BONSAI - The easy basics for buying and growing bonsai

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The first thing you need to learn about keeping and maintaining a bonsai is that aside from the many myths that surround this beautiful hobby, they are not that difficult to look after, you just have to follow advice from people who have been growing them for many years.  I have been growing bonsai for over 15 years and have hundreds of them.  I learned at a very young age from watching my mother with her collection, and have since learned from the masters in Australia.

For the novice or a new person thinking of buying or growing bonsai themselves, the following is a good 5-point starter.  What I have noticed about most people is they need strong simple points first, then elaborations later, so here goes.  I will not complicate the basics by explaining styling, pruning, root pruning, etc.  This will just be a simple guide on the basics of keeping your bonsai alive and healthy.

1. Do not keep the bonsai indoors.  This is the main reason a beginners bonsai die.  A bonsai is a living tree, it requires an outdoors environment, just like you couldn't survive for long in the ocean.  You can bring the bonsai inside for a day, maybe once every 6 months or so, but I wouldn't recommend any longer, because a normal environment for the bonsai is outside.  If you really feel the need to display them, then just set up a nice viewing area outside, and your bonsai will appreciate it much more.

2. Only water the bonsai when it needs water, not every day.  This is the other main reason your bonsai will most likely die.  Imagine someone is feeding you a large meal, then 1 hour later they give you another huge meal, and so on and so on ; eventually you would die.  Ironically, the symptoms for over-watering a bonsai are exactly the same as those are when it dies from lack of water ; the roots become rotten from too much water and cannot properly feed the tree as they can't breathe, and thus they rot away.

The best advice for new people is ; stick your finger halfway into the soil, then take your finger out.  If a lot of soil sticks to your finger as you take it out, its still too wet.  It should be fairly dry before you water, but not bone dry.  In other words, if its damp about 3-4 cm down, its still too wet for another watering.

Also, when you water, make sure you water the soil right at the base of the trunk a few times, just to ensure that the water isn't just dribbling down around the sides of the pot and not actually wetting the interior soil ball which is a common problem in older bonsai soil.

3. Never let the soil of the bonsai become bone dry, especially before a hot day.  A bonsai requires special care, because there is not much soil in the pot, so depending on how much sun your plant gets on your balcony/backyard, it may require watering about every day or 2nd day.  The following is a rough guide, but ask me if you want advice on your particular bonsai species.

  • Pine trees / fig trees / confiers require full sun and be careful not to over water
  • Most Australian natives require full to half sun and average watering conditions, being careful not to overwater.
  • A lot of tasmanian natives / Redwoods  require half sun, and careful not to let the soil become dry.  Often in the Australian summer, you can safely water every day without fear of overwatering.

4. A bonsai needs sun.  Depending on the variety, try for morning sun and if possible, its nice to have shade cloth over it, about 30 percent sun shade, but this is not a necessity.  One of the best environments for bonsai is full sun with about 30 percent sun block, but if your bonsai is only going to get sun for half of the day, then compromise, and use about 15 percent sun block.  Sun shade cloth is literally just cloth that lets through only a certain percentage of sun, such as only 10/20/30/40 or up to 50% of the sunlight through.

5. Don't keep your bonsai on ground level.  Put it high up on a table away from ants and bugs.  Every couple of weeks, just inspect it, and look out for little critters or nastys eating your bonsai.  The best defence is...wait for it...natural predators.  If you find you have a spider living in your bonsai collection, or a beautiful praying mantis, praise yourself, because these wonderful creatures will eat all the bad guys that would otherwise treat your bonsai like dinner.  Praying mantis's, spiders, lizards and cockroaches are the good guys, DON'T KILL THEM, they will help you.  Below is a list of the bad guys.

  • Scale is probably one of the most common pests you will encounter, but fortunately they are easy to remove, they usually attach themselves on the underside of the leaves, thus concealing themselves.  Just lift your bonsai and look at the under side of the leaves closely, and you may notice a thousand little sucking things that you can just wipe off with your finger.  They may also attach themselves to fresh growth of the ends of the branches where the flesh is supple and easily chewed on.
  • Caterpillars....these guys are a bad thing.  They can eat a huge amount of your bonsai in just one or two days, so try to keep an eye out for them.  They are not always green, and they can be brown, and stick-like, attaching to the branches and chewing on the leaves. and stems.
  • Borers are bad, and often very hard to detect, (they are little creatures that eat wood).  You might find that one day, the branch of your bonsai is half hollow, and these little guys have made it their home.  You will need to cut the entire affected area off and drench the remaining surrounding area in bug spray (check your local nursery for best recommendation depending on the insect)
  • Ants are harmless to us, but unfortunately they do bury themselves and nest in lovely little soil gardens such as the soil in your bonsai pot, which ends up disturbing the root system.
  • Cats/Dogs, are wonderful animals, but have a tendency to eat or smash your bonsai, so take note and try to keep your bonsai secured from them.
  • Children are so cute, so funny, and so bad.  They play around your bonsai, and knock them over, throw basketballs on them, break them, they really are the monsters of the bonsai world.

If you have any questions at all about a type of disease/insect/problem/question related to your bonsai, or to ask any advice at all, I will happily answer any of your questions, just email me through the "contact" option on ebay and I will give you all my knowledge and help.  There is nothing sadder than hearing of a fellow enthusiast losing an old bonsai to a cureable problem.

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