“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.
Photosyntheses — the process through which plants use energy from the sun, water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the air, to produce food for itself and then also oxygen. From this, we see that it is really important to get the light requirements of your Bonsai trees right.
Phototropism – the phenomenon where plants grow towards light. This is mainly caused by hormone stimulation that forces plants to grow towards the light source.
Too little light can cause issues and then you also have the other side of this continuum, the heat caused by direct sunlight, that can also cause harm.
Let’s look at situations where the tree is in the shade too much. This could cause a deficiency in energy production, unless it is a plant adapted to grow in shade. Shady conditions can also cause leaves to grow larger and then also for branches and especially new growth to become spindly with very long internodes. Both of these growth patterns are not very good things for Bonsai where you need smaller leaf sizes and also more compact growth.
Another light consideration is where you place your Bonsai trees in relation to the light source, i.e. the sun. Plants tend to grow towards the sun and if placed against a wall, it could be that the tree will grow away from the wall. It is also possible that you will have very little growth on the shady or wall side of the tree. The solution to this problem is to turn your trees often. Some of my trees, that are on stands / monkey posts with no wall near them, quickly show me that they need to be turned as well. It could be slight yellowing of the leaves or needles on the southern side (I am in the Southern Hemisphere) or denser growth on the sunnier side than the shadier side.
What is the most important here is to know more about the natural habitat of your trees. If it is a natural shade lover, you could get the opposite to what is described in the previous paragraph. Also look out for burn or scorching of these shade lovers on the sunny side.
Think about the placement of your trees. Study the different microclimates that can be caused by high walls or fences as well as trees and other plants. The construction of your display stands and where these are placed in your garden are all very important aspects of your Bonsai cultivation. When it comes to the regular turning of trees, I have a fixed day twice per month and I turn the tree through ninety degrees, always in the same direction (for me that is clock-wise). Sometimes I will keep it longer in a specific position due to the fact that there could be an undeveloped branch that needs the light source for longer to get its development up to speed.
You also need to think about the light requirements when it comes to specific maintenance tasks. After root pruning or repotting it is also best to keep your tree away from direct sunlight for a few days to a couple of weeks. The opposite when you get into the different grades of defoliation.
One of the reasons for defoliation, whether it is fully or partial, is to stimulate back budding and for this, more light is needed.
If you are heavily invested in Maples as Bonsai, it will be worth your efforts if you look at different light requirements of Maples as it can influence stunning Autumn colours and even new colours in Spring. That is a topic for another day.
It is not complex, but certainly something to think about when you position your trees and every time when maintenance tasks are undertaken.
The aesthetic and monetary value of a Bonsai tree is determined by its health, shape, size, age and these days the celebrity status of the artist. All of these, accept for the last one, can be enhanced through proper care which includes shaping, pruning and pinching as developmental techniques.
There are a few reasons why Maples should be pruned or trimmed. Developing structure is a big part of this and then culminates in developing good ramification and a pleasing shape. The different phases depends on whether you are working on a seedling, a well-established tree or a tree that was field grown and in its early stages of development.
The seedling or young plant is the easiest as it can still be bend in a suitable shape and very little cutting is needed until later. Use wire for this bending. At this young stage it is important to develop the basic structure and to leave as much growth as possible to feed the trunk.
The more advanced tree will have its main flow established and the emphasis is now on branch development according to the desired style and shape. The great thing about Maples is that you can cut a whole branch off and in a few years’ time you can grow a new branch in a more suitable place or with more movement in it. This is where patience comes in.
This is also the time to remove unwanted growth such as bar branches, crossing branches, branches that do not add to the aesthetics of the tree like branches growing upwards and downwards, interfering with layers above or below it.
Once the tree is established and with a desirable structure and flow, you start to refine the secondary and tertiary branches by either trimming back to a couple of leaves or by using the pinching method. This enhances ramification and forcing the internodes to be shorter. Defoliation is part of this strategy and this also helps to reduce the leave size.
I also do believe that deciduous trees, like conifers need to have the energy throughout the tree balanced. Apical dominance plays a big part here. Sometimes lower branches become weaker. This can be due to the top of the tree growing too vigorously or just because the lower branches are shaded out by the upper branches. By removing some of the upper leaves or just reducing them in size by removing about half of the leave, more light is let through.
The Timing of Pruning
The best time for structural pruning and shaping is early to late spring as the tree is getting out of dormancy and will be full of vigour to get growing again. Heavy pruning or shaping should not be done around repotting time when large quantities of roots are removed. A lot of the trees energy is stored in the roots and when this is removed, new growth will be jeopardised. If you are not going to remove a lot of roots during repotting, pruning can be done at least two weeks before repotting.
How to Prune
For structural pruning, use sharp cutters and seal the wound with sealing paste or something similar. You want the edges of the cut to be clean and not torn. Hollow the wood in the cut a little bit by using knob cutters (rounded blade) or even a Dremel tool. The cambium (thin green layer just under the bark) needs to be kept moist and healthy (that is what the paste is for as well) to allow it to grow and roll over the wound and after time, sealing the wound off for a natural appearance.
The main reason for pruning throughout the growing season is to keep the internodes short, the leaves small and the most important one, increasing ramification. It is also used to create layers or foliage clouds by removing upward and downward growth.
The main refining method is trimming, supplemented with pinching in more established trees. The general convention is that you will prune back to two or four pairs of leaves. This is done when the new branch has extended to three or more pairs of leaves. Sharp scissors are used to cut through the central shoot and leaving a short part of this shoot still intact. Maples do die back where a cut is made. By leaving a short stalk, the die back will not affect the buds from where new growth will sprout.
Pinching is used on well-established tree and is a refinement technique. The new leaves are removed just as they start to unfurl, as early as still in their embryonic stage. If there is a specific area where you want denser growth, remove the leading shoot as well as the two side shoots. The finer leaves will have finer twigs and this all adds to refinement and better ramification. This is what gives deciduous trees and especially Maples, the great silhouette during Winter time when the tree is without leaves.
Large leaves can be trimmed off at any time. As mentioned before, this will allow more light to penetrate through to the interior of the tree which in turn will cause more back budding to occur.
Defoliation can take place by mid-summer as long as you still have a decent length of growing season ahead. As mentioned, this will lead to smaller new leaves growing and will also help to allow more light to penetrate into the tree. This can be done by removing all leaves. Only do this when the tree is healthy and you have good weather conditions ahead. It will take up to three weeks for leaves to grow again. Defoliation can also be used to balance the energy and growth across a tree. If a specific branch is lagging behind, partial leave removal on that branch can help to invigorate the branch. This method is not as invasive as complete leaf removal and allows the branch to grow new shoots. I personally prefer to defoliate over two weeks. I do the lower branches first and then over the next two weeks move up the tree until done. This is less stressful and balances leave growth across the whole tree.
Think about and plan structural pruning as well as refinement pruning and pinching.
The health of the tree always comes first.
Use sharp and clean equipment for cutting and pruning.
Prepare and clean cutting wounds.
Always use cut paste on larger wounds.
Keep the big picture in mind.
Make cuttings of the prunings.
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