Friday, 30 March 2018

The Six Month Challenge

Although I'm disadvantaged by living in the Southern hemisphere, I'm hoping to enter the Reddit bonsai group's nursery stock contest this year. The challenge - transform an untrained nursery tree/shrub into a bonsai by 22 September.

I've started my search for suitable material but I fear I've been overambitious with my first purchase, so the hunt continues. But I won't be writing about my chosen tree (if I find the right one) until after the contest is over. That wouldn't be fair.

Instead I've challenged myself to see what I can do with my own untrained trees over the next six months. For the purposes of this challenge I'll limit myself to trees I've propagated - cuttings, air layers and "weedlings" (trees that I've rescued after they took root uninvited in the pots inhabited by my established trees). Sadly I'm forced to rule out my Trident Maple weedlings and other deciduous material as they will soon be going to sleep for the winter. If this challenge proves successful I might try using some of them for a summer challenge.

Entry to the Reddit contest only closes on 21 June, allowing entrants time to experiment with any number of trees before committing to the one they feel is most promising. I may choose to follow the same path with my challenge or, if things go well, I may continue with more than one. Time will tell.

I just hope that at least one tree will perform adequately given the constraints I've imposed upon myself. It would be embarrassing if this experiment proves to be a total failure.

For now I need to get out among my trees and search for some suitable material. I'll be introducing the candidates soon.

Friday, 23 March 2018

New Ideas for an Old Olive Tree

When Rob Kempinski did the initial styling on one of my olive trees in late 2013 his plan for its future was to create a tree with short, tight pads of foliage. It never even crossed my mind to question his design at the time. But as the tree developed I've always felt something wasn't quite right.

It was only after I wrote my first post about it, however, that I started to see a different way forward. It all started with an illustration I received from one of my Reddit readers, -music_maker-:

Sketch ©-music_maker-

He envisaged a much fuller tree, an idea which really excited me. There was only one problem - two dimensional photos tend to misrepresent trees and as a result he'd put a branch on top of a small jin. I figured his design would need a little tweaking but I was up for the challenge.

With my new plan in mind I allowed the branches to grow, doing only minimal pruning to get rid of misdirected growth, shortening the bottom branch once it had fattened up, and getting rid of the new buds that continue to sprout all over the trunk. But the top remained unchanged.

The next breakthrough came in July 2017 when Kathy Steyn did a demonstration on a much bigger olive at our club. I took my tree along to that meeting for a critique and Kathy also felt that the tree needed a live apex. At the time she suggested I allow a bud coming off one of the back branches to grow and I kept that one for a while. Fortunately the tree produced a better bud coming straight off the trunk, enabling me to remove the poorly positioned one.

My new leader is now growing strongly and I'm really looking forward to the day that I can shorten it and start developing a proper apex. This photo was taken a few days ago:

March 2018

I'm still not too happy with the cluster of branches high up on the main trunk though. They seem rather cluttered and poorly arranged to me and perhaps in time one or two will have to go. Photos from all four sides may give a clearer idea of the true situation:

View from all four sides

And while rotating the tree to get these photos, I started to wonder whether I've been working with the right front. The current one was chosen by a senior member of my bonsai club and is slightly different from Rob Kempinski's original front.

I find myself drawn to this option:

Potential new front

Some will argue that it has less movement than the current front and that the base appears narrower from that side, but I'm not too happy with the appearance of the wide gap between the main trunk and the big jin when viewed from the current front. I find my attention pulled in two opposing directions with no real focal point.

Of course a change of front would mean that the branches will need some tweaking, but I can live with that. I'd rather spend a bit more time regrowing branches if it means developing a better tree.

More photos (and future updates) can be found here.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Choosing the Right Ginseng Ficus

Ginseng Ficus have a really bad name in the world of bonsai and let's face it, a lot of them are really ugly, with huge roots growing in bizarre arrangements. Most of them bear no resemblance to any tree I've ever seen in nature. And yet I've always felt a strange attraction to these peculiar little trees with their fat bases. Especially since I visited Adam Lavigne's blog and saw what a little creativity can do with them.

When it comes to buying Ginseng Ficus, however, I'm hard to please. My trees must have well arranged roots, decent taper... and a low price. Trees like that aren't easy to find, and it took me years to find my first one.

Number one as purchased - June 2013

 I really hadn't planned on buying another until I stumbled upon this one in April 2017:

Number two as purchased - April 2017

The base isn't very different to the first one, but I succumbed to temptation based on my desire to learn from the pruning errors I made with number one.

And then a local supermarket started selling them (wrongly labelled!) far cheaper than they're available anywhere else, so in December 2017 temptation struck once more.

