Basic Bonsai Care

Basic Bonsai Care - Maple Ridge Nursery


Our first blog of the year is a special one for me. While we were cleaning out a room at the nursery last month we came across an old pamphlet that my dad had written about bonsai. He started our nursery back in the late 80's in hopes of creating a bonsai nursery. That dream quickly fizzled away and eventually evolved into the Japanese maple and conifer nursery we have today. These pamphlets are probably close to 30 years old and seeing his words is still very exciting for me after all these years without him. In reading the pamphlet, I was impressed that everything seemed to hold up really well, so I decided to transcribe the pamphlet and turn it into a blog for the site so that everyone else could enjoy it as well. I added and changed just a few things to make it work as blog content for the site, but the vast majority of the article is direct words from Mike Francis. This is a basic overview of Bonsai. Enjoy!

What is Bonsai?

Bonsai is the reproduction of natural tree forms in miniature. Literally translated, the word "Bonsai" means "tree in a pot". Contrary to popular belief, it was the Chinese who actually originated the art of Bonsai. However, over the past few centuries, the Japanese have perfected it into the highly developed art form that it is today. Although the basic techniques of Bonsai are firmly rooted in the Orient, the western world has adopted this art form, and successfully adapted it to their lifestyle. Bonsai has become extremely popular worldwide, making it truly an international hobby.

Bonsai involves careful cultivation, pruning, and training of a tree to create a small, aesthetically pleasing representation of a full-sized tree. The goal is to create a balanced and harmonious composition that reflects the beauty of nature in a confined space. Bonsai trees can be created from various species, and different styles and techniques are employed to achieve specific visual effects. The art of bonsai requires patience, horticultural knowledge, and a deep understanding of the natural growth patterns of trees.

General Information on Bonsai

The first thing to learn about owning a Bonsai tree is to understand how to properly care for it. Although there are some species that are adaptable to indoor conditions, almost all plants suitable for Bonsai must be kept outdoors. Bonsai can be displayed indoors, for a short period of time, without harm. The indoor display of Bonsai is usually reserved for special occasions and should not exceed two to three days per month. Bonsai trees are not house plants, and therefore must be maintained outdoors, allowing them to go through the natural seasonal changes. These changes are particularly enjoyable with deciduous trees, whose foliage turns color and drops in the fall, and returns to announce the arrival of spring. The ideal place to maintain a Bonsai is a bench or table, located on a patio, deck, or balcony.

The watering of a Bonsai is extremely important and can never be neglected. A thorough watering, once a day, during the spring, summer, and fall is usually sufficient. Less watering is required during the winter months. Normal maintenance, which includes trimming, pinching, pruning, fertilizing, re-potting, insect and disease control is also important in keeping a Bonsai healthy. With proper care, a Bonsai will remain healthy and beautiful for many years to come. The information contained herein is necessarily brief. There are many fine books on the subject available at libraries, book stores, and garden centers.


Bonsai Placement

Outside, a Bonsai is best displayed on a bench or table about three to four feet high. Most Bonsai grow best in a location which receives morning sun, and afternoon shade. The morning sun is not as hot and dehydrating as the afternoon sun is, and such placement prevents water stress late in the day. However, some trees, such as pines and junipers, can tolerate full sun. Also, members of the maple family, and other varieties with delicate foliage, are best grown in full shade.

Watering your Bonsai

More Bonsai are lost due to improper or insufficient watering than from all other causes combined. Under normal conditions, it is necessary to thoroughly water a Bonsai once a day during the spring, summer, and fall months, During the winter months, when a tree is dormant, it is necessary to water only frequently enough to ensure that the root system never dries out completely. The best time to water is in the early morning or late afternoon. Avoid watering in the heat of the day, when foliage burn is likely to occur. Bonsai do best when watered at the same time each day, using a consistent amount of water each time. This watering schedule applies to all Bonsai, with the exception of very small trees, called "Mame", which require frequent watering throughout the day. Water is best applied with a watering can or hose attachment, which provides a soft enough spray so as not to disturb the soil. A thin layer of moss, placed on top of the soil, helps to prevent erosion, and enhances the overall appearance of a Bonsai. A thorough watering is achieved by delivering a sufficient amount of water to completely saturate the entire root system. The best indication of a complete watering is the appearance of excess water running out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.

Fertilizing a Bonsai

Proper fertilization is necessary for a Bonsai to remain healthy and beautiful. Since a Bonsai is grown in a relatively small amount of soil, it is important to periodically replenish the soil's supply of nutrients. Use a balanced, well-rounded fertilizer specifically designed for bonsai trees. You can find specialized bonsai fertilizers in garden centers or nurseries. Happy Frog is our go-to fertilizer for Japanese maples and it can be used for Japanese maple bonsai as well.

