The Seven States of Bonsai – Part Four

(Yes, bless it all… this is the end.)

Continued from Part Three…

Recovery: The period of time between activities in which the tree is expending energy on healing and sealing wounds, or on regaining strength post damage.

Once a tree has been worked over (especially its roots) leave it alone for several weeks. Water it of course, and protect it from weather… but don’t feed it, and try not to move it around too much. Just let it be. There is such a thing as loving a tree to death, and fussing around with a tree after it’s been through the equivalent of internal surgery is a very good way to bring that about. If you decide the next day that you don’t like the new position of a tree in its pot… you’ll need to fix it in a couple of years, so be sure before you set the tree into its new position.

The Golden Rule of Pines: Do only one major process in a given year. Either style it – or work on the roots – but not both in the same year.

This rule can be a safe guideline to follow for most any tree, especially if you know little of the tree’s past. Certain species of elms (Zelkova) when in good health can handle having their roots as well as their foliar mass savaged in the same sitting. Trees like those are tough as nails, but again it’s all about knowing your tree well.

(This is a Japanese Grey Bark Elm that was hard pruned, root worked, and had the lowest part of the trunk mass carved away so it could settle into it’s grow flat. The last photo is it a few months later, pushing beautiful new growth without missing a beat.)

There are those for whom a lot of the rules of recovery don’t apply… and they tend to be professional bonsai growers. Mostly that is because they have available the facilities to very carefully manage a tree’s environment and thereby it’s recovery.

(A photo from Telperion Farms in Oregon)

Dormancy: The period of time when all activities of growth are slowed or stopped. Most pronounced in cooler climate species which drop their leaves; even tropical’s have slow periods of activity before they enter another growth period. This period of rest is very important in helping trees prepare for the next active growth season. Meeting dormancy requirements often means northern tree species will not long tolerate being in a warm southern climate, where the dormancy period is short or non-existent. Larch (Larix) is an excellent example of a northern tree which is difficult to keep from the Mid-Atlantic States south. Dormancy is entirely related to regional weather patterns. Being aware of , and working with, the species which grow well in your area will help you meet this basic but important need, and have greater success in keeping trees alive and healthy where you live.

(Korean Hornbeam)

When a northern climate tree is dormant, do not feed it, and watering is generally kept to a minimum. Protection from wind and deep freezing beyond the tolerance of the species you are working with, are the only things which you really need to worry about. Packing your trees with snow around the base of the tree and around the pot is a great way to keep the temperature of the pot from dipping below 32, and will keep your soil evenly moist.

To help trees prepare for dormancy feeding 0-10-10 fertilizers will help harden off branches and strengthen roots for its winter rest. This should be done in the late summer when you have stopped feeding nitrogen rich fertilizers to slow down foliage growth.

Dead: The most important thing to know about “dead” is that dead does not always mean dead. Even trees can have near death experiences only to pop back unexpectedly. More than one tree has been added to the debris pile when its pot is being reclaimed only to have the owner find that the tree decided to sprout again with no intervention from them. Beyond loss of foliage, generally you’ll know death or dieback has occurred when branches are no longer turgid but rather get a puckered appearance, similar to a grape turning into a raisin. Or when you scratch test the tree, there bark resists or is difficult to scratch and has no green under the cork or thin skin of the bark.

When “dead” happens the thing to do is assess why it might have happened. Look back over the care and environmental conditions along with inspecting the tree itself. Check for disease, or environmental damage. See if there was a lack of rootage, or obvious root rot, and use that information to help you prevent it in the future. If you isolate that a pest or fungal disease may be the cause of death, immediately (after sanitizing all tools and your hands) inspect any other trees in proximity to the affected tree. If you are not sure how to handle a disease/pest, get experienced advice as soon as possible, as cross contamination happens very easily. Though often challenging to deal with, fungal and inspect damage is easiest cured in the early stages.

