One thing that is for certain when it comes to Bonsai as an art form is that it is never static due to horticultural and climatic influences. Then we have to throw pests, disease and the odd mishap into the equation as well. This little Thuja did meet up with a bug or two one night and the Thuja came of second best. Yes, whatever it was, ringbarked one of the branches and the first sign was that one branch changed colour. Obviously unhappy and on its way to Bonsai afterlife. What to do?
Change direction and from an informal upright change character to start the next phase of its life as a wannabe literati tree. The on its way to death branch comes off and becomes a jin.
Next step is to wire the trunk to the top, give it a bit of a change of direction and reduce the foliage as with the potting comes a reduction in root mass.
The tree is healthy otherwise and with good aftercare will grow into its new life and again stand tall as a proud Bonsai somewhere in the future.
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Let’s get one thing out of the way first. The term Yamadori refers to a tree lifted from the wild where it has spent many years, showing good age with features that will make a great Bonsai. When a tree is lifted from a garden or from any other place for that matter it is not a Yamadori, not even an Urban Yamadori as some people refer to it. Yamadori in my mind is for one thing and one thing only.
I have recently seen a photo of a very nice Magnolia Bonsai tree and wanted to try my hand at one. As luck would have it, a garden tree that was to be removed was advertised in my area and I jumped at the opportunity.
What we have here is a garden plant that has been grown as an ornamental plant in a garden bed. It is a Michelia figo or a Port wine Magnolia. It had to be removed as the owners were in the process of remodelling this garden area.
Great was my surprise when I parted some of the branches and discovered that it is actually three trees. It is important to make sure that there are no irrigation or other hidden water or electricity services going close to or underneath the digging area. The first job is to reduce the branches and foliage to get closer to the trunk and this will also help with survival as the branch and leaf mass needs to balance the root mass. Through the digging process and also the potting process, the root mass will also be reduced. And then the digging starts.
This was an easy dig as there are no tap roots and especially the two in the back were in quite dry loamy soil and they came out with just a spade length pushed into the soil about thirty centimetres from the trunk and circled around each plant.
It is important to leave the site in a tidy state and in this case I also removed the green waste for the owners. Each tree received a good spray of medicine water. Medicine water for me is just a weak solution of a marine-based or algae-based tonic across all parts of the tree. Now it is homeward bound.
The best advice is to have the planting containers ready before you go, but probably not so practical as you never know how big the root ball will be. in this case I used plastic planting pots, deeper than what a Bonsai pot will be, but this is to allow space for finer root development.
The first thing I do is to work through the roots. Remove all of the old garden soil and in this case some fat earthworks as well. Next is to remove very thick roots and reducing the depth of the root ball. Leave enough finer roots to feed the tree. I also apply rooting hormone powder to the cut roots and sprinkle a bit over all roots. Depending on the species, but more importantly, the state of the roots, I also apply sphagnum moss to the cut roots at this stage. In this case I did not as there were enough roots and they were healthy.
Next up is to find a possible front of the tree by finding the widest part of the nebari and lining this up with the best flow that the branch structure allows. This is also the time to now reduce or shorten the branches to fit this vision of what the future tree could like like in five to seven years. At this stage I do not remove all branches to limit the tree to just one or two styles or designs. In all three cases it is possible to highly likely that the main trunks will be shortened over time. as the pots are round there is no need to worry too much at this stage about the front of the tree for planting purposes. Just focus on what might be needed for future development.
Now for the planting. Good drainage is essential. The soil that I use for this type of planting is a 1:1 ratio of pumice and compost. These are broadleaf trees and will grow relatively unchecked over the next year or two. They will all be heavily fertilised as soon as new growth comes out. The compost base helps with this and the pumice provides the necessary drainage.
The soil is heaped up in a dome shape inside the containers, the tree is pushed down and wiggled into the soil, tied in with wire and then filled up to the top level. I use my fingers and then a rounded dowel to work the soil in-between the roots. All that is left now is to water the trees and to let them rest until spring when the feeding will start.
Updates will follow as these trees develop. I usually tend to keep one if I have multiples from the same type and sell the others. That just means that updates at times is on just one or two of the trees as the others might be making someone else very happy.
Have you noticed how most answers to Bonsai related questions starts with “It depends”. The main reason for this is that we are working with a living organism and it is very rare for generalisations to be applied across all trees. The list below are guidelines to use, especially when styling a new or starter Bonsai tree and applies very much to the more classical Bonsai styles. There will always be exceptions, but here goes.
