Guide to Revive a Bonsai Tree

Bonsai trees aren’t like the average plant that can survive on its own. They need special care so they can thrive. Without it, they can dry out and the fun could quickly be over. Indeed, many bonsai amateur owners struggle to decide what to do when their plant starts to show signs of drying out. Here’s what you need to know.

If the roots haven’t dried out, most near-dead bonsais will need more watering if their soil is dry. In contrast, watering should be reduced if the soil retains too much water. In the case of an indoor bonsai, it is recommended to place the bonsai near a window so it gets more light. Repotting the plant could be needed if the soil doesn’t provide the right nutrients to the plant.

Even though this could work for most bonsai’s, it’s best if you follow specific guidelines for reviving a bonsai depending on its type. 

Wondering how to determine if your bonsai is, in fact, drying out? Or maybe you’re just curious about the most mistakes that you should avoid. Have no fear. We will teach all the ins and outs regarding Bonsai’s 911-calls in this blog post.

How do I know if my bonsai tree is dying?

To figure out if there is something wrong with your bonsai, we recommend you check some things first. We’ve compiled the steps you need to follow:

  1. Check the Soil: the first step to determine if your bonsai is actually dying is to check the soil, as it will tell you most about its health. Dry soil will possibly indicate that the root system of your bonsai is struggling and is not getting enough water or nutrients to survive. On the flip  side, it could be overwatering, so check that the soil has proper drainage, which is essential for the roots to thrive.

If you want to learn more about watering, check out our blog post here.

  1. Smell the Roots and Drainage Holes: another way to check if your bonsai has problems is by smelling the holes of your bonsai pot . It’s as simple as grabbing your bonsai and placing it near to your nose, and quickly take a whiff of  the drainage holes. If it smells weird, that might be an indication that part of the roots system is decaying, or maybe your bonsai has some waterlogged soil. In the section below, we’ll expand more on how to solve this problem and get rid of the infected roots.
  1. Scratch the bark on roots, trunk and branches: grab a small knife to scratch the bark surface in the different parts of your bonsai. What you ideally want to see under the bark is a green color, which means that the part is alive, fresh and healthy. Start by taking a bark sample from the roots, then on the trunk and finally on the leaves. This will help you know if there is any dying part that needs attention. 

However, if under the bark of any part you see a white or pale green, or even worse a brownish color, that means that specific part of your bonsai might be sick or already dead.   

  1. Analyze the foliage: looking at the foliage and leaves of your bonsai is another method of diagnosing potential health issues. If you notice discoloration, black dots, wrinkly and small leaves, or you spot weak branches; that means that your bonsai is not 100% healthy. These could be signs that there is a lack of sufficient light or some micronutrients that it can desperately need like iron or magnesium. Nevertheless, these symptoms can indicate something about your bonsai, but they don’t necessarily mean that your bonsai is going to die, so take them with a grain of salt. 
  1. Check for pests: it is not very common. However, make sure to check that your bonsai doesn’t have insects like aphids, spider mites, mealy bugs, vine weevils, caterpillars or ants. These intruders can infect you bonsai, and diminish its health by weakening it
How to Identify and Remove These Common Bonsai Pests | Bonsai, The ...
Credits: Pinterest

Once you have assessed the situation and determined which of the 5 scenarios your bonsai is experiencing, then you can proceed to take the necessary actions to save your tiny leafy loved one.

How do you save a Bonsai Tree

Before doing anything specifically, seasoned bonsai owners recommend checking and confirming the bonsai species that you have. You can use this guide

This is a crucial moment as there is no one-size-fits-all approach to save a bonsai. So pay attention, and believe us, you don’t want to mess it up. For instance, an outdoor bonsai like the Juniper has different light and watering needs in comparison to an indoor bonsai like the Ficus. Even though they are both bonsai’s, they are different trees.

So make sure you confirm the species that you own. 

Once you’re sure, there are different actions you can follow based on the symptoms that you identified from the previous step.

Most issues can be summed up in: Humidity Issues, Soil and Drainage Issues or Light Issues. Now how to tackle each of these. 

