Horticultural Processes and Bonsai: Respiration

We have already looked at Photosynthesis https://bonsaiplace.net/2021/07/17/horticultural-processes-and-bonsai-photosynthesis/ and Transpiration https://bonsaiplace.net/2021/07/18/horticultural-processes-for-bonsai-transpiration/ as two processes that are very important for plants and your Bonsai to stay alive. There is a third such process which is as important as the other two, but because the structures responsible for this one are not that visible, it is not that well known. Respiration is something that is done by all living organisms. It basically comes down to the exchange of gasses that is needed to survive, just like in a human being. We breathe in and out to get Oxygen in and to release Carbon dioxide. Well, plants need to do the same thing as Oxygen is needed for plant cells to survive and they also release Carbon dioxide as a waste product.

Intuitively one would then wonder how Photosynthesis and Respiration is balanced so as to make sure that the plant produces more Oxygen than what it will use itself. Respiration can be classified as either Aerobic Respiration (enough Oxygen around) or Anaerobic Respiration (not enough or no Oxygen present). The latter one is a problem for plants and something the Bonsai grower needs to be very aware of. The best example of this is in Yeasts through the process of Fermentation.

Looking at the diagram below, we can see how the two processes interact. The one’s products become the other process’s raw material (input) and vice versa.

Important points for Bonsai growers:

  • Water logged soil do not allow a good flow of air through the soil which means that there is very little to no Oxygen available for root cells to take this gas in. Due to myriads of bacteria living in soil, and some of these can live anaerobically (in the absence of Oxygen), the chances that these bacteria can cause rot and other damage is large. Best to avoid water logged soil.
  • Drainage: This aspect is linked to the point above, but important enough to elaborate. Good drainage will promote good airflow through the soil. It is almost like a suction effect in the sense that as water runs through the soil, air will follow and in this way increase the air flow (ventilation) through the soil and the end result is that you have happy roots and happy roots equals happy Bonsai.
  • Pots: Bonsai pots can be very small in relation to the root mass of the tree planted in it. That means less soil compared to a plant in a garden and this can also lead to less air in the pot. Training pots especially are important. At Bonsaiplace when we use timber boxes or even plastic containers as training pots, we always drill extra holes, not just underneath for drainage purposes, but also from the sides to increase air flow for respiration.
  • Hothouses and covering Bonsai plants or cuttings with plastic. The main reason why we do this is to increase the humidity around the plant. That helps to prevent water loss through transpiration and increases the heat to promote growth. Just keep in mind that through photosynthesis the plant will produce Oxygen that in turn will be taken up for respiration purposes and Carbon dioxide will be produced for Photosynthesis to take place through Respiration. Where the problem comes in is when you do not have leaves on the plant, i.e., cuttings or a deciduous tree. That means no Photosynthesis and although Respiration needs are low, it still takes place. Just allow fresh air to get into the plastic covering at times and this problem will be sorted.

The next blog will look at Secondary Thickening. This is the process through which plants produce wood and bark. Exactly what we want for our Bonsai trees. To make sure that you do not miss this one, please subscribe to our website and like this post. It is all free.

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Horticultural Processes and Bonsai: Transpiration

Have you ever wondered how water travels from the soil into the roots and then up the stem to the leaves? Well, here we go. The process is called transpiration and starts in the roots through a process called osmosis. This is the movement of water across a membrane from an area of higher pressure to an area of lower pressure.

Now I am going to confuse you completely. I already said that it starts in the roots, but the condition for the process to happen actually starts in the leaves. As the water accumulates in the leaves, the internal volume of the leaves now have a higher pressure internally compared to the atmospheric air. That means that the water leaves the leaves through a structure called a stoma. There are hundreds of these on the leaves and they can open and close depending on the plant’s water needs and the climate on the outside. Almost like little valves.

Transpiration

Osmosis

Now we have the picture on both ends of the tree. The water flows in through the roots due to water pressure in the soil, it moves up a bit in the tubes (xylem) as these are very thin and act like thin straws. Have you ever noticed how when you place a straw in water how the water level in the thinner straw is higher than the level in the water. That is called capillary pressure.

