The Secret

By Khan Komai

From Bonsai in California, Volume 8, 1974, California Bonsai Society, Inc.

The aura of mystery that surrounded bonsai and its care a half century ago no longer exists, but still there are people who ask, what is the secret of growing a bonsai?

And the word "secret" seems to imply a concealment of some deep, dark mystery in its care.

Bonsai are not freaks. Their care is not so different from any other living thing. When the bonsai is thirsty, water it; when it needs nourishment, fertilize it; if it has insects, spray it; but above all never neglect it.

If you own a pet, not only do you give it food and water, but you give it your love, and it returns your love. A bonsai may not be able to wag its tail or purr for you, but the love you give it makes it a happier plant. And a happier, healthier bonsai will keep you happy.

If you commit yourself to the hobby of raising bonsai, it cannot be a sometime thing. It becomes your way of life. It may not demand all your waking moments, but you are never really free from it.

You cannot go on a vacation, unless you hire a sitter for your trees. When the weather changes the plants will be your first concern. You must have an understanding spouse, or you will have give up one or the other.

But bonsai will make you more aware of nature; you will learn to see things that you never noticed before. It will add enjoyment to your life; you experience joy in the change of seasons. Winter is no longer drab, for it is only then that you can enjoy the beautiful silhouettes of the naked trees. Spring becomes a time of anticipation, a time for the swelling and bursting of new buds, a time to delight in all of nature's new attires. Spring also brings the blossoms and flowers. Summer brings the deeper green of the mature foliage, and the fruits have swollen in size each time you look. Fall brings the different shades of reds and golds that can be particularly happy if you haven't burned the leaves during the heat wave.

Anticipation is one of the great joys of bonsai. To make a great bonsai is a rewarding fulfillment, but it is not only the end product that you enjoy. The anticipation of each step, the growth of a new shoot in just the right place, the anticipation of every little progress that your plant makes as it matures is as much a part of bonsai as the actual development of your tree.

Watering and fertilizing is a necessary part of growing bonsai and no two people do it alike. But then no two people bring up their children exactly alike, or for that matter the same parents do not bring up all their children exactly alike. The needs are different, the circumstances are different. And so it is with bonsai, water it when it needs it.

It may mean daily watering most of the year, it may mean twice a day watering on really hot days, and it may mean twice a week watering in cooler weather, but that depends on the plant, your soil mix, where you live, and where you have the bonsai. You must not water by the clock or by the calendar. Even when you are watering daily, on certain days you may water much more than on others because the plant needs it.

As parents you learn to anticipate the needs of an infant. To a lesser degree you must learn to anticipate the needs of your plant.

Unlike water which is a constant necessity, fertilizing is not that essential in keeping the plant alive. Most plants can survive from one potting until the next even if you didn't fertilize it. But a well-fed plant is more vigorous, more handsome and less susceptible to disease.

Frequency and the amount of fertilization depends on the objective set for the plant. A young, still-developing plant needs to be fed often, and the more you feed the more you must trim. For such a plant a monthly feeding might not be too often.

On the other hand an old bonsai needs only enough fertilizer to keep it green and healthy. Strong, rampant growth is undesirable. For the old-timer, three feedings a year, once in spring, summer, and fall, should be adequate.

Different hobbyists use different fertilizers, but most stay with the organics because the release of the nutrients is slower and steadier. But what you use is strictly up to you and as long as the plants are happy, that's fine.

In Southern California most hobbyists use a mixture of blood meal, bone meal, and cotonseed meal. Many prefer the cake or cookie style of feeding. A paste is made by adding a small amount of water to the three ingredients, or to just the blood and cottonseed meals, and spread in a shallow dish and dried. It is then cut into small pieces and placed on the corners of your bonsai containers. A little disolves with each watering and food is available to the bonsai constantly. After eight to ten weeks, the old cake is replaced with a new one.

Some leave the bone meal out of the cake as it is not readily soluble and the cake with bone meal in it tends to crumble too easily. The bone meal must then be fed separately.

Caution should be used in fertilizing. You will not kill a plant by not fertilizing, but you can kill one by overfeeding. A little bit often is safer than a large dose infrequently.

As for bugs, during the winter use a dormant spray; in warmer weather, a mixture of malathion and kelthane will take care of just about anything. If a special problem occurs, call the county agriculture department or an arboretum.

What is the secret of growing bonsai? Water it when it needs water; fertilize it when it nees food; spray it when it has bugs--but love it all the time. A rapport must be developed between you and the plant. And this understanding is probably the most important factor in growing good bonsai, the secret.

December, 1973

Copyright © by California Bonsai Society, Inc., all rights reserved.
Reproduced for educational purposes by Rick Wagner. Fair use.

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Last updated July 7, 2010, by Rick Wagner.