WARNING: The following diatribe includes personal opinion. If you are easily offended by opinions other than your own please don’t read any further. If you are minded to leave hostile comments or would like to tear me a new one I could’nt care less. Last time I checked I am still entitled to my own opinions (and this is my blog), what follows is based entirely upon my own opinion and the experience upon which it was formed.
I am on the horns of a dilemma. As is the way of these things the issue has been developing over time and has now come to a point that requires some thought, discussion and possibly even a decision to be made. Earlier today my daughter discovered a wasp nest in her bedroom as you do, it’s in a built in storage area under the eaves of our thatched house. It’s the size of a football and until this morning there was absolutely no sign it even existed. Trouble is it’s actually less that two feet from where she lays her head down at night. Personally I would leave well alone, there are no wasps in the house and so long as we don’t go poking it with a stick it’ll all resolve itself by Christmas. She’s not so keen so the extermiantors are on their way.
This evening I was outside in the sunshine watering as I often am at this time of year. As I went about my business a little brown wren popped out of one of my trees and sat two feet away from me on top of the fence with a lace wing in it’s beak. It sat there watching me for a while before disappearing into another of the large trees where I could just see it hopping from branch to branch looking for more prey. This got me to thinking but before we go further let me set the stage.
We are privileged (via a lot of hard work) to own a 400 year old thatched house. It’s the last house in the village next to acres of fields all bounded by ancient hedgerows. We are only a mile away from the Norfolk Broads reserve and less than two hundred yards from areas of ancient fenland, endless marshes and tidal mud flats. Our half-acre plot is entirely surrounded by very old hedgerow of mixed native species from holly, prunus, hawthorn, yew, a few modern conifers and the like. There is ivy everywhere and some of our hedges might be considered a tangled mess. In the garden are a couple of mature forty-foot larch, massive cherry trees, a 150 year old oak tree and a fifty foot scots pine. One of our boundaries consist of four hundred year old limes, a couple with trunks as large as a small car. We have a couple of ponds we have turned over to natural management (left to their own devices) that are breeding grounds for the fish that live in them. In spring we see more than fifty balls of frog spawn every year and they also support toads, newts, a great number of varied dragon flies and wildfowl including ducks who have raised broods here several times. I am no twitcher but we have nests of robin, wren, blackbirds, crows, pigeons, doves, magpies and a variety of finches and tits. We regularly see several different birds of prey and can hear owls at night. We see the occasional rabbit, squirrels, mice and sometimes a muntjac deer will wander in from the lane outside. I have seen common lizards and a grass snake as well as two daft Staffies. There really is a lot going on here despite it being fairly quiet.
I am 54 years old this year which means I come from simpler times. A time when common sense was just that and when hysteria was pretty much unknown, stiff upper lip and all that. I was raised by parents that went through the war as children and by their parents that kept a cool head and appreciated just how blessed they were to have a roof over their heads, food on the table and were free from the threat of death falling from the sky every night. Simple pleasures by todays standards which are often taken for granted. Every single day I am shocked by the stupidity and hysteria that has infected our once proud country. I fear it’s all going very wrong and that we will never be able to get back. Just think about how modern Britain’s would deal with what our grandparents had to deal with in 1939. Many Brits’ have gone soft in the head and we may have become a nation of dependant whiners incapable of dealing with life ourselves, taking responsibility and largely incapable of intelligent thought. Everything has become somebody else’s responsibility, the universal cry is “The government should do something ….”. Well, surprise, surprise, I DO NOT AGREE. The government and authorities are incapable of holding everyone’s hand and mopping up after them, in fact governments are incapable of much other than wasting money and cocking things up. If governments are our only source of help then God help us all, we’ll need him.
Bear with me here I AM getting to the point 😉 My big issue is with ignorance, it seems to be infectious and since we all got access to the internet ignorance has increased a lot, in fact since the time we all got our first dial-up modems the spread of stupidity seems to be relentless. Lately what’s been called ‘fake news’ has pointed a spotlight on the fact a lot of folk do actually believe the shit they read or are told online or via a million forms of media streaming into our heads 24/7. As a bonsai artist and a business man involved in the bonsai trade I have to say I am on the verge of leaving and going back to my first love, motorcycles. EVERY SINGLE DAY I am bombarded by frankly quite incomprehensible nonsense and trying to stop the tide like some King Cnut come lately, and educate, what feels like the whole world, has literally sucked the life out of me. I have never been so tired, depressed and lethargic, only my bikes are keeping me alive. Kaizen Bonsai may just be for sale but after reading this you might look away.
