So, you have just purchased your first Bonsai Tree (or you were given a tree, or you dug a tree up from your yard – insert your story here!) So…. what’s next?
First off, congratulations! Bonsai is a fascinating and rewarding hobby which can provide you with entertainment and learning for the rest of your life. Bonsai is an art form created using living plants (trees), so it is always teaching; it is always changing. Even when a tree dies, you receive one of the earliest lessons from Bonsai – sometimes, the tree dies…
When you get your new tree home there are a few things you should do as soon as possible to get your tree off to a good start. These include:
Remove Glued Rocks
If the tree has rocks glued around the trunk at the surface of the soil, remove them. Rocks are added to commercially grown bonsai to make them easier to ship. The rocks need to be removed, as they restrict the tree from receiving sufficient water, they bind the roots of the tree and they don’t allow you to see the condition of the soil. If you like the looks of the rocks, remove them, break up the rocks and add some back to the pot.
WATER, WATER, oh wait, don’t over water!
Every tree needs water. Due to their limited environment in a bonsai pot, combined with a free-flowing soil, bonsai trees usually need more water than a similar tree in a nursery pot. Check your trees daily and water as needed. Some trees will not tolerate having “wet feet” (wet roots) for too long and can develop root-rot.
If you aren’t sure if your tree needs water, stick your finger in the soil along the edge of the pot. If your finger comes out wet or with lots of soil attached, the tree doesn’t need water. If you cannot tell visually whether the tree needs water, an alternative method is to stick a wooden toothpick or wooden skewer into the pot along the edge. Simply insert the skewer and observe the stick – if it is wet or has soil attached to it, the tree probably doesn’t need water. This method also allows you to see if the soil is evenly moist for the depth of the pot (the skewer will be moist top-to-bottom if the soil is completely watered).
If your tree has glued rocks covering the soil surface and you haven’t had a chance to remove them yet, water is especially important. Your new plant may need a good watering.
1. Take a bucket or tub and fill with enough water to fully immerse the pot and place the tree in there for a bit. You will see bubbles emerge and some of the debris on the surface of the soil will probably float to the surface.
2. Scoop out any floating debris & dispose of it; once the bubbles have stopped, leave the tree in for 5-10 more minutes, then remove and allow to drain.
3. You probably want to immerse the tree daily for three to five days, but do allow the tree to dry out between these “dunks.”
Research! If you know a lot about the species of your new tree, great! Most of the time though, the new bonsai enthusiast knows very little about their tree species and even less about caring for such a tree when grown as a bonsai.
If you bought the tree from a bonsai grower or a nursery, they are probably the best source to talk with about the tree (at the time of purchase and afterwards too). If you obtained the tree from a friend, hopefully they can provide some advice about the tree. If you are so inclined, you should seek out a bonsai club/society in your area. The friendship and knowledge shared by such groups will help you on many levels. (Look for the links at the end of this article to find sources for geographic listings of bonsai clubs and guilds.)
Just as important as watering, is placing your new bonsai in the appropriate light level. Just because these are little versions of big trees, doesn’t mean their basic requirements are any less. Whatever the light needs are for your tree at normal size, that is also what’s normal for its bonsai version.
Life with a Bonsai Tree
Once these basic “tasks” are completed, then “life with a bonsai tree” starts. Bonsai are a lot like pets….they need attention every day (and sometimes multiple times per day). Spend time with your tree, even if it is just a few minutes to check that the soil is appropriately moist for the species of tree. You will observe how the tree changes a little bit every day, how the tree is interacting with its environment, whether “critters” have found your tree, etc. You will be experiencing the cycle of nature and its seasons too.
Bonsai grow every day. Just like their full-size counterparts, they even grow and change minutely in the winter, even if they are dormant. Some species need a period of winter dormancy to thrive. During the warm season, when plants are actively growing, you will need to monitor daily for water, weeds, insects, fungal infections, sunburn and undesirable growth too. Whether your tree is native or adapted to your growing zone, it needs to be handled like its “big brother” trees that live in the ground. Be sure to consider environmental factors that could alter the needs of your tree on a daily basis. Temperature changes, warm winds and periods of heavy rain can all affect your bonsai tree’s needs on any given day.
Do a little research to find out more about your tree’s specific requirements. As you become more confident and experienced, you’ll likely want to start a small bonsai tree collection. Here are some great resources for locating bonsai groups, special events, vendors, view photos of other’s bonsai trees, and a wealth of other information:
Need some ideas for picking out your next bonsai tree? Take a look at our list of 10 Beginner-friendly Bonsai Plants.