Saturday 28 November 2015

Creating bonsai from nursery stock

This little tree is a Schotia Brachypetala, also known in South Africa as a Weeping Boer-bean or Huilboerboon.

It is one of the two varieties of Schotia which I've seen used as bonsai. Both have compound leaves, but the leaves of the other variety are naturally much smaller. At the time I bought my tree, I was unaware of the existence of the small-leaved variety and didn't hesitate to buy the one with larger leaves.

That's not to say I regret my purchase. I've seen very few trees of the other variety for sale, and those I've seen have all had very thin trunks. They were also priced a lot higher than what I paid for mine.

When I bought this little guy in 2012, it was about five foot tall in its nursery bag and cost me less than $10. I could barely lift it and I'm not sure I'd have been strong enough to make the first steps on its journey to bonsai without the assistance of one of the men from my bonsai club.

Nursery tree in its bag

So in early spring of 2012 I dragged it to a workshop where I was assisted in transferring it to a training pot. My helper also cut the tree back  to a stump of approximately 20cm in height, leaving it totally devoid of branches or foliage.

August 2012, after trunk chop - height approximately 20cm

I'm a nervous person by nature, so I tend to worry about my trees after such drastic work has been done. But all I could do was wait and hope that all would be well.

In this case I didn't have to wait long. Within weeks there were new buds everywhere.

October 2012 - first growth after chop

And a few weeks later it was growing really well, giving me more branches than I needed.

November 2012 - lots of options

As I didn't want my tree to develop unnecessary scars, I decided to select my branches early so I picked a left branch, a right branch and a back branch as well as a new leader, and removed everything else. Looking back at these photos now, I think I could have kept a few more.

By July 2013 I had some quite strong growth and I had wired the branches into their desired positions. (The reason that the lowest branch had its end wired upwards was to encourage it to grow thicker than those above it.)

July 2013 - branches selected and wired

Over the next two years I didn't do much other than watering and feeding the tree, allowing the branches time to thicken. The original flat cut was tidied up, and I removed the ugly root on the right hand side, and that was about it.

Then this September I finally decided to take the next step. All the branches and the leader were cut back and I once more had a naked tree.

September 2015 - all branches cut back

Not for long though. My latest photos, taken today, show the tree after another two minor trims.

November 2015 - front view

I now find myself in a quandary over what to do with the top. It looks okay in the front view photo, but when viewed from the side I feel that the leader is coming too far forward.

November 2015 - side view

I'm undecided whether to leave it that way or whether to remove the part above the branch that is currently wired to the back and pull that one upwards to form a new leader. I'll need to make my decision while that branch is still thin and flexible.

Monday 23 November 2015

Starting Over

In early 2008, shortly after I joined my bonsai club, I won this little Privet off the raffle table. It had a decent trunk leading up to two thin leaders and was totally devoid of branches.

As I got it, 2008

I quickly set to work on trying to turn this tree into bonsai, removing one leader and allowing the other to thicken up a little. After a while it started to develop some sort of shape and in 2012 I decided it was ready to go into a bonsai pot. Shortly afterwards it made its first appearance at our club show. I was rather disappointed when one of the senior club members told me that the front I'd chosen wasn't showing off the trunk to its best advantage, but to change it would have meant I'd need to regrow the branches, so I decided to stick with what I had.

In bonsai pot, 2013

As I grew in experience I realised that I'd grown quite a boring tree, but I didn't feel motivated to change it. Then over the past year I neglected it, allowing it to put on a lot of unwanted growth, including this new branch coming out close to the base and growing straight upward.

Before latest pruning - detail, 2015

The tree had put so much energy into that branch that it was now the tallest part of the tree. After removing it, the tree still looked awfully overgrown, but a few of the branches were dead.

Overgrown, 2015

A few days ago I decided to see what I could do with it, but after I'd removed the unwanted upward growth and dead branches I could see that its structure had been totally ruined, so I cut back really hard and moved it back into a training pot. While I was working on it I recalled the advice I'd received several years ago and decided to rebuild the tree with the correct front.

Cut back hard and moved to training pot, 2015

It's not looking very good at the moment, but I've got more to work with than I did in 2008. For now I'll have to wait and see where it pushes out new growth before I start planning for its future.

Hopefully in a couple of years I'll have a much more interesting tree.

