Sunday, 8 December 2019

Hard Pruning a Schefflera

When someone at a bonsai workshop advises me to chop trees back to leafless stumps, I'm often reluctant to do it. Although I've had some success with trunk chops, most of the time I'd rather cut trees back to the lowest growth, wait for back budding, then cut back further. Progress is a little slower that way, but I prefer to err on the side of caution.

With some species that approach doesn't work though. When I prune Scheffleras they tend to grow back from the point at which they were cut, not lower down where I want new branches.

So when I decided that this little Schefflera needed pruning, drastic measures were called for.

November 2019 -  before pruning

Some of the newer members of my club were horrified when I told them my plans, but I knew what had to be done. A few quick cuts later I was left with this.

November 2019 - after pruning

Scheffleras are slow growers and now, four weeks later, there are only a few tiny buds starting to put in an appearance on the branches. I know that my little tree is doing okay, but looking at it still makes me nervous.

At the time it was chopped I discussed my plans for its after-care with another member of my club. I said I intended to return it to its home in my greenhouse. He felt it should go outside.

At the time his idea seemed a viable option as the weather was extremely dry, so I felt a bit foolish when I said I wanted to protect it from the possibility of excess rain. But I feel vindicated now because it's been raining almost continuously for nearly five days. Slow persistent rain which is showing no sign of abating. Grey skies have become the norm and I've almost forgotten what the sun looks like! That's not normal weather where I live, but it happens every now and then.

I've seen what damage that kind of weather can do to a tree in this state.

Years ago I defoliated a similar Schefflera. That was back in the days when I still tried to grow some of my trees indoors. Keeping it inside shouldn't have been a problem. Scheffleras are very tolerant.  I kept my big one in a very dark room for years before I realised the error of my ways and moved it outside. My problem was that I lost patience. When it was progressing too slowly on a sunny windowsill, I decided to move it outside.

As luck would have it, a few days later we were hit by the kind of weather we're experiencing now. Too much water for a tree without leaves! In a few days it was dead.

Had I left this one exposed to the elements, it would probably have died too.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Two Weeks Without Drainage

I can't believe it's been four months since my last post.

Okay, I guess the fact that it's winter in South Africa counts as an excuse of sorts because I haven't been working on my trees that much. Not even the last couple of weeks when I should have been busy repotting them as spring is definitely in the air. Unfortunately I've repotted very few, partly due to the fact that procrastination is one of my big weaknesses, but technology problems have played a big part too. I was unwilling to get my hands dirty while waiting for tech assistance that never arrived!

Just about the only time I've worked on my trees lately has been at workshops.

One of the trees I felt had to be repotted urgently was the fig truncheon cutting which I struggled to keep alive through a heatwave last summer. Two weeks ago it was just starting to get its first leaves so I took it to a club meeting where I could get some help lifting it out of the two pots it was living in.

I bought a few pots from the club's shop and quickly repotted the tree into one of them before the meeting started.

It's been sitting in the shade since then, looking reasonably happy, and I was planning to move it back into the sun in the next few days.

August 2019 - showing early spring growth

And then I made a discovery which forced me to change my plans.

Among the items I was packing for today's workshop were training pots for repotting some of my other trees. I was horrified to find that one of the larger pots I'd bought two weeks ago had no drainage holes. That brought the horrible realisation that the pot I'd planted my fig tree in might not have any holes either.

My fears were soon confirmed. My poor tree has spent the last two weeks in soggy soil. What's more once I removed it from the pot, I discovered that the soil was really smelly.

I've now moved the tree into a better pot with clean soil, but I'm very worried about the possibility of root rot. This tree may still be fat and ugly (though not as bad as when I first wrote about it) but it's not a tree I want to lose.

It's back in the shade for now, and I've been advised to water it with a fungicide (which I still have to buy) and hopefully that will help it to pull through. For now, however, I've got a few nervous weeks ahead of me.

You can see a full progression of this tree (including future updates) here.

Monday, 22 April 2019

This Little Juniper Survived

Some sloppy wiring a year ago reduced my healthy little Juniper Procumbens Nana to half a tree.

August 2018

Thankfully eight months later it has made a good recovery.

April 2019 - too straight

It was still looking very straight and ugly though, so yesterday I decided to make another attempt at styling it.

I struggle with thick wire, especially on little trees,so I decided I wasn't going to risk that again. I don't want to kill what's left of the tree!

After an unsuccessful attempt to put some movement into the tree using thin wire doubled up, I decided to try something different. Instead of using a guy wire, however, I pulled the apex to the right and slightly forward using a humble cable tie - a trick I picked up at last Saturday's club meeting.

April 2019 - not so straight any more

Much better!

Unfortunately even the minimal wiring I attempted caused a little damage to the bark.

