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.

Beginner’s Series: Make a start

You are now bitten by the bug and you are well on your way to addiction and now you want to design, bend, shape, cut, wire and do all the other things to expand your growing collection. Yes, there is a lot of art to it, but you can get far by following a few basic steps. I call it my Bonsai Beginner’s Curriculum and have done many workshops based on these basic seven steps. It works well on nursery material as well as field lifted trees which have been planted and allowed to rest for at least a year. Here we go with the seven steps.

Nursery stock

Step 1: Find the front of the tree. This includes looking at the trunk flare / root zone (nebari). You want the widest and most interesting part to face the front. The second part to this step is to find the best front showing the flow or movement of the main trunk line. Hopefully the best nebari view and trunk line is the same side, if not, make a decision based on the best of the two elements.

Step 2: Clean the main trunk. This includes getting rid of all unwanted growth. It could be removing one or more branches reducing the bar branch effect. Also remove branches pointing to the front in especially the bottom third of the trunk and branches crossing the trunk. At this stage remove all growth in the crotches of the main trunk and primary branches.

Step 3: Set the main trunk. If you are lucky, the movement of the trunk will be great and you have nothing to do. This is rarely the case. Use wire to set the shape. There are other more advanced strategies and methods that can be used. If you are using guy wires, it is best to wire the branches first as the wires sometimes get in the way of further work.

Thick wire can be used to bend this trunk.

Step 4: Select the main branches. You have already looked at this during step 2. What you now need to do is to look at the positioning of branches. The historical pattern is to have one to the one side, then to the other side and then one growing backwards. Repeat as you move up the trunk line. Nature and practicality does not always give this to you on a platter and this is where the artistic side of Bonsai kicks in. Also make sure that you do not have branches growing from the inside curve of a bend.

Step 5: Clean the rest of the tree by removing all growth from the axils / crotches of all branches. Remove the rest of the unwanted growth and especially spindly growth. At this point it is important to note that once you remove all leaves / needles from coniferous plants, it is highly likely that the bare branch will die. Perfect for Jin (more advanced technique).

Step 6: Set the main branches. Use wire on the branch or guy wires. Wiring technique is also slightly more advanced and will follow in a future blog or video. Ensure that there is movement in the branches (left, right, up and down). This is an easy way to bring leaves / growth closer to the main trunk on spindly growth.

Step 7: Create the apex. The apex is the top of the tree and plays a major role in determining the flow of a tree. Older trees show a more rounded apex form and this is what you want to recreate by either pruning or wiring the branches into that position.

Crotches are clean and branches set by using guy wires.

By now you should have a design roughly resembling a pre-Bonsai tree. After-care is the next important step. My advice is to not pot the tree into a Bonsai pot at this stage. If you have removed a lot of growth, the tree will be stressed and the last thing it needs now is to have its roots interfered with. Rather just place it in a sheltered position with no harsh afternoon sun. Water regularly and fertilise the tree to encourage health and good growth. Potting can be done in Spring or for certain species, Autumn could be suitable as well.

Keep an eye out for further articles in the Beginner’s series. If you subscribe to this blog, you will not miss any of those.

If you need one on one tuition, have a look at the subscriptions page on this website.

Show them off – Preparing a tree for a show

To prepare a tree for a show starts a long time out from the show. It actually starts with your general maintenance regime, your design philosophy and daily dedication to your overall collection. The normal sequence for getting a tree in a show is to decide on which tree will be entered and then an acceptance from the organisers to have that tree in the show. This could at times be problematic as the time between the acceptance and the show could be very short. My advice is to start the show preparation before the tree is entered as it should be of a more than passible quality when entered.

The Tree

The tree must be in excellent health and show the characteristics of the species. Al dead and not so healthy looking leaves and needles must be removed and all excessive and not needed wiring should be taken off as well. It is OK to have some wiring, but this must be discrete and only used to refine minor things. Wiring must be applied correctly as it can detract from the overall scoring if not done so. Also ensure that all leaves and needles growing downwards (species and style specific) are removed and that foliage clouds are distinct and neat.

Ensure that the main trunk line is clear and clean (the whole tree must be clean). Look out for insects and spiders and remove these. A smooth trunked tree can be cleaned by spraying a little bit of vegetable oil on it and rubbing gently with a paper towel.