Thursday 19 November 2015

An Unexpected Find

We've had some large succulents growing in a rockery in our garden for as long as I can remember. The crassula I repotted recently started out life as a cutting from one of them about ten years ago.

Lately those succulents have been taking a lot of strain and today I discovered several broken branches lying on the ground beside one of them. They'd obviously been there for some time as the wounds had already started callousing over.

Clearly not a new break

Despite the drought we're experiencing right now, there were already signs of roots starting to form and all the smaller branches were growing upwards.

This photo shows the smaller of the two as I found it.

The smaller piece, as collected

All I did to it was put it into a pot, wiring it in place so that it can't move around too much before roots form. The fact that everything was growing in one direction makes it look like good material for a windswept tree. However I'll have to wait and see what develops because these plants are so brittle that any attempts at wiring are likely to do more harm than good.

The smaller piece, potted as found

This is the larger one as found.

The larger piece, as found

It looked like good material for a raft, but I didn't have a big enough pot to follow that route. Besides, even if I'd had one, the resulting tree would have been too big and heavy for me to handle.

Instead I chose to chop it up and grow a few trees from it.

Keeping the main piece to a manageable height meant that I had to remove the foliage, so I've got a pretty bare trunk right now. The piece on the left is actually a branch, not a separate trunk as it appears to be in this photo.

The larger piece, cut back hard

This is the top of the larger tree. It's rather wide at the moment and I may change that later. I didn't feel the need to make any design decision right now. Again, what appears to be a second trunk is actually a branch. I didn't want to plant these trees higher in their pots in case their weight caused them to fall over before they had rooted.

The top of the larger piece

I was left with two smaller pieces which I planted in one pot. I'll decide later whether to grow them together or separate them.

Two thinner pieces potted together

For now all I can do is be patient while I wait for them to develop roots. These plants grow easily from cuttings, so I'm hopeful that all will survive.

With a bit of luck it won't be too long before I see signs of new foliage.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Two Neglected Ficuses

One of the problems with having too many trees is that I don't have time to give all of them the attention they need. As a result some of my trees are developing nicely while others are left to grow wild, and all they usually get from me is water and a little fertilizer. Grown in optimal conditions this allows them to develop fatter trunks so that, when I finally find time to work on them, they will make better bonsai than they would have if I'd started styling them too soon.

Unfortunately these two trees - two young Ficus Natalensis which I grew from cuttings - have never been given optimal conditions.

Two neglected ficuses - before

They've been living tucked away at the back of my greenhouse behind other trees and have been deprived of adequate light. As a result, when I pulled them out of the greenhouse I found a few dead branches. I'm not too concerned about those though as I've still got plenty of branches to work with, and after a heavy pruning they're sure to give me more.

A bigger concern is that they've been in their pots for far too long and have masses of thick roots growing in circles around the edge of their pots.

Overgrown roots

These roots are invasive too and, aided by the humid environment of my greenhouse, the larger tree sent its roots looking for more space. One root was tightly lodged inside the other tree's pot and I was forced to cut it before I could start work on repotting them. Another had invaded a pot occupied by a less vigorous tree, but that one came out without much effort.

Due to time constraints I've only been able to work on the smaller tree so far. I removed the heavy roots growing above the soil and reduced the root mass inside the pot, cutting back the long thick roots and keeping the finer ones, before repotting it into a wider but shallower pot.

Repotted and tidied up

As the top section was far too long and straight, I cut back to a suitable bend which makes it look in better proportion.

After pruning

For now it will be allowed to grow wild to see what new options it offers me. At a later stage I might reduce the height further. I'd also like some lower branches to fatten up the base of the trunk and give me better taper. Hopefully my tree will cooperate.

Note: I don't usually keep my trees in saucers, but use them when I bring the trees inside to photograph as I don't want them wetting the furniture. Drainage is important and saucers full of water will quickly lead to root rot.

Sunday 15 November 2015

When Weeds Turn into Trees

15 November 2015

I recently wrote a post about a tree I acquired which was growing in a pot full of weeds. Only many of those weeds turned out to maple seedlings. My mission that day was to rescue those seedlings before they had time to establish themselves alongside the big tree. I'm happy to report that 23 of them have survived the move and are now happily growing in their own pots. Now I just hope I'll be able to keep them alive through the severe drought that's wreaking havoc across South Africa.

