Your new bonsai – up until now- has been living in a greenhouse- Bonsai Heaven. It has grown in consistently high levels of very bright, filtered light and thrived in jungle- like humidity. So, unless you’re moving it into your own greenhouse, chances are things are about to change and in fact, after spending a few days in a box, that change has started.
Helping your bonsai adjust. I’m not going to differentiate between tree types even though some are tougher than others, they are all experiencing a change in environment that will create some responses.
The most common is for a tree to drop leaves, shortly after arriving. It can be very distressing if you think it’s only happening because you’ve done something wrong (or been sold a lemon). Plants are a lot like kids- they don’t like change. Ficus are notorious for dropping leaves and I’ve had many customers email me in a panic ( and sometimes anger) because their chinese elm dropped just about every leaf it had within two weeks of delivery. Don’t panic, just be patient, continue to care for the tree and they’ll grow back.
The first few weeks will be the most challenging as the tree makes a transition from the greenhouse to your home. The biggest changes will be the lighting and the humidity levels and anything you can do to smooth out the transition will help.
Unpack it immediately and inspect for any damage to the plant or pot that might have occurred during shipping. (Couriers seem to have a particular dislike for ceramic pots, which are far more likely to be damaged than your tree.)
It’s understood that no one buys a bonsai to hide it away. You will want to display it. But the right spot for the tree might not be the ideal display spot. In other words, if you purchased a bonsai as “something for the coffee table” you might be disappointed. Be prepared to be flexible.
If your tree is delivered during warm weather you have the option to summer it outside. Place it first in total shade and then add about one hour of sun every 2-3 days. Ideally when fully acclimated to the outside your tree will get full morning sun and dappled afternoon shade. But if this isn’t possible- fine.
Place you bonsai in the best light you can give it BUT not where it will get hours of direct afternoon sun magnified through a window. If you’re not certain how much light is too much, err slightly on the side of caution. Even a sheer curtain will make all the difference between bright, filtered light and scorching sun.
Watch for signs of leaf burn and respond immediately by moving the tree into less direct lighting. Again different trees have different requirements, but know that there is a real difference in the quality of direct light from an east or southeast window versus a west window. North windows will often not provide adequate light. If all you can offer is an east or north window, you might want to consider supplementing with artificial light.
Place you bonsai away from heating and air conditioning vents and away from cold drafts in the winter. Be aware that the ledges of poorly insulated windows that might scorch you plant in the summer can just as easily kill it with cold in the winter. Some trees are more tolerant than others
Provide your tree with a pebble tray and in the beginning you might go with something over sized to help with the transition. Consider at least temporarily donating a tray about the size of rimmed baking sheet to the cause. Cover it with a layer of pebbles (you can get aquarium gravel from a fish store in many different colors and this works well). Keep water in the tray- but not so much that the base of the tree is sitting in it. The goal is to increase the local humidity level as much as possible. You’re not going to achieve the same level as the greenhouse your bonsai just left. But you will ease the transition. As your tree toughens up a bit you can reduce the size of the tray to the width of your tree and select a tray/pebble combination that delivers the functionality, but in a more attractive way. Something like a “coffee table platter” and small smooth river stones or marbles – whatever works with your décor.
Mist your tree, with a sprayer filled with room temperature water that has been sitting at least 24 hours to disperse the chlorine. Do it everyday at first and gradually cut back to a few times a week. When you mist the tree, be aware of any water that is dripping down to the soil. It’s actually a good idea to drape a small piece of plastic – (Saran Wrap will work) over the soil when you mist. This will ensure that your misting doesn’t interfere with your watering.
It’s a concern because if you mist your plant heavily every day, a fair amount of moisture will drop onto the soil, but not enough to penetrate deeply. It will give an appearance of moist soil when it could actually be bone dry underneath. And the flip side is that the top layer of soil will always be wet and that will interfere with the air circulation to the roots and promote rot.
Don’t worry about pruning, pinching or wiring your new bonsai and do not fertilize it during the transition period.
Inspect your bonsai daily for dryness, to remove any dead leaves from the tree or soil, check for dirt or dust collection on the leaves. Look carefully at the leaves, particularly the underside of the leaves- and stems for any signs of pests – usually first noticed as strange hard bumps on the stems (Scale) , sticky residue on the stems or leaves (aphids or scale) fine webs on the stems or the leaf axis(spider mites) , or little cottony bumps on the stems and leaves (mealy bugs).
Even the experts who disagree on how to water a bonsai will all agree that the number one bonsai killer is improper watering. Different trees have different requirements and you’ll need to understand what’s best for your tree, but a few simple rules will help.
Actually, these “rules” are rather picky and chances are you won’t be able to deliver at 100% ( I don’t) but use these as a guideline and just do your best.
- Do not use water directly from the tap. Chlorine can be damaging and some trees are very sensitive to it. Just fill your watering can or jug and let the water sit 24 hours before you use it.
- When you water, do it completely. You can either submerge the whole pot in water and wait for the bubbles to stop rising or use a small watering can, preferably one with a fine rose to prevent a massive gush or water that will wash away the soil. Water until you see water coming out of the bottom of the pot. Wait about half an hour and do it again. To a degree, the first watering conditions the soil to accept more water.
- Don’t try to water your bonsai to a set schedule. Check the soil every day by sticking a finger in about one half to one inch deep – depending on the pot size and depth. . When it feels dry that far down, it’s time to water again. Your bonsai’s watering requirements will change over time in keeping with its own cycle of growth and rest and also in response to the environment in your home. For example, with central heating many homes get drier as the winter progresses.
- Learn about your trees specific needs and build your watering practices to best meet those needs. For example, some trees will easily tolerate alternating wet/dry conditions but others will prefer that soil stays uniformly damp.
- Never let your bonsai get bone dry. Some trees will die if this even happens once.
- Don’t keep your bonsai wet all the time either – overwatering kills more trees than under watering. (But, under watering kills them faster)
- If you’re planning a vacation, arrange to have someone water while you’re away.
This might sound like a very long list of do’s and don’ts for an easy care tree, but if you’re mindful of the environmental change your tree will first experience, you’ll give your new bonsai a great start.