Saturday, 29 September 2018

It's fat and ugly, but it's alive

The Ficus Carica truncheon cuttings which I planted in April were by far my most ambitious propagation attempt to date. An attempt made more complicated by my decision to plant them without using rooting hormone which, I've heard, may be carcinogenic. Instead I soaked them in a kelp solution and hoped for the best.

As we were heading into winter at the time, I knew a lot of patience would be required. Ficus Carica is a deciduous tree so I told myself there wasn't much prospect of visible growth for several months.

Strangely one of the thickest cuttings showed signs of budding early on so, when the weather got cold I moved that one into my greenhouse. With limited space, however, I was forced to put the other five in a less sheltered area, on the lower shelf of a metal stand which I cover with frost cloth on nights when the temperature drops below 5°C.

By mid-August many of my trees, my established Ficus Caricas included, were already turning green, but there were no signs of life from my truncheon cuttings. Well not until mid-September, when I finally noticed a couple of buds on the thickest cutting in the less sheltered area.

A couple of weeks later the growth on that one is looking promising, so I'm hopeful that root growth is at least as good.

Late September 2018

So far none of the others are showing signs of life, not even the one that was in the greenhouse. I fear I may have harmed that one by pampering it, exposing it to excessive heat when the weather started warming up.

I'm not giving up on any of them just yet though. I made that mistake with my previous attempt three years ago only to discover that one of the cuttings I'd just dug up was starting to root. I tried putting it back in soil, but it never recovered. I really regret that because it was a far more interesting cutting than any I got this time.

I'm a bit frustrated that the cutting which has rooted is the ugliest of the bunch - no taper and it even has an ugly crack at the base. But I'm impressed that I was able to root a cutting approximately the thickness of a soda can without using rooting hormone.

I'm not convinced this tree will ever have bonsai potential but if not, hopefully in time it will give me figs to eat, something none of my other Ficus Carica trees have done so far.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Ginseng Ficus - creating movement and taper

It's still early in the growing season in South Africa so my Ginseng Ficus has hardly changed since it received its last chop in July.

July 2018

Although I said at the time that my next step was repotting and root work, that thick straight leader has been bothering me for a while now, so today I decided to do something about it. Just one chop for now:

September 2018 - after the chop

The new leader is going to need quite a bit of fattening up, but the position is much better.

Now I really am planning to remove the fat horizontal root on the left side:

Offending root to be cut back to the green line

I'm hoping to do that at a workshop in about ten days' time.

This guy may be a Ginseng Ficus, but I'm determined that he'll look like a proper bonsai one day.

You can see photos of the full progression of this tree here.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

The Shrinking Juniper

One of the trees I bought in April as a candidate for Reddit's nursery stock contest was a rather large Juniper Mint Julep. I've already discussed its first styling in an earlier post.

As it was winter in South Africa, the tree has grown very little since then. I hadn't done any further work on it either - until today, when I decided to take it to my club's meeting for some "expert" advice.

April 2018

I wasn't expecting to do much more than remove the unwanted branches that I'd left uncut in April for fear of removing too much in one go and killing the tree. But Junipers are outside my comfort zone so I was looking for confirmation that it was safe to cut them now. With the benefit of hindsight I'm starting to wonder if I'd have been better off if I'd stuck to my original plan and removed those branches at home.

Instead, when the tree went up for critique, everyone seemed to have different ideas, and people soon started bending branches into different positions. One member even shortened the leader (which I was trying to thicken) without asking if I was happy for him to do so.

By this time the tree was already looking quite different from its appearance in the above picture and I was no longer sure where I was headed, so when today's speaker asked if I wanted him to turn it into a dramatic tree,  I agreed. On one condition - that he wouldn't kill my tree.

Before I knew it all the branches were gone and the leader was pulled downwards, leaving me with this:

September 2018

Is there enough left to keep it alive? If it was a Ficus I'd say yes, but with a Juniper I'm not sure.

