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Typically, beginners bonsai are purchased from garden centres, shopping malls and chain stores. Almost all originate from China and Israel and are mass produced trees that have been cultivated on large bonsai 'farms' before being lifted and planted directly into a bonsai pot. The result is a tree that is relatively cheap to buy, but will be in poor health, growing in very poor soil and with little in the way of styling other than some trimming of the tree's silhouette.
Many beginners are put off bonsai after buying such a tree. Despite being correctly positioned, fed and watered, mass-produced bonsai are often plagued by ill health. Often this is a very off-putting experience and one that causes many potential enthusiasts to be turned off bonsai permanently.
However, with a few simple steps, mass-produced mallsai can be turned into good quality, healthy bonsai.
*Mallsai is a term used by bonsai enthusiasts to describe mass produced trees typically found in malls, chain stores and garden centres around the world.
This Chinese Elm/Ulmus parvifolia was a fairly typical mass-produced bonsai purchased 2002. The tree had many dead branches, was unstyled and difficult to water correctly. As a result of the compacted organic soil it was growing in, water would run off the soil-surface and over the edges of the pot rather than into the soil itself!
Without corrective measures being taken, the health of the bonsai would continue to decline.
The biggest concern I had was that the tree was still growing in the thick, airless clay from a field in China. This soil might have been adequate whilst the tree was growing in a field but once in the confines of a bonsai pot, the clay had become a solid airless mass that is very difficult for any plant to grow in.
90% of health related problems with mallsai bonsai are caused by trees trying to grow in this field-soil. Typically the soil will cause poor root growth and root rot, poor uptake of water and nutrients by the tree and difficulties with watering.
The solution is very simple, carefully wash all the clay off the roots and replant the tree into a good bonsai soil mix. Don't be deceived by the appearance of the bonsai soil on the surface of the pot; this is simply used to cover the dreaded clay that is found beneath it!
*It should be noted that in other areas of the world, such as the USA, mallsai are often found to have a layer of rocks glued onto the surface of the soil! The purpose of these rocks is keep the tree, soil and rootball intact during transport. The glued rocks impede proper watering of the tree and must be removed at the earliest opportunity.
Having bare-rooted and repotted the Elm into a good quality bonsai soil, the tree became healthy and vigorous and over the following three years I was able to train it, using just a few of the many bonsai techniques available to the enthusiast, into the bonsai you see above.
These two images show that however humble a trees beginning, with sound horticultural care and knowledge, a mass-produced mallsai can be turned into a healthy and vigorous work of art.
Looking up into the foliage mass of the Chinese Elm bonsai