Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Is my Ficus Fusion Project Dying?

The tree as it looks today (front view)

Everything was going so well with the Fusion Project which I've been developing from a bunch of Ficus Natalensis cuttings over the last four and a half years.

I was finally happy with the way the trunk was fusing and had started some styling work.

In the period up to January 2020 I took it to a couple of meetings looking for advice.

January 2020 - before pruning

A few people felt that the first branch (the thick one, above the cutting I've planted to try to widen the trunk) should be removed, but I didn't like that idea and chose to shorten it instead. I also felt the tree was getting rather top heavy, so I cut it back to a new leader.

January 2020 - after pruning

For a while everything seemed fine but the first signs of trouble appeared sometime in March, shortly before lockdown. I have a photo showing serious die-back which was taken on 27 March. That was the day I decided to remove the dead leaves, but leave the branches intact in case some of them survived.

At the time I thought that a badly executed cut had killed the top and I wasn't too concerned about it as the tree was taller than I wanted it to be anyway. I was unaware of any further problems after that.

A couple of weeks ago, when the first signs of winter appeared, I moved the tree into my greenhouse.

Then this morning, I noticed a whole new section of dying leaves.

Best case scenario here is that I'm going to have a much shorter tree than I'd planned. To be honest I'd be quite happy with that.

But right now I'm terrified that this is just the beginning of the problem and that the tree is dying. And right now, with the Covid-19 pandemic in full swing, I'm unable to take the tree anywhere to ask for advice.

If anyone reading this can offer me some assistance, it will be most welcome. I've put a lot of effort into creating this tree and I'd hate to lose it.

The tree as it looks today (back view)




Monday, 18 May 2020

There's a tree hiding inside that mess

When I visit my various online bonsai groups lately I see everyone's trees getting tons of love during lockdown. Sadly mine aren't among them.

For me the social side of belonging to a bonsai club has always been almost as important as the trees themselves, and now that club meetings have been removed from my life for the foreseeable future, I'm struggling for motivation. So much so that, aside from watering my trees and providing winter protection where necessary, I've done very little work on them over the last few weeks. It's much easier to go online and read about other people's trees.

That's not okay though. It's time to get back to work.

I finally made an attempt with my Ficus Salicaria (willow leaf Ficus).

More weeds than tree - May 2020

Poor little thing has been seriously neglected. Can you even see that there's an almost decent tree hiding inside that mess?

After a little time spent pulling weeds, here it is.


Sadly it hasn't changed very much since I last wrote about it in August 2018. That's what happens when you have too many trees and don't give them the attention they deserve!

It needs a proper pruning, but first I'm planning to give it a little time to recover from the shock of my digging around in the soil. That disturbance isn't ideal as we're headed into winter, but it had to be done.

I also need a little time to think about my next move.

I'm pretty sure I'll be bringing the height down though - probably to the thickest branch growing upwards on the left side of the tree. Maybe in time I'll go even lower because I like my trees short and fat.

But for now there's a lot of other work to be done. I've got many trees with similar weeds that need to be removed.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Ficus Pumila Bonsai Failure

I was really proud when I created a mame bonsai from a Ficus Pumila cutting a few years ago. So much so that I even put it on show once. At the time it looked something like this:

November 2015 (with apple to show the size)

Growth was a little sparse, but I hoped for improvement in the years to come.

Unfortunately it's been all downhill since then. By April 2018 the leader had died and it had deteriorated to this:

April 2018 - after some damaged branches had been removed

With too many trees to care for I never got around to trying any of the options I referred to in my April 2018 update.

Instead it's largely been left to do its only thing. When I checked up on it a few days ago, it was seriously overgrown, with long branches which had rooted themselves into the pots of the Bougainvillea and succulent standing beside it.


After separation the Bougainvillea has two new Ficus Pumila plants growing in its pot.


The one of the right has grown up the trunk of the Bougainvillea and the two appear to have fused together.

As it's autumn in South Africa I don't want to do any repotting now, so I'll have to sort this mess out in spring.