Plans for the future are a repot as well as carving and bending the jin. For now, however, my major concern is the tree's survival.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Mulberry Air Layer's First Spring

When I wrote about my first mulberry air layer in February 2016 I received a little criticism for wasting my time on air layering such a skinny tree when I could probably have got the same result by growing a cutting. With the benefit of hindsight my critics were probably right, though I learned a few lessons that proved helpful for my second attempt. Most important was the realisation that working too close to the ground becomes tricky when severing the air layer from the parent tree. While that wasn't too much of a problem with such a skinny tree, it would have been a major issue with a thicker one.

Happily, after removing that air layer, the bottom of the parent tree continued to grow strongly in its inappropriate location, so in November 2017 I decided to see if I could propagate a better tree. Using my favoured tourniquet method, I wrapped a piece of wire around the trunk about four feet above the ground and made my parcel there.

Fast forward to February 2018 when I decided my air layer was ready to lead its own life, separate from the parent tree. That's when things got difficult. With my limited strength I found it really hard to saw through the tree, a job complicated by the fact that the parent tree is so close to a wall that I could only saw from one side rather than working towards the middle from both sides. It was a battle, but I did it.

Once I'd removed the air layer I was distressed to see that the root ball was a lot smaller than I expected and that, due to bad positioning of my soil parcel, most of the roots were growing below the tourniquet, something I felt sure would cause styling problems later on - if the tree survived.

But my first concern was getting it through the winter and, due to its size, I was unable to put it in my greenhouse as I'd done with the previous air layer two years earlier. Perhaps I should have covered it with frost cloth, but in the end the only protection I gave it was a position against the side of the house where I hoped it wouldn't get too cold.

Perhaps if we'd had a colder winter it wouldn't have made it, but I was lucky. And after an unusually warm August it's already covered in leaves... and some fruit.

August 2018

For this summer my plan it to let it grow as much as possible, pruning only what's necessary to restrict it to a manageable size. When the time comes to cut it back to a more appropriate size, however, I feel certain that I'm going to need a lot of help.

Lower trunk with drink can to show size

A final note for my critics - I know that this tree doesn't have the features one would normally look for when trying to create bonsai from an air layer, but sometimes one has to work with what's available.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

My Juniper is Half Dead

The internet is full of stories of dead Juniper mallsai, many of them victims of the mistaken belief that they can be kept indoors. This is not one of those stories. I found a way to kill half my tree even though it was living outside.

Despite my reluctance to work with conifers, I currently have three Junipers in my collection - two small Juniper Procumbens Nana which I tend to neglect and a much larger Juniper Mint Julep which I foolishly bought as a candidate for Reddit's nursery stock competition though that tree was totally unsuitable for use as "instant" bonsai.

My younger Procumbens Nana is a tree which I propagated from a cutting when I entered my club's new talent competition a few years ago.

April 2018 - unstyled

Until recently I'd never done any work on it at all. Then in April I saw a lovely little Juniper bonsai on Reddit. When I heard that it had been styled without wiring I was inspired to see if I could create a small Juniper bonsai the same way.

Unfortunately when I examined my tree I discovered that its structure was totally unsuited to clip and grow, so I did a little pruning and some relatively heavy wiring. Then, extremely embarrassed by the result, I returned the tree to its home, determined that I was not going to write about the mistakes I'd made.

April 2018 - after bad styling

Over the course of winter I noticed some browning on the foliage and after a while it became obvious that something had gone horribly wrong. As you can see here, one side of the tree had died.

August 2018 - half dead

Luckily the other side is still alive and showing signs of new growth.

August 2018 - new growth on surviving trunk

Today I removed most of the dead trunk, leaving a little behind for a possible jin, while leaving the other side untouched aside from removing the wire.

August 2018 - cut back

So what went wrong?

Looking at the base of the dead trunk, there is a ring where the bark looks different from the rest. I suspect that while wiring it I accidentally stripped the bark and cambium, cutting off all life support to that trunk.

So now what?

