For decades now I have been telling folk they need to learn to read their trees. A great deal of the problems folk experience with cultivating bonsai are related to erroneous half truths they have read or picked up from well meaning but inexperienced individuals. Many of those ideas may be sound in themselves but knowing when to apply them is the issue. The internet has made this situation pretty much critical but many books and some magazines are just as culpable. Added to the fact many of us today are raised without hands on experience of gardening and keeping plants, it’s not hard to see why so many of us struggle with bonsai, particularly in the early days.
Our obsession with celebrities and social media where anyone can publish pretty much anything and the fact that, by and large, nobody fact checks what they read online and we have a potential but serious pitfall for the unwary, ignorant and terminally lazy. There are a lot of minimally experienced folk out there beavering away at ‘influencing’ us. Get enough followers and it seems most folk will just accept what’s being said as if it were gospel truth. There are a lot of self proclaimed messiahs out there but the fact that something or someone is popular does not make it, or them, right.
I am old school, i even went to an old school, I learned my trade the old school way and have learned bonsai that way too. I subscribe to the notion that we learn by doing, by practical experience and hands on practice. By far the best way to start anything new is to get alongside a more experienced fellow. That used to be called an apprenticeship and it imparts life long learning. I have always spent my time with folk who are where I wanted to be. I figured out a long time ago that spending my time with folk who were where I was would leave me right there. It may have been comfortable but it was never going to help me out. I got to spend time with some of the best bonsai artists working, often it was intimidating, particularly in the early days but it was worth the discomfort to progress my experience.
Over the years I have had my content plagiarised and blatantly copied. My videos have been ripped off and some folk didn’t even bother to change the soundtrack they just put their name on them and claimed it was their work. That’s simply incredible since there really is only one person around that looks like me and I know him well. I have had these lazy scumbags take credit for my trees, use my pictures to promote stuff they are selling. They have associated my name with their products and trees in order to try and get a better price or give them credibility. I even had one shit-bag who was advertising my trees for sale on Ebay. People will do literally ANYTHING in order to gain fame these days but of course they do it at arms length, keyboard warriors. Nobody has ever done these things within my reach, there is violence in my past and there could be in my future given the right circumstances. Beware the quiet ones, we are watching!
Having got that off my chest lets get back to the subject at hand. I have written recently about turning off, shutting up and listening. What we need to listen to is not what the great Marco Invenizzi once called the NET BONSAI WANKER but the quietest voice of all, our trees. As humans we think the best and most efficient way to communicate is words, that’s simply not true. Anyone who follows politics will know words can easily say one thing and mean another. Words have literally infinite capacity for being misunderstood and abused. Dogs communicate much more efficiently than we do and there is never a misunderstanding between our hairy friends. Similarly trees can communicate perfectly with us if only we could shut up, look and listen.
Trees respond to their environment and if it is us who control that environment we ABSOLUTELY must understand what’s going on if we want to be successful. I have literally lost count of the number of times I have heard folk say to me about their tree “It was fine for years and then it just died”. In that case, ninety percent of the time, somebody has been ignoring the signs and has actually been killing their tree slowly over a very long time.
If there is a golden rule for success in bonsai it’s the old gardening adage, “Right plant, right place “. Really simple, except, the bonsai community works very hard at overcomplicating everything. My advice? For every variety in your garden, look up the species, find out about it’s natural range and the conditions in which it grows. Knowing that will tell you what you need to do to make it a happy camper. Personally I would entirely ignore bonsai related information sources, stick with the horticultural and plant experts and commercial growers.
Sadly I can’t teach this intuitive aspect of bonsai remotely. I remember several happy occasions walking around my garden with consummate expert David Prescott. I was simply flabbergasted at what he could tell about a plant simply by walking past it. Sadly it has taken me fifteen years to catch up but at least I got there in the end. Life is all about the details, there are NO big things just details, ignore these at your peril.