As an example to illustrate my point, last summer I sold a pretty little cotoneaster to a “lady” here in the UK. Not an expensive tree, just under £100 including the VAT and delivery. The lady bought the tree from our web site where it was listed under “Outdoor Bonsai Trees”. We shipped it and never heard any more, they say no news is good news and so we thought no more about it. This was around August time. Come October I got an email asking for my advice as to why the tree was not growing. I asked the logical questions about what she had been doing and where the tree was kept. I was told the tree was indoors on a windowsill and since the heating was turned on the tree had started to look poorly. I replied that it needed to be outside year round and what was she doing in regard to watering it. The reply? This is a direct quote! “Oh I didn’t realise I needed to water it”. After I returned from sticking cocktail sticks in my eyes I had to wonder whether my life was really worth anything at all. I did my best to be polite, anyone who knows me well will be grinning about now. After I pointed out her error she went on the attack calling me a crook, thief, charlatan, bandit and some other choice phrases I will spare you from. She then complained to Paypal who took the money off us and gave it back to her. This sort of shit happens almost every day.
Many bonsai folk have sadly fallen foul of the modern epidemic of hysterical silliness bought on by shit, published online by ill-informed, ignorant, unqualified, inexperienced idiots keen to look clever and pick up followers, friends, subscribers and generally be the centre of attention, nowhere is this more evident than in relation to the subject of pest and disease (P&D). The hysteria regarding bugs, fungi and bacteria leaves me completely speechless. I was once excoriated by a guy that re-potted one of our trees a year after he bought it because he found a single vine weevil grub. Bearing in mind these are endemic across much of Europe and will be found across the UK living in grassland and turf you ARE going to bump into one of these little guys from time to time. If you are growing soft tissue plants like Huchera or bedding plants in multi purpose compost and they go unnoticed there may well be an issue but if you grow bonsai trees in modern soil mixes they really will not be an issue worth worrying about and besides, how much of the contents of a 20” pot can a single 8mm grub possibly eat? If your bonsai get to a stage where there are a thousand grubs in your pot and a plant starts to suffer I would suggest you might want to pay more attention going forwards.
My issue is this. My little wren has a nest in our garden alongside a dozen other nesting varieties. Due to careful consideration we have a thriving eco system all around us. We have more bees than you can shake a stick at (and wasps in the roof), butterflies and literally thousands of species of insect. Many of those insects rely upon plants for their existence and many of them would be classified as “Pests” within the bonsai community. Some ill-informed individuals believe bonsai trees can ONLY exist in a sterile environment free of contact with fungi, bacteria and insects. I know this not to be true but in order to furnish such folk with squeaky clean trees should I bust out the chemicals and destroy a beautiful eco system that has evolved around our old house over four hundred years? If I worry about a few aphids (greenfly/blackfly/whitefly etc) and adopt a scorched earth approach to their eradication my customers expectations of a sterile bonsai tree will be largely realised but without those aphids I won’t have lacewings and the like and then my little wren won’t have the food source he needs for his young family.
Just today my good lady was fussing over the trash bin outside that has maggots crawling around in it and is full of condensation due to the warm weather. Inside the lid is absolutely alive with tiny maggots. What can we get to destroy these? My advice was to open the lid and leave well alone. Within ten minutes there were robins and other small birds having a feast. Perhaps surprisingly the world needs flies that come from maggots. Birds like robins eat maggots and birds like swallows eat flies and maggots eat rotting crap we do need to dispose of and what more responsible way is there of doing that?
Here’s another thing that bothers fuss pots. Slugs and snails, not my favourite thing but they do love a bonsai garden that’s constantly being watered and has lots of cool damp pots to hide under. I used to put out pellets to try and clear them until one day I found a hedgehog laying in the middle of the lawn. It wasn’t dead but it certainly wasn’t alive either. I had poisoned it with my slug pellets (via poisoned molluscs). After about a week of care it did recover but was a close run thing. Toads and frogs eat slugs and snails too as do thrushes that we have in the garden and when was the last time you were overrun with those? They used to be everywhere when I was a kid. What nine year old boy didn’t love to watch a thrush beating a snail on a rock? Sure if you are growing lettuce these slimy creatures can be a nightmare, so plant more lettuce and share and don’t poison all the predators and then you won’t be overrun with a slow-moving plague.