The nebari and roots must be checked as well. All of the above apply to this area also.

Deadwood (Jin) should be clean. This can be done by brushing it with a toothbrush and using tweezers to get small pieces of debris out of narrow and hard to reach places. Lime sulphur should be applied a few weeks out from the show to allow it to settle. If needed give it a brush for the colour to settle in with the rest of the tree.

Soil

All weeds and fine protruding roots must be removed. Take weeds out and the finer roots can be covered with moss if it cannot be removed. Moss should be in pristine condition. This is one of the tasks that cannot be left to the last minute. If you do not have moss ready, you can grate old moss and apply this to the soil surface, even better if it is on a layer of fine sphagnum moss. Pay as much attention to this aspect as you would a prize-winning lawn.

Pot

The To prepare a tree for a show starts a long time out from the show. It actually starts with your general maintenance regime, your design philosophy and daily dedication to your overall collection. The normal sequence for getting a tree in a show is to decide on which tree will be entered and then an acceptance from the organisers to have that tree in the show. This could at times be problematic as the time between the acceptance and the show could be very short. My advice is to start the show preparation before the tree is entered as it should be of a more than passible quality when entered.

Display

All components making up the display must be clean and in good condition. The so-called three-point display technique will compliment your tree. This usually consists of the tree on a stand, an accent tree or plant and a scroll. One of the two non-tree elements could be a Suiseki. The dimensions and placing of the three elements are crucial to get a view of one, but to still emphasise the tree as the main focal point. My best advice with this is to have a few stands, scrolls, accent plants and even Suiseki at the ready and to try different combinations.

One of the best things you can do is to study as many displays that you can get your hands / eyes on. This is not difficult with the internet at our fingertips. All the top shows across the world are represented in thousands of photos on the internet. Happy showing!

Bougainvillea: From climber to Bonsai, first steps.

A friend of mine is going to make alterations to his house which includes demolishing the garage. As my luck would have it, a relatively old Bougainvillea climber is growing on the side of the building and it was going to end up at the dump when building starts. I kindly offered to remove the plant for him. So today was the day, overcast with the odd light rain falling. Perfect conditions for the operation.

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The first part of the job was to take the plant down to stump level. This took about an hour as this Bougainvillea had a lot of quite large thorns. Once that was done, the stump was wiggled and I found that it had two large roots going to either side of the plant. One of the surprises was that the wood is quite soft and this extended to the roots. The spade went right through a two-inch thick root with one go at it.

One of the roots grew underneath the building and as it was quite close to the building, I decided to pull the stump over to the front. On the one hand this was a mistake as the large root tore in two which left it with quite a large wound (was going to have one anyway due to the cut), but on the other hand, it left me with a smaller plant now separated from the larger stump. Not bad, two plants for the price of one dig.

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I quickly cleared the area up and did not wrap the roots as I would normally do as it was a ten-minute drive to get home. At home, the two plants were placed in a bucket with water in which I dissolved some aspirin. Aspirin has the same active ingredient that is found in willow bark and this is said to be supporting root growth stimulation, just like hormone rooting powder.

From here I prepared two pots by adding drainage material (stones) at the bottom and then filled the rest with 1 part compost and two parts pumice. I also shortened the larger stump. More rooting hormone powder was applied, planted, watered and placed in a good, protected spot. The good old human attribute of patience will be applied while we await the outcome.

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Simplicity is the goal in every art.

I do believe that there are concepts in any art form that are universal. With that believe, I also explore other art forms for inspiration, ideas and motivation as well as skills and knowledge. I have recently embarked on trying to improve my photography skills as I am notoriously bad at it. In the process of reading up on this topic, I stumbled upon this statement:

“Ultimately, simplicity is the goal in every art, and achieving simplicity is one of the hardest things to do. Yet it is easily the most essential.”

What does this mean for Bonsai? Bonsai in its simplest form is a tree in a pot that resembles an old tree in nature. That then probably takes us back to the original design concepts as proposed by Chinese and Japanese scholars and masters from the beginning to today. My own opinion is that the strictness of the original, especially Japanese rules, have been watered down over the years as Bonsai art started to spread to other parts of the world since World War II. Western ideas of what art looks like and what it should be as the individual philosophies of artists as well as the type of Bonsai material that they can work on has shaped this over time.

