Bonsai, as with nearly all other types of cultivated plant, require moisture at their roots to survive. Without a continual source of moisture, the tree is unable to continue its life process, initially losing leaves, then branches and finally the entire tree can die. Never doubt that the quickest way of killing a bonsai is to allow the compost to dry out completely.
Bonsai in the author’s garden being watered automatically during the heat of the summer.
However, though the effects of under-watering are immediate, over-watering a bonsai also causes ill-health. The effects of continual over-watering takes much longer to become noticeable and can often be difficult to diagnose.
Established plants and trees growing in the ground have the ability to ‘adjust’ to their habitat and the quantity of water that is available to them. If there is not enough water available to the root system, the roots will spread out into the soil until enough moisture can be reliably acquired. Thus plants growing in relatively dry areas will have far-reaching root systems that will continue to spread out until a reliable source of moisture can be found.
On the other hand, trees growing in damp conditions where moisture is permanently available in the upper levels of the soil, will tend to have shallow root systems as they have easy access to moisture.
In the confines of a pot, a bonsai loses this ability to self-regulate its exposure to moisture. It is unable to govern how much or how little water it accesses. The compost in a bonsai pot is also far less stable than soil in the ground, the possibility for it to dry out is greatly increased and is really affected by the outside influences such as the weather and the surrounding ambient temperature.
Correctly watering your bonsai is a skill itself and is not as straightforward as most beginners might expect. It is often said in Japan that it takes 3 years to learn to water correctly. It can sometimes take three years of tree losses before a bonsai enthusiast realises that their watering regime might be the cause!
The Effects of Under- and Overwatering
Plants rely on a continual flow of water to stay alive and to grow. Water is absorbed from the compost into the roots by a process known as osmosis, the water is then pulled up the body of the plant and is released into the atmosphere through the foliage. This process allows the plant to distribute vital nutrients throughout its structure. However, without a source of moisture at its roots, this flow of water is interrupted and the plant structure quickly collapses and dries out. Leaves and branch tips are the first areas to be affected, followed by branches. Finally the trunk and roots themselves collapse and dry-out by which time it is unlikely that the tree will survive without major damage. Application of water at this point is often too late; moisture can actually be absorbed out of the roots back into the wet compost in a process known as reverse osmosis.
As previously mentioned, the effects of over-watering are far more subtle and can take a relatively long period of time to detect. Over-watering a water-retentive soil creates an environment for the root system that is permanently wet. Roots need oxygen to ‘breathe’ and the presence of too much water in water-retentive, airless soil reduces the ability of a compost to absorb air; this in turn causes the fine root hairs to suffocate and die. The immediate effect to the tree is a loss of vigour as parts of its root system are unable to grow and/or dieback.
More worryingly, the dead roots start to rot. Naturally occurring bacteria are able to colonize the dead tissue and in very wet composts are able to thrive. As the root system continues to die back from the effects of overwatering, the root-rotting bacteria are able to spread throughout the root system and slow (if not completely stop) the ability of the tree to seal the remaining live root-tips. Gradually the live portion of the root system becomes smaller and as it does so is able to support less of the visible top growth of the tree.
‘Overwatering’ is something of a misnomer; if a bonsai is planted in a good quality/well-drained bonsai soil it is literally impossible to overwater. Root-rot is the result of a tree growing in poor-draining soil that remains wet ,and more specifically, is airless, causing the roots to die rather than the act of too-frequent watering.
Foliage on the tree will start to yellow and drop; smaller branches will shrivel and die back. As the live portion of the root-ball becomes even smaller, it is eventually unable to support the primary branches and the trunk, causing the tree to die.
Root-rot is often only detected at repotting time in spring. Rotted roots will be found to be black and will disintegrate when touched. The only reliable way of stopping root-rot is to cut away all dead areas of root.
How Often Should I Water?
As previously discussed, it is important to avoid the effects of under-watering and overwatering. So how do you water a bonsai correctly?
Firstly, NEVER water to a routine. Simply watering on a daily basis without first observing the condition of the bonsai soil, is a common mistake made by beginners, often following the advice of well-meaning bonsai retailers. Bonsai can indeed require water on a daily or even twice daily basis, particularly in hot weather or early spring. However, watering to a routine commonly leads to permanently wet compost. If the compost does not lose some of its moisture content between each watering, it means it is permanently wet, leading to the previously mentioned problems associated with overwatering.
Instead, trees should be checked routinely (at least on a daily basis), so their water requirements can be observed and they can then be watered when they actually require it. The surface of nearly all bonsai composts change colour and appearance when it starts to dry out. With careful observation, it is always possible to tell whether or not the compost surface is dry or not. This can take anything from 12 hours to a week or longer after watering, depending on a variety of factors such as the surrounding ambient temperature, plant vigour, pot size and whether it has rained or not. In the UK, trees tend to need watering daily during the summer but with lower temperatures and increased rainfall during autumn, Winter and early spring, watering needs can change day by day. Never assume that because it has rained your tree has received enough water particularly during the summer. Often, it only rains enough to wet the upper layers of the compost.
