10 ways to improve your bonsai
Posted on April 18th, 2008 at 9:50 am by admin

We’re constantly trying to improve our trees, individually and as a collection. Below are 10 (because, thats the recommended amount to have in a list) surefire ways to improve both your collections and your individual trees …in no real order of significance:

  1. Cull – Simply, the quality of your remaining collection as a whole improves immediately since the worst trees aren’t “bringing down the average”. We all have trees we shouldn’t have bought, that we don’t know what to do with, or that are years from developing into bonsai. Having fewer, but higher quality trees will force you to learn the new techniques necessary to bring your pre-bonsai to the bonsai stage, and your bonsai to the finished show-ready stage. You’ll also be able to afford each tree more individual attention and time. You’ll be glad you have less trees when it comes time to mix (and sift?) soil and repot all your trees before they’ve leafed out.
  2. Fertilize heavily – A healthy tree is a well-fertilized tree. Different times of the year dictate different approaches but in general, we probably underfeed our trees. A healthy, well-fertilized tree is able to recover from the stress inflicted by bonsai culture, and you’re able to work these trees harder. I prefer to rotate a series of organic and chemical fertilizer.
  3. Wire often and completely– Deciduous trees grow incredibly fast and wire may cut in and scar branches much faster than with conifers. Plan to wire your deciduous trees throughout the season, thus preventing scarring. Nothing improves the look of your bonsai than wiring it completely to the tips. Start with the largest guage wire necessary and step down to the 1mm aluminum for the details. Your trees will thank you and you’ll have a growing sense of satisfaction.
  4. Repot – Young trees tend to need repotting more often than older ones, but bonsai tend to be repotted on a 1-3 year scale. This will invigorate your trees, especially if they’re in an appropriately draining (very fast, yet moisture retentive) soil mix and well-fertilized. Another aspect of repotting involves the removal of crossing roots, thick roots, and roots growing down instead of laterally. Proper repotting technique will begin to dramatically improve not only the health, but the appearance of the tree by promoting taper and nebari growth.
  5. Prune – Pruning can direct growth and help reclaim the silhouette of a tree. Learning the appropriate times to prune for proper (fastest?) healing and energy redirection will result in healthier, better looking trees that are easier to manage the following years. There are also special techniques for pruning, such as Japanese Black Pine candle pruning in summer. Learning which trees need concave cutters and which don’t (generally the thin-skinned trees like crape myrtle and azalea) will allow you to help manage scarring as well.
  6. Insecticide – Healthy trees are more resistant to pest attacks but from time to time it may be necessary to help your trees fight off an attack with a dose of insecticide. I’d suggest treating the trees after you notice the insects rather than as a preventive measure to avoid the insects you’re targeting developing resistance to the insecticides. Check labels carefully to avoid harming your trees.
  7. Fungicide – As mentioned above, a healthy tree is more resistant to disease, but sometimes we leave them susceptible due to pruning, candling, needle plucking, and any of the numerous techniques we use that stress our bonsai. Fungicide, especially in spring, can be a necessity for some species. A light spray can go a long way in eliminating black spot, petal blight, etc. Again, choose carefully to avoid harm to your trees.
  8. Pinch – Some species, such as Japanese Maples and to a lesser extent Junipers, should be pinched regularly during the spring growing season. This applies mainly to finished trees, as the pinching action will slow down any elongating growth creating a denser silhouette. Careful timing and proper planning should be used to determine when best to pinch, if at all.
  9. Ramify – Ramified branching certainly improves the appearance of age on any bonsai. Well-ramified branches also offer interest after the leaves have fallen providing enjoyment of your trees during the slow winter season.
  10. Clean – Keeping the bonsai soil free of weeds and other debris, particularly fallen leaves, will help maintain the appearance and health of your bonsai. Staying on top of the cleaning chores will decrease the amount of time spent in preparing for a display, and also makes it easier to send your trees into winter storage.

I want to give credit to John of matsubonsai.com who was kind enough to let me steal his ideas and some of his writing. You really ought to check out his blog regularly as he’s doing some neat things and offering practical tips. Seriously, check him out.