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.

Updated photos of this tree can be found here.

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.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Taking My Succulents Back to Basics

So things didn't quite go as planned. Although I managed to  sell some trees at last weekend's show (my two best Junipers among them), none of my succulents sold. I think the lack of interest was due to the fact that they're so easy to propagate.

I briefly contemplated putting them on my club's raffle table next month, but I've decided not to give up that easily. Instead I cut them all back to a basic framework, leaving all but one totally devoid of foliage. One will need to be repotted at a different angle and the two in the last photo should probably be separated, but I'm not doing any of that right now.





It will be interesting to see what develops over the next 12 months. Maybe they'll be more desirable by then. Maybe a year from now I'll even want to keep some of them.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Unusual Displays from Last Year's Bonsai Show

With my bonsai club's show only days away, I realised that I still have a bunch of photos from last year's show that I was planning to write about.

Most of the trees weren't quirky, but the manner in which some of them were displayed was unusual.

Ficus with hippopotamus mother and child

Acacia forest with small hut and origami giraffe

Framed juniper procumbens nana rock planting

Junipers growing on a "mountain" - water feature

Juniper procumbens nana in a bathtub

There was also a Juniper in a rusty shovel which I wrote about at the time.

I can't wait to see what our members come up with this year.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Succulent cuttings - two years later

In November 2015 I wrote about the succulent cuttings I was trying to propagate from some broken branches I found in the garden. I should have written an update a long time ago, but with so many trees to take care of I've never given them much attention. Despite that, they're all growing well.

Cutting 1

November 2015

This was intended to be a windswept tree. Unfortunately all the thin branches have broken off and all new growth is going upwards. Clearly a lot of wiring would be needed to make a windswept tree out of this one. Given the brittle nature of this species, a better option would probably be to chop the major branches back and develop a smaller tree.

October 2017

Cutting 2

November 2015

The side branch died, but the rest is growing strongly. It's time to pick a leader.

October 2017

Cutting 3

November 2015

Lots of healthy growth, also going upwards. Another one which would probably need a lot of wiring in its existing form.

October 2017

Cutting 4

November 2015

This was two cuttings in one pot. It seems I picked a leader on the right hand cutting at some stage, but for the rest nature has taken its course.

November 2017

With our club show coming up this weekend, this is my one opportunity to sell some trees this year, and, given the fact that I haven't found time for them over the last two years, I'm probably going to sell all of these. They're all larger than I like to grow my trees and I have some smaller cuttings of the same species which I'm happier to work with.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Birth and Death in the Bonsai Garden

In May I first introduced the praying mantis which laid its eggs on one of my little trees. A few days later she paid a visit to our house, but I was able to return her to my bonsai area without any drama. Sadly she hasn't been seen since. I sometimes wonder whether she climbed onto one of the trees I took to workshop the next day and ended up living in someone else's garden.

Since then I've been waiting impatiently for her eggs to hatch and once the weather started warming up I made a point of watching the ootheca every day in the hope of spotting signs of life. A few days ago I finally saw the signs of activity I'd been hoping for.

I was able to get a couple of quick shots of one of the babies which had already wandered a few inches down the trunk of the tree.

Then I turned my attention to the ootheca and was lucky enough to record the hatching of these two little ones.

While my camera was recording I kept an eye on the activity down below. Some of the babies were wandering across the moss and I feared they would climb off the pot onto the metal table I'd moved the tree to, just as their mother had done shortly after laying her eggs.

A little while afterwards I discovered that I was not the only one who'd been watching them. A few ants appeared and were soon carrying away the motionless bodies of some of the babies.

I can only assume that they had attacked the poor defenceless newborns while my attention was focused elsewhere.

When I saw what was happening I wished there was something I could do to save some of them. Although I was successful in coaxing one baby onto my finger, my efforts were in vain as it quickly jumped back onto the "safety" of the leaf from which it had come, and shortly after that it vanished.

The last signs of life I saw came from this one which lay on the moss for several minutes with one leg twitching every now and again before one of the ants carried it away.

Finally, with a feeling of sorrow, I was forced to return the tree to its shelf.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Show Details

The show is over but our club meets at this venue on the second Saturday of every month. If you live in Joburg perhaps you'd like to pay us a visit and see if you'd like to join the club. It's a great way to learn.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Facing My Fears

Spring is my favourite time of the year. I loving seeing my trees coming out of dormancy and being transformed into a sea of green, with lots of fresh young leaves free from the blemishes that our summer hailstorms will eventually create.

But it's also a time I fear because I've never become totally comfortable when it comes to repotting trees - especially not when it comes to downsizing from a training pot to a proper bonsai pot. I think a part of that stems from a workshop I attended early in my bonsai days.

One of our club members brought along a tree which was in serious trouble. One side looked reasonably healthy but the other side was dying. On close inspection it was discovered that the trouble came from the roots. There was a large air pocket in the soil which prevented some of the roots from getting the moisture they required. I'm not sure what became of that tree but it's haunted me ever since.

