Thursday, 29 December 2016

Deconstructing a Ficus Pumila Houseplant

My smallest tree is this little Ficus Pumila which I grew from a cutting several years ago.

Ficus Pumila - November 2015

The parent plant was one I bought to use as material for cuttings but, given the slow growth of my little tree, I only ever propagated two more cuttings from it and I gave both of those away a long time ago.

My initial plan was to keep the parent plant as a houseplant but it was never happy indoors, so I soon decided to move it outside for the summer months, bringing it back inside as soon as the nights got chilly. Even that proved problematic though as it always suffered a lot of die-back while indoors, so last winter I moved it into my greenhouse instead and it's been thriving there over the last few months.

And that was the way I intended it to stay until I came across a post about a Ficus Pumila bonsai at Reddit a few days ago. The one in that post is a lot larger than mine and seeing it made me wonder if I could use a piece of my houseplant to create a bigger bonsai.

Ficus Pumila houseplant

And so began the hard job of untangling and pruning this mess to see what useful trunks I could find.

Close-up before pruning

Given Ficus Pumila's propensity for layering itself there were stems aplenty, though only two had any substance. Still, once I started separating them, I didn't want to kill any so I felt obliged to repot them all. I ended up with six individual plants of various sizes and potted the remaining fragments as a clump in one small pot. Maybe I'll try to fuse those together later on.

Divided and potted up

This is the fattest one.


It will almost certainly become another mame.

This one is slightly thinner but has better potential to make a larger tree, especially if I wire the cascading section upwards.


I'll probably do a little wiring to the two biggest ones once they're settled in their new pots. Other than that I'll just leave them to grow for a while.

This is definitely going to be a long, slow project, but in time I should be able to produce something much more interesting than the unruly plant I started out with. Assuming they survive, that is.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

My Struggles with Ficus Benjamina

When I first became interested in growing bonsai in around the year 2000 I knew almost nothing about plants. I'd never been interested in gardening and had even found it difficult to keep a house plant alive. Yet I was drawn to the idea of owning a bonsai tree and set about trying to find something suited to life indoors. Not too many candidates presented themselves, but in due course I bought my first Ficus Benjamina.

I remember that one as being a pretty little tree with variegated leaves, but with the benefit of experience it probably wasn't anywhere near as good as I thought it was. I don't have any photos of it so I couldn't say for sure. But with 15 years of proper care it may well have become a decent bonsai. Sadly I'll never know.

I confess that within months I had murdered that tree by excessive defoliation. I was devastated when I was forced to accept that it was dead and immediate started looking for a similar tree to replace it. Unfortunately my attempts at finding another tree like it were fruitless and the best I could do was buy a few group plantings with different coloured foliage. Not realising they could be separated I kept them as house plants and began my first attempts at propagating ficus cuttings to turn into bonsai.

Only one of my early cuttings was successful and for years I battled to turn that tree into the informal upright that it refused to be. So far I've been unable to find the bonsai in that tree, but sentiment prevents me from giving it away.

Somewhere along the lines I got it into my head to try fusing my group of three dark-leaved ficuses into one tree. Without the benefit of repotting. pulling them together wasn't the easiest process. Though they eventually fused, branches were coming off at terrible angles necessitating excessive pruning. I'm still battling to get that tree into a decent shape too.

Other efforts I've made over the years include my plaited tree with three different types of leaves as well as the group planting I'm still trying to bring down to the height I'd like it to be. And then there's my misguided attempt to create a Ficus Benjamina mame. Using the clip and grow method I've created quite a nice trunk but I can't seem to get the branches I want.

But last week I found one Ficus Benjamina in my greenhouse which is showing more potential than the rest of them.

Ficus Benjamina - November 2016, before pruning and wiring

There was a time when I'd planned to keep this one tiny too, but when my styling attempts weren't working out, I left it to grow unchecked and had all but given up on it. Then last week I decided to see if I could do anything with it. On close inspection I felt the branch structure wasn't too bad, though all the branches were clumped together growing straight up.

