Holding my ground on the Ugly Pine

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Have you ever taken a bonsai to a club meeting or a workshop just to get everyone’s unsolicited advice about how you should style it? We have an often repeated joke in our local club that if you ask ten different people you’ll get twelve different answers. That’s especially true when you have an unkempt tree that is in desperate need of styling. And apparently also true if you don’t even ask.

This is exactly what happened when I brought a pine to a club meeting last weekend. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the tree I have been calling the ugly pine…

The ugly pine before styling

It’s a Virginia pine, Pinus virginiana, that I collected a few years ago. It recovered well and has been a vigorous tree. Obviously I have made some decisions like removing the large trunk that is now a jin. I even started to work on styling it a while back and wired the trunk and primary branches at a workshop where the attending professional artist obviously didn’t think much of the tree. (So we didn’t get very far.)

And that brings me to the first major point I want to make here. Not everyone takes the same attitudes into this art form. If you have been doing bonsai for long, you’ve probably heard some version of “This tree isn’t worth your time,” or, “If this we’re mine I’d get rid of it.” I’m sure the bonsai artist at that workshop said something like this when we worked on this tree.

Well, some of us don’t think that way. I’m a hobbyist who does bonsai strictly for the joy of it. I have no requirement to maximize the outcome of my efforts. I don’t need to save space on my benches or reduce my collection. And I don’t care if every tree I have lacks the potential to ever be an award winning tree. I do bonsai because I enjoy it. I love the process. I love the challenge, and that includes the challenge of developing an ugly tree over the long term if need be.

I have plenty of ugly trees. Would you like to see some?

An ugly holly
An ugly beech
An ugly wisteria
An ugly oak

If you want to read more of my thoughts on the variety of philosophies we bring to bonsai, check out Why do you bonsai? Let me get back to the ugly pine…

Since my not-so-positive workshop experience, this tree has just been sitting on the benches continuing to grow while I continued to analyze it. The reason I decided to take it to a recent club meeting (just a work session, not a workshop) was because I had decided what I wanted to do with it.

The ugly pine with an alternate trunk line

I decided to wire this lower branch into a new trunk line and remove the trunk on the left in the photo. I was so certain this was my direction that I went ahead and removed a couple of branches from the left trunk that were shading the right side. I planned to decide, when I did the styling, whether to remove the rest from the right at that time or perhaps leave some part of the trunk and foliage to be removed later to maintain strength in the tree.

Ugly pine with some unwanted branches removed

I found it really ironic, then, that after removing branches from the current trunk line in a move I thought effectively “ruined” that trunk, the first suggestion I received upon my arrival at the club meeting was to remove the lower branches and us that current trunk to make a literati style pine.

And that was just the first! Out of a great deal of respect for the person offering this advice, I put the pine aside to consider the suggestion and worked on other trees. By the end of the session six or seven possible designs had been discussed, unsolicited, by four people. (See how that works?!)

I didn’t touch the tree. I brought it home, seriously considered the various possibilities, and decided that my original plan was the right one for me. And then I grabbed some cutters and made a move with confidence I was doing the right thing.

The big decision & cut

After wiring, I took a good long time to contort and position the trunk and branches.

The ugly pine after wiring

Me thinks it’s not so ugly any more. I have some jin work to do – jinning the new cut and reducing the existing jin, but I am really happy with the direction this is going. Others may not agree. And that should be ok.

Beech Bonsai Progress

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I am super excited about the development of a beech I collected and shared with you two years ago. You can read about that, and see photos from the time of collection here. For a quicker reminder, here’s a photo from autumn 2018, just a half a year after being collected.

Beech in fall color, November 2018

So here’s the thing… I’m starting with a great piece of material. It’s not a “typical” bonsai form. In fact, I’m quite certain I would never grow a tree like this from scratch if I knew how. But I love it! It’s kinda wild, and rugged, and I don’t want to lose those qualities.

I am very grateful to have the help of Sergio Cuan in designing and refining this tree. We have worked on it together just twice, in November and this month (March), but I am excited in its progress and direction. Here’s the tree before work last week.

