Time to work on Jack

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If you missed my post from a month ago about the tree I now call “Captain Jack” you can check it out HERE. As suggested in that post, I let my Ficus get happy in the summer heat before doing any work. 

It’s time. Here’s what it looks like this morning. 


Notice anything different? Sure, it’s grown a bit, but the pot has changed as well. Here’s an image from the original post. 


True to the theme of his name, Captain Jack is a bit of a sail. We had some strong storms come through a couple of weeks ago, and I had not secured Jack to the bench. The pot didn’t make it. It happens. Good thing I don’t use expensive pots. 

To the work!


I may have given away my intent with this image from the original post. Here I have zoomed in to show you less than 11 inches of the tree, and indeed, it is my plan to cut it way back. 


What do you think?

In addition to the long branch removal, I did repot wit some attention to the front and planting angle. It is turned to show off that big root flare at the base, and positioned with a stronger tilt to the left. 

So how tall is it now?


All of the remaining leaves were removed as well to force the tree to push out new growth. I promise this will happen. For you doubters, I will provide some evidence. This is a tree I worked on about a month ago when it looked like this:

Below is what it looks like today:


Have faith in the Captain!

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Watering Can Upgrade

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I am very happy with my watering can upgrade. A green, 2.3 gallon, Haws Professional Outdoor Metal Watering Can (V150G) just arrived and I love it! A fine replacement to my old plastic can, also by Haws. 


I admit, I was a little disappointed when some cracks started showing up on the old, red plastic can, pictured. After years of use (and let’s face it, abuse) the collar at the base of the rose split forcing me to tape it in place. A while later it sprung a leak which required further taping, and you might also be able to see some cracking and crumbling of the plastic at the mouth of the can. 

Thinking about it, though, I think this old, red can has served me for about 8 years. Considering I let it sit in the baking sun and in all temperatures, wherever I happen to put it down, it’s pretty impressive that it did this well for so long. Obviously, I went back to the same brand for my new one, and I certainly recommend Haws to anyone looking for a special watering can of their own. 

All my thanks to my family for this wonderful gift!

Early July Work

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Early July in Virginia, USA, means three things: uncomfortable temperatures, fireworks, and decandling Japanese Black Pine. It’s already humid and in the 90s F at midday, and I am looking forward to a cookout and fireworks tomorrow to celebrate US Independence Day. Pine work was my task of this morning. 

Now, the trees I had to work on today are not going to set the bonsai world on fire. (We’ll leave that to the weather.) I currently have only two black pines, and in fact, I grew them from seed. Here is one before today’s work. 


Not particularly impressive. And with only two, I am no JBP expert. I haven’t known what to do with them for years. Remember, I have been doing bonsai all wrong for decades (see my ABOUT page here to read about it).

My past mistakes aside, I am figuring this stuff out. Last year was the first time I had the guts to decandle, and this year the proof of its effectiveness as a technique is crystal clear. 

You see, last year I decided to count how many candles I removed from each plant. One tree only had nine shoots, and the other (the one pictured in this post) had 30. This year, I removed 26 and 57 respectively.  If that’s not proof of concept, I don’t know what is. Already I have improving ramification, shorter needles, and better growth balance. 

Here is the same tree from above after removing candles, and plucking needles to bring each growing tip down to 6-8 pairs. 


If you’ve been hesitating to try decandling, as I was, you should give it a shot (assuming your trees are strong and healthy). You will see improvement in one year, and if this first year is any indication, I expect marked improvement in the next. 

Some Ficus Decisions

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Another ficus, growing strong. Time to make some decisions. Here it is before today’s work. 

I started this tree from a skinny little cutting back in 1996. I’m thrilled that it has survived this long, but that it is still rather small and unspectacular is evidence of just how many things I have done wrong over the years. 

In a renewed effort to get it going in a better direction, I let it grow for a couple of years before cutting it back in 2016. On the left in the picture below, you can see what I cut off to leave the structure I am currently working with. 


Few branches remained, so this full, bushy growth is exactly what it needed. 

There’s a ways to go yet for a nice tree. In fact I am looking for a couple more well placed branches. Maybe some grafting will be in order. But that’s for another day. 

Here it is after some pruning and branch selection… and in a new pot to boot. 

Two Elaeagnus

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Elaeagnus umbellata is native to Eastern Asia and has become naturalized in many parts of the U.S. In many locals it is considered invasive. They seem to grow everywhere in my area, especially in unmowed fields, along the edges of wooded areas, and along fence rows. 

They make fine bonsai material. Here’s an Elaeagnus that is part of the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection in Washington D.C.


I can dream, can’t I?

Obviously the trees I am showing you today will be nowhere near this caliber. In fact they were collected over the past two springs. The first was collected in spring 2016. 


It has a sizable trunk and a decent base (which you can’t see in this photo), and obviously everything is going one direction, which should make for an interesting design. It also has a secret. 


Ok. Not really a secret, but a large deadwood feature on the back… or maybe that’s the front. 


I haven’t decided yet. I hope to make a decision and do some wiring in the coming year. 

Tree number two was just collected this year and at the moment is rather long and lanky. 

This part is not so inspiring. 

The silvery underside of the branch on the left is showing as I just wired that up as a possible future trunk direction. But check out where that is coming from…


Look at that twist! Pretty sweet! I will be excited to see how this tree develops in the coming year!

Maybe you have some Elaeagnus growing near you. Considering its status, folks might appreciate you offering to dig one up for them. Just a thought. 

Ficus Salicaria, 2015 to Present

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This is a cutting I took from a Ficus Salicaria in June of 2015. I just cut it off, trimmed the edges of the cut with a very sharp knife, and pushed it down into this little blue pot. 


