X10
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Chinese Elm leaves drying up-what am I doing wrong?

Hi all,
I was bought a Chinese Elm in December for Christmas and have been looking after it as prescribed in the book that came with it ("A Guide to Bonsai" Barbara Lockett - Lorbex Specialist books). In the last week or so the leaves appear to have dried up, lost their deep green colour and look a pale green. Today I noticed the soil appears to have 'shrunk', that is to say that it is no longer flush to the pot as you would expect but a few millimeters away and it is almost easy to lift the entire tree and soil out of the pot.
I was watering it with some bonsai plant food as stated on the bottle, once a month until March, then every 10 days since then.
I can provide more details, and photos of the bonsai if required.

Can anyone suggest what the primary reason(s) is/are to this sudden decline in health?

I've noticed a few posts have mentioned hard water being a problem for watering if you live in a city. We don't have very hard water, but it is slightly hard. Should I get a water filter jug?

The room it has been in is warm most of the time, and not very humid at all, though I've not seen specific metion of the Chinese Elm requiring a particularly humid climate to survive.

Please help, all comments and suggestions greatly welcomed, I don't want my beautiful bonsai to die!

X10

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Gnome
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X10,

Welcome to our forum.
In the last week or so the leaves appear to have dried up,...the soil appears to have 'shrunk', that is to say that it is no longer flush to the pot as you would expect but a few millimeters away and it is almost easy to lift the entire tree and soil out of the pot... the leaves appear to have dried up, lost their deep green colour and look a pale green.
It sounds as though you have not been watering it sufficiently, at least not recently. As the weather warms and the plant enters into an active growth phase its water uptake will increase. Water usage will vary and you must allow for this variation.
You cannot rely on a schedule to inform you when to water, instead you must water as required. Have a look [url=https://www.helpfulgardener.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1479]here[/url] for tips on watering bonsai.

Soak the plant well once then follow the instructions in the link. The skewer/toothpick method is really useful in order to get a feel for your plant, later you will not need it but it does help early on.
I've noticed a few posts have mentioned hard water being a problem for watering if you live in a city. We don't have very hard water, but it is slightly hard. Should I get a water filter jug?
I live in an area that has very hard (well) water and I have no problems with Elms. I cannot, however, seem to keep an Azalea alive for more than two seasons. :cry:

Norm

X10
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Hi Gnome, thanks for your quick response.
Gnome wrote:X10,

Welcome to our forum.
Thanks! :)
Gnome wrote: It sounds as though you have not been watering it sufficiently, at least not recently. As the weather warms and the plant enters into an active growth phase its water uptake will increase. Water usage will vary and you must allow for this variation.
You cannot rely on a schedule to inform you when to water, instead you must water as required. Have a look [url=https://www.helpfulgardener.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1479]here[/url] for tips on watering bonsai.

Soak the plant well once then follow the instructions in the link. The skewer/toothpick method is really useful in order to get a feel for your plant, later you will not need it but it does help early on.
I have been watering it pretty well so far, and reading the links you gave, I think I was doing the right thing. I have been watering it twice each time, and watering only once the top-soil looks like it was getting dry.
I'll try the stick method to test wetness from now on.

The thing is that the soil is not dry, only the leaves have gone dry and started to drop off, which is why I thought it was odd.
I have given it a good soaking now and waiting to see what happens.
Also, might be worth mentioning that the water, when watering a week ago, started to come out a little yellow in colour. It has continued to do so everytime I've watered it since then.

Anyway, I'll keep you updated as to any change, or if anyone comes up with anything else to do, please let me know!

X10

killyspike
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Does the bonsai have a humidity tray at least if kept indoors? Is the soil very condensed and hard? Does the water drain nicely when you water extensively when it is required?

Maybe worth posting some pictures of the soil and the tree itself. I have a chinese elm and they are good beginners trees. Its doing well and I can tell that last years ramification, pruning and pinching has paid off. This year I'm looking to broaden my sites to other species which maybe a little more tricky.

You started off well as you are paying attention to detail. I'm sure with the right advice it will pull through :)

killyspike
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Just another thought maybe it could be a bit of over fertilisation. In the winter months when my tree became dormant I left it pretty much all winter. I even left it outside and it went through rain, snow and mostly cold weather. Came through no problem and now it is starting to grow new leaves after pruning it.

As a rule I thought it was best to leave fertilisation through the dormant stage and start it up again once the growing season started.

