Bonsai Kid!

…Shaping the world!

First time bonsai: a 5 points survival guide June 10, 2007

Filed under: Back to basics — Newstudy @ 10:19 pm

More often than not, the approach to bonsai art comes with a present.   A friend, a relative or a partner gives a new little tree in a short pot and he/she can’t tell us how to handle it.
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Those bonsai trees are set on a piece of furniture or next to a window and normally die in a couple of months.   Here comes the misconception that bonsai trees die after a short time.

The truth is a bonsai can live among hundreds of years (there are specimens of 1000 years and more), so you are not excused if you let your bonsai die.   But what to do with that strange thing?
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This is a brief kick start guide to help you in the first months with your bonsai:
Establish what species it is: first thing first you have to know what species your bonsai tree belongs to.   It is important because every species has different needs.  This may be a hard task, there are hundreds of species and each can have a lot of varieties and cultuvar.
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To start you don’t need to know the exact variety or cultuvar, you just need to know the general name of the species: it could be a maple, an elm or it could be a pine or a juniper.  
Arborday.org has a guide on the trees classification that can help you.   Also Wikipedia has a classification list.
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Set your bonsai tree outdoor: unless your bonsai belongs to a species native of tropical regions, you have to put it outdoor (of course if you live in a tropical place you can set your tropical bonsai outdoor).   A bonsai cannot survive indoor due to a handful of reasons, if you assume your bonsai is an ornament you are wrong.  Period.
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If you identify the species, you can know the precise spot where to set it.  Usually conifers should go in full-sun, the other species should be set in mid-shadow or even shadow. This is a really rough distinction and there are a lot of exceptions, a good cultivation sheet can help you a lot.
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Learn how to water it: watering is a crucial task and one of the most difficult of bonsai cultivation.   Every species needs different quantities of water, and you should understand the needs of your own bonsai tree.   The bonsai lives in a small pot, there’s a relatively small quantity of soil in it and the tree can certainly suffer dryness and temperature excursions.
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As a general rule, if it is summer you have to water your bonsai every evening.   If you water it in the morning the soil will dry in no time and the tree will suffer.   If you water it in the evening it’ll have all the time it needs to adsorb water and nutriments and, even if the next day the soil will dry, the bonsai will not suffer.
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During spring and fall you have to diminish watering, just wait until the surface of the soil starts to dry out and only then water. It is easy to over-water your bonsai tree, so follow the rule above and you should be ok.
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During winter the bonsai wants little water, just keep the soil humid, not wet, and water when it begins to dry.   There are two watering methods: the first is giving your tree a shower and continue until the water exits from the drainage holes; the second is to immerse the pot in a can of water and let the soil adsorb.   In both cases remember to bathe the foliage too (never if the sun still hits).
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Fertilize your bonsai: fertilizing is the most underrated task by the novice.   It is really important to fertilize the bonsai because the soil in the pot will easily loose it’s nutriments for the tree.   The quantity of soil is limited and it is an isolated environment so it’s our duty to provide nutriments.    If your matter si if water is sufficient, the answer is no.     Can you live just drinking water?  No.   For your bonsai is the same thing.
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Until you become an expert, a balanced fertilizer (10:10:10) will do it’s work. You don’t have to acquire a bonsai specific fertilizer, the bonsai has the same physiology of all the vegetables, every fertilizer will do.   Remember just to dilute it more than the recommendations say or you’ll risk to burn your bonsai.
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A simple and good solution would be to use the hanagokoro, a Japanese organic fertilizer, very strong, easy and safe to use as it is almost impossible to overfeed.   You should fertilize during spring, when the vegetation begins, until December (If you are downunder), then stop in the hottest period.   Restart in the second half of March until May.
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Get another bonsai: only action will allow you to gain the sufficient experience to manage a bonsai.    Keep collecting bonsai and make your own, with try and errors you will become an expert.   Needless to say it is a great satisfaction to produce your own bonsai and a lovely feeling to watch your bonsai garden growing.
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You may have noticed I have omitted such tasks as pruning, wiring, jin, shari and so on.    This is a primer, a kick start guide, born just to help you keeping alive your bonsai.

Defining what is a bonsai isn’t easy, but we can resume it in the “perfect balance between the tree, it’s form and the pot hosting it”.    If you don’t learn how to take care of your tree, and limit your experience to this primer, your bonsai will survive but it’ll loose its “bonsai title” in a couple of years or less.

If you are serious with bonsai art, you want to study. You can buy books – I will soon post reviews – or read some good online resource – in the sidebar there are a phew -.
Of course keep reading this blog, I will post a lot of things about bonsai.

If you think this list isn’t complete (keep in mind it’s a survival guide), feel free to add your points.

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One Response to “First time bonsai: a 5 points survival guide”

  1. JC Says:

    I’ve killed my share… Maybe it’s time for another one. At least I have a place to put it outside now.


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