caring for a bonsai tree

The Ultimate Bonsai Tree Guide – How To Grow and Care For Bonsai Trees

I’m going to call this THE ULTIMATE BONSAI TREE GUIDE and write about how to pick, grow and take care of your bonsai tree as well as introduce you to the world of Bonsai.

All newly bought Bonsai trees care requires routine maintenance that pays particular attention to detail. This is one of the reasons that the new Bonsai tree care person must have done some solid planning ahead of time and is committed to patience.

What is a Bonsai Tree?

Bonsai is a word pronounced “bone-sigh” and spelled the same for both the singular and plural. It is Japanese in origin, literally translating to “tree in a pot.” In the simplest sense that’s all a bonsai tree is. There is more to being a bonsai owner though – growing a bonsai is a unique combination of horticulture and art. They are great plants to show off and have on display. Ideally, a bonsai tree will be like a miniature replica of a mature adult tree.
Some trees are more suited to being bonsai than others – conifers, junipers, ginkgos, acacia, maple, peach, oleander and olive trees are some that make great beginner bonsai. Contrary to a lot of popular beliefs, a bonsai is not a distinct species of tree. Bonsai can be made with a wide variety of trees, shrubs and even vines like wisteria. You can easily buy a bonsai tree that is already started or you can start your own from seed. Starting from seed is more difficult.

Many other cultures throughout history, other than just the Japanese, practiced this interesting gardening art form. From Egypt to India and China people have been growing tiny trees in pots for centuries. The Japanese are credited with refining the bonsai to what we know it as today. Modern bonsai are popular around the world with many people growing them for their homes and they can also be found in public gardens and arboretums. Many major cities also have bonsai clubs for enthusiasts.

General Care for Bonsai

Because of the array of trees that can be made into bonsai, it is impossible to give detailed care instructions for every single one. As a general rule, a bonsai tree will grow best in an environment similar to the tree’s native environment, so each bonsai will require a little research. Almost all bonsai must be grown outdoors, but there are some tropical varieties that are suitable for indoor growing. Just because bonsai are small it doesn’t mean that they are all houseplants, which is another common misconception.

A lot of new bonsai owners make the mistake of putting their trees on top of their television or coffee table. Where they are mainly going wrong is with sunlight. Sunlight is the main reason that bonsai do best outdoors. Conifers, spruce, pines, junipers and tamarack, just to name a few, all require full sun. Most of the broadleaf, deciduous bonsai need full morning sunlight and then partial afternoon sun. Trees with thick, coarse leaves tolerate and need more sun than those with more delicate leaves. The Japanese Maple, a very popular and stunning bonsai, actually needs filtered sunlight because direct light will scorch and ruin their leaves.

Something that all bonsai have in common is that they are grown in the same specialized potting soil. It is coarser and granular unlike garden soil. This is to allow water to freely flow through it. Bonsai pots are shallower than typical pots for plants and also must have holes in the bottom for water drainage. Display a bonsai tree at or near eye level for the best effect. A lot of bonsai owners keep theirs at a height of three or four feet in order to best appreciate them. Another benefit to growing a bonsai outside is that it will go through all of the seasonal changes of its full-sized counterpart, which is amazing to observe on a small scale.

With the proper care, growing a bonsai is extremely rewarding, but they require careful watering, pruning, pinching and sometimes wiring, fertilizing, pest control and repotting.

Watering

watering bonsai treeWatering is the single most important requirement to keep a bonsai tree alive just as with other plants. Unfortunately, it is the hardest gardening skill to master. Different trees have widely different demands as far as water is concerned. Some trees tolerate dry conditions much better than others. Some trees also have ways of indicating when they need more water like limp leaves, but for others limp leaves actually mean that the tree has already died.

In general, you should water most bonsai once a day during the growing season, which is from spring to fall. Water in the morning to ensure that the tree is hydrated during the hottest parts of the day. If it gets exceptionally hot in your region then it can be alright to water a bonsai more. It is possible to overwater a bonsai, but is very difficult to overwater in the summer. Watering is also greatly dependent upon sun intensity and temperature variations throughout the day in your region. Again, understand what the particular species of tree needs.

