During our club's Annual Show we sell starter bonsai. Below is a copy of the owner's manual that accompanies each tree we sell. It is a short summary of the history of Bonsai and the basics of caring for your tree. For more detailed information, visit our Monthly Work Schedule page or our collection of articles.
Bonsai is the Japanese word for a miniature potted tree shaped and styled to give the illusion of a miniature version of a large, full-grown (or even ancient) tree, or group of trees. To be a good Bonsai, the illusion must also be accompanied by artistic beauty achieved primarily by shape, form, and composition, as well as by color. Thus the art of Bonsai is akin to sculpture using living material.
The major "trick" of making the miniature version of a tree, which would otherwise grow to be 20, 50, or even 100 feet tall in nature, is simply to grow it in a small well-drained pot and to prune its branches every year to prevent overgrowth and loss of a desirable shape. The horticultural problem is how to keep the tree healthy and vigorously alive in such an artificial environment year after year. The artistic problem is how to shape the tree for beauty and the miniature tree illusion and how to maintain such form and appearance once achieved.
The Bonsai tree that you have just purchased is a "starter" Bonsai, which has been carefully selected from a large quantity of commercial nursery stock to have certain desirable characteristics that will permit it to become an excellent artistic Bonsai tree. It is appealing even in its initially formed state, but after three to five years of growth and continued maintenance of its form, it will become a much better Bonsai tree. After 10 years of such growth and maintenance, it will be a remarkable specimen of the ancient art of Bonsai.
Your Bonsai tree is an outdoor plant and must be kept out of doors in order to grow properly. It can occasionally be brought indoors for several days for viewing and enjoying, but should then be returned to its normal spot outside. (There are indoor Bonsai, but this is a specialized topic about which you can obtain further information from the Kusamura Bonsai Club.)
The location of the plant should be chosen based on the species. For Winter and Spring, your tree should be in a position to get full sun at least half the day (preferably all day). Most evergreen (trees that keep their leaves all-year long) species such as pine, spruce, and juniper can tolerate full day sun all Summer. After leaves are open and matured in the Spring, your deciduous (trees that loose their leaves in the Winter) Bonsai should be moved to a position for morning sun and afternoon shade (or mixed partial shade such as under a large tree or sun screen).
Daily care consists of checking your Bonsai for moisture content of the soil mix in the pot. Your Bonsai soil should not be allowed to become completely dried out, nor should it be kept overly wet and soggy. Its drying cycle is variable, dependent upon weather, position in your yard, and the season (dormant or in leaf). In the Winter, without rain, you will find that your soil mix begins to look dry after several days or a week since it was last watered. It should then be watered from a can with fine spray using care not to wash soil out of the pot. Sprinkle several times until water runs out of the holes in the bottom of the pot. (These holes are covered with screen mesh in your Bonsai to prevent washing out the soil mix.) It is best to water in the morning.
In hot Summer, your Bonsai tree may need daily, or at least every-other-day watering. It should be checked for watering daily, to be safe.
The soil mix in your Bonsai pot has been prepared by the Kusamura Bonsai Club using several ingredients mixed in proper proportions chosen for your particular species. This is done to provide the correct amount of moisture drainage and retention, air circulation, etc. for your species in the type of pot used. This mix contains no actual soil itself so that fertilizer must be used -- but in a controlled manner.
The Kusamura Bonsai Club recommends using liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion or Miracle Grow, at half strength once a month on your Bonsai. The best method is to set the Bonsai in a pan of the half-strength liquid fertilizer-water mixture with the liquid level slightly below the rim of the pot for about 10 minutes. Alternately, simply sprinkle the liquid fertilizer from the watering can onto the soil of the Bonsai, as in regular watering.
During the transition months of Spring and Fall, the watering cycle obviously will be found to gradually change. After your evergreen Bonsai ceases growing or your deciduous Bonsai drops its leaves in the Fall, no more fertilizing is required until Spring after new needles or leaves have sprouted and become fully established.