Branches within the lower one third of the tree. These branches should generally be removed as it helps to show the trunk line. It will expose the nebari and allow a clear view of the bottom part of the trunk where hopefully is some great interest. This can be either well-developed bark, interesting roots or some type of movement lower down in the trunk. There is an exception (I told you so!) and that is when you deliberately wants to leave these branches as sacrifice branches to help with thickening the lower trunk.
Branches pointing directly at you. The main reason here again is to allow the main trunk line to be visible. The exception is in the top third of the trunk / tree, especially if these branches are part of the apex of the tree.
Bar branches. These branches are ones that originate at the same level as other branches. If they are directly opposite each other, it is known as bar branches. Another issue with too many branches originating at more or less the same point is that a lot of sap will floe through that area which leads to an unsightly thickening in that area and could also be the reason for reverse taper. This is a thickening at that point with a narrower trunk below that point. Remove as many of these as you can, especially found in pines where the branches for a whorl, preferably leaving one as part of an alternately opposite branch scheme. Select the one that fits the rest of your design more naturally.
Parallel branches, usually originating close to each other, but directly above each other. This is more for aesthetics than growth patterns. The classical design of a branch to one side, then the next one up on the other side and then maybe a back branch and to be repeated as you move up the trunk, is the ideal and not always possible, but at least a good guideline to keep in mind.
Branches growing from almost the same point. This relates very much to the last two guidelines, but in this case refers to branches not necessarily growing parallel above each other or from the sight height, but just close enough for it to be unsightly. There is always the possibility that this will also lead to a situation where that area can thicken disproportionately compared to where other branches grow from to the increased sap flow.
Unusually vigorously growing branches. These branches take energy away from other branches and can cast a shadow across other branches due to its faster growth. It is also possible for these branches to thicken disproportionally to other branches and interfere with normal taper or the notion that branches lower down the trunk should be thicker than branches higher up the trunk. These branches should be shortened or removed.
Secondary branches growing from primary branches where the growth is in the wrong direction. This could be branches growing straight up or straight down, branches growing outside of the main design contours or even in the opposite direction of the flow of the tree or just that part of the tree or branch.
The leader. Older trees show a more rounded apex and this can be achieved by removing the leader, substituting it with a new leader or wiring it in such a way that it shows a more rounded form. This also helps with reducing apical dominance in trees and redistribute the energy in a tree.
As mentioned earlier, very few trees allow the opportunity to apply all of these guidelines, but it is still a good idea to keep these in mind as you work through the tree, selecting which branches to keep and which to remove. This is a video of the branch selection of a Camelia clump lifted from a garden. https://youtu.be/MeCBk-_ofEw
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Sculpture is defined as Three-dimensional art made by one of four basic processes: carving, modelling, casting, constructing, by http://www.tate.org.uk. A good friend and fellow Bonsai Artist, Greg Tuthill (http://gregtuthill.com/), is a sculpture artist who uses metal as his preferred material and, as mentioned, a very good Bonsai artist as well. That made me think about Bonsai not only as an art form, but specifically as Sculpture.
Let’s unpack the four basic processes as listed in the definition above.
Constructing – Modelling – Carving – Casting
Constructing: For me constructing is producing or making something out of raw material. Here we can argue that the raw material is represented by the starter Bonsai plant, the cutting, the Yamadori or nursery material. From this point you have to make decisions about direction, flow, what to keep and what to discard. You cut, you wire, you shape and you bend what you have in front of you into a design or shape that resembles your idea and vision of what a Bonsai tree should look like. At all times the material that you are working with will dictate how far you can go and what is possible, You construct and therefore Bonsai ticks the box for this element of sculpture.
Modelling: Modelling is shaping something based on a model and in Bonsai we have plenty of examples of this. The basic Bonsai forms of formal upright, informal upright, cascade, slanting and a whole lot more provides the models that we work from. This is used as background knowledge and applied to the material that you have in front of you to create something that might show elements of the model, but is unique in its own character. The act of wiring is also part of modelling.
Carving: This we see in Bonsai when we sculpt deadwood, Jin, Uro and Shari. For this we use various techniques and equipment just as a Sculptor would do.
