Animal Interference

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When the average person thinks about caring for a bonsai tree, they probably don’t think about animals. But in fact, many of us need to think about how a variety of animals might impact our little trees.

One that no doubt all bonsai enthusiasts deal with at one time or another is the impact of insects that can weaken or kill a tree. Some of us may consider beneficial insects as well. We might also experience the impact our own pets have, be they cats or dogs… or something else (dog people and cat people can duke it out in the comments below).

My ficus trees, which have to come inside for the winter, have been chewed by the cat at times. I keep most of my trees in the back yard, though, and have had to experiment over the years with the best way to apply organic fertilizer so that my dog can’t eat it and rob the tree of the added nutrients. You can read about just such an experiment here.

I have also written about a helpful beaver in my area – here – who is kind enough to do some pre-bonsai pruning for me. Today I have one more animal to consider. Take a look at this:

Shohin with a “pruned” sacrifice branch to the left

Nothing looks too amiss with this little Elaeagnus, but the long branch on the bench to the left was not removed by me. It was grown as a sacrifice branch which extended from the first branch on the left. I had let this branch grow extra long this season to add thickness to the branch. And it worked. In fact, I might have pruned it just about to the same point in the spring, but a garden visitor did this pruning for me over night. NOT COOL!

A branch pruned by wildlife

Elaeagnus can be rather persistent, holding green leaves well into the winter at times. With the unconfirmed thought that green leaves might mean continued metabolic activity, I had left this little guy on the bench in the sun while the bare deciduous trees in my collection were safer in a winter storage spot.

When I stepped outside the other morning, I found this branch on the ground (as you see it above) along with a couple other broken bits. Rather than a clean cut made from shears, it appears some sharp teeth did the work.

The leaves had been tooth-pruned as well. The tree still had many green leaves the night before, and I initially thought they had fallen in a natural autumn cycle. Upon closer inspection, though, they had actually been bitten off. It seems, some furry friend thought these leaves made a nice early winter snack.

But what kind of animal?!

Despite the tiny, shohin size of this tree, my guess is that a deer did the uninvited pruning. What do you think?

Some Fresh Air… in the Soil

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What do you do when you get a tree that is in desperate need of repotting, but it’s not repotting season? I believe there are a number of good answers to this question, and the various approaches these answers represent may each be suited to a different situation.

I recently became the new caretaker of a white pine that had not been repotted in over a decade. It is planted in what appears to be potting soil or a similarly organic soil. The soil is decomposed, and stays very wet between watering. I applied a simple operation in an attempt to get some fresh air down into this soil until I can repot it in the spring.

First, I cleaned off the soil surface removing damp moss and other debris. A small part of me hoped clearing away some of the decomposed soil might reveal a more granular soil below, but no luck.

Next, I used a chop stick to create a hole down to the bottom of the pot if I could. I wiggled the chopstick to open up the hole to make room for some open, inorganic elements.

I filled each hole with a combination of pumice and lava rock. And worked my way around the soil surface making a new hole every inch and a half to two inches.

For a healthy tree in the same pot for this long, I would expect a thick, dense root mass. The very fact that I was able to make holes to the bottom of the pot without much difficulty suggests that there were few roots, or that many had rotted over the years.

I hope these small pockets of air in the soil will help create a healthier balance of air and water in this pot until I can repot and replace some of this old soil in the spring.

A Moss Tray

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For years, I have collected moss from places where it grows naturally. To simplify the hunt, I have encouraged a large patch of moss on the north side of my house. The moss that grows in my yard, however, is not the fine-textured moss I prefer for dressing bonsai for a show, and this is sometimes hard to find in An appropriate quantity. I have seen some small patches of lovely moss growing in sidewalk cracks this fall, and with no show in the immediate future, I decided to start a moss tray. Let me share how.

Pictured are the items I used for this project: a cheap plastic boot tray purchased from IKEA, a drill, nylon screen, a pumice lava mix (either would do, but I had the mix sitting around), sand, an old blender, collected moss, and a beer.

I should probably insert a joke, here, about drinking beer in the morning, but I only had a couple sips. Beer, it turns out, is supposed to be an excellent nutrient source when you start moss in one of the ways I will show you.

Step 1: drill drainage holes in the tray.

Step 2: cut a piece of nylon screen to cover the holes.

Step 3: cover the screen with a layer of pumice or lava.

Step 4: cover the course layer with a layer of sand.

…and smooth the sand until the tray is evenly filled.

I am going split the tray with two techniques, so Step 5A: blend together collected moss and beer.

Step 6A: pour this mixture over the sand (in my case, half the sand).

Step 5B: (Are you following my number system, or am I confusing you?) If you want to try approach B, press collected moss into sand leaving space between that will fill in as the moss grows.

Then water gently. (I’m not gonna try to number this one!) I used the water to gently spread the beer mixture to cover the full surface of the left side of the tray.

And that’s it! I will watch to see how these two sides develop, and I will share the results. With any luck, I will have a full tray of beautiful, fine-textured moss just like the moss I collected. I can use this to dress up my trees when it’s time to show.

If you try this out yourself, or have other tricks to share, let me know. I’d love to hear from you.

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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