As an educator, I have always held a deep appreciation for a new or different perspective to understand an idea. I admit, when faced with a student who didn’t understand what was going on, I have repeated the exact same words I said a moment before (no doubt with more sarcasm than belongs in a classroom). I hope this was only at times when the student just wasn’t paying attention, because if the student didn’t understand something because of the way I explained it, they deserve an opportunity to hear it in a different way.
With this as background, then, I was very excited to hear a whole new way of thinking about the most basic and essential of bonsai skills: Watering. More than just watering though, this was about the relationship between watering and the choice of soil components.
Now, don’t assume I just mean, “different soil, different watering requirements.” It is that, but so much more. This was a new way of thinking about how often we water, how often we WANT to water, and what type of soil allows us to do that.
I had the pleasure of joining a tour of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum led by the curator, Michael James. I got the impression Michael enjoyed the opportunity on this occasion to give a tour, not just to visiting public, but rather to a group of bonsai enthusiasts — members of the Northern Virginia Bonsai Society (NVBS).
Among many topics we were able to explore, Michael explained watering this way (Michael, I hope I do not misrepresent your words):
It’s all about the balance of water and oxygen in the soil.
Check. This is not new to me.
When we water we throw the balance to one end — too much water. As time passes, water decreases and oxygen increases until it gets to be too much oxygen, not enough water.
Ok, I follow.
Each tree/species has a sweet spot…
Each tree/species has a sweet spot — a best ratio of water to oxygen when that tree can grow at its optimum level. That sweet spot is somewhere on the continuum between too much water and too much oxygen.
Huh! Makes perfect sense, but this is kinda new. Then he said this.
We want to move each tree through that sweet spot as often as possible. At least daily, a couple of times a day if possible.
Do you see a new way of thinking here? Consider what this means.
It certainly means every time we water too soon we deprive the tree of an opportunity for optimal growth. It also means every time we put watering off longer than necessary, we delay the next opportunity, but let’s think about what this means for soil.
If we use a soil mix with fine particles and organic matter that allows us to water only once every few days, we are only giving our trees the opportunity for optimal growth once in the span of those few days. If, however, we use an inorganic, fast draining soil mix (such as a mix of akadama, pumice, and lava recommended by so many professionals) that requires us to water daily, we are setting up our trees to experience optimal conditions far more often.
Now, listen, I’m not saying this will dramatically change anything I am doing in my garden. It may make me think twice about whether it’s the right time to water, but I have that conversation with myself daily anyway. What’s important to me is I feel like I have a new perspective, and perhaps a deeper understanding of this essential component of bonsai.
And maybe someone else out there will start using a different soil mix and have healthier trees as a result. Win. Win.