Sunday, 28 August 2016

Collecting a Privet from the Garden

Once upon a time there was a skinny little privet which popped up uninvited in our garden, only inches from our boundary wall. Fearing that it would do damage as it grew, my mother instructed our garden service to remove it.

Although I was still pretty new to the art of bonsai back then and saw no bonsai potential in it, I hated the idea of killing it, so just in the nick of time I persuaded her to have them relocate it to a more suitable position in our garden.

In its new spot the little privet thrived and, despite the fact that I never allowed it to grow much above five feet tall, in time it developed into a sturdy triple trunk tree. After a few years I began to see its bonsai potential and (fearing another move would kill it) I began to wish I'd had them plant it in a pot instead.

Finally in November 2014 (early summer) I decided to risk the move and have them dig it up once more.

The dig - November 2014

Once it was safely out of the ground I was presented with an excessively tall tree with the remains of a heavy tap root.

Before potting

It took all my strength to reduce it to a more suitable height and remove enough of that root to allow me to squeeze it into the biggest pot I had.

After pruning and potting - November 2014

By the time the job was done I really feared for its survival.

Fortunately it was soon pushing out lots of new growth and by January 2015 it was covered in new branches and foliage.

January 2015

I was longing to take it to a workshop, but I knew I had to be patient so I left it to do its own thing for the rest of the summer and most of the winter. Finally in July 2015 I took it to a club meeting looking for advice on how to proceed.

I was a bit disappointed when everyone I spoke to recommended that I split it into three separate trees. However I had to be honest with myself and I realised that from a practical point of view the separation would be the best option for ME because I would never be able to cope with the weight of that group once it made it into a bonsai pot.

The next day I took the group to a workshop, where some strong men did the muscle work for me. Although their styling choices may not all be to my taste, They made a start which will make life easier for me in the future.

I came home with two nice trees, each with a trunk thicker than my wrist, and a thinner stump which was much less interesting.

Three trees - July 2015

Hopefully in time they will all become decent bonsai but developing them will definitely be a long term project.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Reinventing a Tree with Bad Nebari

Shortly after I joined my bonsai club I bought an olive tree from a local nursery. It was tall and straight with no low branches but I always planned to cut it really low down.

April 2008 - as purchased

I let it sit untouched through the first winter and in August 2008 I finally decided to move it to a pot and make the first chop. And that's when I encountered my first problem. The nursery had tied it to a large stick and try as I might I couldn't get that stick to budge.

August 2008 - the stick that caused all the trouble

Under the circumstances I was forced to take it to a workshop where a strong man was able to remove it. He also cut the roots back a lot harder than I'd dared to.

August 2008 - after root pruning

After cutting the trunk further he put it back in its nursery pot. I had no inkling then that the stick would come back to haunt me years later.

August 2008

The tree quickly recovered from its ordeal and put out plenty of new growth. Everything was looking good.

October 2008

It was only two years later when I put it into a bonsai pot for the first time that I saw the first signs that all was not as it should be. The root structure wasn't looking too good. Once more the potting was done at a workshop and my teacher used wire in an attempt to lower one problem root. He also tried to plant moss around the roots, hence the bandages in this photo:

October 2010

Sadly this didn't prove to be very effective as, once the wired was removed, the root refused to stay in place. As time passed it just got worse and worse.

November 2013 - Problem nebari

By late 2013 I was getting really frustrated. Attempts to plant the tree lower in the pot were unsuccessful and in a last ditch attempt to hide the problem, a member of my club planted moss around the roots.

November 2013 - with moss

Although I wasn't too happy with the structure of the tree I might have left it at that, but unfortunately the moss didn't stay there for very long. One morning I discovered that some visiting birds had ripped it to shreds and I was back to square one.

In late 2014 I took it to another workshop where I was persuaded to shorten the tree. The highest root was also removed.

December 2014

This might have improved the tree somewhat had I kept an eye on it over the next few months, but unfortunately I neglected it and while I got a lot of new growth, the tree suffered some serious die-back lower down. A year later it bore no resemblance to the (bad) bonsai it once was.

December 2015

It was time for drastic measures. My second trunk chop was even lower than the first. All that remained was the branch that's visible in this photo and another hidden at the back.

December 2015 - second chop

I was advised to wire the visible branch upwards but always felt that was the wrong move given the fact that the rather quirky nebari were on that side. I felt the tree needed to slant in the opposite direction and waited in hope for a new leader which, thankfully, soon arrived.

June 2016 - growing strongly

By June 2016 that leader was nice and strong and it was time to remove the left branch.

This is what it looked like in July 2016 after I'd removed that branch. I didn't touch the leader but I zoomed in for this shot to show the root that's caused all the trouble.

July 2016

What was once a really bad formal upright is now on track to becoming another quirky tree.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Torturing Trees

I've been a night owl my whole life and as a result I've never been a fan of morning workshops. However I need the input of more experienced growers, so I usually attend those workshops nonetheless.

