Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A Maple Make Over

 Amur maple-Acer ginnala is a populare subject for bonsai. It's leaves resemble Trident maple (A. buergerium), and though it's growth habit is a bit more coarse and unrefined compared to tridents, it is very cold hardy. A vigorous grower, it can be used in any style and any size classification of bonsai.

I got hold of a bundle of Amur seedlings somewhere along the line. They went into individual pots and got grown on for a while. Having a big bunch of them may have meant they didn't get the individual attention they needed They grow some gnarled root, twisty trunk little trees that looked like the belong in a Hobbit movie, but never ramified enough for my taste.
I potted up a few to use as mame, more like little trees as accent plants, and sold the majority at a club meeting.

A few seedlings got left behind. These got jammed rather hastily into a forest pot with the thought of making something out of them-sometime. The where allowed to grow wild, getting hacked back once in while. The method here was benign neglect. The trunks thickened, the trees got taller as they did their thing and I did mine.
This is how the planting looks some years later, the third week of May, out of winter storage for a month and a half and growing vigorously.

I realize I've  used the word vigorous to describe this species twice now, but they earn it. The abuse that this planting has taken is amazing. There is a nest of ants in the pot, and their activity, plus some sloppy potting when the thing was assembled means that there are empty holes in the soil ball above each drain hole. The plant doesn't seem to notice. The roots are so tangled and congested that water doesn't penetrate well and the root ball feels like a Brillo pad-the trees don't care!

Ok, maybe some of the trees noticed. You can see that most of the back row is dead. I am sorry they are gone, but this may be the cosmos telling me that I need to be more careful, and also telling me this should be a smaller planting. This is a damn handsome pot, and it will be a shame not to have something growing in it, but it is far two big for just two trees. By the way, the pot may look like terra cotta, but it is high fired. It is actually Italian, so while not a traditional bonsai region they do know from ceramics.
 Here is the pot I'd like to get the living trees into. It's a very sweet round made here in Columbus by my friend Tom Holcomb. It's an almost black brown color with grooving on the sides.
 Remember the ants nests? If plants could cry out, maybe these poor guys where calling out "New Shoes, Please!"
 Looks like I was over-optimistic about the size of the root ball, and how it could be reduced.

That looks better. Size and depth are very good. It's a stiff and formal pot for these trees, but will do for now. Could change later.
Root ball cut way back, fresh new soil tucked into the nooks and crannies, now its time to think about size and shape. The sharp eyed readers in the crowd will notice that both trees have been shortened, and a few low branches have been removed

Also, I made the choice that this would become a two tree planting, and the odd little fellow in the back has been removed to his own training pot.

Now that basic height has been decided, its time to cut back all the shoots. Besides taking some load off the reduced root system, this will encourage some back budding.The trees are a bit leggy  and need to fill in. The tree on the right has a few empty spaces that could do with whole new branches. It was tempting to cut it down even shorter, but that wastes some good trunk texture, and I think the height and width suit the pot they are in.

Here is the new duo as it stands now. It is in the shadow under a bench, in a spot between my house and my neighbor's that gets mostly eastern sun and than shade the rest of the day. For a few weeks I'd like to pamper it to help it bounce back.

More photo updates coming later in the summer!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Neat and Tidy

This apron was a Father's Day gift. My wife got to a point where she was frustrated with soil, bark or lime sulfur on good clothes. I thought the idea of an apron was a bit much when she mentioned it, but that didn't stop a determined woman from doing some internet shopping-her favorite hobby-and that lead to the package on Father's day.

It's a very handsome piece of work, even if it is a bit over done and hipster-ish. Heavy, waxed fabric, leather straps and bronze tone metal hardware.
Image result for geppettoI feel like I should be breaking done an organic, locally fed hog into house made smoked meat-or perhaps carving some wood into a real boy!

I was hesitant to wear it, but once I tried, I really took to it. Its very convenient to have all those pockets, to hold the things you need-shears, tweezers, chops stick, Ipod, pipe lighter, all there where you need them.

But it didn't take long to enjoy putting on this "uniform". There is obvious precedent for a bonsai artist working in an apron. The books and websites are full of illustrations such as the one below.
The apron is practical, but seems to me to be part of the Japanese cultural imperative  to keep orderly and neat.

Image result for roy nagatoshiImage result for frank okamura teaching

The flowers that bloom in the spring

Image may contain: plant, flower, outdoor and nature

Always a gorgeous show when the

 Quince and Crabapple start putting on the colors.

Image may contain: plant, flower and natureImage may contain: plant, flower, outdoor and nature

Sunday, April 29, 2018

SEEDY, Part 2

This is a follow up to a post from last year.