I've tried wiring Ficus Benjamina in the past with little success. My attempted informal upright was looking great while the wire was on but when I removed it all the branches reverted to their old position, leaving only deep scars to show that the wires had ever been there. Under the circumstances I decided that using guy wires this time was a better option as I'll be able to leave those on the tree for a lot longer.

My initial plan was to do no pruning but I noticed that I had two leaders so I removed the one that was growing to the back. I also cut back some of the heavier branches in the hope of getting the tree to put more energy into the areas that need fattening, especially the first branch which really needs to be the thickest but is by far the thinnest right now.

Ficus Benjamina - November 2016, pruned and wired

Excuse the sloppy wiring, we had a power failure just after I started wiring this tree, forcing me to work by lantern light.

Here's a 360° view:



My plan for the immediate future is to let it grow with only the occasional trim to the thicker branches. I'd really like it to fatten up a bit more, but my main focus is getting the branches to develop the right proportions. And of course to get them to set in their new positions.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Titanic Bonsai

Last weekend I went out of town to visit a bonsai show held by another club. The trees were divided into three categories - classic bonsai, trees in training and pop bonsai.

I just had to share a couple of images from the pop bonsai section as they were totally different from anything I've ever seen before.


This one was rotating to show messages like "Save the forests and save the Earth" and "Recycle and save the Ocean and the Earth". What a fun way to convey a serious message!

My personal favourite however was this scene of the sinking Titanic. I had fun editing this one in Photoshop to capture the vintage feel of something that happened a long time ago.


I think sometimes we take the art of bonsai too seriously and ignore the fun side of things. I'll try not to do that going forward.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Here’s my Ginseng Ficus

I don’t often talk about my Ginseng Ficus because they’re frowned upon by most serious bonsai artists. That was one of the first things I learnt when I joined my bonsai club, but if anything it just made me feel I’d like to challenge myself by seeing what I could do with one.

Once I’d decided to buy one, my goal was to find a tree with roots that weren’t too bizarre. Not an easy mission! I don’t know how many years it took before I found one that I was happy to give a home. It’s not a spectacular tree (yet??) but it has no peculiar bulges, and all-importantly it has taper.

Of course when I bought it, it also had a horrible straight cut with a thin ‘trunk’ grafted on one side – a problem that only time could solve. I wasn’t even prepared to start work tidying up that cut back then because I was afraid that the graft wouldn’t hold.

Here it is as purchased in June 2013 in a tiny plastic container which wasn’t even worthy of being called a pot.

Ginseng Ficus - June 2013

Naturally the first thing I had to do was get it into a proper pot. The pond basket I chose was huge by comparison to its previous home but now I’m starting to think that it’s time to move it to something bigger.

By July 2014 it had grown enough for me to start work on that horrible cut.

July 2014 - before pruning

Realising that too much pruning would stunt its growth, I limited my other work on it to removing one of the two leaders as well as one small branch low down. I also did a bit of wiring.

July 2014 - after pruning and wiring

Looking at the photos now I’m starting to wonder whether I should have kept both leaders, but what’s done is done.

All is not lost however. Today the second leader is a slender twin trunk tree, about 50cm high, which I hope to train into a “proper” bonsai one day. For now, however, it has a lot of fattening up to do. A bigger pot is a must.

Cutting - November 2016

In the two years since I removed the second leader, my Ginseng Ficus has been left to grow as much as it’s able, its growth restricted only by the size of its pot.

November 2016 - before wiring

This week I decided it was time to do a bit more wiring as the branches I’d wired previously were growing upwards once more. While doing so I removed a couple of insignificant branches that were growing in the same space as the ones I’m trying to develop.

November 2016 - after wiring

No other pruning was done as the trunk and branches still need to fatten up significantly. For now I’m just happy that the trunk is starting to blend into the base and the scar where I tidied up that ugly cut is healing nicely.

Scar at graft site - rear view

This tree still has a long way to go before I can even think of calling it bonsai, but I’m happy with the progress I’ve made thus far.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Hail and Bonsai

Nine years ago, just weeks after I joined my bonsai club, we were hit by the worst hail I've ever had the misfortune to experience. Stones the size of golf balls (or possibly larger) pelted our house, breaking 13 windows. Needless to say my small "bonsai" collection suffered significant damage too.

