…since we’ve been on the subject of watering earlier this month, why not keep at it?

This one is rather simple to relate. Sometimes, when watering our bonsai gardens, we might notice a tree that is always dry. It seems like minutes after we water it, the darn thing needs water again.

This should set off jangling alarm bells in our heads! Loud, nasty, persistent ones.

When a bonsai dries out this fast, there is often a very simple reason. The interior of the soil mass is not getting saturated. Very old established bonsai sometimes have this problem. It can happen with nearly any soil type, but is very common with Turface, Oil-Dri, and any soil containing peat moss. All of these have rehydration problems when dry.


Clearly the result of mismanaged watering

A combination of issues can cause the interior area to become bone dry:

  • soil choice
  • erratic watering schedule
  • compacted interior soil
  • ‘veneer watering’ (watering with only a light pass that does not completely saturate)

Of the issues, an erratic watering schedule and veneer watering are the worst. Inconsistent watering can cause some pots to get too dry, and then light watering simply runs down the sides of the pots and into the bottom after encountering very dry interior soil.

Once the interior becomes bone dry it can be hard to rehydrate. The best way to restart hydration is to soak it from the bottom up. In my yard, I might see a couple trees a year that need a soak. After the soak, usually with more attention to watering afterwards, the problem is fixed.

  • The reason this is such a serious issue is that eventually all the interior roots will die, leaving only those next to the sides of the pot and the bottom—which are really the worst places for a bonsai to grow roots.

To rephrase and sum up, when you see a tree that seems always to be dry, consider rehydration with a bottom soak. Usually this only happens with very established, old bonsai that have a mature root system. Most trees that have hydration problems need an extra pass or three with the water hose to keep from revisiting the ‘dry death zone’, which would be a pretty good title for a bonsai horror movie, come to think of it. Likely somewhat limited audience.


My friend Jonas Dupuich writes the bonsai blog ‘Bonsai Tonight’, which frankly is one of the best bonsai blogs in the English language. On it is a forum of which, today, I am a part. It’s the ‘Ask Me Anything’ forum (well, about bonsai, not literally anything) so, if you have a question about bonsai please post it there and I’ll try my best to answer it. We’ve had a great series of questions so far:


Being a thin-trunked bonsai, most Dwarf Flowering Quince ‘Chojubai’ would naturally make us think, ‘Shallow pot!’ but we’d be just causing grief to our tree…

…or shrub.

Because that’s really the crux of the matter. Chojubai is a shrub, a fact which influences everything about its care and maintenance, including pot choice. You’ve probably noticed photos of beautiful old azaleas in Japan in rather deep pots. Almost all shrubs do better in deeper pots.


Chojubai in a deepish pot, fine for general, year-to-year cultivation. Many pots for Chojubai are even deeper than this.

Why is this? Why do they prefer deeper pots? Shrubs tend to have surface feeding roots rather than deeply seeking roots. Which sounds like they’d do fine in a shallow pot…except that shrubs like Chojubai prefer even moisture on their roots, not overly dry or overly wet. And shallow pots easily create those more extreme conditions.

In some cases a shrub’s root system in a deeper pot will only colonize the top 2/3 of the pot, but don’t worry about that. The bottom 1/3 or so is like a bobber, to float the roots above the area most likely to stay too wet.


Chojubai in last year’s Kokufu show, in a shallower pot for display. Most of these trees are transferred back into a deeper pot post-show. Love this tree. Beautiful natural styling, sucks you in, more about natural beauty than man-made beauty—

Shallow pots might be used with Chojubai, but care will be more exacting, and mostly they are only used for show. The care of many plants in shallow pots, even for those plants we tend to grow in them, like maples, is challenging. For usual care and growth, a Chojubai should be planted in much deeper pots than you’d think.

To sum up, pots for Chojubai should be:

  • Shallow: For show
  • Deeper: Best for year-round growth

More posts about Chojubai:





Spring Watering Tip-

There are a lot of things we might say about watering bonsai. I’ve tried a few times on this blog to mention some of them. Some are hard to make sense of in words, but as ever I’m willing to try. This one is about watering recently repotted trees.

At post-repotting time we need to be awake to one change-up, and that is that the interior soil mass (the part that was returned to the pot) may dry out much faster than you’d think.

  • If that interior area is full of fine roots, it will dry out fast after repotting.

This pine is beginning to develop a solid mass of soil and roots, and this is the area that we’ll take our moisture ‘read’ from when deciding when to water. When dry, it will look very light colored compared to the surrounding new soil.

If you cut all the fine roots off in repotting your tree, shame on you, but that’s a different issue. For the sake of this example, we’ll assume you have fine roots, and that we’re talking only about established trees with a solid mass of roots and soil. There are myriad other situations, such as proto-root balls with stringy roots that don’t yet hold soil together, but these photos show what we’re hoping for and working towards.


A deciduous tree with a very mature ‘loaf’ of roots and soil that is returned to the pot, to be surrounded with new soil.

Especially with conifers, we usually don’t prune any branches at the same time as repotting. And so…

  • In repotting refined bonsai, we’ve created a situation where fewer roots are going to be supplying the same upper water need.

