Follow up: Boxwood Air Layer


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Over the past few years I have attempted multiple air layers on boxwood and have never done a follow up. Examples of posts that describe my attempts include Working Back a Boxwood and A Big Boxwood Experiment. The reason I haven’t been excited to do a follow up is… none of them have succeeded!

The method I use, as demonstrated in this video, definitely works on other species. I have a couple of successful holly layers, and several Japanese maples all made the same way, but on boxwood, I just haven’t had success!

An example of a layer applied to a Japanese maple. This one was successful.

I know roots started to grow on my attempts, however, so if I try to layer boxwood again, I will leave the layer in place for more than one growing season. My error, then, was not confirming that enough roots had grown before removing the layer. I have always been very cautious handling a newly removed layer and avoid manipulating the moss that has been wrapped around the site for fear of braking new roots. I should have known better though. Successful layers on other species have many visible roots when I remove them.

In the meantime, I am making progress on the big boxwood that has been the test subject. A lot of back budding has developed, unwanted branches have been removed, and the dead half of the rink has been carved. I plan to repot and wire it over the next few months.

The deadwood side of a large boxwood that has not layered successfully when attempts were made on unwanted branches.

The tree made me do it.


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I’ve joked for years that I’m trying to quit tropicals. I only have a handful – 7 or 8 trees. I don’t have any more window space to keep more in the winter, and I refuse to invest in grow lights when there are temperate species perfectly happy to spend the winter outside.

Then something like this happens!

A ficus leaf found while cleaning up my bench.

I was trying to clear away some accumulated autumn leaves from a tray of accent plants today and found this ficus leaf that had fallen between a couple of small pots. It is standard summer work to defoliate my ficus trees, so this little guy had probably been sitting in that spot in the moisture tray since July or August. It rooted from the petiole of a single leaf! That’s bonkers!

I just can’t resist the urge to watch and see what happens next, so I put it in a little pot. What’s a guy to do?! The tree made me do it! Or, I guess in this case, the leaf made me do it.

My first time potting a leaf.

Now I have a chicken and egg question… Not which came first, but when does an egg become a chicken? Is this now a tree? Or is it still a leaf?

In the spirit of trying to quit, I will watch and see what happens and then find someone to give this to. It will come with a great story of survival and determination!

Boxwood Carving


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I took my time working through a carving project this summer. Did a lot of looking and thinking about it, and spent several different sessions working the deadwood with hand tools and power tools.

Before carving, 2020

This boxwood has a lot of potential as a highly directional tree. It was collected from a yard in the Fall of 2018 (see Is it Hard to Dig). It is still in a wooden box, and I have selected for the main trunk lines. There is a lot of growing and training ahead for the branches, but I wanted to get the deadwood carved sooner rather than later for a couple of reasons. First, as the branches grow out, there is more difficulty doing carving without branch interference and damage. And second, the sooner the carving is done, the sooner the deadwood can start to age naturally from that form.

Close up of boxwood to be carved.
Before carving.
After carving and burning.
Close up after work.

After torching the wood to burn off some of the tool marks, I took a wire brush over the surface. I will let the wood be for a bit and apply lime sulfur later.

An Actual Bonsai Show


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I wasn’t sure that it was going to happen, but Northern Virginia Bonsai Society decided to hold an actual, physical (not virtual) bonsai show in September of 2020. So many events have been cancelled, but this was a small show setup in the visitor center of a park that was already open and enforcing masks and social distancing inside the building. All we did is add a few trees.

I included two small trees in the exhibit, and while they were no more or less worthy than most of the others I thought I’d tell you a little more about them. (Ok, I admit there were a few that were far more worthy!)

Boxwood “Dr. Seuss” September 2020

The first is this modest little boxwood. I found this back in 2006 yanked out of a neighbor’s garden and tossed to the curb with the trash. I’ve always been one to value the life of every plant, so I picked it up and plopped it in a pot to see if it still had some life in it. Clearly it survived.

When I found it, the little shrub had three trunks. I let it grow for a couple years and decided i wanted to separate the whole plant at the base. It may have been a foolish thing to do, but again, it survived, and so did it’s separated sibling, shown below.

The other two trunks separated around 2009.

The biggest lose from this separation surgery was probably what might have been a stronger base. Both plants have a relatively weak nebari, and while in pots, neither is likely to thicken up their surface roots very quickly.

You may have noticed I captioned the first photo with “Dr. Seuss.” A couple years ago, I showed this tree in another display and overheard someone compare it to a tree from a Dr. Seuss book. I loved the idea and named the tree after the author and illustrator.

