Gardening Tips: How To Look After A Bonsai Tree Like A Pro

Bonsai trees have been around for over a thousand years. They fit into any space, can re-energize your home and can become a collaborative artistic statement. The ultimate goal when growing a bonsai is to create a miniaturised but realistic representation of nature in the form of a tree. Adding bonsais while arranging the plants in your living room will increase your home’s aesthetics for sure!

bonsai tree with pallet wall in the background

Are you a novice bonsai enthusiast and want to know how to look after your favourite tree? Many easy-to-grow species are pretty hardy and able to adapt themselves to fit your home. Looking after your bonsai will keep it happy and healthy. In return, it will add life and beauty to your home! Find here all you need to know about how to look after a bonsai!

What is a bonsai tree?

Also known as Fig and Chinese Banyan, the bonsai tree grows naturally in Southwest Asia. “Bonsai” means “planted in a container” in Japanese. A bonsai is a miniature tree planted in a container or a small pot. The art of cultivating these small trees dates back to the early 14th century, being an integral part of Japanese culture. Once being a privilege only by the wealthiest aristocrats of Asian society, it is now an art form people worldwide can enjoy! 

There are hundreds of bonsai species, and many varieties are natural dwarfs. Ficus is one of the most popular trees for indoor Bonsai and is an excellent tree for beginners. These trees are grown from the same seeds as the ones that rise to full size. They remain small and elegant with the appropriate trimming and training. When you care for it, it stays healthy for many years.

Where to place your bonsai tree

A bonsai will enhance your home’s aesthetic value for sure and will bring an exciting layer of décor to your room. It is also possible to keep your bonsai outdoors. Keep in mind that the placement of the tree must change as per the climatic condition. Find here where to place your bonsai and when you should move it.

5 small bonsai trees next to each other, blurred background

Outdoor bonsai trees

If you purchase a deciduous tree bonsai, it will benefit from being outdoors, where it will be exposed to the natural weather conditions it needs. If you keep it indoors, it won’t get the exposure to cold it needs for its dormancy season in winter. Juniper bonsai and Japanese maple are the most common options for outdoor spaces.

Bonsais get their food from direct sunlight. A lack of direct sun will cause them weak foliage and other problems. It is good to receive 5-6 hours of daylight daily, and they love to be outside in the warmer months (May-September). Of course, you should still protect your bonsai from extreme weather conditions. So, if you see a storm in the forecast, shelter your bonsai from wind, rain or snow by placing it under an awning, or bring it indoors till the lousy weather conditions end.

Indoor bonsai trees

There are several bonsai types you can grow indoors, but the most common and easiest to care for are Carmona, Chinese elm and Ficus Bonsai. Bonsai plants are pretty tolerant of low levels of light, making them great indoor plants. Having said that, you should still place them in a sunny location, where they will take plenty of sun. Putting them in a south-facing window is good. Avoid leaving it in dark corners, coffee tables and bookshelves, where it may be too dark. If you wish to keep your bonsai in a shaded place, you should move it to a sunny one for 5-6 hours a day. Keep in mind that morning sun and afternoon shade are the best for your tree.

Japanese bonsai plant on table in living room, space for text. Creating zen atmosphere at home

Bonsai tree care

Caring for a Bonsai tree is different from that of typical potted house plants. The main reason is they have limited storage for nutrients and water since they are planted in tiny pots. More importantly, tropical plants need to receive a lot of light and high humidity, climates that are challenging to recreate indoors. With proper care, your small tree will remain beautiful and healthy for many years to come. Here are some guidelines and care instructions for watering, fertilising, and repotting your bonsai. 

Watering

Under-watering is the number one cause of most bonsai deaths. You should water them right when the top layer of soil seems dry. For the root ball to remain intact, the soil should not be too dry. The frequency of watering can differ, depending on the type of bonsai and its size, as well as the kind of soil you use. If you have more than one bonsai, it’s best to water each of them individually instead of sticking to a routine. Your main goal when watering your bonsai is to saturate the root system with water thoroughly. To achieve that, keep watering until water escapes through the draining holes. Most bonsai trees come with a tray that collects excess water to allow for proper draining.

