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Bonsai Care Bonsai Care

Your email to Bill is welcome with comments.

Revised: September 21, 2011
By Bill Choat

Bill's thoughts on bonsai:
We are not creators...we are only stewards of God's creations.
Bonsai is not magic, but it does require a plant, pot, soil, tools, and.....PATIENCE.
Bonsai rules and guidelines are important, but your own artistic ideas must be added.
    Learn to be repetitive, but apply your personal imagination.
    Learn methods, but remain artistic.
    Be understanding and respectful of others' opinions, but also form your own.
Take bonsai seriously, when treated with respect, they are "living antiques." Each one will be treasured many years after you are no longer able to maintain them.

BONSAI (pronounced: BONE-sigh): It is a Japanese word translated "tray planting," (bon = tray, sai = planting). It is artistically guided by various methods to its natural, and miniature appearance. It originated in China as "pen-jing" (pronounced: POON-jing) over 1500 years ago. The Japanese, liking what they saw, later influenced bonsai by merging their then known horticulture science with the basic art principles of balance and proportion. In the early years, trees, plants, and herbs were collected from the wild, and trimmed to maintain their small size. Gradually, the training changed to take new forms and shapes, often unnaturally.

Semantics note: A thought for new bonsai enthusiasts: "Bonsai" is also plural (one bonsai, two bonsai, etc.).
Although often "bonsai tree," is stated and used, it is not necessary, because "bonsai" itself includes the plant or tree and is properly sufficient.
Here is a statement in which you may be interested:
Today, as a new bonsai-ist, I bonsaied a tree so that I now have three bonsai, and I plan to continue bonsai-ing another one soon.

Is bonsai a science or an art? ... YES!
Saying that a bonsai is only a "plant in a container" is like saying a good song is only "notes and a voice." Like other interests, bonsai involves enthusiasm, tests, and demands. It is personally satisfying to train a tree to be 18 inches tall in a pot when it normally grows to 30 feet in the ground.

Where is your favorite place in nature? Maybe it's a brisk hike in the mountains, standing in a grove of cherry blossom trees, lying in leaves or on moss covered ground in the forest, or lounging in your own back yard. A bonsai can convey you to that place.

Nature gives us the materials, but the bonsai artist provides the expression. Working with bonsai is not a difficult chore, but instead a pleasant experience of growing with a tree. It is not only raising a "plant in a container," but establishing a relationship with one of God's creations. Many techniques are elementary, but attention and love are required. With bonsai, as in many other situations, we're often reminded that man is a servant of Nature.

When viewing an established bonsai, it may seem overwhelming. A first bonsai may not appear as one that is very old, but neither will it take you years to attain the ability to "age" a tree. Once patience and understanding of plant care have been accomplished, many techniques will materialize and become second nature.

What species are bonsai?
Bonsai is not any one species of tree. Many species of trees, bushes, vines, and herbs make fine bonsai.

OUTDOORS: Some MUST be maintained outside in temperate (cold) climates to obtain dormancy during the winter:
    Conifer (pine, juniper, cypress, yew, fir, spruce, etc.),
    Broadleaf evergreen (holly, boxwood, privet, azalea, Russian olive, etc.), and
    Deciduous...leaves change and fall with the seasons (maple, oak, willow, elm, etc.).

INDOORS: Other species are tropical or sub-tropical and must remain inside during cold temperatures to remain above 55F (13C). A few species will handle temperatures down to 45F (7C), but if you're not sure, don't take the chance.

Take a look at some outdoor and indoor bonsai.


INDOOR TREE (tropical and sub-tropical):
Keep it away from direct heat sources such as a TV, fireplace, or air vent. Check the temperature requirements for individual species because some like to be cooler during the night, and some like to be cooler all winter. It normally needs a minimum of 5 hours of INDIRECT sunlight daily. When the outside temperature will stay above 55F (13C), it is good to keep it outdoors (in filtered sunlight) to experience fresh air, which assists in disease and insect control.

OUTDOOR TREE (temperate):
Spring through autumn: Morning sun and afternoon shade is desirable.