Among the trees that were damaged that night was my "pride and joy", a little Serissa (really just a stick in a pot) which I had wired only days earlier and which I misguidedly believed was well on its way to making a beautiful bonsai. It lost an important branch that night and with it my hopes for its immediate future were dashed. Sadly that tree died about a year later in the great vinegar disaster.

Another victim of the hail was a fairly substantial Crassula which I'd grown from a cutting a few years earlier. It was so badly damaged that I was forced to cut it back to a stump, while a little Portulacaria which I had hoped to turn into a cascade had to be totally restyled.

I still have both those trees but due to the brittle nature of succulents I've never put much effort into styling either of them. Hopefully I will some day.

Remarkably no trees died that night, proving how resilient a healthy plant can be.

Thankfully the storm that hit us two weeks ago was minor by comparison. A few of my trees lost small branches, but for the most part the damage was restricted to shredded foliage.

Hail damage

I'm not aware of any structural damage to this little ficus, but I'm sure glad it wasn't in this sorry state for its appearance at our club show last month.

Ficus Natalensis two weeks after the hail




Sunday, 20 November 2016

Hooked on Propagation

Sometimes I wonder whether my efforts at growing bonsai are just the work of a glorified gardener. It's not that I don't want to create beautiful trees, but sometimes I doubt my ability to do so. The fact that many of the trees I see at my club are far superior to mine doesn't help. But when my desire to propagate more trees gets in the way of styling those I already own, I have to wonder where my priorities really lie.

Patience has never been one of my strengths. I guess that goes a long way to explaining why I've propagated so many trees over the years. What it doesn't explain is why I still feel the need to do so when I've already got far more cuttings and seedlings than I know what to do with.

As my collection has grown I've become a bit more disciplined, and I'm slowly learning to restrict my propagation efforts to a few favourite species, mainly indigenous varieties of Ficus. They aren't usually a problem because for the most part I simply prune as required, plant the cuttings and wait to see what grows. However I'm being held back by an air layer on a Ficus Ingens right now, and it's getting a bit frustrating because I really want to start work on developing the existing tree.

My real problem, however, is Japanese Maples. They're not even a particular favourite of mine - I far prefer the growth habits of the humble Trident Maple. But when I visit a nursery and see what they're charging for very ordinary Japanese Maples, it makes me feel that throwing away my large cuttings would be like throwing money on the compost heap.

So today I find myself facing the same predicament I did last summer (and the one before that) - should I remove those big unwanted branches? It's summer here and the only time I've had success with large Japanese Maple cuttings was in July - the middle of winter - so they're unlikely to root if I cut them now. In previous years I've decided to wait, but come July I never get around to pruning the trees, so how likely is it that next winter will be different?

Right now I've been working on the one tree that didn't offer any decent cuttings and I'm trying to convince myself to go ahead and cut the rest. They'll never make decent bonsai if I don't commit to doing what's best for the trees rather than waiting for the right time to propagate more.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

My New Maple Tree


I hope my tone doesn’t offend any beginners, but some people seriously think this is the best way to start bonsai. Some nurseries even sell “Bonsai Kits” which consist of a small bonsai pot, some soil and a few seeds.

Granted it is possible to start bonsai from seed, and I’ve tried it myself, but it takes a lot of time and patience to grow a decent tree that way. And you certainly shouldn’t be planting a seed straight into a bonsai pot because the resulting tree will always remain tiny if it’s given limited space to grow roots.

I don’t often plant seeds anymore and I didn’t plant this one. I found this little seedling growing in a pot alongside one of my trees a few days ago and I couldn’t bear to kill it, so I moved it into a cut down bottle and now I’m waiting to see if it survives.

 In such a small pot it’s not going to grow very quickly. If left to grow unrestricted, it will probably reach about the size of the tree standing to its left here in a year’s time.


