Saturday, November 11, 2017

Care over the winter...

It may look like a Christmas card, but this photo was taken
in the second week of November, 2017! This is the
view at Wildwood Gardens, the bonsai nursery in Northeast Ohio
run by Frank Mihalic. Winter came early this year!
It’s that time of year-time to consider winter storage for our trees. This is a topic that can cause lots of agitation and confusion.  Here’s a few thoughts on winter prep to bear in mind.

First step-consider the needs of the trees. Bonsai fall into three basic categories as far as winter care:
1.       Fully hardy. The plant can cope with any temperature you location will experience
2.       Tender. A plant that will not tolerate the lows (or highs) in your areas.  a.k.a. Tropicals
3.       Half-Hardy.  Able to take your local weather-almost. Half-hardy or semi-hardy trees can take cold, just not as much as you may experience in your area. In Central Ohio, crepe myrtle, pomegranate and Schilling’s holly are in this group, able to take cold, just not the coldest temps we will get.
So the key to successful winter care-which means keep the tree alive for 5 months-is to make sure the environment is right. The biggest consideration is usually temperature.

From most difficult to easiest:
Tender plants-tropical cant take freezes of any kind, and usually have to stay above 50 degrees at minimum,. That means they are going into a warm environment, usually the one you occupy.  They remain active and growing (ideally) year round and will need daily attention. Light and humidity may need to be supplemented. This attention and effort means there is some work to do each day. 
The sort of grow room many of us dream about!
This is the set up Jerry Meilslik  has in Montana. His location is so far
north, and so far up a mountain he could have frost any day of the year.
He's proving the folks who say 'bonsai can't grow indoors" wrong 365!
Half hardy will take some cold, even down to light freezes, but should be kept above 32 degrees. Since they are dormant they won’t require daily care, but need to be prevented from drying out.  Likely areas for winter storage are unheated but sheltered spaces: enclosed porches, attached garages and the like. 
Fully hardy is the easiest. Why? It’s like a crock pot-set it and forget it. Tuck them in correctly and they will probably be alright come March. This comes from a combination of factors, mainly taking advantage of the plant’s natural ability to take care of itself. You just have to give it the right conditions to do it.

Like real estate, good winter care comes down to three things: location, location, location. Lets do a thought experiment: take two identical plants, and place one on the north side of your house, the other on the south.  Which plant will be more likely to have a constant temperature? If you said North, good guess. That plant snugged up against the house foundation, protected from wind and sun, will stay much more consistently cold over a winter. On the other hand the plant that is exposed to sun will be on a thermal roller  coaster, warm, perhaps even hot during the day, freezing at night.  That’s a recipe for disaster.

Many find a cold greenhouse a good way to store plants of
'questionable' hardness. These look like trident maples, which are hardy, but could use some
 pampering below 32 degrees. Some growers make sure the trees never get quite that cold. 
So the key is not to protect the plants from cold, but to assure that they stay reliably and consistently cold. So an enclosed porch on the north or east side of a building  will work well for half hardy trees. One with south or west exposure will probably get to warm.  Warmth promotes active growth and January in Ohio is not the time for a sleepy pomegranate to be waking up and pushing growth.
Follow the same principle when  scouting for a spot for the fully hardy trees. Look on the north side of you home first. Coal chutes, window wells and existing flower beds are handy places to winter over trees.  If that won’t work in your circumstances, the north side of a shed or fence can be utilized, and a curtain wall of burlap can make a summer time vegetable patch into a useful over wintering spot.
My feeling is that plants should be on the ground, with pots in contact with the soil. Mulch should be applied up and over the pot up to the first branch. This set up means the soil ball stays moist. When scouting a wintering location, look up-if the spot is under and overhang, rain and snow will not reach the trees and you will need to provide water. Really the easiest way to make sure over wintered trees stay hydrated is to shovel snow on to them.

