Simple everyday things have an annoying habit of getting a little complicated around me on occasions. It’s not as though I go around looking for ‘bover’ but despite my best evasive efforts it manages to accost me all to often.
For example, I was recently wending my weary way home in the gloaming after a day out collecting when the viewing screen of my barely conscious mind was assailed by the image of what I instinctively recognised as a twisted and contorted tree trunk lurking in a hedgerow.
Much to the chagrin of the driver behind I completed an uncharacteristic but deft manoeuvre and, on a sixpence pirouetted my little red van on its haunches and with a nervous sigh of relief, settled it at the top of the lane along side which, the most spectacular hawthorn hedge I have ever seen meandered away into the gloom.
Do not tell me I am alone in this madness. I guess most of us have a similar tale to tell. So far so good.
I followed along the moss encrusted lane for some time whilst marvelling at the arboricultural madness just to my left. Eventually the hedge ended but I carried on hoping to find more. Finally I ran out of road. This happens a lot in my part of Norfolk where roads have to bow to the superiority of water. Most parts of the U.K have a device called a bridge. Here in Norfolk such contrivances may have been considered extravagant, assuming of course we even knew they existed two hundred years ago. Suffice to say that we chose to go around the water rather than over it.
Fortuitously there was a newly gravelled car park at the end of the lane in which I decided to turn and head back. There were various piles of gravel awaiting their turn along with some hefty lumps of machinery so obviously work was in progress. From the road I picked what looked like a good line around which to turn and headed in….literally. Things started out okay but a sinking feeling assailed my senses just as gravel appeared at the leading edge of the bonnet. Despite my best efforts we were stuck fast.
Angrily I alighted and, with spade in hand proceeded to scatter about a ton and a half of gravel around the place. Eventually the van crunched slowly towards freedom.
On my way back down the lane towards civilisation alarmingly loud crunching and banging noises were coming from the bottom of the van as large chunks of gravel leapt to freedom. After several miles this was getting very irritating.
Salvation loomed large in the distance in the form of a great big puddle. I swiftly hatched a cunning plan to clear the last of the freeloading shingle from my undercarriage. I hit the puddle in excess of sixty mph and this had the desired effect. The puddle launched itself into orbit and blasted across the bottom of the van as well as sending a deluge right over the top.
Just as I engaged the windscreen wipers my nostrils were assailed by a hideously foul smell, momentarily before I begun to consider the strange green tint of the ‘water’ on the windscreen. Hmmmm?
Contemplating the nauseating stink and the reason for such a large puddle when it had not rained for several days a feeling of deep horror descended upon me.
Don’t blame me it was dark! In the trade this is known as slurry. Trust me, in the dark at sixty miles an hour it does a good job of masquerading as water.
Once home I spared a few seconds for pleasantries before grabbing the hose and dousing my poor stinking chariot. Sadly to no avail. Once you cover a hot exhaust in foul smelling slurry two things happen. One it atomically bonds to the metal and two, its foulness increases tenfold.
Hopefully it will wear off in the coming months!
So, what has this got to do with bonsai I hear you cry. Strangely not the hedge. Nope….!
Smelly liquid in fact.
It’s a good job trees do not have a sense of smell….( Do they? I’ll have to check on that.) Most of us have, over the past few years, come to the conclusion that organic feed is the way to go with bonsai. The only time I use chemical feed is when I have a tree in an accelerated growth regimen and then I combine good old smelly organics with full strength lawn feed (not ‘weed & feed’). This is to plants what whistarol is to body builders.
I have been a firm believer in using rape seed cakes for several years and have spent many a happy, if cold, February evening making the things. However this last year I have been forced, by blackbirds, to reconsider my strategy.
Watering over 400 pots and boxes with liquid feed is a pain in the bits but there really was no option except covering every pot with mesh.
The next problem to overcome was where to find that much smelly liquid without having to cough up too many drinking vouchers.
Serendipity and I crossed paths one day whilst visiting my dad on one of those borrowing trips sons are so good at. This is what I learnt from ‘Pop’.
Take one large plastic barrel with a close fitting lid. From your hardware store buy a drum tap 1/2 or 3/4 inch in brass or plastic and a bag of 1/2 inch washed gravel. A piece of green plastic mesh as used for covering drainage holes in pots completes the list of ingredients.
As low as is possible in the side of the barrel drill a hole only just big enough to accept the spigot of the tap. Use an o-ring either side of the flanges and, with the aid of an assistant holding the tap, crawl into the barrel with an adjustable spanner and secure the flanged nut on the inside. This is much easier said than done. I did it on my own without the aid of a safety net and fell off the bench! That kid with the sauce pan on his head springs to mind.
Once securely attached extricate oneself from the barrel and test for leaks by filling with water to just above the joint. The spout of the tap will almost certainly be slightly below the base of the barrel. I accosted my milkman and blagged a crate to stand it on.
Find a secluded spot in the garden to place the barrel and crate. No smells will be produced so don’t be concerned if it is a little close to the house. It may be prudent to keep the barrel out of the sun however, especially if it is black.
Use some of the mesh to cover the entry to the tap before placing enough clean gravel in the bottom to just above the tap entry by about an inch. Finally cut a circle of mesh big enough to completely cover the gravel.
Okay so where is the feed?
This is the magical bit. From now on all you need to do is add plant material to the barrel. Nothing woody or greasy. Kitchen waste, leaves, weeds (no soil) and plant trimmings. Limited amounts of grass clippings are okay. Young nettles are very good, in fact anything that is soft plant tissue will be fine. From time to time a bucket of horse manure (no straw) will spice up the mix a little.
Now all you have to do is leave well alone. After a few weeks crack open the tap to check progress. In time a foul smelling brown liquid will be produced. Just add about a half pint to a gallon and a half of water and feed your trees.
I set my barrel up last March exactly as above and it has unfailingly produced enough feed for my 400 pots all summer whilst feeding weekly. Not only that but it seems to be a bottomless pit in which to tip plant waste. When the weather was warm I was filling it to the top and within a week it was almost empty, staggering where it all went. My dad has had his running for more that three years and has not had to empty it yet.
Another point is that when you open the lid (which should be kept on at all times) no smell is produced, just a damp mustiness.
I would not recommend putting too much cut grass or conifer clippings into it as this may increase the acidity of the feed too much. Try to keep a variety of material going in at all times.
I tried the feed at very heavy concentrations without any ill effects on the recipients.
I recently came across a bottle of foul smelling organic feed at a local garden centre and the analysis was 2-0.8-3.3. The ‘Fruit of the barrel’ probably varies depending on what goes into it but perhaps the ratio would be similar.
The aforementioned bottle of stuff cost in excess of three quid and was not enough to feed all my pots even once. My barrel cost £6. Assuming the tap lasts five years my feeding bill will be 2.3p per week and I get rid of heaps of garden and kitchen waste into the bargain.
Enviro-friendly and cheap. Failing that I know where you can get a bucket full of the stuff for nowt!

Graham Potter
Kaizen Bonsai
11/2002

Please note. You are free to download and use this article provided that full credit is given to the author.