Winter: It must become dormant by experiencing a cold winter, but the roots must not freeze. This means that the tree should be maintained between 32F (0C) and 50F (10C) all winter. In TROPICAL climates, a refrigerator may be used to simulate winter temperatures. Sometimes, keeping it in the home's coldest room is tried, but not necessarily successful to simulate winter dormancy.
Note: Wouldn't it be good to be able to afford a refrigerator only for your temperate bonsai?

In TEMPERATE climates, many methods may be used to prevent the roots from freezing:
      Keep the bonsai in an unheated garage,
      Plant the pot and tree (with mulch) in a flower bed next to the house,
      Make a "cold frame,"
      Use a large tub or container, and insulate the bonsai pot and soil with newspapers,
      Use a styrofoam cooler, and
      Anything else that imagination allows.
During dormancy, it still needs water. Don't set up a schedule, only water when it is needed.
Caution!....Maintaining an OUTDOOR tree above 50F (10C) will cause a false spring, break the dormancy period, prevent the tree from its needed winter rest, and may cause it to "work itself to death."

General: Bonsai like to be moist...never soggy or dry. That is, when the top half of the soil becomes dry, it is probably time to water. To be sure of the level of moisture in the soil, use a moisture meter, a wooden chopstick which will indicate a water mark, or of course your finger. When watering, be generous, pouring it directly on the soil, until it runs through the drain do have drain holes, right?

Check the moisture requirement for an individual species because it may vary from the general rule. A few species need to be more dry, and others need to be treated differently during certain times of the year.

Check daily for water needs---never use a watering schedule, but water when the tree requires it. The smaller the pot, the more often it must be watered.

If a bonsai is very dry, a thorough way to water is the "dishpan method:" Place the bonsai in a pan with the water level above the soil. When the air bubbles stop, it has obtained sufficient water, take it out of the pan, and let it drain.

Indoor bonsai: Mist-spraying foliage serves to provide humidity and washes away dust. Avoid spraying blooms to prevent wilting. Humidity trays (a tray filled with gravel and water) add humidity in the air around the bonsai resting on top of the gravel. This is necessary only when the indoor atmosphere is dry.

Outdoor bonsai: Spring through early summer -- Water sparingly so not to stimulate overgrowth. Overwatering flowering and fruit trees will slow the blooming process.

Summer through early fall -- Pour gently until the water flows out the drain holes, wait briefly then repeat. Do not water when it is frosty.

Late fall through winter -- During the critical dormancy period, don't forget about your sleeping "creature," check weekly.

General rules:
Use a high nitrogen liquid fertilizer (fish emulsion is good if you don't mind the "natural" odor). Pour it over the leaves and let it drip into the soil. Often, iron can be added to the fertilizer mix to "green-up" the leaves.

Feed monthly during the growing seasons...after watering.

DO NOT feed dry soil or sick trees.

Always use the mixture suggested on the fertilizer bottle or package, never stronger. The three numbers on the label (such as 10-5-10) are the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the mixture.

Check the feeding requirements for your individual species, which may be different than these general feeding suggestions.

A healthy tree resists pests and disease, but check often for signs of withering new growth, foliage turning color, leaf curling, chewing marks, sawdust, and missing bark. Clean dead leaves and needles off the soil surface, remove weeds, and trim away dead branches.

Dish washing soap on a cloth is often used to hand-wash leaves. Alcohol on a Q-tip is an economical and quick treatment, however chemical insecticide sprays are available.

Mix the soil so that it is basically half organic and half inorganic. Other items, such as systemic pesticide, clay, and fertilizer may be mixed with the soil. It is best to sift out fine particles with 1/16" screen to lower the chance of later having a problem with root rot. You are welcome to email Bill for his soil recipe (no charge).

To pot a bonsai, fill the pot partially with soil, place the tree, add more soil, and work it around the roots. To insure that each root is covered with soil, use a chopstick and fingers, watering occasionally, as the soil is pressed firmly. Isn't it good to have these wonderful tools (fingers) with which to use planting our bonsai?

