Saturday, 6 January 2018

When Branches Crack

Among the trees growing in my bonsai area is a skinny fig tree which I started from a cutting off a neighbour's tree when he pruned it in mid-2015. Although it's not much thicker than a pencil, by December 2017 it was nearly two foot tall. Yet it had not produced a single branch. I did however see signs that it was setting buds for next summer's fruit. (*)

Then disaster struck, or so it seemed. The trunk was growing closer to horizontal than vertical, so I decided to wire it into a more upright position, but with a little added movement. The trouble is I wasn't as gentle as I should have been and, while bending it to the desired angle, I managed to crack the trunk. Not a small crack either, this one went more than half way through the trunk.

On another tree I'd probably have cut back to the site of the crack and worked with what was left, but in this case I wasn't happy to do that for a couple of reasons:

  • the crack site was just below the first leaf, meaning I'd have been left with a bare stump
  • as I already have a quirky fig tree I've been working on for some time, my main focus for this one has been on trying to grow fruit. If I'm right about the buds I've seen, cutting back would have delayed my chances of getting fruit.

Although I believed the top half of the tree had little hope of survival, I decided to see if it could be saved. I manipulated the wire to bring the two sides of the crack together, then sealed it with Kiyonal paste.

By the next day the leaf at the site of the crack was starting to dry up and a few days later it fell off but, remarkably, that was the only sign of distress the tree ever showed.

January 2018 - three weeks after the "accident"

Now, three weeks later, there is new growth at the apex, but more importantly it's starting to develop new branches both above and below the crack.

Crack site - new growth is visible at the bottom

It seems that damaging the trunk was actually a blessing in disguise.

(*) I'm certain that somebody will be wondering why I started with such a thin cutting, so let me explain.

The cutting my neighbour gave me was actually big and thick, with too many branches to fit into any pot I owned, so I cut it into several pieces in a variety of sizes, hoping that the thicker ones would root. In time they may have done if we hadn't been hit by what I believed was a severe drought, but was actually relatively minor compared to the drought that is still taking its toll on other parts of South Africa.

When water restrictions were imposed I decided it was time to dispose of whatever was not alive, so I pulled most of the cuttings out of their pots. Sadly one of the thickest ones was just starting to root, but my attempts to save it were unsuccessful. Only this one skinny one survived.

I still hope to get a better fig cutting one day but for now I'm hoping that this one will fatten up. Maybe those extra branches will help.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Trunk chops, when properly done, do work

My last post inspired a bit of discussion among my Reddit readers, some of whom were insistent that one can chop trees below buds. When I thought about it I realised that I'd expressed myself badly when I said that one can't. Provided you're working with a suitable species it's perfectly acceptable to chop a tree to a stump with no VISIBLE buds and have it produce new branches at or below the site of the chop. Unfortunately in the case I was referring to, I chopped way too low, leaving a stump of less than an inch in height and, it would appear, no potential for new buds to form. However I've done several successful trunk chops since then.

An early one was my best trident maple, which gave me a bit of a scare back in 2009 but worked out well in the end. It was a five foot nursery tree when I bought it and, having a long drive in front of me, I asked the nursery staff to reduce the height so that it could fit into the car.

At the nursery, as purchased

This was how it left the nursery:

Autumn 2009, before workshop

I was still pretty new to bonsai at the time and wasn't sure how to proceed so I contacted my mentor who told me to bring it to a workshop. Although it was autumn, he repotted it and cut it back to a more appropriate height - or so we thought.

Autumn 2009, after workshop

Despite repeated efforts to seal the wound, it oozed sap for about two weeks, which was probably the cause of its problems in early spring. New growth was slow to appear and for a while I really feared for its life. And when new branches finally sprouted, they appeared about half way down the trunk:

Summer 2009

I had no choice but to cut the tree back to where there was new growth:

Summer 2009. after the second chop

With the benefit of hindsight the original chop would probably have left me with a tree that was far too tall and thin, so everything worked out for the best in the end. I'm quite happy with the tree's current state, apart from the nebari, but I'm working on that.

My most recent attempt at a trunk chop, done unassisted, involved two little elms I bought in late 2015. When I bought them they were growing together in one pot:

Two little elms as purchased, November 2015

Aside from feeling that they didn't belong together, I also felt they were too tall and straight, so I separated them and chopped both back to stumps.