Damaged bark at base and a new bud a little higher up

Hopefully it's not bad enough to do any long term damage.

I'll probably wait another year before I prune it. If I'm lucky some of the new buds on the trunk with grow and give me a couple of extra branches to work with.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Life without roots - the cutting that refuses to die

About 18 months ago I removed a one centimetre thick branch from one of my Acacias. As I so often do when I prune my trees, I decided to see if I could that branch to root.

All summer long it was covered in foliage, leading me to believe my effort had been successful. Then one day I accidentally pulled it out of its pot. There were no roots!

I put it back in the pot and continued to treat it as I had before. It went dormant for the winter, then produced a few new leaves in spring, and its "life" went on as before.

This morning, as I was moving some of my little trees around in search of items for my club's raffle table, it got hooked onto another tree and came out of the pot again. Still no roots.

I took it along to this afternoon's meeting and gave it to an acacia lover who seemed keen to see if he could get it to root. I hope he has better luck with it than I did.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Straight From the Nursery

I always photograph new trees as soon as I get them home so that I have a record of their humble beginnings.

Sadly when I took photos of my latest purchase I was in for a nasty surprise. Two of these little guys staring straight at the camera.

I must confess that by the time I finished getting close ups I felt a little guilty about squashing them, but I couldn't allow them to stay there, sucking the life out of my trees.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Positive Results from a Trunk Chop

When I did my most recent air layer on a member of my Ficus Ingens family, I was hoping it would stimulate new growth lower down the trunk. As long as the air layer was attached to the parent tree, however, that never happened.

That's why, despite knowing that Ficus Ingens are tough trees, when I separated them in February I was a bit concerned about the survival of the parent tree which had been reduced to a bare stump. I ended my previous post posing the question :
"After it's stubborn refusal to produce any low branches, will this finally shock it into cooperating, or will it kill the tree?"
 Happily it did the former. The stump is alive and well, with lots of new branches all along the trunk:

In fact in several places the growth pattern of this species led to multiple branches sprouting from one spot.

I had to thin those out or they would have caused ugly bulges on the trunk as they thickened.

After a quick tidy up, the tree looks like this:

There are new buds sprouting near the top of the tree, so I should be able to keep it to its current height - if I choose to do so.

The lowest branch is still there. As the second photo was taken from the opposite side, it's hiding behind the trunk. I'm not making any styling decisions now, but once I see how the tree develops I may remove that branch.

A full progression as well as future updates for this tree can be found here.

The new tree I propagated from the top is doing well too.

It has a couple of new branches along the straight part of the trunk and there are already a few roots growing out of holes in the pond basket.

Pretty good for six weeks' growth!

Saturday, 9 March 2019

How to Kill a Juniper

Browsing through the Reddit bonsai group there are always a lot of posts from newbies with their first tree, and that tree is often a Juniper. Sadly many are led to believe that it's okay to keep their Juniper indoors. The truth is that's the easiest way to kill it. The bad news is that Junipers stay green for months while they're dying, and by the time the owner realises their tree is sick, it's usually already long dead.

I was lucky. I've never made that particular mistake. But that's not to say I've never killed a Juniper.

I've already written a few posts about the Juniper Mint Julep I bought as a candidate for Reddit's nursery stock contest in March 2018.

As purchased - March 2018

Having seen many people on Reddit advising first time Juniper growers not to do too much work at once, I tried to be gentle with my tree and though I removed a lot of the top, I left a couple of unwanted low branches to avoid shocking the tree too much.

April 2018

It made it through the Southern hemisphere winter without any trouble.

My big mistake was taking it to a club meeting in September 2018. I didn't even plan for it to go on the table for critique, just to enquire from an expert whether it was safe to remove those low branches. Unfortunately some of the members had other ideas, and I came home with this:

September 2018

I was really disappointed with this new styling and felt it was no longer "my" tree. And I was extremely concerned about its survival. The suggestion that I repot it immediately sounded like a bad idea, and I decided against it.

Perhaps at that stage it still stood a chance of surviving, though it would have been a long time before it grew branches that I would  have been happy to work with. Unfortunately, when discussing the tree with another experienced grower a few weeks later, I was told it was okay to repot it, so I did. The root pruning involved was the last straw, and by December 2018 it had lost all its foliage, though I found signs of hope in the form of one tiny green bud growing from the section that was intended to be used as dead wood.

Signs of hope - December 2018

And my hopes were finally dashed when that bud died a few weeks ago.

If I ever buy another Juniper (unlikely), I'll definitely take my advice from Reddit and stick to the principle of one insult per season. Perhaps they can survive more, but there are bound to be problems along the way.

That was certainly the case with a Juniper I worked on when I attended a beginner's course back in 2007. The tree was pruned, wired and planted in a bonsai pot, all over the period of two days. It survived, but the top died and a makeover was required within months. It's been restyled a few times since then, but to this day I'm not happy with that tree and I'm determined to find it a new home one day. If I can get a little money for it, I'll probably spend it on another ficus!

