Bonsai Tonight

Options for applying bonsai fertilizer

Posted in Bonsai Care by Jonas Dupuich on July 29, 2016

I’ve been enjoying experimenting with the new fertilizers I’m using this summer. Ten days ago I applied Omakase fertilizer cakes to a number of my trees and I’ve already noticed a few things.

One of my concerns had been whether or not the cakes would break down quickly as the cakes are very hard out of the bag. Just yesterday, however, I noticed that some of the larger cakes had already started to break apart.

The fertilizer cake on the left is starting to crumble

The intact cakes have softened considerably which tells me that water is having no trouble penetrating the cakes.

Because I wasn’t sure, initially, how well water would penetrate the cakes, I tried a few approaches to keeping them moist. On one tree, I buried cakes at varying depths.

Fertilizer cakes on top of the soil (left) and nestled into the soil (right)

While the cakes placed on top of the soil have taken on a lighter color than the cakes that are partly buried, all have softened about the same.

I’ve also tried pre-crumbling the cakes.

Smashing a fertilizer cakes

I then added the crumbled bits directly to the surface of the soil on several trees.

Crumbled bits of fertilizer on the surface of the soil

One of my bigger challenges with bonsai fertilizer over the years has been critters running off with it. I’ve been happy to note that to date the cakes have remained where I left them. Omakase fertilizer is designed to be less interesting to critters than other fertilizers, and so far I’ve found that to be the case.

For a more direct comparison, I’m also testing the fertilizer in tea bags, both crushed and uncrushed.

Crushed fertilizer cakes in teabag

Intact cakes in teabag

Garden critters – mostly squirrels and raccoons, as far as I can tell – have been picking up fertilizer bags filled with cottonseed meal recently and dropping them on the ground here and there. Today I put out more bags with fertilizer cakes inside to see whether or not they stay put.

Omakase fertilizer in teabags

I’ll be increasing the amount of fertilizer used in the garden over the coming weeks as it’s time to start feeding decandled pines so I expect this to be a good opportunity to see what happens with the different approaches to feeding.

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What kind of bonsai fertilizer do you use?

Posted in Bonsai Care by Jonas Dupuich on July 19, 2016

I hear the question a lot – “What kind of fertilizer do you use?” The answer is a moving target. So far this year I’ve used various combinations of six different fertilizers.

My go-to fertilizers remain cottonseed meal and fish emulsion. They are affordable and they keep my trees healthy. It’s not the cleanest solution nor does it smell great, but overall the approach works well for me.

Cottonseed meal

I’m also using limited amounts of two fertilizers I’ve used before: Dr. Earth Life pellets – another organic option – and Miracle Gro. I tend to prefer organic fertilizers to inorganic ones, but I know people don’t always have options and I want to have a good idea of how different fertilizers can work for my trees.

Dissolved Life pellets from Dr. Earth

I’m currently experimenting with two additional fertilizers. The first is Sumo Cakes – handmade fertilizer balls with an NPK rating of 4.8-4.8-4.8. Ingredients range from alfalfa meal to zinc sulfate with a variety both plant and animal based nutrients. I received a sample for testing purposes and look forward to learning more.

Sumo Cakes

The second fertilizer I’m experimenting with is from Japan – Tosho brand Omakase pellets, aka OOF (Odorless Organic Fertilizer). As the name OOF suggests, one of its primary good points is that the fertilizer doesn’t have a strong smell – the idea being that insects and animals are less likely to take in interest in it and eat or otherwise steal it away from our trees.

Omakase pellets

I’ve used this fertilizer before but have had trouble finding it so I brought some in from Japan (see Omakase for details). I’m very curious to see how the bonsai like it.

As for how I apply fertilizer, I use liquids through a watering can, apply solid fertilizers directly to the soil, and use tea bags filled with different fertilizers. Each has its good and bad points. I love using liquid fertilizers – they are easy to dilute and fast acting – but feeding a large collection with a watering can can take a long time.

I love the simplicity of dumping mounds of dry fertilizers directly on the surface of the soil, but this can have adverse effects on drainage and looks messy.

Nothing is faster than applying – or cleaning up – tea bags filled with fertilizer, and nothing is slower than filling them up. Not everyone thinks they look good either. But my favorite thing about them is that it’s easy to see at a glance how much food the tree is getting.

