You got a small store bought bonsai as a gift. It looked great so you put it on your desk and it looked so happy for a while. But now it’s starting to look pathetic and die.
The Top 11 Reasons Your Store Bonsai Tree is Dying Are:
- You don’t know what you have. It’s fairly common for the top part of big box store bonsai labels to simply say “bonsai.” People that are new to bonsai when asked what kind of tree they have might not look further down on the tag, and leave it at that. They’d say their type of tree is “bonsai.”
The trouble is, saying the type of tree you have is bonsai is like saying the kind of book you’re reading is a paper one. It’s true, but it’s not particularly helpful. Bonsai just means a plant or tree trained in a way that it stays small. Many different kinds of plants and trees can be made into a bonsai and they have different needs.
Figure out if you have a juniper or an elm or a ficus. Then Google that and figure out if it likes the soil dry, or wet, if it’s indoor or outdoor, etc.
- Keeping it inside. The most popular kind of big box bonsai is juniper. Juniper are outdoor plants that like full sun to light shade. They’re also pretty tolerant, but that can actually work to your disadvantage. Once they look crummy it might be too late to save them. The point isn’t how to save your juniper. The point is most bonsai are miniaturized trees and shrubs and belong outside.
Some trees that are commonly kept inside include ficus, jade, and Hawaiian umbrella. Know too that some trees that are labeled “indoor” should be kept indoors PART of the year or part of the time. Sometimes it says this on the label, and people gloss over that part and just remember that the tree can be kept indoors. If you don’t have the right indoor conditions that tree may not thrive indoors year round, even if the tag said “indoor.”
- Having it in the wrong PLACE outside. Even if you got right that your outdoor bonsai needed to be outside, any old place won’t do. Lets take the example of the juniper above. Not only does it need to go outside, it must be put in the right place in your yard that receives enough shade or light. Put that hypothetical sick juniper in full shade, it may not get enough light and will die. Or even put it in full sun in Florida in August and you may fry that little tree that was not well to begin with and it will die that way too.
Research the growing conditions of your tree and find the place in your yard or somewhere outside that meets those conditions. Keep in mind though that just like people, a sick tree is not at it’s best to endure harsh treatment. If it has been kept indoors it will need an adjustment period. For the example of the juniper, putting the bonsai in a shaded area outdoors, such as under a tall leafy tree so that it would get partial light, for a week or two before moving it to get more sun would be advised. If it’s spring or fall and the nights are cold you may need to start by letting it outside during the day and moving it in at night until the tree is stronger.
- Having it in the wrong PLACE inside. Think you’re good on that because you got an indoor tree? Nope. Growing an indoor tree inside does not make you immune to needing to figure out where to put it. Generally, bonsai still need to be near a sunny window or under grow lights. So if that tree is under fluorescents on your desk it might still be in the wrong place.
Don’t forget to also keep your tree out of drafts such as from AC units, which can also kill your tree. In a climate where the heat is on inside, the dry air may also be dangerous to the tree. Consider a homemade humidity tray if the place you keep your tree is quite dry.
- Glued on pebbles. Stores that sell little bonsai trees frequently glue a layer of pebbles on the top of the tree. They do this to make it look nice to sell, and also to keep everything in place during transit. The problem with doing that is water doesn’t get to the tree roots very well because the spots between the pebbles are sealed with glue. Caregivers also can’t touch the soil very well to see how damp it is, because there is a glue layer on top of everything.
If your tree has some of these on there, first thing to do is pry them off. You may need a screwdriver or butter knife to do it because those suckers are often on there pretty good.
- Over watering. Don’t feel bad about this one. I was once told that an apprentice to a bonsai master is given scissors on their first day, but do not get a watering can for a year. I have no idea if that’s true or not. But many advanced bonsai hobbyists have said that getting watering right takes plenty of practice. For everyone.
Over watering or watering your tree too much can rots the roots and deprive the tree of the carbon dioxide it needs to survive. This is much easier to do with bonsai than with garden plants or even with regular potted plants, because in bonsai the pots are smaller. Letting water stand in the pot is sometimes aptly called “wet feet.” Close your eyes and imagine yourself standing in a bucket of water, for days. You wouldn’t like it either.
- Under watering. Oh, but it’s not easier the other way. If you’re not over watering, frequently you’re not watering enough, which dries the tree out. That’s like dying of thirst or starving. Alternately under and over watering does not make up for the previous cycle of misbehavior, its just following one mistake with another.
