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Bonsai Tree Care
It’s often said that caring for bonsai trees is very difficult and only for the dedicated and knowledgeable. This is not true. If you’re prepared to spend a couple of minutes a day then it’s no harder than looking after any house plant.
Different species of trees have different precise care requirements but there are common aspects to looking after all bonsai trees. Most of the trees we sell will be more than happy if treated as explained below. If any of our trees do have any precise requirements then we explain this in the description on the website.
There are no hard and fast rules and a huge amount of variables such as soil type, your local climate, type of heating, how drafty your house is. It’s important to experiment using these basic guidelines to find what works with your trees in your location.
The most important decision is whether to keep your tree inside or outside. Obviously in nature there is no such thing as an indoor tree, but to keep sub-tropical species in the UK it can be essential. Some bonsai trees, such as Chinese Elm’s, can be kept inside or outside in the UK. They need to be hardened off slowly before being put outside permanently and may need frost protection in severe winter weather.
- Most trees like being in a bright position with plenty of fresh air, but away from strong cold drafts and out of direct midday sun.
- Don't keep trees on window ledges behind curtains as, especially in winter, it can get very cold here at night.
- Try and position your tree away from radiators if possible as they dry the air out.
- Rotate your tree often.
- Try to give your tree some outside time during nice summer weather. When night temperatures are over 10C most trees will be fine outside overnight.
- Outdoor trees all benefit from a sheltered location. Some trees, such as hawthorns, are very hardy and can cope with strong winds but will still benefit from shelter. Other trees such as beech will suffer in strong winds as they get desiccated which can lead to the leaves turning brown.
- Provide some shelter from the hot summer sun in the middle of the day. Especially on windy days it can be very harmful to bonsai trees and if you aren’t standing next to them all day with a jug of water they will suffer. It’s much easier if you can provide a location with dappled sunshire and the tree will also grow better as a result.
- Provide shelter from severe or prolonged frosts.
It's not difficult to correctly water a bonsai tree, it just takes a little time to get used to your trees requirements in your location. Mistakes with watering have the quickest detrimental effect on a tree and are the most common cause of ill-health. Overwatering, normally done in good faith, is more harmful than underwatering, not as quick to display the symptoms and often it's harder to cure the effects.
- When watering indoor trees, only water once the soil has begun to dry out. Depending on the season and local conditions this can be every day or sometimes just once a week. You cannot water to a schedule, you need to check daily and only water once the top centimetre or so of soil feels dry to the touch. You can buy soil moisture meters to help with this but it's easier just to check with your finger. It’s important to allow the soil to begin to dry out a little inbetween waterings to allow air to re-penetrate the soil and reach the roots.
- Water with rain water where possible. The most effective way to water is to stand the pot in a bowl of water for around 20 minutes - this way the soil soaks up as much water as it wants. You can also water from above - water slowly, allowing each bit to soak in first, and keep watering until water drains from the holes in the bottom of the pot. This ensures that all the soil has had chance to soak up water & allows salts and other chemicals in tap water to be drained from the pot. Once the soil surface becomes dry, it can be difficult to water - if you have problems, mist spray the surface of the soil then water again and the soil will accept the water much easier.
- With outdoor trees you have less control over the amount of water they receive so you must ensure outdoor trees have a more freely draining compost. You must still check the soil often as rain showers sometimes do little to water a tree and the wind outside can dry soil out amazingly quickly.
Most indoor bonsai trees will thrive in a humid atmosphere and not do so well in dry air.
- Mist-spray the tree frequently (perhaps once a day in spring and summer and every few days at other times).
- Use a humidity tray (you’ll probably want to use a drip tray indoors anyway to catch drips falling through the drainage holes). If you fill this tray with gravel and water it helps to keep up humidity. Make sure the pot is still able to drain into the tray, you may need to drain the tray after watering the tree.
As with watering, overfeeding causes more problems than underfeeding and can damage or even kill a tree. It's hard to prescribe a feeding routine as it depends on many factors including positioning, climate and nutrient content in the soil.
