Bonsai trees are a wonderful hobby to enjoy for a lifetime. However, when most people start out, most of their bonsai trees fall sick and die within a few weeks. Bonsai trees are extremely sensitive to their conditions and the caretaker needs to learn how to properly take care of these wonderful and attractive plants. Here are a few of the most commonly asked questions about caring for bonsai trees, and their answers.
Q: What about selecting the proper containers, and should they have drain holes?
A: All containers have one or more drain holes; otherwise the trees will not be healthy, they will soon look sickly and finally die.
Q: What proportion between tree and container do you advise?
A: What is generally considered the ideal or artistic proportion is the tree 80% and the container 20%; or for dwarfer shrubs or low spreading trees, the plant 60% and the container 40%. In general, the smaller containers are better.
In a shallow oblong or elliptical container, the tree should be planted at a point 70% of the distance from the right or the left end, according to the spread and shape of the branches, so that the bulk of the tree greenery is centered in relation to the container. In a square or round container, the plant is placed in the center, except cascade forms; these are planted toward the edge.
Q: I need information on pruning, both theory and practice.
A: Both root pruning and proper pruning of branches are important elements in caring for bonsai. The constant renewal or re-growth of the root system is essential to the proper health of the trunk and branches above ground. The root system will itself remain healthy only if properly pruned. This operation is associated with transplanting, and detailed directions of that can be found for free at http://www.BonsaiTreeGuide.com — the fundamental rule in root pruning is to keep the root system “happily” within the limited dimensions of the container.
Q: Suppose I find a tree 3 feet tall at a commercial nursery that has healthy low-growing limbs and other qualities that would make a good bonsai. Shall I buy it?
A: Yes. But understand that it will need special culturing. When you get home with it (assuming that it was balled and bur-lapped at the nursery), here are the main steps to take:
1) Pot it in a container large enough not to disturb the root ball. This may be a large commercial clay pot or a small wooden tub. Better yet, make a square or rectangular container, 6 to 8 inches high and just wide enough to accommodate the root ball. Fill in with additional soil around the root ball, and press firmly. Leave an inch at the top of the container to facilitate adequate watering.
2) A tree 3 feet high is too tall for a good bonsai. Cut off the terminal 1.5 feet (approximately). Make the cut just above a side branch that can then be wired into the terminal position.
3) After 2 years in the container, with appropriate and continuous pruning and wiring of side branches, as needed, the tree should be transplanted to a container of smaller dimensions, both shallower and smaller in diameter. After a year or two in the smaller container, transplant to a still smaller authentic bonsai pot, and you are on your way!
Q: Should one deprive the little trees of as much water as possible?
A: Bonsai should be kept drier than ordinary ornamental plants in pots; but if the object is to dwarf the trees or to keep them dwarfed, it is no use to make them bone-dry. Want of water only makes them stunted or unhealthy.
If there is such a thing as a fundamental principle in watering bonsai, it is this: water liberally but be sure that the soil drains amply. In most cases, it does not matter how many times a day bonsai are watered if the soil has perfect drainage and does not hold the slightest excess of water.
This fundamental principle may be modified to suit the individual case, according to the kind of soil obtainable, the climate, the kinds of trees grown, the containers used, and the amount of time one can spare each day for bonsai.
Q: What do I need to know about winter care?
A: Winter care differs for hardy and non-hardy or tender plants.
Hardy plants are those that can live outdoors in the coldest weather without danger of winterkilling. They are not house plants but are real outdoor plants. Hardy species growing in bonsai containers present a special problem if left outdoors in below-freezing winter weather. Soil in the containers will freeze, and the containers will break. Moreover, it is impossible to properly water bonsai growing in firmly frozen soil.
If a sun porch or cold but light room is available where the night temperature never falls below about 36 degrees F, this would provide a good place for wintering hardy or semi-hardy bonsai.
Here is another suggestion for wintering hardy or semi-hardy bonsai in a freezing climate: keep them in an insulated deep cold-frame. It should be shaded by a lath house. The soil in bonsai pots, with such protection, should never freeze if the night temperatures do not go much below 0 degrees F. The bonsai should be watered as needed, and on warmer non-freezing winter days, it is well to remove the protective covering and give the plants full air. Be sure to replace the covering sash before sunset!
Many non-hardy or tender species trained as bonsai should be treated as house plants and never left out in the cold.
Just follow these few tips to help ensure that your bonsai trees stay healthy and attractive for decades to come. However, as with most hobbies and skills, experience will be the ultimate teacher.