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.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Growing Big Trees from Small Cuttings

A member of Reddit's bonsai group recently asked me this question:

"What's the thickest you've ever got a tiny cutting up to? Guess I'm wondering what 10 years can do!"

The simple answer is that I made the decision early on  to restrict myself to trees and pots that I'm able to carry unassisted. As a small woman, that limits my ability to grow big trees. Still, some of them have reached a decent size over the years and if it hadn't been for some beginner's mistakes, they would have done even better.

Let's start at the beginning.

May 2018

My first Ficus Natalensis cutting serves as a good lesson in how NOT to grow a decent trunk. Yet I was once proud enough of this tree to publish an article about its early development at HubPages. That was long before I ever dreamed of starting my own blog.

I guess it works if you're new to bonsai and you're happy to grow a skinny little tree. Provided you're working with a fast growing species, that is!

After several years in a bonsai pot, this tree has been back in a training pot for over two years now but it's not making as much progress as I'd like. It doesn't help that I rarely think to rotate my trees. The back of this one was close to a wall and it now has quite a bit of die back on the lowest branches. I'll have to work on fixing that next summer.

9cm across the usable nebari (some roots are badly in need of pruning)
5cm just above the roots
Height 34 cm

Sometimes I'm tempted to give this one a total revamp, though probably not what I suggested a few months back. But when I think about it, I tell myself that I should stick to its original styling as a reminder of how I got started in bonsai.

This one is slightly more impressive.

May 2018

I'm guessing that it's approximately 9 years old, though I haven't had a chance to check all my old photos.

Most of the trunk growth occurred quite early in its life, before I made some styling choices I've come to regret. How I wish I'd never removed the lower branches. But what's done is done.

13cm across the nebari
6cm just above the roots
Height 41 cm

I'm seriously tempted to do an air layer here as I think there's good potential for a smaller tree using the top and I can make a short fat one with the bottom part.

The next one has mostly been allowed to grow unchecked.

May 2018

I'm not sure how old this one is, but it's younger than the other two.

Again I made one cut early on that I now regret. Other than that I've done little pruning, only shortening some branches from time to time. In my crowded bonsai area some of the lower branches haven't been getting enough light though and there's quite a bit of die back. That's not really an issue when it comes to styling because this tree has a trunk chop in its future - probably in the form of an air layer as early as next spring.

I recently discovered an aerial root at the bend which will make the trunk even more impressive when it fattens up.

Close view showing aerial root - May 2018

I'm not sure if I'll still be able to reposition it - I'll have to see about that when the air layer is done.

10-12cm across nebari - depending on final choice of front
6-7cm above roots - exclusing aerial root
Height 99cm

And then there's the easy way.

Fusion project detail - May 2018

If you don't want to wait years for a trunk to fatten up, fuse several cuttings to create one fat tree. My project is relatively small, but that's only because I couldn't cope with anything much bigger. If you've got lots of cuttings and can cope with big trees, the results can be really impressive.

6.5 cm across roots
Height 61cm

I'm sure this one could already have been quite a bit bigger if I hadn't left it in my greenhouse for two years. One summer outside has made a big difference.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Olive Tree Gets a Virtual Makeover

About a month ago I discussed the possibility of changing the front of my olive tree.

The few comments I received at Reddit came from people who felt that I should stick with my original front. Thankfully that's not a decision I have to rush into making, because a month later I'm still feeling really confused.

A long and well thought out response from richprettyboy really got me thinking though. You can read his suggestions in the comments on my Reddit post. With his permission, I'm sharing his virtual edit of my photo here.

Virtual edit by richprettyboy from one of my photos

While I probably won't follow this plan exactly I have to admit that it's a big improvement on the way the tree looks right now.

What immediately stands out is that he has removed a few excess branches which were making the top of the tree look really cluttered. With this in mind I brought the tree back inside to get some photos with a few of the branches covered up.

Starting with the current front:

Current front - March 2018

I covered up two branches that really bother me:

March 2018 - two undesirable branches covered up

I think that's an improvement, though the top two branches are on the same level. How to deal with that?

In Photoshop I tried removing one branch and repositioning the other.

Extra branch removed and second left branch raised

No, that isn't going to work.The tree looks too naked now. Pulling the branch on the right down (in the first "pruned" picture) probably won't work either. Maybe wait for a new bud to appear slightly lower on the right side.

Moving on to my alternate front:

Potential front - March 2018

I tried covering up the same branches.

Potential front - two undesirable branches covered up

Once more I have a problem with handlebars.

Looking at the tree from different angles also made me realise that the taller jin is rather straight with a bit of reverse taper. Removing some branches might help with the reverse taper, but not the straightness. It also seems a bit too tall and there's a slight temptation to shorten it, though I'd hate to lose the carving that has been done at the top and really don't know who'd redo if for me now.

Still, I tried it out in Photoshop to see how it looks:

Potential front pruned in Photoshop

The branches don't look right, but I prefer the trunk that height. If only pruning a tree was that easy!

Whichever front I opt for in the end, I need to get rid of a few branches and grow a few new ones in better positions. However with material of this quality I lack the self confidence to make any major changes on my own, so I'll probably be taking it to our club meeting in May for some expert opinion. In the meanwhile I'll allow some of the new buds that are forming to grow if their position seems like it might be useful. It will be easier to remove unwanted branches once I know that suitable replacements are waiting to fill the gaps.