The larger tree is one of the 23 seedlings I rescued from another pot a year ago. The time has come for me to make some decisions about their future. I’m hoping to move some of them into bigger pots if I can find the space to put them. I’ll probably wire a little movement into some of the trunks and I’m also contemplating experimenting with fusing a few of them together to create one thicker tree.

That’s the great thing about free material – it gives me the opportunity to do all kinds of weird experiments.

My best maple tree, however, certainly wasn’t grown this way. It was five feet tall when I bought it as nursery stock, and yet it will always be a small bonsai. Large trees need to spend years in the ground before they start their life as bonsai.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Options for the Topless Ficus

After I wrote my last post I started to have serious doubts about taking the topless ficus to a workshop in case someone talked me into taking drastic action that I would come to regret. In the end, however, I decided to take it along, but I was determined that no dramatic pruning would take place.

My mentor wasn't available for the pre-meeting workshop so I turned to the club's youngest member for advice. He's only 16  but he's extremely talented and I felt confident that he wouldn't push me in a direction I didn't want to go.

I'd already realised that the top branch couldn't be pushed as far upwards as I'd have liked, so his suggestion that I change the slant of the tree seemed like the best option.

With the enthusiasm of youth he was keen to reduce the weight of the foliage on the lower branch so I allowed him to do that. Then, knowing that he's one of the few members of our club who actually enjoys wiring and more importantly does it well, I asked him to do a bit of wiring for me.

When he was done the tree looked like this (displayed at approximately the proposed slant):


After the meeting I got the opportunity to show my mentor (who has previously worked on the tree) what had been done. He felt the bend was too high up and suggested this:


No, I haven't chopped it back to the first branch, and I have no immediate plans to do so. Although it may well be the best option, doing so would slow down the tree's development dramatically.

What I am contemplating is scarring the tree opposite the top branch and possibly at the back in the hope of getting a couple of extra branches high up. That would open up the possibility of creating a broom style and keeping the trunk upright.

While I haven't made a final decision on the way forward, I'm feeling a lot better about this tree than I did a week ago.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Topless Ficus

I've managed to accumulate a few problem trees over the years, but right now I'm really frustrated by a recent acquisition.

Back in April I was hoping to enter the Reddit bonsai group's Annual Nursery Stock Contest even though I knew that it was the wrong time of the year for such an undertaking given that I live in the Southern hemisphere.

In due course I bought three trees which I hope to turn into bonsai one day, but I quickly eliminated two of them as candidates. I immediately got to work on the third though. This is what it looked like when I bought it.

Ficus Nitida as purchased - April 2016

I quickly removed some dead and 'useless' branches and tried rather unsuccessfully to create something that looked like it could become a bonsai fairly quickly.

First styling - early April 2016

However, from the start I was not happy with the result as the tree was much too tall for my liking and the leader was growing too far forward.

I quickly realised that this was not going to be a short term project so I took it to a workshop two weeks later, with the intention of cutting back to the branch marked below, though I was a bit concerned about creating a big scar facing straight at the viewer.

Side view showing leader growing too far forward

My mentor had other ideas however, and I came home with my tree looking like this:

After workshop - mid-April 2016

Although I knew this was going to be a long, slow process, I'd have been happy to continue from that outline, but unfortunately my tree had other ideas and the new leader died leaving me with this:

After removing dead leader - July 2016

In this photo the top branch had been cut back in the hope of encouraging new growth at the top of the trunk, something which still hasn't happened.

My tree is growing quite happily on both branches, but refuses to produce any new growth above the top branch. This is what it looks like this week:

November 2016

At the moment the only possible solution I can see is grafting a new leader, an idea which doesn't appeal to me. Besides, there is die-back at the site of the cut, so I'm not sure how successful that would be.

I'm considering taking it to another workshop this weekend, because this one really has me stumped.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

After the Storm

Late afternoon thunderstorms are a normal part of summer where I live, though sadly they've been a rarity over the last couple of summers. I don't enjoy the storms, but when you're living through a drought, grey skies are a welcome sight and rain of any nature is a blessing.