Unfortunately when winter comes around I find it really difficult to drag myself out into the cold morning air and this year I've been particularly lazy, missing several consecutive workshops and generally not giving my trees the attention they deserve. Now however, with spring definitely in the air, I decided it was time to get back to work, so I headed off to today's workshop, taking along a couple of my more complicated repotting jobs just in case I lacked the physical strength to get the work done on my own.

While working on my own trees, I also got to observe what others were doing to theirs. That can be quite an education.

Among today's attendees was a man who was working on a ficus with two trunks growing close to each other. As he didn't feel they'd make an appealing twin trunk bonsai, he decided the best option was to fuse them into one thicker trunk. Tying them together without leaving gaps was no easy task as each was already quite thick. Part way through his work I was greeted by this frightening sight:


A few strategically places clamps had been used to hold the trunks tightly together until they could be securely tied in place. Once that was done, the clamps were removed and a bit of wiring was done.


I guess now it's up to the tree to do its part.

In between all the serious work done today there was also some light relief as the youngest member of our club decided to "attack" a little tree with a massive pruning tool he found lying in the garden.


Thursday, 11 August 2016

Transforming a House Plant

I don't remember when we acquired our first schefflera, but it was almost certainly over a decade ago. Technically it wasn't my plant, though I was always the one tasked with caring for it, and it was never intended to become bonsai. Even now I'm not sure it ever will be, but it's certainly benefited from the bonsai skills I've learnt along the way.

The schefflera spend the first few years of its life living in our entrance hall, a room which gets very little natural light and no sunlight at all. It's a testament to the species that it survived in that environment, but somehow it did. Originally it had three thin trunks with foliage high up, but one day I discovered that it was possible to do a trunk chop on schefflera to encourage branching, so I decided to experiment with one trunk. Sadly my experiment didn't have a happy ending as, in my ignorance, I covered that trunk with plastic and misted it frequently. With the benefit of experience I'm sure that trunk died of root rot. Fortunately the other two survived.

Some time later I decided to try again, but this time I left them uncovered and didn't give them excess water and in due course they started budding again. The only photo I could find from that period was this one, taken in November 2008:


November 2008

Although they were growing back fairly well, the foliage looks rather floppy and weak. Hardly surprising given the fact that they were still in the same dark position that they'd inhabited for several years.

By then I'd joined my bonsai club, and one day it occurred to me that they might benefit from a bit of time outdoors with my other trees. Somewhere along the lines I also moved them to a bigger pot.

In the end that move turned out to be permanent as it was impossible for me to impose darkness on them again once I'd seen how much they benefited from their time outside. Not only did they firm up pretty nicely but they have since produced several branches and even one rather strange aerial root:

Roots - August 2016

The biggest surprise however, was when they produced flowers and berries for the first time two or three years ago. I've never seen that on another potted schefflera before or since.

This is what they look like today, full of flower buds waiting to open:

August 2016

Sometimes I'm tempted to turn them into bonsai, but they have terrible nebari and I'm reluctant to sacrifice the flowers, so my pruning is always restricted to those areas which don't have flower buds. As a result the prospect of them ever becoming bonsai seems unlikely. But, like my indoor vs outdoor experiment with ficuses, this is a clear illustration that even plants which can survive indoors will be a lot happier outside.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

What a difference a season makes!

When I shared my post Bonsai Artist in Training at Reddit a few weeks ago, one of my readers asked what the tree I featured in that post looks like now. As I was still busy moving blog posts from my previous domain, I wasn't able to write an update then, but I promised I'd write one as soon as I could find some time. So here it is. Better late than never!

This is actually the second update, but the first one, The Benefit of Experience, was written way back in January, long before the question came up, so it showed a seriously outdated image.

Several weeks before I wrote that post I'd decided that  my little tree needed to go back into a training pot to help improve the branch structure, but soon after that I'd foolishly undone a lot of the good work by going overboard with what was meant to be a minor trim. My poor tree was looking horribly naked at the time:

January 2016 - after severe pruning

I vowed to go easy on it after that and did no further pruning until yesterday.

Despite the fact that it's late winter here, this tree had put out substantial new growth, especially at the top:

August 2016 - before pruning

This time I was a lot more conservative with my pruning, only shortening branches that had grown too long. In fact on the two lowest branches I cut nothing at all.

August 2016 - after pruning

One bit of unwanted new growth I haven't removed is this bud near the base of the tree:

Unwanted new growth

I've got a bit of reverse taper at the first bend and I'd be really happy if letting it grow for a while would help fatten up the area where it's growing. Worst case scenario I get a big scar there, which isn't a major problem as Ficus Natalensis heals really well.

I've done all I plan to do for now. It's up to the tree to do a bit of growing and hopefully it will guide me in the right direction. I can't wait to see what it decides to do next.