What now happens is all of these work together. The water is pushed into the roots, the narrowness of the tubes give it a bit of a head start and then the pull from the leaves draws it further up the stem or trunk and the flow happens. This can happen as fast or as slow as the conditions dictate. If everything is perfect, a continuous flow will happen, but as soon as something changes, the tree will adapt. Let’s say there is not enough water in the soil for the osmosis to take place. In other words the pressure is not high enough for the water to enter the roots through the different membranes, well, water will not be taken up and the tree will dry out.

At the other end things can go horribly wrong as well. Let’s say it is a very hot day and a dry warm wind is blowing. That means the pressure on the outside of the leaf is very low and if there is any water inside the leaf, this steep difference will cause water to evaporate or transpire through the stomata and if this happens rapidly and the cells lose their turgidity (pressure), it will wilt and lose structure. If this happens for too long, it is possible that the plant will dry out and leave this earth for Bonsai tree heaven.

Before we get to the practical things to do and look out for, it is important to remember that water travelling through a plant will contain minerals and other chemicals that it absorbs from the soil. It therefore plays a very important role in the distribution of these minerals throughout the tree.

The practical things:

  • Watering is a very important part of keeping Bonsai and comes down to a balancing act to ensure that optimal conditions exist for the processes as described above to take place.
  • Make sure that your trees are placed in an environment that suits the watering needs of the tree. Plants with thin leaves that can dry out easily i.e., Maples and should be kept out of harsh sun and dry windy conditions.
  • Trees with smaller leaves or even needles (Pines) can withstand this a bit more as they have less stomata and a thick waxy cuticle that covers the leaf or needle to minimise the area exposed to sun and wind and therefore slow transpiration down.
  • Get to know the water requirements of your trees and if possible group trees with similar water requirements together.
  • Check the drainage of your trees regularly. This starts with ensuring that the potting medium / soil is correct for the type of plant. Plants that thrive in drier conditions will have to be planted in a coarser and free draining medium.
  • When watering, water from the top over the whole tree as it washes dirt off the leaves to enhance transpiration as well as photosynthesis. It also cools the plant down so not to lose too much water.
  • If the soil is too wet, root rot can occur. This is not necessarily due to something going wrong with transpiration, but more a case of the roots not being able to breathe. Yes, they have to breathe as roots consists of living cells and through the process of respiration, need to take in oxygen. More on this in the next article in this series. It is also a perfect living condition for fungus that causes root rot.
  • Other techniques to ensure the soil does not get too wet is to tilt the pot during long periods of rain for water to run off. You can also push a rod through the drainage holes through to the top to create a channel for water to run through. These are drastic measures only to be used in circumstances where you need to get rid of water quickly.
  • Soil can dry out very quickly in a small Bonsai pot. When you get to a situation where the soil is so dry that water on top just runs off the surface, break the surface up a bit and dunk the whole pot in a container of water. Wait until all air bubbles disappear and place it back on the bench.
  • Another thing to look out for is when the roots grow so fast that it basically replaces the soil in the pot and all you have in the pot is a ball of roots. It is difficult for the plant to absorb water under these circumstances. Prevention is better than the cure. Repot with fresh soil when necessary and treat your trees as if they are pets.
  • When pruning, cover the cuts with cut paste or something similar as you create a wound and in the context of this article, a leak. Plug the plumbing to support the flow of water through the tree.

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Horticultural Processes and Bonsai: Photosynthesis

It is a well known fact that horticultural knowledge and skills should be on par with the creative side of Bonsai cultivation as a horticulturally neglected tree will never reach its full potential as a Bonsai. It is therefore important that some basic horticultural knowledge and skills are mastered early on the journey towards Bonsai mastery.

This series of articles has it as goal to highlight a few processes in horticultural science and linking this knowledge to Bonsai creation and maintenance. We will start off with the most important one and that is Photosynthesis. Others will follow in subsequent articles.