After the chop, November 2015

Clearly this time I did everything right because they soon sprouted from their chop sites.

I've done very little work on them since then, only removing branches that I knew I'd never use and doing a little wiring where necessary.

This is how they look now:

Larger tree, December 2017
Smaller tree, December 2017

Right now I'm waiting for the leaders to thicken up a bit. Once that happens I'll reduce their height and start developing more branches. Hopefully in a couple of years from now I'll have the beginnings of two nice little trees.

Friday, 15 December 2017

How to Kill a Trident Maple

In October 2007 I bought a small Trident Maple at our club's annual show. I wasn't a member back then, but that was the day I signed up for the club's beginner's course and I attended my first meeting a month later. So you could say attending that show changed my life. It also changed my little tree's life, though certainly not for the better!

Although my Trident Maple was a nice little tree, I immediately set about redesigning it to make it truly mine. It would have been okay if I'd stopped after the first pruning, but worse was still to come for that tree.

One day I was browsing in the bonsai section of a local bookshop when I came across Peter Adams's book "Bonsai with Japanese Maples". I was tempted to buy the book but as I didn't own a Japanese Maple back then, I didn't see the point. (I did eventually buy it several years later.)

However, while looking at the book, I noticed a technique for growing fat trunks quickly. It involved cutting a tree back to a short stump, then letting all the new branches grow long and thick to fatten the trunk, cut them back and repeat... I couldn't resist the temptation to try it and the victim was my little Trident, the only Maple I owned at the time.

Unfortunately as a bonsai newbie I didn't realise that I needed to ensure that I left some buds below the chop site and I made the chop far lower than I should have. Then I waited impatiently for those new branches to grow, but sadly they never did.

The crazy part is that, even months later, I could see that my tree was still alive and with the benefit of hindsight I'm sure that it could have been saved if only a branch or two had been grafted onto it, but instead it was left to die a slow and painful death.

I now have several Japanese Maples, including three which I grew from thickish cuttings a few years ago, and I can't help feeling that this little tree (the ugliest of the three) would be a perfect candidate for that technique.

Japanese Maple grown from cutting.

The trouble is I've never had the courage to try again. I was tempted to try it this spring, but instead I've kept the height of the tree while trying to encourage the low branches to grow and keeping the top growth short.

I'll have to do something more drastic eventually, but it's the middle of summer now, so it's probably not the best time to do it.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

My New Chinese Elm

Ever since Kathy Steyn did her carving demonstration at my club in July, I've been wanting to see her nursery, Bonsai Magic, which is about an hour and a half's drive from where I live. So I was delighted when the club arranged to pay her a visit on the day of our December meeting.

That visit took place yesterday.

Although I'm trying to reduce the number of trees in my collection, it was always my intention to buy something provided I could find a tree of some substance that was a manageable size. She had hundreds of little trees for sale, but most of those weren't very different to those I already own. And at the other end of the scale there was some wonderful material which I'd happily have given a home if only I was capable of lifting one of them.

And then I spotted this elm:


It's not massive but the trunk is a nice size - just to give a sense of scale, the marker on the side is a plastic knife. Sure it's got a couple of problems but I wasn't looking for a perfect tree that's ready to go on show. The gap low down on the left doesn't look great, but Kathy assured me that in a couple of years in will close up, resulting in a much better trunk. And the first branch on the left bothers me because there's a bulge just below it causing some serious reverse taper.

The gap isn't so visible from the back, but the roots curve inwards, so I don't think making that the front is really an option. And the first branch looks even worse from that side because it's now pointing towards the back.


I discussed that branch with Kathy and said I was tempted to remove it. She didn't seem to feel it was a bad idea, though at least one member of my club felt I should keep it.

As was the case with the tree in my previous post, I'm not rushing into any decisions I may regret. Instead I did another virtual pruning, extending the lowest remaining branch on the left side, to give an idea of what the tree may look like in a few months' time.

Virtual pruning

It was suggested I bring the tree to the January meeting so I'll probably take it along to get the opinion of some senior members who weren't at yesterday's outing. But at the end of the day it's my decision and right now I'm seriously considering removing that branch.