One of the problems with having a huge collection of trees is that I don't always find time to remove weeds timeously and once they've settled in, it can be quite difficult to get rid of them. And in some cases, before I know it I've got two trees of different species growing in the same pot. I've already separated a few pairs of trees this spring but haven't found time for all of them. Now, because of the drought, I'm contemplating leaving some of them together for another season. That will give me a few less pots that need watering every day.

But this week I discovered a problem with this trio.

Three trees growing in one pot

The tree I was originally growing in this pot is a Crassula, otherwise known as a Jade Plant. It's a succulent which doesn't need a lot of water and has been growing in a pot with excessive drainage holes - a re-purposed colander - for several years now. By the time I noticed that it had acquired two companions, a Melaleuca and a Mulberry, they were so well established that I've been terrified to remove them. But over the last few days I noticed that the Melaleuca was starting to take strain. Most of its leaves had turned yellow, making me uncertain how much longer it could survive where it was. Something had to be done.

Repotting trees is something that has always made me a bit nervous. Over the years I've learnt that certain species can take harsh treatment and I'm now reasonably comfortable working with those. But when I'm forced to step outside my comfort zone, I prefer to take trees that need repotting to one of my club's workshops so that I can get help if the need arises. I felt certain that I would need help with this lot.

Today was workshop day and sure enough I needed a little assistance in getting the three trees separated. As it turned out, most of the roots belonged to the two 'weeds', which probably explains why the Crassula's growth had slowed down drastically in recent times. Hopefully now that it's on its own in a slightly larger pot it will soon regain its strength and grow lots of new roots and leaves.

Crassula now in its own pot

The other two saplings are in smaller pots. I cut the Mulberry to a fraction of its height but was afraid to leave the Melaleuca without any foliage, so I will have to wait for back-budding before I reduce its height.

Now I have a nervous wait to see if my three trees survive this ordeal.

Three trees now in separate pots

Update 20 June 2016:

I'm pleased to say that all three trees are still alive.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Trouble in Bonsai Land

There's an art to watering bonsai. Unfortunately I've never had the time to learn it. I've got so many trees that I've been forced to use the quickest method, so I've always watered my trees using a hosepipe with a fine spray attachment. It still takes me about twenty minutes to water them all.

Unfortunately all that has to change, effective immediately. South Africa has been hit hard by El Niño. Right now we're in the middle of a heatwave. The temperature where I live has peaked at 36°C (96.8°F) today and in some areas it's a lot worse. The weather has been like that for weeks already, and summer hasn't even arrived yet.

To make matters worse, the heatwave has been accompanied by a severe drought. At this time of year we usually have thunderstorms most afternoons, but there's hardly been a drop of rain since spring started and forecasters are already predicting that we aren't likely to see any significant rain until March.

Our garden is quite stressed and the lawn looks like a bed of straw. My bonsai collection, however, has been getting adequate water and my trees are doing fine. So far.

Yesterday our government announced water restrictions:

  • we're not allowed to fill swimming pools - no problem, we don't have one.
  • we can't use a hosepipe for washing cars or paving - not great, but I can live with that.
  • we're not allowed to water our gardens between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm. That's a serious problem.

Conserve Water Square Sticker
Conserve Water Square Sticker by InkWorks

I'm a night owl, so getting up at 5:00 am to water my trees would require a major change to my lifestyle. Aside from that, the light isn't very good at that time of morning. And I don't really see that I'll be saving water anyway.

Watering at 6:00 pm isn't much better. Aside from the fact that my trees will be wet for the night, exposing them to problems like mildew, once again I'll be watering in bad light. And I still won't be saving water.

There has to be a better way.

The only option I've come up with so far is to use the pressure spray bottle I've always used for giving my trees liquid fertilizer - something I often neglect to do because it's too time consuming.

The bottle takes twelve litres of water and filling it three or four times should be enough to cover all my trees, so I'll be saving a lot of water doing that. With minimal water consumption I don't think that watering during daylight hours is a major issue in terms of our water restrictions.

It's going to have a dramatic effect on my life though. I've just spent an hour watering some of my trees, taking the opportunity to add a little liquid fertilizer, something which was long overdue. But I've been forced to take a break halfway through because it's so hot in the sun that I couldn't take being outside any more.

There's a breeze blowing outside now, and the clouds are starting to build up. Sadly they're not likely to bring us any much needed rain.

Now I need to go outside to water the rest of my trees.