Overwatering can also be dangerous for your bonsai. Wondering what the symptoms of an overwatered bonsai are? They include yellow leaves and wilting of smaller branches. When its roots are drowning in water, lack of oxygen prevents further growth to support the tree. Poor-draining soil can be another cause as well.

Light

When you keep a bonsai tree indoors, the intensity of light is much lower than outdoors. As a result, if it doesn’t get enough light, it won’t die immediately, but its growth will decrease, and the plant will weaken over time. As already mentioned, it is best to locate it in a bright place, preferably directly in front of a window facing the south. If the light intensity is still low, you can use artificial lighting to supplement this light deficit. Some options are fluorescent lighting with radiating growth-friendly spectra or light-emitting diode lighting

bonsai tree besides window with garden outside

Misting

The air inside your house is drier than outside. Plants want humidity to remain green and healthy. But don’t worry, there is a solution to this humidity level problem. Here is what you should do:

  • Increase the humidity near your bonsai by placing it on a humidity tray filled with water. Make sure the water doesn’t reach the bottom of the bonsai pot.
  • Misting your tree a few times a day is very important. 
  • Circulate air from outside by opening a window during the day.
  • Avoid putting your tree near a vent or draft, which dries out the foliage. 

Bonsai soil

The most common components for soil mixtures are Lava rock, Akadama, Pumice, organic potting compost, and grit. To choose the suitable soil for your bonsai is to choose one that offers proper drainage. You may also add large particles to your soil mixture, like volcanic rock or stones, to improve drainage and bring air into the soil. 

Different tree species need different soil mixtures. However, there are two primary mixtures for either deciduous or coniferous trees. Both of them consist of Akadama for water retention,  Lava rock for aeration and drainage and Pumice for good substrate structure. Remember that If you live in an area with a wet climate, you should add more lava rock or grit to enhance the mixture’s draining qualities.

Deciduous tree Bonsai soil

  • 50% Akadama
  • 25% Pumice
  • 25% Lava rock

Coniferous / Pine Bonsai soil

  • 33% Akadama
  • 33% Pumice
  • 33% Lava rock

Making of bonsai trees, Sprinkle the soil and rake the soil to tighten the roots, Handmade accessories wire and scissor bonsai tools, stand of bonsai, Concept Bonsai tree.

Fertilising

Bonsais need fertilisers. You can find them in gardening stores and online bonsai shops. They may come as solid or liquid fertilisers. There are many organic ones, like cottonseed meal, seaweed-based fertilisers, and fish emulsion. The essential nutrients a bonsai needs are nitrogen during the growth period, phosphorus for healthy flowers, and potassium for general health. It is crucial to read the instructions on the fertiliser bottle label to prevent overfeeding or underfeeding of your bonsais. It is also critical to add fertiliser to your soil during the growing season, typically early spring to mid-fall. Here is how to feed them:

  • Step 1: Choose the bonsai you need to fertilise.
  • Step 2: Choose a fertiliser that has a balanced NPK ratio.
  • Step 3: Place the solid ones in mini baskets to ensure they’re not eaten by birds or washed away when you water your tree.
  • Step 4: Position the mini baskets on the soil surface. Spray the liquid fertilisers to your bonsai.

Pruning

If you want to keep your bonsai tree small and maintain its compact shape, pruning is essential. There are two main types of pruning: maintenance and structural pruning.

  • Maintenance pruning encourages new growth and strengthens the tree. When you cut away new shoots and leaves, you help expose the leaves underneath to sunlight and air, which benefits the bonsai’s overall health. Branches, buds, and leaves are the main areas that require maintenance pruning. Typically, you should prune your bonsai when you see new growth starting to morph into an undesirable shape. If you have a  flowering bonsai, it’s better to prune it during the spring to encourage more flowers to grow the following year.
  • Structural pruning is a more advanced technique that you should do only in dormant trees. It requires the removal of the bonsai’s primary structural branches and needs the skills of a professional to ensure that the tree can recover. Another way to control the shape and growth pattern of certain branches of your tree is wiring. Keep on reading to find out more.