Your Bonsai has been carefully wired, shaped, and pruned (and root pruned during repotting) so as to have an appropriate Bonsai form.
During Spring and Summer, evergreen Bonsai require occasional pinching back of new needle clusters or candles to maintain this shape and to cause the tight clusters of foliage that enhance the appearance of a Bonsai tree. The pinching technique differs for pines, for which new candles are broken once in Spring. For deciduous trees, occasional trimming and pruning of growing branch tips and leaf stalks is necessary to maintain this shape. Each new leaf sprout should be allowed to have two or three sets of leaves before pruning back to a single leaf pair, using scissors or sharp pruning cutters. For both evergreen and deciduous trees, this also forces new buds to form closer to the trunk for a tighter, more desirable branch and twig structure. Development of such a tight twig structure over the years enhances the miniature tree illusion.
Your Bonsai tree should be repotted in one, two, or three years. This is done to prevent clogging of the pot with excessive roots that restrict water drainage and air circulation. Furthermore, root pruning done during repotting causes faster development of the twiggy branch structure desirable for the tree-like appearance of your Bonsai. Old soil mix is thrown out and the tree is repotted into the same pot (or a slightly smaller one for better artistic balance) with a new soil mix.
It is repotting and root pruning that renews root tips, keeping them young, which enables the Bonsai tree to live in a healthy state for decades in the pot. This procedure is not complicated but requires some instruction&emdash;how much to prune the roots, type of new soil mix, prevention of shock, post-repotting care, etc. We recommend that you come to a Kusamura Bonsai Club meeting as our guest for further information and demonstrations.
Most Bonsai have trunk and branches wrapped with wire when they are first formed. This permits bending of trunk and branches to achieve an artistic shape and form, without cracking of branches or damage to the tree. Your Kusamura Bonsai tree may have one or several such wires.
These wires cannot be left on the tree indefinitely because the growing tree bark will eventually begin to grow around the wires. If the wire is removed too late, "wire marks" appear in the bark, which may be unsightly. The time to remove wires, by carefully uncoiling or snipping with wire cutters, is after a number of months so that the branch shape is "set" as much as possible, but before "wire marks" are formed. The number of months is not accurately predictable because it depends on tree growth, which is in turn dependent on species, weather, sun, fertilization, watering, etc. Thus one should look closely at wire and bark once a month to choose the proper time for wire removal. For most slower-growing evergreen trees, such as pines, spruce, juniper, you will find that Spring wire removal is usually indicated in three to five months after new needles are out. For faster-growing deciduous trees, such as maple, elms, etc., you will find that Spring wire removal is usually indicated in two to four months after leaves are out. Wires applied in the Fall or Winter to Bonsai may not need removing until late Spring or mid-Summer.
The wiring cycle may need to be repeated several times before the form is set into the tree. Then wiring can cease.
We invite you to bring your Bonsai to the Kusamura Bonsai Club for instruction in wire inspection, removal, and rewiring, since certain non- obvious techniques make the task easier and nondamaging to the tree.
The illusion of age is generally desirable to Bonsai. This can be achieved without great actual age that, though interesting, is not of major importance to achieving the fine Bonsai.
The illusion of a mature older tree is achieved after several years by complex twigging of branches, thickening of base of main trunk and mature texture of trunk bark. The characteristics improve over the years and are enhanced by proper daily and seasonal care described in the proceeding paragraphs.
The actual age of your starter Bonsai can be estimated for you by members of the Kusamura Bonsai Club. It is probably somewhere between three and five years.
Bonsai can, and often do, achieve great age. Kusamura club members have many Bonsai they have raised for 20 years or longer. Bonsai collected from the Sierra mountains or high deserts of the western United States are often 50, 100, or 300 years old and can be kept alive and healthy as Bonsai for many more decades and even hundreds of years. A large number of privately owned Bonsai of Japan have been alive in the pot for over one hundred years and many for several hundred years. Several Bonsai owned by royalty are known to exceed 300 years in age.