Growing a healthy bonsai is pretty straight forward, but we’ve all made bonsai mistakes. For many beginners, the learning curve is fraught with frustration and dead trees. In this article, we’ll cover 5 mistakes you might be making that could spell the demise of your miniature tree.
Not too long ago, I visited a co-worker who had recently been gifted a small juniper bonsai tree from a corporate vendor. When i saw it, it looked young, happy and healthy. Like so many office bonsai, it lived on his desk, in a corner office that had big, bright windows. He had all the right intentions for the tree, he even religiously watered the tree Monday through Friday.
But the tree died. His once lush green juniper was now a crispy brown skeleton of a tree.
As it turns out, he was making 5 critical mistakes that ultimately killed his tree. We’ll break down those mistakes in this post so that your bonsai tree doesn’t end up like his.
1. Biggest of the Bonsai Mistakes? Overwatering.
Did you catch that part of the story where he was watering his tree daily throughout the work week?
Each day he would come into the office and fill a small cup with water, then gently dump the water over the surface of the soil. This technique might work well for a typical office plant, but not for a bonsai.
Considering his bonsai was still in the soil that it came in (likely potting soil, which retains a lot of water), he was likely overwatering the tree. This in turn caused the roots to rot and his tree eventually died.
For the most part, bonsai should be potted in a well draining soil to prevent the roots from being constantly soaked in water. Bonsai watering techniques tell us to only water when the soil begins to dry out 1″ below the surface.
2. Not Fertilizing
Picture a tree in nature. It grows in the ground, and uses its roots to reach out into the earth to find the necessary nutrients to survive. Now think of your bonsai tree. There is only so much soil it can pull nutrients from in a small pot, and if your tree is planted in potting soil, those nutrients will be depleted quickly.
Your tree will count on you to supplement it with fertilizer to replace those nutrients and feed it.
If you don’t fertilize, it will eventually die.
3. Keeping it Indoors
The most common bonsai mistake that’s made is keeping an outdoor tree inside a house or office, especially junipers.
Juniper bonsai are outdoor bonsai.
The myth that leads to many bonsai mistakes is that junipers are indoor trees. This has been constantly reinforced by growers trying to sell their mass produced trees, and television commercials that show these trees living happily on desktops and shelves inside.
They’re all wrong. Your juniper should live outside.
Why can’t junipers live inside? A couple of reasons:
- They need full sunlight for thrive.
- They need a period of dormancy, or rest. This dormancy period is triggered by cold temperatures.
Depriving them of either for a long enough period and your tree will die.
4. Pinching/Cutting the Tips
Junipers get their energy from their foliage. In the spring, you’ll notice that a healthy juniper gets bright green tips on the end of it’s leaves. These are the growing tips, and it’s essential to not remove them, or you’ll greatly weaken the tree.
You can certainly prune junipers, but not by cutting off the tips.
Imagine holding juniper foliage pinched between two fingers, then slicing across with sheers like a barber cuts hair. That’s a no-no.
Instead, if you’re interested in shorting the length of a certain branch on your tree, follow the foliage from the tip back toward the base of the branch. You’ll find that the foliage comes together in a crotch. This is where you can trim back longer foliage.
5. Not Rotating Your Tree
By now you know that junipers need to live outside, and that they need full sun to thrive.
Unless your tree is in a position that gets full sun, 360 degrees around the tree, you’ll want to rotate your tree every week or so to ensure that all of the foliage is receiving equal amounts of sunlight.
For reference, in the northern hemisphere, the south side of the tree will receive the most light.
This might seem counter-intuitive, as you’ll personally always want the “front” of the tree facing you for maximum enjoyment of the bonsai, but in reality, the health of the tree should come first, and your enjoyment of it second.
BONUS: 6. Impatience!
While most of the bonsai mistakes mentioned above are easily fixable, patience is not.
Bonsai is an art in which trees are trained and developed over years, and even decades. You’ll probably see trees online from bonsai professionals that look jaw dropping, then look at your tree and think “why can’t you look like that?”
Bonsai can be a rewarding portion of your life, but you’ll need to accept that trees grow slow, and going from a young tree to a show-worthy tree can take a long, long time. For this reason, you’ll find many bonsai enthusiasts have many trees in their collection, so there is always something to work on while the other trees are in development.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of the common bonsai mistakes discussed here. Don’t feel bad – we all end up making these mistakes at some point.
The important part is learning that these aren’t best practices, and adjust your bonsai tree care accordingly.