Tuesday, 23 February 2016

A Pleasant Surprise

It's been nearly four weeks since I removed the air layer from the mulberry tree outside our house. At the time it looked like this.

After cutting back and potting - January
When I shared my previous post about this tree at Reddit, I was asked why I'd defoliated it. I'm not really sure whether it's necessary, but it's something that was recommended at my bonsai club, and it's always worked for me. In any case the foliage that was left on the tree after cutting off the top was all rather dry after long exposure to the hot sun and would probably have fallen off anyway.

The decision on whether or not to defoliate is species specific however. Defoliate the wrong tree and it will die.

I'm happy to report that my mulberry tree has done fine without its old leaves.

After I'd potted the tree I put it in a shady section of my bonsai area which is reserved for trees that have recently been repotted. My smaller trees usually go under a table, but this one was too tall to fit there, so I put it behind the table. As a result the top section got a lot more light than the rest, which may explain why that's where all the new growth has appeared.

The two trunks are crossing high up

Once new growth started to appear I moved it into a position where it gets some morning sun, and now I'm hoping that I'll get some foliage lower down. That's where I really need branches because, even if the tree fattens up considerably in the years to come, it is still far too tall.

You'll notice in the above picture that the tops of the two trunks were crossing. As that section will be removed one day, it probably wasn't too serious, but it doesn't look good that way, so I decided to do some rough wiring to separate them.

Roughly wired to separate the two trunks

For the foreseeable future I will be letting this tree grow wild. If this strong growth is any indication of what's to come, I'm hoping it will fatten up well, and I'm in no hurry to start styling it. I'm still uncertain whether I will keep the two trunks or try to separate it into two trees. I'll have to inspect the roots to see which is the appropriate direction, but that will have to wait a year or two.

And finally the surprise - when I examined the tree closely a couple of days ago I found a few small fruit developing on the new growth.

A small fruit on the new growth

It's the wrong time of the year for mulberries, so I doubt they'll ripen, but it gives me hope that this tree will give me fruit in future, something which most of my smaller mulberry trees have failed to do.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Can I Bonsai a Cactus?

Although I was anything but an enthusiastic gardener as a child, I have clear memories of wanting a cactus. My parents very nearly bought me one too, but somehow between my selecting my plant and going to pay for it, I managed to get a mass of thorns stuck in my hand, and after that good sense prevailed. I never did get my cactus. Well not until recently.

I've got a few succulents I'm training as bonsai but they've never been my favourite material to work with because the branches tend to break rather easily. So I'm not sure what possessed me on the day I decided to buy this cactus with the intention of turning it into bonsai.

Cactus as purchased

I'd been to a bonsai show at a fabulous garden centre about an hour away from home and after viewing the show it was only natural that I had a good look at everything they had for sale in the nursery even though I didn't really want to add anything to a collection that is already far too big.

I rarely buy from the bonsai section at nurseries because they tend to have mediocre trees and even the pre-bonsai have really high price tags, but I love to look at what's for sale anyway. Fortunately I was able to avoid temptation in that section, so I moved on to looking at their garden trees. Still nothing took my fancy.

And then I saw that cactus with its rather tree-like structure. Those two long stems with their fat bases said twin trunk bonsai and hard as I tried to resist the temptation, as I wandered through the rest of the nursery I couldn't get it out of my mind. In a moment of madness I bought it.

Once I got it home, however, the doubts began to set in. Where was I going to keep this plant without risking someone getting hurt? I tucked it away up against a wall, behind some of my other trees. Strangely, despite my doubts, I felt my usual temptation to grow the unwanted pieces as cuttings, though I knew I shouldn't. I was torn.

Decision making has never been one of my strengths, so I took the easy way out and did what I so often do in situations like that - nothing!

That was several months ago.

Finally today, realising that autumn isn't too far off, I decided that something had to be done, so I schlepped my cactus to a club workshop, all the while wondering whether everyone would tell me I was crazy to attempt to bonsai this unusual material.

Surprisingly nobody did, though they may well have thought so. I even got help with extracting the cactus from its old pot- my helper used a thick cloth to pull it out without getting a handful of thorns.

