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!

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.