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!

Moving Beech Into Refinement

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A better title for this post might be, “I Hope These Steps are Moving my American Beech into Refinement,” but that is a few too many words.

Most available literature on beech bonsai addresses European beech, Fagus sylvatica, but I have been experimenting with its larger-leafed cousin, Fagus grandifolia, to see what bonsai methods are effective for this American native species.

American beech in March, before bud break

I’ve only been at this beech game for a few short years, so none of my American beech trees are highly developed. The most ramified beech I have, above, happened to be found and collected with most of those branches.

After my beech recover from collection I apply a conservative route to pruning. I allow the buds to extend fully and the leaves to harden off before pruning back to two leaves per extension. This method allows the tree to build a significant amount of energy through the first part of the growing season, and put that energy toward growing strong roots and buds for the next season.

American beech in March before bud break

This year, I have a couple of trees ready to start the next phase of development — building the fine twigging and ramification that will give them a look of maturity. The tree above, our subject tree, clearly needs many more fine branches to build a nice silhouette and crown. As it grows through each upcoming season, I want to discourage course growth, and do what I can to promote shorter internodes and back budding further toward the interior of the tree.

With these goals in mind, I am starting to test pinching back as the buds start to extend, rather than waiting until leaves harden off to prune. While this work is more delicate and refined in its execution, I consider it the more aggressive of the two techniques.

From the perspective of the tree, pinching back is more demanding. Pruning after hardening off allows for energy recovery before pruning happens and uses the path of less resistance – fully extending new branches from active buds. Pinching requires the tree to put forth additional energy to push new growth from dormant buds, perhaps even before the first leaves have hardened.

American beech in the last days of April as buds begin to extend.

The photo above shows our subject tree with buds starting to open. You can see that a few of the strongest buds, unsurprisingly at the apex, are pushing out much faster than others. This is normal, and you should expect to work on pinching back buds on the same tree as they extend over a couple weeks time.

A few of the strongest buds at the apex

Pinching back involves a delicate pinch or cut of each bud as it pushes out enough to see the separation of leaves. I prefer to use a pair of sharp scissors.

Cutting new growth after two leaves

The bud shown here is longer than ideal. If you can catch it a little earlier, that much the better, but this slightly elongated growth makes it easier to see what we are looking for in a photo. Once you can find the spot above the second leaf, cut it off there and leave just two leaves to expand. Pinching (or cutting) the growth in this way will shorten the internode and force the tree to push growth from buds that might not have grown otherwise.

Two pinched buds, now with two leaves each

With repeated implementation, this method will build the ramification we seek. The two buds shown above now have four leaves. A bud will form at the base of each, and next year we will have eight, then sixteen and so forth. If the method also encourages back budding, we will really be on our way to creating fine twigging and a more refined tree.

American beech two weeks after pinching back

Another result that should come with greater ramification is a reduction in leaf size, which is needed badly. At this early stage of this process, the tree is doing all it can with the few leaves I allowed it to keep. These leaves have grown large and disproportionate to the tree, but I have faith that when there are significantly more leaves they will be a good bit smaller. If this tree has, say, a hundred leaves now, it should be able to do very well with 200 slightly smaller leaves next year, or 400 even smaller leaves the year after that.

This may be an over simplified way of thinking about ramification and leaf reduction, but if the tree continues to live in the same size pot, with the same limited resources as it compounds the number leaves, the logic tracks.

I look forward to watching this and other beech in my collection develop, and I look forward to sharing the results with you.

Shohin Elaeagnus

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This little guy is an Elaeagnus umbellata – an autumn olive.

Elaeagnus before a trim in May 2020

It’s just gotten a bit shaggy, and with a tree this small, a scant eight inches tall from soil level, you can’t let it grow out too long before losing control of the delicate features needed in a tiny tree.

Elaeagnus after a first May pruning

Most new growth was reduced to just two new leaves. Later in the summer I will do a partial defoliation to encourage smaller leaves and more fine branching.

Boxwood Bonsai Thinning

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Boxwood is one of my favorite species to work on. The work is precise, detail oriented, and rewarding… if you are patient.

The work I’m doing today should be done only after the current year’s growth has had time to harden off. My preferred way to determine whether boxwood leaves have hardened off is by feel, but that’s hard to show in a blog post. Slightly easier to show is the color, another indicator of hardening.