In closing… Knowing your tree well, as a species and an individual tree, before ever doing any heavy work is often a key to success. Rare is the tree which we will perform heavy work on that we have not had for at least a few seasons. That time lets you know how the tree reacts to your regional environment and set-up, and gives you a better chance at understanding the reactions the tree will go through as a result of that work. Though I admit it can be very hard to wait! That pain is lessened by having enough trees to keep you occupied until you feel confident about the tree(s) which were recently added to your garden. One nice thing to know though is that experiance with a species will tell you when you can speed things up. And finally, be mindful not to be SO careful that you let fear hold you back from doing the work that needs to be done. That will halt your progress faster than anything.

The omission of specific pests, diseases, fertilizers, soil composition and other hyper detailed information has been intentionally left out as it would not be possible to explore those things in the context of an essay.

Most of all enjoy your trees… the more time you spend with them, the more attuned you will become to their subtle changes and needs.


The Seven States of Bonsai – Part Three

(Popcorn, soda, and a comfortable chair may be required, but should be worth the read.)

Continued from Part Two…

Stress: The effect of various impacts both intentional and not, on a tree. When stress turns into distress is where you have a problem. Almost everything we do to trees in bonsai horticulture is a form of stress. Knowing how far to take any given activity at a time is the key to keeping the tree in a place where it can recover from the stress and move forward in its development with active growth, or with mature trees, remain in stasis.

(Azalea ‘Hino Crimson’. Carving on bonsai trees creates intentional stress on the tree. However by carving trees we have immediate interest and age added to trees which might never otherwise have it without carving.)

Trees reveal unintended stress in a number of ways, and can often be subtle at first and then dramatic. We’ll look at a few stressors most common to bonsai which are unintentional…

Insufficient water stress is easy to spot in deciduous trees because of lack of water will cause wilting in the leaves, and eventually drooping in branches that have not lignified (turned woody). Eventually the drooping foliage will fail and die off, indicating advanced stress. Pines are less susceptible to stress from insufficient watering as they have the ability to collect moisture from the air and dew around them, but all conifers will suffer from long term deprivations as readily as any deciduous tree. Responding to water deprivation involves letting the tree and pot be submerged in a tub for at least 15-20 minutes when you discover the problem. This isn’t so much to hydrate the tree as it is the soil. Soil which has been allowed to get too dry is less prone to retaining water. For most new learners, under watering is a major problem as surface soil is often misleading, and what seems adequate is actually masking dryness deep in the pot. Also not watering thoroughly to the point of draining out the bottom of the pot can mean not all areas of the roots have actually received water. Stress from too little water can be caught and corrected, and if not protracted – have minimal long term effects.

The stress of too much water will often manifest as yellowing then browning tips on leaves and needles. Stress from too much water indicates poor soil conditions where there is too much water retention and not enough air. If you have a good soil mix which is free draining, stress from over-watering is almost impossible. But this kind of mixture is comprised almost entirely of non-organic components. If your soil has a lot of organic components overwatering can be a harder problem to correct as by the time the problem is discernable, you often have damaged the root system. This can require significant intervention to correct and you should seek species and season appropriate advice from someone familiar with the species.

Stress from too much light can result in dieback and overall browning of leaves over whatever area is facing the harshest sun – the leaves can seem crispy and brittle. This can also happen as a combination of too much sun along with not enough water. A tree in the ground is more resistant to sun scorch as it has a larger area from which to pull water and will extend its roots to find that water. Thereby preventing the dry out that hastens sun scorch. Certain thin barked species like maples can be especially susceptible. Before placing your tree in full sun, be sure that is an appropriate placement for the tree. Be aware that even the bark on a tree can burn. If you move a tree from a traditionally shady location, or remove a branch from a tree and it reveals an inner section of bark which previously has always had filtered or little light exposure, the bark in that newly exposed area may not be thick enough to cope. If you notice a section of bark is looking unhealthy, discolored or even flaking off to bare wood – but otherwise the overall tree looks fine, that area of bark has likely died. (It is important never to let bark remain over areas of the trunk which you know to be dead. The porous nature of a tree’s vascular system allows water to be absorbed and held against the tree, causing eventual rot.) When previously kept from long exposure to full sunlight, even sun tolerant species should always be gradually exposed to increasing light in order to give both foliage and bark an opportunity to build up protection to the exposure.

