The Importance of Balanced Feeding and Watering

Bonsai, as they are just a small version of regular trees or plants, need food and water just like any other plant. Because they live in a man-made environment rather than in nature, where they would get all the nutrients and water they need through the ground and rain, their living quarters need to be kept in the right condition.


The purpose of fertilizer is to get the appropriate blend of nutrients into your tree. Fertilizer is made up of N (Nitrogen), P (Phosphorous), and (K) Potassium. The ratios are expressed as 0:10:10 or 12:6:6, in the order NPK. For outdoor bonsai, feed your plant with a higher nitrogen content in the spring, to encourage growth – a 12:6:6 or so. During summertime use a balanced fertilizer like 20:20:20 (which is the same as 10:10:10 and 5:5:5). As autumn comes you will want to begin hardening your tree off for winter with a lower nitrogen level, like 0:10:10.

Each tree is different and it may take a while to adjust to the correct fertilizer level. Signs of over-fertilizing include browning or yellowing leaves, fertilizer accumulating at the top of the soil, and roots that are going black and limp (root burn).

Under-fertilizing can cause equally concerning issues like leaves shriveling up and dieback of branches.

You may have heard of foliar feeding – this is a hotly contested topic, so do plenty of research from a variety of a sources before deciding whether foliar feeding is right for your bonsai.


Watering your bonsai can seem confusing, but the most important thing is to observe your particular plant – each species is a little different and your climate, the amount of sun, and soil mixture will all influence how quickly or slowly the water is absorbed. The other major factor in watering is drainage – bonsai must have good drainage, in fact some experts even feel that it’s impossible to over-water a tree that has a good drainage system.

When you’re first adjusting to how much water your tree needs, do not set a watering schedule. Instead check the plant every day; when the surface starts to become dry, water thoroughly. Don’t allow the soil to become completely dry. The entire root system needs to be soaked – a good rule of thumb is to water the plant until water begins draining out of the drainage system. Use a fine-hole watering can and water from above the plant. If you can collect rainwater this is even healthier for your bonsai as it does not contain the chemicals that tap water sometimes can.

Under-watering causes leaves and the tips of the branches to begin drying up. The effects of under-watering a bonsai are evident very quickly. Damage from over-watering, on the other hand, can take much longer to show itself. Leaves yellow and fall off the tree and eventually root rot sets in, which may not be discovered until repotting time in the spring.

Pay close attention to your bonsai and follow instructions closely and you will soon get a feel for the healthiest feeding and watering routine for your specific plant.

Getting Started with your first Bonsai Tree

You’ve decided to enter the beautiful and zen-inducing world of bonsai. You’re probably eager and excited to jump right in. But wait – first there are a few things you need to know in order to have a satisfying, rather than frustrating, bonsai tree experience.

How to Choose the Right Plant

Bonsai isn’t a dwarf tree or a special breed of plant, it’s the art of forming a miniature tree with a cutting or a small plant of a regular species. There are several types that are good beginners:

  • Ulmus parvifolia, or Chinese Elm – tolerant and hardy, slow growing and easy for beginners to care for, beautiful tiny leaves.
  • Jade plant, aka Portulacaria afra – this succulent can be grown indoors and may be easily shaped into a traditional bonsai tree with appropriate pruning.
  • Chinese juniper, or Juniperus chinensis – this evergreen juniper is a very popular bonsai plant due to its hardiness and the miniature pine tree look that can be achieved.
  • Ficus – these tropicals (technically fig trees) are the plants people often think of when they think bonsai; they are easy to wire and actually grow fruit that is in scale with the size of the tree.

What to Look For

You obviously want to choose a healthy plant. Leaves should not be dead or wilting (except specific types which drop leaves at certain times of the year), and they should be relatively small in comparison to the size of the plant. Large leaves do not make for easy bonsai shaping. Check for pests and spots – these can indicate an insect infestation or fungal infection. Remember, a bonsai is just a regular plant or tree, which means it can suffer from the same maladies as anything in your garden.

The trunk should be solid and larger at the bottom than at the top. Trunks that are like telephone poles do not generally make good bonsai. The branches should begin about a third of the way up the tree and they should get smaller as they go up the trunk, not larger.

The Root of It All

If you can examine the root system, it’s a good idea to do so. The roots should be firm, spaced evenly, and should be gathered close to the tree – not spread all over or sticking out of the soil. A healthy root system is vital to the health of the bonsai. Root rot from improper watering is one of the main causes of bonsai death and even though a plant is alive when you buy it, that doesn’t mean it’s not in a slow demise.

It seems like a lot to take in before even getting to the fun part – the shaping and growing of your tree – but if you start with a good plant (or cutting or seeds) – you will have a much better chance of developing a bonsai that will give you many years of beauty and enjoyment.

Bonsai Pests and What to Do About Them

Because bonsai are made from normal plants and trees, they are subject to the same types of bugs and pests as those in your yard and garden. You should monitor your bonsai regularly to make sure that it has not been infested by any of these tiny but destructive forces of nature. They can cause stress and damage to all your hard work and even kill the tree if not caught promptly.


Aphids - a bonsai pestSometimes known as plant lice, aphids are one of the most common enemies of bonsai. They appear as green (occasionally black or gray) and can be found under the leaves or on stems. They suck the sap and can spread disease to your plant.

It is possible to remove them by spraying the plant with water, but you can use systemic insecticide if preferred.

Red spider mite

Red Spider MitesThese nearly invisible little pests can destroy a bonsai fast and are hard to see, sometimes making it necessary to shake the plant over a piece of paper. Found more often on indoor bonsai, the mites feed on the tree, causing the leaves to turn yellow and brown.

