Friday, 26 January 2018

Back From the Dead

With so many trees to care for I have some which have been sitting in my bonsai area for years receiving little more attention than what is required to meet their need for food and water. It's for this reason that I've sold most of the Junipers which entered my life when I participated in my club's "New Talent" competition.

Among the other species which I'm becoming increasingly reluctant to work on are my succulents, among them a Portulacaria which has been with me longer than most of my other trees, and longer than I've been a member of my club.

When I first acquired it my plan was to create a cascade and I wired it accordingly. But I was forced to change that plan after a massive hail storm in late 2007 which, in addition to damaging what was then a small collection of trees, broke thirteen windows in our house. Remarkably all my trees survived.

Over the past ten years the Portulacaria has been to a couple of workshops and was taking shape quite nicely at one stage, but as my collection grew it found itself sitting neglected on the lower shelf in my greenhouse (where I'd put it to protect it from further hail damage). And so I failed to notice a Melaleuca seedling which planted itself in the same pot as the Portulacaria. By the time I noticed it, it was already towering over the little Portulacaria. Of course I knew it needed to be moved to its own pot but there was always something more important to take care of. And so it kept growing until I recently realised that it was now towering over me as well.

My first thought was to cut the Melaleuca back to a more convenient height (as I did with this one last year) and put the two trees back into my greenhouse until next spring before separating them, but when I gave it a bit more thought I realised that the wait would only make a really tricky job even more difficult. Although it was the wrong time of year (summer in South Africa) in the middle of December I decided that separating them was a risk I had to take.

December 2017

First I cut the Melaleuca back to half its height, then, with much trepidation I pulled the trees out of their little pot, anticipating a tough time trying to untangle their roots. I had no idea what lay in store for me! The Melaleuca roots were long, thick and inflexible, growing in circles around the inside of the pot. I had no choice but to remove most of them.

By the time I was able to separate the two trees, each was left with only a fairly small root ball.

Portulacaria straight after separation - December 2017

Succulents are tough so I was convinced that the Portulacaria would be fine but, despite having reduced the size of the Melaleuca so much, I was not too optimistic about its chance of survival.

Melaleuca straight after separation - December 2017

My fears only grew when, within a few days, all the old foliage started wilting.

A few weeks later all the foliage had turned brown and I could see no signs of new growth. I was convinced the tree was dead.

Melaleuca looking dead - January 2018

However, I'm never in a rush to throw away my dead trees just in case I'm wrong, so I decided to move it from its shady spot to the area where I've put some of my other dead trees - a spot in which it's been getting only a little morning sun and a rough sprinkling of water.

I hadn't given it much more thought until today when, while watering, I noticed a spot of green near the top of the tree. I felt sure it was my imagination, but on closer inspection I discovered this small cluster of leaves.

New buds - January 2018

There are also several smaller green buds forming lower down on the trunk. Clearly it's not dead after all.

Thankfully all I ever wanted was part of the trunk, so the loss of the branches isn't going to be a problem.

Now I need to find a more suitable spot where it can continue its recovery.

Photo progression of this tree as it recovers can be found here.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Revenge of the Mantis

A few days ago, while pruning one of my trees, I came across a praying mantis on my work surface. I'm pretty sure it's not the same one I first wrote about back in May 2017. This one seems much thinner and I'm convinced it's a male.

Once my work was done I coaxed him back into the tree and returned it to it's place in my bonsai area. When I looked for him later he seemed to have moved on and I felt the odds of finding him again was about as good as searching for a needle in a haystack. I was mistaken.

A couple of days later I picked up one of my sticks in pots, which I planned to bring inside to decapitate that night, and there he was. I didn't want to disturb him so I quickly returned the tree to its stand and chose a different tree to work on.

The fun started the next day when I found him in the middle of eating his lunch - a large ant. Revenge for the death of Mama Mantis's babies that were killed by ants a few months ago?

Of course I had to fetch my camera and record this mundane event. Then I had a flash of inspiration. If I found another ant and put it near to him, could I catch the kill on video?

The answer was yes.

Since then I've been feeding him a couple of times every day and for now he seems quite happy to stay in the little tree on which this video was shot. I hope things stay that way because I'd hate for him to move to another tree and then get a nasty surprise when I start pruning it without knowing he's there.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

When Branches Crack

Among the trees growing in my bonsai area is a skinny fig tree which I started from a cutting off a neighbour's tree when he pruned it in mid-2015. Although it's not much thicker than a pencil, by December 2017 it was nearly two foot tall. Yet it had not produced a single branch. I did however see signs that it was setting buds for next summer's fruit. (*)

Then disaster struck, or so it seemed. The trunk was growing closer to horizontal than vertical, so I decided to wire it into a more upright position, but with a little added movement. The trouble is I wasn't as gentle as I should have been and, while bending it to the desired angle, I managed to crack the trunk. Not a small crack either, this one went more than half way through the trunk.

On another tree I'd probably have cut back to the site of the crack and worked with what was left, but in this case I wasn't happy to do that for a couple of reasons:

  • the crack site was just below the first leaf, meaning I'd have been left with a bare stump
  • as I already have a quirky fig tree I've been working on for some time, my main focus for this one has been on trying to grow fruit. If I'm right about the buds I've seen, cutting back would have delayed my chances of getting fruit.

Although I believed the top half of the tree had little hope of survival, I decided to see if it could be saved. I manipulated the wire to bring the two sides of the crack together, then sealed it with Kiyonal paste.

By the next day the leaf at the site of the crack was starting to dry up and a few days later it fell off but, remarkably, that was the only sign of distress the tree ever showed.

January 2018 - three weeks after the "accident"

Now, three weeks later, there is new growth at the apex, but more importantly it's starting to develop new branches both above and below the crack.

Crack site - new growth is visible at the bottom

It seems that damaging the trunk was actually a blessing in disguise.

(*) I'm certain that somebody will be wondering why I started with such a thin cutting, so let me explain.

The cutting my neighbour gave me was actually big and thick, with too many branches to fit into any pot I owned, so I cut it into several pieces in a variety of sizes, hoping that the thicker ones would root. In time they may have done if we hadn't been hit by what I believed was a severe drought, but was actually relatively minor compared to the drought that is still taking its toll on other parts of South Africa.

When water restrictions were imposed I decided it was time to dispose of whatever was not alive, so I pulled most of the cuttings out of their pots. Sadly one of the thickest ones was just starting to root, but my attempts to save it were unsuccessful. Only this one skinny one survived.

I still hope to get a better fig cutting one day but for now I'm hoping that this one will fatten up. Maybe those extra branches will help.