It’s an emotional blow to lose a bonsai. Even seasoned growers will experience tree death. It's reality; everyone loses bonsai trees. I've had rough experiences, and the thing that helps me recover whenever I lose a tree is trying to analyze the cause so that I can learn and not repeat the conditions that lead to the trees' untimely demise.
In "The Tipping Point", author Malcolm Gladwell discusses the circumstances that normally surround airplane accidents. He summarized from numerous investigations into accidents that in almost all cases there was no single factor that lead to the accident. Instead it was a series of mis-steps, each unto themselves relatively harmless, that when combined lead to airplanes hitting runways and plunging into oceans.
This is a good analogy for the cause of bonsai death. While it’s possible that you can go on vacation and your tree dies because your neighbor forgot to water it, it’s also possible that your tree can die after a series of decisions to either do something or do nothing in an attempt to help the tree. There are numerous factors that can lead to the death of a tree - watering, fertilizer, pest control, and sun protection are among the things that if not executed properly will lead to problems.
A few years ago I experienced one of my most painful series of tree deaths. I surmised that the following series of steps, events, and mis-steps lead to the trees' demise:
- Summer application of a strong dilution of chemical fertilizer caused some damage to the root structure and needles. This was apparent on the foliage where some browned tips showed. (definitely a mistake!)
- During repotting the trees appeared to be weak, so light repotting was done to refresh the soil and allow for new room for growth (seems like the right step…but maybe not, maybe would have been better to leave them alone!)
- Trees budded out weakly – perhaps due to repotting or due to burn in prior summer or both (cautious optimism…)
- Light fertilizer and careful watering to try to nurse the trees back to health (continued optimism…)
- Heat wave in September – no protection provided for the all-time record temperature in San Francisco (Uh oh!)
- Tree is unable to cope in weakened condition and browns a few weeks later (😭)
I've learned a lot since this experience, and from many other tree-death and near-tree-death experiences. These learnings and many others have been incorporated into our mindful bonsai practice, which we've documented in our Establishing a Mindful Bonsai Practice series. Give it a read. And give yourself grace next time a tree dies; analyze what went wrong; and commit to doing things differently going forward.