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.