Thursday, 13 December 2018

How to Ruin a Bonsai Without Really Trying

The first tree to appear in my blog was this Ficus Natalensis which I grew from a cutting in 2007.

Ficus Natalensis - September 2015

As an overenthusiastic newbie I made a lot of mistakes with this one, but in 2010, when I moved it into a bonsai pot and put it on show for the first time, I was really proud of my little tree.

In recent years however I've been trying to correct some of my early mistakes, so in November 2015 I moved it back into a training pot.

The idea was right, but it was a plan poorly executed. After initially pruning too hard, undoing the good growth that took place during its first couple of months in the training pot, I went to the other extreme, forgetting to prune it at all.

December 2018 - unpruned

After a quick pruning, there's some resemblance to the tree it once was.

December 2018 - after pruning

All that new growth has done some good, fattening up the trunk and reducing the reverse taper I was so concerned about in 2016.

Reverse taper - August 2016

Improved base - December 2018

Unfortunately all that vigorous growth has created a new problem. Some of the lower branches weren't getting enough light, leading to significant die-back. The second branch appears to be dead.

Dead branch

The tree won't look right without it.

In one of my 2016 posts I said:
"At times I've contemplated giving this tree a whole new look but a part of me feels I should stick to the original plan to show how my sense of style has evolved over the years."
Now, without that branch, I'm starting to think that a total makeover may be the best way forward.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Barely Alive

An update on the shrinking Juniper.

When I last wrote about this tree I was already concerned about its survival after the harsh treatment it had received over the previous few months. My once healthy nursery tree had been reduced from this:

Juniper Mint Julep - March 2018, as purchased

to this:

First styling attempt - April 2018

and finally, at the hands of a member of my bonsai club, to this:

Second styling attempt - September 2018

Despite my concerns, on the advice of two experts, I eventually decided to move it from its nursery bag into a training pot - a move which required a significant amount of root pruning.

It's gone steadily downhill since then and now has only a little browning foliage left on its one remaining branch. After removing the wire and bandage, it looks like this:

Barely alive - December 2018

I have no doubt that many people would write it off as a lost cause at this stage, but right now it's still showing signs of life.

Strangely the most significant new growth is this small bud on an area I'd attempted to strip for future use as dead wood.

New growth

Obviously I didn't strip it very well!

I also discovered an even smaller bud lower down on the trunk.

If those buds actually develop into branches one day, it's likely to be years before I have anything to work with. But I'm amazed at this tree's will to live against all odds.

I hope it makes it.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

A Privet Full of Praying Mantises

Ever since I found my first praying mantis laying her eggs on one of my trees two summers ago, I've been hoping against hope that enough of them would move in to rid me of some of the pests that are an inescapable part of any bonsai grower's life.

Of course that's wishful thinking. It would require a huge army of these tiny carnivores to do that!

Still, I enjoy seeing them on my trees and having witnessed the eggs being laid and hatching as well as the sad death of the babies, murdered by ants, I'm hoping I'll one day have the privilege of seeing the mating process too.

After finding three of them on the same tree I thought yesterday might be the day, but every time I looked they were keeping their distance from each other.

While I waited (in vain), I decided to take some photos.


Shooting one was easy but I knew that it would take a little coaxing on my part to get them all into the same photo. Fortunately I've observed that they will usually climb to the top of the tree if I spray water on it. So that's what I did.

My first attempt brought two together and I thought things were about to get interesting when one jumped onto another, but the second one wasn't interested and moved to a safe distance. Perhaps they were both the same gender.

For a while, however, they stayed near enough for me to get a few close-ups.


Finally a second spray of water brought the third one out of hiding and I was able to capture all three in the same shot.


I haven't seen them today. I haven't watered yet though, so they may put in an appearance later.

When last I saw them one had moved to the olive tree next door. I hope by now the others have moved on too because my Privet is in desperate need of pruning.


Thursday, 29 November 2018

The Dominant Tree

One of the benefits of growing trees from cuttings is that they'll be genetically identical to the parent tree. This is particularly important if you're undertaking a fusion project and want all the trees you're fusing to have identical foliage and, if applicable, go dormant at the same time. Neither of these things are guaranteed if you're working with seedlings.

That's not to say that identical cuttings will behave in exactly the same way.

A couple of years ago I planted three almost identical Ficus Burtt-Davyi cuttings in one small pot. That pretty much guaranteed that their treatment would be identical - the same genes, identical watering and feeding. Only minimal light variation if one tree put another into shade.

None of them have ever been pruned.

Under the circumstances you'd think there would now be three very similar trees growing in their little pot. But somehow one tree has become dominant and is now more than twice the height of the other two, with branches as thick as the trunks of its two smaller siblings.

Three Ficus Burtt-Davyi cuttings in one pot

Yesterday, when I decided to separate them, I discovered that the two smaller ones had minimal roots while the big one had filled up the rest of the pot.

Large Ficus Burtt-Davyi aren't easy to come by where I live, so I'd like to see how much I can fatten up the dominant tree. I've moved it into a bigger pot, leaving the other two in small pots for now.