Stress from too little light will produce lackluster growth that will often also look very anemic. Leaves that are present will also likely be enlarged to create more surface area to catch light. Inner branches and foliage will also tend to die back, as there isn’t enough light to filter through the tree to keep them viable. Getting enough light inside the canopy to the inner branches is key to keeping healthy foliage close to the trunk.

Stress from wind exposure is most dangerous in freezing weather as sub-branches and buds can die when not protected from cold dry winds. Conversely sustained winds in hot dry times will desiccate leaves. Keeping trees in places where they will have protection from heavy wind is always advisable and in extreme conditions crucial.

Water, light, and air… are all basic to keeping trees alive. When these elements are in appropriate measure for the trees needs, the result is great health and resistance to disease. Imbalance in any of these things will distress the tree, and when let go too long, often it can take years to bring a tree back to health again – if at all.

There are times when stressors are both intentional and useful…

As mentioned earlier delaying the re-potting of a tree causes leaves and sub-branches to get smaller with progressive growth cycles. This is very beneficial to producing a refined image in a tree.

Root pruning itself is a stressor… though it often leads to vigorous health, its timing is critical and the amount of pruning to be done is very dependent on a thorough knowledge of the tree’s species, general health, and its history. Constant root pruning can kill a tree, because removing roots is the removal of energy reserves which is stored in those roots… doing it out of its time can kill a tree… some trees need to be root worked in stages, which can be done by taking out wedge sections of the trees roots rather than going through all the roots all at once. Some trees don’t flinch no matter what you do to their roots. Know your tree species before doing anything radical.

Hard pruning the foliage and branches of a tree species which is known to back-bud on old wood will stimulate the production of new buds and let you introduce taper into the structure of your tree. Timing is very important in this activity… to do this to a great percentage of the tree at the wrong time, can kill or seriously damage the health of your tree. With certain species like hinoki it is virtually impossible to stimulate back budding on old wood – so never remove all foliage from a branch. Be sure to know your species characteristics before hard pruning a tree.

Limiting food and water to control growth is not an uncommon practice among those who are attuned to the needs of the tree they are doing this too. In fact, certain species cannot be induced to heavy flowering unless they have a “drought period”. As always, the health of the tree is a critical factor in ever deciding to limit the tree in this way.

Wiring and bending branches are all injury causing actions. It is the activity of moving branches… slipping the cambium away from the sapwood to be able to move the branch significantly that causes minor damage which then heals and stiffens the branch into the new position. Not being attentive to your wiring in the season wood is added to your tree can cause damage in the way of wire scars as the tree swells around the wire. Wire is a temporary means to a temporary end (all trees need wiring work repeatedly throughout their existence). So don’t get too wrapped up in what kind of wire to use as long as it’s effective and you know how to work with it. Aluminum is great because it’s easily applied and removed, and can even be reused in some cases. Copper is great for fine work and trees which you want to be able to show formally. Copper also has great strength in a smaller gauge but is harder to handle and is more difficult to apply and remove.

Creating deadwood and scars are stressors which should not be performed on weak trees… as each wound will take energy from the tree to heal the wound. In fact… no intentional stressors should be performed on trees which are not in optimal health.

(Sierra Juniper with Shimpaku Juniper foliage grafted on. Original grafts by Roy Nagatoshi, with design and development by Dan Robinson.)

Collecting trees from their natural growing environment can be a great stressor. It can take years of patience to get to the point of being to work on a spectacular collected specimen. Some trees are easily freed from natural pockets in stone with nearly all roots in tact… but for the most part, only time will tell if the tree will survive the collection process, which is why preparing the tree for collection in the ground is an important step to take if it is possible. It is not unknown for it to have taken an entire decade to prepare for collection a single magnificent tree. The patience exercised ensured the greatest chance of success for the artist’s efforts. Do not be surprised for it to take 3 years or more to safely say a tree is ready for work post collection.

(Ponderosa Pine. Daniel is getting ready to debark the lower length of the trunk on this collected tree. This is being done so that eventually the tree can be brought down to a size which can be put into a pot. For the moment, it lives on a large stone.)