Casting: I am not aware of a lot of casting going on in direct relation to the tree, but no Bonsai is complete without its frame which is represented by the pot. Various methods are used to produce or create Bonsai pots and casting is definitely one of these techniques. It is necessary to have a suitable container or pot to complete the full picture of what a Bonsai represents.
There is one major difference and that Sculpture is normally seen as something done with wood, clay, stone or other non-living materials. Bonsai is definitely done with living trees and can therefore by seen as a living art form. Is Bonsai a form of sculpture? In my opinion, yes, it is.
We were supposed to have aBonsai Society meeting today, which would have been the first one in a long time. Last night at 9pm, a change in alert levels was announced which means that where we live, social distancing is in place and as the venue is quite small, not the best for safety in the current Covid climate. That was called off.
I had this tree that I wanted to work on at the meeting. Basically just a clean up job and then lots of wiring to set the foliage pads. It is a Pine tree and in the twin-trunk style. Here is the before photo.
And here is the tree after the pads were set.
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I had to hide the introvert in my today when a small truck went past us and on the back there was a medium sized bush / tree clearly on its way to be dumped. The driver stopped and went into a shop while we waited outside. When the owner came out, I asked him if the tree is going to be dumped and when he confirmed that, I pulled out my Bonsaiplace business card and told him that I can create a Bonsai tree from the tree and he promptly agreed that I could have the tree.
Just a week ago we had a couple came to our private shop who had the idea that Bonsai are a specific type of tree and that you can grow them from Bonsai seed. I love these situations as it allows the educator in me to come out. This man (owner of the tree on the truck) said that it cannot become a Bonsai as it is not a Bonsai tree. Guess what? Out came the educator again.
Anyway, off we went with the tree in the back of the Bonsai mobile, speculating what type of tree it is. On arrival at home, I used a plant identifying app with no succes. In the process of cutting the branches off, I found a discoloured flower which looked very much like a withered Gardenia flower. I guess it is now wait and see and do more research to find its name. During this time it will have to be kept alive.
It does have some feeder roots and after I cut the branches, left it in a bucket of water to just chill a bit and hopefully get some sap flowing. As I do not like waste, I very cheekily took some of the roots with feeder roots intact and planted that up as well. These I will treat the same way as what I do with Maple root cuttings with which we have had great success.
All is now potted up, watered and in a sheltered position. Tonight I will start with the weekly tonic of seaweed extract to help stimulate more root growth.
Below are three Maple root cuttings in development.
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In Robert Steven’s book, Mission of Transformation (2009), he mentions in the Foreword that Critique has become a favorite tool of his as an effective way of teaching and learning. It is my experience that most clubs or Bonsai gatherings will include some or other Critique session, especially at large scale exhibitions or shows. It is customary for the head Judge or a visiting Demonstrator to undertake this task.
I have been witness to many of these and have also done my fair share of these Critique sessions. One of the most important aspects of these sessions is exactly what Robert points out in his book and that it should be an opportunity to learn. It is therefore very important that it is done in a constructive way to enable not only the owner of the tree, but all the spectators to walk away with more than just the negative aspects of the tree under discussion.
I like to start these sessions by asking the owner to tell the story of the tree. This gives you a good understanding of the history of the tree and by asking questions, dive into the aspects that really matter. Once this part is done, I like to first point out all the positives. Find something, even if there is very little to go with. There will always be a positive. As the focus is for this to be a teaching and a learning experience, lead the discussion by questioning. Use open-ended questions and allow as many people in the group as possible to answer and become part of the conversation. It becomes very boring if it is only the Commentator delivering the commentary. There is a danger here in that you at times have a very vocal participant who gets so excited that they tend to dominate the conversation. As you are leading the Critique, be aware of this possibility and gently bring the conversation back to focus on the tree and the whole group.
A good place to start is the overall picture or story that the tree on display tells. Look at the whole scene. After that, I prefer to start at the bottom and work my way up. Lead a discussion on the pot, then the surface soil and covering. After this it is the turn of the Nebari and then the trunk. From here, discuss the style and the appropriateness of that for the specific tree. The next part will be the branches and the foliage before the critique almost reaches its end with the apex. Once all aspects have been discussed, it is really important to summarise and come full circle to the positives and then end off with one or two actions for future development of the tree.