Perhaps I'll let it grow back for a year or two before trying again. Or perhaps I'll finally accept that I'm not a Juniper person and put it on my club's raffle.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Willow Leaf Ficus - 18 Months Later

When last I wrote about my willow leaf ficus, I was undecided on the way forward.

February 2017

Although that long branch was never part of my plan for the tree's future, I was unwilling to cut it off and let it go to waste. One of my readers suggested I keep it and turn the tree into a cascade, but I wasn't too keen on the idea.

After giving it a bit of thought, I decided the best way forward was to air layer that branch the following spring, and with that plan in mind I wired some movement into it shortly after the previous post was written.

Aside from a little pruning I did nothing further until November 2017.

November 2017 - before the chop

By then I was impatient to start work on the tree, so I abandoned the idea of the air layer, cut that branch off and planted it as a cutting instead. Happily it rooted.

November 2017 - after the chop

Shortly after that I took the tree along to a meeting to discuss its future.

I'd just started giving it a trim when I was called away. When I returned a few minutes later it had received an unexpected and rather severe haircut.

After repotting and changing the angle, this was what was left:

November 2017 - pruned and repotted

Since then I've just let it grow. This is what it looks like today:

August 2018

Here's a 360° view:



Now it's time for decisions. All that new growth has given me a lot of options.

I'm seriously considering going for a shorter tree, but I'm undecided where to make the next chop.

Perhaps it's time to take it to another workshop.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

My Flea Market Find

After several weeks of searching for a candidate succulent to create a mame bonsai, I was starting to think that I wasn't going to find what I was looking for. Sure there were lots of tiny succulents available at all the nurseries and supermarkets, but the foliage was far too bit to create a convincing tree.

Then last Sunday I was at a flea market when I came across a table full of tiny succulents. Most of them had relatively large leaves, but then I spotted this baby:

Sedum - July 2018

It's actually far smaller than it appears here (if you're viewing this post on a computer monitor, anyway) - the pot is a mere 2 inches square.

According to the seller, it's some type of Sedum, but he didn't know which and I haven't been able to identify it yet.

Now I'm really glad I decided not to chop the variegated Portulacaria I bought a few weeks ago. It's huge compared to the Sedum:

Portulacaria and Sedum - July 2018

Meanwhile, despite the fact that it's still winter here, the Portulacaria is already budding all over the place.

I can't wait to see what these little guys do when summer arrives.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Ginseng Ficus gets a chop

It's been five years since I started growing out my first Ginseng Ficus.

In November 2017 I felt it had finally fattened up enough to shorten the trunk and start developing branches.

A week ago I decided it was time for the second chop.

July 2018 - before pruning

At the time I bought the tree the graft ensured that there was only one possible front. After five years of healing, however, that was no longer the case. After examining the base of the tree, I realised that there was a better front.

old front
new front

Unfortunately the tree is planted too low in the pot for the photos to show the difference accurately, but the gap between the two trunks is much less obvious from the new front.

July 2018 - after pruning and change of front

Next step is to repot the tree and carve away some of that long root that is just visible on the left side. That will have to wait until spring though.

You can see photos of the full progression of this tree here.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Not My Competition Tree


Despite my doubts about my ability to create a decent looking bonsai tree from nursery stock during the South African winter, I was determined that this year I would enter Reddit's nursery stock contest.

Although my plan was to go for a small tree, my first purchase was everything I hadn't planned - a Juniper (a species I usually stay away from) and a rather large one by my standards.

Juniper Mint Julep - March 2018, as purchased

My doubts about the wisdom of this purchase began when I started looking for information about Juniper Mint Julep online and discovered that it wasn't the best candidate for bonsai.

They only increased when I realised that most of the decent branches were near the top of the tree - possibly useful for literati for somebody else, but not for me! Working with its full height wasn't really an option as I found it a struggle to move the tree around. Besides, I wasn't strong enough to bend the trunk!

It soon became obvious to me that if this tree was to be used for bonsai, it was a long term project.

Over the next couple of weeks I removed the apex and several branches and also did a little wiring (after wrapping the trunk and new leader in bandages to prevent damaging the bark).