We had a massive storm this afternoon with heavy rain, booming thunder and a lawn blanketed in hail. It was after 7:00 pm by the time calm was restored, allowing me to go outside to water the trees in my greenhouse, and I wasn't too happy with the sight that greeted me - shredded leaves scattered all over the paving and a few trees standing in pots full of hailstones, among them this tiny Ficus burtt-davyi:


















 As it was already dark outside I wasn't able to inspect my trees properly so I'm not sure whether there was any more serious damage.

To put it all in perspective, however, there have been reports of over 100 cars stuck on a flooded highway about five kilometres from where I live as well as two storm-related deaths nearby.

And through it all I can't help wondering whether any rain fell in the areas where it's needed most.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

It's Alive!

At the very first meeting after I joined my bonsai club, one of the topics discussed was growing trees from cuttings. The speaker showed us how to turn an empty soft drink bottle into a mini greenhouse, allowing the cutting to live in a self-watering, humid environment until it had formed roots.

As I had already begun experimenting with cuttings, I was very excited by his talk and couldn't wait to try this method out for myself. This photo shows one of my early attempts.

Cutting in mini greenhouse

This little Abelia cutting came from a tree in my garden. It rooted satisfactorily and is still living happily in my bonsai area.

For a while I was very happy with the results I got using his method, but then I grew more ambitious and wanted to grow cuttings that were too big to fit in soda bottles, so I've had to adapt my methods over the years. Today I've got so many trees that I don't pamper my cuttings as I once did, but usually put them in my greenhouse where they get their humidity from the surrounding trees. However one habit that has persisted is that wherever possible I try to start my cuttings in transparent 'pots' so that I can see when roots start to form.

That's what I did with the piece I chopped off the tree featured in my post Clip and Grow Ficus - the Second Chop.

To be honest I never expected that one to survive though. It was chopped at a meeting of my bonsai club and left standing in an unsuitable area for a couple of hours afterwards, so it was already looking quite droopy by the time I got it home.

Droopy cutting - August 2016

What you see in this photo is nothing compared to its sorry appearance a few days later as all the leaves started to shrivel up and die. All I could do was leave it on its shelf in my greenhouse and hope for the best.

Happily new leaves soon started to appear, so I was optimistic that it would root after all. And finally a couple of weeks ago I started to see the roots I was looking for.

Healthy cutting - November 2016

Today the roots are looking really good.


I've got so many of these ficuses that I decided to try an experiment with this one. Instead of letting it grow unrestricted, I shortened the top branches to try to promote growth lower down.

November 2016 - after a slight trim

I've got memories of trying this on a similar cutting a few years ago, and that one fattened up much faster than most of my other cuttings have done, so I'm hoping I'll be able to replicate the result.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Three Weeks After the Show

I can't believe it's already three weeks since our club show. Time is really flying and as we move from spring into summer some of my trees are growing like crazy. I decided it was time to see what progress my show trees had made in that short time.

I was amazed to see the change in my Stinkwood tree. This is what it looked like at the show:

Stinkwood as it appeared at the show

Since then the branch structure had largely disappeared behind a mass of big new leaves. (Sorry about the bad camera angle hiding the base.)

Stinkwood with three weeks of growth since show

I might have left it like that for a little longer, but this tree has a crazy idea of seasons, waking up in late winter and going dormant long before my other trees. As I'm hoping to get some better ramification going I need to maximise its growing season so I did something approaching a Walter Pall hedge prune - nothing too dramatic, just reducing the volume of foliage to allow light to get to the inner branches which need it most. I'll do more selective pruning while it's dormant, and by then I hope to have more options to choose from.

I was much gentler on my other show trees.

Schotia - 30 October 2016

My Schotia had hardly put out any new growth since the show. The only useful bud of any substance was this one, though I spotted a couple of other buds which are just starting to swell.


Aside from that it had pushed out this unwanted bud on the trunk:


Removing that was the only work possible on this tree. As it grows slowly, I'm not sure how much more I'll be able to do this summer. Ramification may take a while on this one.


My olive tree is starting to look a bit messy, with lots of little buds pushing out all over the trunk:


Some of those buds will need to go before I lose track of which branches I really want, but I'll leave working on this tree for another day. There's been a change of plan for its future design since I originally discussed it back in April, so it really needs a post of its own.