Beech before wiring in March 2020

Last fall we made some branch selections, carved at some of the thick and knobby beaver cuts, and pruned it into shape. This month the goal was to get it wired.

Sergio Cuan placing branches

The changes may be subtle, but I can really see how the wildness is being gently tamed without losing the character of the tree. Here’s how it looked at the end of the session.

Beech at the end of the study group session

One task remained for me to do at home — to attach a guy wire and pull down the first branch on the left. I didn’t have a way to anchor the wire at study group so took care of this at home with a screw and a drill.

All wired up, plus a guy wire

I look forward to watching this tree grow out this spring, and develop into the future.

Using the ‘B’ word

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For years when people asked me about bonsai, I was hesitant to use that word — the ‘B’ word — Bonsai. It meant something more than most of my trees represented, so I would say, “Yes, but I like to call them Potensai…They have the potential to one day become bonsai.” My trees AND I have gotten much better, but there are still occasions, and there are still plants that make me feel this way. One such is a wisteria planting I have kept around for a staggering 16 years.

Wisteria before repotting in 2020

In fact, this is multiple wisteria plants. Back in 2004 I collected a few tiny wisteria vines and for years kept them in individual pots. I over worked them, repotted too often, pruned too often, and never really gave them a chance to develop into anything. A few years ago when I decided to start improving my collection I decided, rather than discard these, I would put them together in one pot and let them go for a while. In fact, I bound them together in hopes that they would merge into one plant. That hasn’t happened yet but regardless, it is time to repot.

Wisteria cluster after repotting in 2020

The cluster of plants presents a nice base and nebari, but in the process of repotting it became clear that while the roots may be tangled into a single mass, the trunks were still very much their own.

As I suggested at the beginning, I don’t really consider this bonsai. I intend to let it go crazy to the degree it can in this pot, but I haven’t given up on this low-stakes experiment. I decided to re-bind the trunks with raffia to see what happens.

Wisteria cluster bound with raffia

Maybe the trunks will merge into one, and maybe they won’t. Maybe one day I will train it as a bonsai. Or maybe I won’t.

The Perfect Position

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This is a weakness of mine — something I need to work to improve — positioning the tree perfectly in the pot. I don’t mean positioning the tree perfectly according to some rule or mathematical ratio. I just mean actually tying the tree into the pot the way I had intended to! This autumn olive, Elaeagnus umbellata, will demonstrate.

Elaeagnus umbellata before repotting

In the image above, I have rotated the tree to show an approximation of my intended front. The tree is still very early in development, and while this repot will involve adjusting the front for aesthetic reasons, the main reason is that the soil in this pot has been draining too slowly. If not for the drainage issue, I might have left it in this training pot for a while longer.

Placed in the pot showing the correct front.

With the old soil removed, we have a better look at the nebari. I was just placing and photographing for fit, but the image above shows exactly the front I want. Most important in this placement are the surface roots. That fat one on the left is angled just right to show the width of the base without coming straight toward the viewer.

After repotting, but the front is not perfect

Somehow, despite my efforts to focus on the placement and position of the front, I got it wrong by just a few degrees. That minor difference, though, has the fat root on the left pointing toward us a bit too much. Where did I go wrong?!

With a little self-reflection, I think I can point to what messes me up. It’s the complexity of the three-dimensional form of a tree!

Trees are not simple forms. I can turn the front of a pot forward every time. But a pot is geometric, usually, and has a simple(r) shape and feet that can be used to identify the front clearly. A tree, on the other hand, has so many complexities. I was able to name the root placement as most important as I write about it here, but as I was positioning the tree and tying it in securely, I was, no doubt, distracted by a number of other elements.

But it’s ok. It’s not the end of the world. I can tweak this next time I repot. Hopefully by then I will have improved the branching and ramification of the tree… AND my skills at placing the tree as intended. This is something I will practice with every potting. Do you have any tips for me?

