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Category Archives: Growing

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.

Spring is in the air!

Wow, what a winter huh? Even here in the Lone Star state we had it rough. Temperatures way below normal most of the time and a crazy ice storm right at the beginning to start things off.

Well that’s a thing of the past now as we move right along into spring. As soon as the first week of March arrived,I could hardly wait to repot my one year old Japanese Black Pine seedlings. If you remember from last years posting on the blog you saw the seedlings as they were planted and then as they blossomed forth into new life. Take a look back if you need a refresher.

They were babied in last years Texas heat as they were so tender at that time. Then when winter came it was in and out of the garage to protect those tiny roots from freezing. But now their tender little stems have hardened and the fun begins.

Here they are getting ready to be released from their little home together where they will go on by themselves to become an each individual tree that hopefully will show forth their beauty.

potted

The potting soil I like to use for my J.B.P’s is 1 part Akadama, 1 part Lava, and 1 part Pumice. But because of the cost of these three components, I decided to do half with this mixture in individual colanders, and the other half in a mixture of haydite, sand, (not play sand) and sifted pine bark, and a little turface thrown in for good measure. This was put into two large containers where the seedlings would be planted together with enough room for them to spread their roots individually.

Temporary tub

But before they were replanted, they began to be trained into the shape I wanted them to be. Their stems although hardened, were still a bit tender for a radical change. I decided to try anyway because if you remember what I said last year about these seedlings, that my plan was to make most if not all into cascade JBPs. Just sticking them in the soil straight up was not an option for me. This next pic shows me applying #16 copper wire around the trunks of each seedling. (notice that nice candle on this one?)

Cleaned roots

After the wire was applied came the moment of truth; the bending process, and whether or not the trunk would be able to withstand such a harsh bend. As you can see it worked out perfectly. I was totally surprised to see how flexible each seedling was in my twisting and bending.

ready to plant

So from this point on we’re going to try something new here. From now on whenever it’s possible I’ll be taking you to a video of some of my work as part of the blog. The small video will allow you to see the final part of this blog. You’ll be able to see up close the little seedlings in their new home along with their new shape as they start their beginnings into cascade Japanese Black Pines.

See you there. 🙂

Building a Tropical Enclosure (via Tom’s Bonsai)

For anyone thinking about venturing into tropical bonsai, check out Tom M’s tropical bonsai enclosure.

Tom M’s Tropical Enclosure. View the post for more photos.

I wanted to have a nicer piece of furniture around the house so that it doesn’t look so messy when I winter my tropicals indoors. My wife has been very supportive, and I think she appreciates the steps taken in order for the display to be a bit nicer.

Read more at Tom M’s Blog.

Getting a 3 gallon Maple into a Bonsai pot – The process

I love to buy high quality Japanese Maples and turn them into bonsai. The problem is they come in large pots – typically 3 gallon. That’s a lot of roots! Way too many roots for a bonsai pot. After much trial and error, I realized that I could slowly (I mean slowly) reduce the roots each month in a series of raking’s and soakings. I like this method because I don’t have to wait for the plant to go dormant to do root pruning and then hope I didn’t do too much root pruning. Because If I do too much root pruning while the tree is dormant, It will die, but slowly as it comes back to life.

In the photo below, you can see how I have been taking soil out slowly.

maple-potting-1

Here is the root ball after the tree has been pulled from the pot. As you can see, the root ball is too large for a bonsai pot and I have gotten to the point where it is all roots.

maple-potting-2

Here, I am taking a rake and lightly dragging it across the outer surface of the root ball. I’m keeping the pressure light so I don’t do a lot of damage, but since the root ball is down to the roots, I know I am doing some. But here is the inspiration that made me realize this would work: Bugs and critters eat the roots from time to time and do moderate amounts of damage, yet the tree recovers. If I simulate this small damage and give the tree time to recuperate, then not only am I expediting the time it takes to get the tree into a bonsai pot, I am helping the tree strengthen itself.

maple-potting-3

Here is a photo of the root ball in process.

maple-potting-4

Here is the finished root ball. In all, I probably took off about a ¼ of an inch. The outer roots were damaged, but it will actually stimulate new growth. This is why I have found I need to alternate raking with soaking on alternate months.

maple-potting-5

Below is the tree and root ball back in the pot. You can see how there is a little more space in the pot. Next month, I will take my garden hose to the root ball and let the water wash away some dirt. This way, the roots will have 2 months to heal back before I rake them again.

