page contents The Little Bonsai: Watering Bonsai - How to water a Bonsai

Growing and Caring for Bonsai Trees

Growing and Caring for Bonsai Trees

Watering Bonsai - How to water a Bonsai

Plant Watering System

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.

However, though the effects of under-watering are immediate, over-watering a bonsai also causes ill-health in trees. The effects of continual over-watering takes much longer to become noticeable and can often be difficult to diagnose until parts of the Bonsai start to rotten away. 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, its ability to dry out is greatly increased and it is greatly 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 one might expect when first starting out. 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 it is his/her watering regime that might be the cause!

Bonsai Watering System

bonsai watering system
I have found this system very interesting as it can be done passively without neglecting the Bonsai. Especially if you have more than one Bonsai, this type of watering system is very useful. We all know that Bonsai need special attention. Blumats provide that but the regular ones are too long for most Bonsai containers. This one solves that problem. It can save an immense amount of watering time because this can automatically water the bonsai without needing to submerge it. In very dry areas like here in Colorado, it helps Bonsai survive those very dry days when their owners may be distracted or gone and not paying as much attention as they should.

Copper Watering Can

copper watering
Copper Watering Can for Bonsai Made with Care in Japan
This copper watering can made in Japan is the best bonsai related item I have ever purchased. It makes watering my bonsai trees a pleasure, almost a Zen experience. Kaneshin makes some of the best bonsai tools and equipment in the industry and the quality is outstanding.

This watering can is a functional peace of art. It will most likely out live me. The two rosebuds have a wonderful flow. When not in use it will be hanging on the wall for all to see. It's a classic more for professional Bonsai enthusiasts. This copper watering must be stored in-house, ideally in a greenhouse where you don't forget to water plants regularly. Below, a brief but very interesting video on how to use the copper watering can. Please always remember, if you decide to purchase this beautiful copper watering can, please handle with care! It's a piece of art!


Bonsai 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 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 a far more subtle and can take a relatively long period of time to detect. Over-watering creates an environment for the root system that is permanently wet. Roots need oxygen to 'breathe' and the presence of too much water reduces the ability of the 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 it is able to support less of the visible top growth of the tree.

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.


As has already been discussed, it is important to avoid the effects of under-watering and over watering. So how do you water a bonsai correctly?

auto watering system
Auto-Watering system, the smart way
Firstly, NEVER water to a routine. Simply watering on a daily basis without first observing the condition of the bonsai soil is often carried out by beginners 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 at other times. If the compost does not lose some of its moisture content between each watering, it means it is permanently wet, leading to 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 for example, 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, try to water individual trees in a collection as they require it, rather than en masse.

Interesting Books on Bonsai can be found here:

The Complete Book of Bonsai --> I've been into bonsai for 25 years and this is the basic Bible for beginner and intermediate bonsai enthusiasts. It has an excellent section on techniques, including pruning, wiring and whatnot, and it has a large species-specific tree guide. If you're into bonsai and want only one book, this is it.

Indoor Bonsai The Great Selection --> Creating beautiful, healthy bonsai is a wonderful skill that anyone can learn, with a little time, patience, and this all-inclusive manual. With color photos and drawings to illustrate the points, it introduces all the cultivation techniques; offers expert advice on location, soil types, watering, and pest control; and provides intricate instruction on training the bonsai--including pruning, wiring and stretching it.

The Secret Techniques of Bonsai --> In The Secret Techniques of Bonsai, the author of the groundbreaking Bonsai With American Trees teams up with his son to offer not only the basics for creating perfect bonsai, but also secret techniques they’ve developed over years of careful work and observation.

Bonsai Survival Manual --> Problem solving when your Bonsai get sick. Expand your gardening repertoire as you create a captivating and exquisite miniature world. In this introductory guide, Colin Lewis covers everything you need to know to design, grow, and successfully maintain attractive bonsai.

Bonsai and the art of Penjing --> Bonsai & Penjing, Ambassadors of Beauty and Peace describes how Chinese penjing and North American bonsai were later added to the Museum, making its collection the most comprehensive in the world. Stories of individual trees and forest plantings are featured, as are the roles played by the skilled and talented creators of these living art forms people such as John Naka, Saburo Kato, Yuji Yoshimura, Harry Hirao, and Dr. Yee-Sun Wu.

Bonsai with Japanese Maples --> With their delicate foliage, seasonal color changes, and intricate pattern of branching, Japanese maples are among the most popular and suitable plants for bonsai design. In this long-awaited book, internationally renowned expert Peter Adams discusses both the specific horticultural needs of Japanese maples as bonsai subjects and illustrates proven techniques for creating and maintaining beautiful specimens.

The Modern Bonsai Practice --> The most current, useful information on growing Bonsai. Fresh, practical, definitive, comprehensive reference guide to the finest art of horticulture: growing miniature trees. Common sense bonsai answers separating myth from fact with depth and detail. Appropriate for both bonsai hobbyists and experienced practitioners.

Foreo International

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