When should trees go into winter quarters?  Each backyard will be slightly different. Once deciduous trees have dropped leaves, they are ‘asleep’. It’s easier to work if the ground is not frozen, so aiming for that part of the winter when it is cold but not frigid would be best, but its throwing the dice. (Helpful tip: if you are using bagged mulch, put it in the garage now so it is NOT frozen. Frozen mulch doesn’t spread well at all!) Waiting till it is reliably cold also means the little furry pests who would love to bunk under your bonsai pots and who would look at all the tree bark as useful food have found other accommodations. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Every time I think I'm out, they drag me back in...

T here’s a topic that seems to crop up each spring as preparations get under way for the annual Bonsai Beginners class that CBS organizes. Shimpaku or some other variant of juniper has always been the material of choice, but the notion that maybe a Ficus should be offered as well will usually get floated by one of the teaching team. It’s a way to make sure that apartment dwellers, who have no access to the outdoors, would have a good reliable choice in a first bonsai plant. The motion gets made, and each year the vote has been against adoption. To keep things simple and stream lined, only one type of tree is offered. 

The justification is that junipers can indeed be kept indoors. Mention is made of Jack Wikle, a pioneer of indoor bonsai raised under shop lights, who has keep a variety of trees, including junipers, indoors their entire lives with no whiff of outside air (or light). But is it really possible to keep a juniper indoors?

  I have been amused to see how vehemently the topic can get worked over on a few of the Face bonsai discussion pages I look at from time to time.   It works out like this: A newly minted bonsai hobbyist will post a pic of their very first tree, like a proud parent.  Its most often standard issue landscape juniper in a nondescript pot, usually with a layer of glued on rocks AND a mudman AND a pagoda. They’ll ask what fertilizer to use and how they should train the treewhat about wire?  And this is where the helpful souls pile on. They have 4 or maybe 5 trees, they’ve watched some YouTube videos and maybe even read all the books their library has about bonsai, so they know-that tree needs to go outside, right now! New bonsai hobbyists, especially those that make that first purchase as an impulse buy, seem invariably to think that the bonsai, being so small, is also delicate, and needs to be coddled and soothed and protected. So they find a windowsill to park it on, inside the home, where they can look upon its coolness and neatness anytime they want.

 And the Sages of Facebook just won’t stand for, that tree needs to be outdoors. Why it must be out doors they can’t make clear. This is the downfall of parroting the accepted wisdom of others.  They just know that juniper is on the ‘outdoor list’ so can’t be inside. But why?
It’s certainly dryer (lower humidity) in most homes, but junipers, tough as boot leather, often  thrive in dry environments. Light indoors can be low, but a south window is a good start, and technology, so beloved of modern Humans, can supplement low lumens.  Temperature is the real hang up for junipers and similar plants indoors. At some point, they want to take a rest. Full dormancy to suit an elm or maple indoors is impossible, and they generally peter out after a year or so.

 But how much rest does a juniper really need? CBS gets its juniper stock from Liner Source, a commercial grower in Eustis, Florida. Eustis is a bit north west of Orlando in Central Florida. For reference, that’s Hardiness zone 9A-usual low temperature about 15 degrees, average usual 30ish at the low end. It can and does get in the 80s in January in that area. So full on dormancy is not really happening. There is a school of thought that while deciduous trees do truly go dormant, conifers-the so called “ever-greens” do not. They slow way down, and may appear to be sleeping, but it’s a much lighter slumber than their deciduous brethren take. If light and temperature are conducive, they may photosynthesize a little-or a lot.

The Sage of Ann Arbor, Jack Wikle.
 As mentioned before, Jack Wikle kept junipers indoors for many years. He is not the only one to do so. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden guide to indoor bonsai lists juniper as a “challenging, but possible” species for indoor culture, recommending a cool to cold situation during the winter. Id agree with that advice.  But my feeling is that good drainage and proper watering are even more important. An indoor juniper must never ever dry out, but also can never have wet feet.

 If it sounds challenging, it may be less hard work than you think.  Visiting a financial professional at his office in a new building at Easton, I was surprised to see a juniper bonsai on the table behind his desk.  It was a Father’s Day gift from his young kids.   Some might say he’s doing everything wrong:  a juniper indoors, in a north facing window, never fertilized and watered on a strict schedule. But how wrong can it be: the plant is alive. It could use a shot of iron and nitrogen, but it is alive, has new growth and is reasonably compact (not spindly).  So if junipers indoors are a challenge, it is a challenge that can be taken on successfully! 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Getting seedy..

