New Bougainvillea Bonsai -- bad soil?

thamsSeptember 30, 2012

Hi All,

I purchased a Purple Carpet variety Bougainvillea bonsai from a reputable nursery today. I'm really pleased with the tree and think it will make an awesome specimen for years to come.

Question: can someone tell me if it looks as though the soil is too compact? It's definitely bonsai soil, but it's so tamped down that I can even push my finger in.

Should I repot it now in better soil or should I wait for the spring to attempt this? I know the roots can be very sensitive, so I wouldn't be pruning them at all unless some are dead. I would be placing it back in the same pot.

I'll post a follow up with a picture of the actual tree.


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It's about 20" high including the pot.

    Bookmark   September 30, 2012 at 2:17PM
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hookilau(long island NY)

I could be wrong as I'm very new to Bonsai, but could it be that what you're feeling is a combination of dense feeder roots, moss & the soil-less mix? Your tree looks like it's been in the pot for a good while, that would be my best guess. As long as it drains well, it should be fine =) Cool tree btw!


    Bookmark   October 1, 2012 at 5:04PM
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I think you might be right. I'm telling myself that I shouldn't repot it yet since I don't know the tree's "habits" -- plus I've read that these should only be repotted in the height of summer.

Here is a picture of the pot cleaned up (i.e. no moss, large pebbles, dead leaves, etc.) Looks a little better. I do think the pot is dense with feeder roots, which in the long term is a good thing for sure.

    Bookmark   October 1, 2012 at 5:26PM
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You may also want to check on Bougainvillea basics. From what I am given to understand, they thrive better and flower more when they are at least partially root locked in a container. This is not to say that it should not be repotted, but from the full picture, it seems to be fairly healthy. Does the soil still soak up water?

Here is a link that might be useful: Bougainvillea 101

    Bookmark   October 3, 2012 at 3:27PM
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I have read that Bougainvilleas like to be root bound in the pot, and that they generally bloom more often because of this. When watered, it seems as though water soaks the root ball as well as the pot edge, so I'm sure the plant is getting enough water.

Some leaves are starting to curl and brown just a bit. Of course the tree just changed environments, so it's likely reacting to the change. My apartment is obviously less humid than the greenhouse it was in, but it's getting much more sunlight than in its previous home. The wilting worries me a little bit, but I'm going to let it settle in for a few weeks and see how it does.

    Bookmark   October 3, 2012 at 10:39PM
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This plant is confusing me a little bit... There appear to be new leaf buds trying to push out, but at the same time a lot of the leaves are yellowing (with some browning and shriveling totally).

I keep looking at the soil and wondering if there could be a problem with nutrients reaching all of the roots. It appears that most of the organic material has broken down into a fine dust. When I scrape away some of the dirt, fine dead roots come away in clumps. I'm just wondering if I have an overall healthy tree that can't get nutrients to all of the roots.

I've tried to determine if the middle of the root ball is receiving adequate water, but the soil and roots are so compact that I can't fit a chopstick into the soil, let alone my finger. Just wondering if anyone has any suggestions. I know I should wait for the summer to repot, but I'm afraid of the consequences of waiting too long.

Thanks everyone!

    Bookmark   October 19, 2012 at 8:35AM
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I have grown a Bougainvillea in a pot for a year. We recently moved to Florida. My experience with them is limited to the plant I have and observing and speaking to other growers.

I have repotted and root pruned (severely) twice in one year. I wouldn't recommend doing this but it was done because of the rapid root growth (after the first) and the necessity of keeping the plant in the existing container. It was also, cut to the base, completely defoliating it.

These plants like to be kept dry and bloom better when given little fertilizer and attention. They require tons of sun to bloom.

They also drop leaves when stressed or moved from different environments. I would assume your plant needs to acclimate to your environment and light. I would not worry about water unless the plant is wilting. These plants will wilt. Overwatering, or keeping the plant moist will be a death sentence.

I honestly don't know how you are planning to grow/bloom this plant inside a house. These are high light plants and grow like weeds in Florida with little care. They like sandy, free draining soil and must dry out.

If you are truly concerned about the plant getting enough water, you could put your plant in a larger bucket of water and let it soak for an hour. Then drain it well and do not water again until it has been 'bone-dry' for a couple of days.


    Bookmark   October 19, 2012 at 10:10PM
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hookilau(long island NY)

Try using a bamboo skewer or toothpick to test the interior of the root mass for water.

I had a boug a few years ago. I let it grow wild on the patio during the summer & when it was time to bring it in, I had no where else but the basement laundry room.

Not really problematic, but for the fact that there is no window in that room -_- I went to home depot & got a cheap under 20$ high pressure sodium light fixture. It is meant to be a security light that might be mounted on a building to illuminate a dark parking lot or driveway.

Nothing special & butt ugly, but hey, it was an experiment & for the laundry room which ain't so pretty anyhow. That silly boug just bloomed like crazy under that light. Pinky purple papery blooms everywhere, it was that happy down there.

It was in a super huge pot, (again, didn't realize I could pot down) I forget why I lost interest in it but I eventually gave it away. It did well the entire winter in that dungeon. Check the link below to see the kind of light I used, under 50$ these days. I don't think I would use this indoors in an area like a living room or bedroom, but for an area that isn't frequented by people or pets, it seemed ok.

In other words, not sure about whether or not it increases indoor pollution. Anyone know?


Here is a link that might be useful: it's a little more expensive now, but this is similar to what I used

    Bookmark   October 20, 2012 at 12:06PM
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Antoinette, why would you think it increases indoor pollution??

I grew orchids under lights over winter using floor, octopus lamps and CFL bulbs. The floor lamps were cheap bought in Home Depot or Target.