It will be interesting to see how the smaller ones develop now that they have room to grow.

Three Ficus Burtt-Davyi separated

Monday, 12 November 2018

Seven Months in the Creation of a Lonicera Bonsai - my Reddit Competition Tree

When I entered Reddit's Nursery Stock Contest back in autumn, I knew that it was going to be a lot more challenging for me than it was for my Northern hemisphere friends because I would have very little of the growing season to work with.

Under the circumstances I'd probably have been better off working with a Juniper than the Lonicera which became my competition tree, and I did buy one. The wrong one! I shouldn't have bought that tree for a number of reasons:

  1. I don't enjoy working with Junipers
  2. I knew nothing about Juniper Mint Julep until after I'd bought the tree, when a little research led me to believe that the species isn't regarded as good bonsai material
  3. The tree I bought was far bigger than the material I like to work with.
The Lonicera I finally entered in the competition had none of those problems. It has tiny leaves which are well suited to bonsai - even mame trees. But in the summer months it's essential to prune regularly or a little one like mine will soon grow totally out of control.

I bought my tree on a cold rainy day in April. A day so miserable I had the entire nursery to myself. Even the staff were reluctant to offer any assistance.

I must have been quite a sight, bent down close to the ground to examine the trees using one hand while I clung onto my umbrella with the other. I stayed well away from the big trees that day.

My purchase looked like this:

Lonicera as purchased, 6 April 2018

I decided to take things slowly, rather than cutting off anything I would regret, so after an initial pruning it looked like this:

First pruning, 6 April

I tied a couple of loose wires around trunks I was considering removing.

A few days later I was feeling more daring and reduced the tree to a very basic frame.

Second pruning, 11 April

Unfortunately some of the branches were still longer than I'd have liked them to be, but I didn't want to kill them by leaving them devoid of foliage.

By early May the tree was pushing out a little new growth, giving me hope that I'd be able to improve on the styling over the next few months.

New growth, 3 May

And by the middle of June it was really overgrown:

Overgrown, 19 June

Time to tidy up:

19 June

I still wasn't getting the back budding I really wanted though, so that left branch in particular was way too long and bare.

July was a slow month with only minimal signs of new growth, so I did nothing.

21 July

Then in August I finally felt there was enough growth lower down to let me shorten some of the branches.

After heavy pruning  - 17 August

Spring growth was pretty good:

21 September

With the benefit of hindsight, maybe I shouldn't have removed so much before submitting my final photo for the contest.

Final contest photo - 21 September

Still, I'm not too unhappy with the outcome given the constraints I was working under.

The contest is over, but the journey continues.

The little guy is growing well.

6 November

I was far less aggressive with my latest pruning because my emphasis has changed. Now I need to fatten up the branches I plan to keep.

6 November - after pruning

That shouldn't take long though. Not on such a tiny tree. As it stands today, the little guy is a mere 11cm tall. And in a few months time I may reduce the height a little further.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Naturally Stunted

This tree has never been in a bigger pot than its current home.

October 2018

It hasn't been repotted since it was a seedling either.

That's not the way I usually do things, but when a tree is too vigorous, stunting its growth has its benefits.

The tree above is the smaller of two Coral trees (Erythrina lysistemon) which I grew from seed about 8 years ago.

It's never been to a workshop, unlike its big brother which has been to a couple.

When I took the bigger one to its first workshop a few years ago, I felt compelled to get it out of its small pot because it kept growing so tall and top heavy that the wind was continually blowing it over. I took two pots to the workshop and was advised to put it in the larger pot. That's a decision I've come to regret because it grows much too quickly for my liking.

In April (autumn) I gave it a hard pruning to get it short enough to fit under frost cloth for winter. No styling was attempted at that time.

April 2018 - after rough pruning

I hadn't touched it since then and by last week the new growth was totally out of control.

October 2018 - six months growth

I decided to take it to a workshop, primarily because I knew that someone there wanted the thick cuttings. But first I had to remove most of the new growth so that it would fit in my car.

Cut back to a manageable size

After proper pruning it looks like this.

October 2018 - after pruning

I'll shorten everything further when I get some back budding.

Now I need to see that I keep its growth under control.

The little one was shortened in April too, but had produced much finer growth over the last six months.

October 2018 - before pruning

It needed a lot less work.

October 2018 - after pruning

Note that the fatness of both trees at soil level is pretty similar though the larger tree has gentler taper. The smaller one has a large bulge at the base, but that has been there since it was a seedling, so I'm not sure a bigger pot would have changed that. It also has no visible nebari, something that will have to be taken care of when I finally decide to move it to a more suitable pot.

But I fear that will have to wait until next year because it's a bit late in the season to repot it now.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

A Thirsty Fig Tree

My Ficus Carica truncheon cutting has been doing really well. Until today that is.

I got a real fright when I went out to water my trees this morning because it was wilting rather badly.

