A simple and tidy way to apply bonsai fertilizer? Tea bags.
I’ve seen a number of folks use tea bags to hold fertilizer, but I hadn’t tried the technique until this year. I typically pour mounds of cottonseed meal on the surface of the soil, but much of the fertilizer washes away, and the rest seems to seep into the soil and slow down drainage. Liquid fertilizer like fish emulsion is great – see “Bonsai Fertilizer” for details – but it requires following a schedule to make sure trees get enough food. Using tea bags keeps the fertilizer in place and is easy to clean up at the end of the season.
The technique is simple. Fill up a tea bag with your preferred fertilizer and pin it in place with a toothpick.
Tea bag with cottonseed meal (6-2-1)
All wrapped up
Tea bags can also help keep dango in place. I picked up a tin years ago, but don’t use it much as critters usually run off with the stuff the first night. I’m hoping the bags will curb this behavior.
Tin of dango
Two dango pellets
I sat around for an hour last weekend wrapping packets of dango and cottonseed meal. I threw them in a bucket and then walked around placing them on my trees.
Dango – ready to go
I used wooden toothpicks to hold the bags in place. Bamboo toothpicks are a great alternative as they don’t break down so fast.
Pinned in place
Pine with dango
I’m hoping the local critters don’t think of the bags as to-go containers. If they do, I don’t know what I’ll try next.
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Can’t use that type of fertilizer on my trees. The squirrels and chipmunks would dig all the dirt out of the pot looking for more. I tried fertilizer cakes three years ago and every spring they still come back and try and find the prize in the pots.
Daniel Dolan says
You refer to your fertilizing schedule…….but unless I missed it, you did not say what it is.
Warren Hill, a fine Bonsai Master, former head of the National Bonsai Foundation in Washington, is a big believer in fish emulsion and recommends once per month.
Given the comparatively low NPK of fish emulsion this always seemed a very low application rate…..but it is what I follow.
Please advise about your schedule.
Have you tried fertilizer baskets? They work fine for me up to now… it’s the first season I try them. I bought them on this site from UK: http://www.greendragonbonsai.co.uk/BONSAI_FEED_AT_GREEN_DRAGON_BONSAI.htm
(They are at the bottom of the page). Has anyone experienced those besides me?
Jose Luis says
I think this is a good alternative. I have also used stockings as a sustitute with equally good results.
Zack Clayton says
what is Dango, I have never heard of it. And Seven helps with the critter problem a little bit. or train a local cat to pee on the bags after you fill them. I only had chipmunks for two weeks after moving in – my cats took them out in that time. The squirrels are a bit more resistant. My main vermin removal cat died about four years ago and the others haven’t kept up.
Nuno Encarnação says
This is what I’ve started to use this year.
Kathy Sloan says
Hi Jonas, Thanks for this post. Your articles are always so descriptive and helpful. Where do you buy the tea bags? Thanks, Kathy
Jonas Dupuich says
Thanks for the great comments!
@ Kathy – I bought the tea bags shown here in Japan, though they are available at tea shops, selected grocery stores and online. They’re not always cheap, and cheap is likely good enough for this use.
@ Nuno – thanks for linking to your post, the mesh you use and nails looks like a very secure system. One nice detail about the tea bags and toothpicks is that they are all good fodder for compost.
@ Chris – I have used the baskets on occasion. They are great for holding cakes in place on bunjin or other trees where dango might otherwise roll away. I like them on other trees too, but find that the vermin simply knock them to the ground. I don’t know that tea bags and toothpicks will work better, but figured it’s worth a try. Aichi-en uses this approach to great effect.
@ Daniel – Good question about my fertilizing schedule. I don’t follow a set schedule, but if I did, I’d likely apply liquid fertilizer weekly to the trees that appreciate heavy feeding like pines and ume. I tend to use a combination of cottonseed meal and fish emulsion – if I have a lot of dango out, I don’t use the fish emulsion as much, and vice versa.
@ Zack – Dango literally means dumpling, lump, or ball-shaped object. It’s one of the more popular forms of bonsai fertilizer in Japan and it’s somewhat popular in the US too. You can read a bit about it at the link Chris posted to Dragon Bonsai.
Scott Roxburgh says
It is a great alternative to having to make up cakes.
I haven’t tried the toothpicks before, a bit more security from all those little hands, although our creatures aren’t ‘squirrel-smart’…
I’ve been using pre-packaged inorganic fertilizer tea bags specifically designed for the rapid establishment of conifers for a number of years. Last year I tried some of their (Reforestation Technologies International) organic tea bag products – they are in Salinas, CA. Link to their website;
Graham, the website is empty.
Chris Cochrane says
Thanks for generous sharing, Jonas.
Perhaps, the product Graham uses is here (as noted, the reforest.com site is not descriptive):
Bruce Winter says
Thanks Chris !
Daniel Dolan says
Thank you for you reply to my comment.
Not to bore you with a lot of questions about pine care, however you mentioned in your reply something about feeding pines heavily.
Though you did not mention when you feed them heavily, I have been told by many experienced folks [meaning Bonsai Professionals]…….feeding pines heavily makes the needles grow longer.
Could you please clarify when you get a chance?
Thanks as always.
Jonas Dupuich says
Hi Daniel – Yes, for black pines, more fertilizer yields longer needles, and over fertilizing can yield overly long needles. That said, I don’t know that I’ve seen many pines with extra long needles due to over fertilizing alone. Too much water and improper decandling can also encourage longer needles. The trick is getting the balance right. I feed my pines heavily and don’t typically suffer long needles. Thanks for the question!
You’re welcome Bruce!! ^^
Steve Moore says
Capsaicin is supposed to repel mammals — Homo sapiens is the only one that eats it by choice! So far my own experience bears that out: a couple of drops of tabasco on a fertilizer cake and the tree rats leave it alone.
Birds can’t taste it, so you’d have to use something else for them, if your local birds are a problem.
Scott Straley says
I’m giving it a try this year, as making the balls always seems to take a bit longer and hopefully cuts down on the sediment released into the soil. You can find the tea bags at 99 Ranch market, on the houseware aisle, not the tea aisle. In fact, they’re right by the 500 ct bamboo toothpicks 🙂 We’ll see how they do with the critters.