"Upon finding that I work as a professional bonsai artist, many people will remark that they once had a bonsai, but it died and with some regret, they gave up".
Based on the Bonsai Basics section of the hugely successful Bonsai4me.com website and an e-book of the same name, 'Bonsai Basics: The Foundations of Bonsai', written and developed over the past 15 years is out now!
All copies are signed by the author.
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Why Repotting is Essential to Bonsai
As plants of all kinds grow, their root systems become larger and more extensive in order that they can supply their ever-expanding canopy of foliage with the necessary quantities of water and nutrients. Trees and shrubs grown in the ground can have root systems that extend beyond the shadow of their own foliage canopy in a search for water and nutrients.
On the other hand, containerised plants are limited by the size of their pot as to how far they can extend. They need to be constantly supplied with food and water on which to survive. Their root systems however, continue to grow in tandem with their leaves and branches above the surface of the soil.
After a period of time that varies between different plants and plant species, the root systems of all pot-grown plants fill their containers, and become 'pot-bound'. Under these conditions, new fine feeder roots that are so essential to the uptake of water and nutrients in a plant have little room to grow, the soil structure deteriorates and the plant starts to suffer.
With an ordinary pot-plant the solution is to pot the plant into a larger container which allows room for new, fresh compost around the rootball. With a bonsai, the aim of repotting is the same, to allow fresh compost in and around the root system so that it can continue to form fine feeder roots and so that fresh soil can be introduced around the root system. However, with Bonsai, the container, and more specifically, the size of the container is not only part of the design but its size is specially selected to suit the tree. For this reason, Bonsai are root-pruned.
A side effect of root-pruning is that it increases the density of the root ball. From every root that is trimmed, a number of new roots will emerge from the root-tip that was removed. As the rootball is repeatedly pruned over the years, the rootsystem becomes denser and denser. Within a well-developed rootball, dozens of fine feeder roots can occupy the same volume of soil that one unpruned root may ordinarily use. So though the size of the rootball is regularly reduced, the actual volume of root within a certain amount of soil increases, and sufficient to support the canopy of the tree.
Root pruning does not dwarf or stunt the tree in any way . The tree may lose a little vigour for around 6 weeks after rootpruning, as it regenerates its root system (this is more noticeable with evergreen tropicals such as Figs), but after this short period of adjustment, the tree becomes more vigorous than before as new feeder roots are able to develop in the new soil.
How Often Should Bonsai Be Repotted?
Bonsai need repotting when they become pot bound. A Bonsai is considered to be rootbound when its roots entirely fill the pot and there are long roots circling the rootball or inside of the pot. In some cases, roots will also be seen to be growing out of the drainage holes at the base of the pot.
The time a tree takes to become rootbound varies from one year to five. A number of factors affect the amount of time a tree takes to become rootbound in its pot; different species of tree have different levels of vigour. Fast growing species and individual plants (Figs and Larch for instance) tend to require more frequent repotting and rootpruning. Other factors that contribute to regular root pruning include size of container, development of rootball (a dense established rootball will not require as frequent repotting), and the age of the tree, older trees are not as vigorous and require less frequent repotting.
The rootball should be checked for its condition annually in Spring; gently ease the tree out of its pot and examine the rootball. If the roots of the tree are still contained within the soil, the tree can be returned to the pot and repotting can be left for another year.