It is a time consuming exercise and in the case of a display with many trees, I prefer to only go with the three top trees and then also one or two Shohin displays. This way each discussion is more in depth and the value add is much more than just a walk through the exhibition and barely spending a minute or two with each tree. What I would like to see is that when it comes to multi-day shows, that the Critique is extended and broken up over more sessions across all days. This can be thematic i.e. each session focusses on only one style of tree (design) or split the trees in Evergreens and Deciduous trees or as mentioned above, do the Shohin separately. The main things is that there must be something new to learn for every participant and the owner needs to walk away with a feeling of accomplishment and also a few pointers on next steps for the tree.
This Redwood came to me just over a year ago and ended up on the bottom shelf as it was not a high priority to work on and a little bit ugly. Today was the day for this one to get attention and even if I have to say so myself, the ugly duckling is now well on its way to become a beautiful swan.
It has a very straight trunk and was chopped before it came to me. The taper is minimal, but can be enhanced with a bit of carving at the top. More interest can also be had by creating an interesting Jin out of the dead branch at the bottom. Most of the growth is at the top which normally lends itself to a Literati style tree, but in this case the trunk is nowhere near what one would like to see in a Literati style tree.
Decision time and it is to slant the trunk and then for the branches to droop downwards at an angle following the trunk line. Normally with this style the branches on the open side, in this case to the right, are longer than those on the closed side, or left side in this case.
The growth is still relatively young with no real solid branches at the top, but it is important to spread the branches / leaves radially out to enable all green parts to receive maximum light.
This Redwood will now rest until Spring, be fed profusely in a sheltered spot.
This Juniper came to me as a very neglected tree about a year ago. After a solid nutrition program and tender loving care it is now ready to get some work done on it. The major job will come in Spring (seven months away) when the first big repot with fresh soil will take place. For now, let’s get the pads placed in a better position and also do some thinning of the vigorous growth.
One of the fastest way to get a Bonsai collection going is to find material at your local nursery to develop over time into a stunning Bonsai. Yes, it takes time, but still beats starting from seeds or cuttings. Although My private collection mainly consist of mature trees, I regularly still work on anything from cuttings to nursery material. The main reason for this is to generate stock for my wife’s fledgling Bonsai shop.
Yesterday I bought this Juniper from our local Bunnings (hardware store for those outside of Australia and New Zealand). As luck would have it, I just recently saw a mature Juniper on Instagram with a slanting main branch and a smaller branch following the contour of the main branch. Another coincidence is that I recently went on a Dolphin watching trip on Guardian, the boat used by Dolphin Seafaris in Tauranga, New Zealand. Where does this fit, you may ask. Well, there were a lot of baby Dolphins with their mothers, swimming in close proximity of the mother and mimicking what they do. It might also have to do with the fact that they suckle on mommy dolphin twenty times per hour! Need to be close for that.
The first task is to clean the tree up as selecting the front was a given with the shape I wanted it to have. The clean up consists of removing unnecessary branches, just one in this case, and then all the growth pointing to the bottom and on top of the branches. It also includes cleaning the crotches between the main branches and the lateral ones. It just makes it a lot easier to apply wire.
Then the wiring starts. The same gauge wire was used on both branches as the smaller one also needed to be twisted and bend around to follow the main branch line. You cannot just bend it over as the leaves will have their undersides on top then. It needs a twist as well.
The final product. The main slanting branch represents the mother Dolphin and the smaller one the baby Dolphin. There is my memory of the Dolphin watching trip now captured in a starter Bonsai. Now for it to rest, watered, fertilized and kept out of harsh climate conditions.
Watch this space to see the updates, further development and potting) and also follow us on Bonsaiplace on Facebook as well as Instagram.
Although we worked on hundreds of trees, my clearest memory of a tree that my father and I worked on, was a very old Coral tree, Erythrina lysistemon. It resembled the tree below, but larger and more upright.
I have no idea what happened to this tree and I can just hope that is in someone’s collection and that it is as magnificent as the last time I saw it. This is now about forty years later which will make that tree roughly sixty to seventy years old.
A few years ago I was gifted a rooted cutting of a Coral tree by a friend, Willie van Winkel, in New Zealand. This was about six years ago and the cutting moved with us from Dannevirke to Tauranga. It was planted in a green plastic plant pot and did not like the colder climate in Dannevirke. When we moved to Tauranga it clearly enjoyed the warmer and more humid climate more, unlike some of my Maples and even a few Pines. It flourished and I allowed it to root through the bottom of the pot into the soil below.
