• Ian Evans

I Ordered A Bonsai Online... Now What?

So you ordered a bonsai on the internet. End of story, right? Wrong. It’s actually the beginning of your journey with this tree.


Ordering bonsai from the internet can be hit-or-miss. Bonsai from small or private growers are more desirable, as they are always going to be better designed, maintained, and potted in proper bonsai substrate. Because these bonsai growers aren’t mass-market-level enterprises, these bonsai will be higher-quality, one-of-a-kind bonsai specimens. They are often ready for refinement, and sometimes even ready for display at a bonsai show. With growers like this, you are purchasing the actual tree from the photo. You will pay more for your tree and packing and shipping, but your tree will be captivating and you can start enjoying it and appreciating the artistry right away. This is great if you are new to bonsai because it will be impossible for you to reach that level of precision right away. Having a gorgeous and inspiring tree to look at will also help you see how trees are designed and refined.


More often than not, when you order a bonsai online, On the other end of the spectrum is consumer-grade bonsai, or “Mall-sai”, which are bonsai trees created on a massive scale in enormous quantities. Bonsai like this are given minimal (if any) individual attention beyond potting and some structural pruning. These bonsai are often very neglected and are most certainly not ready for refinement or display, which makes sense when you consider these growers can have thousands and thousands of bonsai in huge nurseries. These growers rely on a labor force that is not made up of dedicated bonsai professionals. Quantity over quality keeps costs low. I have seen these bonsai shipped with active pest infestations, root rot, and minimal healthy branching, and I’ve seen a few that are not even wired into the container (loose and unsecured bonsai root balls cannot grow properly). These trees are often in soil with a heavy organic component that is poorly draining, stays too wet, and allows water to pool under and around the roots. These kinds of problems must be eliminated as soon as possible before anything else can be achieved.


When you buy a tree from a mass-production bonsai seller, you buy a tree based on a photo, and the photo is of the best-looking example they could find. You usually do not get the actual tree in the photo. The trunk, branches, and surface roots will be different, the pot may be a different shape and color, and the tree could even be a bit disappointing. Don’t freak out. The tree probably has some potential. That potential may be years away, but there is usually something to work with. You just need to find that potential. But first, you have to give the tree a close health examination.


The first thing to do is inspect the surface roots, trunk, all branches, and foliage. Are the roots showing any fungus or mold? Are they soft or rotted? Is the wood of the trunk firm and hard? Are any branches broken or weak-looking? Does the tree seem tightly wired into the pot? Look closely at the foliage for signs of aphids, fungus, spider mites, and thrips. Look under each leaf, too - not just at the top of the leaf. Also examine all foliage for possible signs of hydration problems or improper drainage, such as yellowing or crisping of the leaves or needles.


Next, see if the tree needs to be watered. If the top of the soil looks dry and crumbly, it’s time to water. You will be able to check the soil drainage by watering the tree thoroughly. Pooling or ponding of the water indicates the need for a repot during the next available timeframe appropriate for the species of tree. If water doesn’t seem to drain well all around the edges of the pot and around the tree itself, gently scrape away the top layer of soil. Be careful not to damage any roots or the bark of the trunk. This simple step can improve drainage enough until the tree can be repotted, and many bonsai practitioners will do a similar kind of “top-soil refresh” during autumn to help with aeration and hydration of the soil (aeration of the roots is equally important as hydration).


Depending on the season in which you purchased your bonsai, you may consider repotting the tree in fresh, well-draining, high-quality bonsai soil. This step is the most crucial to establishing a healthy bonsai root system, especially with mass-produced bonsai. You can’t refine, prune, pot, or wire a tree that isn’t healthy, so make sure your tree is healthy before doing anything beyond normal care. Oftentimes, when dealing with a new bonsai, or being a new bonsai practitioner, the best thing to do is just water properly for the current season and species, and just observe your tree. However, when a tree is suffering from poor-quality or clogged soil, the best thing to do is repot it at the next opportune time for the tree. You can use the same container (thereby avoiding possibly extensive root-pruning) or find one you like better. Spend some time considering changing pots, because the tree will be in the new soil and pot for at least a whole year before another bonsai pot can be selected.


Depending on the species and time of year, all healthy bonsai will require some seasonal maintenance such as pinching and pruning, potting, wiring, and maybe some fertilizer. All of these scopes of work can only be carried out at the proper time of year, and then only if the tree is giving us all the signs that it’s healthy and vigorous enough to handle the work done to it, to recover, and to continue to thrive.


As you can see, buying a bonsai from the internet isn’t an end-point; it is instead the beginning of the journey with that particular tree. Chances are, if you purchased a bonsai online you are new to the practice of bonsai. There is a large body of information available online about bonsai, a lot of which is somewhat outdated, and much of which is not appropriate to our local climate. Be careful about which sources you get your information from, and perhaps more importantly, where those sources are located. When in doubt, contact your local bonsai professional or bonsai society.


If you have questions about your bonsai or prefer the confidence and peace of mind that comes with professional bonsai service, schedule an appointment with Bebop Bonsai right away.


Bebop Bonsai is your Pittsburgh provider of bonsai, bonsai pots, bonsai fertilizer, and specialty professional bonsai services including tree boarding, bonsai collection management, potting, pruning, and styling.


Call Ian at 412-812-8506 to schedule an appointment today!

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