Here’s How to Take Care of a Bonsai Tree That Thrives for Years to Come
Learning how to take care of a bonsai tree isn’t nearly as challenging as you might think. Caring for your bonsai is a little more complex than your average houseplant, but it really comes down to mastering a few key steps. This beginner-friendly guide digs into bonsai placement, watering, fertilization, soil, and repotting techniques, so you can grow a thriving bonsai that will last for generations.
To grow a happy tree, you’ll need to place it in the right conditions. There are two key factors to proper placement: understanding indoor vs. outdoor growing and providing adequate sunlight.
Outdoors vs. Indoors
Although indoor growing is becoming increasingly popular, many bonsai prefer living outside for most of the year. That’s because it’s hard to replicate the natural cycles that play a critical role in your tree’s health indoors. However, not all species of bonsai can endure the weather in your region. Our guide to the best outdoor bonsai will help you select a backyard buddy compatible with the climate where you live.
Exploring the great indoors? Some bonsai, including jade, Fukien tea, and ficus, are better suited to living inside than others. This beginner-friendly guide highlights our favorite species and outlines how to take care of a bonsai tree indoors.
In general, bonsai trees love sunlight. That’s one reason they can be difficult to grow indoors. In most homes, south-facing windows are the only places with sufficient sunlight. If you place your tree anywhere else, you’ll likely need to supplement with artificial lighting.
Outdoors, your tree will do best in a bright spot with ample sun exposure. If you live in a particularly hot region, however, they’ll be thankful for a little mid-afternoon shade.
Learn More: Our guide to bonsai tree placement tells you everything you need to know.
2. Watering Your Tree
Several factors—including pot type, climate, seasonal factors, and species—influence how frequently you’ll need to water your bonsai tree. Instead of sticking to a set schedule, learn how to take care of a bonsai tree by carefully monitoring its soil. Here are a few of our favorite methods:
- Finger method: Stick your finger 2 inches into the soil. If the potting mix feels bone-dry, it’s time for a drink!
- Chopstick method: Place a chopstick in the middle of the pot 1 inch into the soil. If it turns brown and has dirt clinging to it after 10 minutes, there’s sufficient moisture in the soil. If not? Bath time!
- Soil moisture meter: Insert your moisture meter into the soil near the root ball. The scale will display a number that indicates whether or not your plant needs watering.
Learn More: When you’re learning how to take care of a bonsai tree, you want to do it right. Even the small stuff! Our guide to watering bonsai trees takes a closer look at bath-time basics.
3. Bonsai Tree Fertilizer
Your tree depletes nutrients from the soil as it grows. In nature, these nutrients are replenished by decaying organic matter. But your tree lives in an extremely limited environment, so it’s up to you to keep its soil nutrient-rich through regular fertilization.
Selecting a Bonsai Tree Fertilizer
Different fertilizer types have different strengths and weaknesses. Liquid fertilizer is fast-acting and easy to measure, but leaches from the soil each time you water. Solid fertilizer diffuses into the soil slowly over time, but is harder to control dosage, which risks burning your tree’s delicate roots.
We recommend using a gentle, urea-free fertilizer every time you water. This eliminates both schedule and dosage guesswork.
When to Fertilize Your Bonsai Tree
Always follow the directions on the fertilizer container! Every product will have different usage instructions. In general, however, you can expect to fertilize along the following guidelines:
- Tropical and subtropical: Fertilize weekly during the growing season. These trees will grow year-round and should be fed monthly from fall to spring.
- Deciduous bonsai: Fertilize weekly during the growing season. Once their leaves fall, fertilization should stop as the tree has gone dormant.
- Conifers: Fertilize weekly during the growing season. During the winter months, reduce the feeding schedule to once or twice a month as conifers do not go fully dormant and will continue to use nutrients.
Learn More: The Ultimate Bonsai Tree Fertilizer Beginner’s Guide digs in deeper.
4. Bonsai Tree Soil
How to take care of a bonsai tree: It comes down to the soil! The right soil provides proper drainage, oxygen permeation, water retention, and nutrients. Whether you buy or mix your own, the best bonsai tree soil contains these elements:
4 Ingredients for Proper Bonsai Tree Soil
- Compost: Provides essential nutrients and helps with water retention.
- Red lava rock chips: Prevents fertilizer buildup and keeps the soil from compacting.
- Pumice: Aids in aeration, holds moisture, and supports the roots.
- Akadama: Helps water pass while assisting in root absorption.
Learn More: Read The Best Soil Mix for a Bonsai Tree for more details about picking the perfect mix.
Your tree doesn’t have the room to grow a large, stable root network in a pot like it would in nature. Periodically repotting prevents root binding, replenishes nutrients in the soil, and keeps your tree’s roots vigorous.
When to Repot Your Bonsai
Repot in spring to take advantage of your tree’s growing cycle. This is when your tree is gearing up to grow and shifting energy storage from its roots to newly budding leaves. Look for roots coming through the drainage holes or crawling over the soil to determine when your tree is ready to be repotted. Avoid repotting in the winter at all costs as your dormant tree is storing the bulk of its energy in its roots.
Learn More: Our beginner’s guide to repotting your bonsai tree breaks down the process step by step.
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Bonsai With Us!
The Bonsai Resource Center is here to help you learn the best bonsai tree care and provide you with the tools you need to keep your tree healthy and strong. Explore our other articles, visit our online shop, and connect with other bonsai lovers in our Facebook group to learn everything you need to know about this rewarding hobby!