Tuesday 29 December 2015

Sometimes I get carried away

Some of the experts at Reddit's bonsai group have accused me of doing too much too soon and I have to admit that I'm often guilty of that. While some of my trees can sit in my bonsai area for months or even years without my doing much work on them, some get more than their fair share of attention.

I'm trying to improve my bonsai skills though so, since becoming aware of the problem, I've been trying to restrain myself where possible. Despite that I sometimes find myself getting carried away once I have a branch cutter in my hands.

In a recent post I wrote about an odd little Ficus Benjamina I've been working on. Although it's not traditional bonsai, I had fun creating it. After its last haircut it was looking quite good, even if a couple of branches didn't feel quite right to me, and I even had thoughts of finding a bonsai pot for it.

That was over two months ago though, and it was starting to look rather overgrown again, so a couple of days ago I decided to bring it inside for a little trim while I watched the South African cricket team in action. I didn't plan anything drastic, just to tidy the top up a bit.

Before pruning

Perhaps part of the blame could go to my team's poor performance, or maybe that's just a lame excuse, but I suddenly decided that those branches had to go. Somewhere along the lines I also concluded that the tree was too tall, so I reduced the height as well. By the time I was done, my poor little tree was reduced to a mere skeleton with a few leaves on each branch.

What's left after excessive pruning

I'm not sure whether to be embarrassed by what I've done. Part of me feels like I've done something awful, but I'm also curious to see what new growth the little guy puts out during the rest of the Southern hemisphere summer. Who knows, in time it may still become a better tree.

One thing is certain though - that bonsai pot will have to wait!

Saturday 26 December 2015

Two Ficuses - Bonsai in Training

Today I present you with two trees that I've been working on for a while. They're one of my favourite species - Ficus Natalensis, a tree indigenous to South Africa.

Two overgrown ficuses - bonsai in training

To the bonsai newbie it may come as a surprise that these "bushes" have already been in training for a few years, but after a quick haircut all will be revealed. Ficus Natalensis is a vigorous grower and most of the excess foliage is this season's growth.

The tree on the left was grown from a cutting - a small branch I removed from one of my older trees several years ago. The one on the right started its life as an unwanted root from the tree I used as the subject of an article I published at HubPages a few years ago. It was propagated when the parent tree first went into a bonsai pot in October 2010.

Both trees were allowed to grow to several times their current height before their training started and once looked similar to this tree which I plan to discuss in a future post:

Another tree in an earlier stage of development

I don't believe in wasting anything that can grow, so the tops of both have since become trees in their own right.

But back to today's trees. First the tree on the left.

Before pruning

Ficus Natalensis has a tendency to put out aerial roots which can sometimes find their way into unexpected places as can be seen in this photo from my post on two other ficuses which I had neglected for some time. A root from one tree grew across the gap into the other tree's pot.

Overgrown roots

In the right place, aerial roots can be desirable, but the one I found on this tree was not.

Unwanted aerial root

It had to go.

Next I got down to shortening branches. I need to be very selective when it comes to pruning this tree as I've been growing it using the clip and grow method, denying myself the option of wiring branches to correct their position. Growing bonsai this way can be quite challenging and, while I try not to do more wiring than necessary on my other trees, I do use some wire on most of them.

With more than half the foliage removed, it looks more like a little tree, though I don't feel it's ready to go into a bonsai pot just yet. I'll let it grow for a few months now, and then I'll repeat the process.

After pruning

On to the second tree.

This one was not quite as simple as I thought it would be. As it was growing too low in its pot to photograph properly, I decided to take it out of the pot while I was working on it. As it turned out, the roots were all at the top and when I lifted it, most of the soil was left behind.

Removed from old pot

Under the circumstances I decided to repot it properly.

That proved to be a wise decision because below the fine rootage there was a big fat root growing in circles. It probably grew like that while it was still in the smaller pot it started its life in. I removed that root and planted it in its own pot to see if it will grow.

As my tree clearly didn't need so much soil, I moved it into a shallower pot.

Repotted and waiting to be pruned

After that all that was required was a rough haircut, with a little caution required because there was a spider lurking between the branches.

