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Bonsai How-to
    
This page features a growing collection of 
educational and "how to" information for those who are
new to bonsai (and for those who are not!)

Bonsai Soils, and How to Make Them
Repotting Bonsai
Beginnings in Bonsai
Evaluating Bonsai
Basic Bonsai Fertilizer
Fall Fertilizer
Bonsai Styles
 


 Bonsai Soils, and How to Make Them

It is often said that a bonsai specimen is no different from "regular" plantings grown in the wild. 
If trees have grown naturally in dirt (soil) for a long time, why do bonsai artists need to consider use of a special, unique
type of soil mix?  That is, if bonsai are simply trees from nature in a pot, why won't they live well in common garden soil? 
The truth is they might!  Much time and effort are expended in culturing most bonsai specimens.  Do we feel comfortable
 that they might live, or would we rather endeavor to help them thrive under our care and training?


The quality of soil directly affects the health and vigor of the bonsai specimen.  Experience has shown that a tree's poor
health can often be traced to being planted in a poor (often largely organic) bonsai soil, or worse, being planted
in conventional garden soil.  Such "normal" soil readily hardens as it dries.  This condition gives no advantage to the
growth of the specimen; in fact, it is often very harmful to the tree.


Desired Bonsai Soil Qualities
Good Water RetentionThe soil needs to be able to hold and retain sufficient quantities of water to
supply a needed amount of moisture to the bonsai between each watering.
Good Drainage Excess water must be able to drain immediately from the bonsai pot.  Soils
lacking good drainage are too water-retentive, lack aeration, and promote a
buildup of salts.  Excessive water in the soil may also cause the plant's roots to
rot, leading to a weakening and the possible eventual death of the specimen.
Good AerationThe particles used in a bonsai soil mix should be of sufficient size to allow tiny gaps or
air pockets between each particle. As water drains through the soil it pulls oxygen down
to the roots (not commonly known is the fact that plants absorb a great deal of oxygen
through their roots).  Aside from the roots' need to "breathe," oxygen in the soil promotes
 the development of "good" bacteria and mycorrhizae (symbiotic associations that form
between plant roots and fungi in a bi-directional movement of nutrients, where carbon
flows to the fungi and inorganic nutrients move to the plant) so the processing of
nutrients can start even before they are absorbed by the plant's roots.
Nutrients ControlThe soil must itself contribute only limited nutrients to the plant, to allow the bonsai artist
to control  the application (when, quantity, and type) of nutrients that the tree will receive.

A Variety of Soil Mixtures

The above requirements for a bonsai soil are met by varying the ratio or blend of organic and inorganic materials. 
A greater ratio of organic materials can be used with trees that need higher moisture retention.  Bonsai artists vary
greatly in their use of a particular soil blend. Some may use purely inorganic soils, such as all Akadma (a volcanic
Japanese clay, specifically produced for bonsai purposes and available at many bonsai suppliers), all Kanuma (a
volcanic clay from Japan, similar to Akadama, slightly acidic), or all pumice etc.


A commonly-used bonsai soil mix is made up of 40% sifted Turface MVP® (calcined clay), 20% sifted lava, 40% sifted
pine bark flakes (soil conditioner sold at many garden centers). This results in a 60% inorganic and 40% organic mix.
All particles are sifted prior to mixing such that none are smaller than 1/8” and none larger than 1/4" in size.  Fines,
particles smaller than 1/8” will "plug" the soil, reducing soil drainage.  A photo of commercially available sifting screens
is posted below.  Screens may also be custom-made utilizing various sizes of common hardware cloth.


So, while bonsai will grow in common garden soil, it does not provide the best "foundation" for such cultured plants. 
A selected bonsai soil offers good drainage, yet features moisture retention, sharp particle edges, limited nutrients,
and hopefully provides an attractive base for our trees. Though many bonsai suppliers sell ready-mixed soils,
mixing one's own soil will save money and enable the adjustment of the mixture of components
to better suit a particular growing situation.


Bonsai Soil Components

Akadama, specifically processed for bonsai potting purposes, is available through many bonsai suppliers. 
It needs to be sifted before use, and after about 2 years, it starts to break down, significantly reducing the soil aeration.
This means that regular repotting is required.  Because Akadama is rather expensive, it is sometimes substituted
with similar fired / baked clays that are easily available at most garden centers. 

    A commercial organic "potting soil" compost mix includes peat moss, perlite and sand.  For bonsai, it has several
disadvantages: it retains much water and doesn't aerate/drain very well, but as a part of a soil mixture it can be used
without trouble.  
Fine gravel / grit is of great importance to create a well draining and aerated bonsai soil. 
It is also used as a bottom layer in bonsai pots to enhance drainage.


