Gardeners often use the term “bring the outdoors inside” when they refer to indoor plants. Take this term to another level with a bonsai garden.
Read on for bonsai tree care tips and more info about this fascinating topic.
These mini trees are spectacular in form, have a big impact, and can be grown both indoors and in pots on a patio or deck when the weather permits.
What is bonsai?
The term bonsai refers to an ornamental tree or shrub that is grown in a pot and pruned and trimmed to prevent the plant from reaching its normal size.
It is an Asian art form of gardening that is very popular in Japan. The word comes from a Japanese word that, when translated, means “planted in a container.”
The following photo is a beautifully shaped Creeping Thyme bonsai tree.
The practice originated in the Chinese empire, and was then copied and adapted by the Japanese to become what we now think of when we refer to Bonsai trees. The Japanese developed the art of bonsai as a means of meditation and personal reflection.
Many people think that Bonsai trees are actually species of tiny trees. This is not the case. The word refers to the art form itself.
Bonsai does not require trees to be dwarf varieties. Cultivation techniques involve pruning, root reduction, grafting and defoliation. This results in a tree which can fit into a small container, but one that mimics the mature full-sized tree.
The process of growing bonsai trees is challenging. The process can take 3-5 years and involves rigorous pruning techniques. For this reason, many people choose to purchase trees that have already been formed into smaller shapes and potted.
Best trees for a bonsai garden?
Pretty much any tree can become a bonsai tree but there are some varieties that are best suited for the formation of bonsai. Good choices are trees which have small leaves and plenty of nodes between branches.
A good branching form and attractive bark also make for a nice bonsai specimen. Another thing to consider is where your plant will be kept. Unless you will be keeping the bonsai tree indoors all year long, choose one that is hardy in your hardiness zone.
Some popular choices are:
- Japanese Maple
- Beech Tree
- Crape Myrtle
- Chinese Elm
The braided money tree plant is an indoor plant that is often grown as a bonsai. Find out about this lucky plant here.
North Carolina Bonsai Exhibition
The North Carolina Arboretum has an area of the botanical park devoted to the display of bonsai. I was fortunate enough to visit the arboretum on a recent trip and was very impressed by the exhibit.
The North Carolina Bonsai Exhibition features over 100 specimens that are carefully cultivated to deliver a Southern Appalachian accent. The exhibit was established in 2005 and is a world renowned garden.
The exhibit was the most delightful part of my visit to the arboretum. It featured rows and rows of individual bonsai trees in beautiful pots against a stark background. It truly is a delight for any bonsai lover.
Trees include Japanese maples and Chinese elms as well as tropical flowering plants and traditional American species such as cypress, American hornbeam (pictured here) and pines.
The outdoor exhibition is open daily from May to October. During the winter months, the specimens are moved into storage, but they do have an indoor tropical bonsai display that is open daily between November and April.
Bonsai Tree Care Tips
While it is challenging to cultivate a bonsai tree from seed or cuttings, taking care of an established bonsai tree is not difficult. With proper care your bonsai will remain a healthy and beautiful miniature tree for years to come. Here are some basic tips for bonsai tree care:
Should I have a bonsai garden outdoors or inside?
Placement of your bonsai trees depends entirely on your temperatures. When the nightly temperatures will be above 40 degrees, your bonsai tree will do best if placed outdoors. Patios, balconies or terraces are good spots.
Bonsai plants make a great addition to any meditation garden. Add a few Zen style statues and you have set a mood beautifully in your bonsai garden.
Paying attention to where you will grow the bonsai tree will allow you to choose a spot where the tree will receive the right amount of sunlight and shade but still deliver some cooling at nights which is beneficial.
Once the temperatures are expected to dip below 40 degrees at night, it’s time to bring the bonsai tree back indoors. A south facing window is now ideal, or if you don’t have this, then an east or west facing window will do.
Sunlight needs for bonsai plants
To determine the amount of light that a bonsai plant will need, think of trees in nature. They love ample sunlight so a sunny spot is a must.
Plants growing in pots can benefit from protection from the harshest of the sun’s rays, though, since a pot will allow the plant to dry out and some partial shade will help in this regard.
This pond Cypress is a large specimen so it can take more direct sunlight than smaller potted bonsai plant could take.
Outdoor bonsai trees need a spot that gives ample sunlight in the morning but light shade in the heat of the day and afternoon. Try to make sure that the tree gets at least 4-6 hours a day of sunlight.
Watering bonsai trees
Bonsai trees are not plants that can be left to their own devices. Correct watering is a very important aspect of bonsai tree care. A good rule of thumb is to water bonsai when the surface of the soil appears dry.
If you have the tree in a sunny location, this might mean watering once a day but this will vary depending on the size of the pot and the type of tree. Some are more thirsty than others.
Moss added to the top of the soil will help to conserve water and it also adds a decorative touch to the planters you choose. Pots with drainage holes are important, too, so the bonsai does not become waterlogged.
This mixed bonsai planter features Japanese horn beam and spirea along with Red Maple and Dry land Blueberry trees. The moss on the soil looks like the floor of a forest!
Water meters can help to gauge how dry the soil is. Add water until the drainage hole lets the water out, remove this water and then water again when the soil looks dry on the top.