Hands pruning a bonsai tree on a work table. Gardening concept.

Wiring

There are various wiring techniques you can use to train Bonsai trees into different styles and shapes. Keep in mind that you should not wire a bonsai just after repotting it. Here is how to do it:

  • Use a thin training wire that will hold the branch in the desired position. 
  • Wind the wire in the direction the branch is bent to keep the wire from loosening. 
  • Wrap it just tight enough to get the job done and not too tightly. This could cause scarring.
  • Begin at the bonsai’s base and slowly wrap the wire around the trunk to anchor. 
  • Continue along the branch you want to train. 
  • Remove the wire after about 6 weeks. At that time, the branch should be able to maintain the shape on its own. 
  • Don’t unwind the wires, but cut the wire carefully from the branch. Unwinding them could cause the stem to break.

Repotting

It is vital in maintaining the health of your bonsai tree by preventing it from being pot-bound. It also ensures that your bonsai will continue to thrive within a small pot. You should repot your bonsai tree once every 2 to 5 years, depending on how quickly it grows. Measure and find the ideal plant pot for your bonsai. Here are the basic steps to repotting your bonsai tree:

  • Carefully remove the bonsai from its pot.
  • Using sharp bonsai clippers, chop the roots’ outer layer.
  • Clean the pot thoroughly to remove any brown or green spots, or better bring a new one.
  • Place mesh squares over the drainage holes to prevent soil from falling out.
  • Mix the soil with required pebbles or particles and clay.
  • Layer the bottom of the pot with the mixed soil and place the tree on it.
  • Fill with soil any remaining gaps where the root used to exist.

Making of bonsai trees, Handmade accessories wire and scissor bonsai tools, stand of bonsai, Concept Bonsai tree.

Most common bonsai pests and diseases

Like all plants, bonsai is also at risk for common diseases and pests infestations. They experience root rot, nutrient problems, root bound, underwatering, potting issues, overwatering, and pests infestations. You can prevent these by keeping your bonsai trees healthy. Insects can cause significant problems, weaken and eventually kill your bonsai, especially the first 3 in the following list. Insects often found on bonsai are:

  • Mealybugs
  • Mealybugs
  • Aphids
  • Vine weevils
  • Spider mites
  • Caterpillars
  • Ants

Fukien teas and mealybugs

The most common insects found in Fukien tea bonsai are mealybugs. You can see them on the new branches of bonsai trees and their leaves. Root mealybugs live on the bonsai roots and are not visible outside the bonsai pot except when repotting. To get rid of them, you should use systemic insecticides. 

Scales

You can detect scales when your bonsai becomes sticky and turns black when it’s colonised with mould or fungus. You can recognise scales as black bumps on bonsai leaves and twigs. You can easily remove them from the branches with a fingernail. You may find soft tan or pink insects underneath bonsai leaves and stems.

Aphids

You will usually find aphids at the tips of bonsai branches and are commonly accompanied by ants. You can treat them using mild soap and water solution sprays that you can find at bonsai plant nurseries. You can also dislodge aphids and get rid of ants using a Q-tip soaked in rubbing alcohol.

 Dry bonsai tree trunk with fresh green sprigs over blurred natural blurred background
Although the maintenance of a bonsai may seem intimidating for new growers, it really isn’t. A little water, sun, and the occasional bit of fertiliser are all a bonsai needs to be happy and healthy. Keep in mind; it will all be worth it. Besides the aesthetic benefits, keeping a bonsai has many spiritual impacts too. There is a sacred connection between bonsai and Wabi-Sabi, the ability to embrace imperfection. A bonsai can help shape the way you experience reality. It gives the lesson that expanding our horizons sometimes comes with challenges, as it happens with bonsai with each repotting. Unique trees, aren’t they?

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