The second tree is one I created from scratch in 5 years. This is a willow leaf fig, Ficus salicaria, that I started from a cutting in 2015. I cut a branch from another tree, stuck it down in a pot, and let it grow roots. I let it grow like crazy for two years until the branches were wild, but the roots and trunk were thicker for it.

Cutting in 2015
Grown out, 2017, right before…

Ever since then, I have been working on developing branches and a silhouette in a 7 inch tall, shohin-sized package.

Ficus salicaria as displayed in September 2020

Not too bad for five years work!

Meet Fred


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Do you name your bonsai? I don’t necessarily “give my trees names” as such. In my notes I often give descriptive names to individual specimens especially when I have multiple trees of the same species, but those are usually names like “concord” for a tree I found on Concord Drive, or “monster” for that particularly large tree. The closest thing I come to giving a proper name is when I refer to a tree by the person I got it from, such as “Acer palmatum, Sandi” for the Japanese maple that I got from Sandi’s collection.

But this is Fred…

Fred in an office window, March 2020

Fred is a Ficus benjamina that I have had for a fair number of years. My notes are shockingly bad on the origins of this plant, and that’s ok. After all, we are talking about naming trees here. (We will not go too deeply into bonsai practices.)

I did not name Fred. A friend and coworker of mine did. If I recall correctly, which I probably don’t, my friend decided a number of years ago that she liked two of the trees that I would bring to the office in the winter. She named these two ficus George and Fred. We gave George an honorary place near my friends desk until one year I took it home for the summer and did some major design work. I made some big cuts and the tree was a good bit smaller when I brought it back the following fall.

This didn’t go over well with my friend and she decided she wanted Fred to be near her desk now, rather than George, and every summer since she has given strict orders not to chop Fred down like I had done to George.

Fred after months outside, August 2020

You may not have noticed, but the first photo of Fred in the office window included a yard stick. In March he was a full 36 inches tall, pot included, but after enjoying some warm summer weather, Fred was starting to add some serious length. Above he is pictured in August with a good 16-18 inches of new growth. Yikes!

I shared with my coworker that it was time to do some work on this tree and she conceded to allow me to do what must be done but asked that I leave Fred “on the tall side.” I might not have mentioned that I was going to defoliate, but I had to do what had to be done! Right?

Fred after defoliation, August 2020

To encourage a bunch of new growth and branching throughout the tree, I removed every leaf by cutting through the petiole (the leaf stem). I saved time on the longest branches by cutting several inches and a number of leaves off with one snip to shorten them down a bit. above is what I was left with.

I added some wire and put a lot more movement into the branches. These exaggerated bends are sure to relax later after the wire is removed, so I am ok if some of the branches seem a little overly twisty at this stage.

Fred all wired up, August 2020

It won’t take long for Fred to start pushing new growth all over the place. He has been repotted to a slightly better front, and got a bit of a root prune to promote new growth under the soil as well.

I may joke about my friend being “controlling” over this tree, but in fact allowing this tree to grow out without working it for several years has helped it to progress. Some old cuts are healing over nicely, the trunk has thickened, and it shows a nice overall taper. Not so bad for a Benji. Who knows when Fred will make it back to the office (we are working remotely most of the time these days) but I’m sure he will come back strong and be healthier for the work that has been done.

It’s how you look at it.


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Bonsai is an art form. The most effective bonsai artists employ the skills of artists who work in other media (our medium just happens to be living plants.) Among these skills is looking — I mean REALLY looking.

Ficus microcarpa, July 2020, before work

What inspired me to think about looking was some routine summer work on this humble little Ficus microcarpa. It held on to life through the winter months, and has started to find some of its summer vigor, even in this ill-matched pot.

Now that it is growing strong, it is time to defoliate, prune, wire, and repot. For just about anything but a ficus, doing all of these at once would be foolish. And for most species, doing any one of these in the hottest part of the summer would be just as foolish. But for ficus it works.

Ficus microcarpa after defoliation

So I removed all the leaves, cutting through the petiole of each.

Defoliated Ficus in a new pot

And I got it in a pot that I hope is a little better suited. (In case you are worried, I should mention that this wasn’t much more than a slip pot operation. I trimmed minimal roots around the outside edges and left most of the root ball undisturbed.)

Defoliated, potted, and wired

And I wired the branches, and got it to the point you see above. But what’s all this fuss about looking?!

Well, here’s the deal… I was looking the whole time, right?! I was looking from different angles, and looking even more carefully when I was lining up to take a photo. But this go-round, I did the work, took the photos, and then couldn’t think about it for a while (my 9-to-5 got in the way). When I got around to looking at the photos, all of a sudden I could see things I didn’t like that I didn’t notice before. The photos and the separation from the work (time) gave me a new perspective that I needed.

