Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Great Vinegar Disaster

When I shared my post about my braided tree on Facebook recently, a friend criticised me for being too hard on myself. That was never my intention. I know that everybody makes mistakes, including the experts from whom I've learned so much. Rather I felt that by sharing my failures as well as my successes, other people might learn something from them.

I certainly never meant to imply that the tree I was discussing was a total failure, just that it could have been better and that, with the benefit of experience, I still hope to create the tree I feel that one should have been.

But the truth is that I've made some horrible mistakes over the years and some have proved fatal to the trees I was working on. Perhaps my most embarrassing mistake was one I made about seven years ago, a little while after I became a member of my club.

It involved moss, which some people go to great pains to plant in their bonsai pots. Growing moss is a very effective way to create the illusion of a tree growing in a grassy field or garden. I've rarely bothered to plant it but have been blessed to have it grow naturally in some of my pots.

Unfortunately as a beginner I was rather perturbed when an expert warned me that when moss is allowed to grow up the trunks of trees over an extended period, it can damage the bark. I've since discovered that it is quite easy to prevent this - take a soft toothbrush and gently brush away any moss that is growing on the trunk while allowing the moss on the soil to grow undisturbed.

But seven years ago I didn't know that and I panicked, eventually coming to the conclusion that I should get rid of the moss entirely. I'd read in an online forum that spraying moss with vinegar will kill it, so I proceeded to do just that. What I didn't realise was that the acidity in the vinegar is also harmful to many species of trees.

Most mistakes aren't fatal. This one was.

I was fortunate that I only killed three very ordinary trees that day. The damage could have been a lot worse.

I've since discovered that if I really don't want moss growing in a particular pot, it's quite easy to lift it along with a thin layer of soil and move it somewhere else. And if I really want to get rid of it, there's bound to be someone at my club who will be quite happy to take it.

The tree in today's photo is one of those I killed in the great vinegar disaster. For some reason I've kept it on a shelf in my garage for all these years as a reminder of what can go wrong. Perhaps now that I've shared its story with the world, I'll finally be able to let it go.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Three Trees Become One

At a recent meeting of my bonsai club one of our senior members spoke about grafting, discussing a variety of different ways in which it could be used to improve our trees.

Although I've seen several of these methods used at workshops in the past, traditional grafting isn't something I've tried doing myself and to be honest I'd probably need a man's help if I chose to try some of the things he demonstrated.

Among the methods he showed us was how fusing several trees together can help to create fat trunks quickly. I used that method to create the tree being discussed here, although my reason for doing so was slightly different.

Tree created by fusing three different varieties of Ficus Benjamina

Many years ago, before I ever joined the club, I dreamed about creating a ficus bonsai with three different colours of foliage - different colour leaves on different branches. I'd seen braided ficus trees for sale on many occasions so that seemed like the obvious way to go. I didn't realise at the time that braiding is not the recommended method of fusing trunks as it can give a rather knobbly effect which never really goes away. You can see that effect in this photo of a tree which  was already braided when I bought it.

Knobbly effect of plaited trunks on a nursery bought tree

Fortunately I started my tree with very young material though, so the effect of the braiding is not so obvious. I used three very thin cuttings from different varieties of Ficus Benjamina and braided the cuttings tightly as soon as they had formed adequate roots to support them.

As Ficus Benjamina is a fast growing species, my tree quickly reached what I regarded as a decent height so that I no longer had to worry about braiding but could focus my attention on branch development. I was spoilt for options and had to remove a few branches to prevent the tree from looking too bushy. There are still visible scars where the branches were cut off, but in time they will become less obvious.

With hindsight I made a couple of mistakes. The first was in my choice of material for the palest leaves. I had two different varieties to choose from and sadly I chose the less vigorous one. The result is that those branches will never be as vigorous as the branches with darker leaves. I'm trying to fatten them up, but I'm not sure I'll ever succeed in getting the balance right.

My second mistake is more a change of artistic vision. I don't find the middle (yellowish) leaf shade so appealing and wish I'd restricted myself to using only the other two colours. I've often contemplated starting a new tree using just those two and hope to do so this summer.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

A Tree with Dramatic Curves

I love visiting garden centres and scratching around to see if I can find any suitable bonsai material. I always visit the bonsai section, but prefer not to buy trees that somebody else has styled, so once I’ve seen what’s on offer, I usually move on to the regular trees and shrubs in the hope of finding raw material that I can style to my own taste.

The tree I’m discussing today is an indigenous South African tree, species Acacai Burkei (Black money thorn).  It was bought on a rare occasion when I broke my own rule about not buying ready-made bonsai. This one didn’t come from a garden centre though, it came from a supermarket. Although I wasn’t planning to buy anything, when I saw it I knew I had to have it.

This photo, taken on 13 December 2011, shows what it looked like when I bought it.

On close inspection, I soon realised that my tree wasn’t all it could be. That nice curvy trunk wasn’t being shown to its best advantage lying flat on the ground. On the advice of a bonsai friend I moved the tree into a bigger pot and gently pushed a small rock under the trunk to prop it up in the desired position.  I also wired a couple of branches to prevent everything from growing straight upwards. After that I left it to grow wild as its structure adapted to life at a strange new angle.

Then in December 2013, almost two years to the day since I bought the tree, I cut back a lot of new growth to reveal the beginnings of the structure I was after.

In April 2014, after another period of uncontrolled growth, the tree was in serious need of another pruning.

By this time the trunk had set at the desired angle and I was finally able to remove the rock. I also removed a low branch which was spoiling the design. Judging by the photo angle it appears I also had a temporary change of heart as to what was to be the front of the tree.

By January 2015 the tree had grown bigger than ever.

It was at this stage that I made the cut which will define the tree’s future, removing the straight part growing upwards and making the new trunk grow back over itself. I also reverted to my original choice of front.

This is how it looks now, in September 2015, after another haircut and a bit of wiring. The final structure is starting to show. It’s not ready to go back into a bonsai pot yet, but it’s getting there.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Bonsai Artist in Training

A little tree I grew from a cutting

My mother believes I’m obsessed with bonsai. She’s not wrong. But when she tells people I’ve got over a hundred bonsai trees, that’s not quite true.

Yes, I’ve got hundreds of trees, but very few of them are worthy of the name bonsai. Not yet anyway. I’m addicted to propagating trees and a large proportion of my collection are young trees which I’ve grown from seed or cuttings. Right now I’ve got 22 chili seedlings which are about a month old growing in a small seedling tray on my kitchen windowsill, but once they’re ready to go into their own pots, I have no idea how I’ll find space for them all in my overcrowded bonsai area.

I also have quite a few trees which started out life as nursery trees. Some only needed minor styling changes while others came to me as tall trees with no low branching and had to be chopped back to stumps before I embarked on the process of developing new branches in the right places. Some will soon be ready to go into bonsai pots, but others still have a long way to go.

I also have a few bonsai in training which were once full-sized trees growing in the ground. I have to restrict myself to relatively small trees though, because I’m not strong enough to lift the bigger ones I admire so much when I see them on display at my bonsai club.

I call myself a bonsai artist in training because, despite having been a member of my club for eight years, I’m well aware that I’ve still got a lot to learn. I like to experiment, but not everything turns out as I’d hoped it would.

The tree in today’s photo isn’t my best tree, but it holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first bonsai that I successfully propagated from a cutting way back in 2007. You can read its history in an article I published at HubPages.

As I embark on this blogging journey, I’ll be discussing a lot of trees in various stages of development. I’ll be using some tried and tested techniques but may experiment from time to time. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Linking up with Inspire Me Monday.