However I left one unwanted branch low down as I was afraid to remove too much at once. Not being accustomed to working with Junipers, I already fear that I may have removed more than the tree can handle.

Juniper Mint Julep - April 2018

I'm anxiously waiting for spring to see whether it survives my brutality.


My second purchase was closer to what I had in mind when I started my search, though I still wasn't totally happy with it.

I foolishly went tree hunting on a rainy day and had to inspect trees using one hand while holding an umbrella with the other. Most probably I'd have come away with something different if the weather had been better, but having braved the rain I was determined not to leave empty handed.

As it happens that was the tree I finally entered in the contest, so for now I won't discuss it any further.


I bought one more tree which is quite small and has some potential, this skinny little privet.

Privet - April 2018- as purchased

My initial intention was to create a literati with this one, but once I got to work I wasn't sure. While that was a viable option, I could see enough potential for a mame to make me reluctant to remove the low branches.


Lower trunk - July 2018

 As a result I stopped work half way, leaving my options open. The introductory photo to this post shows the half-styled tree in April 2018.

In hindsight I made the right decision when I rejected this one as my competition tree because it still looks pretty much the same three months later.

I'll leave the final decision over its future until spring, but I'm almost certain that I'll go for the mame option. Once the weather warms up I expect the young branches low down will develop pretty quickly.

I'm really curious to see what I can achieve with this one in six months once it's actually growing.

Monday, 16 July 2018

An Indoor Disaster

No, I don't keep any of my trees indoors. I learnt a long time ago that even trees which can survive in my house will never thrive there. But that didn't stop me wanting a few house plants. And given my love of ficuses, Ficus Elastica seemed like a good choice.

For the last couple of years I've had two of them living opposite an east-facing window in my kitchen, not the ideal spot, but a lot better than my big Schefflera's previous home in an area which never sees the sun.

They've been growing... really slowly. Having started out as straight trunks with no branches, in time each grew one thin branch, though the dark one is showing signs that it may soon grow a few more. However the variegated plant has been looking quite fragile for a long time.

Perhaps some of the variation in their performance is down to genetic differences because variegated plants often seem to be less vigorous than their plainer counterparts, but I suspect that the main cause is the soil they've been growing in. The dark one, which I grew from a cutting, is in my club's bonsai soil while the variegated one is still in the soil it was living in when I bought it. That soil is a lot finer and probably retains a lot more water.

Seeing their poor growth I've been planning to move them to a shady spot outside. Just as soon as spring arrives.

In the meanwhile I recently bought a couple of spouts with tiny holes which, when screwed onto a bottle of water and inserted into the soil, work as a form of drip irrigation. I thought they'd simplify my life a bit as I wouldn't have to water my house plants as often, nor have to empty run off water from their saucers.

Bad idea!

I first tried "planting" my bottle of water in the pot with bonsai soil and within minutes water was pouring out of the bottom, filling up the saucer. This was not supposed to happen.

I moved the bottle into the other pot. Success. It took a few weeks for the little bottle of water to empty. Then it was time to refill it.

That's when disaster struck.

After a small knock to the shelf on which the plants were standing, the weight of the water bottle caused the variegated plant to overbalance and it went crashing down onto a lower shelf beside it. In its weakened state a fall of a mere two feet was enough to cause the apex to snap off, leaving a straight trunk with one branch low down. The plant also came out of its pot, along with half its soil. Clearly there weren't enough roots to hold it all together. Maybe some of the roots had rotted from all that water.

Within days the remaining leaves were wilting and I really feared for its survival.

Variegated plant in serious trouble

In a last ditch effort to save it I moved it into my greenhouse, hoping that better light would help it to recover, but even then I had my doubts. Now, less than three weeks later, all the remaining leaves have fallen off, so I've lost all hope.

As for the dark plant, I've started taking it outside on warm winter days so that it can build up its tolerance to the sun while it's not too harsh. Then in summer it will become a permanent outdoor plant.