(In the next segment we wrap this up and hopefully can engage in some conversations about some of these ideas.)

The Seven States of Bonsai – Part Two

(This post is rated PG… seedlings should not read this without parental guidence… Yah I know, keep my day job.)

Continued from Part One in this series…

Reproduction: The development of fruit, seed pods, or cones on a tree. This usually happens during periods of active growth through to fall. Reproduction for a tree early in its development is mostly a negative thing. It is very important not to allow a tree in active development to come into a state of mature seed as the entire process robs the tree of significant energy. Less active growth will occur in a tree which has gone heavily into producing seed. Enjoy your flowers on a tree, but if it is in development – remove most of them, and be sure to remove the full flower head when it is spent. The only trees which should be allowed to fruit are ones which are mature and not in active development, and even then it is good to give them occasional years of non-fruiting seasons to maintain their health. Fruit and flowers are also the only things which will not reduce over time with bonsai horticulture. If you are working with a pear… no matter how small you can get your leaves, you will have a large piece of fruit on your tree. If you enjoy fruits, select species like crabapples (Malus) and Japanese winterberry (Illex serata) which are known for their smaller fruits/berries.

(Satsuki Azalea ‘Kaho’)

Trees allowed to flower or fruit should be well fed in order to help offset the energy being taken up in that process. This is often species specific and should be researched for the tree in question.

Stasis: The period of time between active growth and dormancy; or the state of a tree so far in its development that fine ramification has occurred which results in slow and/or minimal change in the tree. The first kind of stasis occurs when the active growing period is completed for the season and the tree is no longer putting on vigorous new growth. During this time it is building up reserves for dormancy and the next period of active growth. Some trees don’t have a period of stasis, tropical species or other vigorous trees like elms will continually put on new foliage if you continually prune it. The very nature of pruning a tree can negate stasis as many species will continually put on growth to try and build up its reserves for its dormant period.

(Scots Pine, by Dan Robinson. The foliage on this tree is less than 1/2 in.)

For a mature bonsai, stasis is the goal because the smallest possible ramification has been achieved. Since root pruning provides room for many new roots to be developed, thereby stimulating juvenile growth, the repotting of mature trees is done less often in order to slow the active growth period and prevent bursts of new growth. However, a mature bonsai kept in stasis too long can become weakened by not having new higher functioning roots, so even a mature tree needs to be reinvigorated from time to time by radical pruning of both roots and branches, necessitating the redevelopment of the tree’s structure.

(In the next segment, we going to get all stressed out… and its a long one, so bring some popcorn, I just can’t break it down more and make sense.)

The Seven States of Bonsai – Part One

If you are reading this you want to learn something about bonsai… sometimes we don’t even know what we are searching for… just something, anything really, which will help us be more successful in keeping our trees alive. Originally this was going to be one huge post, and then my husband rightly pointed out that I was literally (without accounting for the photos at all) posting a ten page paper as a blog post, which is of course laughable in the blogging world.

So here’s what we’re going to do… We’re breaking up the essay into more digestible chunks, but please know that it was intended to be a single presentation on how to become more aware of your trees in a way not often talked about. Every couple of days a new part will be posted.

Eric has his various soap boxes, and horticulture is mine. If you serious about being successful in bonsai, the first thing you need to do is pay attention to your trees while armed with enough knowledge to know what they are trying to tell you. So here we go… I hope you enjoy the journey of this kind of long-winded but useful digest of a year in the life of a bonsai tree.

The Seven States of Bonsai – Part One

The following is a series of observations based on real world experience and study under the guidance of our teacher (Daniel Robinson) and others. Consider it, in a fashion, as an Intro to Bonsai Horticulture 101/102. This will not reveal anything earth shattering to those long in the art… but to those who do not have easy access to advanced practitioners or still find it all a bit mysterious, it may be the beginnings of an understanding that will grow with your own experience.

In fact… though we are advanced students, we make no claim to having all the answers, and acknowledge that none of these concepts we are about to put forward are all encompassing to all bonsai. So we invite exploration and conversation about any and all of it… even disagreement… as it will lead to clarity all the way around. I may not explain something well… and will even venture to say there are likely important omissions – the specific needs of bonsai are as varied as the species we grow. But when we engage in the exchange of ideas and experience, we all tend to be better for it. Our hope is to encourage all of our growth by thinking of how our trees grow in a way that is more holistic… and how the things which we do (both intentional or not) effect the whole tree.

