A Tale of Two Pines

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In 2017, I collected a couple of Virginia pines, Pinus virginiana, and put them in grow boxes to recover. After two years they were both growing strong, so this spring I am removing them from the wooden boxes, adjusting the planting angle, and doing some related root work.

This one is in a rather shallow box, and laying over at an angle. In the photo above, the back corner is propped up by 8 inches or so. The angle will need to be adjusted even more than that, and yet there is a thick root behind this trunk that is essentially pointing up at this angle. This, and other roots will have to be removed.

Once out of the box, I was really happy with the root development from the past couple of years. There were many fine roots, and I wasn’t worried at all about removing some of the larger roots that were at a bad angle.

As you can see above, I decided to leave some roots exposed. I think this adds interest and creates a wider base at the soil level.

You may also notice that I removed a large branch from the left side of the tree. I left a couple of inches, removed the bark, and peeled back some wood to create a Jin. I think there is another big cut that is needed.

Ah! Much better. There was no taper in the upper section of the trunk line, so I removed and jinned it too. This should be good I This pot for a few years while I set a design.

The second pine repot is in a video for your viewing pleasure. Sorry I didn’t get all dressed up for you. Check it out!

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Working Back a Boxwood

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Even after 20+ years in bonsai I am still trying to learn patience. In the case of one chunky boxwood that I collected a couple of years ago, I am practicing that patience while I gradually work the tree back to a size appropriate for a future, finished tree.

If you’ve ever looked at large boxwood growing in someone’s landscaping, you may have seen how the branches can grow quite long and only have leaves out at the ends. That outer foliage can be so dense that the shaded inner branches may be completely leafless. This was the case with this old landscape plant, so it will take some time to build strong enough growth closer to the trunk.

As you can see in the photo above, the tree is already doing this sort of serious growing. The more-than-12-inch branch I am holding in my hand has grown from nothing in two years from a part of the tree that had all of the branches with foliage completely removed. The other parts of the tree could benefit from a response like this so I am doing some significant reduction of the growth on the longest, old branches.

Those long branches are offering many adventitious buds, as you can see above, and with some heavier pruning these will gain strength. When some of these gain enough length and vigor, I will be able to further reduce these branches.

The focus today, then, is removing significant foliage mass from the ends of these long branches including all the branches moving to the right of the main trunk in the image below.

The black dish tray on the right is full of clippings just removed from the long branches. Removing this stronger apical growth will push more energy into the many sprouts popping up along the branches.

You may also notice a bright, silvery area along one branch toward the middle of the image. This is an air layer, covered with aluminum foil, that was started last spring, and I think it’s time to remove it.

Here’s that same layer removed and potted. I hope you can see why I thought it might be worthwhile to use layering to work this plant back in size. There’s no use wasting material that has potential to be a good tree!

All I can do now is use some of that patience and leave it alone. I will fertilize strongly this season, and I may even start another air layer, but there is a good amount of time before a plant like this will be styled – a couple more years at least.

For now, I will have to satisfied with the opportunity to take a hard look at the trunk line and base to begin to consider the planting angle and front of this future bonsai. I am definitely planning to remove the straight, thick trunk rising vertically from the first split, easily visible in this next image. With that in mind, do you think I should go with this first front and trunk line as a leaning or semi-cascade style?

Or this second possible front that would change the angle upward to highlight the strong taper evident in the trunk line that wraps around to the left?

I’d love to hear your thought!

Winter Warmth

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Compared to the Midwest United States, where I grew up, winters in Northern Virginia are rather mild. Most daytime highs are well above freezing. Occasionally, however, we get a blast of very cold, arctic air, like the one rolling in today, which causes worry for the well-being of my bonsai, accustomed-as-they are to this milder climate.

Some of you may have read about the expansion and improvement of my winter storage cabinet. (You can go HERE if you want to check it out.) I’ve been thrilled with it’s performance thus far. When closed, this enclosure is generally six to ten degrees warmer than outside temperatures, and I attribute that difference solely to the radiant heat from the house and enclosed window.

As good as this is, the forecast is calling for single digit temperatures (Fahrenheit) which is cause for concerns for a few of the more tender, less cold-hardy specimens I am keeping here, so I have decided to add another heat source. This…

What is it?

This is a small radiant heater that I have fashioned from a number of unused terra-cotta pots. You may have seen a similar candle-powered version which is a great emergency strategy for power outages and the like. This one is a bit different because it is electric.

When I expanded in the fall, I included the exterior power outlet inside the frame of the enclosure. This makes putting my heater into the cabinet super easy.

Let me show you what I have.