Below are examples of a few of the many components used when mixing bonsai soil.  Along with a photo of each
component, a short discussion of positive / negative properties is provided.  Bonsai artists can be quite inventive
 when finding components to mix into soils; thus this is but a partial list of the many possible
materials that can be considered for bonsai soil use.



Compost

Compost

Positive: Absorbs and holds water
Negative: Easily compresses; Excessive nutrient content;
Fine particles will "plug" well draining soil; Decomposes over time


Conifer bark flakes

Conifer Bark Flakes

Positive: Absorbs and holds water; Does not compress;
Limited nutrient content
Negative: Decomposes over time


Garden Soil

Garden Soil

Positive: Retains water
Negative: Carries excessive nutrients; Compacts easily;
Drains poorly

 

Peat Moss, Short strand Sphagnum

Peat Moss

Positive: Can absorb and hold water; Limited nutrient content
Negative: Very difficult to wet (must be watered over and over: upper layers
 shed water, preventing lower layers from absorbing water)

Small particles "plug up" the soil's porosity;
Will decompose over time


Peat Moss, Long Strand Sphagnum

Long-strand Peat Moss

Positive: It is organic
Negative: Too "fluffy;" Difficult to wet (like short-strand peat moss);
Will not physically support the bonsai specimen


Akadama (Japanese volcanic clay)

Akadama

Positive: Absorbs and holds water; Will not compact; Drains very well;
Used extensively in Japanese bonsai culture
Negative: Must be sifted; Unless fired will break down into smaller particles


Calcined Clay (Clay granules fired at a very high temperature)

Calcined Clay

Positive: Absorbs and holds water; Practically indestructible;
Will not compact; Drains very well
Negative: Must be sifted


Chicken Grit (Coarse Sand)
Chicken Grit
Positive: Drains very well; Will not compress
Negative: Particles not porous; Does not retain water
Must be sifted



Crushed Granite

Crushed Granite

Positive: Practically indestructible; Will not compact;
Drains very well; Sharp particle edges
Negative: Must be sifted


Kanuma (Japanese volcanic clay)

Kanuma

Positive: Absorbs and holds water; Will not compact;
Drains very well; Slightly acidic, good for Azaleas, Gardenias, and Camellias;
Used extensively in Japanese bonsai culture
Negative: Must be sifted; Unless fired, will break down into smaller particles


Lava (Black and Red)

Black Lava   Red Lava

Positive: Absorbs and holds water; Practically indestructible;
Will not compact; Drains very well; Sharp particle edges
Negative: Must be sifted


Perlite (Puffed Silica)

Perlite

Positive: Not porous, does not retain water; Very long lasting;
Will not compact; Drains very well
NegativeMust be sifted; Harshly white color


Vermiculite

Vermiculite

Positive: Absorbs and holds water; Helps promote drainage; No nutrients
Negative: Degrades over time;


Premixed Bonsai Soil

Prepared Bonsai Soil 1   Prepared Bonsai Soil 2

Positive: Retains moisture well; Drains well;
Contains limited nutrients; Contains sharp particle edges
Does not compact
Negative: As purchased, limited user control over soil composition and features


Sifting Screens
Sifting Screens
Used in sifting soil, thus eliminating "fines."
Used to consistently grade soil particle size for particular-sized trees.




 
Repotting Bonsai

One of the most routine, yet most critical, aspects of raising bonsai, is the need for periodic repotting.
As trees in small pots continue to grow, pots fill with roots (trees may push up, rising above the pot),
 the plant often takes on a lackluster appearance, and the time for repotting has arrived.

There are two trains of thought on repotting: some artists repot in the fall after plants have reached 
dormancy; while many feel Spring, just prior to bud break, is the best time for repotting.

Roots do continue to grow during the winter season, storing sugars for spring growth.  As days lengthen and 
soil temperatures rise, these sugars are released, triggering buds to open.  With this process, some feel that
early winter repotting is best, allowing remaining roots to absorb more nutrients after pruning.  The Spring 
advocates feel that sugars have already moved up into the trunk and branches, thus root pruning will cause 
minimal stress.  As such, Spring repotting advocates are getting busy just as their trees begin early growth.

Frequently, when we cut retaining wires and remove the tree from the pot, we find a mass of roots closely 
resembling inside shape of the pot (the plant is “rootbound”).  Notice the tightly shaped root mass below. 
We often find these roots wrapped multiple times around the inside of the pot.