Spring is time for many horticultural tasks.   The world is waking up after a  'long winter's nap' and that includes the seeds you collected in the fall.  These were elm seeds gathered from trees on the Ohio University campus in Athens, Ohio. The family was down that way to get my daughter to a fencing tournament. S we walked into the venue-which looked a lot more like a fancy, high dues health club than any "campus recreation center" I knew about when I was in college If I recall correctly, we didn't have a campus recreation center. But educational amenities in the Dark Ages are beside the point.
It was mid autumn, and these Elm trees still had leaves, but were also heavy with seeds. The leaves wee a pleasant green color, on the small side even on a full sized tree,and the tree itself had really great looking bark that peeled and flaked for a tri-color effect. It was fairly easy, being one of those people who never has bonsai far from his mind, to find a plastic bag and fill it with seeds. My family pretended not to notice, they have grown used to this sort of thing.

Once we arrived back home, I mixed a handful of bark fines with the seeds, sealed the bag, and put it in the refrigerator.   This was in the "second" fridge that is usually just for soda, beer and such. Again, my family, accustomed to my eccentricities, is used to seeing a plastic bag or two in there.  I find a clear plastic  bag lets them know that what is inside is not food-an unfortunate mistake with an empty Country Crock container, and someone shouting  about the butter going bad made that switch a step well taken.

Keeping seeds slightly moist and cold over winter is a process called 'stratification'. Somehow the seeds can count down the amount of cold they have sat through, and when their internal clock, or what ever it is, tells them it is time to wake up, they do it!. When I pulled this batch out of the fridges, many had already started putting out roots. I caught them just in time!

 Since the seeds were ready, it was time for me to get ready too.  First a container to plant them in, and some soil to fill it. I am a big believer in using what you have, and not spending money you would rather hang on to. The container you see is being recycled-it originally contained 5 pounds of vac-packed ground beef.  It is a tough, flexible plastic that seems like it will take a year or two out doors in the sun, so let put it to use!.  I also mixed up some planting mix, in this case some play sand and coir fines. Coir is coconut husks, and it can be found at orchid supply places as well as dope grower shops, I mean indoor gardening shops.  The fine stuff replaces peat, is more ecologically friendly than peat ( it is totally renewable) and rewets much better than totally dry peat.

With materials assembled, it's time to fire up the power tools!  The meat tray/seed tray needs drainage holes, and the electric drill with a properly sized bit makes quick work of the job.  Rather than make a few big holes and mess about with mesh, I used a smaller bit, and made a whole lot of holes.

Once the drainage was seen to, The potting mix went in, and then the seeds went in as well. There was not a lot of fuss with this step-a pencil was used to make a series of holes in rank and file, then seeds that had a root sticking out of them were tipped into a hole, one at a time. After that, I'd like to say I have the patience to carefully plant 50 or 75 elm seeds, but I dont. The seeds/bark mix were sprinkled evenly over the surface of the improvised growing tray, then watered well.

This project was done during a weather anomaly-temps of 70 degrees at the end of February, which is quite unusual for Central Ohio. When day time temps were over freezing, the seeds went outside, but spent most of their time in the garage, doing more waiting. I was surprised that they never got leggy, but think a combination of cold and bright light kept them growing at a proper pace,

A month after planting, it seems like a germination rate of at least 90%. This will grow on for a year, then next year get potted up in larger containers or put into a growing bed. When that happens, each tap root will be snipped.I am a bit disappointed that all of these seeds seems to be growing nice and straight, not a odd ball in the bunch.  Wire ir selective pruning can help with curves and angles-there are only so many elm forests you can have.

Seeds popping up bring the promise of new life and many new bonsai projects.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

One post -3 topics.

An upcoming meeting of the Columbus Bonsai society will highlight a technique, that for me is the essence of bonsai-a bonsai grower is often fooling the viewer.   The technique is the Phoenix Graft. It involves grafting young, flexible plant material onto a piece of specially prepared wood to create the image of an old, battle scarred tree that has lots of drift wood features.  

