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.

Shorter days, colorful leaves.

IMG_1899For us in the Southern hemisphere the leaves of our deciduous Bonsai trees are starting to change color and they will soon be on the ground. In the Northern hemisphere Spring growth is to be seen everywhere and I have noticed a proliferation of photos indicating just that on Social Media. The difference is that the daylight hours are getting less in the South and the opposite is happening in the North. Suffice to say then that it must be the availability and intensity of light that triggers these phenomena. Today I would like to explore the color changes in leaves during Autumn.

IMG_1235We know that there is a pigment in leaves called chlorophyll. It is the site where photosynthesis takes place in leaves. This is the process where water and carbon dioxide gas with the aid of light energy is converted into sugars for plants to use as food or to be stored.

As the days (light) get shorter, there is not enough light energy for photosynthesis to take place at optimum levels. The trees must rest and basically shut down and the only food available to get through winter, is what is stored. As this progresses, chlorophyll disappears from the leaves and the bright green fades away. Chlorophyll is not the only color pigment in leaves. As the green fades, the other color pigments become visible. These are the yellows and orange colors (carotenoids). In some trees, like maples, the glucose produced during photosynthesis gets trapped in the leaves and the sunlight causes the leaves to turn this molecule into a red color. It is known that the cooler temperatures have a role to play in this. There are other pigments present as well. Red anthocyanin pigments can also be produced during this time.

Currently, my trees, and especially the Maples, are not showing the bright red colors yet. This is late for this time of year. Our night time temperatures have not dropped sufficiently for this to happen. Other climatic factors play a role as well. What is needed for all the splendor of autumn to show in our Bonsai trees is a warm, wet Spring, followed by a Summer with average temperatures and an average rainfall as well as an Autumn with many sunny days and relatively cold nights. There is nothing we can do about any of these except for controlling water, but it might be possible to shift trees in one’s garden during Summer and Autumn to make use of micro-climates caused by other plants and the layout of your garden.

Scientific knowledge supports Bonsai cultivation

The old debate of whether Bonsai is Art or Horticulture is actually a non-event as we all by now know that a dead tree cannot be designed as a Bonsai and be admired as a living sculpture. We need both. The tree must be kept alive and sculpted to enable the Bonsai within to be shown.

I am in the process of re-reading a lot of my quite sizable Bonsai library. The majority of these books and magazines focus on the Art side of Bonsai cultivation. It is rare to find a good solid article or chapter in a book, dedicated to the Horticulture involved in Bonsai development. A quick search on the Internet shows more of the same. There is a bit more to be found on the Internet, but a lot of this is not necessarily linked to Bonsai specifically. A few examples are of importance here.

The first to mention is the practice of defoliation. When we remove the leaves from a tree, we drastically reduce the level of transpiration (loss of water through leaves), which is an important process supporting the flow of water through a plant. Partial defoliation obviously does the same, but just less. Then there is the practice of leave cutting. This will reduce the surface area of the leaves, which in turn will also have a reduced transpiration level as an outcome. Photosynthesis levels will also drop. There are very good reasons why we do this in the cultivation of Bonsai, but it is a process rarely seen in the cultivation of other plants.

Another of our Bonsai specific activities is the process of deadwood carving or carving in general. Deadwood is dead and nothing much needs to be taken into consideration except for aesthetic principles. When we carve into living wood, things change a bit. Tree tissues are laid down in layers. On the outside we have bark and under this we have the phloem, the tissue that conduct the nutrients produced in the leaves through photosynthesis. The next layer is the cambium. This tissue is responsible for the secondary growth in stems as well as roots. The next layer is the xylem. This tissue transports water from the roots to the leaves. Then we get to the lignin. These are dead cells and make up what we refer to as “wood”. This is the stuff we carve. To get to the lignin, we have to go through the living layers. This needs to be done carefully as we are interfering with some very important processes when we start carving. Not only do we interrupt the flow of nutrients and water, we directly impact on growth. This works well for us as well, as the cambium layer is the one that will help with the healing on the edges of the carving. 

My advice is for Bonsai enthusiasts to read and learn about the science behind our activities as well. Not only will this knowledge help to keep more trees alive, it will help us understand the design process and principles better as well.