It’s upsetting and a bit alarming when your bonsai tree takes a turn for the worse. But don’t despair! Find out what you might have done wrong and what you can do to revive your bonsai.
Consider the season
Before you worry that your bonsai plant is dying, do some research to ensure it is not simply preparing to go dormant. Depending on the type of plant you have used for your bonsai, the location of your bonsai, the area in which you live and the season of the year, your plant may just be preparing to go dormant. Certain plants will drop leaves and stop growing during winter. This is a normal part of the life cycle. New growth will emerge come spring.
Bonsai plants do require quite a bit of water when compared to other potted plants. But if you have been a bit too generous with the water, your bonsai can suffer. The good news that one session of over-watering probably won’t cause long-term damage. Just support the plant to drain as soon as you are aware it has been overwatered. The bigger issue will occur with sustained overwatering. Too much water can cause bonsai roots to become rotten and if this occurs you will need to take action.
Treating root rot
To help your plant recover from rotten roots, you will need to remove it from the pot, and get rid of as much of the rotten matter as you can. You will be able to tell which roots are rotten because they will look brown instead of white and feel mushy instead of firm. Use bonsai or gardening scissors to snip away the rotten roots. If you take a lot of roots, you will need to balance the plant by removing some of the tree’s growth on the top. This is unfortunate, but this step will provide a better balance for the plant as the root systems has been reduced and compromised. Thoroughly clean the pot to disinfect it, then add new bonsai soil and replant your bonsai.
Natural remedies for root rot
There are two products you probably have in your kitchen that can help give your bonsai a boost if it has become rotten. The first is chamomile, which has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial qualities that will help kill off any microorganisms that have moved in. Make a diluted solution of chamomile tea, let the tea cool and water your bonsai with it. The other ingredient is cinnamon; try sprinkling a little cinnamon powder around the roots. This is a traditional method of killing fungus in bonsai.
All plants need water and plants that live in the ground are better able to regulate their roots to deal with the amount of water available in the ground. The roots of plants that are growing in pots become accustomed to gaining water regularly, and of course are limited as to how far they can extend to get water. If your plant looks dry and unhappy, your issue may be underwatering. The key signs of under watering are:
• Yellowing on leaves
• Browning of leaves
• Soil that is dry to touch
• Soil that creates dust
• Branches dropping from the plant
Treating under watering
If you have forgotten to water it only for a day or two, there is a good chance your plant can be easily revived. If it has been more than a couple of days, it may be difficult for the plant to recover due to the drying out of the roots, and the shock this causes the plant. The best thing to do when you realize your plant is at the risk of drying out it to place it in a tub of water and allow the plant to take up as much as it needs. If you can’t move your plant to use this immersion method, then give it a good long drink with a watering can or hose.
Monitoring your bonsai
Once you have given the plant a good soaking, let it rest in a comfortable, bright spot, making sure not to expose it to excessive sun where it will continue to be damaged. Monitor your plant and make regular assessments of the soil to see if more water is required. If you can’t tell if your bonsai is still alive, make a small cut on the trunk or a larger branch. If you can see a green layer, the plant is still alive, but if under the bark is brown then the bonsai has died.
Once you are sure that your bonsai has survived, it is worth repotting it. This will give you a chance to look for any root death or damage, and to ensure that the plant’s soil is of good quality to hold moisture and provide nutrients for the plant. Remove the plant from its pot and snip away any dead roots. Take away a similar amount of coverage from the top of the plant. Sit the plant in tepid water while you prepare the container and fill it with bonsai soil. Once you have replaced soil and plant, give the bonsai a thorough soaking using the immersion method.
Step by step repotting
1. Gently remove the bonsai from its pot
2. Untangle the roots and remove soil caught between the root system
3. Keep the roots wet during the soil removal by spraying them with water
4. Using bonsai or pruning scissors, remove any roots that seem to be dry, diseased or rotten
5. Aim to remove about 30% of the total root mass
6. Prepare a new pot or thoroughly clean the plant’s existing pot
7. Use bonsai soil to line the bottom of the pot
8. Place the plant in the pot, spread out the roots and fill the pot with soil
9. Give the plant a good drink and set it somewhere comfortable
The bottom line: If your plant has been exposed to too much or too little water it may be possible to revive it. Repotting it is a great way to give your bonsai a fresh start with a clean pot and fresh nutrient-rich soil.