The wood part of the process can be a bonsai that has died, SOME collected driftwood, or a carved piece of wood.  The idea of making a dead piece of wood  “come to life” again, just like the mythical bird of legend that arose to new life from it’s own ashes, explains the name: Phoenix graft.

Yes, those are exactly what you think they are
there between his feet.
The process is referred to by another name-Tanuki. That word is the Japanese name for an animal that looks like a cross between a dog and a raccoon, and which bears the imaginative  common name Raccoon dog.  Although colored like a ‘coon, right down to the thief’s mask across the eyes, it is a member of the biological family Canidae, meaning its related to dogs, foxes and wolves, but isn’t quite any of those familiar animals. In Japanese folklore, the Tanuki is a trickster, able to shape shift and imbued with other supernatural powers.  It is very similar to the role the Coyote has in Native American folklore. One interesting fact, is that artistic representations of Tanuki are often obviously, prodigiously

The ability to ‘trick’ and to change shape is an obvious reflection of what happens in the Tanuki/Phoenix graft bonsai technique. And really, it is what bonsai is about-making you think you see something that isn’t truly there. That plant in a pot isn’t a full sized tree, may not even be a biological ‘tree’, but immediately gives the impression of a tree.

Image result for scorpionIn  doing some reading I was reminded that one of the plants popular for indoor bonsai Fukien Tea(Carmona retusa), has several other common names.  This plant has more aliases than a con-artist!  When I started in bonsai nearly three decades ago it was called Ehretia microphylla, and along the way switched to Carmona microphylla, before more recently being dubbed C. retusa. It has a raft of common names as well: besides Fukien Tea, it is known as Fujian Tea ( both from the different ways the province in China can be transliterated)Philippine Tea and Bath Tree.  On other that I came across is Scorpion Bush, and too my mind this is a much better, much cooler name for a plant. Fukien/Fujan are odd to the ear and make it sound like you tried to cuss, but didn’t.  Scorpion is easy to understand, instantly conjures up an image. It seems right for a plant that has glossy leaves with prickles on the edges.  Let’s do our part to put the name Scorpion bush into common usage for this bonsai plant.

Image result for retusa shellsAnd if that name retusa sounds familiar, it is with good reason. Aside from the familiar Ficus retusa, many plants bear the species name retusa-it’s a descriptor for leaf shape, specifically:having a rounded apex with small central notch. As if the name wasn’t spread around enough in the plant kingdom, Retusa is also the genus name for some very small sea snails.


Some of the recommended horticultural practices found in old bonsai books (or books that were current when I started the hobby) often fall out of favor over time.  One of the bedrock pieces of advice was to have layers, or levels of different sized soil particles in the pot. At the bottom, a layer of large sized items ‘for drainage’, the some moderate sized soil in the root zone, finished off with a thin layer of small particles  on top, for looks.  This advice was in all the books, and I recall hearing it at the very first bonsai workshop I attended.  Aside from the difficulty in trying to work three layers of different soil into a pot 1.5 inches deep, modern thinking says that the idea of a drainage layer at the bottom of a pot, bonsai or otherwise, not only doesn’t improve drainage, it may help retain water that never drains. The physics of water within a containers are complicated. IF you’re interested, this webpage gives a very detailed overview:

Another quaintly antiquated topic is the discussion of fertilizer in the earliest bonsai books.   This was from way back in the day when chemical fertilizers were not as widely available, so various ‘organic’ options were presented, even though that term wouldn’t have had its modern meanings.  In recommending  things like rape seed cake, bonsai authors, most of whom were either Japanese or directly instructed by Japanese growers, seemed to attach a great importance to the old, traditional way of doing things. It really seems like the ‘mystery’ element of bonsai care (that Westerners may not understand it or be able to do it) was still strong, so methods to fertilize plants the way the old masters did hung on strong as well.