Boxwood branch showing tender new growth and older, darker colored leaves

The image above shows the light colored leaves of this year’s growth at the tips against much darker leaves from last year’s growth. These leaves are still too tender. It may be another month before I work on that tree. The leaves of various boxwood cultivars may vary in color, but all new growth will come in lighter and brighter, and darken up as it hardens.

A branch with old and new growth nearly the same color.

The new growth on this branch from a different boxwood has started to darken and is much closer to the color of last year’s growth. This is a sign of hardening off. In addition to the color, I also know the new leaves on this boxwood pushed out a lot earlier in the spring than those on the first tree I showed.

The tree this branch came from is not an impressive bonsai, but it is the one I am working on today.

A small boxwood, before pruning.

As you see it above, before the work, the tree has a nicely rounded crown nearly centered over the base, and except for the lower branch on the left the leaves are packed densely and let little light or air circulation through the pads. In today’s work, I have two goals.

First, I want to prune the overall shape to move the apex toward the left. The trunk leans to the left and I’d like to develop a shape that places the apex further in that direction.

Second, I want to open up space between the branches and leaves to allow light and air into the center of the tree and pads. There are a couple of ways I will do that. Let’s look at a branch as an example.

A boxwood branch before thinning

True to form, this branch is dense with branches and leave. The more dramatic step to thinning this out is to select and remove branches. You can start with those that are growing straight up or down, and then you can reduce any place there are three or more branches down to two. With the opposite growth pattern of the boxwood, you will find many sets of three. When a branch needs to come off, select based on movement, taper, or to establish an alternating branch pattern.

Here’s the same branch after removing extra branches.

Same branch after branch selection

The next part is a little more subtle but will go a long way to achieve our goal — pluck or cut older leaves, especially those growing from the base of branches. The goal is not to remove all leaves from previous years. I usually leave some of last year’s leaves. Look back and forth between the photo above and below as many times as you need to see and appreciate what has been removed.

Same branch after leaf plucking

Huge difference, right?! Now this branch will get all the light it needs to encourage more growth and back budding. Now all we have to do is apply this approach to every branch on the tree. Easy, right!

Boxwood after thinning

This tree is now ready to grow for the rest of the season.

Ground Boxes

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I have initiated a new experiment for development of bonsai material. When we want to grow a thicker trunk we often hear the advice to “put it in the ground and let it grow.” In my experience collecting material from the clay-heavy soils in my yard, plants growing in the ground will often send their roots ranging far and wide which can result in a tree with too few feeder roots close to the base.

One approach to improving this situation is to use a spade to cut around the plant periodically. Another is to dig a hole in the clay soil and fill it with a looser soil such as sand, effectively using the hole in the ground as a pot. Both are effective ways of, at least partially, containing the roots while allowing the plant to gain girth and vigor. These also lack a certain amount of control that I prefer to have.

My experiment is an attempt at combining these approaches with a grow box which will contain the majority of the root mass. The thing that makes these grow boxes different from one you might use for a newly collected tree is they are not meant to be moved around, but sit directly on the ground allowing some roots to escape the box as the plants get strong.

The bottoms of these boxes are 1/4 inch wire mesh. The site for each box is leveled and a layer of loose soil is put down to support good drainage. The mesh is then placed directly against that soil layer before planting, as seen below.

This approach will give me control over the type of soil in the box, provides a defined space for the root mass and fertilizer application, and creates a barrier between individual plants. It will still allow roots to grow downward into surrounding soil. In theory, the wire mesh might strangle roots that get too large creating a sort of self-pruning, but I fully expect some thick roots to connect the box with the soil below in cases when the tree has been growing for several years.

Part of the experiment we will all have to wait to learn about is to see just how difficult or easy it is to lift a tree grown in the box over several years. If I decide it is necessary, I may elect to cut directly under the box with a straight shovel blade to cut roots at an interim phase.

I have planted a few Amur maples, a hornbeam, and a trident maple in these boxes to start, and each is planted on a tile to encourage a flattened root spread directly below the base of the tree.

I look forward to seeing how this works, and I will be sure to share the results.

Japanese Holly in Early Development

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Bonsai is an art of patience. Sometime around four years ago I found a Japanese holly growing wild in area where I knew I was able to collect. It was overgrown, but I saw potential for not just one, but at least two trees. I waited until the following growing season to take an air layer (which you can read about here), and then until the spring after that to dig the parent plant (which you can read about here). It has been recovering in a planting box for the last couple of years, so we are four years in and we aren’t even to the fun part yet!