The leaves are huge and there are way to many leaves. The main root growing into the soil is now cut and this will cause a problem as the large number and large size of the leaves will cause a lot of water loss through transpiration.
To solve the problem a major branch is removed and some of the larger leaves are also removed. All of the finer roots that grew in the pot are still intact and this will hopefully be enough to feed what is left above ground. The tree is now in a pot and what was removed has been treated with rooting hormone powder and will hopefully grow roots. There is an abundance of roots, the balance between roots and growth above the soil is hopefully good and now it will be treated like royalty and serve as a reminder of me and my dad working with Bonsai. A great memory and tribute to what I have learnt from him about Bonsai, his beloved Orchids and plants in general.
This Literati style Juniper came into my collection as a very neglected, half of the branches dead and under nourished tree.
Today it was time to get some wiring done through to the growth points. The previous and first wiring from me was just on the main branches to set them. As can be seen, the branches that were dead or with no hope of recovery were all jinned and these branches will be refined with sanding paper and lime sulphur later on.
The living branches, only three of them have responded nicely with new growth and these are kept in tact at this stage to get as much energy as possible to the green and new growth. This tree only received liquid fertiliser in the form of a marine plant / kelp conditioner with one dose of a granular feed, balanced NPK.
Here are some of the before photos
This type of work is quite light and I only used two thicknesses of aluminium wire and a wire cutter for this job. The coffee is not really optional, but I did have the mandatory glass of wine just before this job with a meal.
These are the after photos:
This tree will now rest and carry on with its fortnightly application of liquid food. This is applied over the leaves as well as the soil.
For us in the Southern hemisphere it is that time of year when Bonsai enthusiasts pack their bags, collect their tools and load up on enough supplies to go Yamadori hunting. Yes, we go crazy to get our hands on raw material that we can grow on to become aesthetically pleasing Bonsai.
The big questions related to this activity is based on safety and ethics. How do I do it safely and how do I do it ethically?
Safety always comes first. It starts with weather conditions, through to the equipment needed to keep you safe and also having a plan. If you go on your own, make sure you tell people what your plans are, where you will be and what time you will be back. If you are visiting a remote area and there is no cell coverage, then you will need a personal locator beacon.
Always make sure that you have enough food, shelter and clothing to last for three times longer than what you expect to be out. A safe way to do this is to write a list of what you will need and then use it to pack your stuff. On your return, revisit the list and update it for next time.
I see many people on a Bonsai hunt with very little eye, hand or feet protection when things like spades, saws and power tools like chainsaws are pulled out. Do not forget your ears when the latter starts up.
A big issue that we need to have a lot more conversations about is the ethical removal of trees from nature. It starts with permission to do so and really comes down to the survivability of the tree once lifted. There is a skill to this as well as the transport and after care of the tree. You need to know the species. Is it something you can lift and transport bare rooted or is it something that you start the preparation a year ahead of the actual removal of the tree?
My general rule is that if I am not one hundred percent sure that the tree will survive or that I do not have the skills to care for that specific specie of tree, then I leave it where it is. Not a fifty percent chance, a one hundred percent chance.
There are many You Tube videos and a lot of information available on the technical aspects of how to do this. I have always wondered about what some of these collected trees look like after a few years. Responsible collectors follow their videos and photos up with progress videos and photos. Probably because they have live trees to show for their efforts. Those are the ones that you want to look at or follow. If you never see these trees again, stay away from these people.
In conclusion, think, plan and over organise your trip. Have all the correct equipment needed and only take what you have permission for and what you can keep alive.
I find myself these days starting answers to Bonsai related questions mostly with “it depends”. This topic will be the same. Your local climate and setup will largely determine what you do with your Bonsai trees during Winter. As most of the Blog readers will rightfully ask about the purpose of this topic this time of the year, the simple answer is that most of the readers are in the USA and I am in New Zealand / Aotearoa. It is Winter here now.
This could be a good example of how local climate can differ. Parts of the South Island and inland North Island, will have snow on the mountains with below freezing temperatures at times. The same will be true for Northern Hemisphere countries during that Winter. It all depends!
Here is a video from a few years back of some of my Bonsai just as it started to snow.