The bottom half of the heater is a terra-cotta pot with an old clip lamp I had lying around. The cord extends through the drainage hole, and the lamp is secured in the center pointing upward.

The bulb I am using is a ceramic heat emitter designed for pet reptiles. You should be able to find a similar product wherever you buy pet supplies. This sort of bulb comes in 60 watt and 100 watt varieties (if not others). I am using the smaller bulb, but could increase the heat output with the larger if I was so inclined.

The top half is a series of ceramic pots bolted together through their drainage holes. Suspended above the heat lamp, these absorb and gradually radiate the heat into the space. This many pots may not really be necessary with a consistent, electric heat source, but I assembled these originally for use with candles, and have since adapted to the electric version I am sharing today.

There’s nothing else to it, and I’m sure you could fashion something similar with some spare pots and a little ingenuity.

I have placed my heater on the ground level of the enclosure — heat rises after all. I plugged it in to get warm and sealed the door so the heat can build up a bit. I hope the heater will give a little boost to keep the space even warmer than outside where the temperatures will be dropping all day. We expect arctic winds and sub-freezing temperatures by the evening.

In the meantime, I’ll be checking the thermometer that hangs within from the warmth of the house. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Don’t be like me

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There’s a natural tendency to believe that authors share those helpful, how-to blog posts because they know what they are talking about and have sufficient experience to know the methods they share are effective. Well not this time folks! You should not do what I do when it comes to caring for your tools. You should do better!

Around this time, every year, I decide to do some major cleaning and sharpening of all my bonsai tools. Why now? Because I’m bored. There’s nothing to cut with my scissors, so I will sharpen them instead!

The problem is, I don’t really do much tool care except for this one time per year — and I should be ashamed of myself! That’s where you need to do better. I know I should clean my tools more often, but I just don’t.

One of the tool care items I should use more often, because it really is a great, easy to use item, is this thing:

You wanna know what it’s called? Read the package… and then tell me what it says. I can tell you that you should be able to find this or a similar product by searching “rust eraser” online. And that’s what it is. It’s a small rubbery abrasive block that is great for removing rust, sap and other buildup from your tools.

Take a look at the dark, sappy buildup on the inside of this concave cutter blade, above, for example. After just a little careful rubbing, making sure not to rub my fingers against any sharp blades, the deposits are gone, below.

Using this abrasive cleaning tool is step one in my big cleaning and sharpening event today. I pulled out a pile of tools and examined each for areas that needed cleaned and used the rust eraser on everything first.

Then I checked each to see if sharpening was needed. Today I used my son’s three sided wet stone assembly to take care of any sharpening that was needed. (Thanks, Cole.)

The trickiest part about sharpening is laying the blade at the correct angle on the stone. It takes some practice, and if you are not used to sharpening your own tools, there are a bunch of helpful videos available on line.

Another check I make on each tool is that the hinges haven’t come loose. I didn’t need to correct anything this year, but many bonsai tools can be tightened up with a good hammer whack against an anvil or other solid surface.

With everything cleaned up and sharpened, the last thing I do is give everything a spray and wipe down with good ol’ WD-40.

There’s nothing better for keeping water away from your steel, so I make sure everything has a good protective layer on it. I don’t even mind if the tools are a little bit oily right now. I can wipe them off more later. They are just going to sit around for the rest of the winter, waiting for spring to come so they can get busy again.

Kinda like me.

Removing Beech Leaves for Winter Storage

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I have collected a few American beech, Fagus grandifolia, in recent years and have enjoyed learning about their growth habits and watching them regain strength. I know the American beech is less ideal for bonsai than its smaller-leafed European cousin, but I am interested to see how bonsai techniques will impact these native trees.

American beech bonsai, collected 2018

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Why do you bonsai?

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We don’t ask this question frequently enough: “Why do you practice bonsai?” And when we ask it, I don’t know that many people answer in a way that really helps us understand how different each of our approaches can be. Responding with something like, “I really love trees,” or, “I love the time I spend in my garden,” for example, is not really the kind of answer that is helpful. When I ask why, here, I really mean WHY?! What is your purpose? What are your goals? What sets you apart from others? Knowing your WHY should drive your decisions, your actions, and your interactions with other bonsai enthusiasts.

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The Way Bonsai People See the World

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I happened to pass a shopping center where they were tearing out all of the trees and shrubs from all the medians in the parking lot. My reaction to this really got me thinking about just how differently bonsai people see the world.

I guess this distinction was brought into focus when I ask someone working in one of the shops how long the work had been going on. When I suggested I might take one or more of the plants she looked at me like I was an alien.

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