as quite a bit of work goes into transforming a small tree into a graceful, artistic creation.  But if you follow basic care guidelines, you will find that bonsai care is less complicated than it sounds.  The most important steps in nurturing your bonsai include placement, watering, fertilizing, trimming and pruning, and repotting.  If you learn how to do each of these correctly you’ll be delighted with the outcome.

Placement

Most bonsai do best with morning sun and afternoon shade, although some species such as junipers, pines and other conifers (cone-bearing trees) can take all day sunshine.  Even indoor bonsai trees should be positioned so they get as much morning sun as possible.  If your bonsai is placed against a wall you will need to turn it every two weeks or so, or one side will automatically grow toward the sun.

Watering Do’s and Don’ts

Don’t try watering your bonsai with a regular garden hose or watering can as this can wash away the soil from the pot.  You can water your bonsai with a plant mister, or place the tree in a container of water so that the soil is covered and approximately one inch of the trunk is submerged.  Leave the pot in the water for two-to-three minutes and then let drain.  Different varieties need more or less water, but a good rule of thumb is that the soil should always be moist, never completely dry.  Bonsai need more water during the spring and summer months; you may even have to water daily during hot weather.  But be careful not to overwater as this can rot the roots of your bonsai. Yellow leaves often indicate overwatering.

Fertilizing

To keep your bonsai healthy and producing new leaves you need to fertilize it during its growth season, usually every two weeks or so during the early spring and summer and again in early fall.  Different types of trees respond better to certain fertilizer mixes.  While there are special bonsai fertilizers available, you can use almost any plant fertilizer, just be sure to use a mix of half water and half fertilizer as too much fertilizer can burn the root system.  In autumn you should use a fertilizer without nitrogen to allow the branches and trunk to harden and prepare for winter.

Trimming and Pruning

Regular trimming and pruning of roots, branches, and leaves is essential to maintain the desired shape of your bonsai.  Branches need to be cut back several times a year, especially if there are extra or crossed branches, or branches growing in the wrong direction.  At the same time, roots must also be trimmed. If you trim branches only and not roots, or vice versa, your tree will appear unbalanced; you should prune branches and roots equally.  You’ll also need to nip some new shoots and buds to keep the correct style. Always use the appropriate bonsai tools to prune your tree.

Repotting

All bonsai need to be repotted at some point.  In general, the faster the tree grows, the sooner it will need repotting, usually within ten months to a year.  If your bonsai has an extremely aggressive root structure, and you see roots start to circle around the root system, you need to repot the tree or the roots will overtake the pot.  The soil you use to repot your bonsai is important; don’t use regular potting soil, ask for special bonsai soil mix at your local nursery or garden center.  This is usually a combination of fine gravel and potting compost.  When repotting, use a container that is right for the size and style to complement your bonsai.

Using a root knife or shears, take the tree out of its pot and trim back long roots if necessary. Use a root rake to untangle the roots.  When you’re ready, place the bonsai gently on top of the prepared soil in the center of the pot.  Many growers use plastic mesh over the drainage holes at the bottom of their bonsai containers followed by a level of grit to ensure proper drainage.  Once the plant is placed, fill the pot with soil mix being sure not to leave air holes and water thoroughly.  Don’t over-prune branches immediately following repotting, and if your bonsai is outdoors, protect it from harsh wind, sun, and rain.

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