X10
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killyspike wrote:Does the bonsai have a humidity tray at least if kept indoors?
It does, though I didn't realise this is what it was until you asked and I Googled it! I've not had it on the humidity tray for a couple of months, I've had it in a plastic container - see pictures.
killyspike wrote: Is the soil very condensed and hard?
I'm not sure as I have nothing to compare it to
- It's not hard as I have it wet mostly, unless it's been waiting to dry up a little before watering again.
- It's might be a little tightly condensed, again, I can't compare this to anything so I would not know - How do I go about checking?
killyspike wrote:Does the water drain nicely when you water extensively when it is required?
It rolls off the edges rather than soaking up if the water is being poured on quite heavily. It drains quite well though.

6 images of my tree as it is now are here:

https://www.photobox.co.uk/album/106885004

Thank you to all for help so far.

X10
Last edited by X10 on Tue Apr 14, 2009 11:27 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Gnome
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X10,
It rolls of the edges rather than soaking up if the water is being poured on quite heavily. It drains quite well though.
When I first saw this my reaction was that the soil is dense and peaty. This type of soil is difficult to re-wet once it becomes dry. You mentioned earlier that the soil has shrunken away from the pot and this also seems to fit with my earlier comments regarding the tree being under watered.

Then in seeing your pictures the soil looks to be very wet and soggy. Had you just watered it prior to taking the pictures?

Two possibilities. The soil may appear to be wet but it is possible that the core is dry.Those leaves are definitely dehydrated. Another possibility is that it has been over watered. I know that sounds contradictory but if the roots are rotted they cannot take up water and the same thing happens to the leaves, dehydration. Either way the poor soil and/or improper watering is at the root of the problem.

If you don't determine what is going on you are going to lose this tree. You said you could remove the plant from the pot. Do it again and try to determine if the core of the soil is wet or dry. Don't rely on the appearance of surface but probe deeper.

If the soil is really too dry (internally) replace it in the pot and soak the whole thing. If the soil is soggy an emergency re-potting may be your best bet, start looking into proper bonsai soil.
https://www.helpfulgardener.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=3422

Norm

P.S.

I just took another look at the pictures and noticed the plastic tray. How high has water been in that container? That may be the problem. If water has been allowed to wick back up (or more accurately never really drain well) you may have rotted roots as I mentioned above. A humidity tray should only have a small amount of water in it. The point is to increase humidity around the plant not keep the soil soggy.

X10
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Gnome wrote:When I first saw this my reaction was that the soil is dense and peaty. This type of soil is difficult to re-wet once it becomes dry. You mentioned earlier that the soil has shrunken away from the pot and this also seems to fit with my earlier comments regarding the tree being under watered.

Then in seeing your pictures the soil looks to be very wet and soggy. Had you just watered it prior to taking the pictures?
Hi Gnome, thanks for the response.
Photo was taken on same day as watering, though not just after.
But just to clarify what I has said earlier - The soil was still moist when it started to shrink back from the edges of the pot and the leaves started to dry.
Gnome wrote: Two possibilities. The soil may appear to be wet but it is possible that the core is dry.Those leaves are definitely dehydrated. Another possibility is that it has been over watered. I know that sounds contradictory but if the roots are rotted they cannot take up water and the same thing happens to the leaves, dehydration. Either way the poor soil and/or improper watering is at the root of the problem.
After your first post I checked the soil using a stick and found it was wet all the way through, and definately so after watering it.
Gnome wrote: If you don't determine what is going on you are going to lose this tree. You said you could remove the plant from the pot. Do it again and try to determine if the core of the soil is wet or dry. Don't rely on the appearance of surface but probe deeper.
I think my girlfriend got the Chinese Elm for me because it's the easiest bonsai to maintain, but I seem to have still managed to mis-treat it :(

I have checked the core again with a stick today and it is definately moist.
Gnome wrote: If the soil is really too dry (internally) replace it in the pot and soak the whole thing. If the soil is soggy an emergency re-potting may be your best bet, start looking into proper bonsai soil.
https://www.helpfulgardener.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=3422
Okay, well perhaps it seems like the soil is too wet and the bonsai requires repotting.
I had a look through those links on the link you gave, there really is a lot of information, and as a number of authors point out, nothing is concrete and set as to soil composition and type.
Gnome, you clearly know what you're talking about and have a lot of experience, what would you recommend as soil for an indoor Chinese Elm bonsai?
Gnome wrote: I just took another look at the pictures and noticed the plastic tray. How high has water been in that container?
A few millimeters to about 1cm at most, though it usually dries up after a day or two.
I'm starting to think that your assumption about over-watering might be right!
Gnome wrote: That may be the problem. If water has been allowed to wick back up (or more accurately never really drain well) you may have rotted roots as I mentioned above. A humidity tray should only have a small amount of water in it. The point is to increase humidity around the plant not keep the soil soggy.
Ah, I didn't realise that's what the trays were for (until killyspike mentioned it above), or how it acheived this.

