The Ultimate Guide to Bonsai Tree Care
Bonsai, which translates to a tree in a pot, is an art form which develops from patience, care, dedication and attention to detail. Working, tweaking and caring for nature in such a way is a very enlightening experience, so get into it and become inspired.
Bonsai trees originate from the Chinese who have been shaping miniature trees for over 2000 years, however it was the Japanese who simplified and refined the idea using a ‘less is more’ approach and focusing on a singular tree rather the Chinese regime of integrating a landscape and creating unnatural shapes and compositions.
Over time Bonsai trees have become either very expensive items to purchase or cheaply mass-produced versions through exportation, so as an enthusiast who wants to own their own beautiful specimen, they must either create it themselves or purchase one from local growers then exercise great dedication through the right bonsai tree care methods.
Creating beautiful, elegant and small bonsai trees is no easy feat and requires vision and daily care from it’s owner to create the most exciting proportion, style and display. These require the right tools and know-how, so check out our helpful points to steer you in the right direction for caring for your bonsai tree:
Key Bonsai Tree Care Points:
Leaves need a certain amount of light in order to photosynthesize and nourish the plant. The ideal spot would have to be close to a window where light is not obstructed by large trees, high walls or a roof overhang. In saying that caution must be taken in the summer months as direct sunlight contains ultraviolet radiation which can be harmful to certain species at high levels especially as the bonsai tree’s pot can overheat too. Using fine white shade netting or window blinds can create better light conditions. In the winter however even at one meter away from a window the amount of luminosity is reduced and can be too dark for the bonsai despite what our eyes tell us.
Turning a bonsai tree 90 degrees every few days so all areas of foliage can receive an equal amount of light is important and locating the bonsai tree near a window but out of direct rays of sunlight is a good way forward for species that struggle with too much sun exposure, especially as direct sunlight that passes through glass will provide greatly intensified heat.
In the winter you can supplement the natural light with artificial light for 1-3 hours a day using a timer (in the morning before sunrise, and in the evening after sundown). Use fluorescent lights that use daylight and warm light ranges. These should be suspended between 10-30 inches above the plants.
See here for lighting tips for indoor bonsai trees
Surprisingly it is more common for a bonsai to suffer from over watering than drought, they generally (of course it depends on your tree) require moist soil that remains damp between waterings.
Unsure if your tree needs watering? Gently scratch away the surface of the soil to see how moist it is underneath, if it is wet then it will require no further water otherwise if it is dry then it should be watered right away. A good method for checking how much moisture is in the soil deep within the pot is the chopstick test. Pushing it right into the soil (careful to avoid any roots) and leaving it for 20 minutes. Then remove and check the dampness of the stick. If the soil is completely dried out, use the immersion technique straight away.
Rainwater is best for all plants, but cannot be always accessible. Tapwater has plenty of added chemicals for purifying and on occasions higher quantities of chlorine could potentially be harmful. To evaporate the excessive chlorine you can allow the tapwater to stand in an open container for a few hours which also allows the temperature of the water to match the room and essentially similar to the bonsai tree roots. Do not apply ice-cold water which can cause damage to the root system, however on a hot day water that is a few degrees cooler can refresh the roots.
The trick is to water either in the early morning or in the evening to help reduce the risk of the roots being overheated. Also watering must be regular and relate to the bonsai species’ requirement for dry, moist, or wet soil, but also testing with the chopstick everyday will help you gauge how often watering is required – it will vary year-round.
See here for more in-depth methods for watering bonsai trees and information.
In order to remain healthy trees require fresh air. Poor circulation can affect the growth of the bonsai tree and can encourage fungal or bacterial spores. During the winter months when heating is used indoors, creating an environment of 40-50% humidity is ideal which can be created through using a dehumidifier or even a tray of water near the bonsai tree or on top of/close to the heater.
To encourage good air circulation, bonsai trees should be placed roughly at waist-height preferably on their own stand indoors or on a slatted bench outside. The benefits to placing the tree lower in a room keeps the tree cooler than room temperature. Outdoors, the tree will benefit in a higher position for safety reasons from predators however must be sheltered from the wind, while indoor draughts should be avoided.
No plant was created for indoor living, therefore choosing the ideal bonsai should be affected by the type of environment you can provide it eg: subtropical bonsai for growth within a cold house or a tropical species in a heated greenhouse.
