Saturday, 26 August 2017

Unsuitable Material for Bonsai

When I first became interested in bonsai (long before I joined my club), it was with the expectation of keeping my trees indoors. This idea seemed perfectly feasible given the fact that one of the first bonsai books I bought was "Indoor Bonsai" by Paul Lesniewicz.

Unfortunately my first attempts soon ended in disaster. I even managed to kill my first Ficus really quickly. But I kept trying. And an idea from that book which seemed like an attractive option was propagating my own trees from the seeds of some of the fruit I ate.

My first attempt was planting citrus seeds. I soon had two little lemon trees growing on my bedroom windowsill. However after the more attractive one died, I aborted that experiment and planted the surviving one in the garden where it lived happily for several years before the bugs attacked it. Seeing it shrinking due to die back, my idea of turning it into a bonsai tree was revived and a couple of years ago I asked our garden service to dig it up so that I could move it into a training pot. Sadly it didn't survive the transplant and I now have a dead stump for which I'd like to find a creative use.

Dead lemon tree

I still have a couple of smaller citrus trees living in my bonsai area, but I don't have much hope of ever turning those into decent bonsai either and have made no serious attempt at styling them. They're over a decade old now, so sentiment prevents me from giving them away.

My next attempt was propagating a litchi tree. It didn't take me long to realise that the foliage was totally unsuited to bonsai, but I've kept the tree in the hope that it will give me fruit one day.

I also tried guavas, but I gave those away a long time ago.

I still have a couple of apple saplings which were another bad choice. I've since bought a couple of crab apple trees which I'm working on, but I've yet to see any fruit or even flowers on those. But I know that they're decent bonsai material so styling is my first priority for now. And I really hope they will get fruit when the time is right.

By the time I decided to plant a mango seed I had no delusions that it would ever make bonsai, but I couldn't resist the temptation to grow my own mangoes. I've actually got two trees now because a couple of years later I found a seed which had already rooted inside the mango and I didn't have the heart to throw it away if it wanted to live that badly.

My older mango tree

My older tree is approximately seven years old now and I was delighted to see that it's starting to flower for the first time.

Mango flower buds

Sadly I've read that it's best to remove the first season's flowers. I'm reluctant to do so, but the health of the tree must be my first priority, so I guess I'll be waiting for fruit for a little while longer.

Meanwhile I do have one fruit tree which I'm hoping will eventually make decent bonsai - a cherry tree.

Cherry tree

This was one of my most difficult attempts at propagating trees from fruit - of nine seeds I planted only two grew and one was an albino (with white leaves) which died as soon as I moved it into the sun.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Styling a Juniper

Last week was another BRAT meeting - a meeting at which all the bonsai clubs in my province get together.

Among the speakers was Stefann Pretorius, a member of Suikerbos Bonsai Kai and winner of last year's national new talent competition. For that competition participants work on nursery stock - totally untrained Juniper Procumbens Nana. For this demonstration he used far better material, an older Juniper which had been propagated specially for bonsai use. This is what it looked like from Stefann's chosen front.

Before styling

Stefann had taken some time to study this tree and had done several sketches of potential styles, before settling on this one:


With a slight change of slant required, the first thing Stefann did was tie the tree firmly to the turntable.


Then it was time for a little pruning.


Nothing too major as Stefann says it's best not to remove more than 40% of the foliage in one go. I guess that explains why the Juniper I attempted to style at our club's new talent competition a few months ago seems to be dying. Well that and the fact that I decided to move it from the nursery bag into a pot at the wrong time of year!

The biggest job was wiring all those branches. Luckily Stefann had a very able assistant for that - Hannes Fritz, also from Suikerbos Bonsai Kai, is an experienced grower who recently represented Africa on stage at the 8th World Bonsai Convention in Japan, styling a tree belonging to Masahiko Kimura.

Stefann and Hannes wiring the tree

After wiring the tree looked like this:

After styling

It will take a while to develop the pads, but the structure is in place for a very nice bonsai.