Update: 20 June 2016

I was forced to abandon this method and water my trees at 6:00 pm because some of them weren't getting enough water. I nearly killed a few little ones before I realised the error of my ways.

Sunday 8 November 2015

I Like Small Trees

Tiny Ficus Pumila bonsai
Given the fact that I write a bonsai blog, some people would say that my title is simply stating the obvious. After all, aren't all bonsai small trees? The bonsai enthusiast, however, will be well aware that bonsai come in many sizes, from trees that are small enough to fit in the palm of one's hand to trees that require four or more people to move them.

I've opted to only grow trees that I'm capable of moving unassisted. As a small woman that's quite limiting. I wasn't too happy the day I took one of my biggest trees for critique at our club and the man giving the crit referred to it as a small tree. Then again, most of his trees are so big that he couldn't possibly move them on his own.

But that isn't really the subject of this post. Today I'm talking about miniature bonsai, otherwise known as mame. These little trees are no more than four inches tall. I just measured the little tree in this photo and it's exactly four inches tall. It's the smallest tree I own, making it my only mame, though I'm planning to create a few more, and they'll definitely be fatter than this one. If I can get it right, they may be shorter too.

This little guy is a Ficus Pumila, which is actually a vine, not a tree. I started it by rooting a cutting from a larger house plant, not realising how slowly these plants thicken in a pot. Once I discovered this, it was obvious that the bonsai I developed would be a tiny one.

Because of its size, this tree is a permanent resident in my greenhouse. There are two reasons that I'm not prepared to leave it outside:

  1. On hot summer days the soil would dry out really quickly, meaning I'd need to water it several times a day to keep it alive. In the sheltered environment of my greenhouse I can get away with watering it once a day.
  2. We often get hail where I live, and one occasion, just as I was getting serious about bonsai, we had hail the size of golf balls. A repeat of that would damage my bigger trees, but it would totally destroy this one. I'm not prepared to risk it.

From an aesthetic point of view this tree would probably look better in a shallower pot, but I chose this one based on practical considerations. I'm not sure how long I'd be able to keep it alive in something smaller.

Just as an illustration of the size of this tree, here's a photo of it standing beside an apple.

Tiny Ficus Pumila bonsai standing beside an apple

Linking up with NF Trees n Bushes.

Sunday 1 November 2015

Building a Trunk

I bought this Trident Maple as a young sapling several years ago when I was still pretty new to the art of bonsai. At the time I expected to turn it into a small bonsai fairly quickly, but as you can see from the photo of its current state, it didn't work out that way.

Trident Maple in training - current state

From the start my tree seemed to have a mind of its own. Instead of growing upwards, it put most of its energy into a side branch which soon became too thick to be of any use. Had I known then what I know now, I'd have just left it to grow so that it would thicken up the lower trunk, and I'd have worried about developing the top later. However, as an impatient novice, I removed the branch, hoping that would help the top to grow.

Over the next few years, it did produce better top growth, but not where I wanted it, and my attempts at pruning only made it look worse. In the end I grew so frustrated with the mess I was making that I was tempted to put it on our club's raffle table and let somebody else continue the battle, but in the end I couldn't bring myself to part with it. Instead I decided to chop it back really hard and rebuild the trunk from the bottom up.

For the last couple of years I've been concentrating entirely on the trunk, which is finally starting to get a little shape though it's never going to be a particularly dramatic tree. I had hoped to let it grow unrestrained for another year, but was forced to repot it a few weeks ago (early spring) because another tree had planted itself in the same pot and I wanted to get that one out alive. Because I was repotting the tree, I decided to cut the trunk to the lowest upward growth - my proposed new leader. After that I left it to recover from its ordeal.

This week I noticed a lot of new growth and decided to remove some of the unwanted side branches. Once I'd done that I noticed that it now has two potential leaders, so it seems I have a choice to make. One of them has to go, but which one?

Before making my final decision I took the photo into Photoshop and created two virtual images based on my two options.

Trident Maple - virtual chop, option 1

This was the direction my tree seemed to be headed after the last chop. However the section after the first bend seems to be too long and straight.

Trident Maple - virtual chop, option 2

This is the new option that the tree has offered me and is the direction I will probably go.

Once I've made my decision and removed the unwanted part, I'll let the top grow long and thick for the rest of the summer, and will do minimal pruning if any.

With a bit of luck next summer I'll finally be able to start developing branches.

Linking up to Saturday Show Off and Nifty Thrifty Sunday.