Repotted - after being pruned

I'm embarrassed to admit that I potted it at a bad angle, and had to adjust that after this photo was taken, but I guess the photo gives a fair idea of how the tree looks right now. After pruning it is approximately eight inches high, excluding the roots. In time I may reduce the height further.

This one will be spending the next couple of weeks in the shade while it recovers from its root surgery. The other tree is already back in the sunny spot it calls home.

Linking up with Inspire Me Monday.

Thursday 17 December 2015

Can I grow bonsai indoors?

I've been hanging around Reddit's bonsai group for a while now and, despite my early reservations after receiving some pretty harsh criticism, I'm finding it a really good place to learn.

A topic that comes up for a lot of debate there is whether it's possible to grow bonsai indoors. Some people insist that it can't be done, while others are more open-minded about the idea. What is certain is that some species cannot survive for long indoors and many newbies are in for a shock when they discover that their recently-acquired Juniper bonsai is dead or dying because they were misled into thinking that it could be kept on their desk.

Click here to buy the book 
I confess that when I first became interested in bonsai in around the year 2000, I too wanted to grow my little trees indoors. I knew very little about plants in general back then, but I'd already come across a book about indoor bonsai, so I had no reason to doubt that it could be done. One of my problems was that there weren't too many sunny spots inside my house and I hadn't heard of grow-lamps back then. My early attempts were consigned to the sunniest spot I could find - in the kitchen.

My first two trees were an Azalea and a Ficus, and with the ignorance of a beginner, the first thing I did was plant them in bonsai pots. Neither survived very long. I can't say for sure that it was being indoors that killed the Azalea as I'm sure I must have made other mistakes too. The Ficus, however, certainly could have survived inside if I'd cared for it properly, and I know that its death was entirely due to stupidity on my part.

I was not deterred, but refrained from putting my next batch of trees into bonsai pots and didn't even put much effort into styling them. In fact they spent their early years living with me as house plants. I still have two Ficuses I bought during that period. They now live outside and are slowly being trained into bonsai.

Another early acquisition which survived my early abuse was an Acacia Burkei, a tree which it has always been claimed needs to be outdoors. I've proved that they can survive on a sunny windowsill, but keeping mine there had disastrous consequences, if only because I gave it minimal care. Actually that tree did a lot more than survive, it thrived there... but in so doing the branches grew through the burglar bars covering the windows and when I finally wanted to move the tree, I was forced to cut off all the branches and start over. Had the tree been a Juniper, that would have been a death sentence. My Acacia now lives outdoors too and has developed some decent new branching.

Everything changed when I joined my club in late 2007. That was when I started to realise that even trees which can survive indoors are better off being outside when the weather allows.

Shortly after joining the club I started an experiment to see how keeping a tree indoors affected its growth. I started with these two young Ficus Benjamina cuttings:

Two cuttings at start of experiment

The cutting in the green pot was kept outdoors, while the one in the red pot was kept in my kitchen in rather poor light. After six months the difference is very visible in terms of both size and leaf quality. The leaves look so different that they don't even look like the same species.

Two cuttings at end of experiment - five months later

When the experiment ended I attempted to put some shape into the indoor tree, but in its weakened state the shock of wiring was too much for it and it died. The outdoor tree was with me for several years before I sold it at our club show. To the best of my knowledge it is still alive.

Monday 14 December 2015

Back from the brink of disaster

My last post ended on rather a negative note. I'd totally lost my way in trying to turn a young fig tree into bonsai after making a chop that I soon came to regret. My poor little tree ended up looking like this:
August 2010 - extreme chop

Under the circumstances I wasn't too surprised to receive a comment on Facebook saying "I would've thrown it away!"

It's not in my nature to do that though. My trees are my babies, and while there's life, there's hope.

But I really didn't know where to go from there. So I did the only thing I could do - nothing. I just left the tree to do its own thing and waited for it to present me with some new options.

If I'd been working with a different species, it may well have grown a new branch close to the cut, and in time I'd have been able to revert to the original design, but this tree has a mind of its own, so I was forced to work with the leaders it produced.

