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.