Monday, 4 December 2017

A New Option for an Old Ficus

When I joined my club in late 2007 I got rather bogged down by the rules for branch placement and for a while it seemed that I was trying to turn every tree into the "perfect" informal upright. It was only a couple of years later when I was looking for candidate trees to put on the club show that I realised that my more developed trees all looked very similar. That didn't make me very happy.

Over the years I've slowly learned to do things differently and some of the trees from my early days are now undergoing radical transformations. However the Ficus Natalensis I started as a cutting shortly before I joined the club is still very much on the path I first set out for it.

After time spent in a bonsai pot I moved it back into a training pot in November 2015 but all the new growth hasn't made a great difference and I'm still not happy with its overall appearance:

November 2017

During a routine haircut a new idea came to me. I'm contemplating removing the first branch, changing the slant ever so slightly and flattening the knob at the first bend. I'm not going to rush into making any drastic changes that I may come to regret though. That's why for now the only restyling was done in Photoshop.

Virtual pruning in Photoshop

What would you do if this was your tree?

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Lonicera's First Styling

As I'm trying to reduce the number of trees in my collection, I shouldn't really be buying more, but sometimes I find the temptation impossible to resist. It doesn't help that one of my favourite places to have lunch is a little restaurant inside a nearby nursery. And when I'm there I always wander around to see if they have any suitable bonsai material.

I had lunch there last Saturday and I came away with this Lonicera Nitida - a small shrub with tiny leaves.

As purchased - November 2017

My only previous experience with this species was over a decade ago, a while before I joined my club. I don't remember too much about that tree except that it died unexpectedly shortly after what I believe was the second time I pruned it. It had been doing really well until then and I'm not sure what went wrong, a fact which makes me nervous about trying the species again. But at a little over $3, this one was hard to resist.

The fact that the tree was so small meant that all the branches were clumped really close together, making branch selection quite difficult. I decided to keep all the low branches, removing only the secondary branches that were growing straight up. I then had to make a decision about the thin straight trunk growing close to one branch. I didn't feel I could keep both so I had to chose one as the main trunk line.

Two possible trunk lines

As the branch was thicker and already had a secondary branch coming off it, I decided my best option was to see whether I could successfully wire it upwards. Once I'd established that it was flexible enough to reposition where I wanted it, I removed the straight trunk.

November 2017 - after first styling

At this stage I started to wonder whether I should have kept one of the secondary branches I'd removed from the new leader, but what's done is done. Seeing how many little branches the tree has everywhere, I'm optimistic that some of them will soon thicken enough to give me the structure I need. Once I see what useful options present themselves, I'll cut the top back to make an even smaller tree.

For now, however, I'll probably just leave it to grow. I also want to read up on Lonicera care to ensure that I'm able to keep this one alive.

Friday, 27 October 2017

To Graft or Not to Graft, that is the Question

I've never been too keen on the idea of grafting bits onto my trees. I like to work with the options they offer me, though sometimes it's a struggle.

A few months ago I was contemplating moving my best trident maple into a bonsai pot in time for this month's show, but my plans were changed when it was suggested that I graft some extra roots to improve on the rather unimpressive nebari. Reluctantly I agreed.

October 2017

I planned to take the tree to a workshop for assistance in early spring but due to unforeseen circumstances the job was never done though the tree was marked with lines where six of my trident maple seedlings should be attached to the trunk.

Trunk marked with blue lines where seedlings should be attached

My next opportunity to get the help I needed was at a workshop at the club show, but I wasn't happy for this major operation to be performed in such a busy environment so I postponed the "surgery" until next month.

Now I'm having second thoughts. For one thing I'm not happy to do root work on one of my best trees so late in the season. For another I'm still not totally convinced that I want to do the root graft at all. To me trees with a perfect spread of roots look unnatural.

A few days ago I brought the tree inside for a quick haircut and while I was at it I had a look at the roots. One thing was glaringly obvious - the soil level was too low. After I'd added soil one side looked better though the root on the other side was barely visible.

Soil level raised - one root is barely visible

Fortunately that problem can be dealt with quite easily by making a slight adjustment to the planting angle next time I repot the tree.

Soil level raised and slant altered

I may still change my mind again, but for now I'm not planning to do any root work this summer. Perhaps the extra soil will encourage more roots to grow naturally, and if I'm not happy with how it looks next spring, the root graft can be done then. But for now I'm hoping to let my tree live with its naturally imperfect nebari.