The main things to look out for are:
As most trees will go dormant or at least slow down with the onset of Winter, it is important to make sure that you adjust to the water requirements that comes with this. The main problem is being too wet. This can lead to root rot. The best way to tackle this is to be pro-active by ensuring that all your trees have a well draining soil mixture and that the pot drainage holes are open. I have found many a spider’s nest and snails blocking the hole partially from the outside. Another technique is to place the pot at an angle for water to run off during periods of heavy or consistent rain. Needless to say is that when you are in a high rainfall area is to switch automatic watering systems off during this time. It is as important to check trees regularly / daily for water requirements. Be especially on the lookout for trees that might be partially protected by trees, fences or roof overhangs. The front row of trees might be wet, but those in a “rain shadow” might be very dry.
Frost is the biggest enemy here. It is reported that for some species snow is not a problem as it could insulate the tree from harsher elements like wind. Wind for me is a major problem. Not only does it dry leaves out, but in Winter it causes a wind chill, sometimes far below areas out of the wind. Trees not accustomed to these very low temperatures must be protected. This will include over-wintering in a basement, garage, shed or at least a conservatory of some sorts. I personally do not have many trees with this requirement, but do have a few sub-tropicals, inclusive of Bougainvillea that needs protection. This is done in the form of just placing it under a bench when frosts are expected or using a cold frame. Trees that you work on during Winter, even if it is just wiring, should be kept in a better climatic area for a few days after the work was done.
It is mentioned in the paragraph above that trees can be over-wintered indoors. As deciduous trees will be without leaves, light requirements do not matter too much, but it is important to take note that plants rely heavily on day and night length differences to keep seasonal cycles going. For this reason, indoor trees are usually placed under lights on timers, mimicking the gradual increase in day length hours as Winter passes towards Spring. When it comes to light requirements, the answer of “it depends” is highlighted. Study your plants, increase your knowledge about specific species requirements and adjust accordingly. Winter is a great time to read, study and watch You Tube videos to increase knowledge. That includes reading this blog and visiting http://www.bonsaiplace.net regularly for updates. Best still, subscribe and you will never miss an article.
Clean, clean and then clean some more. Get rid of leaves and everything else that all sorts of bugs can hide under, lay eggs, overwinter themselves and then come out in Summer and create havoc. This is also the time when you can spray to kill all sorts of fungal spores. A weak solution of lime sulphur does the trick. Just, as always, be careful when it comes to Pines when spraying for fungus as it can kill the beneficial micorhiza off in the soil.
In very cold climates most bugs and spores will be killed due to the very cold temperatures and for me the best is the architectural forms displayed by especially deciduous trees without their leaves. En joy this season, it is crucial in the development and normal growth of trees and also learn from your trees. We all need a break at least once a year.
“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
The quote above is attributed to Banksy and it sits quite comfortably with me. How can this be applied to Bonsai as an Art? My own personal experience is that an hour’s work on a Bonsai tree is equal to the same amount of time meditating. One can therefore say that it comforts the disturbed and at the least calms the mind down.
It is quite interesting to watch people at a Bonsai exhibition. There is the initial excitement and almost “cannot believe my eyes” moments, but as they move through the exhibition, a calmness sets in, almost as if you are in a library. I have even seen people talking softly when in the presence of these miniature giants of the floral kingdom. Except for the cultural links, could that be why it is not uncommon to see a Bonsai tree or three near or part of a Zen garden or space?
Not so sure about the disturbing the comfortable part. Maybe that is the bit where you see non-Bonsai people just wanting to get into the art after they have seen Bonsai trees in real life. A real inquisitiveness sets in and it rocks their world. Or is this the bit that forms the basis of Bonsai activities leading to an addiction?
I must say that even seasoned Bonsai people do get disturbed when in the presence of an especially spectacular tree or composition. This disturbance is evident in the slightly angled heads, dead silence even with a few people around the tree and then followed by a lot of pointing and increase in volume as the tree is discussed. You can almost see how mental notes are being made and mental photos being taken to go and copy some of what they are seeing the moment they get home.
I am picking up six raw material trees this weekend and I can feel the excitement building up, a disturbance of my normally very calm inner self. Can’t wait to work on the trees. I do know that when I start the work, the deepest state of calmness will set in. The opposite of the excited, disturbed state is counteracted by the meditative state.