The correct time to water is when the top centimetre of the compost has started to dry out. With regular observation of your trees on a daily basis, you should be able to apply water when it is actually required. Allowing the compost to dry a little between each watering will ensure that they are not overwatered.
Different trees have different water requirements, if possible, try to water trees individually as they require it rather than an entire collection en masse.
Fitting Your Watering Schedule Around Work Hours
In the real world, many of us are away from home during the day and are not able to check or water our trees. To allow the tree to go without water for any length of time is disastrous and should be avoided at all costs. Get to know your trees; know which ones are likely to dry out during the day while you are away. Know which trees will dry out if the weather is forecast to be hot or windy. If there is a risk that a tree may dry out during the course of the day; water in the morning before you leave home. Despite what you may read, there is no reason to base your watering regime in the evening; try making your main watering time in the morning so that your bonsai are well-watered before the heat of the day, and then only water those that require it, in the evening.
The Effect of Soil on Watering Practices
The soil that your trees grow in has much influence on how frequently water is required and on how diligently you must water correctly. Organic soils containing peat or ‘soil’ are most likely to cause problems associated with overwatering; the soil is likely to retain too much water. Conversely it can be much more difficult to water thoroughly, as water will tend to run off the dry surface leaving the interior of the rootball dry.
If an inorganic soil is used, the risk of overwatering is greatly reduced. Inorganic soils containing akadama, turface, seramis, grit etc are water retentive enough to keep the soil moist for the duration of a hot summers day and also makes overwatering almost impossible.
How Should I Water?
When the tree does require water, it needs a thorough soaking; avoid just ‘moistening’ the bonsai soil, water it properly. Each time you water, it is important that the entire rootsystem and body of compost is properly wetted to avoid pockets of dry soil where roots could be left to dry out and die.
The Japanese have an adage for watering; ‘For bonsai, it rains two times’. Water should be applied twice; the first watering wets the soil so that any dry soil particles will accept moisture better as they tend to shun water at first. Water should be applied all over the compost surface until it can be seen to run out of the drainage holes. The second watering should be left for 10-20 minutes by which time any previously dry areas of the compost will be ready to accept water. For a second time, water thoroughly all over the surface of the compost until water can be seen to run out of the drainage holes of the pot. The compost and root system should now be sufficiently wetted.
Hoses and Watering Cans
If you use an overly concentrated a stream of water, the bonsai soil is likely to be washed out of the pot. For small bonsai collections, a small watering-can fitted with a fine rose is sufficient to water the soil thoroughly without displacing the soil. Otherwise use a hose fitted with a spray gun set to mist, shower or any setting that will not disturb the soil.
Suitable Water For Bonsai
Water your bonsai with plain tapwater. In areas where the tapwater is hard, occasionally watering with rainwater is useful to rid the soil of any build up of salts, but is not essential, unless the tapwater is particularly hard and white salt deposits start to appear around the pot or trunkbase.
Rainwater can be collected in a water butt attached to the downpipe of a shed or house, though it would be difficult to collect enough water to meet the needs of a large collection on a daily basis. Do not use water obtained from water softeners; many water softening systems increase the volume of salts diluted in the water to a bonsai’s great detriment.
Watering By Immersion
Some bonsai sources will suggest watering a bonsai by immersing the bonsai pot in water for a while. This is not a recommended way of watering your trees. Watering by immersion is a mannerof getting water to penetrate compacted, very poor quality organic soils only.
If a bonsai needs to be watered by immersion, it will be particularly prone to the effects of overwatering and weak roots. If a vendor recommends that you water by immersion, suspect that this is because the tree is in poor soil and is therefore difficult to water properly. Also suspect that the tree will be weak, slow growing and very possibly have root-related problems. Make holes in the soil around the edge of the pot using a chopstick or similar, to allow water to penetrate the soil, and repot at the earliest opportunity (ideally during the following spring) into a better quality, preferably inorganic, soil.
The author’s daughter watering his bonsai
Other Watering Problems
Bonsai compost should always be free draining. Compacted, poor-draining composts can cause many of the problems associated with under/over-watering. Bonsai compost should be open enough to allow water to penetrate throughout and to ensure that excess water is able to pass out through the drainage holes immediately.
Compacted soils slow the penetration of water, which will tend to sit on top of the compost surface and run over the sides of the pot or down the inner edges. Once thoroughly wetted, poor quality bonsai composts can hold too much water and little oxygen, which can eventually lead to problems associated with over-watering.
Extra care should be carried out when watering trees potted in poor draining compost, that should then be replaced at the next repotting.