Study group magic

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This summer I decided to join a study group set to meet with bonsai artist Sergio Cuan multiple times per year. We do our best to bring at least some trees back each time to make progress in their development with consistent support from the study group artist.

Willow leaf oak, summer 2018

One of the trees I worked on in June is this willow leaf oak, Quercus phellos, I had collected in 2017. After analyzing the tree, Sergio made the quick sketch, shown below, and we wired the primary branches.

At that time in the middle of the growing season, it was recommended that I wrap the wires to prevent damaging the thin bark on young branches. I didn’t have appropriate materials with me to wrap the wires, but we managed by wrapping with strips of paper towel. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the job.

Willow leaf oak after wiring primary branches, June 2019

The tree recovered well over the next few months, and I did a little carving on the stump that extends past the main leader.

Deadwood feature on willow leaf oak, October 2019

Now with freezing temperatures upon us here in Northern Virginia, the leaves are changing colors and deciduous trees are transitioning into dormancy. I brought the tree back to study group today, and we were able to take the tree a big leap forward!

I removed all of the leaves and wired the tree out completely. We pulled out Sergio’s original drawing and managed a little study group magic!

Willow leaf oak after wiring, November 2019

I am so excited to get this into a nice pot in the spring and see how it looks in leaf. It is really remarkable how fast a tree can advance with some care and the guidance of a pro! Thank you, Sergio, for all your help!

Taking “Leave it Alone” Too Far

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A common challenge for bonsai practitioners is learning not to do too much to a tree. Over-working a bonsai will slow development or even kill it. I’ve learned this lesson over and over, and have started to become more patient in recent years. More than ever before, I find myself making the conscious decision to do nothing, leaving a tree to grow out even when I am eager to style or do some other operation. Today I am learning that it is also possible to take “leave-it-alone” too far.

Letting a tree grow out to build strength can be an effective strategy. As I am learning today, however, it is possible to leave-it-alone to a degree that will hinder development just as badly as over-working.

The Squamata Juniper, Juniperus squamata, shown above was being left alone to grow, but I should have been watching it more closely. It was starting to develop a pretty significant foliar mass (which is great!) but you can also see that something is wrong. There are many browning patches.

Some of the brown needles, those lower down on the branches, represent a normal growth pattern — the three-year-old needles turn brown as the branch underneath lignifies into a brown woody stem. The brown needles at the tips, however, are a real problem. The culprit in this case is scale.

Those little white specs along the leaves are adult scale insects, sucking away at the sap and hunkered down under their protective, waxy scale covering which protects them from topical pest controls like insecticidal soaps and oils. These treatments ARE effective on the microscopic juveniles, but you have to catch them at the right time when they are still moving about on the tree.

Now that I have left it alone too hard, what am I going to do?! I’m going to do four things.

  1. Remove old brown needles so they can’t be used as hiding places when I use topical insect treatments. Before and after is shown below.
  2. Treat with neem oil and repeat every 7-10 days to catch and stop any new life cycles.
  3. Remove badly damaged tips and along with the still-attached adult scale. See image below.
  4. Treat with a systemic insecticide to kill the remaining adults.

I am hopeful that this combination will take care of the infestation, but this is a significant setback for the plant. The dead tips I had to remove should have been the growing tips that provide for the future of the tree.

For each shriveled tip I had to remove, I have to hope new buds will take over further down the branch.

The scale has reduced the health of the tree, so guess what I need to do now? I need to leave it alone — but not too much! I will watch it much more closely over the coming months to make sure the scale is totally cleared up, and to watch for any other problems. As much as I have been looking forward to styling this tree, I will have to wait until it is back to a state of strong growth.

Kept for 22 Years, Improved in 3

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I just got one of those “3 years ago…” memory posts from Facebook that showed the summer work I did on a Ficus benjamina in 2016. It’s the same Benji I shared in this recent post. The difference in just three years is huge! Despite owning this tree for 22 years, this is what it looked like 3 years ago.

F. Benjamina in 2016 after defoliation

And this is what it looked like after three more years of refinement.