Generally speaking, most bonsai like the soil damp, not wet or dry. If you get a juniper or other plant that likes dry conditions wait until it is almost dry to water. That’s the opposite of if you get a Hawaiian umbrella tree, they like it wet. In that case don’t wait until it’s almost dry to water, just keep it moist most of the time.
- Not fertilizing. Lets say you knew what you had, put it in the right place, and the tree didn’t have rocks glued down on top, or if it did you removed them. The tree has done well for a while in your care. However, fertilizer didn’t arrive with the tree. It hadn’t even crossed your mind to fertilize. Trees in tiny pots need food. If the tree has been around awhile and is now looking sad, and you did okay on the first points but haven’t fed it, consider fertilizing.
For an individual bonsai you’ve gotten from a big box store I’d generally just recommend if you have an all purpose general fertilizer you use on other potted plants or your yard, use a little on your bonsai too, rather than going out and buying special “bonsai fertilizer.” If you have a “weed and feed” product you may want to pass on that. If you have a specialty product (such as azalea fertilizer) if your bonsai is the same plant (also an azalea!) than go for it. If it isn’t, do some research on if the nutritional needs of the bonsai match your fertilizer. It is better to go without fertilizing than to put a specialty fertilizer on your bonsai without doing your homework here.
- Overzealous with the cutting. It’s sad, but so much of the time we’ve seen some truly glorious bonsai on TV and in movies and books, and when we get a bonsai it looks a bit like a twig in a pretty pot with rocks (which sometimes is exactly what it is). You get out a pair of scissors and have a moment picturing yourself as Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid, pruning a tree amidst a beautiful Japanese garden of bonsai. You are zen. You are in a higher state.
Because trimming is so fun and it’s sometimes what we see as “bonsai” there are those who do too much of it. A bonsai tree is a plant like any other and needs sufficient greenery for photosynthesis. There are methods for trimming, for example recommendations on how many nodes to let grow out before you trim a set number back. For now, just say don’t go crazy with the trimming. Mostly leave it alone, or trim any bits that get out of hand.
- Nothing, it was the soil. All too often the soil in bonsai from big box stores isn’t quite ideal. This may be an easy way to cut corners and your tree may suffer from a lack of well-aerated soil. That is, some soils hold moisture TOO well, giving you those root rot problems above. Big box store nursery departments are experts in growing plants to sell to the masses, not in bonsai. They may have planted it in regular potting soil or something else that wasn’t ideal.
- Nothing, it needed repotting. Lets say you managed to do fine on all of the above and you’ve kept your bonsai alive for quite awhile. For months, for a year, or more. Eventually the tree would look rough. Bonsai are miniature trees or shrubs trimmed into tree form and kept in pots. Any gardener will tell you that eventually plants in pots need to be repotted. Roots grow just as a tree grows, or as a person grows. Imagine your child staying the same size for five years. It wouldn’t happen. And if it did it wouldn’t be a good thing.
It is true that bonsai trees remain in small pots. However, they are carefully trained to stay in those pots. Just as bonsai hobbyists trim the twigs and braches of their trees, they also periodically trim the roots. Now that likely isn’t the problem here, because it’s likely your tree was so small in ratio to your pot that it had a considerable amount of space before this would be the problem. However, theoretically if you kept it alive for a couple years, this would eventually be a problem. Until you’ve had it a couple years though, don’t worry about repotting and trimming roots. I’m not even suggesting it.
If your bonsai is dying, don’t worry. The cards were really stacked against you to begin with. Consider it more like getting a grocery store potted plant that lasts a month or two instead of a few days for cut flowers. Following, or trying to follow, these points you’ll get more mileage out of your tree than you would otherwise. Feel good about yourself too. If you can correct the first seven listed items, you’re doing better than at least 75% the people who get one of these trees, easy.
I know, some part of us looks at that little bonsai labeled twig and thinks, well, if I water it every day in a year or two I’ll have one of those glorious pieces of art. Not so, I’m afraid. I think we all logically know this, but there’s just that bright shiny hope that maybe that’s true.
If you really love your little bonsai tree and are not satisfied with that answer, welcome to the world of bonsai. Stick around and we’ll tell you more about how to build a better tree. (Or if you’re REALLY determined, save the one you have.)