Ficus Carica before watering - October 2018

I've been trying my best to protect this tree from potential damage if we get hit by hail before the branches are well established, so I've had it up against a wall with a slight overhang from the roof of the house, allowing it to get sun, but hoping that the roof will protect it if necessary. I guess when I watered my trees the wall prevented water from getting around the back of the tree, causing the soil to dry out on that side.

As soon as I noticed the problem I brought the tree inside for a good watering out of the reach of the sun which was pretty strong given that today was the hottest day since this cutting was taken, reaching a maximum of 32°C. I delayed the watering only long enough to get a quick photo and set up the camera for a time lapse recording of the tree's recovery.

This is what happened over the next hour.



With the foliage looking a whole lot better, I decided to keep the tree indoors, out of harm's way, for the rest of the day.

Ficus Carica - one hour later

Tomorrow I'll need to find it a better spot, so that I don't make the same mistake again.

After watching the video however, I'm a bit nervous about putting it back in the hot sun because I can see slight signs of revival before the water even hit the soil. Could it be that the heat was the real cause of the problem? I guess I'll only know that once it's outside again.

Photo progression including future updates can be seen here.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

A Little Wire Makes a Big Difference

I wasn't really planning to use my Big Schefflera for bonsai. When I took it to a workshop last month I just wanted a little help with repotting it.

September 2018 - before repotting and wiring

However one of the men at the workshop took one look at the tree and decided that it was suitable bonsai material after all.

After a quick repot, a change of front and a little heavy wire, it's on its way.

September 2018 - after repotting and wiring

Looking at the photos, however, I'm beginning to feel that there are too many branches clumped together on the right. I think in time the two lowest branches may have to go. But not right now because they're full of flower buds and I really want those flowers to grow.


One of the reasons for my doubts was the ugly roots. I was unwilling to remove everything my tree had worked so hard to grow.

Roots before repotting

The change of front helped though. That raised root is not so prominent now that it's growing straight to the front.


Roots after repotting

The nebari will never be spectacular, but a little pruning and a change of front made a big difference. And maybe I can cover a bit more of them at the next repot.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Mulberry Air Layer's First Fruit

October 2018

I'll be giving my Mulberry air layer until next spring to establish a strong root system before I make my first chops in an attempt to turn it into bonsai.

For now I'm just keeping the new growth short in an attempt to stimulate back budding.

And right now I'm really enjoying the fruit.


Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Starting a Large Portulacaria Bonsai from Nursery Stock

I never meant to buy anything.

When I stopped at the nursery about 10 days ago, I was just trying to burn a little time before meeting a friend at a nearby restaurant. I'm supposed to be cutting down on the number of trees in my collection, not adding more.

Everything started off well. The trident maples had decent bases, but they were about 10 feet tall with no low branches, so they were easy to ignore. And the small Portulacarias weren't the least bit tempting. I've already got a few and I tend to neglect them. So much so that I nearly lost one to root rot last year. I've reached the stage where I try not to buy anything unless it's a little bit special, like the variegated Portulacaria I bought in July.

But when I passed the big Portulacarias in another section of the nursery, everything changed. I'm not aware of ever seeing them that size before - well not unless they were growing in the ground anyway. Even so I nearly passed them by because the bags of soil they were planted in were so big that I felt sure I wouldn't be able to lift them. But I tried lifting one and was surprised to find that it was a lot lighter than it looked.

I couldn't buy it though. Not that day. I couldn't leave it standing in the car, visible for all the world to see, while I was at the restaurant.

It was three days before I was able to return. Luckily my chosen plant was still there because the others had much thinner trunks. Well all except one, and it turned out that I couldn't lift that one.

And so I came home with this huge plant which, in its bag, reached to just below my chin.

October 2018 - as purchased

I couldn't even contemplate putting it into a training pot until I'd removed all the excess growth.

October 2018 - after first rough pruning

At this stage all the branches on the left were in a straight line and I knew most of them would have to go, but I decided to leave my final selection until the tree was in a pot, planted at the correct height. A wise decision because, by the time the highest roots were exposed, the tree appeared a couple of inches taller.

October 2018 - still waiting for its final cut

I didn't discover that until a few days later though. Given its size I decided to get some help with the root work at my club's meeting.

In addition to adding height to the tree, removing the top layer of soil also exposed a couple of branches with their own roots, giving me two extra (much smaller) plants for my money.

October 2018 - two branches with their own roots

Once the tree was safely potted, it was time for the final branch selection. I was happy to find that several club members agreed with my decision to reduce the height a little further. Once I'd cut back to my chosen leader, the right branch was perfectly positioned on the bend. After removing the handlebars and the low branch coming straight to the front, I was left with just two branches. For now.

October 2018 - after final pruning

Who knows what options may present themselves when new growth appears?

It's unfortunate that the higher branch is the thicker of the two, but hopefully if I let the thinner one grow and keep the thicker one short, it won't take too long to correct that fault.

One last photo, just to show the size of the tree:

October 2018 - soda can for size

In addition to the two branches with roots, I've kept a lot of cuttings. If they all root, I'll have a not-so-small forest of Portulacarias of various sizes growing in my bonsai area. Maybe in a year or so I'll be able to sell some of them and recover the cost of the parent tree.