Although I don't normally train my trees in bonsai pots, I felt I should make an exception with this one to avoid having to handle that thorny trunk more often than necessary. Perhaps it was just as well, because there was a surprise waiting for me when it came out of the pot - those two stems came from a much thicker base and exposing that base was the only way to fit it into a bonsai pot.

Cactus pruned and planted in bonsai pot - February 2016

To be honest I'm not sure I like it so much now. Seeing it in that pot has reawakened my doubts over the wisdom of buying it in the first place. Regardless, I shortened the stems to give it a more treelike appearance, and I'll see how it develops over the next few months. If I really hate it, I can always try to sell it at a club show, or if all else fails it can go on the club raffle.

Update: When I shared this post with Reddit's bonsai group, I was told that it's not a cactus. I cross-posted to the cactus sub-Reddit and have established that it's actually a Pachypodium Saundersii.

Update 2: Unfortunately this experiment did not have a happy ending. I should have known better.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Sticks in Pots

The olive trees commonly used for bonsai in South Africa are Olea Europaea subsp. Africana, often referred to as the wild olive. Its fruit are much smaller than the average olive and aren't suitable for eating so, when one of my olive trees started producing fruit two or three years ago, I didn't bother to pick them. In due course they ripened and fell unnoticed into the surrounding pots where they took root. Since then I've been finding olive seedlings popping up everywhere.

I always move those seedlings into small pots and just leave them to do their own thing until they get big enough for me to experiment with. I know these "sticks in pots" will never make quality bonsai, but experimenting can be fun, and maybe I'll learn something that will help me with my better trees later on.

Today I decided to play with a few of those little trees.

These two were the first ones I found a couple of years back. They were planted in one pot to save space, and I've decided to leave them together.

Two olive saplings

Though they're each thinner than a pencil I decided to do a trunk chop and see what develops.

Two olive saplings after chop

Right now I'm looking at the possibility of creating a tiny twin trunk formal upright. Another option is a small twin trunk literati. Time will tell which is the better option.

The next tree I worked on is a bit younger and a lot thinner.

Olive sapling with badly wired curves

As the trunk was still nice and flexible I decided to wire some big curves in an attempt to create a horai style tree.

Olive sapling showing bad attempt to wire curves

I hadn't planned to do any pruning yet as I wanted the tree to thicken substantially first but, as a result of over-ambition combined with some really lazy wiring, I snapped the trunk.

Close up of damage to olive sapling

It's possible that the break would still have healed, but the tree would always have had a weakness at that spot, so I decided to make an unplanned cut, leaving me with this:

Olive sapling after damage was removed

I hope it survives today's abuse. It certainly won't be fattening up any time soon though.

This was my third attempt at horai, trying to copy the styling from a diagram in Deborah Koreshoff's book "Bonsai - Its Art, Science, History and Philosophy". Neither of my previous attempts worked out according to plan either.

Another young olive tree I looked at today once had a natural curve right near the base and I had hoped that it would turn into an interesting feature. Unfortunately I didn't think to push a stick into the gap to keep it open as the tree thickened. It's too late now because the gap has closed up, leaving an ugly kink instead.

Ugly kink on an olive sapling

I'm not sure what I'll be able to do with this one, so for now I'll probably just let it grow and see if that kink becomes less conspicuous in time.

I've got several more of these that I haven't worked on yet. I might do a bit of wiring on some of them but that will have to wait for another day. I've got loads of better trees that are begging for my attention so I need to work on some of those first.

I'd like to end off with a little good news. I managed to catch the grasshopper I wrote about yesterday. It seems he has a damaged leg so he hadn't moved very far overnight. I've relocated him to an area where there are no bonsai.

I also managed to find out his name - Elegant Grasshopper (Zonocerus elegans). It sounds like he's quite a destructive fellow, so I was lucky he did no noticeable damage to my trees.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

A Visitor to the Bonsai Garden

Things have been rather quiet in the bonsai garden lately. It's not that I haven't had work to do on my trees, because there's always more than I can cope with, but I just couldn't find the time for what needed doing. And when I did have some free time, the weather seemed determined to keep me indoors.

The only significant gardening I've managed recently was removing the air layer from a problem mulberry tree growing in our garden.