This interior mass we’re talking about, this is the area you should watch to determine when to water. Ignore, for a few weeks at least, taking your moisture reading from the new soil you’ve settled in around the original mass. There’s no active roots in the new soil yet and it won’t be drying out fast.

  • Another thing to keep in mind when repotting is to keep a portion of this old soil mass exposed, not covered with new soil, so that you can see when it’s drying out.

Freshly repotted beech, showing the two zones of soil—the older soil that is a bit green and mossy near the roots, and the newer soil that is gray (sphagnum moss covering new soil, actually). The older soil will be our indicator when to water, and is not covered with new soil on top but is exposed.

In many cases you’ll be watering when the new soil is still moist. So we ignore that area. Again, I’m only commenting on watering repotting bonsai with more mature root structures.

  • To sum up, only read the moisture level where there are roots to determine when to water.

Wordy post. Hope some of that made sense!

Here’s a previous post about watering that might spread a broader net around the issue of watering:


~ Flaunt your best ~ As of April 1 the Artisans Cup bonsai exhibition is accepting submissions. The deadline for your entries is June 1! For submission you’ll need:

  • Four photos of each submitted bonsai
  • A brief essay of your display decisions
  • Pot information
  • Accent information

For full details about your submissions including where to send them, please go to The Artisans Cup. Again, your deadline for your entries is June 1. Submissions received after that will be tragically ignored. Don’t do this to your bonsai. They’re counting on you ~

Three special bonsai will be selected during the exhibition by the judges for the top prizes. First prize ($10,000), second prize ($5,000), third prize ($3,000). There will also be a People’s Choice Award and an award for the Best Companion Planting.

Personally I’m really curious and eager to see what artists have created and will show up at the Cup. This is your showcase, use it. And then definitely come and see for yourself what Ryan Neil has dreamt up, it should be really something. I’m very curious…

The Artisans Cup: Sept. 25-27th, Friday-Sunday, Portland Art Museum, Oregon, USA

…which could either be a salmon returning up a river, or simply a bad movie title…?

It’s neither. The Fish is yet another convenient, somewhat silly, ‘name’ for a Rocky Mountain Juniper that was featured here over a year ago when it was first styled. We did a three-part, real-time posting of it back then:




We let The Fish grow for a year to gain a bit of momentum for repotting this spring. It’s been an odd coincidence that whenever we have a big project going on, Matt Reel shows up in the studio. I don’t recall any organization about it, but he arrives promptly when something is about to happen. Hope you enjoy the photos!


Bobby Curttright taking apart the box of The Fish…


…and beginning root work. The styling of this tree left the box at a ridiculous angle, so the rootwork was rather invasive on the right side.


The approximate inclination and position of the tree prior to tying it in.


Matt in stripes, Bobby in solids. Something is amiss.


Bamboo helps to hold down the large raised root mass.


We didn’t get a final shot of The Fish, so this will have to do. It has filled out since the initial styling, and definitely needs some reworking after it gets established. That right branch in particular was tucked behind the box and was never really set properly.

To finish the post today, here are a few photos from our last Winter Seasonal, featuring three students from British Columbia, Canada-


A few of the projects in last week’s Winter Seasonal: A juniper…


…a Ponderosa Pine…


…Shore Pine…


…another Ponderosa Pine…


…and a Japanese Maple. Thanks for coming to the Seasonal, folks!

Several have asked to see a photo recap of this chunky Burning Bush, Euonymus alatus. We (my students and I) started the process of turning this vigorous stump of a shrub into a bonsai in 2012.

The fella who collected this Burning Bush said that it was growing by the side of a pond where nutria (a large rodent that eats euonymous) would graze on them. This one still has the shari from those gnawing nutria.

Although this tree is still many years away from ‘show shape’, maybe 10 years, here’s its 3rd-year progress report…

(And while I have your attention…submissions to the Artisans Cup will begin April 1. Also that day, incidentally, is the final day (extended deadline) for the National Pot Competition, so you potters out there have another few hours to get your best efforts together. Good luck everyone! It’s an exciting year in bonsai.)


Our Burning Bush, Euonymus alatus, in 2012.


After the initial branch selection, a flex shaft tool was used to grind down the large cuts.


Euonymous have very fibrous roots.


And here we are after the initial work and potting finished.


After the first year’s growth, in 2013.


A showy plant in fall, for sure! The week before there were still lots of leaves, and then a wind storm came. And then I took this photo. Alas.


Pruning in the fall, 2014, I think-


And this is how it looked this winter, 2015. Still a long way to go. We’re growing out the right branch for some caliper—as it’s such a low branch it should be fatter. Probably will let it grow out another year or two. At some point in there we changed the pot, because we needed it for another tree, I think. The tree looks a bit bigger in this pot, but eventually we’ll need a blue or a green pot. We’ll do another update after a few more rotations around the sun…and maybe by then I’ll have a more finished tree to show, and a photo of it the week BEFORE a wind storm takes off half the leaves.



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