Bonsai Basics 1: Rescuing "Mallsai"




Introduction: Bonsai Basics 1: Rescuing "Mallsai"

About: USAF Veteran, tinkerer

Most everyone has seen those ubiquitous little trees known as Bonsai; from TV and movies to the tortured displays in stores and mall kiosks. For those who were gifted such a tree or purchased one themselves, you already know these have a relatively short shelf life, and that's by design. The common, inexpensive versions are known as "mallsai", coined by being found commonly in malls and Asian-themed gift stores. If you find yourself in the possession of one, there are a few simple things you can do to rescue the tree, improve its chances at life, and turn it into a proper bonsai to last generations.

First, the term "Bonsai" itself is misunderstood. Bonsai, (pronounced BONE-sigh), literally translates to "tray tree", and simply means a potted tree. Most people say "banzai" (bahn-ZEYE), which means "ten thousand years" or "long life". Although this may be literal for the oldest of specimens, it isn't the correct term or pronunciation. There is no deep spiritual meaning or significance to maintaining bonsai--it's simply a tree in a pot. The ancient Chinese admired how fully-grown trees were miniaturized in nature when given very little soil and room for growth, such as at cliff edges or near waterfalls. Hoping to capture them as an art form, these trees were collected and potted. The Japanese took the art form forward by perfecting designs, displays, and training young trees collected from the forest into recognizable specimens, some as old as several thousand years. Recognizing they had to replace what a tree needed in a pot instead of what nature provided outdoors, they perfected the art form into it's more conventional, recognizable shapes we see today. In the same way, understanding you're dealing with a living tree and its needs and not a houseplant, you're already ahead of the game.

First, how do you identify you have a "mallsai"? The easiest way to tell is the presence of glue. Mallsai will have glued-on rocks and decorative elements--this is so the soil doesn't spill out during shipping. Try picking up a single stone; if you can't, or entire sections of stone come up with it, you're likely dealing with an adhesive. Uncommonly shiny rocks is another indicator. Another good indicator is price and labeling. Most mallsai will be $40 or less, with $20 being the average median price. Trees raised as bonsai, even younger specimens, will cost into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Although that price is prohibitive for most to get introduced to the hobby, you can build a decent collection from rescuing mallsai. If the label simply says "bonsai" instead of the type of tree it contains, you're dealing with a mallsai.

If you're looking to purchase trees in the interest of this hobby, I'd highly suggest you *avoid* evergreens. Chinese Juniper (Juniperus chinensis) are most often used, and are also the common trap for mallsai. Since evergreens can take months to turn any color other than green, an unfortunate practice is for manufacturers of mallsai to simply lop off a juniper's branch, stick in a pot of soil, and sell it as a bonsai for $40. The branch has no roots and hasn't been alive in weeks, yet it will take several weeks more to show any signs. Purchasers will think they have a black thumb and will end up throwing it away. Sad, right? In the beginning, selecting trees other than evergreens will greatly improve your odds.

For this example, I've selected a Ficus tree, more specifically a Ficus benjamina, which appeared to include a smaller variegated tree in the same pot. Ficus trees are sub-tropical and do well indoors, hence why they're most often used as live office decor.

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Step 1: Step 1: Remove Stones and Design Elements

The first step is to get rid of those rocks. Although some would think them a great help, the fact is they will only result in the eventual demise of the tree. Soil settles over time, creating air pockets which encourages mold. With a crust of adhered stones, you may never see the science experiment unfolding underneath until you have something known as a former tree. For this, all you'll need is a wide-bladed flat screwdriver and a large container.

1. Set the tree and pot into a container large enough to hold the contents. Go with at least twice the size of what you think you'll need.

2. Pull up the major design elements first, i.e. largest stones and other decor. Anything painted or glued, no matter how pretty, will have to go.

3. Using the screwdriver, work from the edges of the pot inward to pry up sections of glued rocks, being careful not to damage the tree or roots. You'll most often find them coming up in large sections.

Step 2: Step 2: Separate Roots

1. As you carefully work around the trees themselves, knock most of the soil loose, exposing the hair-like roots. The more of these roots you have, the more likely your tree will survive.

2. Separate each element out, and determine what pot you'll use. A proper pot will be ceramic or terra-cotta, will be more flat than tall, and will have at least two drain holes. The original pot in this instance actually worked well.

Step 3: Step 3: Clean and Prepare the Pot

This is if you choose to reuse the same pot

1. Using the screwdriver, carefully scrape the remnants of glue and gravel from the inside rim.

2. Clean the pot using lukewarm water *only*--no soap!

3. Prepare your drain hole covers--these keep the soil inside, but allow adequate drainage and air flow.

4. Install your drain hole covers using wire--brass, bronze, or copper is preferable, as iron or steel wire will rust and affect the soil. Form the wire into a large "staple", and insert it from the inside of the pot. Bend the wire to either side of the hole to lock the cover in place.

Step 4: Step 4: Add Soil

It is very highly suggested you discard whatever soil the tree came with, as it could have mold or remnants left from the production process which could be harmful to the tree. An equal mix of sand, compost and peat is ideal, but standard garden soil (not potting soil) works as well. Potting soil isn't suggested since it's formulated for houseplants and flowers, and usually has fertilizer and water retainers added.

1. Line the bottom of the pot with a very fine layer of gravel to create a drainage layer. Collected gravel works best, but you can use aquarium gravel--just be sure to clean it first in hot water. Aquarium gravel is sometimes painted or coated in a clear finish to help prevent microbial growth, but this coating isn't good for trees.