The Tale of Two Maples.
I say all that, in my long winded way, as a preface to todays lesson. The best I can do to try and pass on how this works is to present an example so, here goes. Here are two pictures. The trees are identical species, Japanese produced Acer palmatum’Deshojo’. These were photographed on the same day in late September, both have been on the nursery here in Norfolk (U.K) for at least a couple of years. So, what do these images tell us? What can we extrapolate from what we can see?
First up the smaller tree in the bonsai pot. For the time of year there is no way this should be largely without leaf, it’s not unknown in our micro-climate to have leaves on maples at the end of November. Notice the leaves are fairly large and the petioles are long. We can also see the tree has made at least an inch or two of new extension growth all over. This tells me the tree is not intrinsically weak or unhealthy therefore we can deduce (sounding like Sherlock here) the issues with this tree are largely, but not entirely, environmental.
What you can’t see is that the tree is not extensively well rooted simply because a lot of the soil is very loose. This tells me that before I got this tree it had spent a good amount of time in a larger pot before someone re-potted it with extensive root removal into a bonsai pot that is too small and a soil mix that is too coarse and then, adding insult to injury, the tree has been heavily pruned in all the wrong ways.
Over winter trees store a huge amount of energy in their trunks for springtime. After the poorly completed work detailed above this tree has burst into spring growth only to discover it’s roots have disappeared and it can’t support the amount of foliage and new growth. It’s much like folk who spend too much borrowed money before something changes and they find themselves with their bare asses out in the breeze. Drastic action has to be taken before we lose our ass altogether.
Look at the new growth on the tree, look how thin it is with long internodes. Our tree thought it had plenty of cash in the bank but very quickly discovered it had been robbed. After the initial spring flush the tree bravely struggled on all summer but could not manage a second flush. Therefore the leaves are, by the end of September, six months old. It’s been a rough summer here with very high temperatures and vicious drying winds. The weather has taken it’s toll and at this time the tree is not strong enough to fight back and has shut down early.
For sure a better gardener than me (with 3000 plants at this time) would have given this a little more TLC and helped it out a bit. I like to think I grow tough trees, no place for slackers on my benches! I have kept it in the sun, but the pot in the shade to keep it from cooking the roots in direct sun. Keeping it warm and sunny meant the pot dried out regularly which meant I could water twice a day. Passing water through the root system supplies oxygen and ensures fast root development. Absolutely no pruning, every leaf was needed to supply energy to help restore the trees equilibrium. A very limited amount of fertiliser was used.
Soon I will move this back to a terracotta nursery pot without disturbing the roots. This is a classic example of how a bonsai pot is only suitable for bonsai trees, which this is not. Moving this immature tree into a bonsai pot too early and in all the wrong ways has set it back about five years. That’s how long I estimate it will take to restore this tree and re-balance it’s equilibrium. It will also take that long to rebuild it’s ramification which no doubt it once had. At that time a skilled individual will be able to return it to a bonsai pot without rocking it’s world in all the wrong ways.
This long suffering maple is a text book example of ignorance, incompetence and impatience. The calamitous three I’s of the bonsai apocalypse. The fastest way to get to where we want in the development of a bonsai tree is to take our time. Sadly a great deal of the work done on bonsai today pretty much guarantees they will never become the bonsai we hope.
So what about the second example, a larger tree in a terracotta nursery pot? This arrived in a worse state than the little tree, about five or six years ago. It was, again, in a tiny pot but this time had been ignored for years, not re-potted and barely even watered and was, I judged at the time, just a few months from complete collapse and death. Obviously that’s not the case today and rebuilding of the tree is well underway. So, what does the picture tell us?