Use a watering can or a garden hose attachment that allows for a gentle spray. You do not want to blast the soil granules out of the pot. You are done watering when you see water running from the bottom of the pot. With bonsai, you want most of the water to run to the bottom and only a small amount to be retained by the soil. The soil will keep as much as it needs. Don’t forget to periodically check your bonsai to see if it needs to be watered in the winter as well. Trees with a dormant period in the winter will not need as much water as tropical species.

As a rule of thumb for winter watering: don’t water if the soil is still wet.

Pruning, Trimming and Pinching

One of the artistic aspects of keeping a bonsai involves shaping it and then helping it to keep that shape. This is accomplished with pruning, trimming and pinching. The most extensive pruning should take place in the spring and then general maintenance pruning occurs throughout the growing season. You want to equalize the vigor of the tree to keep all of the parts growing evenly and in the shape you desire. Typically the tops of trees and ends of branches grow more rapidly than the inner and lower branches. Pay more attention to the areas that grow more strongly.

Wiring

Some bonsai trees have wiring applied to their trunks and branches to help in the shaping process. The wiring is not meant to stay on the tree forever, it is just there to train the tree into a desired shape. It is typically removed after a few months to a year after the bonsai owner is satisfied. If the wiring cuts the bark of the tree it can create unattractive scars, so it is important to pay attention to and adjust it accordingly. There are special bonsai wire cutters to remove the wiring when it is finished. If the branches return to their original shape after the wiring is removed it needs to be reapplied.

Fertilizing

Fertilizer helps a great deal with a bonsai tree’s health and its ability to withstand stress. Bonsai should be fertilized during the growing season using either time-release fertilizer applied in the spring or water soluble fertilizer applied when you water. If you choose the latter you should use the “weekly weakly” approach. Too much fertilizer will make a bonsai grow too fast and will make the leaves too large, which defeats the purpose. Use a water soluble fertilizer at quarter or half strength once a week for optimal bonsai health, but minimizing growth. Do not fertilize trees in the winter, especially if they are dormant during that time.

Repotting

Periodic repotting is necessary for keeping a bonsai healthy. When repotting the roots must be trimmed to stop the tree from becoming pot bound and this also stimulates root growth. Repot in the spring every two years, then three and then four as the bonsai ages. Older trees need to be repotted less often than younger trees. Conifers also require less repotting than deciduous species.

Repotting involves carefully removing the bonsai from its pot. There may be a wire holding the bonsai in place that you will need to cut in order to remove the tree fully. After this is done gently comb the roots with a root hook and trim the ends. Replace the soil in the pot using fresh bonsai potting mix. Secure the tree in place with a new wire so that it will not wiggle in the pot. If it moves too much it will have difficulty growing new roots. After repotting do not expose the bonsai to full sun or wind until the roots begin actively taking up water again, which will take a few days. Partial sun is fine during this time.

Pest Control

Pests can be more than just insects. They can also come in the form of slugs, chipmunks and squirrels or even your neighbor’s dog. For all of the latter it is mostly a matter of keeping your bonsai out of their reach. It is a bad idea to keep a bonsai on the ground, not only because it is not ideal for viewing, but animals are more likely to bother it.

Insects and slugs are another story. If they are large, you can simply pick them off and use a mild repellant, but tiny spider mites are a common bonsai pest, especially with junipers. Spider mites are hard to see, but you can check for them by holding a white sheet of paper below a branch then tapping the branch. If you see something that looks like paprika then you will need to treat your tree with insecticide. Read all insecticide instructions very carefully before using one and apply it according to the instructions to avoid violating federal laws.

Winter Bonsai Care

Winter Bonsai treeAll trees from temperate climates have a dormant period during winter. They need to be allowed this dormancy or they’ll die. Depending upon the species of tree, some bonsai will require some winter protection while others will not. It also depends on the severity of the winter in your region. Most deciduous bonsai don’t need protection if temperatures get no lower than the mid-twenties Fahrenheit like in the southernmost parts of the United States.

For colder regions or if you bonsai is sensitive to lower temperatures it is recommended that you place it inside an unheated garage, shed or in your root cellar or on a cold frame in a window well on the north side of your house. You can also bury them in light snow or in your flower bed. Keep in mind that they do need some exposure to the cold to enter dormancy properly. Do not put them in a place that will be exposed to repeated freezing and thawing. For example, a bad location would be on a sun porch that gets warm during the day and freezing at night.