See here for more information on bonsai tree temperatures.
Using free draining soil is essential so water can pass through the soil easily to prevent it laying on the surface. In saying that, the bonsai soil must be able to hold sufficient water to hydrate the tree until the next watering cycle through the use large particles of organic or mineral materials.
So what soil should be used? The best commercial soil is Japanese ‘Akadama’. It holds water well, has excellent drainage and provides ample air space. This can often be found in gardening outlets as part of a mix to make it more affordable, or else mixing your own soil can be the most beneficial as you can create something that suits your climate and bonsai tree care habits eg: if you not able to water twice a day during the summer months a soil that can retain more water would be a good way to go, or else if you live in a damp environment a free-draining soil would be best.
See here for our bonsai soil guide.
To induce the three main plant nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – as well as other essential elements, fertilizers are an essential part of bonsai tree care.
Bonsai fertilizers are no different from any other garden equivalent however they are not so rich as they are intended for all-round health and are useful for general use. Both organic and inorganic equivalents are capable of providing the necessary nutrition, however it is best to avoid any types that claim ‘rapid, lush growth’. The fertilizer of you choice must be suitable for container-grown plants, most commonly it comes as foliar feed (spray, liquid fertilizer) or pellets. It is important to look for rates of application for a specific volume to ensure you can judge the correct amount required.
Bonsai Tree Care Methods
This section is dedicated to helping you create the bonsai style you wish to achieve and find the right aesthetic for you. Firstly, to help you decide which bonsai tree style to choose, we have compiled this useful image of the variety of styles, before divulging into the relevant methods for caring for your bonsai:
Pruning is one of the most common practices for bonsai tree care and is relatively straightforward. It must be done to remove unwanted branches, maintain it’s established form and to encourage new growth close to the trunk. There are simple steps to follow in order to successfully help your bonsai to grow such as pruning in spring, using the right combination of tools and techniques while using the necessary force without damaging the roots and branches.
See here for more help for pruning your bonsai tree.
Some bonsai trees require pinching in order to keep the foliage areas neat, certain techniques are employed to reduce the size of the leaves and make the small twigs denser – essentially giving your tree a haircut. Every time a shoot is pinched a new, small one will grow from the bud at the base of the leaf.
There are a variety of techniques that are particular to your tree type, so check out our tips to pinching your tree (coming soon).
To shape your bonsai you must coil a wire of appropriate thickness around a branch and the two together can then be bent. The simple process of wiring allows the branch to thicken but remain compressed creating a more dense wood which will remain in place once the wire has been removed.
So how long should you leave your bonsai tree branches wired? Like many bonsai tree care points it depends upon your species but generally speaking young deciduous shoots and twigs can set within a month, while a springy conifer branch can take several years.
Checking the wire regularly will help to prevent scarring, as soon as it appears that the wire is digging into the bark it should be removed (cut, not uncoiled) and potentially be re-wired in the opposite direction if the branch is not yet set.
See below for our recommended wire to use, also check out our guide to wiring a bonsai tree.
Re-potting Bonsai Trees
Generally speaking, young or small bonsai trees require repotting every two or three years, older/larger specimens less often. Repotting should be undertaken if there is a slow passage of water through the soil, slowing of growth or if the roots look like a coconut-fibre mat when the tree is eased from the pot.
Repotting is traditionally carried out during autumn, but there is no precise timeframe as it just depends on the type and age of the bonsai tree. Repotting in autumn does run the risk of roots failing to heal and regenerate before winter meaning they must be kept frost-free and watering minimized until spring.
Want to learn how to repot? See our guide here (coming soon).
Choosing the right Bonsai pot shape
When looking for the right pot it must have plenty of drainage holes, a level base and small feet to allow excess water run-off. Aesthetically the size and shape of the pot suits different styles of bonsai, so choose wisely there are a diverse range to choose from.
See here for our comparison guide of bonsai pots (coming soon).
Here is an insightful video from youtube that provides 5 of the most useful points to remember when caring for your bonsai tree
So we’ve just touched the surface for caring for your bonsai tree, as this website develops we hope to produce more and more helpful guides and tips to help any level of bonsai enthusiast and provide the ultimate resource.
If you have any questions at all do not hesitate to contact us or leave a comment below for other bonsai friends to give you advice.