This process will actually keep the roots the same size because they grow back at the rate I am removing them, but the soil will be dislodged from the roots and the root ball will be more compact. When the tree goes dormant, then, I can cut 15-20% of the roots back as normal. Then, the roots will fit into a bonsai pot, and I won’t have to be too aggressive with the root pruning.

After you do this, you will have to keep your plant in the shade, and keep it well watered. If you remember nothing else, remember this:

Less is more!
maple-potting-6
maple-potting-7

Bonsai Soils and their usage

Bonsai soil is a topic that may seem basic, but it can be quite a deep subject. No pun intended.

Quite obviously, bonsai soil is the medium by which the bonsai is provided water, fertilizer and oxygen. In order to do this most effectively, however, it requires varying types and sizes of soils. A bonsai tree requires these different particle sizes and types of soil because it helps them to grow better and emulates the soil the large cousins of the bonsai grow in.

Soil Science 101

Imagine a cross section of the Earth like you see in science books. At the very top, the surface of our planet, there are two levels: bedrock and sediment.

Bedrock is the farthest you can dig with a shovel before you need drills to pierce the rock. On top of that is the sediment layer. This layer is really not that deep comparatively. In some creeks, it’s a mere 2 – 3 feet down. Typically, however, the depth of sediment is 18 – 60 feet deep.

As we look at this layer of sediment, no matter how deep it is, we find that it is made up of various layers of material that increase in size as you go deeper.

On the top layer of sediment, you find silt, which is like powder. This silt most often has organic matter mixed in with it. Going deeper, you find rocks that were once pieces of bedrock. On the top most layers these rocks are pea gravel sized. Then they increase to gravel, then stones, cobbles, then at the very bottom, boulders.

This layering effect is a natural byproduct of gravity. The resettling is a natural result that occurs over thousands of years because the Earth is spinning and going around the sun and water frequently saturates the sediment.

What we find when we look at the large trees is that the root zone is primarily in the mid level of the sediment. This level quite frequently also retains the most moisture as well.

Every time it rains, the water leaches into the soil. As the water percolates down, it draws oxygen into spaces and gaps between the soil particles. The water is held the longest in the mid layer because the top layer is warmed by the sun and blown by the wind, and the bottom layer has mostly larger rocks which don’t hold a lot of water.

Types of Bonsai Soil
Our goal when choosing bonsai soil is to create the same type of environment that the tree would naturally live in out in the wild.

In order to do this, we will need to duplicate the various layers in nature in the bonsai pot. We would just do it on a smaller scale. The top layer particles would be around 1/8 of an inch, the mid soil layer would be ¼ inch sized particles and the bottom layer would be ½ inch and larger pieces.

We can use several different types of soil. Namely, we can use akadama, kanuma, haydite, pumice, grit, gravel, pine bark, peat moss, calcined clay, river sand, top dressings and zeolite.

Basically, these materials comprise types that retain water, types that don’t, and types that do both –they hold some water and they fluff, and aerate the soil.

Akadama

Akadama is the best known, all purpose bonsai soil. The name means “Red ball soil.” It is the volcanic clay that Japan is made of. It holds water very well, but due to larger sized particles, leaves plenty of room for oxygen to get to the roots. Akadama will break down over time into a silt type sediment.

Calcined Clay

Calcined clay is ground up brick. The brick making process ensures the product will never break down. Calcined clay is sometimes preferable to sand because it has larger pieces and screening gives you several different sizes. Calcined clay will hold water somewhat, but it’s purpose is to fluff the soil and make it more porous.

Haydite / Expanded Shale

Haydite, also known as expanded shale, has undergone a firing process that forces it to explode from the inside. This makes it hold some water, yet it mostly makes the soil porous. It can be screened into several different sizes.

Pumice

Pumice is a white volcanic rock which is ideal for bonsai soil mixtures. It holds some water, but chiefly aerates the soil making it more porous.

Grit

Grit is larger pieces of sand that are sharp. Grit opens up the soil and does not hold water.

Kanuma

Kanuma is Japanese soil, like Akadama, but it is slightly acidic. It is used mainly for Azaleas, Camellias, Gardenias and other acid loving Bonsai. Kanuma holds water well and comes in various sizes.

Peat Moss

Peat moss is an organic sphagnum moss that comes from the peat bogs of Canada. This product holds moisture for a long time. This product typically comes in long fibers, but can be broken down into a small powdery material.

Pine Bark Chips

Pine bark is an organic soil amendment that is about 50/50% dual duty. It holds moisture, though not as much as sphagnum moss, and it fluffs the soil, though not as much as haydite, calcined clay, river sands or grit. Since it is organic, it will break down over time.

River Sands

A type of grit that is excellent at opening up the soil to oxygen. It ranges in size from 1/8 inch to ¼ inch, so is best for top and mid layers.

