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.

Measurements:
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.

Measurements:
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.

Measurements:
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.

Measurements:
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.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Finding the Bonsai Inside the Tree

At last Saturday's BRAT meeting we saw two talented artists at work. Both are recent winners of the national new talent competition.

As is the case with the new talent competition, the artists were supplied with material they'd never seen before. This time, however, they were working with vastly superior material - two Juniper Procumbens Nana "shrubs" which had been grown specifically for use as bonsai. Yet to the untrained eye they might have passed as simple nursery stock.

Here they are at the beginning of the demonstration:


Tree 1


Shaundre's tree

Shaundre Craukamp is a member of Eastern Bonsai Society (my club). He won the national competition in 2015.






Attracting young people to the art of bonsai is a huge concern. Most of my club's members are well over forty. Shaundre represents the future of my club. He's still at school. We desperately need to attract more members of his age.

Tree 2


Stefann's tree

Stefann Pretorius, a member of Suikerbos Bonsai Kai, won the national competition in 2016. Here he is assisted by Hannes Fritz, an experienced bonsai artist who represented South Africa when he did his own demonstration at the 8th World Bonsai Convention in Japan in 2017.

Stefann and Hannes




Stefann's tree

FOR SOUTH AFRICAN READERS


If you're not already a member of a club and would like to join one, visit the SABA website to find a club in your area.

Friday, 6 April 2018

This Melaleuca is a Survivor

When I discovered that my Melaleuca "weedling" had come back from the dead in January, I was so excited that I rushed to write about it, not giving much thought to the fact that there really wasn't much to see yet. Could it be a false alarm?

Fortunately my excitement was justified. Over the last couple of months the tree has been growing strongly:

Growing strongly - 31 March 2018

At the moment there is only very sparse growth low down, which is where I really want it, but I don't want to hinder its recovery by pruning anything yet. Maybe next summer.

For now my main goal is keeping it alive through the winter. Most of my Melaleucas live outdoors all year round, but given its traumatic summer and the fact that it spent its early life in my greenhouse, I'm thinking of moving it back there for one more winter. If I can make space for it!

Progression photos, which will include future updates, can be found here.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

I Still Like Small Trees, But...

One of my early posts, entitled "I Like Small Trees", was about a tiny Ficus Pumila bonsai which I grew from a cutting.

November 2015 (with apple to show the size)

I still have that little tree but it's proving to be a lot more trouble than it's worth.

As Ficus Pumila is a creeper, the branches grow out long and twisty with very little ramification and I have to prune this one frequently to have any hope of maintaining its shape.

But the problems don't end there. Branches grow out so thin (about the thickness of my thinnest bonsai wire) that wiring them is a really risky business. In January, while removing wire, the leader snapped off and the remaining stub has since died back, leaving me with two branches growing in opposite directions and no apex. What looks like upward growth in this photo is actually a back branch.

April 2018 - Not looking too good after it's latest haircut!

Two months later the only solution I can see is to change the potting angle to bring the right branch more upright.


I've been trying to work out how to improve the balance of the tree and came up with two options:

Part of left branch removed in Photoshop

Option 1 would require wiring that back branch upwards, something which may or may not work.

Entire left branch removed in Photoshop

My inclination is to go with the more minimalist second option, but I won't be making any decisions until I see what new growth I get.

I still like small trees and hope to create others that size, but using more suitable material. I already have one tiny Ficus Burtt-Davyi in training and I may chop some of my cuttings to create a few more.

Ficus Burtt-Davyi - fatter, but about the same height

As for the plants that were the result of deconstructing my Ficus Pumila houseplant in December 2016, I've already given some of them away but I'm not planning to give up on all of them just yet.

I'm trying to see how much I can fatten up the biggest one so I'm not doing much to it right now. Of course the height will have to come down eventually, and I can already see a potential new leader, but that chop is a long way off.

April 2018 - wired upwards to help with trunk thickening

I'm not quite sure how the one below will work out though because it's always going to be short and fat:

April 2018

The growth is a bit "all over the place" so I guess in time one root and some of the branches will have to go.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Will a massive fig cutting root?

In the footnote to a post I wrote in January, I referred to my attempts to grow a fig tree from a thick cutting off a neighbour's full size tree, only to be thwarted by the need to save water during a period of drought.

Thankfully that drought is now a thing of the past so, when my neighbour pruned his fig tree yesterday, I couldn't resist the temptation to try again. Unfortunately by the time I found them, the branches had already been hacked to pieces, and most of them were pretty straight, with no side branches. Still, I felt I had to try.

I quickly grabbed three large branches of various thicknesses, all far too long for my requirements, so my first job was to cut each in half.

As I began to cut them up I was already starting to fear that I'd bitten off more than I could chew so I began with the thinnest one to see whether I had the strength to saw through them. That didn't take too long so I moved on to the next one, which didn't prove to be too much of a problem either.

Then it was time to tackle the monster, a branch quite a bit thicker than my wrist. Would I be able to pull if off?

There were moments when I contemplated quitting, but once I'd made a start I battled on, unwilling to see all my effort go to waste. Finally, after two hours of hard labour, I found myself with two big stumps and a total of six cuttings to pot.

I left them soaking overnight in a solution of kelp and water.

As space is a problem, today I potted them in the smallest pots that would hold them.


They're now in a sheltered spot in my bonsai area, protected from sun and excessive wind.

I know they don't look like much, just straight stumps with little or no taper, but the two biggest are pretty large - bigger than most of the trees I own. Hopefully in time something can be done to improve their appearance... if they root.

For scale here's a photo of the biggest and the smallest side by side. To give an idea of size, the smaller cutting is in a one litre yogurt tub.


As I look at the two thickest stumps now, I have to wonder how I'll cope with them if they grow. When I grabbed the biggest branch, what was I thinking?

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Autumn Colour

Spring is my favourite time of year, so I'm really jealous of all those bonsai growers in the Northern hemisphere whose deciduous trees  are just starting to bud and will soon turn green while many of mine will soon be bare.

The one consolation is the sight of these beautiful red leaves on two of my Trident Maple "weedlings", rescued at a workshop a couple of years ago when they were about to be consigned to a friend's compost heap.


The trees themselves are nothing more than sticks in pots right now:



With so many trees to care for, however, I'm planning to keep them really small, so the taller tree will soon be getting a serious chop. Not right now though, because I'm enjoying that colour far too much!