Bonsai Root Mass

This mass of roots must be slowly and carefully untangled and stretched out, to allow pruning
as seen below.  The tender white fleshy roots are easily damaged.


Bonsai Roots

Root pruning is very species dependent.  Trident Maples may be pruned practically to the trunk and 
they will thrive.  Pines, on the other hand, prefer limited pruning; if all the fine feeder roots are removed,
the tree will die.  A good general rule of thumb is to remove no more than one third of the root mass.
Again, this can vary greatly with the species.  Maple trees pruned significantly as seen below should show
no major negative effects, and in fact will usually thrive from the new growth that will occur after the pruning.


Root Pruning

While roots are exposed during the pruning process, keep them moist with a spray bottle.
Pots should be prepared while the tree is resting, awaiting a return to its home.  Clean the pots well,
replace drainage screens, and install fresh hold-down wire as seen below.


Pot with Wire

Notice the use, in this case, of four wires in the bottom of the pot.  Many bonsai pots have only two holes,
while many of the better (more expensive) pots will have four holes: one located near each corner.  In most
cases four wires are needed to properly hold the tree steady in the loose bonsai soil.

Place a small mound of soil in the bottom of the pot.  Place the tree on top of the soil mound. Twist wires firmly
together up and over/around the root ball, taking care not to pinch the roots so tightly as to damage them.  When
wires are correctly tightened, the tree will feel rigid in the pot even with no soil fill, thus preventing fine feeder roots
from being damaged with tree movement.  Fill the pot with bonsai soil, and gently use a bamboo chopstick to work
the soil into and under the root ball, filling all voids.  Water the newly-potted tree well.  The best method is to place
 the pot and newly-secured tree into a tray and slowly fill it with water up to top of the soil.  Allow the tree stand for
30 minutes or more, thoroughly soaking the roots and allowing soil particles to absorb water.


Repotted Bonsai

Note that in the picture above, that the wires and all roots are covered with the new soil, and that a
watering space has been left below the pot rim, allowing water to stand above the soil during watering.

This introduction to bonsai repotting has shown the essential steps in the process.
Take the plunge, repot your trees, and enjoy this great hobby!  Good luck, and join 
a bonsai group for more information, experience and support.






Guidelines for Evaluation of Bonsai

There are five areas to consider when evaluating the relative merit of a bonsai and these are
listed below in order of importance.  A bonsai specimen, to receive a high ranking, must be healthy and
well-groomed, and should give a good aesthetic impression to the viewer.  Mechanical techniques that are
used should not be distracting and, finally, the specimen is evaluated in terms of its maturity as a bonsai.


Health
To be judged a good bonsai, the specimen must be in excellent health.  Leaf color should be uniform and of the
same color as that plant grown naturally in the ground.  It should show evidence of good pruning practices which
help the plant horticulturally as well as aesthetically.  The soil surface, leaves, dead wood, and bark should all be free
of algae, mildew, and mold.  There should be no evidence of pests.  The bonsai style should be appropriate for the
specie and the soil should be stable and capable of providing for the needs of the plant.


Grooming
Oversized, damaged, or off-color leaves and downward-growing foliage should be removed. Soil surface should
be free from debris. Moss or other ground cover should be healthy and clean. Moss should not cover the trunk or
hide exposed roots.  Pots should be clean and lightly oiled to bring out their best patina.


Aesthetics
A bonsai, when first viewed, should create a strong impression which beckons the viewer to pause and take
a second look. The overall composition should exhibit a logical consistency: tree style, branch placement and
shape, foliage size and pot color, shape and size, should all contribute toward a unified composition. The tree
and its container should convey a feeling of stability rather than one of stress.


Mechanical Techniques
Wire, if used, should be applied evenly, in the appropriate size and without crossing one wire strand over another. 
Wounds and dead wood should enhance the beauty of the tree, not detract from it.  Branches and foliage may be
placed to hide faults.  Foliage and branch pruning should not leave dead tips and unsightly stumps.


Maturity
The maturity of a bonsai does not refer as much to chronological age or the number of years the specimen has
been in training, as much as it does to the aesthetic appearance of age.  Bonsai maturity is conveyed by
ground-clinging roots, a tapering trunk, downward growing branches, branch ramification, reduced leaf size and
internode length, aged bark and scars, dead wood, and other technical means.  A feeling that a bonsai is
“completed” is an indication that it may have reached aesthetic maturity.



A Bonsai Judging Form is available to download
and use in evaluating bonsai specimens

Judging Form




Beginnings in Bonsai
(or, "where in the world do I start?")