When I see trees like this I wish I had the skill and patience to style a good Juniper bonsai, but they're really prickly and they require far too much wiring for my liking.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Carving a Big Olive Tree

The topic of our club's last meeting was carving trees. The demonstrator was Kathy Steyn of Bonsai Magic. Although Kathy isn't a member of our club I've often seen her and her trees at the meetings where members of the various clubs in my area get together and she always has the top trees in several categories.

Here are two which she brought to our meeting.

First an olive tree:

Kathy Steyn's olive tree

I'd love to have one like this in my collection but it would have to be a lot smaller than Kathy's tree as I only buy trees I can manage on my own. Maybe one day...

Her second tree was this Buddleja Salinga:

Kathy Steyn's Buddleja Salinga

Dave Wilson, a long time member of our club (Eastern Bonsai Society), brought this large, untrained olive tree for Kathy to work on.


The first step was to get rid of the excess branches.

Kathy and Dave removing unwanted branches

If this was Kathy's own tree she'd have removed all the thin branches as olives bud back well after pruning. However she respected Dave's wishes and left the best options, though it's possible that some of those will be removed later if better options present themselves.

The next step was removing a thicker branch that looked out of place.


With an electric saw that didn't take too long.


Then it was time for some serious carving:


Creating a natural look with some areas hollowed out:


Here the tree is starting to take shape. What remains of the sawed off branch now looks like natural damage rather than the result of pruning.


The side view of that branch shows a hollow:


An old cut has been turned into a jin.


Dave's tree proved to require more work than could be done in the allotted time, so Kathy took it home to finish the work. Dave has promised to bring it to another meeting so we can see the finished job. When he does I'll get some more photos so that I can write an update.

Meanwhile you can see more of Kathy's work on her Facebook Page.

If you're in Gauteng (South Africa), Kathy offers carving lessons. You can find the details on her website.



I took my own olive tree along to the meeting and Kathy gave me some advice on how to proceed. As I don't do my own carving I took it to a workshop last week and was really pleased with the work that was done there. But I'll save that for another post.


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Deconstructed Ficus Pumila - six months later

In December 2016 I decided to see if I could turn my Ficus Pumila houseplant into bonsai material.

After trimming off all the excess growth and dividing up the root ball I was left with these seven small plants:

Deconstructed plant - December 2016

At that stage I simply left them to grow, and six months later they have put out a mass of new growth:

Deconstructed plant - six months later

Until this week the only work I'd done was to wire the leader of the cascading plant in an upright direction.

Cascading - December 2016

The same plant wired upright - July 2017

Hopefully that will help to thicken the trunk eventually though Ficus Pumila doesn't seen to thicken easily.

As trunk development is my major goal right now I still haven't done any pruning of substance, merely cutting off a few dead twigs and one small branch that was growing across itself. I also tried to untangle the branches but as they’re far too thin for wiring I’m sure they’ll soon get tangled up again.

I'm reasonably happy with that one's progress. I'm less happy with this one:

December 2016

It had put out a lot of new growth too:

July 2017 - before pruning

Sadly when I starting digging around underneath all that foliage I discovered that one major branch had died. To make matters worse, while cutting that off, one of the thinner branches got caught in the back of my branch cutter - a mistake I’ve now made several times. Will I ever learn?

In the end I cut this one back pretty hard as most of the new growth was in unwanted areas.

July 2017 - after pruning

Time to let it grow again and see what options it offers me.

Ficus Pumila has a tendency to ground layer itself. Some of the remaining plants are already doing that, which means they'll probably have to be deconstructed again if they're ever going to be bonsai. As I’ve got so many trees to take care of I didn’t have time to have a proper look at those right now. I suspect some may be looking for new homes in spring.

Turning these into bonsai isn't going to be as easy as I'd hoped. I like small trees but I’m starting to think these may be a bit too small.


Thursday, 22 June 2017

Last Cut of the Season

After my last post about my Clip and Grow Ficus I thought I was done for the season. After six months of solid growth and minimal pruning it was time to let the new branches fatten up. But things don't always work out quite as planned.