Dark plant looking reasonably healthy

Monday, 9 July 2018

Let It Grow

I shouldn't be buying more trees right now. Well not unless they're really special anyway. I certainly shouldn't be buying young sticks in pots that are nowhere near ready for styling. And that certainly wasn't my plan when I started looking at the tiny succulents that all the supermarkets are selling.

What I was hoping to find was a candidate for an "instant mame", something like the one I saw in a recent Reddit post.

Yesterday I found this little guy at a flea market.



Although the stem is far from woody, it wouldn't take very long to turn it into a tiny tree about half its current height.

I've never seen a variegated Portulacaria before though, so I've decided to let this one grow.

For now the search for a tiny mame continues. I have my heart set on a succulent only because I'm terrified to put my smallest tree into a smaller pot in case it dries out.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Crassula vs Portulacaria

Inspired by a recent discussion at Reddit.

I've said before that I'm not a huge fan of succulents for bonsai, largely because I find they're terribly brittle. A few of mine have suffered serious damage due to severe hail.

In my ongoing (and largely unsuccessful) attempt to reduce my prebonsai collection to a more manageable size, I've given away several succulents including the four I propagated from a couple of huge branches I found in my garden in late 2015. However I still have several succulents - two varieties of Crassula and a few small Portulacarias. Some of them may even make decent bonsai one day... if I can find time to give them the attention they deserve.

For this post I've decided to discuss three plants of different varieties, each with its own story to tell.


This Crassula is the oldest and largest of the three. I propagated it from a small cutting some time before I joined my club, so I'd guess it's about 13 years old.

Big Crassula - July 2018

It got badly hit by hail in late 2007, forcing me to cut it back to a stump and effectively start all over again. For years it was living in a colander which was far too small for it, stunting its growth, but I didn't do anything about it until another tree popped up in the same pot. For the most part I've just left it to do its own thing but it had one hard pruning a couple of years ago, and it's been growing rather slowly since then.

The bark is ageing really slowly too, and I sometimes wonder whether it will ever look like an old tree.


Second is a different species of Crassula.

This one was started from a slightly larger cutting in 2008. It suffered some serious abuse early on.

I took the cutting just after I'd attended my first BRAT meeting. One of the speakers had mentioned a method of developing nebari by planting a young tree through the hole in a CD, the idea being that, as the tree fattens, new roots will develop above the CD and they'll be forced to grow outwards rather than down. In time the roots growing below the CD will no longer be required.

I didn't have any suitable trees to try his method on, so I decided to plant the cutting through the hole and see what happened. Being a succulent it rooted easily and was soon growing strongly.

A couple of years later I decided it was time to remove the lower roots, but I was in for a shock. It turned out that the top roots had actually grown up around the sides of the CD and there were none growing from the upper trunk, so I was left with a tree with no roots and a nice root system with no tree. I knew the tree would root again, but would Crassula grow from a root cutting? I had to try.

The simple answer is "yes". I soon found myself with two trees. This is what the one grown from the roots looks like today:

Small Crassula - July 2018

While the tree grown from the top section was quite straight and boring, this one developed a bit of movement and much better nebari . The bark is also looking quite interesting. However there is bad reverse taper so I'm tempted to cut back to the first branch, increasing the movement and taper.

Small Crassula - detail of nebari and bark

I gave the straighter tree away a long time ago.


The Portulacaria below is recovering from a near disaster. It was also grown from a cutting several years ago and was growing strongly without any work ever being done to it. About a year ago I was planning to turn it into a semi-cascade but never got around to it. Until November 2017, that is.

 Dying Portulacaria - November 2017 

When I finally took it out of my greenhouse to start styling it, I discovered that it was loose in the pot and when I tried to lift it, the whole tree came away with no roots.  Clearly a case of root rot. Could I revive it?

Before replanting it, I cut it back to something more manageable:

Dying Portulacaria - no roots

I repotted it in river sand and hoped that the drier conditions would help it to root again.

It's still alive and growing slowly. And despite its poor health, I find the bark more interesting than that of the big Crassula.