Here in Virginia, I keep ficus in my office window during the cool months, and outside in the summer. (I don’t have a greenhouse to protect them from the cold.) I try to protect my tropicals from any temperatures below 50 degrees F, which I have been told is far to conservative, but be that as it may, they are inside about six months of the year. They do pretty well though. The cutting above, for example, grew to this in two years:


And that was starting with zero roots!

As I mentioned in my last post

I like to let my ficus get hot and happy in the summer sun, and just as they start to show signs that they are going to push a bunch of new summer growth, I do whatever heavy work is needed: pruning, repotting, wiring… the works if necessary. In my experience, this approach results in a quick recovery time and gives the tree more than enough time to grow out before they need to come back inside in late fall. 

This little Salicaria has been outside for a few weeks, and those lighter green leaves on the tops of branches in the image above are new growth. Time to get to work!

Since I knew this had been a stick pushed down into the pot, I figured a good part of the base was buried. I needed to see what I was working with before making any decisions. 


As expected, the roots were very low in the pot. And look what I found when I washed most of the soil off.


Pretty sweet, right! Now that I could see the base of the tree, I could begin to decide what to do. But where to cut… I know. Right about… here. 


Did I do that?

Now, before you think I am a terrible, horrible person, I want you to know I am not crazy. I learned practically everything I know about working with Ficus from someone… well, from someone who is crazy! Adam Lavigne gets all the blame here! (Thanks, man.)

Seriously though, Adam really knows his stuff. If you don’t follow his blog, AdamAskWhy.com, you should. And besides, after you check out some of his projects, you won’t think I’m such a horrible guy. 

Now, where were we. Ah, right. The butcher job. 


I cleaned up the cut with a nice sharp knife and got it tied down into the same pot. A chopstick is the tool of choice to make sure soil fills all of the spaces below and between the roots. And then I decided to do some more cutting. I mean, it really doesn’t need leaves at the moment, right? 


Now we have visible surface roots, a nice bend in the trunk, and taper. All good things! And I swear it will be pushing out all new leaves in a matter of days. 

But wait! We’re not quite done. I did just chop off a significant chunk of a tree that rooted super easily. Let’s do it again. 

Here’s the big chunk. 


This time I decided to try a little rooting hormone on this and two other branches that seemed a shame to waste. 


Here they are. Three cuttings in the same pot. 

The irony is, I don’t really want these. My office window is only so big. Maybe they will find their way into the hands of one of my friends from the local bonsai club. We shall see!

A little Captain Jack, anyone?

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This is the second time in as many weeks I have made a Pirates of the Caribbean reference in a blog post. You can check out the first one HERE. I don’t know what that means, but since I haven’t had a chance to discuss it with my therapist yet, let’s talk about bonsai… and figure out what it’s got to do with pirates. 

I finally got around to bringing this little guy home from my office window to spend some time outside this summer. 


Not so little is it! But do you see how tiny that pot is!? This Ficus Microcarpa has done really well in that office window over the past 7 months or so. 

As I walked out of the office with it this afternoon, I suggested to one of my colleagues that I should take bets on how tall it will be when it comes back in the fall. Not to suggest it would be taller… quite the contrary. 

You see, I like to let my ficus get hot and happy in the summer sun, and just as they start to show signs that they are going to push a bunch of new summer growth, I do whatever heavy work is needed: pruning, repotting, wiring… the works if necessary. In my experience, this approach results in a quick recovery time and gives the tree more than enough time to grow out before they need to come back inside in late fall. 

My colleague made a face that bonsai folks know very well. You know the one. The face that suggests we are cruel to our trees. 

She searched for the words… “it’s like you are castrating it.” Queue Captain Jack. 

https://youtu.be/dRE4cs4AEhk
The quote that popped immediately to mind is at around :50 in the video above. But those of you who know Jack, know that he has a bit of an obsession with Eunuchs. (And those who don’t know Jack… Well…)

Here are some other selections:

You’re not a eunuch are you?

Lovely singing voice though. Eunuch.

If only she knew! It is, in fact, my intent to gradually develop a very manly tree indeed! And maybe it will have a lovely singing voice as well. We will all have to wait and see. 

And speaking of wait and see, let’s hear your votes. How tall will it be after I work on it later this summer? Here’s a closer shot with a ruler to help you out:


I will make sure to share the work I do when that time comes. 

Weed and Feed

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No. Not weed and feed like the combination fertilizer and weed killer you put on your lawn. Keep that stuff far away from my bonsai. I mean “weed and feed” as in, “If you feed the critters, you may need to weed more often.”

Can you tell what you are looking at here?


I suspect a squirrel or chipmunk carried as many sunflower seeds as it could shove in its mouth and spit ’em all out into a little hole they dug I the bonsai soil. This is the second such cluster I found this week!

Stay out a my pots ya little whipper-snappers!

Carving Away Trunks

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This Vicary Privet is happy and healthy, and while you may not be able to tell just how many, it has way too many trunks. 


Not sure about the front yet, so here’s another angle. 


It’s time to make some decisions, but HOW?! I took a good long look and tried not to move too fast — a common mistake for me. There were a couple that I knew I wanted to keep, and a couple that really obviously needed to come out because they didn’t have much growth or were interfering with the keepers.


 This got things moving in the right direction, and after removing a couple I could get a better look. Now I could see that one was far too straight. Another was angled counter to the flow that was beginning to develop, and eventually it was clear that I needed to take it down to three. 

I am no pro at carving, but I decided to get a start on shaping all of these large cuts. 


In addition to hand tools, I put this Nibbler bit to work. 


I wired just a couple of branches to get them angled in the right general direction, but I refrained from pruning anything more than the trunks that were removed. 

Here’s how it looks now. 


And to give you an idea of my vision for the future, I will leave you with a sketch.