How to Setup an Automatic Bonsai Watering System for Vacations

We all take vacations or have to go away for a few days, who is going to water our bonsai?  I mean the whole family is away, there is nobody home!  Some people hire a house sitter, a friend or a neighboring kid to water their bonsai; the outcome can be great or disastrous depending on how reliable is the help.

My wife and I often take vacations from a few days to as long as 5 weeks, we need a reliable watering system for our bonsai.  I experimented with several automatic sprinkler systems for the last 20 years or so, and found the one we have been using for about 10 years works well for us.  When we set up this sprinkler system, our objective is to allow us to go away, the bonsai are watered and are alive when we come back.  Not necessarily they receive the best of cares.  For that, you need to stay home or board them in a professional nursery.  I want to share how we do it, hopefully, readers will also share their experience and watering system benefitting others too.

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We recently went on a 10-day trip to Utah and spent two days at the Monument Valley.  Route 163, mile post 13 is where Forrest Gump suddenly stopped his cross-country run.  Now a tourist spot.

Our system is quite simple, it relies on duplications and backups. We use two hose-end water timers to deliver water to one set of sprinklers. The logic is chances for two watering timers to fail during the period we are away are quite low, and that turned out to be true so far.

Each timer is attached to its own spigot.  Water from both spigots are fed to a common pipeline which delivers water to the bonsai sprinklers.  One timer runs in the morning, the other in the afternoon.  Two watering cycles.  Should one timer fail to work, the bonsai are watered at least once a day.  Here is a schematic of the set up:

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This is our physical set-up.

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We installed four spigots, each with a DIG four cycle water timer. Two are used for watering bonsai, two for flower beds.

We use battery operated timers instead of electrical solenoid control valves, this is to make sure power failure does not mess up the main electronic control.  The simpler the control, the less chance of mishaps.  An orchid friend told a story of someone in his Society built a fancy greenhouse with computer controlled temperature and humidity; the computer failed one day and went into default heating mode.  All his orchids were roasted upon his return.

It is important to use a reliable water timer. We liked our old Gilmore 8-cycle timers but they were no longer in production. We switched to the DIG 4-cycle timers, it is not as flexible as the old Gilmore in setting multiple cycle times, but they have been reliable so far.  As a precaution, we also give a spare timer to our neighbor should we need to have him to replace if one were to fail, and this has not happened.

The outlet hose of each timer is connected to a check-valve to prevent back-flow when the other is operating.  The two check valves are connected to a T-joint which feeds into a common underground pipe line to the sprinklers in the bonsai patch.

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Check valves,

How Do You Know Your Bonsai Are Watered?

Security cameras!  I position one close to the sprinkler.  It detects motions when the sprinkler is on and the cloud server sends me an email alerting motions have been detected.  When I hear a ping from my phone at say, 3 PM, a time set for one of the timers, I know the sprinkler is on.  I can see the video in real time or review it later from the server.  I also set cameras close to some of the more important bonsai trees so I can see how they are doing at any time by turning on the video and zooming in.  Since my cameras are several years old and has only 720 dpi resolution, the video is fuzzy especially when water is splashing on the lens.  Nevertheless, it is adequate for us to see water droplets coming out the sprinkler and our bonsai are watered.

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My free WordPress blog does not support video. This is a screenshot of the alerting video showing the sprinkler is on.

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Instant check on how the trees are doing from security camera.

These days security cameras come with 1080 dpi and 4K resolutions, wider field of view etc.  Many competitive models are available for you to find one that suits your purpose.  It is also time for me to update some of my security cameras.

Nothing is fail safe. It is how well you prepared for it.  I replace the timers with new batteries, test the system several days before we go on vacation, adjust spacings between bonsai so it does not block water reaching the neighboring trees, that they receive enough water and there is no sign of distress during this test period.  I also surround the taller bonsai with bricks to make sure wind or squirrels do not tip them over.  Most of all, be prepared to accept dead bonsai should accident happened.  If you accept that, the automatic sprinklers will set you free, allowing you to travel.

Using Bokashi Compost Tea to Lower Water pH

I collect and use rain water for my bonsai as much as possible but 70% of the time I have to water with our pH 8-9 alkaline city water when I run out of rain water.

Plant roots have difficulties absorbing iron, zinc and magnesium micro-nutrients in alkaline soil. These micro-nutrient deficiencies caused leaf chlorosis especially in azalea and gardenia. When that happened I foliar sprayed my plants with Epsom salt or chelated iron acidifier. They worked well in treating the symptom but did little or nothing to improve soil acidity. Most plants grow best when the soil is slightly acidic. I usually sprinkle a little sulfur powder to my soil and let the microbes convert it into sulfuric acid to lower the soil pH. But this is a very slow process. Some people add vinegar to lower the water pH during watering.

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Recently I started doing Bokashi composting with my kitchen wastes. Though called composting, it is actually an anaerobic fermentation. Every few days I drain the fermented liquid so that the composting bucket does not smell. Many people claimed the liquid is full of beneficial microbes and helps plant growth. I do not know how useful those microbes are for bonsai since we use mostly inorganic aggregates. What interested me most is the highly acidic fermented liquid and I could use it to lower my city water pH.

