Q: How hard is it to take care of Bonsai?
A: It’s really not that hard. Probably the two most important things to learn about Bonsai are correct watering and proper location.
The other things we will cover in this section include fertilizing, pruning, repotting, and seasonal care.
Q: What tools do I need to get started?
A: A good, sharp pair of shears is the first and most important tool. You can do a lot with these alone. The next tool you will probably need is some kind of concave cutter. This tool has a curved blade that scoops as it cuts. This facilitates healing when you remove a large limb. After that, a pair of wire cutters will come in handy, especially for removing training wires from your Bonsai.
These three tools, along with a watering can, misting bottle, and a wooden chopstick (to aid in repotting) will take you a long way in growing Bonsai.
Q: What’s so special about watering?
A: Knowing when your tree needs water is one of the principal skills of Bonsai growing.
In fact, proper watering is the single most important factor in growing Bonsai successfully. The trees must never dry out completely, and because they are in such a shallow container, it is very easy for the beginner to let them dry out.
Q: Is it different from watering your house plants?
A: Yes it is, and the biggest danger is not realizing that.
People often will notice their house plants are dry because they look wilted, so they give them some water and they just perk back up. But with Bonsai that level of wilting is likely to be too late. A wilted Bonsai or one that is dropping its leaves spells real trouble. It will not recover the same way a houseplant does.
The Bonsai has a bare minimum of soil, and once it has been allowed to get bone dry, it is very easy for the tree to die or be severely damaged. Therefore, you really have to check the tree often.
One of the main problems with house plants arises from over watering, but with Bonsai, one of the most immediate problems is under watering. So the first thing you need to know is if the tree is wet or dry.
Q: How often do you need to check it, every two days, once a week?
A: Certainly when you start out you want to check your tree at least daily to see if the soil is dry. Until you are more experienced, the easiest way to do that is to press down on the moss or the soil, or, if there’s a rock in the landscaping, lift the rock out and feel the soil. Indicators of moisture in the soil are sponginess, dampness, and the color of the soil itself: a dry soil will be much lighter in color than a wet one. Even the weight of the pot itself can let you know whether it is time to water: a watered tree will feel considerably heavier than a dry one.
As time goes on, it will become easier to notice dryness or wetness.
Q: How dry should the tree get?
A: It depends to a certain degree on the variety of the tree as well as on the time of year, and therefore it is difficult to be really specific. Imagine your pot as translucent: you dunk the pot in water and soon the soil will be completely saturated, a dark color. With time, the level of saturation drops. Generally speaking, a "half-way-dry" point is the time to water. But it’s impossible to give accurate guidelines.
In summer, everything dries very quickly, and trees must be checked more often. But at a cooler time of year you might be able to water your tree a little less frequently, since there is less danger of it drying out in the same period of time.
Additionally, a tree in flower will need more water than when it is not in bloom.
Other factors that affect watering frequency are:
- the amount of humidity in the air: obviously, a tree will need less water on a cloudy, rainy day than on a sunny or windy one
- location of the tree: how much sunlight is it getting?
- size of the pot: is the pot very shallow or is it a deeper container?
- the type of soil mix: how water retentive is it?
It’s important to make checking the tree for water a part of your daily routine. It might help to place the tree in a spot where you are not likely to overlook it, to help remind you to check its dryness level.
But it’s also very dangerous to overwater Bonsai.
A lot of people confuse over watering with a thorough saturation of the soil: but over watering refers purely to watering frequency.
To overwater a tree means to saturate it consistently before it’s had a chance to begin to dry out at all. As a result it’s always soaking wet, and the roots may begin to rot from lack of oxygen.
In the short run there’s not much danger of over watering, it’s not something that happens over the space of a day or two. Overwatering takes place over time, several weeks of having the roots completely saturated, sitting in water. As you become more aware of your tree’s needs, you find yourself being able to tell just at a glance whether a tree needs watering or not.
In the seventeen years that I’ve been growing Bonsai, watering is something that has become second nature, and is now actually one of the most enjoyable parts of Bonsai gardening.
Q: What is the best way to water Bonsai?
A: One of the most efficient ways to guarantee the amount of saturation that your tree needs is to dunk the pot.
You simply take the entire Bonsai in its pot and literally dunk it into a basin of water, preferably up to the base of the trunk. The tree will be saturated very quickly
The only reason not to do this is if you are concerned about washing away loose soil or gravel at the top of the pot. In that case, a good method of watering is to set the pot in water so that water is soaked up through the drainage holes; this will take quite a bit longer, however.
Dunking is an especially good method to use when trees are kept indoors, where it is very difficult to water adequately; pouring water on from the top as with house plants is likely to make the water run off tightly compacted soil and you simply cannot assure that the roots get the moisture they need.
If your tree is kept outside, a so-called "soaker-nozzle" is a good investment. It attaches to your garden hose, and makes it very easy to get a thorough degree of saturation even if it means having to come back to the tree two or three times as the water seeps through the soil. It is most important that the water does not simply run off the top, but saturates the soil completely. The excess water will simply drain out the bottom, and you can still be sure that all the roots have been completely watered.
Remember that watering needs change with the seasons! We will discuss this in greater detail in the section on seasonal care.