I would let it grow for a while, then pick the leader I wanted and cut back to redirect its energy in the desired direction. I don't believe that I did any wiring over the next five years.

Finally last week I decided that it was time to commit to what I had. Here is how my peculiar little tree looked in all its overgrown glory:

December 2015 - before pruning

As it was growing rather low in the pot, I took it out to get a better view of its structure.

December 2015 - before pruning

It had developed a lot over the last five years, but I didn't find that view too pleasing so I tried rotating it, and found a view that looked slightly better.

December 2015 - before pruning

Before going further I decided to take it for a critique at my bonsai club. I must confess that I was a little nervous as to how people would view this rather quirky tree that I was trying to pass off as bonsai material. After all, it breaks just about every rule I've ever been taught.

I was in for a pleasant surprise. Once people looked beyond the long sacrificial branches, they could see that what I had grown was a "fun" tree with some interesting curves.

Rather than remove a branch that was in a totally wrong place, it was suggested that I thread it through the first bend in the trunk to give me a branch on the side that was bare. In most cases that would be inappropriate, but for this tree it just felt right, so that's what I've done. Now that branch needs to thicken up until it's in proportion with the rest of the tree.

This was the suggested front:

December 2015 - after pruning

After giving it some thought, however, I wasn't sure that I like that angle. I prefer this view:

December 2015 - after pruning

I haven't totally committed to it yet, but if I do, I'll need to remove one small branch which is coming straight forward. For now, however, my final step was to defoliate the tree to help it recover from having its roots pruned.

December 2015 - after pruning and defoliation

I know this tree won't be to everyone's liking, but I'm quite pleased with how it turned out after such a disastrous beginning.

Friday 11 December 2015

Losing My Way

I've mentioned previously that one of the benefits of belonging to a bonsai club is the help and advice I get from other members when I attend our club's workshops.

Of course an important factor is learning which advice to follow and which to ignore. Follow the right advice and you may end up with a far better tree than you would ever have imagined. Follow the wrong advice and you may lose your way, as I did with this tree.

In late 2007, shortly before I joined my club, I bought a young fig tree at a flea market. At the time that this photo was taken I'd done no styling. The stick was there for support and was probably there when I bought it.

Young fig tree, October 2007

As it was young and thin, I didn't rush to do much to it, but in early 2008 I replaced the stick with bonsai wire  and left it to grow.

February 2008 - first wiring

I don't remember how long I left that wire on the tree, but clearly it wasn't long enough for it to do its job because by the end of the year the tree had developed quite a slant and I really wasn't happy with how it was developing.

December 2008 - slanted

What I hated most however was the big empty section of trunk above the first two branches, so a few months later I decided to chop the trunk back and see what happened.

Trunk chop, May 2009 - early winter, hence the ugly foliage

The tree responded well but I still wasn't happy with where it was headed, so in March 2010 I took it to a workshop. This is how it looked before that workshop.

March 2010 - before workshop

The first advice I received that day came from a man who believes in working with the branches a tree has to offer so he advised me to wire that back branch into a more horizontal position. Normally one doesn't have the first branch at the back, and in this case I felt it looked totally wrong, so when he left I asked another member for his opinion. He agreed that the back branch had to go, and after I'd removed it, the tree looked slightly better, but not very interesting.

March 2010 - after workshop

He also suggested a far more extreme chop, but I was reluctant to do it, so I put the idea on the back-burner for a while. However a few months later, as I looked at its bare silhouette in early spring, I had second thoughts.

August 2010 - early spring, before chop

So, following his advice, I removed everything above the first branch, leaving me with this:

August 2010 - extreme chop

I think I was happy with my decision at the time, but I soon came to regret it. The slant of the tree just didn't seem to work with the chosen style.

In the five years since then I've allowed the tree to follow a really strange path, and I'll write about that later. First I want to take it to the club for critique and see if I somebody comes up with a better path for its future than the one I have in mind.

Friday 4 December 2015

Look before you leap

One of the benefits of attending bonsai workshops is that it gives me the opportunity to exchange cuttings with my fellow club members. Lately I've been giving away a lot more than I've been taking though as I really don't have enough space for more trees. However sometimes I still get tempted.