Portulcaria, July 2018 - recovering slowly

Hopefully there are new roots growing in the sand, but it will be some time before I have the courage to look.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Sixth Month Challenge - the Wrong Tree?

Around the time that Reddit opened entry for this year's nursery stock contest, I decided to challenge myself to see whether, during the period of the contest, I could create a bonsai from one of the cuttings I'd propagated but hadn't yet started working on. I confess that I was a bit impulsive in announcing my plan before I'd looked for candidates for this challenge. Once I looked through my trees I realised that the ones most suitable for this project were deciduous, so I couldn't use them for a winter challenge.

In the end I felt my only option was to try to create a literati bonsai from one of my Ficus burtt-davyi cuttings.

My chosen candidate was growing so vigorously that it had sent a root into the neighbouring pot. This was how it was growing at the beginning of April - the two trees moved into a clear container for the photo as it was the only way to keep them upright.

April 2018

After cutting the problem root and removing a few dead branches on the lower trunk, the tree was still unable to stand upright without support.

April 2018

Clearly a bigger pot was required.

As we were headed into winter I repotted the tree very carefully, making sure not to disturb any roots.

Then I did a little wiring, leaving an unwanted apex and several excess branches as insurance in case overaggressive styling killed the ones I wanted.

First styling - April 2018

A month later everything was looking good. The roots were growing into the new soil:

May 2018

The tree was showing no signs of die back, so I removed the unwanted branches.

Second styling - May 2018

However it was already showing signs that it might want to be something different as all the new growth was lower down the trunk.

Now, a month later, those buds are growing well and I'm starting to rethink my plans for this tree's future.

June 2018

Perhaps I'll remove the top and try to root it as a smaller literati. For now I'll just let it grow.

Happily one of the trees I bought for the Reddit contest is showing a lot more promise and I've entered the competition. But I'll discuss that one when the competition is over.

And perhaps I'll make another attempt with one of my propagated trees in spring.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

A New Front for my "Big" Elm

Ever since I bought my "big" elm in December 2017, I've been pondering the way forward.

December 2017 - as purchased

From the moment I laid eyes on my tree I was aware that it had many flaws which I would have to deal with but at a cost of $30, I was up for the challenge. However, before cutting anything, I was determined to see what suggestions I could get from other members of the bonsai community rather than rushing into a decision I would come to regret.

That's probably just as well because nobody approved of the idea I proposed in my earlier post:

Virtual pruning - December 2017

I received an interesting suggestion from someone whose opinion I asked on Facebook. He didn't like the lower trunk and felt I should air layer the top to create a smaller tree. This was his vision:

Virtual styling by Andrew Legg

No doubt I could have created a nice little tree that way, but I'd bought the tree for its size so, after giving it a lot of thought, I decided against the air layer. But my uncertainty over what to do with the tree remained.

The breakthrough came yesterday, when I took it to my club's meeting for the second time. The plan was for one of the members to do a little carving to get rid of the ugly bulge at the base of the first branch, while retaining the original front and all existing branches.

That was before another member started looking at the tree from all angles. He suggested a better front, one which I hadn't contemplated before because of this ugly root crossing the trunk:


I'd actually considered removing that root when I bought the tree, but had been advised against it. Now I was persuaded that it had to go. Luckily the hollow left behind was a lot shallower than I'd feared it would be.

Here is the tree showing its new front after the root was removed.

New front - June 2018

With the change of front, the problem branch is now pointing too far backward to be moved by wiring. Instead one of the men at my club will help me to graft a new branch in a more suitable position, approximately where we put the piece of loose wire for this photo:

June 2018 - wire shows where new branch will be grafted

The plan for the next few months is pretty simple:

  1. Move the tree to a larger pot at the end of August (late winter). The slant will be adjusted slightly as per the tilt in the photo above and the soil level will be raised to help improve the nebari.
  2. Carve away a little dead wood to tidy up some of the old scars, most of which are now facing the back of the tree.
  3. Wait for one of the branches to grow long enough to be used for grafting.
The problem branch will remain in place until the graft has taken.