Teabags filled with organic fertilizer

Almost every tree in the garden has some sort of dry fertilizer on it – many have two or more – and almost every tree gets liquid fertilizer between one and four times per month. I like it when trees get different fertilizers as it’s a good way to spread the benefits that each fertilizer offers.

Tea bags filled with Dr. Earth Life pellets – mound of cottonseed meal in the foreground

Dango – Omakase pellets – and tea bag filled with cottonseed meal

And so the experiments continue. I hope to learn a few things about bonsai fertilizer this summer, and to find new fertilizers to experiment with next year.

A teabag nestled among exposed roots

Feel free to share your favorites below.

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How to fill a tea bag with fertilizer

Posted in Bonsai Care by Jonas Dupuich on June 30, 2015

Two months ago, Felix Laughlin, President of the National Bonsai Foundation, requested tips for how to fill a tea bag with fertilizer quickly. The process does seem to take a while, but I’ve found I can fill about 9 bags per minute with the following approach.

The most important thing is setting up everything within easy reach – tea bags (flap side up), fertilizer and scoop. From there there’s not too much to it.

Filling a tea bag with fertilizer

The basic setup – the fertilizer here is E.B. Stone’s Starter Food, 4-6-2

I start by picking up a bag by the flap.

Filling a tea bag with fertilizer

Picking up the bag

Gently folding the bag opens it.

Filling a tea bag with fertilizer

Open bag

Next the fertilizer goes in.

Filling a tea bag with fertilizer

Filling the bag about 2/3 – 3/4 full

Under filling the bag can work when only a little is needed; over-filling the bag makes it difficult to close the flap.

Filling a tea bag with fertilizer

Tea bag filled with fertilizer

I close the bag by tucking my thumbs into the flap.

Filling a tea bag with fertilizer

Starting with the thumbs

Next I pinch the top of the flap with my index fingers.

Filling a tea bag with fertilizer

Pinching the flap

From there I can quickly close the bag.

Filling a tea bag with fertilizer

Bag ready for use

I usually keep a second container nearby so I don’t have to move around much between bags.

Filling a tea bag with fertilizer

One down, many to go.

Here’s the process in real-life action.

Hope this helps!

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Experiments with fertilizer

Posted in Bonsai Care by Jonas Dupuich on June 9, 2015

I’ve been experimenting with fertilizers lately. For years, my primary fertilizers have been cottonseed meal and fish emulsion. Both are easy to find and easy to use.

Cottonseed Meal

Cottonseed meal

Fish emulsion

Fish emulsion

I’ve been happy with the results too, but have been curious about newer products that have components beyond the standard NPK. Today it’s easy to find fertilizers with humic acid, mycorrhizae and a good variety of micronutrients. After talking with Ryan Neil about Mirai’s approach to feeding – Ryan has observed good results from such fertilizers – I decided to give several a try.

Natural Organic Starter Food

E.B. Stone Natural & Organic Starter Food

Dr. Earth Life

Dr. Earth Life pellets

Happy Frog Japanese Maple

Happy Frog Japanese maple fertilizer

I’m using the fertilizers in tea bags and directly on the soil. Some trees get only one of the above, others get some of each.

Chinese quince

Chinese quince with cottonseed meal, Dr. Earth Life, and E.B. Stone Starter

Fertilzer in tea bags

3-1/2 year-old black pines with Happy Frog Japanese Maple Fertilizer

Black pine

2-1/2 year-old black pines with E.B. Stone Starter

Red pine

2-1/2 year-old red pines with Dr. Earth Life pellets

Black pine

1-1/2 year-old black pines with Dr. Earth Life pellets


Shimpaku cuttings with a mix of fertlizers

Fertilzer in tea bags

Several different fertilizers together

I don’t expect to see big differences in growth or health with the different fertilizers, but I am curious to see if any trends develop.

A few things I noticed right away. The E.B. Stone Starter works its way into the soil well, but it can inhibit drainage as the fine particles can form a crust on the surface of the soil – as a result, I like using it in tea bags. Water drains through Dr. Earth Life pellets applied directly to the soil better than it does through the E.B. Stone or the Happy Frog Japanese Maple fertilizers. Cottonseed meal works great on the surface of the soil or in tea bags.

I’ll continue to experiment with more of my trees throughout the year and will be sure to share if I notice any general trends.

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