Repotting refreshes the soil and keeps the tree from being root-bound, follow the individual species instructions for time of year, frequency, and other special notes.

A. Break half of the soil away from roots (flowering/fruit - break all the soil away)
B. Young Plants - trim roots back about 1/2.
C. Old Plants - trim only the root tips, keep the new fibrous roots intact. Trim in the shade and calm wind.
D. Follow planting instructions in the "SOIL AND POTTING" section above.
E. Keep it out of the sun and wind for two weeks, mist-spray twice daily, and do not feed it for six weeks.


The triangle is one of the many traditional bonsai shapes. The three points wisely represent our relationship to heaven, earth, and our fellow man. Remove the thought that a bonsai has to be old to be good, in other words, don't concentrate on the actual age of the tree (since it first sprouted roots). The apparent age, which is reflected by it's visual strength and character, is more important than the actual age. Many bonsai have spent years in the wild, in a yard, or at nurseries, before being obtained by a bonsai enthusiast. Then the trees are often in training as "pre-bonsai" for more months, or even years, before becoming good enough for bonsai.

Viewing trees in their natural surroundings will remind us of their needs. Does a certain species need to be near water, does another need to stretch high into the sunlight, or maybe another to be low in the shade? Why do some trees have straight trunks, others curved, and some knarled? These are only a few questions to ask yourself when designing a tree for bonsai.

Leaves: Most trees produce slightly smaller leaves than normal if new buds are pinched. Full grown leaves may also be removed, but let the leaf stem remain on the tree.
Branches and twigs: Cut at about a 45-degree angle for appearance and for the tree's health.
   For a tree that flowers on previous year's growth,
      prune after the blossoms are gone.
   For a tree that flowers on new growth,
      prune while it is budding.
Wound sealer: Use on pencil size or larger branches to stop the wounds from weeping and protect against disease and pests.
Needle trees (pine, spruce, etc.): Pinch off part of the new "candles" at branch ends to shorten future growth. The length pruned will be determined by the length desired for future branching.
Excessive leaves & fruit: Cut out some of the leaves if the foliage is too dense. If the fruit is taking away too much sap and exhausting the tree, some of it may be removed.

Front and back:
A definite front and back is important. Keep the front open so the trunk outine is defined, and the back is to have foliage that complements and blends with the rest of the tree. A general rule is to keep the low side branches the longest, front branches short and back ones a little longer.
Apex (top point):
Let the apex lean slightly forward as if to bow toward the viewer in a well established Oriental tradition.
The crown (meeting of the trunk and roots) is to be seen above the soil. The top of the large roots should be slightly exposed. If there is an unsightly large root, it's best to be in the back.

Do not water for a day before wiring, and keep the tree in the shade for two weeks after wiring. It is good to imitate the natural curves of trees in nature. Use anodized aluminum wire (available at American Bonsai Nursery). As a general rule, use wire that is a third the size of the trunk, branch, or twig to be wired; and cut it about 1 1/2 the length of the area to be wired. Anchor it to a stronger branch or trunk, wrap it in 45 degree angles, then gently bend the wire, allowing the branch to move with the wire. Don't be in a hurry to get the branch in the desired shape, it can be done over several treatments. Remove the wire before it begins to scar the bark, and if the branch does not remain in position, it may be rewired, using a new path.

Instead of waiting for a tree to age, methods can be used to give it an old appearance. This can be done on deciduous trees, but it is often done more on conifers (juniper, pine, spruce, cedar, fir, etc.).
Branches: "Jin" is separating bark from live or dead ,
Trunk: "Shari" is taking the bark from the trunk, and "saba-miki" is hollowing or splitting a portion of the trunk to give it a 'lightning strike' effect.
Various tools can be used for these methods, such as a knife, wood chisel, pliers, Dremel tool, and even finger nails.


Your email to Bill is welcome with comments.

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M02 Man and deer, 2" tall on stand<br> (Originally $3.25)
This is a very nice miniature to add to your collection. Al ..
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