Simplicity can also refer to the horticultural side of keeping trees alive. It comes down to water, nutrients, climate, inclusive of light requirements. Yes, it is that simple, but take any one of these for granted and you end up with a deteriorating or dead tree.

From a design perspective it is important to know something about the different styles or forms of Bonsai and by then adhering to the style “rules” in its purist form, simplicity in design will be shown. Part of this is to follow the basic shape and growth pattern of the original tree if it comes from nature or has been in a pot for a long time. Radically changing the shape or form of a tree away from its natural flow, can not only stress the tree, but also lead to a quite complicated design that might need constant maintenance or interference to keep it in that shape. This means that the tree is kept under stress for a longer period of time.

A tree that does not show these characteristics or one that can be shaped from seedling or cutting stage will be easier to shape and still adhere to the concept of simplicity. What does this look like?

  • Establish a flared, radial root system growing from a wider buttress and is exposed at soil level.
  • From here a gradually tapering trunk will grow depending on the style.
  • The first branches will start about a third of the trunk height from the soil and will alternatively grow on two sides of the trunk with every third one to wards the back.
  • These branches will gradually become shorter and thinner as you move towards the top or apex of the tree.
  • The apex could be in-line with the nebari or base of the trunk.
  • Finer branches are grouped to allow the leaves or needles to form “foliage clouds”.
  • Empty spaces or the spaces between the branches will balance the tree to form a whole or one unit to look at.

That is bonsai design at its simplest or most basic. We do know that it is never that simple. Branches do not necessarily grow in that pattern and nature sometimes play cruel tricks on plants (this could be great for Bonsai) to alter growth patterns and directions. This is where the artist comes in and it leads to a second quote from a photography resource:

“Photography is not looking, it is feeling. If you cannot feel what you are looking at, then you are never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

I am not too concerned about what other people think of my trees. I need to be moved or have an emotional reaction to a tree for it to make impact. I also do believe that it is this, the fact that a Bonsai tree can invoke a feeling, an emotional reaction, that makes it art. I also do believe that it is usually the simplicity in a design or form that triggers the higher emotion. Less is more. Wabi-sabi. Literati. The emotion of a trees that looks old, feels old, shows character, fits its pot and as a whole make you stand still and study it, is a piece of art.

A lot of very complicated designs, excruciating bending, very heavy wire and at times heavy machinery (not really, just power tools), are used to get a tree to look like a Bonsai tree. Is this part of our instant generation? It has its place under the right conditions. I just wonder whether going back to the original simplistic view of Bonsai, the pure meaning behind the art form and taking a longer view or approach to the development of the tree, might not stir a stronger emotional reaction and make more people fall in love (also known as addiction) with this pure, simple and very rich art form.

What do you think?

Newbie Bonsai Help.

It is very common to see a photo of a seedling or small nursery stock on social media with the following comment: “I am new to Bonsai, please help with advice”. Where to start? What the follows is a number of people writing one liners or a bit more with a genuine interest to help.

I have been demonstrating and teaching Bonsai now for many years and am following what I think is a logical series of steps to enable the new Bonsai enthusiast to work towards a specific goal. It is almost paint by numbers, but in the absence of knowledge and skills, it is the best way to get the basics across in a short period of time. Here are the steps:

  • Unearth the topsoil to look at surface roots.
  • Determine the front of the tree.
  • Decide on a natural flow of the trunk dependent on the style envisaged.
  • Decide which branches / side shoots to keep.
  • Remove excess branches and foliage.
  • Some of these can be selected for deadwood (jin).
  • Create Jin.
  • Wire main trunk if required.
  • Bend trunk to desired shape.
  • Wire branches into position.
  • Clean hanging foliage up.

Each of these steps require a lot of knowledge to get to the end result. This is part of the conversation as the design unfolds. Small nursery material can take up to three hours to style with a new enthusiast in a workshop situation. The hands-on work takes only about thirty minutes to complete, but the explanations and answering of questions, in my mind the most important part, takes up a lot of time.

This Juniper is nursery stock and is 20cm high from the top of the soil. It has been standing around here for a year or so and received very little attention.