Today I finally found some time to get out among my trees and I got a little much-needed work done, though not as much as I'd hoped to. I removed a lot of unwanted new buds that had sprouted all over the trunk of an olive tree and tidied up my little ficus pumila, which had been growing wild for most of the summer. I removed some new branches from a maple tree because they had ugly long internodes and would have spoiled the appearance of the tree. Finally I did a bit of weeding.

When I was done I started looking for trees I could bring inside to work on during tomorrow's cricket. And that was when I spotted the visitor. He was hanging upside-down, clinging on to a leaf on one of my ficus trees.

A grasshopper clinging on to one of my bonsai trees

I have no idea who this guy is. Some sort of grasshopper, I guess, but he's far more colourful than any grasshopper I've met before. I suppose I'll have to do some research because I'd really like to know his name.

Naturally I'm never happy when I come across a creature that is likely to damage one of my trees, but when a photo opportunity comes along I'm always prepared to sacrifice the odd leaf in the hope of getting an interesting shot, so I immediately headed inside to fetch my camera, keeping my fingers crossed that he'd still be there when I returned.

Fortunately the little guy wasn't very active and I was able to take my time in setting up the shot. In fading light, however, even the smallest movement on his part caused most of my photos to come out rather blurry so I decided to experiment with my camera's video feature instead.

He was quite cooperative, and I must have spent close to 30 minutes poking my camera in his face, but eventually he got tired of my interference and jumped off the tree.

When I closed up for the night, he has still out there somewhere. I just hope he decides to leave my bonsai area before he does too much damage.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Rescuing a Mulberry Tree

When I was growing up I always wanted a mulberry tree, but we never planted one in our garden because they were too messy. I still don't have one, but I now have a Mulberry bonsai-in-training which I got off our club raffle table several years ago. It's not a beautiful tree though, and I tend to prioritise fruit over styling.

Lately I've found that mulberry seedlings keep popping up in the most inconvenient places in our garden and I've been trying to rescue as many of them as I can. But sometimes that's easier said than done.

One seedling chose a really bad spot to grow. It somehow managed to root itself in the tiniest gap between a wooden telephone pole and a rubber tube carrying wires from the ground to the top of the pole. To make matters worse, just behind it is a brick wall, and in front of it is a paved driveway. There's really no space for a tree to grow there.

For the last couple of years I've been watching that tree develop. Due to its inappropriate position it has been cut back several times, but the trunk has been fattening up quite nicely and I'd have loved to turn it into a small bonsai if I could. Sadly digging it up without causing serious damage is impossible.

I hate to waste anything that can grow though, so a few months ago I set about rescuing it in the only way possible - air layering it as close to the ground as I was able.

I tied a piece of wire tightly around the part of the trunk where I wanted roots, then created a makeshift pot - the top half of a juice bottle, slit down one side, which I could easily slide over the trunk. Once I'd filled that up with soil, I wrapped it in black plastic to give the roots a dark environment to grow, leaving the top open so that I could water it every day.

From time to time I checked on its progress and eventually I found the first signs of roots forming. After that patience became a problem. I was desperate to remove the tree before I made a mistake and let it dry out, something which could easily have happened during a mid-summer heatwave combined with a severe drought. At the same time I wanted to ensure that there were enough roots to sustain the tree once I removed it from its original base.

When I started the air layer, the tree was probably about two feet tall with two thin stems growing upwards, but it grew strongly and soon extended above the wall. I estimate its height was about seven feet when I finally decided it was ready to be detached from its parent tree and start a life of its own.

In the ground, ready to be separated from its parent tree

This was what it looked like from up close.

Two trunks coming out of its makeshift pot

The first thing I did was chop it back to a manageable height. Then I removed it from the base and got to work potting it up.

There was a pleasant surprise waiting for me when I opened up the parcel. That little tree had produced a lot more roots than I had hoped for in a few short months.

A mass of roots

I soon realised that the small pot I'd prepared would never do and quickly found a larger one to plant it in. Finally I defoliated the tree.

After cutting back and potting - January 2016

I wasn't really planning for a twin trunk when I started the air layer and with the benefit of hindsight I probably should have removed one stem at the time, but for now I'll leave it as is. In a year or two, when its root system is more settled, I'll see whether to keep it this way or whether to remove one trunk. Perhaps I'll even be able to separate it into two trees.

Here is what remains of the parent tree - a small stump, tightly wedged up against that pole.

Remains of the parent tree