Indoor Bonsai

Tropical trees and some sub-tropical trees can be made successfully into indoor bonsai. With supplemental lighting they can be kept inside all year, but it really is best to give them time outside during the growing season. Most of these species do not tolerate temperatures below fifty degrees Fahrenheit and should be brought inside in the fall well before the first frost.

Tropical regions of the world normally receive about twelve hours of sunlight per day, so an indoor bonsai needs as much sunlight as possible in order to thrive. A tropical bonsai also needs higher humidity levels. You will need to mist the tree with water especially during winter because the relative humidity inside of homes drops during colder months. In order to keep the humidity up you can also try grouping several indoor plants together, placing pans of gravel filled with water under the pot or placing water near the bonsai. If you put your bonsai into water it should never sit deeper than the feet on the pot. The water level must never be above the bottom of the pot or you risk mold and root rot from too much moisture.

Giving Life To Your Tree – Growing Your Bonsai From A Seed

bonsai tree seedlingsGrowing a Bonsai tree from a seed can be a very satisfying and rewarding experience. There are two ways that you might prepare a bonsai tree seed for germination. One way is to plant your bonsai tree seed or seeds in your garden with the arrival of early spring. When the weather begins to warm the soil, the seed gradually warms with it and it will germinate. It is important that you water your seed, making sure to keep the soil damp at all times. It is extremely important that you never let the soil dry out.

Keeping the soil from drying out or becoming too wet can be difficult to manage, so it might be to your advantage to purchase a moisture gauge. This little item will help you to measure the content or amount of water in the soil, which can make it easier for you because you will not have to guess whether or not you should water again.

Another way to prepare a bonsai tree seed is to do it artificially by putting the seed in a pot and placing the whole thing in a cold refrigerator.

This process is called cold stratification.

At this point, you might be wondering where you can purchase a bonsai seed. If you really want to start a Bonsai tree from a seed, there are many stores that will sell bonsai tree seed, they can be ordered through horticultural stores or they can be ordered and purchases online. It should be noted, however, that while many bonsai trees are started by seeds many are also started by cuttings, or by finding a tree that you like, digging it up and using it for your own. As for seeds, pine seeds are most commonly used.

When planning to grow a Bonsai tree from a seed, the best way to go about it is to purchase a bonsai tree starter kit. These starter kits will come in two types of kits. The first one contains a tree that is already three to four years old. The bonsai tree starter kit contains all the things you need to get started, such as ceramic container, the appropriate soil for your individual tree, drainage cover holes, instructions, humidity tray, textured rock and annealed copper wire that are used to form your tree.

The other type of bonsai tree starter kit is a seed kit. These ones are often quite inexpensive and will, on average, give you seeds for three to eight saplings. Sometimes you can order kits with different varieties of seeds. Now, the bonsai tree seed kits can differ, so shopping around is usually a good idea.

The bonsai tree starter kit also comes with the proper growing medium that your bonsai tree seed will need for a healthy start. You will also receive several terracotta or organic seed pots, a propagating cover and instructions for the growth of your bonsai tree from seed to mature bonsai tree.

How To Raise & Grow Your Bonsai Tree Outdoors

Bonsai trees, generally speaking, are not house plants; they are real trees that can live outdoors, it is just that they have been grown into miniatures.

Growing outdoor Bonsai trees is not a problem. They look wonderful on decks and patios and can dress up a garden very nicely. As with all trees there are two different kinds; deciduous and coniferous. Deciduous have leaves that will change color in the fall and fall off. Coniferous trees are of the evergreen type and will keep their needles or leaves throughout the year.

With careful planning, you can have outdoor Bonsai trees blooming throughout your yard during the summer that will display colorful foliage in the fall. The evergreens, of course, will continue to add their color to the yard throughout the year. As with planting all trees, it is important that you purchase trees that will thrive well in the environment that you will be planting them in.

Now, most outdoor Bonsai trees that are purchased have already been shaped so growing outdoor Bonsai trees is more about maintenance. You might think that outdoor Bonsai trees would not require as much maintenance, but this is not true. Growing outdoor Bonsai trees need to be watered like the indoor Bonsai trees do. The soil should never be allowed to completely dry out; instead, it needs to be kept moist.

Rain water is fine for the outdoor Bonsai tree, but you should always check the soil for moisture content as rain showers by themselves might not provide enough water, or they might flood the tree out.