2. Add just enough soil to cover the drainage layer, being careful not to compress it.

3. Determine what you to be the "front" of your pot based on how your trees look, and place your trees, adding small clumps of soil enough so that the trees are free-standing. If your trees were raised in pots, they won't have a tap-root and should stand relatively easily. If they do have tap roots, you'll have to keep adding soil so it looks almost too not cut the roots.

4. Continue adding handfuls of soil, keeping the consistency unpacked and "fluffy". You want it to look like you've added too much soil, as it will compress significantly in the next steps.

Step 5: Step 5: Compact the Soil and Water

1. Gently compact the soil into the pot, being careful not to crush the tree. You want to eliminate air pockets but still leave enough space to encourage roots to grow.

2. Fill a sink or tub to a level reaching just over half the height of your pot, and place the pot into the sink. It's important the water temperature is tepid--about "t-shirt warm". Too cold or hot will shock the plant. Let it sit for 20-40 minutes, but no longer than an hour. This is how you should always water your bonsai from now on, not from the top down. Unless the potted tree is overly large and heavy, this is the best way to ensure water is reaching only the roots, limits soil disruption from watering top-down, and helps limit mold and microbial growth.

I know the argument here is "rain falls from the top down", but remember you're now dealing with a tree growing in the very limited space of a pot. Trees in the natural environment have the advantage of living in a watershed, where contaminants can be dispersed over an area and the tree can send out roots to new areas of soil. Trees in pots have no such advantage, so this is the best way to limit what can negatively affect them.

3. Drain the sink, allowing the tree to sit for another 10-15 minutes. This removes excess water and pulls in nitrogen from the top of the soil as the water drains from the bottom.

4. You'll find the soil will have settled considerably, although it may not look wet from the top. Manually compress the soil somewhat to make space for more in the next step.

Step 6: Step 6: Add Design Elements and Additional Soil

1. Use an old teaspoon to part small areas of soil to add design elements, such as interesting stones. Don't just press them into the soil--this compresses it and doesn't encourage root growth. Tap the soil back in around the elements to give the appearance of having always been there.

2. Less is more! Your trees should be the focal point, not what's planted around them. Only add enough to make the setting interesting and draw the eye back to the tree. If you're aiming for a more traditional design, groupings of odd numbers, such as 3, 5, and 9, are considered auspicious.

3. Add teaspoons of soil around the elements, the trees, and the edges of the pot to account for the soil settling from watering.

Step 7: Step 7: Finishing and Display

1. Once you're satisfied with the placement and soil level, sit back and admire your work so far! Look for anything which seems "off" should look fairly natural or like a landscape in miniature. This is your opportunity to fix it before it becomes semi-permanent.

2. *Optional*: Add gravel to the top using an old spoon. Natural stones are best, but you can use treated aquarium gravel as in a previous step. If you've actually read this far, you should know not to glue it!

3. Find a tray only slightly larger than the pot, and line with gravel. This will encourage drainage and air flow, will improve the display while indoors and save your furniture from water spots. Here I've used a bonsai tray, but small service trays from a dollar store work just as well.

4. Display your work proudly! You've not only rescued a "mallsai" from certain death, but you're well on your way to a relaxing and rewarding hobby. The work you've done today could be enjoyed generations from now.

Final thoughts:

1. Trimming and training: You'll notice in this instructable I didn't mention trimming, clipping or training anywhere. Right now you're just trying to save a tree and get it established, so any clipping will only add stress and decrease the odds of survival. Trimming and training will be covered in another instructable.

2. These are trees, and trees belong outside. When you see a bonsai displayed indoors, it's been brought in for display or is an indoor-only version. One of the biggest surprises to most people when they visit a bonsai garden is how all the trees are outside for most of their lives, being brought in only occasionally for maintenance or a temporary display. Trees need to go through their natural cycles, and having a dormant or winter cycle is important to encourage growth. If you have a tree and can find the larger version of it in outside in your local area, it will be fine if left outside so long as you protect it from frost since it doesn't have the ground as a natural buffer. Indoor-only versions are becoming more common for trees such as the one displayed here; Ficus are not native to my area, so this particular tree will stay indoors for most of the year.

3. Watering: The frequency of watering really depends on the type of tree you have and where you live, but suffice to say usually no more than once per week. Use the back of your hand to check the soil coolness--if it's cool and feels damp, it doesn't need water. A cut off bamboo chopstick or broken pottery shard stored in the corner of your bonsai pot is a good way to check the soil's water level--if the bottom is still wet, you're OK. The soil shouldn't be allowed to get bone dry, yet shouldn't be dripping wet either. Most deciduous trees seem to prefer drier soil on top with damp soil beneath, while evergreens do well with less frequent watering. Water in the same way as before--by immersion in a sink or tub, and allowing it to drain. Most people tend to over-water, and this encourages mold and can make your tree diseased. Under-watering will make it dry (obviously) and cause the foliage to turn brown and yellow. As odd as it sounds, over the course of a few months you'll get to know what your trees need.

4. Realize sometimes things die. Despite your best efforts, sometimes trees are so far gone by the time you get to them there isn't much you can do. Even great bonsai masters occasionally lose trees for various reasons, and it just happens. Consider this a lesson, and try again. It's better if you get through a few younger trees to learn from now, versus losing a thousand-year-old oak tree worth thousands of dollars down the road.

Be proud of your work, and enjoy!

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    3 Discussions


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Did I heard the little ficus saying "thanks a lot!"?


    6 years ago on Introduction

    I really enjoyed reading this. It's clear that you know what you're talking about, and this 'ible is full of bonus tidbits of information. This could have been a simple, "replace the soil BOOM YER DONE" project, but you took the time to clearly explain everything.

    Thanks for sharing.


    6 years ago

    Thank you for this instructable. I feel encouraged to try this again now that I know what to do and not try and wing it.