The first step is to scrape some of the soil away to see if there are any prominent, larger roots that can help to make a decision about the front / viewing side of the tree. In this case it only contained a whole lot of fine fibrous roots.

It is therefore now up to the trunk line to give an indication of what could be a possible front. For newcomers, we usually look for good movement and flow.

Once the best angle is determined to show things like flow and movement as well as taper or interesting features, it is marked and excess branches and foliage can be removed to reveal the trunk line. The conversation at this stage will include things like removing branches growing from the same height, branches on inside curves and crossing branches.

Some of the branches are identified as possible deadwood branches and these are kept a bit longer. Bark is then removed.

All of these steps have cleared the path for the trunk to be wired. Just the basic of wiring is explained and demonstrated at this stage as this skill is seen as a bit more advanced for a newbie. I think it is important to allow the person to start on their wiring pathway as it is an integral part of Bonsai design. As said, we stick to the basics at this point. It is more important to talk about design and flow at this point.

The branches can now be wired.

The next step is to place the branches in position while a conversation about safe bending takes place. Overall tree health is emphasized at all times. Once the placement is done, excess foliage, especially those growing downwards or upwards is removed. The concept of foliage pads is also touched upon. I find it is important to at this stage point things out like depth (back branches) and negative space. These are all explored ta more advanced workshops.

The last part of the workshop is focused on future growth, the role on foliage in feeding the plant (photosynthesis) and then the very important aftercare of the tree. Protection of small buds and the removal of older foliage as the tree buds over the next few months is discussed as well as feeding requirements and protection over the next month or so.

Potting, root management, carving, severe bending and more advanced wiring techniques are all part of more advanced techniques to be covered at advanced workshops.

Nebari – The Root of the Matter

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These roots have grown over time, dropping of the side of a cliff.

No, we are not talking about the Nebari fictional alien race from the planet Farscape, but the Japanese term generally used to indicate the roots and specifically the root flare at the bottom of the trunk where the root region starts. It also indicates the visible surface roots.

Wikipedia refers to it as: “Also known as “buttressing”, nebari is the visible spread of roots above the growing medium at the base of a bonsai. Nebari help a bonsai seem grounded and well-anchored and make it look mature, akin to a full-sized tree.”

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My idea is to write three or so Blogs focusing on Nebari and the development of roots. There is no doubt in any Bonsai artist’s mind that the roots of a plant is where it all starts. Healthy roots = healthy plant (generally). A plant absorbs most of its water and nutrients from the soil through the roots. We therefore have to know something about soil and its water retention and draining properties. Not all soils are created equally. We also need to know something about the physiology and anatomy of roots. This knowledge will help us to understand many of the concepts around root pruning. This will come in later Blogs.

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A tree growing in a woodland area. These roots definitely add to the character of the tree and indicate that it has been there for a while.

Getting back to the Nebari, the main aim of establishing a root flair at the base of a tree is to indicate age. A wider base caused by a flaring just above the roots, helps to establish the taper of a tree. One way to develop taper is to increase the circumference of the tree at the base and to keep the top of the tree relatively thin. Young trees do not have a huge flair at the base, but older trees show this without fail. In saying that, there are trees that are used for Bonsai that do not show a big root flare. Junipers come to mind here.

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The roots are spread over a flat surface and tied to this surface.

There are multiple methods to improve the Nebari of a Bonsai tree. The first one is the continuous root pruning of downwards growing roots. For the health of the tree it is advised that this is done over time to enable the tree to grow new roots in the place of the removed roots. A second method is done through air layering. This is simply done through preparing the bottom of the trunk as one would for air layering and heaping up the soil or packing sphagnum moss around this area. Roots will over time establish themselves in that area. I have read about a method where a wire is bound tightly around the trunk just above the roots. The flow of nutrients will be impeded and that will cause new roots to grow from above the wire. I have not tried this method myself before and cannot comment on how successful it is. Other methods include drilling holes through flat tiles and tying the roots of the tree in a horizontal direction to the tile with wire through the drilled holes. It could also be done through grafting.

In the end, the Nebari plays a vital role in the aesthetics of the tree. It is crucial thfotolia_2553306_XSat some sort of Nebari be established as it indicates age, shows that the tree is balanced and sturdy and has been there for a long time.

The next Blog will address the science behind root development.