Maybe that is what is in Banksy’s quote, the yin and the yang, the stillness and the turbulence, the Bonsai tree and the Bonsai artist. It is one, it is the whole, it is the two sides of the same coin.
It is a given. You will have a few trees die on your watch. Nobody wants it, but it happens and it is part of the life-death cycle that underpins all living things. We do not kill our trees deliberately and it therefore is important to take note of the things that do increase the chances of this unfortunate event.
This relates to keeping the tree healthy through everyday practices, inclusive of hygiene, watering, light and nutrition requirements.
In my experience watering requirements is the most important of these aspects. Get that wrong and your tree will deteriorate and then just die. This relates to both overwatering as well as too dry conditions. Every tree will have different requirements based on species, soil medium, size and exposure to sun. Study this for each specie, make notes, learn and apply. Overwatering is the dangerous one as it generally leads to root rot and by the time you become aware of this it is too late. Be aware of irrigation systems. A power outage, a flat battery or a broken pipe, all lead to disaster. The best way to water is by hand and by studying each tree and adjust the amount of water to the daily requirements. It is labour intensive, but a safe way to keep your trees alive.
When repotting, pay special attention to the roots. Some species do not handle complete removal of soil well. Check for tangled roots, check for bugs, caterpillars and ants nests in the soil at this time.
Seasonal and Climate requirements
At the time of writing this, it is winter in New Zealand and after quite a dry period, it has now been raining for three days solidly and the temperature has dropped into single digits in places. Irrigation systems are now turned off and the focus now shifts from preventing trees from drying out to ensure they do not drown. Half of my trees now have pots at an angle to allow water to run off, rather than sit in the pot. Back to basic horticulture as your soil medium and its drainage ability now plays a big role in keeping trees healthy and alive.
I have mentioned temperature and the accompanying conditions now come into play as well. Snow can actually insulate trees, but frost is just nasty. Your local climate and specific species will dictate if a tree needs to be under cover or not. Frost has killed many a tree. Very harsh high temperatures, accompanied with little to now sun protection and not enough water will kill trees. Take note of your pot and soil temperatures. The pot construction, size and colour can have an effect on the temperature inside the pot. Two pots next to each other can have very different temperatures.
Be careful when bringing plants inside, especially non-dormant trees. I have seen and heard of many trees that just did not like artificial heating systems, wood fire burners and even being cooked on a window sill, resulting in the tree ending up on the compost heap.
Light requirement of a tree is a big one. Suitable species for sunny areas are Celtis, Junipers, Chinese Elms, Cotoneaster, most Pine species, Holly, pyracantha and others. For a more shady aspect look at Azalea, Maples, Beech, Zelkova and others. Acclimatisation plays a big role here. You can gently and over time get some species to tolerate a wider range of light and temperatures if your care is spot on. Generally, if you get this wrong, a tree will deteriorate over time and if not corrected will say goodbye.
This is not just a beginners issue. Many a tree has succumbed to being overworked. The safe mantra here is do little bits of work more often, rather than massive root work at the same time as huge pruning and styling jobs. This goes with seasonal changes as well. Certain things, like defoliation, should take place at a specific time of year. Same for root work and repotting. It could be different for different species. Study, learn and apply.
Diseases and Pests
That is self-explanatory. The best is to use preventative methods to stop disease and pests from getting to your trees. This could include preventative sprays, either organic or not. That depends on your philosophy, but either way, keep an eye out for tell tale signs. Things like ants can point to aphids, sooty mould and other issues. Yellowing and spots on leaves, droppings of bugs and caterpillars, chew marks on leaves, sudden leave drop, are all signs of things going wrong. Keep an eye out and this can easily be combined with your daily watering routine. A big part of prevention is basic hygiene around your trees. Get rid of fallen leaves, clean underneath your benches and check the undersides of pots. Many an issue can be prevented by just cleaning often.
Seal wounds, tie trees down in pots when repotting, check old wounds, look for new holes in the trunk, marks like ring barking and especially underneath the leaves.
This is just a snapshot of things that can go wrong and is not intended to scare or put Bonsai enthusiasts off, just a reminder that a Bonsai tree is like having a pet. The tree has basic requirements and if these are not taken care of, it will deteriorate and can then die as a result of neglect or just not being bale to pick up on adverse things early enough. The solution is to arm yourself with knowledge, practice the skills involved in keeping a tree alive and constantly take great care of your trees.