As for my little ficus, it's starting to look a little untidy too, but I decided to hold back on the next trim for a little longer. I'll probably trim the top growth soon, but I'll let the lower branches grow for a while so that they can thicken up a bit more.

With top branches wired

Meanwhile I noticed that the wire on the upper branches was starting to bite, so I removed that.

After removing the wire

The branches held their position reasonably well so I didn't bother to rewire them for now. There's plenty of time to do that later if required.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Cutting Back

During my club's annual show I sold six small trees. Given the fact that the drought which made last summer so difficult is still very much in evidence and that water restrictions are now harsher than ever, I really should have sold a lot more. However I didn't plan ahead, and it was only a frantic last minute search that enabled me to sell anything at all.

Clearly a new approach is called for and I've made up my mind to start planning for next year's show right now. That means starting a list of candidates for sale, then watching how they develop over the next eleven months.

As I'm trying to keep water usage to a minimum, part of my plan involves limiting the size of many of my trees. The necessity for this became obvious when unrestrained early summer growth made it difficult to see the smaller pots hidden by masses of foliage. My bonsai area is poorly lit, so proper watering becomes particularly problematic on those days when I'm forced to water after dark.

One small section of my bonsai area showing how difficult it is to see the where the water needs to go

This situation has already lead to a few trees drooping after they didn't get adequate water. At the moment I only have one whose survival is uncertain, and I don't want to risk having others join it on the endangered list.

Some special trees will be allowed the privilege of neglect, while others will be pruned for the purpose of styling. However many of my cuttings, saplings and less interesting trees will undergo periodic cutting to prevent them taking too much space, as I've done with this little Stinkwood:

















Hopefully I won't make too many mistakes along the lines of what happened to this poor Rhododendron which I air-layered off a larger tree two or three years ago:

















I had no intention of removing the higher branch on the left hand side, but unfortunately a rushed wiring attempt caused it to snap so badly that I was unable to save it.

It will be interesting to see how the victims of this experiment respond.

Most of the trees receiving this treatment will be placed on my list of candidates to be sold next summer. How they respond to this experiment will determine which I decide to sell and which will remain part of my collection.

While I've been cutting back some of my trees I decided to experiment with shooting time lapse videos of my work. The tree in this video is a little elm which I got off our club raffle table a few years ago. Although it's small and not very exciting, I don't think I'll be selling this one just yet.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Screaming Stinkwood Tree

Among the photos I used in my post about the trees I displayed at our club show last weekend was a shot of a rather boring stinkwood tree. The only thing it appeared to have in its favour was a fairly thick trunk.

Suggested front
I acquired that tree off my club's raffle table towards the end of 2012. At the time it was sharing a pot with a young Pyracantha which had taken root in its pot, so my first priority was to separate the two trees. I took them along to a workshop the next day and, once they had been separated, I asked my mentor for a bit of advice regarding styling and accepted what appears in that photo as being the best front for the tree.

Over the next tree years I did very little work on it. Then, late last year I took it to a workshop attended by members of various clubs from my area. I had a special person in mind whose advice I wanted as stinkwood trees are one of his areas of expertise.

Although I don't know him very well he was most helpful and even did some heavy carving on the back of the tree. When he was done I asked if that was still the back and was rather surprised when he replied in the affirmative. As he was the expert however, I accepted his opinion though I was never totally convinced that he was right.

Fast forward to October 2016 and my preparations for the show. I always planned to display the tree showing the "correct" front and when I arrived at the venue, I placed it that way on the display table. However every time I looked at the tree it just felt wrong and I expressed my doubts to many members before the breakthrough moment when one member looked at the gaping hole in the "back" of the tree and said it reminded him of Edvard Munch's painting called The Scream.

That was all the affirmation I needed to go with my gut and I immediately turned the tree around to show this front:

My preferred front

I don't care how many people tell me I'm wrong. It's my tree, and to me the carving is its most interesting feature, so it deserves to be seen. Now I just need to create the canopy the tree deserves.