This is the collected Bokashi liquid or tea, it smells like an apple cider and has a pH of about 4-5.

When diluted at 1:100 and 1:150, our city water pH drops to 6 and 6-7, respectively. This is great. I could now turn my kitchen food wastes into something I could use for bonsai. I use a hose sprayer to deliver the diluted Bokashi liquid at 1.5 tablespoon/gallon of water.

Since I supplemented my watering with fish emulsion, liquid kelp, liquid humate, liquid fertilizer, Epsom salt, iron acidifier etc., and I do not plan to do any controlled experiment to test the effectiveness of Bokashi liquid; I guess I will never know how beneficial the Bokashi microbes are to my bonsai, but am contented that I could lower my city water pH with it. In the future, when I produce enough Bokashi compost tea for daily watering, I will experiment with delivering it using a Hozon syphon mixer or an EZ-flo fertilizer injector.

Satsuki Azalea After-Flowering Maintenance, Part 2 – Back Budding Results

In my last post, I discussed the basics of how to prune back azalea to two shoots and two leaves after removing the flowers.  In this post, I will show back budding results from those cut-backs.

This Wakaebisu has been under development for about 10 years from a nursery stock.  Although it has a good trunk base and nebari, I decided to train it into a meika azalea to enjoy the flowers instead of a shorter moyogi style bonsai.

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This is a 2018 photo. I did not take one this year.

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Satsuki Azalea After-Flowering Maintenance

The best part of growing satsuki is when they are in full blooms but they only peak for about two weeks and then begin to decline. When 30-40% of the flowers have faded, it is time to remove all the flowers, fertilize the tree and do the after-flowering maintenance work.

Why the After-Flowering Maintenance?

  1. Flowers use up a lot of the tree’s energy.  It is better to remove all of them, including the unopened buds, when 30-40% of the flowers have faded.  Fertilize the tree to thank it for putting out a good show, then selectively trim back shoots and branches to improve air flow and allow sunlight into the interior.
  2. The purpose of trimming shoots is to control growths, force back buddings and improve ramifications.  One can select which branch to trim or which one to allow continuous growth to improve the overall tree structure.

I will use this 4-5 year old Osakazuki grown from a cutting to show how the shoots are trimmed after flowering.

Trimming Whorl Forming Shoots

Azaleas tend to develop a whorl of several shoots coming out from a single point. For ramification we only need to keep two shoots at each branching point.

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Two whorls of shoots grew from the ends of previously trimmed Y-shape tips.

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Flowering of a Chinzan Satsuki Azalea – Murphy’s Law

I started this ‘Chinzan’ satsuki azalea from a nursery gallon plant about 17-18 years ago. It was grown in a flower bed for about 7-8 years, lifted and trained as a bonsai in a pot since then.

I prepared this tree for the April 11-14 American Bonsai Society Convention hosted by the Houston Bonsai Society, and expected it to have partial blooms based on past experience. Unfortunately we had several days of unusually cold weather in late March; as a result the Chinzan was covered with swelling buds but not a single bloom during the show. A week later, flowers started to come out and had about 80%  blooms by the following week. So it went from a tree with no flower to fully covered with flowers, but only after the show! A bummer.

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At the show on April 14, 2019.

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Faces of Joys and Fascinations I Saw in Bonsai Shows

Most clubs hold bonsai show once or twice a year. Typically the shows are formal with bonsai on stands, some accompanied by kusamono or scrolls against backdrops, some even have judging and awards for best trees.

For the last few years our club has held informal shows at the Houston Japanese Garden in conjunction with the Japanese Festival, and most recently at a local shopping mall. The number of visitors are phenomenal. We brought 1,300 copies of our club brochures to these two shows, and they were all gone. We estimated at least two thousand people saw our shows, and we also recruited several new members! Such an exposure of bonsai art to a wide audience is not easy to achieve in a formal show.

To me, the most gratifying reward participating in these informal shows is to see the joys these little trees brought to our visitors, many of them saw bonsai for the first time; their reactions, from curiosities to fascinations, the questions and amount of photos they took, made all the volunteering efforts worthwhile. Here are some of the heart warming photos from this year’s shows:

Spring Show at the Japanese Garden

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Beautiful sunny spring day and the Japanese Festival brought a lot of visitors to the Japanese Garden.

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“Are these special kind of trees?”, “How old is the tree?”, “What kind of tree is it?”  These were frequent questions asked by visitors. We like questions, it meant we had piqued their interests.

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Taiwan Bonsai Journey 3 – Juniper Bonsai at the Wanjing Garden

The Wanjing Art Garden (万景艺苑) is one of the six venues of the 2017 Taiwan BCI Asia-Pacific Bonsai and Viewing Stones Exhibitions. It occupies an area of about 5 hectares. The garden has a collection of rare native Taiwan trees, Chinese pavilion, ponds, bonsai and an art museum. It used to be a private garden, owned by Mr. Chen Chang-Hsing (陈苍興), who is also the co-Chairman of this year’s BCI exhibitions. The garden was opened to the public in May, 2014 and had hosted many bonsai events.

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Juniper bonsai displayed along the path to the museum which is constructed with large hinoki cypress beams.

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