There are different types of fertilizers, including liquid, granular, and slow-release pellets. The choice depends on your preference and the specific needs of your bonsai. Bonsai trees typically require regular, but controlled, fertilization. The frequency can vary based on the type of tree, the season, and the specific fertilizer used. Time release fertilizers work very well, since a measured amount is released with each watering. Properly applied in early spring, most commercially available brands will last an entire growing season, taking the guesswork out of fertilizing a Bonsai. Happy Frog is applied once per month for three months during the spring growing season.

Organic and/or water-soluble fertilizers are also widely used but have the disadvantage of requiring several applications throughout the year. When using liquid fertilizers, follow the recommended dilution ratios provided on the product label. Over-fertilizing can lead to nutrient burn and damage the tree.

It's generally best to apply fertilizer when the soil is already moist. This helps prevent potential root burn, as the nutrients are less likely to be absorbed too quickly. For granular or pellet fertilizers, like Happy Frog, sprinkle the recommended amount evenly on the soil surface. Avoid placing the fertilizer directly on the trunk or leaves.

Some bonsai species may have specific nutritional requirements. Research the particular needs of your tree and adjust the fertilizer accordingly. Regularly monitor the growth of your bonsai. If you observe weak growth, yellowing leaves, or other signs of nutrient deficiency, you may need to adjust your fertilization routine. If your bonsai tree is experiencing stress or illness, it's advisable to hold off on fertilizing until the tree has recovered. Remember that each bonsai tree is unique, and factors such as the species, size, and local climate can influence its fertilizer needs. Always refer to specific guidelines for your particular type of bonsai, and be mindful not to over-fertilize, as this can harm the tree.

Trimming, Pruning, and Training your Bonsai

Trimming and pruning are the most important requirements in keeping a Bonsai miniature. This basically involves the removal of the vigorous new growth in the spring, as well as periodically throughout the growing season. It is important to understand that for the overall health of a tree, all of the new growth should never be removed. Wire is used on Bonsai trees as a temporary training aid to position a branch, but it should never be allowed to remain in place long enough to create scars. This is a brief overview of styling but cannot begin to sufficiently explain the details of thorough bonsai training. We will try to dig in deeper to this art in future articles.

Trimming involves removing unwanted or excessive growth from the bonsai, such as long shoots, branches, or foliage. It helps maintain the tree's desired shape and encourages denser foliage. Use sharp and clean bonsai scissors or shears. The choice of tool depends on the thickness of the branch or foliage being trimmed. Trim excess growth carefully, making clean cuts at a slight angle. Pay attention to the overall design and balance of the tree while trimming.

Pruning is more selective than trimming and involves the removal of specific branches or parts of the tree to achieve the desired structure. It helps maintain the bonsai's proportions, balance, and overall health. Bonsai pruning shears or concave cutters are commonly used for more precise cuts. The choice of tool depends on the size of the branch being pruned. Here is an affordable and durable pair of concave cutters that should work great for most bonsai. Make cuts just above a node or bud, and try to create a natural appearance. Prune branches that are growing in unwanted directions, crossing each other, or disrupting the overall design. 

Training involves guiding the growth of the bonsai to achieve a specific shape or style. This includes wiring, positioning branches, and encouraging certain growth patterns. Bonsai wire, which is usually made of aluminum or copper, is used to shape and position branches. Wire cutters are used to trim and remove the wire when it is no longer needed. Carefully wrap wire around branches, gently shaping them into the desired position. Be cautious not to damage the bark or restrict the tree's natural growth. Wiring is typically done during the growing season, and the wire should be removed before it cuts into the bark.

Work slowly and thoughtfully, considering the long-term health and appearance of the tree. Keep in mind the natural growth patterns of the specific bonsai species. Regularly inspect the tree for new growth and adjust your trimming, pruning, and training techniques accordingly. Water and fertilize appropriately after these processes to help the bonsai recover. Remember that bonsai care is an ongoing process, and each tree requires individual attention. Regularly observing and tending to your bonsai will help you develop the skills needed to create and maintain a beautiful and healthy miniature tree. 

Repotting a Bonsai

Repotting must be performed periodically on all Bonsai. The reason for repotting is to supply a pot bound root system with fresh soil. Most deciduous trees require repotting every two to three years, while slower growing evergreens require it only every four or five years. This is a general guideline, which varies with species and growing conditions. Every tree's root system should be examined on an annual basis, in late fall, to determine if repotting is necessary. Repotting is not difficult and is perfectly safe if done during late winter or early spring, prior to the appearance of any new growth.

