To make a visually pleasing bonsai is a matter of balance in all things. The pot to the tree, the base to the trunk, the trunk to the main branches, and the main branches to the tertiary branches. To make a great bonsai, to our mind, requires the tree to also tell you a dramatic story of survival against the most hostile elements. Even when in our care, those elements still come into play… how to use those elements to support your work is something I will take time to write about as we go along. Today I want to write about sunlight… maybe because it’s February and we actually had two full days of it. Crazy!!
We all know that as a general rule sunlight is vital to the health and growth of your trees… but it is also plays an important role in reducing leaf size and promoting ramification of branches on your trees. If you keep your trees in a lot of shade, you’ll find that the leaf size is much larger than trees getting the same care would have in the sun. Think of the role of leaves as solar collectors, when they get lots of light, there isn’t need for the tree to expend energy on making the leaves bigger to have larger collectors. You’ll also notice that leaves in full sun tend to have a waxy feel over the leaves of trees which are in the shade. This coating helps protect the leaves from burning when being exposed to so much UV light. If you have a tree which has been kept in the shade for a long time, be sure to transition it slowly to full light so that it can build up that protection. Sudden radical exposures to sun can crisp up your foliage in as little as a day, especially if not watered properly for conditions.
What you should know about our yard… it’s primarily a full southern exposure at the top of a hill with very little tree cover. I should grow hay… not trees… seriously, it’s that bright. But even with this much sun, we’ve worked out how to use the shade cast from the garage to make a good space for shohin sized bonsai and recently potted trees which need protection from prolonged exposure to the sun. Make a note of how sunlight moves across your space… and unless you live on the equator… through the seasons. It’ll help you a lot in managing exposure for your trees.
Last year, Eric and I bought a truckload (literally) of azaleas from the estate of a local bonsai gentleman… his backyard was the most shaded out enviornment I’ve ever seen – as in jungle darkness in broad daylight… and consequently the trees he grew tended to be leggy and sparse with very tender leaves. So they spent all of last summer and this winter in the relative complete shade of the front of our garage, and will be moved into a brighter area this spring before being moved in with the rest of our trees in the backyard. With thin barked species like azalea, another thing you have to be mindful of is to not sun scald the trunks. A sun scald is where the bark of the tree has died due to a previously shaded area of the tree’s trunk suddendly getting too much sun. Think of it as a 3rd degree burn. The trunk of the Alaskan Yellow Cedar that Eric showed in a previous post was a case of sun scald that happened post collecting. But what could have been a disaster was turned into part of the story of surviving hostile enviornments.
There isn’t any doubt that full sunlight can create a harsh enviornment, but when approached with thought and care, it will make your trees healthier and help get that smaller foliage we all love and admire.