And then there's the overgrown Ficus Pumila (no longer worthy of the name bonsai).


After shortening the long branches, a problem becomes visible.


The extent of the problem is much more obvious from the back.


The twisty trunk I worked so hard to create is dead. All the growth is coming from the first inch of the trunk.

Again I'll wait until spring before making any final decisions, but I think that this is a lost cause as bonsai. I'll probably give the plant away and keep the pot.

I still have to work out whether I can do anything with the two larger Ficus Pumila plants that appeared in the April 2018 update.

Fortunately the tiny Ficus Burtt-Davyi that appeared in that post is showing a lot more promise.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Mango Tree - an Update

In August 2017 I wrote a post about unsuitable material for bonsai. Most of the trees I discussed in that post were trees I'd grown from seed, in some cases hoping to turn them into bonsai. As I said at the time, however, I had no delusions that I could ever bonsai a mango tree, but I couldn't resist the temptation to grow my own mangoes.

By the time I wrote that post my mango tree was seven years old and was flowering for the first time.

Mango flower buds - August 2017 

I was thrilled, but also a little bit disappointed when I read that it was best for the health of the tree to remove the first season's flowers. I really didn't want to do it.

In the end the decision was taken out of my hands as a really heavy hail storm did the job for me.

My tree grew very little for the rest of that summer and in spring of 2018 there wasn't a trace of a flower anywhere.

Finally in spring of 2019 it started flowering again so I moved it into my greenhouse - near the door, so that it had decent exposure to sun and wind, but was protected from hail.

It worked. Over the last few months it's had three green mangoes dangling from its branches.

I'd pretty much given up hope of them ripening though as the stems they were dangling from looked like they were dying, but a couple of weeks ago they started turning orange.

Tree with 3 mangoes - April 2020

I'm not convinced they'll be edible, but when they look ready I'm planning to cut them open just in case.

Update: The day after I published this post one of the smaller mangoes fell off the tree. Although it was probably the smallest mango I've ever had, the inside was no worse than the mangoes I buy from stores. It tasted fine.

Perhaps the fruit would have grown better in a bigger pot. If I can find a suitable pot at home, maybe I'll slip it into a bigger pot once the rest of the fruit comes off.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

A Huge Juniper Transformed

Last Saturday I decided to attend a meeting at Midway Bonsai Society after hearing that a young member of Eastern Bonsai Society (EBS)  - the club I've been a member of for 12 years - would be doing a demonstration on a huge juniper.

Shaundre Craukamp may only be 19, but he already has a lot of bonsai experience, having joined his first club at the age of 10. After that club closed, he moved to EBS when he was 14. A year later he won the EBS and regional new talent competitions. Later that year he went on to win the national competition, becoming the youngest South African to do so.

The trees used for those competitions were nursery stock- Juniper Procumbens Nana, a little smaller than the one he's seen working on in an earlier post (he's the guy in black). Unlike the one in that post, however, competition trees have had no previous styling.

The tree he worked on this time was a collected tree - Juniper Chinensis - belonging to Jonathan Cain, a member of Midway.


Shaundre started by doing a little carving on some of the dead wood at the bottom. (There was far too much to be done in one session.)


He chose to do the carving by hand.


Then he moved on to the apex.


As everything up there was long and straight, and growing away from the trunk, a lot of bending was required - too much to be done at once without putting excessive strain on the tree, but enough to show the direction in which the tree will be developed.

First he split the area he wanted to bend, then he applied tape to prevent the branch breaking when he bent it.


After wiring the branch and adding some guy wires, he was able to pull it down in the direction he wants it to grow. I believe it will be brought closer to the trunk when it's had time to heal.


This was already a big improvement, but the branch coming up from the bend looked out of place, so he removed it, leaving a stub which will be used as a jin.


He then bent one of the lower branches up to create a new apex.


He marked a few areas that will need carving, including the marked branch, which is currently far too long and thick.


After all the small branches had been wired (with help from Jonathan and his wife Denise) and re-positioned the tree looked like this.


Shaundre will be paying Midway another visit next spring to do further work on this tree.

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.