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Water will kill your tree - too much or too little and your bonsai will be permanently dormant. So, just what comes out of the tap and how do we use it?
Japanese bonsai masters have apprentices who check the trees several times a day and water only when necessary. If you have an apprentice then you don’t have to read further.
Ideally, you should be able to water every day or two, excepting weather extremes. The idea is to keep the soil damp, not soggy or dry. Water and soil go hand in hand. Let’s assume your soil has been properly compounded to have the proper drainage for the intended use (see the Soil tab below). A common question is when to water. The best time to water is in the morning. If your bonsai is scheduled to be watered in 24 hours, but, the pot will run low in 18 hours, it’s better that happens at 4:00am than 4:00pm. You can adjust your soil to compensate for afternoon watering. The way to tell if your tree needs water is to dig down about a half inch in the soil. If it’s damp then you don’t need to water, otherwise sprinkle away. Naturally, if it’s hot, dry, windy, or raining, use common sense. There are times I’ll water a couple of times a day. If that’s not realistic then you should consider over-potting your tree.
Another question is how to water. I use a water wand at the end of my hose. After I turn on the tap I wait until the water is normal temperature. Water gently from above. A typical watering can has a coarse flow that tends to dislodge soil particles, so that’s not a good idea. I tend to water the foliage so that I wash off dust, dirt, and bugs. Spider mites, in particular, don’t like damp foliage. Many books advise not to water in full sunlight because water droplets supposedly focus the sun’s rays and can burn tender foliage. In the real world I have never had that happen or even heard of it. Occasionally you might want to set your tree in a pan of water up to the rim of the pot. Once the water reaches the soil surface take it out and let it drain. This provides a full exchange of soil gases and flushes out unused fertilizer salts and contaminants.
I’ve been blessed with good tap water. There are three things to consider, pH, minerals, and hardness. You can buy an inexpensive test kit at your favorite home improvement store, or get test results from your water utility. Most trees will tolerate a pH of 6.0 - 8.0, note I said tolerate, not thrive, but, that’s a function of the species and you can adjust your water if necessary. If that’s a real concern then you can get pH chemicals from a tropical fish store. I’ve never found that to be necessary. The common problem minerals are sodium, sulphur, iron, and chlorine. These are a concern only at high levels. Chlorine will out-gas just by sitting a day or two. The others can be filtered out. Sulphur will burn leaf margins, especially maples, iron can cause leaf discoloration. Sodium will do your tree in, bad stuff. Hardness is a measure of lime in your water. Lime will build up and on your pots. It also coats tree roots and causes water absorption problems. The problem here is that there’s no easy solution. If you have a water softener then you’re apt to have sodium in your water. Most softeners are plumbed to the hot water lines, so use cold water from the tap. Almost all outside spigots are non-softened water. Hard water scale can be removed from pots with Lime Away or CLR. Bottom watering, described above, will flush some minerals away, but, more frequent root pruning and soil replacement are the usual answers.
In a bad water situation there are two alternatives, rain water and bottled water. Avoid distilled water, it has no beneficial minerals. A cistern to collect rain is the ideal solution in this case.
In real life I just connect my hose to the spigot and water away. The only problem I’ve ever had is a little lime on my pots. In this hobby it’s real easy to get anal. Guard against that.
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