Photosynthesis

A bit of knowledge relating to cell science will help here. In plant cells, usually where there is a green colour, you will find cell organelles called chloroplasts. Inside these there is chlorophyll, a colour pigment, and this one is attributed to the green colour in plants. This is where photosynthesis takes place. Photosynthesis is the process through which plants use raw material to produce food. The raw materials are carbon dioxide and water and with the aid of energy from the sun, food is produced and oxygen is made as a by-product of this process.

What does this mean for Bonsai? The most important part here is the exposure to light. Without this natural light source not enough energy will be available for this process. The second part is that there should be enough chloroplasts available for this process to take place. The significance of this comes in at pruning time. It needs to be at the right time as there should be enough energy / food stored to carry the tree through the period with either no leaves or very few leaves, as at this time food production will be limited. This is crucial for evergreens as the food storage or energy storage side of these plants are not as well developed as what it is for deciduous plants. See the process of transpiration in another article as it plays a role with this as well.

In summary:

  • Your tree should have adequate light for food production.
  • Your tree should have adequate water for food production. Water plays a role in other processes as well which makes watering a crucial task for healthy Bonsai growing. See transpiration as an example.
  • Adequate ventilation is necessary to allow atmospheric carbon dioxide to get to your tree. This is usually not a problem in the outdoors, but something to think about when you cover trees with plastic to increase heat and humidity for growth purposes or other climatic defensive reasons.
  • Pruning and defoliating. Time this right. Never defoliate an evergreen completely unless it is just a branch or two for the purpose of creating deadwood / Jin.
  • When positioning branches and foliage pads, make sure that top branches do not cover lower branches too much.

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Subscribing will help as you will get the updates for the other processes covered in this series. That includes transpiration, respiration, growth, secondary thickening, tropisms and the importance of hormones in all of this.

Bonsai – Good comes from bad.

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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Garden trees to Bonsai

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.

The original “plant”.

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.

Branch and leaf mass reduced.

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.

The Three Musketeers.

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.

Good drainage is essential.

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.

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Bonsai Branch selection 101

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.

How about this Jin? Should it be removed? Maybe just a slight turn at the next repot and it is not pointing at you anymore.

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.

Look at the bottom two branches. Not on the same branch, but still opposite each other, forming a bar branch.

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.

Two parallel branches. What to do?

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.

Quite a few growing from the same point or level.

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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Bonsai as Sculpture: An Art Form

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.

One of Greg’s sculptures.

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.

From Pinterest

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.

Informal upright style model and a real tree.

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.


Yes, we are Sculptors as well as Bonsai Artists.

Lockdown Bonsai work.

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.

Before the wiring commenced.

And here is the tree after the pads were set.

Cleaning, Jin work, wiring and branches set. Pity some of the three-dimensionality disappears in these photos. Maybe I just need to get my photography sorted.

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Off the back of a truck.

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.

The tree and Snoopy, my Bonsai apprentice.

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.

On its way to Bonsai status.

The root cuttings with a thickish branch as cutting. That is me trying my luck. Let’s wait and see.

Below are three Maple root cuttings in development.

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Critiquing of Bonsai Trees

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 is the Robert Steven book referred to above.

Slanting Redwood Styling

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.

Lots of growth right at the top and spread radially around the trunk at this point.

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.

All leaves should get light.

This Redwood will now rest until Spring, be fed profusely in a sheltered spot.

Literati Juniper First Foliage Pad work.

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.

The music is in the background, not embedded in the video and stops at some stage. No talking, just working.

Literati Juniper work

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.

Winter Bonsai – It All Depends.

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:

  • Watering
  • Protection
  • Light needs
  • Hygiene

Watering

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.

Protection

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.

Light Needs

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.

Hygiene

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.

Positives

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.

Bonsai Art – What does Banksy have to say?

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

A Banksy Art piece.

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?

A calm workshop 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.

At the Hamilton Bonsai show.

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.

Share your thoughts on this in the comments.

The Balance between Life and Death – Preventing Bonsai trees from dying.

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.

Basic Horticulture

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.

Frost and cold damage.

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.

Overworking

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.

Many places for creepy crawlies to hide.

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.

Seal wounds.

Summary

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.

Let there be Light – Bonsai light requirements.

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.