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Bonsai is the Japanese art of growing beautiful trees in miniature. Almost any kind of tree or plant can be a Bonsai, with the right care and styling techniques. The important thing to remember is that a Bonsai is a tree, and has a tree’s needs. Trees respond to your care, and will thrive with your attention!
Bonsai need direct sunlight, from which they make their food. A lack of direct sun will damage them, causing weak foliage and other problems. They like to receive 5-6 hours of sunlight daily, whether inside or outside. All Bonsai love to be outside in the warmer months (May-September), though there are many species which can be kept indoors year-round. Remember that the more sunlight and warmth your Bonsai receives, the more often it will need water.
Proper watering is essential to the health of your tree. Bonsai like to get a little dry in between waterings, but they must never be allowed to become bone-dry. Check your Bonsai daily to see if it needs water by pressing down firmly on the moss or soil at the base of the trunk. If it feels moist or cool, or sort of soft and spongy, then it does not need water. When the topsoil feels dry, set the whole pot in a basin of water, right up to the base of the trunk, allowing water to saturate the soil. This will cause air bubbles to rise up, and the bubbles are a good indicator of how dry your tree is. The soil will be saturated very quickly; let extra water drain off.
Bonsai really don’t like to be wet all the time, nor to sit in water for long periods, it is bad for their health. During the winter months, you may be watering once a week, or even less; in the summer, it may every day or every other day, depending on location and climate. The cycle will vary, so avoid strict schedules and you will soon recognize the watering needs of your Bonsai.
Any time your tree is inside, the air is very dry, and the leaves want humidity to keep them healthy and green. Mist as often as you like during the day. Definitely avoid having your Bonsai near a vent or a draft, as this will dry out the foliage. Using a pebble tray is a great way to increase local humidity. A pebble tray is a shallow tray filled with small stones. Keep some water in the bottom of the tray, making sure that the water does not reach the bottom of the Bonsai pot. As it evaporates, it helps to create a more moist environment.
Fertilizer is not quite food for plants, it is more like vitamins and minerals. As with vitamins, a small amount on a regular basis is the best plan. Most Bonsai should be mildly fertilized once or twice per month. You can use a Bonsai fertilizer, such as Pokon, at the recommended strength, or a houseplant fertilizer such as Peter’s or Miracle-Gro at half the suggested strength. Always water your tree before fertilizing. Warning: do not fertilize weak or freshly repotted trees, and don’t over-fertilize! This may burn the roots and cause stress to the tree.
It is a good idea to spray you Bonsai tree once every month or two with a non-toxic insect spray. We recommend either Schultz-Instant houseplant spray, or Safer Insecticidal Soap. Soaps should be rinsed off the next day. Trees should not be sprayed in full sun, or when the soil is dry.
At Bonsai West, we have found it useful to group trees into three general care categories: Indoor, Temperate, and Cold Weather Bonsai, according to their natural habitats and maintenance requirements.
Following are some general rules and guidelines for Bonsai care with these categories in mind.
or Tropical Bonsai are trees which normally grow
in the deep south or in tropical climates. These trees
are cold-sensitive, and should not be allowed temperatures
below 45 degrees F. They do not like extremely dry or
arid conditions, and they want lots of sun. Tropical
Bonsai may be kept on a sunny windowsill year-round.
During the summer they love to be outside, but they
will do well indoors. The air inside the house is very
dry, so the use of a pebble tray or frequent misting
is important. Tropical Bonsai like to be fertilized year-round. They
will need pruning 3-4 times per year, and root pruning
or repotting every 2 years in the summer.
Bonsai in this group include Serissa, Bougainvillea, Figs, Fukien Tea, Olives, Jade, Sageretia, Natal Plum, Cherries, Jasmines, Palms, Gardenia, Brazilian Raintree, Jaboticaba, Podocarpus, Ilex-Shillings, Pomegranate, Texas Ebony,Okinawa Holly, Schefflera, and Buttonwood.
Bonsai are trees which grow in regions with distinct
seasonal changes. They like to be outdoors for the summer
and fall, or in an open window with good sunlight and
ventilation. Place them in a cool but protected area
for the winter. They can generally handle a light frost,
even down to 25 degrees F., but no colder than that.
Gradually decreasing temperatures will put a tree into
hibernation, slowing growth and storing the tree’s energy
for Spring. Whenever a tree is kept at 40 degrees and
above, it needs sunlight. Darkness does not make a tree
Keep temperate Bonsai in a sunny window from late February through mid-May. Place them outside from May through mid-November. In November, bring them in to the coolest place you can find which still receives some sunlight. A grow light may be used during the winter, because the sunlight is so decreased. It is important to compensate for low humidity in winter. Use a pebble tray to keep local humidity up, and mist your tree as often as you can.
Temperate varieties include Juniper, Azalea, Boxwoods, Sawara Cypress, Tsukomo Cypress, Andelyensis Cypress, Cotoneaster, Pyracantha, Chinese Elms, Yews, Ilex Pagoda, Holly, Roses, and most Herbs.
Hardy Bonsai are varieties which need a full change
of season to do well. These trees cannot be grown as
indoor Bonsai! From May through mid-November, keep your
cold-hardy Bonsai outside, in a fairly sunny spot. Gradually
decreasing temperatures will put your tree into dormancy,
slowing growth and storing energy for spring. When it
becomes too cold for your Bonsai to stay outdoors, move
it to a protected but unheated area. Some options are
a cold-frame, a garage, and enclosed porch, or a bulkhead.
Be careful to avoid temperatures below 20 degrees. If
you suspect that your winter location will go below
that temperature, you should mulch your Bonsai in with
or peat moss.
Your Bonsai can be frozen during the winter, and you must never water a frozen tree! However, you should keep an eye on the temperatures: every 4-6 weeks, there is usually a thaw, and your tree might need water at that point.
Some trees may begin to break dormancy early: begin checking on your tree in February for signs of budding. When your tree is at 40 degrees or colder, it does not need sunlight, it is fully dormant. When temperatures begin to increase, the tree will begin to wake and grow. If your tree breaks dormancy, you need to give it light: move it into the coolest possible place where it still receives some sunlight. Your Bonsai now will be needing more water, and protection from freezes. Sudden freezes can damage new growth. By May, the temperatures will have become warm enough to place your Bonsai outside again.
Evergreen varieties include Pines, Spruce, Hinoki and Blue Moss Cypress, Cryptomeria, Rhododendron, Andromeda, Hemlock, and Cedars. Among the deciduous trees are Maples, Elms, Larch, Hornbeams, Beech, Birch, and Wisteria.
- Ask Dr Bonsai! (Michael Levin and David Babik, Bonsai West)
- Indoor Bonsai (Paul Lesniewicz)
- Bonsai Landscapes (Peter Adams)
- Beautiful Bonsai(Charles Cerronio)