It will be necessary to fertilize your outdoor Bonsai tree to make sure that the nutrients the tree needs are replenished. Some fertilizers need only be used at half strength once a month, but not during the outdoor Bonsai trees dormant period in the winter.

When growing your outdoor Bonsai tree you will occasionally need to prune or trim back new growth to keep the lines of your tree within its design parameters. It is important when trimming to never take away all the new growth. Depending on what kind of outdoor Bonsai tree you are growing, you will also need to re-pot your tree in order to give it new soil and room to grow. This happens when the root system fills the pot.

Deciduous trees are, on average, done every two to three years as they are faster growers then evergreens, re-potted approximately every four to five years. You will need to check on this, however, since every growing outdoor Bonsai tree is an individual and its growth rate cannot always be measured by averages.

When re-potting the outside layer of the roots (the bottom fourth) are removed. Once this is done, a thin layer of gravel has to be put in the bottom of the pot to help with drainage. New soil is put on top of that layer and pressed down just enough to leave out any air pockets.

The last issue when growing outdoor Bonsai trees is to make sure they are properly prepared for their dormancy during the winter months. Some trees can be put in the ground and will survive the winter season if properly mulched.

Many outdoor Bonsai tree owners find putting their tree in an unheated garage works well for them. This is not to say that the Bonsai can be ignored during its dormant period as the tree will need to be watered about every two weeks.

When To Water, Fertilize And Re-pot Your Precious Bonsai

Bonsai tree maintenance is not difficult, but it can be time consuming. If you have never owned a Bonsai tree before it will be helpful to establish a routine for caring for your special tree. The thought of watering a tree sounds simple, but it is one of the most common problems people have who are growing a Bonsai tree for the first time. With Bonsai tree maintenance it is very important not to over-water your tree, which results in drowning, root rot and the promotion of fungus growth.

The other extreme is under-watering your tree, which sends it into a drought. Bonsai tree expansion depends on a soil that will hold moisture but will also drain well. The root ball should never be allowed to completely dry out. On average, Bonsai tree expansion requires watering once a week until fall when the tree enters dormancy, and then should only be watered once every two weeks. Both indoor and outdoor Bonsai tree maintenance can benefit from a water gauge that will help you measure the water content in the soil so that you can be sure to water the tree whenever it needs it. Good Bonsai tree maintenance will also mean that the soil is fertilized on occasion to ensure that the tree is receiving all the nutrients and vitamins it needs, to help with Bonsai tree expansion.

There are a variety of fertilizers on the market to choose from, such as liquid, dry, organic and chemical fertilizers. Whichever one you choose in the end, it needs to be the right type of fertilizer that is right for your type of tree. Generally, Bonsai trees do not need to be fertilized more than once a month, with the exception of their dormant period where you will not need to fertilize it at all. Many people starting out prefer to use a liquid fertilizer because it can be easily mixed with water that makes it easier to apply. Some fertilizers only need to be used at half strength to maintain healthy Bonsai tree expansion. Whatever is used, it needs to be well distributed throughout the soil. Over time with Bonsai tree expansion the Bonsai tree will need to be re-potted. The time for this is when the dense root system has filled the pot. Re-potting is often done in the spring when the dormant period of the tree has ended, particularly with deciduous trees.

As the tree matures, re-potting becomes less frequent. It is important to remember that re-potting or transplanting a tree is not natural and can be quite stressful for your tree. When choosing a pot for proper Bonsai tree maintenance, the pot must not be too small or too large. A pot is usually measured according to the proportions of the tree, meaning that the pot should only be as wide by two thirds by two thirds of the height of the tree.

Also, the pot should only be approximately half as deep as the tree’s height.

How To Prune A Bonsai Tree And The Tools You’ll Need

Bonsai tree tools can be bought individually or in sets. If you wish to purchase a set and have all tools at hand, you will most often have a rake with a spatula, small, medium and large shears, a wire cutter, knob cutter, leaf trimmer and a root brush. It should be noted that when first starting out, you will not need the entire set of tools. A set of gardening scissors, called a secateur, will work well.