John Naka gives a recipe for fertilizer cakes in his seminal book Bonsai Techniques I , that conforms to the this old timey formulae, right down to the odd ball advice about the correct texture for the mixture ( it should feel like an ear lobe!). Effective as they may be, it can be a hassle to assemble all the needed ingredients, and once mixed up, it can be all too clear why these things are called poo-poo balls: they look, and smell just like it!
Members of the Mohawk Hudson Bonsai Club
make up a batch of fertilizer cakes-the infamous Poo-Poo
Balls. Hope the window is open!
Standing in the fertilizer section of a good nursery makes me wonder: do we need to make our own poo-poo balls anymore?  There are tremendous selections of pelleted, granulated or otherwise shaped and formed fertilizer options. Both chemical and organic options are out there, and they promise to release plant ‘nutrients’ over time.  

My preferred brand of fish emulsion liquid as put out a pellet that contains fish elements as well as blood, bone, feather and alfalfa meals.  It looks like it was processed through the same machinery that makes rabbit food pellets, has that pleasant ‘plant-y’ odor that separates real gardeners from wanna-bes, and didn’t require any laborious mixing, drying and cutting. I am testing it over this summer-results to follow.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

No, It IS Repotting time!

 To judge by the calendar, it is too early to do any repotting.

But Since plants can't read, the often have other ideas!

Temperatures in my area have been consistently over freezing

for a while, and often much higher than seasonal norms.  The plants 'feel' this, and they start to react

This is a nice little  Japanese quince that I got from Evergreen Garden Works more than 10 years ago. It has developed into into a nice little tree. It blooms reliably every year, and has been a prolific source of cuttings.

Quince put out flower buds very early, and well before leaf buds.  This particular plant has just started to bud out. With that modest amount of activity "up top" I was surprised to see the massive amount of new, white roots this had put out!

The roots were so strong they pulled the drainage screen right out of the bottom of the pot.

 Quince strike fairly easily from cuttings. Cutting ease can be taken as an indicator how much root can be taken off safely when repotting.  This was cut back and set up with fresh soil.

These are vigorous enough to need repotted every year.
This is the bench the quince st on last year-it is slowly disappearing!!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Almost repotting time!

      It's technically too early for repotting. But sitting doing nothing is no fun, and with the weather giving hints of Springtime to come I started to wonder what needed doing-or what plants could use some attention.
      I got together some supplies and a few possible pots to choose from. The large black vessel that all the stuff got carried around in is a plastic oil drain pan from the dollar store. I bought several thinking they could make good training containers. I will test and see if the plastic can take freezing and ultraviolet, but in the mean time they make great totes!
     I have several Rosemary that are spending the winter in a south window in the spare bedroom. They used to have a window in an unheated garage-ideal winter quarters for Rosemary, but when I moved to my current house the garage having no windows called for a change of plans. The Rosemary have done well in a spare bedroom that was very bright and with the door closed and vents closed too, stayed under 60 degrees.
     That situation changed not long ago when my daughter got to teen aged years, and took over the bathroom attached to the bathroom-young women need space to spread out their implements and products. She complained about the chill, and forgets to close the door, so the plants have a warmer environment. They seem to get along alright.
     This particular plant was started as a cutting and has an really unusual crook in the trunk, along with some wide arm hug sort branches. It has been in a clay pot for training and I have been waiting for the right time to put it in a nicer pot and concentrate on developing foliage pads.
     With the plant pulled from the training pot you can see that using two different soil mixes in the same pot is not always a good idea. They separate and that resulted in an air bubble between top and bottom layers. There are a good deal of dead roots, since this plant, like all the rosemary I have sits in a place that gets full sun all summer. The plants like it, but the also dont like wet feet, so the mix they grow in is heavy on Turface and sand. Meaning that it can dry out quickly. The plants take it all in stride, but part of this repotting will be cleaning up the root mass rather thoroughly.
    Once the plant was yanked ( gently) from the training pot, a few "real" bonsai pots were considered.
     A plain unglazed container seems to be best, to compliment t the tone and texture of the trunk. The Trunk shape is very eccentric and feels rustic.

