You’ve probably heard of bonsai trees at some point in your life, but if you’re anything like most folks, you’re not sure what a bonsai tree actually is. Contrary to popular belief, a bonsai tree is not a particular variety of tree; instead, it’s merely any tree that is shaped to remain small and fit into a container. Far from being genetically altered dwarf trees, bonsai trees remain small through the use of a number of grooming techniques honed over centuries.
Thus, bonsai trees open up a wide world of beauty and possibility, and your imagination and creativity are the limit! With that said, it’s important to make sure that you’re prepared to care for your new garden menagerie. For example, we recommend use of worm teas to add microbial diversity to your bonsai tree soil. Read on for some helpful tips on caring for bonsai trees.
As was already mentioned, any tree can be raised to be a bonsai. As a result, though, it does take a good bit of foresight to make sure you care properly for the type of tree you’ve selected. Different trees grow more successfully in different environments. If you’re growing a tree that grows naturally in a similar climate, you can certainly grow your bonsai outdoors. However, if you use a tree from outside its natural environment, it will likely need to be moved indoors. That is, if you want to grow a tropical tree in the snowy woods of Maine, you will need to move it indoors for a majority of the year.
Indoor bonsai trees require temperature and humidity control; generally, that means a warm room with high humidity to emulate their more tropical conditions. The room should be bright, but bonsai trees should not be placed in direct sunlight.
Outdoor bonsai, as already mentioned, need to be sturdy and strong in their climate conditions. While your instinct might be to protect these outdoor trees from extreme weather conditions, such as frost and heavy snow, do not protect your bonsai trees too much; you could cause damage by keeping them covered in the wintertime. Deciduous trees, or those that lose their leaves seasonally, need less water in the winter as they have no leaves that need water.
Your instinct with outdoor bonsai trees might be to not water them since they’re more exposed to natural rainfall. Some outdoor trees, however, may have a canopy that doesn’t allow much rain through. Even for outdoor bonsai which receive some natural watering, it’s important to keep an eye on the soil’s moisture level.
Don’t allow your bonsai trees to dry out or overwater them (drowning can cause the roots to rot). Keep the soil moist, and monitor it every single day. Use a watering can with a slender rose to make sure you’re dosing water properly.
Watering indoor bonsai is slightly different. Typically, you will place the entire bonsai, along with its container, into a bowl of water, allowing it to submerge the soil completely. Once tiny bubbles stop forming, remove and allow the water to drain. You can also water with a watering can, but be careful as it’s easy to overwater this way.
Feeding your bonsai tree is very important to its survival, and like watering is based on whether you are raising an indoor or outdoor tree. Like all plants, bonsai trees get their food from the soil; however, watering can drain many of these essential nutrients. Replenishing these (always in moderation) will keep your bonsai trees in top shape.
The type of fertilizer you use on your bonsai tree depends on its particular type. Fertilizers come in a variety of forms, including a water soluble form and pellets. Specialty fertilizer for bonsai trees can also be purchased from nurseries. With bonsai trees, it is also beneficial to use only a half-dose of the fertilizer, but use it more frequently.
Fertilizer for bonsai trees needs to be well-balanced to include nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Most commonly-grown varieties of bonsai require a higher-nitrogen fertilizer in the spring months, a well-balanced one in the summer, and a lower-nitrogen fertilizer in the fall months.
Part of the appeal of owning bonsai trees is their unique visual appearance -- they’re basically a miniature version of your favorite trees! Make sure that you take good care of your bonsai trees to keep them looking lovely.
Starting with clean and dry pots is imperative. Make sure you scrub off any deposits or dried soil before you even think about planting your tree!
Make sure that the trees themselves are clean, too. Remove leaves or flowers that are damaged gently (consider using tweezers if you don’t trust the tips of your fingers). Using a wet (old!) toothbrush, brush the trunk and branches if there is any visible buildup or debris.
Make sure that you prune your bonsai tree regularly. Remove any dead leaves and branches. You might also create some space between the branches to allow the sunlight to shine through.