 That post was about collecting Elm seeds from some landscape trees on the campus of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Collected in the Fall of 2016, the seeds were stratified in the back of the refrigerator, then planted in a large tray

Germination rate was excellent, and the seedlings were allowed to grow with no real training or limits. They were kept well watered and had regular doses of fertilizer.

Mid-way through summer the most vigorous seedling were picked out of the mass planting and put into this cell pack. They has been started in a sand and coir fiber starter mixture. Roots were lightly trimmed and the baby trees placed into individual cells, each cell filled with a standard bonsai mix ( pine bark, haydite, turface, pool filter sand).

Here is a view of the cell back in late April 2018, on year after initial planting and germination.
The the variety of heights is due to (unsolicited) assistance with pruning given by the locate rabbit population during the winter. These were part of a large group of untrained stock that got overwintered on the ground in a vegetable patch. Despite plenty of available grass, the rabbits feel the need for some twigs-usually twigs attached to living trees.

When pulled out of the cell packs, the different layers of soil are very apparent. The trees rooted well into the bonsai soil, and have developed trunks more than 1/8th of an inch-not large but these will grow quickly.

 Here is how the tree looks with soil cleared away. Though this was one of the most interesting trunks, you can see there is lots more going on below soil level. These trees have no developed any real roots yet, so it is perfectly acceptable to trim of some hair roots and expose more of the curves. The roots toward the bottom will take over, and this will help create a better nebari

Some of the most appealing-i.e. curved seedling planted into individual pots to work on nebari.
After a week or two of pampering, they will go in full sun for another summer of rampant prowth to thicken roots and trunk. No real thought to branches will happen this summer. Most likely any branches grown this year will come off next spring.

New bonsai growers often ask "How do you know what to do with new stock like this?"
starting from tiny seedling, or very new cuttings, gives lots of choices, and many ways to proceed.

First decision is how large a bonsai would I like to end up with?
Obviously aiming for a large bonsai from a new seedling will mean some growing to develop a suitable trunk mass. On the other hand, these elm will be nice mame materiel in just a few years.
I always lean towards smaller bonsai, so these wont get much taller, but much thicker!

Once the size question is set, remember good bonsai are made from the ground up: grow good healthy roots then trunk , then scaffold branches, then fine shoots. Foliage is last!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018


Image result for blue willow
The graceful form of willow, as well as its
exotic Asian origin, make it popular in decorative arts.
Willow is a species of tree that I see often mention in bonsai books, but not nearly as often as an actual bonsai. In all the time Ive been involved in the CBS annual show, I’ve only seen one willow, the lovely example the Jose Cueto displayed last year.
Although the genus Salix-what are commonly known as willows-has about 400 member species, the word willow evokes images of the Weeping Willow. Originating in China, Salix babylonica spread rapidly through human traffic through out Asia and into the Near Eat and Europe via Silk Road trade. Willows  readily hybridize,"promiscuously and indiscriminately" in the scientific literature,so the tree we know as Weeping willow may or not be S. baylonica-botanists are unsure, even to the point of believing the pure species is extinct in the wild.

Willow is well regarded as an ornamental plant, especially for siting near water. It also provides a tough though pliant lumber that is ideal for many uses, including cricket  bats and rustic furniture. The modern pharmaceutical aspirin is a laboratory produced version of a chemical derived from willow. This is the same chemical that makes a tea made from willow bark both an effective pain reliever and an excellent root simulator when propagating plants.

A willow bonsai, just leafing out in spring.
But what about willow as bonsai? Easy to find gorgeous pictures of lush, graceful willow bonsai by searching the internet, but what if you want one in your back yard?  Willows grow at a prodigious rate, and are not shy about abandoning entire branches if they feel stressed. This means that you may put lots of time and effort into planning a good looking bonsai only to have the tree react to your pruning by shutting down those branches and putting out a crop of new buds all over.

Ironically weeping willows don’t weep much. That is, the amount of weep and hang in the branches looks right on a full size tree, but is not proportional for a bonsai. This means that every branch you can convince to keep alive and growing will need to be either wired or weighted. Wiring the branch to get a nice tight down ward curve, and then weighting it to get a nice downward drop if especially effective, and saves on wire.

Willows are also host to several nasty diseases, most of which kill branches and prior to the killing make the leaves and bark look like a splotchy mess. So given the tree’s apparent reluctance to either look nice or stay alive, why are all those photos of willow bonsai clogging up the interweb?

My personal experience with willow, backed up by some research tells me that willows when stressed are much more likely to get a disease and to drop branches. From what Ive seen in my back yard willows are very susceptible to water stress.  The willow in the photo was one that I worked on at a Club workshop at  least six or more years ago. Id repot it every spring and wire branches into place, and it would reward me by dying back with some sort of willow blight that never seemed to respond to the stuff I sprayed on it.  I had the same results with some interestingly shaped cutting from some local willow. I thought that perhaps the trees from ‘the wild’ brought some cooties with them, and these sought out the nursery raised willow from the workshop.