     But I had one pot that was the right size and shape, but glazed in two tones of white.  Round pots with the 'nail head' trim like this are called drum pots, because of their resemblance to additional Japanese Kodo drums. I like the style and this one was produced by my friend Tom Holcomb and could be called a limited edition I guess-Tom is out of the potting game, so many of us who know his work are a bit sad there will be no more "Tom pots".

Any way, sometimes, in art as in life, some times the wrong choice is so wrong it's right.

     With the root ball reduced, there will be lots of space for good fresh soil.

 Im using a mix of bark, Turface, Floor Dry ( a product from the NAPA auto parts store-just as good as Turace but 1/3 the price) as well as some large sand and some crushed limestone. Rosemary prefer soil on the base side, and the limestone helps with that.

    Time to prepare the pot, and here's were that roll of what looks like tape comes into play. It actually fibreglass mesh used to cover the joins in drywall before they are 'mudded' to make a smooth wall surface. It cuts with scissors and is self adhesive.

    Time fore the seat belt-the safety strap that will keep the tree in the pot. I often use plain cotton cord, such a butcher's twine for this, although wire is fine too. A good mound of soil is placed in the pot for the plant to sit on top of. It's a good rule to avoid mound that are too big, since that mound can dry out quickly. So although I'm avoiding a big hill above the rim of the pot, the root pace will "sit proud" as the carpenters say-base of the trunk just above pot rim. This will create a nice gentle slop of soil down into the pot. I may be able to get some dry climate moss to take hold, and this bad boy will look really sweet in a few months

   The finished process-so far. On the left, as potted, on the right after some trimming-eliminating some verticals and cutting back to encourage denser pads. This will be quite presentable by mid summer.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

That Fabulous Fig

     There’s is an interesting book just out that is well worth seeking out at the library. The only reason I'm not going to do a full blown write up for the newsletter is one glaring problem-the book does not mention bonsai at all! Mike Shanahan’s slim volume Gods, Wasps and Stranglers still has plenty to interest the bonsai enthusiast who would like to know more about one of the most common (and popular) types of plant used in the hobby-the Ficus.
     There are more than 750 species of Ficus, found on all continents but Antarctica.  Aside from humans, Shanahan has calculated that figs
of one sort or another figure in the diets of 1274 other animals and birds. He also makes frequent mention how figs of different sorts figure in the spiritual and mythic fabric of many, many cultures. Figs are also worth knowing about because of their fascinating reproductive strategy.
      Figs are related to mulberries, and essentially a fig is a mulberry turned inside out. The technical word is an inflorescence (a group or cluster of flowers on a stalk). A fig fruit is called a syconium –an inflorescence which forms an enlarged, hollow fleshy receptacle with multiple ovaries on the inside surface. That’s a scientific and precise was of saying an inside out mulberry (and here is where precise, proper botanical terms get things tangled up with common words regular people like you and I use-mulberries and similar shaped fruits like blackberries and raspberries are not properly considered berries to the learned botanist, they are called aggregate fruits because they contain more than one ovary. True berries-blueberries, lignon berries, banana, tomatoes, watermelons, grapes and pumpkins (all technically berries!) have but one ovary.) The definition of that was mapped out in the precise botanical terms used above gets more clear when you consider that the fig’s seeds develop in dark safety while a mulberry’s are exposed to any sort of predator and disease.
     To assure there will be more figs in the future, pollen must reach the inside of that fig fruit, and to make certain that happens, each species of fig has a species of wasp that has learned to lay its eggs inside the fig itself-the insect enters through the tiny hole or eye at the end opposite the stem (another technical term, that eye is called an ostiole).
Fig wasps featured on postage stamps issued by the nation of Kenya.
     Shanahan mentions how linked certain forms of life are, in a sort of chain of survival. When droughts in Burma caused die off of many forest plants, the native Ficus were tough enough to survive, but conserved energy by not putting out fruit. With no place to lay eggs, the wasps died out in the area too, and no ripe fruit to eat, many species of bird and animal also suffered. When the drought ended, the figs came out of survival mode and produced fruit, but it took some time for wasp population to ramp back up to allow the full pollination tasks.

      So aside from not one mention of Ficus as bonsai, I think this book is well worth a trip to the library!