I had big plans for this spring though, but things haven't quite gone to plan. August (still officially winter) got off to a really warm start and around the middle of the month I pruned this newly acquired nursery tree and moved it from its black bag into a training pot.

Ligustrum Ibota - August 2017

It's slowly showing signs of new growth but most of the new buds aren't where I hoped they'd be. In fact the thin branch on the left now has no foliage at all and I fear I may lose it. But more about this tree in another post - when I have something to work with. For now I'm playing a waiting game.

Shortly after I potted this tree we were hit by a cold snap, so I decided to wait for the weather to warm up a bit before I continued my repotting efforts.

And then, just as the weather warmed up again, our landline and internet connection suddenly stopped working.

Okay, I hear you thinking, loss of technology should be the perfect opportunity to give my trees my full attention. But no, as I battled to get the problem fixed, I seemed to be constantly sitting at home waiting for repairmen who never arrived. I was afraid to get my hands dirty in case the doorbell rang at an inopportune moment. And every time the problem was fixed, I found myself playing catch-up with my online activities, so I still had little time for my trees. As a result, to date I've only managed to repot a handful of trees and, with most of my deciduous trees now covered in leaves, I fear many of those I'd planned to work on will be remaining in the same soil for another year.

One of the trees that topped my list of priorities however was one of my favourites - a little Ficus Natalensis which has appeared in several of my earlier posts. As I want to display this one at our club's annual show in mid-October it was essential that I get it into a bonsai pot as soon as possible. So a few days ago I finally plucked up the courage to move it.

Ficus Natalensis in training pot - September 2017

For the most part I'm fairly comfortable doing root work on ficuses, but once I got started on this one I became really nervous at the realisation of just how much root I had to remove before I could squeeze it into its tiny new home. And when I thought I was done it didn't look right. The tree wasn't quite straight in the pot and it seemed to be leaning slightly backwards. So I removed it from the pot and started over. It was only at the end of my second attempt that I realised it was sitting too high in the pot, so out it came once more. Getting it to the right level required yet more root pruning and I'm a bit concerned about some of the cuts I made.

While working on it I also removed most of the foliage in the hope of encouraging it to produce nice small leaves for the show.

Ficus Natalensis in bonsai pot - one day later

Since this photo was taken some of the remaining leaves have turned yellow and dropped off but thankfully the new buds are still looking healthy. Still, I won't be comfortable until it shows signs of new growth. Hopefully my concerns will prove to be unfounded, but it's in my nature to worry.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Unsuitable Material for Bonsai

When I first became interested in bonsai (long before I joined my club), it was with the expectation of keeping my trees indoors. This idea seemed perfectly feasible given the fact that one of the first bonsai books I bought was "Indoor Bonsai" by Paul Lesniewicz.

Unfortunately my first attempts soon ended in disaster. I even managed to kill my first Ficus really quickly. But I kept trying. And an idea from that book which seemed like an attractive option was propagating my own trees from the seeds of some of the fruit I ate.

My first attempt was planting citrus seeds. I soon had two little lemon trees growing on my bedroom windowsill. However after the more attractive one died, I aborted that experiment and planted the surviving one in the garden where it lived happily for several years before the bugs attacked it. Seeing it shrinking due to die back, my idea of turning it into a bonsai tree was revived and a couple of years ago I asked our garden service to dig it up so that I could move it into a training pot. Sadly it didn't survive the transplant and I now have a dead stump for which I'd like to find a creative use.

Dead lemon tree

I still have a couple of smaller citrus trees living in my bonsai area, but I don't have much hope of ever turning those into decent bonsai either and have made no serious attempt at styling them. They're over a decade old now, so sentiment prevents me from giving them away.

My next attempt was propagating a litchi tree. It didn't take me long to realise that the foliage was totally unsuited to bonsai, but I've kept the tree in the hope that it will give me fruit one day.

I also tried guavas, but I gave those away a long time ago.

I still have a couple of apple saplings which were another bad choice. I've since bought a couple of crab apple trees which I'm working on, but I've yet to see any fruit or even flowers on those. But I know that they're decent bonsai material so styling is my first priority for now. And I really hope they will get fruit when the time is right.

By the time I decided to plant a mango seed I had no delusions that it would ever make bonsai, but I couldn't resist the temptation to grow my own mangoes. I've actually got two trees now because a couple of years later I found a seed which had already rooted inside the mango and I didn't have the heart to throw it away if it wanted to live that badly.

My older mango tree

My older tree is approximately seven years old now and I was delighted to see that it's starting to flower for the first time.

Mango flower buds

Sadly I've read that it's best to remove the first season's flowers. I'm reluctant to do so, but the health of the tree must be my first priority, so I guess I'll be waiting for fruit for a little while longer.

Meanwhile I do have one fruit tree which I'm hoping will eventually make decent bonsai - a cherry tree.

Cherry tree

This was one of my most difficult attempts at propagating trees from fruit - of nine seeds I planted only two grew and one was an albino (with white leaves) which died as soon as I moved it into the sun.