Perhaps you’ve noticed your juniper bonsai looking a little under the weather. Its needles appear brown and brittle and it’s not as perky as it once was. If you suspect your little tree is experiencing distress, it is best to act very quickly. The sooner you come to your bonsai’s aid, the better.
Their diminutive size makes them appealing as houseplants, but juniper bonsai are truly meant to be an outdoor plant. The juniper varieties used in bonsai gardening are trees. Just like all trees, they require the light and temperature combination that comes from being outdoors. Those who wish to raise thriving bonsai trees should only bring them indoors for a day or two if needed for a special occasion or to be used as a display. They should then be returned to the outdoors as quickly as possible.
Juniper varieties mask their troubles for quite some time. This can be bad for beginning gardeners, as the plant will appear to be healthy at first even when it is not. By the time the plant outwardly manifests signs of its distress, it may be too late to do anything meaningful.
For this reason, it is best to purchase a juniper bonsai from a reputable nursery where the employees are expert gardeners and understand the care and maintenance required for these beautiful trees. Purchasing a tree that has been raised in a nurturing environment and is in prime health to begin with is the single best thing a bonsai hobbyist can do to succeed. Bonsais are often sold at mall shops or garden centers that do not specialize in exotic plants. They are usually staffed by well-meaning employees who are often unaware of the particular needs of a juniper bonsai and over-water the trees. This is one of the leading causes of distress in juniper trees.
If a tree is showing signs of trouble, all is not necessarily lost. There are a few tricks that might help to nurse the tree back to full health again. If it is not too late for the tree, things like changing the potting soil or watering schedule might help to restore it.
- If your tree has taken on a truly alarming appearance, or even looks dead, it might be time for the Scratch Test. Carefully scratch a section of the tree’s trunk with a fingernail. While the outer layer of bark is brown and appears dead, the inner layer of a tree that is still alive should appear to be a vivid green. If your Scratch Test reveals a green inner layer, there is still life in your tree and it can probably be saved. If, however, your little tree has a dried trunk with no green underneath, it might be time to say your goodbyes and perhaps try again with a new tree.
- If your Scratch Test made clear your tree is still alive, it is now time to get to the root of the problem, literally. Your bonsai may have come in a container with decorative stones glued to the soil. If so, remove these immediately! This is a tactic used by many garden shops to make the trees look pretty and to keep the stones from shifting around during transport. The glue used to keep the stones in place is not healthy for the tree and should be thrown away as soon as possible.
- Once the stones are removed, grasp the tree gently by its trunk and lift it from the container. It’s time to look at the roots and see if they give any indication of the plant’s distress. Healthy roots are firm and white in color, so roots with distress should stand out. Trees with root rot will show sections of root that are discolored and mushy. This is usually caused by over-watering the plant. If juniper roots are continually exposed to standing water, they begin to rot.
- Mix a solution of two-thirds denatured alcohol and one-third water. Wipe or dip the blades of a pair of garden shears into the solution to sterilize the blades. Plant diseases can sometimes transfer with dirty garden shears.
- Once the shears are fully sterilized, trim away any rotted sections of root from the plant, taking care to make cuts that cleanly sever the section of diseased roots rather than crush them.
- Junipers required sandy soil that drains well. Your local garden store might carry such a blend; if not, it is simple to make one yourself. Mix one-third sand or ground volcanic rock with two-thirds humus. Fill a large pot with this mixture and replant the juniper. The goal is to keep the tree roots moist but not soggy. A sandy soil will allow water to pass through freely, watering the tree but not drowning it.
- Fertilize the tree with a good quality fertilizer mix meant for evergreen trees. Avoid any fertilizers that contain nitrogen. Institute a strict regimen of only watering the tree every few days, as the soil begins to feel dry. Junipers are plants common to semi-arid or desert climates and do not require as much water as traditional houseplants. They must never be left in standing water.
- Sterilize the shears again and prune off any dead areas from the tree’s foliage.
- In the warm months, place the tree in a spot that receives no more than four hours of direct sunlight per day. Ideally, your tree should receive morning and evening sun, with shade during the intense hours of noonday sun. During winter, place the tree indoors in bright, but not direct, light. Intense cold will quickly kill a juniper bonsai.
If the worst should happen and your little tree is too far gone to resuscitate, remember that all gardening is a learning experience. Any failures in the garden pave the way for future triumphs. Armed with these tips, your juniper bonsai should have an excellent chance at success.