After a few years of getting nowhere with the wild cuttings, they went in the yard waste bin. The workshop willow hung on well enough to stay alive, but never looked good. The entire top canopy of the tree died back, and I had to start all over with essentially on branch and a trunk. Luckily, willows will pop new buds like crazy.

What really changed was the way the will was taken care of. I had been using a standard deciduous bonsai mix, and keeping the tree in the same general area as elms and ficus. Last year after repotting, I watered it by immersion-  pot and all in a plastic oil change pan. It sat there soaking up water while I did other things. I got distracted, left it alone and long story short, that willow sat in that water filled pan all summer.That tree acted like a totally different willow from the one I had been acquainted with! IT grew like crazy, and never showed a sign of the blight or canker or heebie-jeebie that had plagued before.  This spring at repotting, I put it into it’s own blend of soil-75% bark/25% Turface. There were a few dead twigs to remove, but nothing like the usual die off over late summer/winter. Overwintering was different, as well: it had spent all other winters in the garage with the azaleas, pomegranates and Chinese elms. It spent the winter of 17/18 outside on the grass with no mulch!  I cant say that the change in winter care had any effect on the overall health of the tree, other than to prove these guys are really tough.
Image result for willow bonsai
With care, patience and luck, willow makes a lovely bonsai.
We are used to the idea of bonsai as the art that is never really finished. Keeping a willow bonsai is  pretty vivid proof of that idea. This is a tree that will likely have a different profile from year to year. Success seems to come from keeping it moist to the point of wetness, and accepting that it will not fit into the cookie cutter bonsai styles but will be it’s own thing

"Willow Water Recipe" There are two substances found in the willow tree that enhance root growth, Salicylic acid and Indolebutyric acid. When you make willow water, both these acids leach into the water and provide beneficial effects for your cuttings. They help your cuttings fight off bacteria, fungi and infections – giving them a better chance to survive. They also help speed up the rooting process.

Gather about two cups of pencil-thin willow branches cut to 1-3 inch lengths. Steep twigs in a half-gallon of boiling water overnight. Refrigerated liquid kept in a jar with a tight-fitting lid will remain effective up to two months. (Label jar so you won’t confuse it with your homemade moonshine.) Overnight, soak cuttings you wish to root. Or water soil into which you have planted your cuttings with the willow water. Two applications should be sufficient. Some cuttings root directly in a jar of willow water. Make a fresh batch for each use. You can also use lukewarm water and let twigs soak for 24-48 hours. Another way to make willow water is to let a handfull of willow twigs root in clean wa

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Why Bonsai?

Why do we do bonsai?
I had a light bulb moment during the recent beginner’s class sponsored by the Columbus Bonsai Society. Tom, Dan and myself have been leading this class for a number of years ( we think this was the sixth edition, but we are not sure). It is always a great way to spend a Saturday, and this year was no exception.
Image result for bonsai at world's fair
Pen-ching, the Chinese forerunner of Bonsai 
Tons of Blue and White pottery was
produced for the export market.
Each instructor has certain topics that they are assigned to present, and Dan is leadoff batter, getting the day started each year with an over-view of bonsai history.  Dan asked the rhetorical question “Why do we do bonsai, rather than pen-ching?” That’s an interesting point that until that moment had not really considered-why did the Japanese version of miniature trees gain popularity in this country and around the world, when the Chinese variant-from which the Japanese grew-is much less familiar ( and is often called Chinese bonsai).

The light bulb moment was Dan considering that at the end of the 19th century, these two countries were in very different positions. Japan was increasingly open to the west and was actively modernizing its social, political and economic systems, while China in the same period was doing the exact reverse.

Its never easy to be a new immigrant, but Chinese in this country had an especially hard time. It certainly seems possible that Japanese immigrants occupied a different , somewhat higher social position; where it was more ‘acceptable’ to the general population to be aware of and even take in interest in facets of Japanese culture.  Considering the fact that the nation was forced to accept trade and diplomacy with the west, Japan embraced the situation whole heatedly. When American and European consumers expressed an interest in Japanese goods, and wanted to buy them, Japanese manufacturers ramped up production of everything from fabric to ceramics especially for these new markets.

The mania for all things Japanese is recorded in Impressionist art of the time. Gilbert & Sullivan wrapped a thoroughly English story in a Japanese mask and created The Mikado, a piece of musical theatre that is still popular today. Every fashionable lady bought imported silks and would have had a display of blue and white “willowware” in her parlour. Reminders of Japanese arts and culture where literally everywhere.