Bonsai Soil

The choice of soil for bonsai is critical for the health and well-being of the miniature trees. Bonsai soil should provide adequate drainage, aeration, and water retention, allowing the roots to breathe and preventing waterlogged conditions. The ideal composition may vary depending on the species of the tree and environmental conditions. However, a common recommendation is to use a well-draining bonsai soil mix that typically consists of three main components: Akadama, Pumice, and Lava Rock.

Akadama is a type of volcanic clay granule that is widely used in bonsai soil mixes. It provides excellent drainage while retaining enough water to keep the roots hydrated. Akadama also has good aeration properties.

Pumice is a lightweight volcanic rock that contributes to soil aeration and drainage. It helps prevent compaction of the soil, allowing the roots to receive oxygen and nutrients more efficiently.

Lava rock, another volcanic material, is often included in bonsai soil mixes for its drainage and aeration properties. It is relatively lightweight and helps maintain a well-structured soil.

These three components are often combined in varying ratios to create a balanced bonsai soil mix. For example, a common mix might consist of equal parts Akadama, pumice, and lava rock.

It's important to note that the specific mix may need to be adjusted based on factors such as the climate, the specific bonsai species, and the individual preferences of the grower. Regular repotting (typically every 1-2 years) allows you to refresh the soil and inspect the health of the roots.

When selecting or creating a bonsai soil mix, it's advisable to consider the specific requirements of the tree species you are cultivating and adapt the soil composition accordingly. Always monitor your bonsai's health and adjust the soil mix if necessary.

For deciduous trees such as Japanese maples we prefer Tinyroots Premium Bonsai Soil Deciduous Blend which contains a specialized soil mixture that allows for proper amounts of water to get to the roots, the soil does not compact, and it drains quickly. Tinyroots Premium Bonsai Soil Deciduous Blend is the perfect bonsai soil for Japanese Maples promoting excellent root growth for a happy and healthy Japanese Maple Bonsai Tree.

For our conifer bonsai we use Tinyroots Bonsai Soil Conifer Blend which is the perfect blend for conifer bonsai trees. This bonsai soil also contains a specialized soil mixture that allows for proper amounts of water to get to the roots, the soil does not compact, and it drains quickly. This bonsai soil mix promotes a strong and healthy root system which creates a happy and healthy bonsai tree.

Insects and Diseases

A Bonsai is nothing more than a miniature version of a normal tree, and therefore can be treated with insecticides and fungicides commonly found at nurseries and garden centers. If, during routine inspection, a problem is discovered, it is recommended that the tree be taken to a nursery or garden center capable of giving qualified advice. Be sure to read and follow the label directions of any recommended chemical.

Bonsai Winter Care

The winter dormancy period is necessary to a Bonsai's general health. It should never be avoided by placing it in a heated area. The degree of winter protection necessary is determined by the severity of the winter weather in your area. In areas with mild winters, where nightly lows do not normally drop below freezing, Bonsai require little, if any, winter protection. In most areas of the country, however, some degree of winter protection is necessary to ensure the tree's survival. This winter protection can be provided by placing trees in one of the following areas:

  • Healed into a protected flower bed
  • In a cold frame or cold greenhouse
  • In an unheated garage or storage shed
  • In the window well of an unheated basement
  • In an enclosed, unheated porch

The best source of information as to which method is best in your particular area, is to contact an experienced member of a local Bonsai club or society, and ask for their recommendation. Remember to periodically check the root system for moisture, and water as necessary, while trees are in winter storage.

Indoor Bonsai

Those trees referred to as indoor varieties are actually subtropical or tropical plants. Their care and maintenance is identical to that of hardy plants during the spring, summer, and fall. However, because they cannot tolerate temperatures much below 40 degrees F. their winter care is considerably different.

When in the fall of the year, nightly low temperatures start to drop below 50 degrees F., itis time to move a Bonsai to its indoor environment.

The ideal indoor location is on a table or stand in front of a south facing window. An eastern or western exposure is second best. A northern exposure is the least desirable, as it necessitates the use of "grow lights" to keep a tree healthy. Four to six hours of sunlight per day should suffice. "Grow lights" should be connected to an automatic timer, and set to provide twelve to fourteen hours of light per day.

The watering schedule of a Bonsai maintained indoors is dependent upon many factors. Once a day is usually sufficient, however high heat or low humidity may dictate a twice a day schedule.

During the cold months, when a Bonsai is inside, it should be placed in a shallow tray of water filled with fine gravel or sand. This provides extra moisture around the tree, and partially compensates for the amount of moisture lost to modern heating systems.