In the winter, your bonsai tree might need special care. This depends both on your home’s climate and the type of tree you’re raising. If it gets too cold in your native climate, you may have to use a greenhouse. In general, though, make sure that you keep your bonsai pots off the direct ground, which gets colder than the air -- instead, place them on top of something like a wooden pallet, and ensure protection from the elements. As mentioned above, though, be careful not to baby your bonsai! Balance is key.
The condition of the soil is critical for both the health of the bonsai tree and regarding its aesthetics. Of course, it's important to remove fallen leaves or needles from the soil surface to avoid potential disease issues. What is more often overlooked, however, is the benefits of using worm tea to add microbes to the bonsai soil, which greatly enhances the overall health of the tree. In this regard, we recommend use of Hello Bonsai, which is designed to promote the health of bonsai soils.
Luckily, bonsai aren’t typically overly susceptible to pests. Ensuring proper hygiene is the best plan of attack to keep your bonsai trees free of pests and disease. Good hygiene will also ensure that you don’t have to use harmful pesticides. You should use these only if no other options are working!
With that said, there are some common problem pests that plague bonsai. Vine weevils can kill trees quickly; they feed on the roots and are hard to get rid of. The bugs, which look like maggots, only come out to feed on the leaves at night. They can be prevented by repotting your tree annually with fresh soil.
Scale insects usually affect indoor bonsai. These can be removed carefully with a cotton ball soaked in methyl alcohol. If the leaves of your bonsai start to curl up and dry, you might check for aphids, which suck out the sap of the bonsai tree. They can usually be found on the underside of leaves, and can be different colors.
Caterpillars, snails, and slugs also need to be watched for with a sharp eye. Keeping your bonsai and their containers clean, and removing the pests as soon as you see them, will ensure a long life for your bonsai trees.
Diseases are even more rare in bonsai trees than are pests. They tend to show up first on the leaves, so make sure you’re keeping a sharp eye on any change. Frequently, it’s enough to remove the affected leaves/branches if they’ve become infected, but you might need to use a fungicide.
Some bonsai owners use fungicides and pesticides in the winter months, so as not to damage the leaves. This should help to prevent disease into the spring months.
Bonsai require regularity of care; this includes not not just their daily upkeep, like watering, but also seasonal maintenance.
In the early spring months, most trees are just starting to wake up from winter dormancy. This is a great time to repot your trees and make sure they’re clean and pest-free. Increase watering, but be careful not to overwater!
Later in the spring, your bonsai may be removed from any cover and exposed to the daily weather. Since the trees are gearing up for growth, you will need to add more water to their daily routine, and start fertilizing! This is also the time to make sure you’re starting to prune and shape your trees. Remove any weeds as they pop up, as they will grow as quickly as your bonsai tree -- you don’t want them to overcome your beautiful plant. Most bugs and diseases flourish in the late spring and early summer, so make sure you pay particular attention to keeping your tree and its environment clean.
In the midsummer months, make sure you keep up regular maintenance. You will likely need to water your tree daily, so make sure you’re checking the soil moisture. This is also when you might consider placing even your indoor bonsai outside for several weeks to give them access to fresh air and natural sunlight.
As the late summer and fall months approach, you will likely need to scale back how much you’re watering and feeding your bonsai trees. This is also the time to switch to a lower-nitrogen fertilizer.
In the fall, your leafy bonsai should show a beautiful display of autumn foliage, in miniature. Enjoy this display, but make sure to bring indoor trees back inside and provide heat and humidity. Clean fallen leaves regularly, both for the visual appearance and health of your bonsai tree.
The late fall and early winter months don’t require much care; your bonsai trees might require a little watering and pruning, but otherwise should just be given time to rest! Feeding during the winter months is not necessary. Tidy up your tree to make sure it stays healthy for the upcoming spring, and protect it from the elements if necessary.
Hopefully, this guide hasn’t scared you off from starting on the rewarding journey of caring for your very own bonsai tree! While certainly more time-consuming to care for than some other garden dwellers, bonsai trees are visually unique, and are sure to add a lot of interest to your home or garden and impress your visitors.
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