One of my Reddit readers suggested that I wire some movement into the new branches while they were still young and flexible. As I'm gradually overcoming my aversion to wiring my trees, I decided to follow his advice.

After wiring it, I took the tree to a club meeting for feedback. One of the senior members suggested that I remove the lower branches that have been bothering me for so long. Another wanted to know what I was planning to do with the top, which was looking rather two dimensional. I decided it was time to deal with both issues.

Since that meeting I've removed those branches and trimmed the sharp bends at the two chop sites so that the movement in the trunk now looks a lot more natural. And by twisting the newly wired leader I was able to create a back branch, giving the tree a much more three dimensional appearance.

This is how it looks today:

June 2017

And now it really is time for it to have a rest.

The next move will be to repot it in spring. It's time to remove the root cutting as well as the roots growing around the rim of the pot:

Root cutting (right) and messy roots

Monday, 12 June 2017

One little Bougainvillea - three options

Over the years I haven't had a lot of success with flowering trees.

One of my early purchases was a Bougainvillea "Smarty Pants", a variety which doesn't have thorns. Soon after I bought it I took it to a workshop and came away quite happy with the styling that was done. Unfortunately, being inexperienced in transporting trees it didn't enter my mind that the tree might topple over in the car - the outcome was that one or two branches snapped off before I even had time to take a photo of my newly styled tree.

I've been battling with that tree ever since, primarily because I later discovered that I'd chosen a tree with a really bad root system. All is not lost however because I've propagated a few cuttings from it over the years.

I started this one from a thickish cutting three or four years ago.

Front - June 2017

Above is my front and below is what I've always regarded as the back:

Back - June 2017

On Saturday I took it along to a club meeting, keen to get some suggestions for its future.

I received three very different suggestions and have created a rough virtual of each option using Photoshop.

Virtual 1

This is fairly close to what I had in mind, though the back has become the front and I hadn't planned on removing the second branch on the right hand side. Although the leader is coming forward from this side I'm not too keen to have that huge scar facing forward and the right hand side looks rather bare.

Virtual 2

I'm not sure I've got the slant quite right here. This is supposed to be a semi-cascade. I'm not sure whether the tree's root system will support this style but may look into this option when I repot the tree in spring.

Virtual 3

This one is supposed to be a windswept tree. Are Bougainvilleas really suited to this style? Based on this virtual I'm not totally convinced.

Right now I've got a lot to think about but I won't be cutting anything until my little tree loses its bracts (flowers). I think a slight change of slant may be a good idea, but probably not as drastic as what's shown in virtual 2 or 3. I'm also considering a change of front to minimise the gap between the two trunks.

Here's a 360° view which may show better angles than in my unedited photos.



All suggestions are welcome.

Which option would you choose for this tree?

Monday, 29 May 2017

Transforming a Giant Juniper

About four times a year the various bonsai clubs in my province get together for a day of talks and demonstrations. It's a great opportunity to meet some new bonsai enthusiasts and learn some new techniques. The most recent of these meetings took place on the first Saturday of May.

Among the speakers was Org Exley of Pretoria Bonsai Kai who brought along this massive Juniper Chinensis.

Juniper Chinensis - before

When I saw the tree I assumed that Org was planning to create a literati bonsai but I soon discovered that he had other ideas. This is an illustration he showed us before he started work.


On a tree of that size this was not going to be an easy undertaking. Simple wiring was not going to be enough to get any significant bends into a tree that was far from flexible.

Org showing how far the tree would bend

In order to add flexibility and create the two trunks shown in his illustration it was necessary to split almost the entire trunk.

Here's a shot of the carving - a long and difficult process during which the centre of the trunk was hollowed out.


Sawdust was flying everywhere.


Eventually the carving was done and he now had two much more flexible trunks to work with.


At this stage the tree was taken outside for wiring as the meeting moved on to another topic. Unfortunately there was too much work to do in the time remaining so the last I saw of the tree was this view, wrapped in raffia with a lot of wire applied.


Org kindly agreed to send me a photo of the completed styling. This is what it looks like right now.


I hope he'll bring it along to another meeting when it's had time to recover from its ordeal.