Repotting Tips

Ah repotting, such a fertile subject for ‘bonsai lore’! Any new bonsai enthusiast is soon taught (particularly in temperate locations), that all repotting should be completed in the spring, just as the buds are starting to leaf out. Here is some of the advice provided on popular bonsai websites:

  • “In general, it is best to repot right before your bonsai begins growing vigorously. In most cases this is spring.”
  • “The best time to repot a Bonsai is early in the spring, while trees are still dormant, and the buds begin to swell. At this stage trees are not sustaining full-grown foliage, so the damaging effect of repotting will be minimized.”
  • “Bonsai cannot be repotted at any time of the year; for the majority of species, there is a small period of time during the Spring where the roots can be disturbed and pruned with reduced risk of danger to the tree’s health.”

Unfortunately there isn’t any evidence that I can uncover to support these claims, and scientifically there may be good reasons to repot at other times of the year. But let’s start from first principles. Why repot in the first place?

Bonsai enthusiasts repot to avoid their trees becoming pot-bound – ie. the roots filling the pot. Why? There aren’t many research papers on this subject but luckily the eminent Australian research organisation CSIRO performed one studyref as a meta-analysis of 65 other studies to which they had professional access. They found what might appear to be the bleeding obvious – that increased pot size resulted in increased biomass – that is, the plants grew more when they were in bigger pots. More growth led to more leaf mass, greater levels of photosynthesis and more leaf nitrogen. In one experiment, doubling the pot size increased photosynthesis rates by 30%.

They also found that neither nutrient nor water availability nor higher temperatures could (fully) explain these pot size effects on photosynthesis and growth, and hypothesised that root confinement per se may cause growth retardation, with reduced photosynthesis as a consequence. Well – this is actually one of the benefits of keeping bonsai trees in small pots – it does reduce growth in both stem and root.

But in bonsai we need to find a balance. We want our trees to be healthy, we need them to develop and grow so that we can continue to refine them over time. If their roots take up 90% of the pot space, there is less space for nutrients, air and water. In one study on tobacco plants, pot-bound plants experienced premature senescence (their leaves fell off early), photosynthesis markedly declined as did the activity of Rubisco (a key enzyme involved in carbon fixation).ref

If we repotted all our trees into larger pots every time they got pot-bound, we’d be living in a potted forest and there would be no bonsai to be seen. Bonsai enthusiasts root prune to achieve the same outcome; root pruning creates space in the pot for soil, nutrients and water, and gives the remaining roots the opportunity to grow. This allows us to keep trees in small pots without halting their growth.

So it seems clear that root pruning is beneficial for bonsai in terms of longevity and growth (root pruning also encourages ramification). So if you are going to root prune, what negative effects might result? There are a few key ones:

  1. You might cut away too much stored food which the plant might need to grow
  2. You might not leave enough root mass to supply the leaves with water for transpiration – or another version of this one is that the plant might not have enough time to regrow roots in order to meet its needs
  3. You might expose cut roots to damaging microbes

The first point is covered in my post Root Food Storage (or, can I root prune before bud break?). Whilst roots do hold carbohydrates they are by no means the only place where these are stored, with branches and stems also storing significant amounts. Furthermore, the point at which they are most depleted (which is when one would theoretically prune them, to avoid losing carbohydrates) is the end of summer (see the post for charts for different species). Pruning roots in spring just before leafing out actually deprives the plant of those carbohydrates for the leafing out or flowering process.

The second point is concerned with ensuring there is enough water uptake to meet the transpiration needs of the foliage. This can be managed by pruning foliage to reduce transpiration, although it’s tricky in pines. Any other technique which reduces transpiration can help – reducing the temperature or wind, increasing humidity (for example by putting a plastic bag over the tree, a practice which is used when trees are collected).

Of course, a tree can grow new roots – and when they do so is covered in another post When do roots grow? I was interested to find that roots grow *after* leaves have had their growth spurt. So if you were trying to optimise root growth straight after pruning, the end of summer, beginning of autumn would be the best time.

So based on points 1 and 2 actually the end of summer or early autumn would appear to be the best time to root prune, depending on the species. The main risk with this approach is that of frost damage to newly grown roots if you leave it too late. But since this is when most root growth happens anyway, I’m not sure it’s really a risk.

A maxim I have is ‘the right time to do something is when you have time to do it’. Personally I have repotted trees in every season because I have a day job and a family and I certainly don’t have days on end to be repotting every tree I own at the same time in Spring! Unless you are being extremely brutal with your root pruning (in which case, do something to reduce transpiration), probably you can do it whenever it works for you.

Which brings us to the ‘how’. You might think that the choice of pot is purely aesthetic, but there is some science to it as well: see choosing a pot. Simply, you want to secure the tree into the pot without damaging its roots (sometimes harder to achieve than it sounds), fill the pot with growing medium making sure to get it into any open spaces, and give your tree a good water. Maybe add some mycorrhizal fungi (depending on the tree species), bacteria and slow-release fertiliser, then let it recover from repotting for a while and avoid constantly fiddling with it (hard I know)!