Spray the bottom side of the leaves with an organic soap mixture or use systemic insecticide such as pesticide pins.

Mealy bugs

MealybugsThese look like tiny balls of cotton on the branches and leaves and frequently gather in clumps. The insects are actually inside the balls, and can cause yellow leaves and slow growth. Not only do they feed on the juices from your bonsai, they also introduce a spectrum of diseases.

Insecticide should be used to rid your bonsai of these pests.


Scale - common bonsai pestThese insects look like they sound, small scale-like bumps on the leaves, branches, and trunk. A scale infestation will cause wilted, yellowed foliage.

They can be removed manually, as they have a shell that can protect them from chemical insecticides. If there aren’t too many bugs you can brush alcohol onto them to kill them.


Black Swallowtail Caterpillar feeding on parsleyThese cute little guys can unfortunately wreak a lot of havoc on a bonsai, devouring the leaves. The good thing is they’re easy to see and you can pick them right off.

They tend to come back even when you think you’ve gotten them all so keep checking regularly.

Vine Weevils

Vine WeevilUnlike most pests, vine weevils can cause significant damage to the root system of a plant, because that’s where the larvae feed. While adults are bigger and more noticeable, the larvae are the most destructive and by the time you notice wilted leaves, it may be too late. If you can see adults, remove them by hand and apply a soil pesticide.

The important thing to remember about bonsai pests is that checking your plant regularly can prevent extensive damage. Always check the roots when repotting to make sure there are no unwelcome guests.

10 Signs Your Bonsai Tree Is Unhealthy

Considering the fact that a bonsai tree can technically outlive its owner, you surely want to get the most enjoyment possible out of it by keeping it healthy. Because bonsai are made of normal plant species, they can vulnerable to many of the same ailments as the flowers, shrubs, and trees in your yard. Whether you’re caring for your existing bonsai or getting ready to purchase a ready-made tree from us these tips will help you recognize and solve a bonsai health problem quickly:

  1. Yellowing or drying leaves: often a sign of over- or under-watering. Overwatering is a frequent killer of bonsai, so be sure to maintain a balance, watering thoroughly once the top half of the soil has begun to dry.
  2. Damaged leaves: a sign of pest infestation. You want to take action quickly, as pests can destroy a bonsai in short order. Aphids are the most common bonsai pest, but these trees can also suffer from insects such as caterpillars, scale, and red spider mites. In some cases the pests can be removed manually or by wiping the leaves down, or you can use a surface or soil insecticide.
  3. Swollen bark: this can be a sign of canker or scab disease, typically caused by problems with fertilizing or pruning improperly. The diseased portion must be cut away and wound paste put on the affected area.
  4. Visible pests or insects: these must be identified and removed. Scale can be taken off by hand, and aphids may be washed off gently with a hose. Other pests will require chemical removal.
  5. Falling leaves or needles (in the wrong season): leaf fall can be due to black spot, leaf spot, or rust. If any of these diseases are present, spots will appear on the leaves and they will eventually drop. Remove affected leaves and apply fungicide.
  6. Dieback of branches: if branches and shoots begin to die away, starting at the tips, this can be a sign of mold or mildew. Affected areas must be removed and a fungicide applied.
  7. Instability in the pot: if the plant wobbles in its container, it may have a weak root system, possibly due to over-watering. Adjust water administration.
  8. Slow growth: poor or stunted growth can be an indicator of scab or canker disease, or root rot due to poor drainage. In the case of root rot, prune affected roots and move tree into new soil.
  9. Branches that droop or are wilted: drooping shoots can have a number of causes including mold, mildew, or chlorosis (caused by nutrient deficiency, commonly iron).
  10. Black, red, brown or other colored spots on leaves: spots of any color on bonsai leaves are not normal and are typically signs of fungi. Fungal infections spread quickly, so the infected leaves must be removed and a fungicide applied to the rest of the plant.

It’s not difficult to recognize an unhealthy bonsai if you know what you’re looking for. Once identified, most problems are treatable, allowing your bonsai to give you many more years of beauty and joy!

How to find Bonsai Material at Nurseries

You can find potential bonsai trees (pre-bonsai) at nurseries if you know how to look for potential and the qualities you want for a bonsai. Buying nursery stock is one of the best ways to acquire new trees if you have the patience and eye for it. It can be exhausting searching through nurseries and you will end up with material you realize is only suitable for experimentation!

Whether you’re a beginner or an expert grower, knowing how to approach shopping at a nursery for bonsai material is extremely important.

Picking the perfect tree

Make sure you choose a tree that fits your needs and abilities. Don’t buy a tree just because the branches look nice already, when the trunk and nebari are non-existent. If you’re just starting out you will do best with a tropical like a Ficus that can survive indoors and outdoors.

Healthy is Happy

Always assess the plant to see if there is any decay, fungus, or other health problems. There’s no reason to start off your growing with an unhealthy bonsai. That said, don’t be afraid of buying that ugly bush in the corner that’s 80% off.


Nebari are the visible roots above the soil. You want to start with a tree that already has strong nebari.


Strong branches help to balance the tree and allow for any modifications. Try to pick a tree that has strong branches where you want them in the finished tree.

Strong Trunk

Look for a strong, thick trunk with taper. You want a trunk with a realistic aesthetic that you can shape to fit the final image you have for the tree.

Where to look?

We recommend you avoid places like Home Depot or Lowes, and the large chain nurseries. The small nurseries in your area often have the best stock and are more likely to have the weird and awkward stock that will make a great bonsai!

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