Another daft ramble but do bear with me 😉
In 25 years of being involved in bonsai I do not remember a season with more P&D (pest & disease) problems. This seems very wide-spread in the U.K judging by the number of enquiries we have had of late. All things being equal this can really only be blamed on the weather but then I am a Brit’ and here the weather is to blame for most anything and everything.
The trouble with P&D today is that a simple Google search will, supposedly, give the answer to most anything. Judging by what we see from the correspondence we receive, most folk go right to the worst possible cause, often for the most insignificant of issues. As an example I lost my wife to cancer, the final stages started with a simple headache. Most times you get a headache it’s unlikely to be cancer. However where bonsai is concerned as soon as folk see a few yellow leaves they start calling around the undertakers. GPs (doctors) have advised strongly against self diagnosis via the internet. I am sure this is for the same reason, without a base level of knowledge it’s very easy to arrive at the wrong diagnosis.
Speaking personally I had no interest in plants before I arrived on the doorstep of bonsai. My background and experience was in motor vehicles and machinery. I started following the usual paths of books and bonsai clubs (no internet back then). After a few years I was so confused I wanted to give up. Much later I went to college and studied horticulture. We looked at everything from turf maintenance, soil science, bedding plant production and plant genetics to…… P&D. After that everything fell into place for me and I stopped having to try to second guess what was happening all the time. I certainly appears to me that most folk come to bonsai with a similar experience and so figuring out what’s happening when something goes wrong is tough.
Diagnosing a pest problem is fairly easy, if you have stuff crawling around on your trees it’s a simple job to find out what they are and most creepy crawlies are easily despatched. When you have a problem without legs it’s a little more difficult. The big problem with plants is that no matter what goes wrong the only thing they can do is go a funny colour, usually yellow, followed by brown or black. Yellowing foliage can be anything from a natural June or autumn drop to the effects of drying out, nutrient deficiencies, environmental issues or fungal problems. In fact ANYTHING that goes wrong with a plant will result in yellowing foliage. Part of the problem is that before a tree sheds its leaves it will withdraw nutrients from the leaf turning it yellow and so yellowing leaves is a perfectly normal situation for most plants and it’s also the primary indicator of developing problems. Sorting out what’s what is a skilled task indeed.
For the past 10 years or more I have had a nursery containing between 2>3000 trees. This is a massive burden and not half the fun it might appear to be. Taking care of that lot is a living and expensive nightmare. However it does give me a great insight into the intricacies of bonsai tree care and development as well as the problems we all face. Over the years it has become plain that plants are tough organisms that are massively adaptable. However in bonsai we do push our luck. When I was at college they told us one of the more difficult aspects of horticulture was growing plants in pots. In bonsai we take very old plants and try to grow them in very small pots. Then we expect to do that for decades. A recipe for disaster if ever there was one. For the newbie it’s a tortuous maze and the odds are stacked massively against any hope of success.
There are just too many factors in bonsai to be able to ever give a definitive answer to most care issues. Think about it, trees growing in nature in ideal conditions have unlimited scope to grow roots, gather moisture and harvest sunlight. We take all that away by reducing the root mass and soil volume and constantly pruning. With the best care in the world a tree growing in a pot is under constant stress, couple that to the fact we like to move our trees around and ship them from all parts of the world, growing them in alien environments. Then if we do suffer from a lack of horticultural skill and understanding along with a poor grasp of the application of bonsai technique the chances of our doing well is virtually zero. The only recourse is to be persistent, keep learning and expect some failures along the way.
So, having said all that here are a few pointers that have helped me over the years.
Right plant right place.
Keeping a tree in the wrong place is like trying to keep a fish out of water. Learn what the plant needs in terms of its natural habitat and native situation. The closer we can get to that ideal the better, the fact the tree is growing in a pot has no bearing on this.
Learn to read your trees.
I think anyone who knows me knows my opinion on forums, books and the like. Bonsai are grown and thrive outside. Get out there and learn to read your trees, they are the best indicator of what’s happening. Experience a plants environment, smell the air feel the soil touch the plant. Watch what happens when things change, look at the colour, observe the plants use of water. Never look at a plant from your point of view. Our plants are communicating everything we need to know but they don’t send emails.
Keep bonsai on the trees terms.
If we do not give a tree what it needs we will fail. We MUST keep a tree on its terms. We constantly struggle with beginners insisting on keeping hardy trees indoors and other similar issues. We HAVE to bend ourselves to what our plants need if we are to be successful.
Be VERY patient and take your time.
For the last 20 years I have seen trees pushed too hard. We are all guilty of it, pushing too hard in order to progress a tree and conform it to our will. This ends in failure every time. If we can learn to read our trees it becomes very obvious when it’s ready to take the next step. Producing bonsai from raw material can take 10+ years and maturing a bonsai to be worthy of the name will take a life time. Respect this fact and measure your expectancies accordingly.
Happy bonsai are healthy bonsai..
Good horticultural technique and husbandry is 98% of being successful with bonsai trees. Study horticulture and the understanding that brings will take all the guess-work out of your pass time. A happy bonsai is also free of P&D because it’s defence systems will be very strong. SURE problems do arise but keeping a happy bonsai will ensure the tree has the very best chance of remaining in good health. A happy bonsai is a healthy bonsai and a healthy bonsai makes for a happy owner and that makes the world a better place.