Pro-Tip: Don’t Drop your Bonsai

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The image below has been cropped to protect the innocent.

A once-promising juniper broken in two places

Beware the risks of carting tools, trees and supplies to a location for a workshop or club meeting. It only took an instant for this tree to go from its place in the wagon to on the ground and broken into three pieces. With no foliage remaining on the trunk, this guy is now the proud owner of a piece of deadwood… and maybe a few cuttings if he wants to try to root some of the live bits.

I’m sorry to see it… Don’t let this happen to you!

Dig before you make the call

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A short cautionary tale with a black pine early in its development as bonsai.

A twisted black pine with branch at soil level

It’s difficult to see what’s going on with this twisted trunk black pine. My only concern for today is a small branch growing at the soil level, and whether I should go ahead and remove it in advance of the spring push of growth. In the image above, my index finger is touching the base of the branch. And here’s another view from a different angle to show just how close to the soil level it is.

A small branch growing at the soil level

In fact, the branch is resting on the soil. I was reaching for a cutting tool when I realized I should not cut quite yet. This tree is very early in development and we can’t even see the base of the tree here. So rather than reaching for a cutting tool, I grabbed a chop stick to pull soil away from the trunk and investigate just how far below the soil surface the root flare is. In other words, I was digging to find the future base and nebari of this tree.

Removing extra soil revealed the branch is not truly at soil level

I found the root mass didn’t start until an inch or more below the soil surface. This changes everything! With this discovery, the branch in question (which I am pointing to with the chopstick, above) is in fact in an excellent position to serve as a first branch in a small, shohin size bonsai.

I don’t know, yet, what this tree will become, but for today, that branch stays. Our lesson, then is a twist of the advice related to what you should do before digging in your yard to avoid damaging utilities. You know the one… “Call before you dig.”

In this case it’s, “Dig before you make the call!”

A Wee Forest

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This is a very young forest of Amur maples I started from seed. It was roughly pruned to shape after leaf drop in the fall, and needs a little wire going into this growing season. As you can see, the tree is ready to go, even though winter is still with us here in Virginia.

Amur maple forest, February 2020

As I wired a few branches down, I found it didn’t take much to knock off one of those fresh green buds.

A fallen Amur maple bud

It’s not a big change, but wiring out a few branches will set up this planting for the season. I look forward to watching this forest mature.

Amur maple forest after light wiring.

And so it begins… Spring Work!

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Let us begin with this Vicary privet — Ligustrum vicaryi. It was collected in 2015 from my own yard, recovered in a large wooden box, and has had some initial styling decisions made including reducing from seven to three trunks, and some structural wiring.

Vicary privet before potting, February 2020

This variety is not as truly evergreen as some other privet varieties, but it will hold onto green leaves especially through a mild winter. This winter (in Virginia, USA) has been extremely mild, and the plant is ready to go with large buds that are starting to loosen.

Closeup of privet buds and last years leaves.

It’s time to get this tree out of this box and into a ceramic pot… but, oh man, wouldn’t it be cool if we could remove the sides on ceramic pots as easily as we can for a wooden box.

Well, that doesn’t work, but removing some screws allowed me to start removing soil from a pretty nice looking mass of roots.

I did some significant root pruning to reduce the size of the root mass to fit the pot, but it was almost all tender fine growth which bodes well for the health of the tree. To get the root mass down to size, I did have to cut one larger root that extended too far out the back to make sense in just about any pot. I think it fits nicely in this hand-made pot where it can begin its next phase of development.

Vicary privet in a ceramic pot.

I did not barefoot the plant. There was still a lot of good structure to the old soil, so I left much of it in favor of a gentler repot. The soil I added to the pot is lava, pumice, and akadama.

Finally, I removed some sacrifice branches and did a gentle trim to reduce the growing demands that will be placed on these newly pruned roots. The tree needs more pruning and a full wiring, but I am going to wait to do that work later in the season after I see it has recovered well from repotting.

Vicary privet after spring work.

That’s all for now!

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.