Bonsai, evolving from ancient Chinese and Vietnamese traditions,
 is the Japanese art of growing ornamental, miniature trees.

The word derives from 盆 bon, "basin" and 栽 sai, "planting"…literally meaning “little tree in a pot.”
Bonsai specimens are kept small by being grown in a container and by the use of skilled pruning,
with formative techniques applied to create an aesthetic shape and the illusion of age.

Bonsai in Nature 
Natural bonsai (Juniper), growing in the wild

At its basis, then, the art of bonsai seeks to re-create nature in a miniature form. 
A bonsai specimen is not a genetically dwarfed plant.  It is kept small by shaping and root pruning. 
 It is claimed that a properly maintained bonsai can outlive a full size tree of the same species.


Five Needle Pine
Five Needle Pine

There is no definitive first step in bonsai, but rather there are some basic things to take into consideration
as one begins to practice this art.  A few of the more important points are discussed here, in no particular order.

 In selecting your first tree, choose a species that is sturdy and “forgiving,” that will be easy to keep alive.
 
A Trident Maple, or the Shimpaku or Procumbens Nana (Green Mound) Juniper is an excellent choice for 
a “starter” tree, and these are very popular among bonsai enthusiasts.  A great source for a 
bonsai specimen is often a bush or small tree in your yard.


Japanese Maple
Japanese Maple

When we ask a person’s experience level with bonsai, a first question is often, 
“how many trees have you killed?”  Don’t start with an expensive tree!

 Bonsai specimens, often living in a very small amount of soil, must be watered frequently.
Common bonsai novice mistakes are under-watering, pruning branches too far, pruning at the 
wrong time of year, pruning roots too far, and trying to grow on your coffee table a tree
that requires an outdoor environment.


Shallow Bonsai Pot
Shallow Bonsai Container

As we gain experience we often choose more challenging trees. 
The greater the difficulty, the greater the reward….

Still interested? Great!

 Bonsai are simply small trees in a pot. Any tree can be placed in a pot! But the mighty Oak with its large 
leaves would look odd as bonsai, as would a Magnolia tree. The juniper with its small needle-like foliage 
is a great choice for bonsai.  With time and training, some trees with larger foliage can be “taught” to 
produce smaller leaves; but these advanced techniques should be left to the more experienced bonsai artist.

 The beginner can start with tools such as simple gardening tools, small pointed pruning shears etc. 
Actual bonsai tools, crafted specifically for the tasks at hand do cost more and can be quite expensive.  
As you progress in the art, the beginner will come to realize the benefit of using these 
more specialized tools made for bonsai tasks.


Beginner Bonsai Tools
Bonsai Tools for the Beginner

Advanced Bonsai Tools
Advanced Bonsai Tools

A wealth of reading material for the beginner can be found at on-line book sellers. 
A particularly good primer-level book is Sunset Publications’ “Bonsai” (2003) by Susan Lang.  
It is now out of print, but can still be found at many book sellers at a reasonable cost.


Sunset Publications Bonsai
Sunset Publications' "Bonsai" (2003) by Susan Lang

So where does one begin?

Required items include a tree (of course!), some well-draining soil, a pot, and a few tools.
From there many options will present themselves: different soil and fertilizer recipes, more types of tools,
learning different bonsai styles, becoming experienced in pruning and wiring techniques, just to name a few. 

 So, go ahead and pot up a tree!  For starters a regular nursery pot will do; when you re-pot the tree,
a ceramic bonsai pot must have one or more holes in the bottom, and feet, to let the water drain out.
A
pply a bit of fertilizer, then watch your tree grow and change while you research the information
available and begin to enjoy the art of Bonsai.

Most importantly, both you and your trees will benefit greatly if you join a local bonsai club,
where you will be able to get helpful advice and answers to your questions.

Welcome to Bonsai!






Basic Bonsai Fertilizer

Ask a dozen bonsai artisans about how to fertilize bonsai, and you’ll probably get a dozen different answers.
A discussion of fertilization among a group of those who work with bonsai will usually reveal a variety of methods
based on tried-and-true practices developed over the years. 

These recipes have been formulated from information by John Naka, notes from bonsai artisan Kathy Shaner,
and personal Living Art Bonsai Society members’ experiences.  Singular use of commercial fertilizers like
Miracle Grow® can make a plant healthy, but with extended use they tend to cause the tree’s stems and
branches to become more brittle.