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

The Second Ficus

Yesterday's post was all about the first of my two neglected ficuses, a tree which had benefited greatly from the development of a vigorous and totally unplanned sacrifice branch.

At the time I had not yet done anything to its sibling aside from removing a few dead branches. I've just finished working on that one - it received much harsher treatment than yesterday's tree because the trunk was long and straight with very little taper.

Ficus Natalensis - March 2019

I started by removing the top section, which left potential for something approximating a formal upright tree:

I contemplated stopping there. However I'm trying to focus on short fat trees rather than tall skinny ones, so I knew I wouldn't be happy with that in the long term.

In the end I stuck to my original plan and cut to the lowest branch, leaving what is currently a very ugly tree.

March 2019 - after the chop

No point in wiring that branch because I don't plan to use it as a leader. It's just a sacrifice branch which will be removed along with approximately half the trunk once I get growth where I really want it.

Both trees - March 2019

I can't wait to see what these trees look like a year from now.

Monday, 4 March 2019

The Benefit of Neglect

I hate to admit that the last time I worked on my two neglected ficuses was when I repotted them in November 2015. Because of time constraints only one ever made it into my previous blog post and once again that's the only one I've had time to work on so far. Coincidentally, for the moment it's the better tree.

In November 2015 that tree looked like this:

Ficus Natalensis - November 2015

A few sharp bends and hardly any taper!

Although my neglect means that the trees are no closer to being bonsai than they were three years ago, the move to bigger pots has allowed them to grow big and tall and their trunks have fattened up considerably. Unfortunately the top growth has blocked light from the lower part of the trees and as a result, both have lost some lower branches. The tree above also developed a massive low branch which grew upwards, reaching a height  twice that of the intended apex.

Same tree - March 2019

Under the circumstances I found myself having to treat it as nursery stock when I took it to a workshop on Saturday afternoon.

First I had to get both trees out of the greenhouse though, and that proved to be quite a mission as once again one had sent a root into the other one's pot and both had also sent roots through the slats of the shelf they were living on. To complicated matters further, the neighbouring orchid (a gift which I tend to ignore) had sent roots into both pots. That meant there were quite a lot of roots that had to be cut before I could move the trees.

Once at the workshop the first step was to remove that huge branch.

After removing the huge branch

The tree was already looking better but it was rather top heavy, with a leader growing in the wrong direction. The club member I was working with recommended I cut back to a new leader, advice I was happy to follow, as I'd already said in 2015 that "At a later stage I might reduce the height further".

March 2019 - after pruning

As it's still in the same pot, the change in the thickness of the trunk is pretty obvious.

I've left all the aerial roots for now as we're headed into winter. I'll decide whether to keep any of them when I repot the tree in spring - as long as I don't forget!!

As for the second tree, it looked like this when I removed it from the greenhouse:

Second tree - March 2019

I've removed a few dead branches so far and plan to cut it back to the lowest living branch, then wait for back budding before cutting in to a more suitable height. I'd like to make a short, fat little tree from this one.

Monday, 25 February 2019

The Art of Growing Miniature Bonsai

At their most recent meeting one of my bonsai clubs (I now belong to two) had a fascinating speaker, Hennie Reyneke, who is well known for his mame trees.

Hennie holding a little Ficus Burtt-Davyi

I've seen his trees before and was delighted to get the opportunity to see how he creates his little masterpieces.

Of course, as is the case with bigger trees, creating good mame takes time, but seeing tiny cuttings transformed into the skeleton on which future bonsai will be built was really inspiring and made me feel a little bit guilty about some of the cuttings I've thrown away lately. I do however still have a lot of small rooted cuttings that I can play with and having already started trying to downsize some of my own trees, I feel certain that this is the right way for me to go.

Here is a close up of Hennie pruning one tiny tree:

Another being wired:

And the same tree after a little pruning:

As with all trees, it is important that everything is in proportion for miniatures, so you should choose species with leaves which are able to reduce well. Flowers and fruit must be naturally small as their size cannot be reduced. Big flowers and fruit on a tiny tree will look wrong!

Some of the species that Hennie recommended for miniatures are Maples, Celtis, Ficus, Cotoneaster, Pyracantha, Buxus and Lonicera, as well as conifers like Juniper Procumbens Nana.

A little literati

If you've got the patience to do so, growing from seed is a good way to grow mame bonsai because you can create taper and balance without the scarring caused by heavy cuts. Hennie also mentioned that fig varieties develop a thick buttress base if grown from seed. I have no immediate plans for trying that though as I've managed to grow ficuses with nice bases from cuttings, root cuttings and air layers. I'm really happy with the base of the Ficus Natalensis in the last photo in this post. That little tree was grown from a root cutting.