Number three as purchased - December 2017

I really like this one with its single "trunk", complete with a little movement. Sure it's got a bit of reverse taper right now, but after removing the unsuitable aerial roots high up, I buried the lower half of the trunk in river sand to encourage the remaining one to fatten up and possibly to develop more in the right area. Hopefully in time that will help to produce proper taper.

Unsuitable aerial roots removed - December 2017
Potted up with river sand where I want aerial roots to develop - December 2017

Once it was settled in its new pot I removed the unwanted branches below the graft and made the first steps to smoothing out the graft site.

Stub at graft site - January 2018
First steps to smoothing out graft site - January 2018

And in February I realised that the left branch was threatening to take over from the apex, so I shortened it.

Left branch taking over - February 2018

At the same time I did a bit of wiring. This photo shows my proposed new potting angle as the tree is currently leaning over backwards.

Balance restored - February 2018

Number two is getting similar treatment.

Meanwhile in November 2017 I decided the trunk of number one had thickened enough for me to shorten it.

Number one after pruning - November 2017

Due to early mistakes I'm not too happy with the overall shape of the trunk, but hopefully with time (and branch development) that will improve. And hopefully I'll do better with number two and three.

Additional photos including future updates will appear here:

Monday, 12 March 2018

My Air Layering Blunder - a year later

It's been over a year since my blunder when removing the air layer from a member of my family of Ficus Ingens. A blunder which meant that, instead of having one new tree with lots of roots, I found myself with a tree with very few roots and a stub with lots of roots and nothing else. At the time I feared that neither would survive, but by the time I wrote my first update three months later, it was clear that the new tree was alive and well. Things weren't looking so promising for the stub with all the roots though. A bud had formed at soil level, but nothing ever developed there and I feared that the entire stub had died of root rot.

Winter came and went, and now the end of summer is approaching, and all the while they've been left to their own devices on the bottom shelf of one of the stands in my greenhouse, receiving water and the occasional feeding, but no other attention. Today I decided to check how the tree was developing, holding no real expectations of finding a second tree there. I was in for a surprise.

Nothing has ever developed on the upper part of the stub, but clearly the roots are still alive and have sent out a brand new trunk:

The second tree, just starting to grow - March 2018

It's going to be a long time before I can do anything with that one, but perhaps in a lighter position it will develop more quickly now that it's made a start. I don't think it would be wise to disturb it just yet, but hopefully by next summer it will be ready for me to move it to a pot of its own.

The tree it shares its home with hasn't grown substantially, though it's now covered in leaves.

The new tree - March 2018 - with the second tree just visible to its right

I guess it's put most of its energy into developing lots of roots, so I expect to see a lot more growth next summer. Again, a better position should help. As I said in a previous post, the shape is all wrong, so in time I'll have to do another air layer at the bend. I've already identified a suitable new leader, so when the time comes I'll be left with a tree with a little movement. For now the future air layer will help the main tree to fatten up.

As for the parent tree, I haven't done anything to it either but it's been outside getting the full benefit of the sun so it's grown tall and strong. There are lots of new branches near the area of the air layer but it stubbornly refuses to give me any lower down on the trunk.

Parent tree - March 2018

Looking at the structure I was tempted to think that the tree wants to be a literati, but the leaves are far too big to make that an option. One of these days I'll have to sit down and see what other options it has to offer. Perhaps a hard pruning will finally persuade it to produce those lower branches I want.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

What to do with a crazy Lonicera?

It's been four months since I bought my Lonicera  and my little tree is growing like crazy. So much so that I'm struggling to keep it under control.

Two months after its first styling it had grown so much that at first glance it was hard to see that it had ever been styled at all.

January 2018 - before pruning

Looking at all that needed to be done I took the lazy way out, and in January I took it along to one of our club's meetings and let another member do the pruning for me. For some reason he decided to change the front (he seems to make a habit of that, having done the same thing with my clip and grow ficus a month later) but didn't make any other drastic changes. After the meeting it looked like this.

January 208 - after second pruning

On the whole it didn't look too bad, but I was a bit concerned by the fact that the first two branches were now pointing towards the back. However I decided to live with that problem for the time being.

By yesterday, when I brought it inside for a haircut. it was extremely overgrown once more:

March 2018 - before pruning

With so many new branches growing in all directions it was a struggle to decide what to keep and I may well have removed a couple of branches I shouldn't have. Fortunately on a tree this vigorous that isn't likely to be a big issue in the long term.

After pruning, I couldn't help feeling it looked a bit unbalanced:

March 2018 - after pruning

The difficulty of keeping this tree under control got me thinking though, and I can't help feeling that in this case less may be more. I'm seriously contemplating going for a windswept tree. Perhaps with a starting point something like this:

Roughly pruned in Photoshop

Before I commit to any major changes, however, I'd love to hear other people's ideas.

You can find more photos and future updates here.