Japanese holly “parent” plant

These trees have been growing strong and it is time to begin some work. The “parent” plant, above, needs to have some large roots reduced to get it into a smaller container. The air layer is ready for a major pruning to establish a design, and there are bonus plants too! When the parent plant was collected, a couple of smaller “offspring” growing at its base were also collected and potted separately.

An odd “bonus” holly collected with the parent

The smallest of these is this oddly structured bit that seems to have formed as two parallel roots extended downward from a branch. We will see how it develops over time.

Another “bonus” holly with sacrifice branch

You can probably tell from the image above that I made some preliminary decisions on this second “bonus” plant. I had decided to move it toward another small, shohin size tree like the first, but left the long sacrifice branch… until now!

Second bonus plant, potted and sacrifice branch removed.

With this little guy in a pot and the sacrifice branch removed, I hope to be able to develop the branching fairly quickly.

The air layer is pretty well established in a pot now and some big cuts have happened to get it to where we see it below from last season.

The air-layer as it was in summer 2019

The plastic pot broke when it fell in a wind storm last fall and the plant was slip potted into the pot you see below.

The air-layer in spring 2020 before pruning

This spring I went with a much harder cut back and expect a burst of new growth that will lead to the early stages of a nice tree with a leaning, if not wind-swept design.

The air-layer after pruning in spring 2020

Getting the parent plant into a smaller pot was much more involved.

Parent plant with box walls removed

I removed some screws from the box so I could start teasing out the roots and reducing the weight of the root ball before I tried to move it.

Oversized roots on parent plant

I had to make some hard cuts, especially in places where over-large roots had smaller branching roots that could take over their work load.

Pruning large roots, one step at a time

At times, I just kept stepping it back, hoping I hadn’t gone too far. I am reassured, though, by the vigor this plant showed last year and after its original collection. I am confident the tree will recover, and I’m excited that I was able to get it into this pot.

Parent plant in a bonsai pot

I pulled a couple of primary branches down, but a full initial styling will wait until the tree has recovered.

That’s the whole family of Japanese holly… all from the same source, and all in early stages. I look forward to sharing them again as they progress.

Easy as one, two, shimpaku

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I have always heard propagating juniper was easy but I never tried it until a couple of years ago. I cut several rather small cuttings (all smaller than a pencil) from a shimpaku juniper, scraped the bark to expose some green cambium, and stuck them all in a pot together.

A collection of shimpaku cuttings

And there they stayed for two years. I considered separating them last spring but found myself busy with too many other things. This spring, I removed them from the pot (shown above) separated the individual plants and put them each in their own container. A few of the larger ones got a piece of wire and a little twist in the trunk.

Shimpaku cuttings in individual pots.

The success rate? 100%! If that’s not easy, I don’t know what is.

Beech Vacation

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I don’t actually have anything about a vacation here, I’m just a sucker for a silly play on words. Yeah, I’m one of those guys who actually appreciates the punny newspaper headlines.

With the Coronavirus, I am at home. No vacation for me. I am still working five days a week from home and in my planned beach vacation (beach with an A) is all but officially cancelled due to a stay at home order. In the mean time, I am playing with beech (no A), American beech, Fagus grandifolia.

I’ve shared this first beech with you before. Check it out here if you want to read more. And there’s more where that came from.

This particular time in spring, at least here in Northern Virginia, is a special moment where beech are concerned. A few of the most vigorous beech buds are starting to look greener than they did over the winter and are starting to swell and extend. Those buds will begin to open any day now, and that means it’s a good time to dig.

Some of my first beech collections were tiny little things. The awkward twisted fella above, and the little guy below have been in pots for several years. After getting a vibe on their recovery and growth habits, I had the nerve collect larger specimens like the wide spreading broom at top.

The twin trunk, shown next, is a nice little tree that I think has a lot of potential after I have some time to develop the ramification.

I recently had someone try to convince me the front below was better than the one shown above. He argued that the visible split in the lower trunk was a desirable feature, but photographing the tree helped solidify that the front above is better in my opinion. I mean, look at the way the trunks are dancing with one another!

I have a few more excellent candidates growing out there in the ground. Most recently I collected this one with a nice leaning quality. The upright trunk in the back will likely be removed in the future.

…and this one that includes a couple of upright trunks that are starting to fuse together. It could be something very cool at some point down the road.

I wonder if I have the courage to dig this big guy! I know the bright sunlight makes it hard to see, but check out that wide spreading base! I’ll watch it and take my time deciding. No need to rush.