Thanks to my mother I have an inbuilt fear of spiders. I live in an old house and so spiders are a way of life. All my life I tried to rid my space of these pesky critters. One thing I refuse to do is be a slave to fear and so for a couple of years I worked hard to make my peace with spiders. Rather than pounding them into the carpet now I either let them run off or put them outside. For several years in summer time we were annoyed by little black flies buzzing around in the house, these are impossible to swat and extremely hard to ignore. Last summer I noticed a patch of spider web had appeared in the corner of our living room between two of the beams. It gave me the creeps when I saw two black legs sticking out of the hole in the middle and whilst watching TV from a safe distance I actually became quite enamoured with my new buddy. After a while there were no more flies and in time I guess the spider died or moved on, I kind of miss him now and the flies are back.
One of my biggest fears, since I was a kid, were those big fat bodied spiders that appear towards the end of summer. Apparently they are called European garden spiders (Araneus diadematus). Nasty looking fat bodied brown things that often end up looking like a marble with legs wearing a fur coat. Late summer every year and these would be setting up shop in our greenhouse and just giving me the chills. One year in a spirit of cooperation I decided to stop smacking them with a plank or spraying them with insecticide as I had done for years and just let be. The result was a lot less annoying critters in the greenhouse and cleaner plants, the greenhouse was also becoming a feeding ground for small birds again.
So, now hopefully you begin to get my drift? A while back I wrote along these lines in relation to soil What should be in your bonsai soil. Progressing on from there I have become increasingly aware of the responsibility I have to the little bit of the world I temporarily own. The dilemma is fairly plain, do I wreck everything like an angry bull in a china shop just to satisfy a few ill-informed folk? A blanket use of chemicals will destroy the whole show and probably go some way to poisoning me too. Chemicals are not selective they kill all the pests.
I am acutely aware that some pests do need to be controlled. See my blog post earlier this year about a pesky fungus bothering junipers . As I will explain P&D can get out of hand and particularly where something comes from foreign climes problems can occur. Again hysteria in this respect is rife but often unfounded and ill-informed. Much like the media going into overload about ash die back and blaming it on plants imported from the European mainland. This did massive damage to the nursery and garden centre trade. P&D are no respecter of national boundaries and ash die back has been making it’s way steadily here for a long time and it’s arrival was inevitable with the right east wind. The crazy thing is that more ash trees have been destroyed in an attempt to control the disease than have actually been killed by the disease itself. If a fungus is killing trees where is the sense in killing ALL the trees before it gets there? Truth is authorities are terrified of another Dutch elm scenario on their watch. Sure we lost most of the big elms but there are survivors and resistant strains are now being cultivated and ulmus procera are literally everywhere in southern Britain, sure they don’t get big but everyone in British bonsai loves them, I have two dozen myself. Often times these issues are little more than political footballs kicked about between the media and those same feckless (keen to be re-elected) authorities.
In spite of what some folk tell me I am not actually classified as stupid or whatever the modern parlance is for that term, though I do have my moments. Nobody wants to buy a tree infested with bugs. That’s not what I am talking about here. My point is it’s IMPOSSIBLE to have a plant that’s 100% free from any form of life other than plant. That is unless you submerge it in a vat of pervasive chemicals and then seal it in an air and water free vacuum. The way some bonsai folk run on you could be forgiven for thinking that is exactly how bonsai trees should be kept. Truth is that cosseted and mollycoddled bonsai trees are noting but trouble. Expose trees to the elements commensurate with their natural habitat, do not water or fertilise more than is necessary to maintain healthy growth and just let the tree do its own thing with an absolute minimum of your fiddling and trust me you will be surprised with the results.
Over the last fifteen or twenty years I made the mistake of making myself available to anyone who wanted my help and advice. Each year I spend over a grand paying the phone charges for people who call me for free advice that takes close to a day a week of my time. Clearly that won’t be continuing, especially as I am suffering abuse from some idiots who call me and don’t like what I have to say. Having done all that, one fact has become VERY obvious to me, 99% of ALL the problems experienced by bonsai trees are the result of the actions of their owners and, or, the owners perception of what may, or may not, be an actual problem. In the UK I have almost never experienced, or seen, or heard of a significant problem with bonsai that was caused directly by P&D that did not have an underlying issue related to the trees care in some way. That’s not to say problems can’t just spontaneously happen but it is very rare in my experience.