Teaching yourself, and practicing different ways of looking to create this exact situation (forcing a new perspective), is something artists do in their training. There’s a great article called Critical Looking on What It Means For Art, an Art Education blog. You might not be into art education, but if you are into bonsai, check it out for a list of ways to practice different ways of looking. It just might make you a better artist!

I almost forgot! We were talking about a tree.

After taking another look at the photos, I had to revisit the plant. I adjusted one wire, and snipped two more small branches. And it’s better! Can you see the difference.

Before final adjustment
After final adjustment

Braving the Heat


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I am finally starting the work that needs done on my few tropical bonsai. These poor, abused plants really struggle with the outdoor/indoor cycle they must endure. In my area (Northern Virginia, USA) I need to keep them inside very nearly half the year to protect them from cold night time temperatures — from sometime in October to sometime in May. They pout and just barely hang onto existence while inside over the winter, and it takes a while, once back outside in the summer, for them to rebuild strength and grow well.

Ficus salicaria in April 2020

This shohin-size Ficus salicaria looked okay in April, but it really hadn’t done any notable growing for 6 months. The June and July heat have been good for it, though, and new growth is my sign that it is time for me to get to it.

This is a great time of year to work topicals hard. They are in growing mode, and for tropical, that means quick recovery. This is NOT the time to do this sort of work on most other trees! To repot a maple or a pine this time of year would be a death sentence!

So let’s be clear. If you are trying to learn from this, it only applies to healthy tropical plants. In fact, I should probably say ficus. I’m sure there are other tropical that require different handling. I don’t really want to know. Tropicals are a nasty habit when you live in a temperate zone, and I’m trying to quit!

The video, linked above is a quick time-lapse of the work done on this tree (and your best chance at seeing a before shot).

I removed all the leaves and repotted it into a slightly larger container. I am hoping that giving the roots a little more space will encourage slightly stronger growth, even if that still only occurs in the “outside months.”

Once repotted, I took advantage of the bare branches to wire it up and adjust the branches. To get it into shape, I trimmed a few tips that had extended outside of the silhouette — even if just by a quarter inch or so. It doesn’t take much to require a trim on a tree that is only six inches tall!

I will keep it in the shade until it starts growing, and I expect it to build and harden off a nice new canopy in what remains of its growing season.

After today’s work.

White Pine Convalescence


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This white pine, Pinus parviflora, came into my care last fall. It was a decade overdue for a repot, and as I discovered this spring, had a number of dead branch tips. Below are a before and after shot from removing those dead tips, and you can watch this short video talking more about this tree.

Before, with some dead tips.
After removing dead tips.

I am going to give this tree another growing season before I put wire on it. When the strength of the tree is in question, styling can wait.

First Styling, Satsuki Azalea


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I purchased this Satsuki azalea from a local grower last summer. There seems to be a bit of uncertainty regarding the cultivar. Is it Row Koku or Kow Koku?

ID label showing uncertain variety name.

I will just let these sequential images tell you the rest…

Before work.
Unpot and chop, chop, chop
I will choose the best front later.
In a cheap training pot for now.
And a tiny bit of wire to add some movement.

It’s Scary, but it Works!


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The actions taken in the initial styling of an azalea combine to make one of the more horrifying acts of the bonsai art form. Horrifying to others, that is. I know this approach works, and it doesn’t bother me a bit! Here’s whatI mean…

Azalea after “first steps” toward styling, 2019

Around this time last year I took the initial steps toward styling this azalea, shown above after the work was completed. It started as a nice, full azalea bush covered in green leaves and some faded flowers. I chopped all that off, down to this trunk line.

None of the branches that were on the shrub at that time were going to work for the future bonsai design. But there’s a thing you should know about azaleas — there are dormant buds all along the trunk and branches, often every quarter inch or so. If the tree is healthy and you prune really hard at the right time, it will grow a bunch of new branches. here’s the growth this tree pushed out last growing season.

Azalea with one year’s growth after pruning.

So when is the right time? I told you above. Do that hard cutting right as, or after it flowers. For me, that’s about this time of year and for next few weeks. That’s when the tree is ready to start growing new branches and leaves anyway. If you take advantage of that timing, the tree will respond.

Now that I have a number of new branches to choose from, I can select which ones will make the best design, and remove the others. I can also examine the whorls of leaves, and any place I have more than two tender new branches extending, I will remove extras to leave just two with good lateral placement and a natural angle between them.

Azalea with extra branches removed.

With branches selected, now is also an excellent time to use wire to position the remaining branches and add a little movement. The thin, one-year-old branches are still quite flexible, but will quickly become stiff and brittle — so bend them now!

Azalea with selected branches wired.

If you know it works, it’s not so scary!