F. Benjamina in 2019 after defoliation

It’s not a world-class tree, but the ramification is really improving and it makes an incredible difference!

Now here’s what I want you to consider: 2016 is the same year I joined my local bonsai club, Northern Virginia Bonsai Society (NVBS). As a result, I was able to start making significant progress on this not-so-significant tree in a fairly short period of time — progress I was unable to achieve in the 19 years prior. The tree didn’t hit a magic age and start improving by itself. I started learning what I hadn’t learned practicing on my own.

If you haven’t done so already, find your local bonsai club and join up. Or if one doesn’t exist, find other enthusiasts in your area and start one. If you’re not sure what to do after that, let me know.

Bad Words in Bonsai

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I am going to talk about some bad words… the F word and the B word. That’s right my bonsai friends, I want to talk about Ficus benjamina.

Ficus benjamina as displayed, spring 2019

F. Benjamina is a Ficus variety that gets little respect in the bonsai world, and I get why. The leaves are big and the internodes are long. It’s not an easy species, but I’m willing to bet there are a whole lot of enthusiasts who have one. Maybe it was an early purchase before they knew better, a gift from a well- meaning friend, or a survivor from a house plant experiment. Owning one is not a crime, so let me share mine with you.

This Benji has been in my collection since 1997 by my best figurin’. I started in bonsai in 1996, so whatever its origins, I have cared for this tree for far too long to consider discarding it now. (And please don’t judge me for not getting it further along in the twenty plus years since. Remember, I was just wingin’ it for most of that time.)

It wasn’t in horrible shape after the winter months inside, so I decided to show it this spring. At top is how it appeared in the NVBS Spring Show.

Below is how it looked this morning. Getting a bit bushy.

Ficus benjamina before work

It has been enjoying the summer heat and pushing new growth. So, of course, I decided to cut all the leaves off. Well, all but a couple on the end of a branch that needs to thicken up. Leaving those will give that branch a head start on the rest of the tree.

After defoliation, before wiring

As I clipped each leaf, I also removed any growth beyond the first two leaves on new extension growth. With some luck, I will get two new branches on each of these tips (one from the base of each leaf) and continue to improve the ramification.

I am happy to report that this maturing tree in this small pot is maintaining fairly short internodes – relatively speaking. Many of these were just a half inch or so. Not bad for a Benji.

After this pruning, you can see that the shape is still reasonably controlled, but the branches have crept up from where they were last wired. To avoid the potential for wire scarring, I decided to make a tie down ring and use guy wires on most of the major branches. (Note the ring of wire with loops under the lip of the pot, and the rubber tubing wrapped over the tops of several branches.)

After wiring

Some additional wiring was required on some smaller branches, as well, to get everything back in order. I should see new leaves on this tree over the next couple of weeks.

This will never be a world class Ficus bonsai. There are many varieties that do better, but this little Benji has been there through my bonsai journey, and I don’t intend to stop working with it.

If you have a Benji too, I’d love to see it. No judgement here!

Tie Down Ring

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This crepe myrtle is very early in its development, and I need to bring some branches down along with a little mid summer trimming. Crepe myrtle has such smooth delicate bark though, and I hate the idea of wire marks on the branches.

Fortunately, this ceramic training pot is just right for a tie down ring. A long piece of wire with a few twisted loops can be secured just below the lip of the pot Allowing me to use guy wires with plastic tubing to protect the bark.

The ring is prepped – better to make more twists that you think you will need!

I positioned the tie down points in the places where I thought I would need them and secured the ring with a twist. Since this pot is round, it was easy to rotate the ring to adjust the position of the tie down points slightly. The same method could be used with just about any pot with a lip, but in the case of a rectangular pot, for example, adjusting the position would be more cumbersome.

I ran each guy wire through a short piece of tubing and secured this around the branch.

Then I could thread the wire through one of the loops and pull it down into position. With this arrangement, I don’t need to worry about wire scarring and I can leave the guy wired on for an extended period.

This tree has a long way to go, but there’s some potential there.

That’s all for now.

