Hi all, after moderating this forum for about a year now some general themes have come up over and over again:
How to water a bonsai tree: Improper watering is probably the largest cause of problems with bonsai, in Japan it is said that it takes years to learn to properly water bonsai. First of all don't water your tree(s) on a schedule, check your trees everyday and only water as necessary. Dig into the soil with your finger (the deeper the better without scratching up the roots too much) and test to see if the soil is damp.
Another method is to insert a kitchen skewer or chopstick to the bottom of the pot and leave it there. Take it out daily to check it; if the skewer has soil stuck to it don't water. Touch the wood to your cheek or underside of your wrist, if it is damp there is no need to water. This method is particularly useful for trees that are in heavier organic/peat based soils. It becomes less effective when proper bonsai soils are used. After a while you will get used to the requirements of your particular trees. You will find that temperate trees will need less water in late fall and winter than they will in spring or summer.
Okay, if the tree needs watering, water using a watering can that has a fine rose so as not to disturb the soil. There is an old saying that for bonsai it always rains twice, meaning that a single watering is not sufficient to thoroughly wet the soil. Water the entire surface of your tree until the water drains freely from the bottom of the pot, wait for about 10-15 minutes and repeat. Some even recommend a third watering, and if you have the time and are so inclined it certainly will not hurt. You will never over water your trees in this way. Correct watering is not about the quantity of water used but the frequency with which it is applied. The goal of watering is to completely saturate the soil each time you water, repeating only as necessary. A little water often is the wrong approach.
Another technique that can be used is to immerse the entire pot in a sink full of water for about 15 minutes. This is not done as a method of routine watering but rather under special circumstances. It is especially useful after re-potting to ensure that the dry soil is completely saturated the first time. It can also be used as an emergency measure if a tree has inadvertently been allowed to dry out. Sometimes commercially prepared bonsai are potted in such a poor soil medium that immersion is required to thoroughly wet it. If this is the case consider it a warning sign that the soil is in poor condition and should be replaced in short order. Immersion is also time consuming and becomes increasingly impractical as your collection grows.
Learn more about watering:
Use organic ferilizers like Liquid Fish Fertilizer or liquid seaweed fertilizer. Do not fetilize your tree in winter as the trees should be dormant.
This conveniently leads me to the next topic:
Where to put your tree:
All temperate trees are best kept outside year round. Research will be required to determine the best placement for your particular tree and climate. On occasion these trees can be taken inside when the bonsai master wishes to showcase their tree. This should be limited to one to two days maximum. Some protection may be required during the coldest part of winter. One method is to place the pot in a larger pot with straw or some other medium in it. Another is to bury the pot in the back yard during the fall. However, according to the HG, not all pots will withstand this treatment. It is also sometimes possible to remove the tree from its pot and to temporarily plant it in the garden. A sheltered sundeck or unheated garage are other options, the list goes on.
Learn more about dormancy:
Even tropicals that are kept inside during the winter, depending on your climate, will do best outside during the summer. During the winter you may find it difficult to locate a good spot for your tree. Some trees are sensitive to temperature swings and for these the window is not a good spot. Supplemental lighting may be required and can be as simple as a fluorescent fixture on an inexpensive timer.
Learn more about indoor bonsai:
What tree do I grow?
Well, if you live a temperate climate, don't try to grow a tropical tree because it will probably cause you more grief than joy. Grow trees that are suited to your climate and they and you will be a lot happier.
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Thanks for that Opa. Good info, but I would say that I have tropicals so I can garden through the winter, and for those who cannot overwinter outside (citydwellers and such) tropicals are much better way to go as they don't require the dormant period. Not as long lived maybe, but we are talking most still outliving you with good care...my favorite tree is my Ficus, despite some defects I am laboring to correct. More telling would be folks in warm places trying to get away with cold weather trees; Picea abies is NOT gonna do well in Boca Raton. Doing your homework before you buy to find the tree that best suits your lifestyle and desires is the best advice...