The tree I'm discussing today is a Ficus which started out life as a large cutting I acquired at a workshop two years ago.

I don't remember the tree it came from, nor whether the cutting was a branch or the original apex, but clearly it was not the first major cut that the owner had made because there was a big bulging piece of deadwood near the base where a large branch had previously been removed. I chose to ignore that though because to cut that section off would have given me a much thinner tree.

So I planted it in a small pot of bonsai soil and waited for it to develop roots. After that I simply fed and watered it and did nothing further until today. I'm pretty sure that when I first planted it, the trunk was upright, but at some stage it had toppled over and was now growing pretty close to horizontal.

Ficus before

The first thing I did was remove the deadwood bulge.

Dead wood where old branch was removed

In its place there is now a deep hollow which I hope will become a feature on the trunk in time to come.

Hollow where dead wood has been removed - before sealing

Once that was done, I had planned to do a little pruning, but when I looked at the horrible angle that the tree had adopted, I realised that I could not get away with propping the pot up to view the trunk at a suitable angle. I would have to repot it first.

I'm really glad I did.

When I started combing out the roots I discovered that there was a substantial piece of trunk buried below the level of the soil. Fortunately most of the roots were right at the bottom and, after removing the two thin roots and potting the tree higher in the pot, it now has a much fatter base. As it's now in a wider pot, it also has lots of space to develop more roots, and hopefully good nebari.

When the repotting was finally done I decided to give it a quick haircut to promote back-budding.

Ficus after repotting and minor pruning

I'll leave major styling decisions until later, but suspect I may reduce the height of the tree to where the arrow is in this photo.

Arrow shows possible future chop

I'm so glad I didn't rush into anything here because, had I gone ahead with pruning before I repotted the tree, I may have cut off something that I'd have regretted later.

Thursday 3 December 2015

My First Workshop

I still remember the first bonsai workshop I attended. It was February 2008 and I'd only been a member of my club for about three months, so I didn't know any of the other members well yet. Combine that with the fact that I was the only woman at that workshop and it will come as little surprise that I found the experience slightly overwhelming.
February 2008 - before the workshop

The tree I took to that workshop was the Ficus Wiandi above. It's a rather brittle variety of Ficus, so I was advised not to wire the branches but rather to style it using the clip and grow method, aided by the odd stick used for support.

I removed some of the unwanted branches at that workshop but told my instructor that I'd remove the others at home . My reason? I wanted to plant the cuttings. At that stage my tree looked like this:

February 2008 - after the workshop

Some of the men doubted my resolve to go through with what was suggested, believing that I was afraid to do heavy pruning on my tree, but they were wrong. I went home and removed those branches, putting them into jars of water while I waited for them to root. At that stage my tree was looking pretty bare:

February 2008 - after final pruning

 After that I let it grow unrestrained until December 2008 before taking it to another workshop. During that period it grew really well and the trunk thickened up considerably.

December 2008 - before pruning

After another workshop, it looked like this:

December 2008 - after pruning

The highlight of my relationship with that tree was when I displayed it at our 2009 club show, only 20 months after that first workshop. It didn't take much to satisfy me back then and our club has always encouraged beginners to show their trees, so this is what I put on display:

On show - October 2009

As I grew more experienced I started to see my tree's shortcomings and tried to improve its appearance, but in doing so I forgot my instructor's advice and tried  to wire one of the branches. Sure enough it broke off.

I still persevered with it for a while after that, but it refused to do what I wanted it to, so when show time came around again, I decided to put it on the sales table.

On the first morning of the show one of our senior members was looking at the sales table and got into a discussion on how to improve my tree. Apparently he decided to demonstrate what he would do and, unaware of its brittle nature, he snapped off another branch. Under the circumstances he felt obliged to buy the tree.

I still have one of its cuttings.

Uncooperative cutting - December 2015

It has developed a nice plump base, but like its parent before it, it refuses to give me a decent branch structure to work with. I keep cutting back the top, hoping to get some back-budding, but I fear I'm fighting a losing battle.