Japanese Pavilion at the 1878 Paris World's Fair
And this was the era when the west was introduced to bonsai. World’s Fairs in London and Paris features bonsai amongst the Japanese pavilions, and America’s Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia is likely the first ‘ bonsai show’ on this continent. Contrast that with the low social status of Chinese at the time, and  the adoption of bonsai over pen-ching may be ore apparent.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Snow in April, and life under glass

By this time of year my indoor trees always look a bit  tired. I am deeply envious of a grower like Jerry Mieslik, who has a big, beautifully set up grow room with lights and plumbing. Google photos-you will see that his trees look wonderful.  Mine sure don’t . They are just treading water, waiting for better times outdoors.
I am writing this on April 7th, and there is a substantial dusting of snow on the ground. Substantial means the grass doesn’t show through.  Forecast is for night time temperatures to be below freezing for the rest of the week. It may be Spring on the calendar, but in practical fact it hasn’t shown up yet. The majority of my collection is still packed away. This really is the latest  I have ever taken things out of winter storage, but I’m feeling lazy, and the plants know what they want. Even the early riser like the quince, crab apples and Ume are only now just popping discreet buds.
When I say things are packed away, I mean the ‘good’ stuff in real pots. This material gets the best location, fully sheltered from any sun light, so takes its time awakening.  Because I’m running out of room, the rough stock and recent cuttings are in another part of the back yard that gets more sun. As far as plants go, it’s a whole nother world, and they wake up earlier. On the days it’s not freezing, I ‘ve been sorting through this material and getting it into new pots. Training has to be constant and ongoing or you get no results.
I am probably over cautious  with this newly work stuff, so it comes into the garage when temps will be below freezing overnight.  My kids are now teen agers and off living  a glamourous life of their own now, but when they were younger were usually around to help with the Bonsai Shuffle. This year I’m doing it myself. This means that I don’t have to hear one of them snarl “why do you have so many plants?”  or the worse example” Why do you NEED so many plants?”
Many of us let our collection grow past the point of practicality.  What we need and what is easy to manage often are two different things. But it’s not a bad thing to consider the size of our collection now and again. I often advise new growers to get more than one bonsai-it helps spread out the ‘love’ and may mean one solitary bonsai doesn’t get killed with kindness. But the other end of the spectrum is worth avoiding too. Having so many trees they cant be properly taken care of is a circumstance to avoid. Far better to have a moderate of bonsai that get proper attention and can be kept styled, rather than a backyard full of un-attended junk.
And that is just a consideration of number of trees.  What about stock that, for whatever reason, isn’t now a good bonsai and may never be one? The well-known bonsai author Colin Lewis is a big advocate of ruthless culling of a bonsai collection, thinking that bonsai take so much time, especially to get them to a high level, that ‘wasting’ time on inferior stock that will never go anywhere is not the best use of resources. That’s a tough line to take. Most of use have a few-or more than a few- items that  we tuck in the back and hope of a bolt of inspiration to hit us. Myself, I tend to think the statement “Some trees will just never make good bonsai” is usually false. Most trees will make a bonsai, if given enough time, effort and inspiration. It’s just a matter of can you provide all three?
Image result for nero wolfe greenhouse

By this time of year my indoor trees always look a bit  tired. I am deeply envious of a grower like Jerry Mieslik, who has a big, beautifully set up grow room with lights and plumbing. Google photos-you will see that his trees look wonderful.  Mine sure don’t . They are just treading water, waiting for better times outdoors. 
How different it would be with a greenhouse! I have written in these pages, previously, about my appreciation for the detective stories that feature Nero Wolfe.  Wolfe lived in a New York brownstone, and atop the brownstone was a three zone greenhouse to house his collection of ten thousand orchids. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to have such a facility as your own?
But perhaps Wolfe’s set up might prove a bit confining?  Why limit yourself? The great English plantsman and garden designer  Joseph Paxton created a massive green house for his employer the Duke of Devonshire that was 270 feet long by 120 feet wide. To give you a sense of just how large that is, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert came to take a tour, they drove from end to end in a carriage. The massive structure could hold full size trees in tropical comfort and stood for more than 70 years, until a lack of coal and manpower brought about by the First World War made it impossible to keep up.
If  the Duke’s greenhouse still wouldn’t give you enough room, Paxton’s magnum opus was an iron and glass building of prodigious size, large enough to hold a whole world’s worth of innovation and invention. The Great Exhibition held in Britain in 1851 was a celebration of all the things human endeavor could accomplish, and this world’s fair of technology and culture was held in a magnificent structure called the Crystal Palace. More than 1800 feet long and containing nearly a million square feet of space under it’s glass roof, the Palace was nearly 130 feet tall at it’s tallest point. Paxton actually raised the height so that several elm trees growing on the sight would not have to be cut down.