Miniature bonsai can of course also be created from small collected trees or nursery stock.

It is important to prune your little trees regularly to keep them in shape (something I'm often guilty of forgetting) and they should be repotted once a year, removing heavy roots to encourage the development of a fine root system.

One of the most difficult aspects of caring for miniatures is seeing that they are watered correctly. A good way to avoid them drying out is to stand the little pots in a shallow tray with damp river sand or gravel, providing humidity for your little trees. However over watering will lead to root rot, so drainage is just as important as it is with larger trees.

One of the styles I've never tried growing is root over rock. I've always felt that the rocks will make them too heavy for me too handle. However Hennie showed us a miniature root over rock Ficus, so I guess I no longer have an excuse not to try this style.

Friday, 15 February 2019

I don't usually grow trees from seed but...

When the seeds grew roots while they were still inside the grapefruit, I couldn't bring myself to kill them.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Tall and Straight with No Low Branches

The saga of my family of Ficus Ingens continues.

In 2012 I bought my first Ficus Ingens - very ordinary nursery stock, approximately 3 foot tall and straight as a pole. I've already discussed the first 2 successful air layers as well as the air layering blunder which, despite my doubts, had a happy ending. I sold that particular tree at my club's annual show, but still have the rest of the family.

The parent tree has made some progress, though I'm still not happy with the branch structure, so I've made a few changes recently. The smallest one is doing well too, though it has a bad case of wire bite after I tried to put some movement into the trunk and, as I so often do, left the wire on far too long.

Unfortunately the tallest tree refuses to cooperate. After the second air layer I was left with a long straight tree with a thin new leader.

January 2017

That was two years ago.

The top has grown vigorously since then, but the tree has stubbornly refused to produce even one low branch. It's bonsai potential that way is nil.

In November I decided that the only option was another air layer.

Air layer, February 2019, just before I removed it

This time I layered the tree just below the clump of branches growing really close together. This, I hoped, would finally stimulate some lower growth. That never happened.

The layer has rooted well though.

Root ball, just before I removed the layer

Last week I decided it was time to separate the top and bottom.

The new tree in it's own pot

As the new tree has so many low branches I decided to remove the long straight section before it gave me another problem tree.

February 2019 - after pruning

Now I'll let it grow for a while before deciding on my next step. There are way too many branches there to keep them all, unless I try to fuse some to the trunk later on. Possibly I'll grow a multi-trunk tree.

I'm pretty happy with my summer's work, but I'm a bit concerned for the future of the base:

Base - February 2019

After it's stubborn refusal to produce any low branches, will this finally shock it into cooperating, or will it kill the tree? I'd hate to lose it.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Starting a Pyracantha Bonsai From Nursery Stock

A few days ago I found this Pyracantha at the nursery section of a nearby hardware store.

Pyracantha as purchased - January 2019

I shouldn't really be buying more trees, but my only Pyracantha died about a year ago, so I couldn't resist the temptation to replace it.

I was pretty sure I knew what I needed to do with this one, but I took it to a workshop on Saturday in the vain hope that I'd be told my plans were too drastic.

No such luck. It was never going to work as a twin trunk because one trunk had lots of movement while the other was dead straight.

Close-up showing two unmatched trunks

The straight one had to go. Two cuts and I was done.

January 2019 - after pruning

I was really sad to see all the berries go into the trash can, but sometimes the art of bonsai requires sacrifices.

Now I'll let the tree grow for a while before deciding on the next step. Perhaps in time I'll cut it even shorter.

Photo updates will appear on this page.

Monday, 7 January 2019

My First Carving Attempt

When I bought my crab apple a few years ago it was about seven foot tall with no low branches, so it's taken a bit of effort to get it to where it is now.

January 2019 - before pruning

A lot of the tree had to be discarded at the time because repotting was a matter of urgency when I bought it, but there was enough left to allow me to do an air layer before I started developing this, the parent tree.

I'm ashamed to admit that since the air layer was removed, however, I've largely ignored both trees. That created a problem with this one because the top branch on the left was thicker than the lower branches and apex. I had to change something.

Two options presented themselves :

  1. change the planting angle and turn the thick branch into the new leader
  2. remove that branch
I opted for the latter.

January 2019 - after pruning

After the branch was removed I was left with an ugly bulge where it had been.

In the past I'd have asked for help with that bulge, but I recently bought a Dremel carving tool, so I decided this was the perfect opportunity to try it out.

Janurary 2019 -  after carving

Not a perfect job by any means, but for a first attempt, I'm reasonably happy. When I've got a bit more carving experience, I can still come back and improve on it.

For now I want the two side branches to thicken a little more before I shorten them, and the new leader and back branch need a lot of fattening up.