You might be wondering why it is necessary to prune a Bonsai tree. There are two reasons for pruning; the first is to trim the roots and the second is to trim the branches and foliage. It is very important to ensure that you are using the right Bonsai tree tools for the job. Taking away branches and foliage that the tree doesn’t really need, it means that the root system of the Bonsai tree does not have to work as hard, or be as large, to support the top of the Bonsai tree. Pruning of the roots of the Bonsai tree goes hand in hand with re-potting your tree. Normally for the first five years of average tree growth, you will need to prune the roots and re-pot once a year, but this may vary with different species of Bonsai trees. Once the tree has been removed from the pot, about one fourth to one third of the new roots are trimmed off.

Once the roots have been trimmed, a new layer of gravel is put into the pot and then soil is lightly packed in around the roots. It is very important to make sure that there are no air pockets left in the soil when doing this.

When it comes to pruning the top of the tree, you need to keep in mind the three different reasons for upper Bonsai tree pruning. First, you remove any branches that are not going to fit with the basic Bonsai tree design you have chosen. The second is to balance your tree and direct its growth.

When Bonsai tree pruning the growth of the tree takes place in the area that is not pruned as often, and the third is leaf pruning and bud pinching, which are meant to help encourage fine branching. In Bonsai tree pruning, the branches that are most frequently pruned are those that cross, branches that turn back to the trunk and branches that are pointing directly down or growing off of other branches.

Once you have started your Bonsai tree pruning, it does not have to be completed in one day. Take your time. Sit back and look at your tree from an artistic point of view. Don’t be afraid to use some pictures for reference or to get some new ideas.

You can easily take anywhere from several days to a few weeks to fully prune the way you want.

Once your tree has reached the desired height, you use secateurs to cut off the top of the Bonsai tree. This Bonsai tree pruning makes the tree fuller and also prevents it from growing any taller.

Regardless of what you start out with or what you eventually need, all Bonsai tree tools can be purchased easily from most horticultural stores from your area or online.

That’s it. Did I give you enough information to get started? Did I leave anything out?

Let me know in the comments what you think. I love to hear reader feedback.

6 thoughts on “The Ultimate Bonsai Tree Guide – How To Grow and Care For Bonsai Trees

  1. Trellum

    Thanks a lot for taking the time to write such a complete guide, you have covered so many aspects that I hadn’t even thought of! It seems that taking care of a Bonsai tree is not as easy as I thought, to be honest I thought bonsai trees required very little care (because they’re trees). I’ll have to wait a little bit more before I even think of buying a Bonsai tree, I think there is so much to learn, and there is no doubt in my mind that your guide will come in handy later on :)

    Reply
  2. Laksh

    Hey, Ken!

    The title for this guide is aptly chosen! This is indeed an ‘ultimate’ guide to Bonsai gardening.

    You’ve covered everything right from the seeds to pruning.

    I just have one question which I know is easy for you to answer. You mentioned starter kit with bonsai seeds. Are they special seeds for bonsai or can we use normal seeds and still grow bonsai?

    Reply
  3. Samuron

    Wow! I never thought that Bonsai trees needed so much care. I just thought you just pruned a tree until it was that small and nothing more than that was needed. This guide to Bonsai trees is incredibly thorough. It will be extremely helpful to anyone who is looking to grow their own bonsai.

    Reply
  4. tastefuldeath

    Heh, it sounds like taking care of a pet. Thanks for the very detailed and helpful guide about bonsais. I need plants in my new home but we’ve had problems with bigger trees getting in the way of our electric lines. This could be an alternative for us.

    Reply
  5. Korteland

    Hey can anyone help me? How long in the spring time does it take a Trident Maple Bonsai Tree to bud? 1, 2, 3, weeks? 4? I live in St.Louis, MO and it’s been semi somewhat warm, but there are no spring buds on my tree. Is it dead? I’m kind of new at this bonsai thing so any help would be greatly appreciated. Also I noticed that the tree bark keeps pealing off (mostly around the bottom). The wood underneath where the bark is completely gone is white-ish in color, it was orange at one point, but now it’s white. Is this that normal? Why is the bark peeling and flaking off? Please someone help me…

    Reply
    1. Ken Savage Post author

      Hi Korteland. It’s tough to say with your climate and that species of tree to be accurate. My guess it should bud in May if you have fertilized it and have been keeping up with soil moisture. If it sees cold weather you could delay it further. Is it possible you could submit pics of your tree?

      Reply

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