Top Dressings

Mostly used for decorative purposes, top dressings are sands or stones and do not typically have any purpose in bonsai soil other than a purely aesthetic purpose.

Zeolite

Zeolite is similar to Akadama and Kanuma. It is quarried in Japan, and retains moisture and can be screened into multiple sizes for use. Zeolite is more akin to Akadama than Kanuma however, because Zeolite is PH neutral as is Akadama.

Putting the Soil To Use

Some species of plants require a soil that retains more water and others enjoy soils that are more porous and dry. This means that you can use the various soil materials to create specific versions of soil for specific types of plants and specific climates.

The mixtures of soils can vary from heavy moisture retaining, to arid soils. Since Akadama or Zeolite are excellent bases for soil mixes, I suggest using various sizes of these and mixing in percentages of other material depending upon layer and species. Note: If your plant is acid loving, substitute Kanuma for Akadama or Zeolite.

For example, Maples and Beeches thrive in 100% Akadama that has been screened by size. Junipers like 50/50% mixes of Akadama to calcined clay, haydite/expanded shale or grit. Most every other tree falls in between these mixtures.

While it might sound more complicated, most trees, if not all, would thrive using the layered approach found in nature. This means that the soil from bottom to top is made up of several different materials in differing sizes.

Starting with the bottom layer as if potting a plant, add large pieces of akadama, calcined clay, pumice and haydite in pieces ½ inch or larger to the pot. On top of this layer add in ¼ pieces of Akadama, pumice, pine bark chips, and river sand. It is into this layer that you will plant the tree. On top of this, the top layer would consist of 1/8 inch pieces of akadama, pine bark chips, and pumice. To top it all off, you could then apply a top dressing of sand which complements the pot and the tree.

Hopefully you now see that there is a science to soil which takes it out of the realm of mere dirt. As you purchase different materials and spend some quality time with your bonsai, you will start to see how all of these materials can work together for you. Every mixture can be tweaked depending upon the climate your plants live in. If it’s extremely rainy, windy, cloudy, or sunny throughout the growing season, you may need to tweak the soil depending. If you live in Arizona and want to grow bonsai, you are probably going to have to add peat moss to your soil. If you live in Seattle, you are probably going to want to add more pumice, calcined clay or grit.

Back to Basics – Bonsai Growing Tips

Bonsai trees are sometimes difficult to grow for some people. Often times, someone gets a bonsai tree as a gift from a person who does not really know a lot about them either. While there is nothing wrong with this, it makes it all the more imperative that the person who has received this gift do some research on the plant. With some knowledge about your tree, you can grow a bonsai tree on your own with no problems. That said, Bonsai trees will take a certain amount of work that some other plants will not. Many people who receive these trees as gifts simply put them next to a window to get some sunlight and do not bother with them afterwards, except to water them once a week or so. A bonsai tree in this situation will die quickly. The truth is, when taken care of properly, a bonsai tree can live for hundreds of years or more. Seriously!

The first thing you must do to take care of your bonsai tree is to find out what species it is. This is so important because every species has different needs. Finding out what species your tree is can sometimes be a daunting task because there are hundreds of species of bonsai trees. But finding the general name of the species will suffice because then you will know the type of environment it prefers to live in. After you find out what species your bonsai is, you will more than likely be sitting it outdoors unless it is a species of tropical bonsai, which will need special care. Of course, if you live in a tropical climate, it would be fine to sit your tropical bonsai outdoors. Bonsai trees can usually not survive indoors for a number of reasons such as lack of humidity and light.

The next important step is learning how to water your bonsai properly. Watering your plant properly is crucial to its survival. Unfortunately, this is one of the most difficult parts of bonsai cultivation. Every species will need a different quantity of water. Too much or too little could quickly kill your bonsai tree. Bonsai trees are usually in a smaller pot, which will have a smaller amount of pourous soil. Bonsai should have a rocky or pourous soil by the way. Not the loamy soil gardeners usually prefer. This smaller amount of soil will cause the bonsai tree to dry out quicker or suffer from other temperature fluctuations very easily. Using the right size pot is also important to your plant’s health because the roots of the tree dictate the pot size. Most bonsai trees will have to be watered every morning and evening in the summertime. I’ve heard that watering the plant during summer mornings will adversely affect the tree. I’ve also heard the same thing about watering in the evening. A good rule of thumb is to check a couple times a day if your tree is thirsty. If it is, give it some water. My thinking is that it rains whenever it rains and I don’t see a lot of trees with fungal growth and rot in the wild.

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