Much like us, plants have inbuilt defence mechanisms to help them survive in a hostile world. Much like us, where a plant is fighting fit it will happily resist the advances of P&D. However, get tired and run down and you are asking for trouble as I found out to my cost when I ended up in hospital with pneumonia. Living in a bonsai pot is a stressful situation for any tree no matter how good your horticultural skills. Wildly fluctuating temperatures, limited resources and imbalances caused by pruning and the like all make for a stressful time. Thankfully most species are super tough and just shrug this off and the stress serves to make the plant even tougher just as the stress of weight training will make you stronger. But, given time, constant stress will always prevail and cause problems, especially if we miss the almost imperceptible telltale signs of things beginning to go out of whack. The first many of us know that things are not what they should be is when we notice a pest attack or infestation. We blame the pests for the problem of damaging our bonsai’s health when in fact they are a secondary issue to an underlying problem, often of our own making. A few critters on a plant is perfectly natural an infestation (the state of being invaded or overrun by pests or parasites) is not. A few pests will not, in regard to a healthy plant, normally result in an infestation. Nor will a few bugs harm the health of a tree.
I have had folk call me, absolutely beside themselves in blind panic because they found a few leaf munching caterpillars on their bonsai. Much like the vine weevil how much can a few caterpillars eat? Well actually quite a lot but if you have the eco system around you they won’t get out of hand, much like our bin. Consider what a few caterpillars eat and then look at what’s laying on the floor after you have given your beloved bonsai a summer prune. To some, a few munched leaves will spoil their enjoyment of bonsai entirely. Personally I like to know my bonsai are accepted into the natural world and are providing a living for the inhabitants of my garden. Perfection is an impossible target in bonsai and the pursuit of that perfection has seen the disillusionment and demise of countless potential bonsai masters over the years I have been around. I got into bonsai first and foremost because I love trees and that means I MUST love the environment in which those trees live and that environment includes a lot of wildlife and that’s a part of what makes a tree such a magical thing surely?
I was recently listening to a radio program about gardening and there was a question about honey fungus, something that causes utter panic amongst gardeners. The expert was a senior gardener at the RHS’s most famous garden and explained that their very old garden was absolutely riddled with the fungus (which I thought was brave). He then went on to explain that honey fungus will only ever infect weak and poorly trees and those suffering stress from secondary infections or catastrophic damage. The answer to the question of ‘what can I grow in a garden infected with honey fungus’ was basically ‘healthy’ plants. Right plant, right place, right soil, simple enough right? Plants will always have a few stow-aways. A few bugs, caterpillars, spiders and the like is all a part of what makes a tree a tree. It’s estimated that a mature oak living in a British woodland supports three hundred and fifty species of insect and thirty different lichen species. By July the leaves will look worse for wear before the second flush but that’s how these things work. Ok for trees, not Ok for your brand new BMW! Just because a tree has a few bugs and some scruffy foliage does not prove it’s unhealthy, it’s just lived in. An unhealthy tree will invariably suffer serious attack and infestation and a spray may be important to clear away pests prior to other actions being taken in order to correct underlying causes, that’s just common sense. My issue is with the increasing hysteria we are finding in relation to all apparent or so called P&D issues.
For too long now humans have been trying to dominate the earth and force it to conform to our needs. Problem is that the earth has time on it’s side and we don’t, much like the P&D we are discussing, once we have used up all the resources of our host and it’s dead we will die with it because for us there is nowhere else to go. Time to start thinking about working WITH the world around us, subjugation has not worked either in the world that supports us or in bonsai judging by the thousands of carcases of dead trees I have seen on my travels.
So now I have got that all off my chest what about my dilemma? I plan to leave my trees here to get along with the world around them and to take their place in my lovely little eco system. Once they are sold we will give them a preventative spray just to clean them up where (rarely) necessary and send them on to their new homes. That way our customers get a clean tree and my wrens, hedgehogs and frogs get clean food to eat. I’m sure that will not suit everyone but trying to keep everyone happy has put me in hospital before now. We all have a larger responsibility to our world and the only way we are going to make it better than it is will be by taking personal responsibility for what WE do and what WE own and consume. Stomping all over the world telling other folk what to do is actually only making the problem worse, stay home and take care of your own, please.