Please also note… this essay was written from the perspective of our experience, which is focused on outdoor species. It should be read through that understanding.

(Ponderosa Pine collected and styled by Dan Robinson)

Sometimes we can get caught up in all the esoteric and lofty bits of bonsai… the art at the soul of it. We see images of trees in pots that take us to faraway places, or show us expressions of incredible age and perseverance, and we are captivated. It’s often easy to connect with these trees… they are a deeply visceral experience for those who become devotees – but it can sometimes be difficult to understand how to recognize the needs of our own humble efforts, or how to provide for them, especially for one new to the practice.

(Kingsville Boxwood)

It is in those times, when you hold a tree in your hands with the nervous itch of a parent with a new born babe, that it can be very good to keep in mind what can be thought of as the seven states of bonsai. By states I mean their physical condition/activity in any given time: Active growth, Reproduction, Stasis, Stress, Recovery, Dormancy, and Dead.

It is important to know that more than one state can be in play at any given time. It might even seem ridiculous to some to think of bonsai in such simplified terms – but knowing where you are at, can lead you down the path to know what to do, or better… what questions to ask. You might have even thought it was amusing to read the last state of dead… except that if you understood the consequences and interplay of all the rest, you can make great headway in staving off the last. They don’t even run in any particular order – excepting the last. They are, through the consistent practice of the art, the ever changing dance you will experience over the seasons and years with each and every tree you take into your care.

Active Growth: Of them all, active growth is generally the easiest to recognize. A majority of the tree exhibits new and hopefully vigorous growth. When in active growth many different things are occurring simultaneously. Leaves and branches are extending, roots are also extending and multiplying, and in the case of deciduous trees wood is being added over the whole structure of the tree equal to the mass of the extensions of growth. So the more growth added on, the more size the trunk and branches gain. Conifers will tend to add that extra wood at the end of their active growth period, though they can actually add wood in the early stages of growth on particularly strong trees pushing a lot of growth.

(American Larch, originally collected by Nick Lenz, developed by Dan Robinson.)

For most regions early spring to fall is when you can expect this activity to be going on; unless you are talking about tropical species, which can have several active growth periods during a given year. Forcing trees to go outside of that normal period is possible with experience and the ability to provide the right environment, but there can be serious risk of stressing the tree and it should not be attempted without serious consideration and preparation. (For example, it’s not unusual for masters to force a tree to bloom earlier or later than normal in order to have blossoms on the tree timed for a particular show.)

It is also during active growth that most of the “fun” occurs for many people, as that’s when you get to watch the tree change noticeably and there tends to be a lot of opportunities to interact with the tree in terms of pruning/wiring it.
(Same tree later the same day after I gave it a haircut and adjusted the crown.)

For a tree young in its development, a good season of active growth is very important as it creates the structural development needed to form the image you are attempting. Active growth can also be a downright nuisance though when working with a more mature tree. Too much active growth can reverse years of careful attention to the structure of a tree as easily as it can build it in another. Hence controlled growth on a mature tree is a must, where on a young tree radical growth is encouraged to speed up the development of trunk and main branches by unrestricted root growth (planting a tree out in a grow bed or oversized pot)and/or a vigorous feeding program. Note that the development of ramification (both in the sub-branches and roots) is a task completed only with time, and controlled growth. To create a “final” image utilizing juvenile active growth will mean there is little to no taper in the length of the branch, and in creating a refined image, taper is everything.

(Collected Korean Hornbeam acquired from Brussel’s Bonsai, developed by Dan Robinson.)

Feeding trees in active growth is a very important part of the season. As fertilizers and regimens vary by species, its best to research the specific needs of your plant keeping in mind its stage of overall development.

(In the next segment… It’s all about sex and meditation… well not really, but it sounds kinda catchy doesn’t it???)

Sunshine – It’s elemental my dear Watson…

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.