High-Maintenance Bonsai, and Showering with Orchids

The gardenia bonsai my mom sent from Japan is doing so well I’m getting nervous. It’s going outdoors today for the second time since it arrived. It’s in the high 50s, and it’s overcast; perfect weather for a bonsai. But now, I’m fretting about summer heat and dehydration. This tree is a beauty, and more importantly, my mom gave it to me. I’d like it to live a long, happy life in my care.

But both gardenias and bonsais are high-maintenance. There are professional gardeners who will say otherwise, but I respectfully disagree. Gardenias are native to the southern U.S., where they thrive outdoors all year long. Here in Connecticut, a gardenia must be potted so it can be moved indoors when the temperatures start dropping in autumn. 

Gardenias are big feeders: they need lots of nutrition (a 4-6-4 balance is great) and tend to go iron deficient and develop chlorotic leaves. They have a big tendency to do that.

Gardenias hate being dry and quickly drop leaves if they’re thirsty. But they also get root rot easily. In both cases, the buds drop fast. Indoors, they need bright light, but not direct sun. Outdoors, they like indirect sun about 4 to 6 hours a day. More, and they’ll burn: less, and they’ll lose their lovely green color. And gardenias should be misted with clean, fresh water each day.

Any kind of a bonsai takes work to maintain. A true bonsai is a miniaturized tree that has been carefully cultivated and shaped over several years using a system of tiles and wires. Because bonsai trees - unless they’re huge - live in small pots, they need to be watered at least once a day.

In summer outdoors, water them three or more times a day, unless it rains. Indoors in winter, they must sit on a tray of pebbles and water and be watered daily, completely soaking the root ball, which means it must be watered in a sink, where it can drain. Never let the root ball sit in water. And bonsai, because they live in small containers, deplete the soil’s nutrients very quickly, so they must be fed regularly.

This is a lot of work. But with a bonsai like the one my mom gave me, it’s worth it. A true bonsai – not the grafted twigs sealed in pebbles and glue found at grocery stores and home improvement centers – has a provenance, has been lovingly cultivated, and pruned true to the art form. This one, which was raised at a bonsai farm in Japan, was flown in to the U.S., arrived healthy, in fresh soil, and in a bonsai pot that is also beautiful. A well-cultivated, well cared-for bonsai is artwork itself.

This weekend, I’ll give it its one big annual pruning. There’s already a ton of new growth. Ideally, it’s pruned before spring growth appears, but this bonsai had an early growth spurt. I may wire a few branches to encourage it to hold its gorgeous shape. And it needs a feeding of iron, as a few of the leaves have yellowed.

Acquiring a bonsai like this one is a privilege, but it’s also like adopting a child. It requires continuous attention and occasional damage control. It can go from happy to moody in a moment, is a finicky eater, and I worry about who will love and care for it if I suddenly die.

On a separate note, I have information that may benefit gardeners who struggle with keeping their phalaenopsis alive and well after bloom. Most of us in Connecticut get our greenhouse-cultivated phals from garden centers and even supermarkets, where the in-house care is poor. They may bloom beautifully, but after the blooms drop, the plant withers. But this is the first winter that‘ve kept phals (I have two of them) really happy for many months after blooming.

Our phals now live in the shower. There, they get plenty of humidity each day, and low light. Shower water splashes on them, lightly top-watering the plants. The temperature in the shower stall is warm, but never cold or hot. It warms considerably during a shower, then slowly cools back to room temperature.

The phals are loving it. Their leaves are green, smooth, and strappy, and there’s no sign of root rot. Plus, showering with beautiful orchids makes it feel like I’m washing in a tropical waterfall. I’m so psyched about this discovery, that I plan on buying a specimen of my favorite orchid – the fussy but beautiful oncidium flexuosum – and giving it the same care. 

Plants are awesome.

Live in peace

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