Basic Recipe
Parts
2
4
2
2
1
2
1
Material
Plant Tone®
Worm Casting
Rock Phosphate
Kelp Meal
GreenSand  (helps green up junipers)
Triple Super Phosphate (0-45-0)
Bone Meal


For Higher Nitrogen
Parts
10
20
1
10
5
2
2
Material
BASIC RECIPE (above)
Plant Tone, or, Holly Tone for acid loving plants
Kelp Meal
Alfalfa Meal
Fish Meal
Bat Guano
Blood Meal


WHEN TO APPLY

Begin to use fertilizer in the early spring 4 to 6 weeks after repotting, continuing about once a month
until early June, then stop for the summer.  Apply once more in mid to late September.


APPLICATION METHODS

DRY CAKES:  Combine the dry fertilizer mixture with baking flour and water mixed with a little Miracle Grow®
to make solid pellets or cakes that can be dried by baking in the sun.  Be sure to add a little Sevin® Dust to this
 mixture, as flies love to lay eggs on the pellets/cakes, and maggots will otherwise be appearing soon.
Place the cakes or pellets at multiple locations
(2 for smaller containers, 4 for larger ones) around the container perimeter
at one fertilizer application, then use different locations at the next feeding, to best reach all the roots more evenly. 

DRY SPRINKLE: The dry mixture can be sprinkled on top of the bonsai growing medium,
but will eventually leave a dirty thin film.

FEEDING PACKETS: Many local grocery stores (e.g. Fresh Market in Huntsville, Alabama) stock
empty tea bags, into which a couple of teaspoons of the dry fertilizer mixture can be placed.  The bag should be
closed up by twisting the thin wire or string, and then laid flat on top of the bonsai growing medium.

FOLIAR FEEDING:  It is also important to foliar feed often. Use HB-101 fertilizer according to directions,
fish emulsion, or beer diluted at the rate of  one (1) Tablespoon per gallon of water.  During growing season the
application of these substances can be alternated every week or two. 

LIQUID FERTILIZER SPRAY: Acid-loving plants such as azaleas and dogwoods will benefit
 from being fertilized with Miracid monthly.


Fall Fertilizer - For Enhanced Root Growth

Parts Source N-P-K Growth Impact Key Components
2 PlantTone® 5-3-3 Plant Vigor Calcium, Magnesium, Sulfer, Alfalfa Meal, Microbes (Proprietary)
2 Triple Super Phosphate 0-45-0 Roots Monocalcium Phosphate
2 Kelp Meal 1-0-2 Soil Conditioner Brown Seaweed
1 Iron Tone® 2-1-3 Plant Greening Calcium, Magnesium, Sulfer, Iron
1 Bone Meal 6-9-0 Roots, Flowers Calcium
1 Gypsum n/a Soil Conditioner Calcium Sulfate
1 Greensand 0-0-0.1 Vigor, Disease Resistance Glauconite, Iron, Potassium Silicate





Bonsai Styles

There are five basic styles of bonsai specimens with many variations based on these foundational shapes,
Formal Upright
, Informal Upright, Slant, Semi-Cascade, and Full Cascade.   Bonsai styles are
referred to the overall shape of the tree and to what degree the tree's trunk moves away
from an imaginary vertical axis.  

Each style brings its own unique beauty to the bonsai specimen, and it is
important to decide which style best suits the natural design of the tree and how it grows in nature.


The Formal Upright
The first of the five basic styles is a highly-contrained shape that best suits certain species and growing
conditions in nature.  The formal upright is primarily a conifer style with a staight trunk, often featuring a
powerful taper in the trunk as it extends upwards from the base.
Formal Upright


Informal Upright
With a softer look that is often more natural-looking for many types of trees,
the informal upright style features a curved trunk, with major branches on the outside of the trunk curves,
and the apex situated over the base of the tree.
Informal Upright


Slant
The slant style empasizes a slanted trunk that flows to one side, with an offset apex.  
While the trunk can lean to the right or to the left, it is key that the roots look as if they are indeed holding
the tree in place, i.e. the tree should never appear as if it is going to fall over.  
A more extreme example of the slant style is called windswept.
Slant



Semi-Cascade
The semi-cascade syle of bonsai extends the look of the slant style, with a trunk that leans
primarily to one side, but without the shape dropping beneath the bottom of the container.
Semi Casacde


Full Cascade
The full cascade style further extends and emphasis the slant and semi-cascade shapes, often with a look that says,
"hanging on for dear life."  The full cascade style features a trunk that extends below the base of the bonsai container,
usually with curves in the trunk and branches extending from the sides of the trunk.
Full Cascade




...more to come...



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