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On a recent trip to Japan I visited two specialist nurseries; one that is well known and has won many awards in Japan for their shohin, and the other is a bonsai professional that specialises in Satsuki Azalea.

In part one of this two part blog join me as we take a quick look at these nurseries and point out some exceptional examples of bonsai, perhaps some comments on their care and the techniques possibly used in their styling.

Tree placement

Image caption. A fine collection of shohin on tables

Where you keep your bonsai is very important. You need to be careful not to place them close to a reflective wall, especially if this wall receives afternoon sun as this will almost certainly result in deformed and discoloured (very light) foliage. Placing them close to a swimming pool may also have similar results - just like laying on the beach close to the reflective surface of the sea will burn you easier than laying on a field.

Placing your trees below a large garden tree sounds like a good way of getting dappled sun however it is actually quite tricky to get the right amount of sun in this manner because the sun moves and the light below the tree canopy will be constantly changing. Another problem is that if the garden tree has fungus or some pest, there is a good chance that your bonsai below it will become infected with the same problem, especially if it should rain.

You should definitely not have your trees on the ground, ever in my opinion. They should always be elevated. This is especially true if you have dogs. Trees on the ground are that more exposed to crawling pests and dogs just love to get to the organic fertilizers we use and can easily destroy trees and pots in getting to it.

In the image above you will see that the trees are positioned on untreated, softwood. I suspect that the wood is not sealed as this will prevent it from absorbing some of the water when you water your trees. As this water later evaporates it will result in elevated humidity levels close to your trees. Wood also does not get very hot, which is why placing your trees on top of slate, stone or cement tiles is also not a great idea, this is especially true in our hot African sun. Where I have seen such materials being used is in Europe where the sun is weak in comparison to ours.

In my opinion, a structure covered with the appropriate percentage shadecloth is best. It is also advisable that the shade cloth be removed in winter or whenever your rainy season is and when the sun is weaker.

Post Repotting Precautions

Image caption. Newly potted Trident Maples

When you have just repotted your bonsai tree the growing medium can be disturbed very easily, especially smaller bonsai. It is a very good idea to prevent the growing medium from being washed away when you water them. 

In Japan what I have seen being used is something which appears to be a flexible, perforated bag much like we purchase citrus in. You can use something like this or you can also use old stockings; just be sure to ask the wife before you raid the cupboards!

Image caption. Sphagnum moss on a recently repotted Zelkova

When you consider a shohin bonsai and the small pot it has to grow in, you would want to make sure that every available space in the pot is available to the tree (this is also why I do not think using stone in a shohin mix is advisable). If you look at how roots grow you will see that they don't happily grow horizontally rather, at the first opportunity they will grow downwards. Why? They are in search of plentiful water. Near the surface of a shohin bonsai the roots dry out quickly so in order to encourage them to remain near the top as long as possible you should use something like a mulch which will keep the surface moist. When the roots have spread out to the side of the pot they will then begin to develop into the lower regions of the pot.

There is no better medium for this than sphagnum moss, which to my knowledge is not currently available in South Africa. (It is something I intend importing in the near future though so watch this space) However you can use anything you like which will absorb water and keep the surface of your pots moist for some time after you have watered.


Image caption. An assortment of shohin containers of all different colours, shapes and sizes.

When you see a container you like, purchase it. You never know when you will need it and normally when you need it you will not be able to find one just like it. Of course we don't have limitless budgets so you cannot simply buy everything you like all at once, but if you buy a few new containers each year, before you know it you will have a fair collection.

It also makes repotting a little more fun, having a variety of pots to choose from allows you to select the pot which best compliments your tree.

You can read this rather in depth article I wrote on pot selection you and of course view our extensive range of glazed and unglazed pots and even used, old Tokoname Japanese pots.

Watering in the rainy season

Image caption. To prevent waterlogged pots, tilt the pot to allow water to drain quicker

I have often thought that watering is easier in summer than in winter. Sounds like a contradiction right? The thing is that in summer when it is hot and dry it's easy to remember to water. However when it is wet and has been raining for a few days in winter it's easy to assume that your tree's don't need watering but in fact some of them will. If you have any trees with a reasonably developed canopy of branches and leaves, rain has difficulty in penetrating and you will often find these trees become bone dry unless you water them, yes, even in winter. This is especially so with conifers or evergreens as they do not lose their leaves in winter.

In contrast, deciduous trees do lose their leaves and rain easily reaches the growing media. As the leaves have fallen there is little moisture uptake and no moisture loss through leaves. What results is often a growing medium which remains wet for long periods of time. This does not seem to be too much of a problem with deciduous trees but waterlogged pots are dangerous as the roots of the tree can drown. 

To help alleviate this you can tilt the pot using a thin plank under one end, this causes some rain to run off the top of the medium but more so that water inside the pot drains quicker through the drainage holes, assisted by gravity. If you have a round pot you can do as is shown in the example above, and tilt the pot inside a normal terracotta pot.

Autumn Fertilizing

Image caption. Pines must be fed in autumn so spring candles will be strong and healthy

Feeding your bonsai in Autumn is very important as this gives your tree the reserves it needs with which to push new growth in spring. This is true for both deciduous and evergreen trees.

There are many fertilizers on the market, not even counting the homemade recipes. I don't personally think you need to be too particular in most cases about what brand you feed with, only that you do feed. I would also suggest rather an organic fertilizer over a chemical one as dosage is not as important. I think foliar feeding is a lot of work and don't do it but if you have time or a small collection then it can only be of benefit. Personally, the only fertilizer I use on all my trees is BonsaiBoost and I have not seen the need to use anything else.

Shohin trees have little surface space to place solid organic fertilizer so using a fertilizer basket is very convenient as it keeps the fertilizer from washing away, and as there is no contact between fertilizer and moss, the moss will not brown or die.

Feeding in winter does not make much sense though as the plant is dormant. So although if you do use BonsaiBoost or other fertilizer balls or pellets you may leave them on, it serves no purpose till spring to replace the used fertilizer with fresh sachets or balls.

Buy quality from the start

Chinese maples Yorozuen

Image caption. A tree I purchased from Yorozuen bonsai nursery which will be available for resale through this site. All the branches are grafted on as they have a very good leaf character, and are smaller than normal. There is no visible scarring and the nebari is superb. The tree is not yet finished and still has room for its new owner to leave their artistic imprint, typical of the type of tree which I prefer to buy.

When starting out as a bonsai artist your collection of trees will be small and you will want to grow it to match your newfound passion. As your wallet usually does not allow you to necessarily purchase all the pre-styled trees you want, you will grow trees from cuttings, from seed and purchase some from retail nurseries.

This is a good process to go through however as it teaches you patience, you can practice on improving your skill level and perhaps even to determine just how committed you are to the art of bonsai. However eventually you will have moved on from this stage and it is at this point where you need to be much more particular about what you welcome into your collection. Never buy simply because something is cheap, the tree should speak to you and you should be able to see some potential to express your creativity in the tree. Be careful of buying material which has some quirk to it, the feature might be the one thing which you later cannot look past in the tree. At all times, invest in the best material you can afford as these trees will generally be the most rewarding of your collection.

In the next part of this blog we will visit a bonsai professional specializing in satsuki azalea.

2 Responses


March 24, 2016

Thank you Terry for sharing these interesting and informative articles. Its a great way for us to learn. Looking forward to many more.

Bill Rayner
Bill Rayner

March 23, 2016

I am in a early learning curve. I enjoyed this advice for guidance as winter approaches.

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