Most obviously the leaves are a beautiful green colour and are nearly perfect, well formed and of even size. At a glance the tree has a well groomed appearance without shaggy growth. However there are a few scorched examples here and there. That lower branch has obviously been grown out for a reason and look how evenly thick it is with evenly spaced internodes. It’s hard to see in the pictures but there are some light brown lines running along the trunk. Also the soil looks good, A largely even colour, no green algae or weeds and the pot is much the same, algae on the outside of terracotta indicates a constantly wet soil. I am having to water at least once and sometimes twice a day. So what can we tell from those observations?
Deshojo maple flushes bright red leaves in spring. By mid-summer they tend to take on a rather odd green/purple colour. In the UK and my nursery in particular leaf tips will be scorched by drying summer winds. The leaves on this tree are fully mature, the red spring colour has long gone but why the green colour? That’s the effect of a shaded position, maple leaves that are exposed to direct sun often take on some colour, in the case of deshojo this tends toward dark green and purple.
Notice those badly scorched leaves on the downward pointing branch? That tells us all we need to know. Those are old spring growth that were left after defoliation in summer. Why else would they be scorched when the top is perfect, sun comes from above right? Bright green even sized leaves, all identical and very late in the year show this tree was defoliated in summer, the lower leaves were left at the time because the branch to which they were attached was weak and, at the time, they were in good condition even though senescence has set in now..
So what background do I know? This got left in our poly-tunnel having been put in there over winter to protect it’s now vibrant root system from excess wet. By the time I got around to moving things about in spring it was already in leaf and so I could not put it outside as the risk of frost had not passed. Therefore I had to leave it where it was. It grew incredibly, that long branch made over three feet and carried more leaf than the rest of the tree put together. However by mid-summer we were experiencing temperatures up to fifty five Celsius in the greenhouse. Even damping down three times a day was not going to keep this looking good. At the end of July the leaves were almost entirely fried, brown and crispy, except for that lower branch that was a little shaded. So, rather than lose the rest of the growing season I removed all of the leaves and shortened the current seasons growth and performed some structural pruning.
Two weeks later the tree flushed with new red leaves and made extension everywhere, just like a second spring. Because temperatures were falling and day length had begun to shorten I left the tree in the tunnel. Once the new flush of growth made three to five leaves I shortened it back to one pair. Defoliating is about improving ramification which in turn will produce smaller leaves but, beyond that it can, as in this case, allow us to extend the growing season. This was sold just last week but left where it was it would still be photosynthesizing into November. That gives us a long season (for the U.K) and ensures a vibrant, strong, healthy and FAST developing tree next summer.
This tree has been going backwards for years. Of late it’s lot in life has begun to improve. It’s strength has returned and it’s facing a bright future in the right hands. The old grey bark has begun to show light brown vertical cracks. This shows us the trunk and primary branch structure has begun to swell as the tree lays down thick new sap wood. Each year this allows increasing amounts of sap to flow which increases the growth rate and hastens the trees development as bonsai, so long as we do our bit in that equation properly.
The rebuilding of this old tree has JUST begun after five years of basically doing nothing other than allowing the tree to build a new root system and, step by step, gain vigour. That has now reached an insanely high level and finally this tree can be restored and we have something to work with. Much like whack-a-mole, every time I cut this tree it just bounces right back at me. That means I can be constantly intervening and the trees response ensures every step makes an improvement. Basically what has happened is we have taken an old somewhat mature but dying bonsai tree and turned it into raw material again. Had I caught the tree earlier that might not have been entirely necessary but in this extreme case the best approach was to begin the cycle all over again.
Absolutely every time we touch our trees it HAS to be for the tree’s benefit. If your intervention is because you want the tree to look good, say for a show or to impress a visitor you put your own needs before that of your tree. That is the top of a steep slippery slope, trust me I have been down it. Before you go getting busy be sure what you intend to do will be to the benefit of your trees in the long run and not just a quick lick of paint and a cover up job. If you are not sure what to do, do nothing, watch, wait, mull it over and think deeply about how you got to this point with your tree and where your TREE needs to go. Everything you need to know is written right there in front of you, just look!