In general it's much safer to under feed then to over feed. The best way is to feed minimally and if you want to increase the amount / frequency a little you can.
You can use more specialised feeds with a different feed for the different seasons. This allows you to give more feed but isn't strictly necessary. If you use a standard bonsai feed and the methods explained below, you won't go far wrong.
- If using standard bonsai liquid feed alone, follow the directions on the bottle and feed once a week during spring and summer, every other week during autumn and once a month during winter (for evergreen trees).
- Apply foliar feed once a week by mixing liquid feed in a mist sprayer and liberally spraying the leaves, you will notice the effect overnight.
- Solid organic feeds such as biogold or naruko are left on the soil surface and allowed to filter into the soil slowly when it rains. It's recommended to use these feeds in combination with liquid feeds (less frequently). The slightly different properties of the liquid and solid feeds will keep your tree in great health.
Remember only to feed your tree if it is actively growing and healthy. In general, unhealthy trees are best given time and water alone while they recover.
You will need to prune your tree fairly often to keep it in shape. Luckily bonsai trees are quite forgiving. Most species will begin to put out new growth within a week of trimming so they will quickly begin to hide any errors you may have made. It’s best to experiment as each species does have slightly different patterns of growth.
- Let shoots grow 4-6 new sets of leaves and then prune back to 1 or 2 leaves or even prune off all the new growth on some shoots.
- Don’t be afraid to trim too much. If you just trimmed the outermost leaves each time, the branches will get longer and longer and you’ll end up with no leaves close to the trunk or main branches.
- Cut off to slightly below the shape you actually want to allow the tree some space to regrow.
For a more in depth description of pruning and shaping methods for different species please see www.bonsai4me.com.
Repotting / root pruning
Bonsai trees need to be repotted periodically to refresh the soil and to trim the roots allowing fresh fibrous root growth close to the trunk. Young trees will do best when repotted once a year, older mature trees are ok for 2, 3 or sometimes even more years.
The best time to repot your bonsai tree is in spring, just before they burst into life. For deciduous trees you can see when the winter buds begin to swell massively before they open - this is the perfect time for repotting. You can repot at some other times of the year but spring is best as it allows a full seasons root growth without any frost.
Before you begin you need to prepare the new soil and choose a new pot (unless you are using the same pot). There are many different schools of thought on the best bonsai soil to use. Some acid-loving tree's such as azaleas need special soils such as Kanuma, but most trees are ok in a general compost based free draining soil. Akadama is the soil of choice in Japan. This is an inorganic clay based soil with no nutrients. In the UK climate akadama tends to break down too quickly when used alone. You can mix akadama or a bonsai grit with sand and compost to create your own mix. As long as the soil is freely draining you should be ok. All outdoor trees and pines especially prefer very free-draining soil such as the Japanese Kiryu soil or a mixture of a high proportion of kiryu with standard compost.
- Carefully ease the tree from its pot and then loosen the compost from the rootball. This can be awkward and as its best to remove as much of the old soil as possible it's worth spending sometime on this step. It helps to use a bonsai root hook or chopstick to loosen the soil.
- Once the rootball is free from most of its old soil you can gently comb out the roots using a bonsai rake or your fingers. Cut about a third of the roots off. Use root cutting scissors so you don't damage and blunten your usual trimming scissors.
- Place potting mesh over the drainage holes in the new pot and secure with wire if necessary. If your tree is very heavy or your soil is very light you may also need to secure the tree to the pot with bonsai wire.
- Put a thin layer of soil into the pot then place your tree back into the pot.
- Holding the tree with one hand, carefully pour more of the soil around the roots and rootball. It helps to use a bonsai soil scoop to tip the soil just where you need it. Prod and gently firm the soil inbetween the roots with a chopstick or similar item. Keep on adding small amounts of soil and firming until the tree is stable and the pot is full.
- Water the new soil carefully and allow the tree to grow unhindered and unfed for a few weeks.
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