Vigorous deciduous

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Deciduous species that grow continuously throughout the growing season (vigorous deciduous) include hornbeams, some types of maple, and the little autumn olive trees I enjoy working with, Elaeagnus umbellata. I discussed one of these recently in this post, and wanted to briefly show you the pruning process.

This shohin size tree had some wire applied in the dormant season and has been growing well since. You can see the new growth has extended significantly (see the nearly white stems?) and the leaves are over-sized.

To bring something this small back into shape, I need to prune back to just two leaves on each new branch to encourage ramification (more complex branching) and remove the leaves to force a new, hopefully smaller flush of growth.

In the photo above, you can clearly see where the whitish growth emerges from the older, gray-brown stem right at the tip of my middle finger. I have already cut it back to the two leaves that remain.

Then I cut off each leaf leaving just a tiny triangle of surface area as a sort of insurance policy. That tiny remaining leaf bit will provide a little energy while the tree starts a whole new set of leaves.

Once most of the leaves have been removed you can see the wire that has been in place since the spring. Removing that wire is much easier with no leaves, so I will do that now.

One branch was left a little crazy. The lowest branch on the left is a replacement branch to one that had become too thick. I have left a few leaves at the end and will continue to allow it to thicken up a bit. Those leaves really illustrate the scale we are working with.

A closely cropped image gives a better idea of how this little guy is developing.

With some luck I will get a new branch at each of the two leaf stems that was left at each tip and have twice as many twiggy branches next time.

Big moves, No fear

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If you had asked me early in the day, yesterday, “What’s one thing you have gained with experience in bonsai?” I would have said the confidence to take dramatic action without the fear and hesitancy I had as a newb.

I remember how scary it once was just to repot a tree, and I have watched new members of my local club struggle with the same hesitation. With experience, I have become more confident in a number of bonsai operations, including some bold ones I did yesterday. Then, whether he knew it or not, an experienced artist helped me see that I still have some hesitancy to overcome.

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Sensitive to Root Pruning

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I have decided, at least on a small scale, to experiment with and test the suitability of American Beech as bonsai material. Beech are a mainstay of the temperate deciduous forests I love, and they are readily available for collecting.

Problem number one, as the Latin name suggests, is that American beech, Fagus grandifolia, have big leaves. Grandi = big. Folia = leaves. I look forward to being able to address leaf reduction on the species eventually, but I have only been collecting beech at one or two specimens a year for 4 years so I don’t have trees at a level of refinement that answer this topic yet.

At this early phase, I am prepared to report on only two things, each with a different degree of confidence.

First, THEY SURVIVE COLLECTION. I feel confident in saying this. Of the beech I have collected, all but the largest attempt survived the collection process. That’s six successes out of seven attempts, not a bad rate. The one failure I had was really oversized and I probably shouldn’t have attempted it in the first place. Attempting to collect large specimens may be less likely to succeed, but I believe there is a significant range on the smaller end of the scale, easily up to four inches in diameter or so, that is very likely to survive when collection is done carefully.

A significant factor in successful collection is timing. I like to collect when the buds are starting to lengthen but before they open. That said, I have also found that the jostling of the digging will shake a still-tight lengthening bud to the point that the leaves will begin to emerge during the process of digging and transporting back home. So handle with care!

Second, THEY ARE SENSITIVE TO REPOTTING & ROOT PRUNING. Of this I am less certain, and indeed it seems contradictory to the first conclusion. Nevertheless, each of the few trees that have been repotted, usually a couple of years after collection, have really seemed to sulk about it for some time afterward. Following a repot with root pruning, certain branches may show significant weakness and many of the leaves across the tree will partially brown or show other damage.

One month ago (at the end of April in Northern Virginia) I removed the tree below from the box it had been recovering in for two years. I completed this operation with the same timing I described above for digging. The buds were lengthening, some of them significantly.

Beech before repotting with extending buds

I did have to remove some unsightly roots in addition to some more general root pruning you would expect in order to get it into a smaller pot.

Beech in its new pot before branch movement

I also did a small amount of branch movement. You may be able to see the first branch crossing in front of the trunk line. One thin branch on the right was wired out of the way, and this larger first branch was pulled back toward the smaller trunk in the back with a guy wire. Can you see the difference above and below?