Humidity for a bonsai garden
Another important thing to be aware of in bonsai care is humidity. The humidity of most homes can dry out bonsai plants. To keep the proper humidity level, mist the plant often with a plant mister.
Another option is to place the entire bonsai pot on a shallow tray which holds a layer of stones or gravel.
Add water to the rock area but below the pot level. This will allow the water to evaporate and will reduce the amount of moisture that that tree will lose itself.
Bonsai soil is important
Using the right soil mixture for your bonsai trees is a crucial step in bonsai tree care. The soil adds nutrients to the plant and also needs to drain properly.
You can purchase ready mixed bonsai soil, or make your own. (Making your own will allow you to adjust the mixture for the specific tree species that you are growing.)
There are many opinions about what type of soil is needed. Most bonsai shops have a special type of hard baked Japanese clay called akadama.
Mixing akadama with pumice (to absorb water and nutrients), lava rock (to retain water and limits root production), fine gravel (for drainage) and organic compost is a good start.
Trimming bonsai garden plants
I won’t get into the details of training a bonsai to get the original shape in this article. This practice requires a great deal of expertise and is best left to an expert. Most trees that you will purchase have already been trained into the shape you desire.
A bonsai tree care kit includes several types of tools. Specialized tools make the job easier!
However, all established bonsai trees do require periodic pinching and trimming to maintain their appearance. This will keep the tree to a miniature size and allow you to keep the overall shape.
The branches of this Chinese Elm have been beautifully trimmed to give balance to all sides of the cork bark trunk without over crowding it.
Pinch back new growth at the farthest safe point on the branch. Don’t remove all new growth. To promote a healthy tree, you need to allow some new growth.
In addition to trimming the top of the tree, you need to trim up the overall plant. Use bonsai clippers to remove any dead branches.
Once the dead growth is removed, you can decide which additional branches will need to be trimmed in order to maintain the desired design.
Tropical bonsai trees will require pinching and trimming throughout the year. Other types of trees that have specific growth cycles should be pruned to the trees natural growing habits. (i.e. Trim azaleas after flowering, trim Japanese maples in later summer, etc.)
Repotting bonsai plants
It is necessary to re-pot a bonsai tree every few years, depending on the type of tree. This is because the root system will eventually fill the pot, just like any potted plant does.
A general rule of thumb is to re-pot deciduous trees every 2-3 year and evergreens every 4-5 years. However, your schedule may not be this exact, since it depends on the tree you are growing.
Checking the root system will tell you if the plant is pot bound.
This buttonwood bonsai is has been trimmed to allow the plant to sit nicely in the pot with the majority of the tree offset to the side. It would be a shame to change this look, so root trimming will allow it to be re-potted in the same container.
A good time to re-pot a bonsai is in mid-summer. Remove the whole tree, with the root ball intact. Remove the outer 1/4 of the root ball. to do this just remove some of the soil and lightly prune the roots.
Root pruning will allow you to place the plant back into the same container. It is important to add new soil when you re-pot, since the nutrients will have been stripped from the old soil mixture.
Work the new soil in and around the root ball, being careful not to allow air pockets which would fill up with roots quickly. Thoroughly water after potting. This is best done by submerging the whole pot into a larger container of water and allowing it to drain.
You can finish up by adding moss to the soil surface.
Disease and insects in a bonsai garden
Just like any other living plant, a bonsai tree can be affected by disease and insects. Some common insects to be on the look out for on indoor bonsai plants are spider mites, mealy bugs, and scale.
Vine weevils, aphids, caterpillars and ants are sometimes a problem, as well.
Dead and dying leaves are usually because of under watering. Leaves turning yellow usually means over-watering.
Viruses can show their presence with discolored leaves and branches dying back. If you find this, isolate the tree and treat it so as not to cross contaminate. Remove infected parts of the tree and treat with a fungicide spray.
Where to buy bonsai trees
Bonsai used to be a specialized type of plant that was very hard to find but many places now sell them, even big box stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot. (Be careful with these that they do not have the stones glued to the surface of the soil.
Believe it or not, this is not uncommon!)
Specialized websites sell many types of bonsai plants. Be sure to check the guarantee of the place where you are shopping.
Another good option is to check with your local bonsai society. These organizations are a wealth of information on the care of bonsai, have exhibitions and also have swaps and sell areas of their websites.
Pin it for later
Would you like a reminder of this post for bonsai garden tree care? Just pin this post to one of your gardening boards on Pinterest so that you can easily find it later.
- Bonsai pruners
- Pebble tray
- Print out this care card to keep these growing tips handy
- Sunlight - 4-6 hours a day. South facing window is ideal
- Watering - submerge the entire container and then water when the top surface is dry.
- Placement - outdoors when the weather is above 40 degrees F at night. Bring indoors below this temperature.
- Soil - Well draining mixture of adadama, pumice, lava rock, fine gravel and organic compost.
- Prune - trim growing tips and dead branches regularly.
- Re-pot - Trim roots and re pot with new soil every few years depending on type. Check for root bound soil.
- Insects - Aphids, mealy bugs, scale and spider mites are a problem for indoor bonsai.
- Disease - dead leaves means under watering. Yellow leaves means over-watering. Black spots on leaves indicate fungus.
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