Bonsai trees are some of the most impressive plants you can raise in your home. They are distinctly unlike other forms of flora and call for exceptional care. This basic primer will teach you some of the key points you will need to know to care for a bonsai.
Do Your Homework
Above all else, the key to raising a healthy and impressive bonsai tree is to study the specific needs of your tree species. Bonsai can be grown from virtually any species, but their care requirements can vary tremendously. As a general rule of thumb, bonsai that are native to your area or close climactic matches will do best, but experienced growers can cultivate bonsai far outside their native biomes.
While the environmental needs of bonsai trees vary from species to species, it is important to note that most indoor environments are not quite ideal for bonsai. Most species thrive in conditions a little more humid than ordinary human dwellings. You will need to compensate for this with your watering schedule. You want to place your bonsai in a warm and well-lit area as it needs plenty of sunshine to thrive.
Cultivating Your Watering Skills
Beyond the tree's innate need for more water in a dry environment, most bonsai are extremely thirsty due to their miniaturized physical systems. This translates into most species requiring daily or even twice-daily watering, especially when they are growing. Bonsai trees will not grow if they are starved of water, but being waterlogged will also stop growth. You need to find a happy balance in order to encourage your tree to thrive.
Bonsai should be watered whenever the top of the soil in their pot has grown dry. The proper soil for bonsai trees is very loose and open, allowing for fast drainage. This means bonsai trees will grow dry much more quickly than other plants you may be familiar with raising.
Because of the humid conditions that you have to grow the tree in, it can attract aphids, ants, red spider mites and even caterpillars. Be on the lookout for these pests.
The Other Half of Feeding: Fertilizer
Fertilization is a somewhat contentious topic in the world of bonsai and opinions differ as to what sort of fertilizer is best. Some growers insist on all-natural products, while others feel that chemical fertilizers are fine. Whatever type you prefer, you will need to apply fertilizer to your bonsai very frequently. The fast watering cycle described above tends to wash out unabsorbed fertilizer quickly. This also prevents the buildup of unhealthy levels of minerals so it really is not such a bad thing.
Look for a premium-quality NPK fertilizer (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium) with an even 20/20/20 mix between the main mineral ingredients. Purpose-blended bonsai fertilizers are usually diluted to work properly to work with the fast watering cycle. If you use non-specific fertilizer, you may need to dilute it yourself.
Trimming, Pruning, and Wiring: Shaping Your Bonsai
The real art of raising a bonsai lies in how you tend for the tree's long-term growth. You will play a powerful role in deciding how your tree grows over the course of years. Shaping your tree is both strategic and tactical. You will need to have a general idea of how you want the tree to go for a start.
For day-to-day trimming, you can use specialized bonsai shears to snip off branches, buds, and leaves that don't match your goals for the shape of the tree. This also frees up resources for the tree to grow faster. After pruning, be sure to clean up all plant debris. If you leave it in the soil, it could lead to moss or fungal diseases.
You need to do similar work on the roots of your bonsai. In order to thrive at a small size, bonsai trees need a fine system of small roots rather than many large roots. A bonsai also has no use for the deep, strong tap root that anchors wild trees in the ground. Roots should be pruned every time you repot your bonsai and you may want to do so more frequently when working with a young tree. Repotting should be done every other year.
When pruning the roots, always do so gradually. Shorten the bigger roots first and prune any roots that are top of one another. The finer roots should be left intact. Never cut the root so that it will fit into a smaller pot. You should use a bigger pot instead. Be sure that you always use a sharp cutting tool so that you can do the job quickly in order to minimize any type of stress or shock to the tree.
In between these two shaping tasks, you can also alter the shape of your bonsai's trunk. This is done via wiring. When the trunk or branches of your tree are young and growing, you set them in the shape you want and wrap them in wire to hold them there. This process takes months or even years in the most flexible species, but the wood will ultimately harden and hold your desired shape.
Raising bonsai is an ancient and subtle art, and this introduction has barely scratched its surface. If you choose to grow a tree of your own, make sure you take the time to broaden your fund of knowledge on the subject. It takes great patience to shape a beautiful bonsai, but when done properly the results of your efforts will be breathtaking.