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Bonsai need feeding. The concept that trees need to be starved to keep them small is one that is totally wrong and will lead to failure every time. A plant, any plant, whatever size and wherever it is growing needs nutrients just as humans need food.
For those of you who have read our article on Bonsai potting mediums you will realise that the use of inorganic potting mediums such as Akadama, Kyodama and baked clay granules makes for a perfect physical environment in which to grow a tree but there are no nutrients present in any of the raw ingredients. This has the disadvantage that nutrients must be added for it to work. I prefer to focus on the advantage thats you can add exactly what you want and can monitor the effect of your feeding regime for future reference to produce the desired result. For those of you using organic ingredients, the supplies of nutrients are there to start with but you have no way of knowing how much there is and can not predict at what rate it will be released into your rootball.
Lets get the technical stuff out of the way now before anyone nods off, just so we have some reference if we need it later.
The main components of any fertiliser are Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium, universally identified by the N-P-K ratio shown on the packaging. Loosely speaking, Nitrogen(N) is used by plants for leaf growth, Phosphorous(P) for root-growth and Potassium(K) for flower and fruit production. There are then a number of trace elements that are essential in small quantities and are not really worth worrying about because they are included in just about all proprietary feeds.
The N-P-K ratio will guide you in the proportions of each of the main nutrients. A perfectly balanced fertiliser will logically have the numbers all the same eg 5-5-5 or 20-20-20. The numbers are an indication of the strength of the feed so 5-5-5 would be considered fairly mild (Chicken Korma) while 20-20-20 is pretty strong (Beef Madras). I prefer to use regular doses of milder feed rather than a blast of strong stuff as the tree will better be able to use it. It is also possible to control the dosage of mild feeds based on weather conditions whereas a strong feed once in the pot will be hanging around forming toxins if not used up. These balanced fertilsers should be considered as a good basis for any feeding regime and will guarantee good health.
When choosing fertiliser you have a choice between soluble fertilisers that are mixed with water and slow release fertiliser that comes in granules or pellets and break down slowly over time. The liquid feed is ideal if you are totally dedicated to your trees and can be there at the right times to feed them. However since most of us have other distractions in life, pellets can be useful in providing a slow trickle of feed which will maintain good health in your absence. I recommend a combination of slow release fertiliser such as Naruko 5-5-5 or Bio-Gold 5.5-6.5-3.5 supplemented with additional liquid feed tailored to species and developmental requirements. Remember to take into account the combined amounts given when calculating any additional feeds.
One popular approach is feed cakes as traditionally used in Japan. They are usually made of fish-meal or rape-seed and are slow release. They are placed on the soil surface but being organic they can become a breeding ground for maggots and can attract fungus which is unsightly. The smell can also be pretty bad. They work well but the modern alternatives already mentioned ie Bio Gold and Naruko are designed to give a slow release without the visitors, hairy growth and odour.
We've touched already on what each component does but let us now expand on the use of each.
Nitrogen (N) is the high sugar, high carbohydrate component of the diet. It encourages strong leaf and shoot growth. It is useful in certain evergeen species as a kick start in the spring where we want a certain amount of lush growth to form fresh pads but in deciduous species it should be left out until after the first set of leaves have hardened and only then used lightly as it will lead to overlong internodes.
Phosphorus(P) encourages the growth of roots and flowers. It should always be given as part of a balanced regime because a plant will only take up as much phosphorus as it needs.
Potassium (K) Helps the wood to harden, as well as increasing the roots ability to absorb both nutrients and the water they're dissolved in. It is an important part of the autumn diet as it prepares the tree for winter.
So the basic growing season will consist of a balanced diet on a weekly basis during the spring with no excesses of anything on the whole to encourage good but controlled growth. During the height of summer growth will grind to a halt. Feeding should be reduced or suspended at this time. A second burst of growth in early august can be accompanied by a balanced feed before switching to low nitrogen feed for the run up to winter which will harden existing growth, form healthy new buds and slow any fresh growth which will not have time to harden anyway and will only die back..
There are of course exceptions to this general approach. There are too many to cover in detail but here are a few examples where thought is required.
Indoor trees will be active most of the year but will slow down during winter. They should be fed all year round but less should be given during winter. It is tempting to encourage lush growth in the winter months but without the light levels to support the new growth it will tend to be leggy and will ultimately need to be removed. For small user bottles of liquid feed are readily available to dilute as required.
Lime-hating plants such as Azaleas require regular supplements to maintain their acidic soil ph and chelated iron levels.
Many Pine species and Juniper species also benefit from twice yearly 'acid' feeds. Suitable fertilisers include Miracid or any other fertiliser that is indicated as being specifically for ericaceous or lime-hating plants.
As mentioned deciduous trees in general, especially those at the fine ramification stage of development will benefit from a reduced amount of Nitrogen during spring and summer.
Pine development is a subject all its own with back budding being a constant battle. I have had good results with an unconventional approach involving no nitrogen in spring and a good dose in autumn. Don't ask me to explain the theory behind this approach but it seems to work and increased back budding in the spring is the result.
A word of caution!
. Now you are armed with all these ideas on how best to feed your trees it is easy to get carried away. But err on the side of caution and give too little rather than too much. Too much Nitrogen will burn roots so always follow the instructions carefully and use the correct or less than the correct dosage. If you miss a feed do not be tempted to strengthen the dose or feed at more frequent intervals to make up and if you suspect that you may have overfed a tree, water it liberally several times until waer runs freely through th root ball to flush out the excess. Trees should not be fed when sick or dormant as they will be unable to use the nutrients provided leading to excessive levels of toxins in the soil.
For many years the traditional approach to feeding after repotting has been to wait six weeks. However, trees need some nutrients to rebuild their trimmed root system so a light feed of nitrogen free fertiliser would be of benefit especially if using a non organic potting medium. uld not be fed for at least six weeks to avoid burning new roots.
We have only begun to touch on the subject of feeding in this article. Specialised approaches abound but hopefully you will have gleaned the knowledge of a good basis from which to explore. As with finding the right potting medium, Only cautious and educated experimentation in your own growing environment will show what is right for you.
TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES - An outline of the basic requirements
THE CHINESE ELM - Everybody starts here, some home truths
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS - A whimsical look at some common problems
BONSAI CALENDAR - What to do and when to do it
STYLING - DEVELOPING THE EYE - Slightly more advanced but essential
5 MINUTE RAFT PLANTING - A simple project
THE ILLUSION OF BONSAI - More food for thought