Beech with a couple of low branches wired back

The tree hasn’t done too badly, but there are a lot of brown edges and some leaves are smaller than expected, as if starved because the root that fed them had been shortened or removed. This includes the small wired branch, so I should pay attention in the future to see if wiring impacts leaf growth.

Damaged and weak growth following repot

Below is how it looks today, one month from repotting. Not bad, but this is the “thinnest” the leaves have been on this tree since being collected.

Just for comparison’s sake, look how full the beech below is a little over a year from collection.

Another beech with full leaf canopy

With feeding and time they usually demonstrate a full recovery, but I have lost one small small beech after keeping it for three years. It did not survive the winter following a repot. It just didn’t seem strong afterward and this is the only reason for not surviving I can put my finger on.

I will continue to watch, test, and report back. Stay tuned.

Boxwood Bonsai Refinement

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In my area of Northern Virginia, boxwood have had new leaves for six weeks or more already. Buds that were set last fall extended at the beginning of April, give or take a little, and the trees have had time to recoup some of the energy that was used for that spring push. The new growth is still somewhat tender — not fully hardened off — but this also means it is still easily distinguished from last year’s growth. This is one of the reasons I think now is a great time to do some refinement pruning.

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A Big Boxwood Experiment

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It’s been a rough spring! I am having one of those existential seasons that make me question how I can be so incompetent after more than two decades in bonsai. I lost several trees. While none would be considered excellent bonsai by the greater bonsai community, they were my trees, and losing trees is never easy.

My overall conclusion is most of them suffered from nutrient deficiencies and/or root damage caused by record rainfall last summer. That makes it sound like it’s no fault of my own, but I struggled with how to respond to problems as they became evident, and I definitely made some bad decisions along the way.

It’s time to move past that, embrace the growth and renewal of the past couple of months, and start looking to the future (and start writing again). One way I am looking ahead is by playing with propagation. This week I started two Japanese Maple layers. I have had success with these in the past and expect them to do well. If you’d like to know my process for these, you can read about it HERE.

I am far less confident in my latest experiment – a BIG boxwood layer. I have taken successful air layers off this same boxwood before but have never done an air layer this large on anything! The good news is, this is a zero risk experiment. I plan to remove this whole section for the future design of the parent plant, so if it fails and the part of the tree above the air layer dies, it’s no loss. It is going to be cut off anyway.

Since this is such a large layer, I expect it to take a long time and I felt like I had to do things a little differently. Let me show you what I did.

The long, straight upper bit of this plant is the subject. The future design of the lower part of the tree is on the back from this view, and not the topic for today anyway.

I used chalk to mark where I intend to remove the bark and cambium, then used a very sharp knife to cut along the lines, peel the bark, and scrape all the green cambium away from the white sapwood underneath.

After I have it fully scraped, I always recut the top line just to make sure I have the cleanest cut I can get. This is where the new roots will grow.

Here’s where things get different. I intent to use this plastic pot rather than my usual bag technique. I cut it down one side and cut out the bottom to fit around the trunk, but I also have to figure out how to secure it in place and keep soil from coming out the gaps and drain holes. Since it is wrapped around a trunk, it’s a bit more awkward than just putting mesh in the bottom.

I decided to use a scrap of screen which I wired to the tree below the bottom cut.

Then I built up a thick lip of twisted raffia on top of that wire. The pot will rest just above this lip which will serve to hold it in place.

For good measure, I secured the raffia with vinyl tape and then bent down the screen so it would cover the drain holes in the bottom of the pot.

Can you guess what’s next?

Well, yes. Attach the pot, and also dust the top cut with rooting hormone.

The pot fit nicely above the lip of wire, raffia, and tape. More tape was used to close the cut side, and it was filled with a soil mix that includes a couple handfuls of fine sphagnum moss.

The goal is to keep the cuts damp and dark so new roots can form. With the open top, moisture can be monitored and the soil can be watered at any time.

I have no idea how long this might take. My assumption is longer than a year.

Whether it will work at all is another question. We shall see. One way or the other, I will learn something. And isn’t that a kind of success in itself?