The CFL bulbs worked well enough to even keep some Plumerias blooming in December. I had them all over my house, living room, den, wherever I could fit more plants.

Not a pretty solution, but kept my plants growing and blooming.


    Bookmark   October 22, 2012 at 12:54AM
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Hi Everyone,

Thanks so much for the advice. I'm looking at a few different light rigs for my bonsai. Home Depot is selling various T5 panel variations that I'm looking at. They are a bit pricy and some have questioned whether they are worth the price.

So are Compact Fluorescent full spectrum bulbs a worthy substitute for the pricier counterparts? All of my bonsai sit in a southern facing window that gets a healthy dose of natural sunlight. My previously lifeless serissas are now exploding with growth and blooms.

With winter coming, I want to be sure I'm caring for my plants properly -- especially those that need high light to maintain good health. If I can get away with spending $25 vs. $100-plus, then I'd rather do that.

Also, I'm heeding the advice with the Bougainvillea and watering to see how drier soil affects the yellowing leaves. I'm not concerned with making it bloom just yet -- I want to make sure I can care for its basic health first. Once I start to see signs of good growth and reduced leaf drop, then I'll consider different methods to produce the blooms I would so love to see.

    Bookmark   October 22, 2012 at 10:58AM
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Will your plant go outside in Summer? These plants need high light and warmth. If you can get it outside, I think CFL's will do a decent job carrying the plant over winter.

The octopus floor lights I used, worked well enough to keep my Plumerias blooming in winter and kept my orchids growing. I put lamps on timers and ran them 18hrs a day. I bought the largest CFL's (equivalent 100watts). Some fixtures would not take larger than equiv. 75, they still did the job. The octopus lights were good because you can put the lights next to each other to increase the light over a wide plant.

I liked them for my orchids because I could point the lights toward individual plants.

If your Bougainvillea cannot go out in Summer, I think you would need stronger lights.


    Bookmark   October 25, 2012 at 11:57PM
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I wish I could provide this plant with everything it needs. The light is no problem, but I don't think I can care for it's needs for warmth and humidity. I was told when I bought it that it would thrive inside with no problem...

Bottom line is that I should have done more research before purchasing. I think I'm going to sell it to someone who can care for it correctly. It's a shame because I would have loved to see it in flower.

When I have a house, I'll invest in plants that I can keep outside when the whether is right. For now, I'll hold on to my ficus and serissa.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2012 at 1:39PM
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Update: the leaves were still dropping off and the tree was slowly becoming more and more unhealthy looking. I was noticing that the soil was taking upwards of 6-8 days to completely dry out to the point that the leaves were drooping ever so slightly.

Risky, but I decided to repot. I know it's almost the worst time of year to repot a Bougainvillea, but I felt it was that or lose the tree by spring. My intention was to remove a decent amount of the old dirt while preserving as many roots as possible.

When I got the tree out of the pot, the soil was totally waterlogged despite my tilting the pot after every watering to rid the pot of excess water. About 50% of the roots were totally rotted and just fell off without me tugging on them. There are still a few larger roots that wound the pot several times and a small mass of feeder roots left. I repotted in a course, fast-draining soil, but the loss of so many roots may be the final insult.

Fingers crossed that it comes back to life, but I'm skeptical. I'll be sure to more thoroughly inspect my bonsai before purchasing from now on...

    Bookmark   November 7, 2012 at 3:44PM
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Loveplants2 8b Virginia Beach, Virginia

HI Thams,

I have been lurking and wondering about your Bougainvillea.

Thank you for letting us know what is going on with your tree..

What type of mix did you use?

Hoping that it does well for you..

I think you could grow this beautiful tree in DC. without any problems...

Please keep up updated!!

Take care,


    Bookmark   November 7, 2012 at 9:24PM
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Hi Laura,

I used a pre-mixed bonsai soil for tropicals found at a local nursery here. It's treated me well so far and my other trees seem to love it.

I've got my fingers crossed that messing with the roots doesn't cause too many problems. I figure if I did nothing, then the tree would have definitely died before summer. I just know how much Bougainvilleas despise root pruning...

I'll post an update in a bit once it's had time to recover.

    Bookmark   November 7, 2012 at 10:54PM
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One thing to remember is that bougies would rather dry out between waterings and maybe you need to just let it be for a while instead of being too nice to it (i.e. watering a lot).

    Bookmark   November 10, 2012 at 11:21PM
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Yes, I realize bougies prefer soil on the drier side. The problem was that the soil was retaining too much water, so the roots were sitting in too much water. It's wasn't that I was watering too often -- it was that the soil was too broken down to provide the environment the plant needed to thrive.

Soil changed, problem solved.

    Bookmark   November 11, 2012 at 12:22AM
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I have a nice purple Bougainvillea Bonsai (swept wing design) which is approximately 14 inches tall and sits in an 8 inch Zisha pot. I've had it since last year which at that time it was flowering. When spring came it began to sprout nicely and was pruned accordingly. The leaves have dried tips and some browning around the edges. It's kept in a west facing window along with many other Bonsais which are all flourishing. I've changed watering and fertilizing schedule several times with no change. I've also tried several different types of moisture meters to no avail. No disease or insects.

Bottom line...HELP!!

Thank you

    Bookmark   July 30, 2014 at 5:26PM
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Why isn't it outdoors? All your trees should be out, especially in summer. You may be either starving them of light (you wouldn't believe the difference to a plant just inside even a window with good light and being outside), or watering too often (for most it's about frequency, not just amount), not fertilizing properly, no fresh air to enjoy (plants do that!) or exercise thin trunks/stems, etc. etc.

    Bookmark   July 30, 2014 at 6:29PM
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