Humidity Issues (the tissue under bark on some parts is not green)

Adjust watering amounts according to the guidelines of your species. You can check more details on bonsai watering here

If you see an issue with the root system, such as  the leaves turning brown and the branches drying out, here is a suggested approach to help the root system and your bonsai to regain moisture quickly. 

  1. Grab a plastic or Ziploc bag where your bonsai can fully fit.
  2. Spray the interior of the bag with water.
  3. Water your bonsai overhead.
  4. Place your bonsai inside the bag and close it.

This will create a microclimate to help your bonsai recover its ideal humidity levels in a short time. 

Soil or Drainage Issues (Drainage holes smell weird)

If you find that your bonsai has issues on their roots or is smelling weird on its drainage holes, then you might need to re-pot the plant into new soil. This includes getting rid of the rotted parts in the roots, since this means they are no longer doing its job.  

The main goal of this transplantation process is to give your bonsai new nutrients, and give it the necessary elements it needs to grow. 

Here is a great video that you can use as a reference to perform the bonsai repotting:

Light Issues (you found some yellow leaves)

Depending on the species, you should adjust the amount of light that your bonsai is receiving  every day. For instance, if you find that you’ve been placing inside an outdoor species like the Juniper, then you will need to take it to your back yard or balcony immediately.

On the other hand, if you confirm that your bonsai is an indoor species, then make sure to place your bonsai on a sunny window or fluorescent light at least 10 hours per day. You can learn more about indoor bonsai caring in this guide.

Found a Pest

Make sure to get the proper pesticides or fertilizer and apply it to your bonsai as soon as possible. We recommend you get Provado sticks, or diluted Armillatox or Nematodes to do this job and you should be good in no time

What if my bonsai died?

Let’s be honest. No matter how hard you try, there is always a chance that your bonsai might  die.

If that happens, don’t go too hard on yourself. As with many things, Bonsai caring has its learning curve, and failure is part of the process. It’s not a coincidence some bonsai knowledge is passed generation to generation, same as trees. 

So the first step to move forward is to identify  the main learnings from your previous leafy friend. Now jot them down, and research what you could’ve done better. 

If you’re still passionate and willing to give it a second try, you can go to your local nursery with the container and ask for a bonsai replacement. In this case, you shouldn’t get charged for the  full price of a bonsai.

How to avoid the most common bonsai mistakes

Either if you are venturing into having a new bonsai or you just want to avoid having a new  Bonsai emergency, do yourself a favor and keep handy the following most common bonsai beginner mistakes. 

Watering too much or not watering enough

Make sure you follow the watering guidelines from your bonsai species. The role of water is vital for any tree or plant. More than 55% of your bonsai’s weight is water, it helps all nutrients being carried and distributed to the rest of the tree.

When: if the soil is dry, then water. If the soil is wet, then let it be, but beware you avoid waterlogging. 

Proper Soil

Make sure your bonsai lives in healthy and fertilized soil. Avoid at all cost clay-based soil, this type of soil will shorten the life of your bonsai as it won’t be able to absorb nutrients properly.  

Indoors vs Outdoors

Make sure to place your bonsai in the right spot depending on its nature. Outdoor bonsais will only thrive in gardens or backyards, while indoor bonsais will not stand these environments.

Too many modifications

Take it easy with the pruning. Don’t cut away too many parts of your bonsai all at once, especially branches, this can negatively impact sunlight absorption and make your bonsai weaker. As a rule of thumb, if you would like to reshape your bonsai, do it once per year.

Wrong size container 

Be mindful when choosing a container for your bonsai. The pot needs to have enough space so the root system can stretch, allowing the bonsai tree to grow properly, having room to get nutrients and water from the soil. Keep track of the size as time passes by since a mature bonsai will need to be transplanted to a bigger container at some point in its life.

Incorrect use of tools

Make sure to get the right equipment to perform bonsai pruning and cutting its parts. It is also vital that you disinfect your tools before cutting any part, this will help to prevent any infection on your bonsai.

Martin Duran

Hey y'all! My name is Martin Duran and I am from Cali, Colombia. Since 2018 I have been learning about plants and how to take care of them. Here's is my journey... “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” ― John Muir

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