I have included a few pictures of the side and underside of the bonsai rootball.
I tried to find pictures of root rot on the internet but I couldn't find anything definitive to ascertain whether I had root rot or not. All I know is that it can cause roots to turn black and flaky(?)
If you can tell from these pictures your advice is extremely welcome!

https://www.photobox.co.uk/album/106885004

X10

killyspike
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My instant reaction to that is yes a repot is urgently needed. Not that after watering it wouldn't be that moist normally but you can see that the tree has no room to breath down there. Its definitely clogged up and the chances are that if in the pot it got to the stage where it was nearly dry at the surface which would indicate that it would need watering again you can bet your bottom dollar that it would still be soaked in the middle. Thats not good for the roots at all.

Whatever is above the ground should have the same amount of roots below the ground. I guess that the roots are not all working and its having an effect on the tree. Like humans going into shock it will concentrate on the vital organs, cutting off less important organs and staying alive so you have a good chance in saving the tree.

Find a nice sized bonsai pot with plenty of room for the roots to grow in use a recommended mix for good drainage. Use chop sticks to remove as much of the claggy soil as possible be careful not to damage the good roots and bottom of the tree. Cut away as much of the damaged roots as possible (making sure to leave plenty of good roots) no more than a 3rd of routs cut off. Replant in your new pot and soil then leave it and make sure no fertilisation is used for at least a month. Check drainage the water should run out of the bottom. Looking at that though most new soil will be better than what its already in.
I posted earlier about looking for mallsais to transform into bonsais, looking at yours its got the typical mallsai trademark, the over the top bend in the trunk. But don't blame the trees for this blame the manufacturers!

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Gnome
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X10,

I don't see any obvious evidence of rotted roots but it does appear to be pretty well root bound. Probably what happened is that it was not watered sufficiently once or twice, a root bound tree can be difficult to thoroughly wet. The peaty soil looked wet on the surface but the core was dry. Now, without foliage the tree is not using much water and you have apparently been over watering it recently in an attempt to help it recover.

The poor soil and root bound conditions are both contributing to your problems. It is not your fault, commercially prepared trees are generally potted in inferior materials, it would be cost prohibitive to use quality medium, that is your job now.

You are going to have to re-pot it, removing the old soil and teasing out the roots in the process. Some will have to be cut back as you will almost certainly find them too long. You may be able to re-use the same pot but as killyspike suggested you may need to step up in size.

If you cannot locate a larger pot or don't want to spend the money now that is OK. Bonsai pots are for aesthetic reasons and there is no reason that you cannot use any nursery container that you can scrounge up. I often use cut down nursery pots.

I have seen others in the UK say that they have purchased bonsai soil, sometimes called compost (not actual compost just a different term for medium), at retailers. This is not common here at least not in my area. It can also be purchased on-line. A lot of folks mix their own but it can be confusing at first and if you only need a little it may be easier to purchase a small amount of ready made medium.

I have bookmarked a few sources in the UK for just such an occasion.

https://www.greendragonbonsai.co.uk/
They don't describe their general purpose mix very well but they do mention peat which I prefer to avoid and was, at least partly, the cause of your problem. I have not used imported soils, Akadama and Kanuma, preferring to use domestic equivalents. This leaves what they call Kyodama which appears to be a blend of various components. I like this the best but unfortunately it is apparently discontinued. You may find other items if interest at their site and that is why I included it.

https://www.kaizenbonsai.com/shop/index.php
Again, they have various components for those who 'roll their own' or prefer to use a single (inorganic) product but they also offer a ready mixed product that I like the looks of. Have a look here.
https://www.kaizenbonsai.com/shop/product_info.php?cPath=25&products_id=440
Enlarge the photo to the right. This is what my medium looks like, gritty open and very free draining. Compare that to the soil your tree is in now and the difference is apparent.

Here is a site of a UK bonsai artist that has a lot of good information.
https://www.bonsai4me.com/index.htm

This may be of particular interest.
https://www.bonsai4me.com/Basics/Basicsdevelopingmallsai.htm

Norm

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