I am going to talk about some bad words… the F word and the B word. That’s right my bonsai friends, I want to talk about Ficus benjamina.
Ficus benjamina as displayed, spring 2019
F. Benjamina is a Ficus variety that gets little respect in the bonsai world, and I get why. The leaves are big and the internodes are long. It’s not an easy species, but I’m willing to bet there are a whole lot of enthusiasts who have one. Maybe it was an early purchase before they knew better, a gift from a well- meaning friend, or a survivor from a house plant experiment. Owning one is not a crime, so let me share mine with you.
This Benji has been in my collection since 1997 by my best figurin’. I started in bonsai in 1996, so whatever its origins, I have cared for this tree for far too long to consider discarding it now. (And please don’t judge me for not getting it further along in the twenty plus years since. Remember, I was just wingin’ it for most of that time.)
It wasn’t in horrible shape after the winter months inside, so I decided to show it this spring. At top is how it appeared in the NVBS Spring Show.
Below is how it looked this morning. Getting a bit bushy.
Ficus benjamina before work
It has been enjoying the summer heat and pushing new growth. So, of course, I decided to cut all the leaves off. Well, all but a couple on the end of a branch that needs to thicken up. Leaving those will give that branch a head start on the rest of the tree.
After defoliation, before wiring
As I clipped each leaf, I also removed any growth beyond the first two leaves on new extension growth. With some luck, I will get two new branches on each of these tips (one from the base of each leaf) and continue to improve the ramification.
I am happy to report that this maturing tree in this small pot is maintaining fairly short internodes – relatively speaking. Many of these were just a half inch or so. Not bad for a Benji.
After this pruning, you can see that the shape is still reasonably controlled, but the branches have crept up from where they were last wired. To avoid the potential for wire scarring, I decided to make a tie down ring and use guy wires on most of the major branches. (Note the ring of wire with loops under the lip of the pot, and the rubber tubing wrapped over the tops of several branches.)
Some additional wiring was required on some smaller branches, as well, to get everything back in order. I should see new leaves on this tree over the next couple of weeks.
This will never be a world class Ficus bonsai. There are many varieties that do better, but this little Benji has been there through my bonsai journey, and I don’t intend to stop working with it.
If you have a Benji too, I’d love to see it. No judgement here!
This crepe myrtle is very early in its development, and I need to bring some branches down along with a little mid summer trimming. Crepe myrtle has such smooth delicate bark though, and I hate the idea of wire marks on the branches.
Fortunately, this ceramic training pot is just right for a tie down ring. A long piece of wire with a few twisted loops can be secured just below the lip of the pot Allowing me to use guy wires with plastic tubing to protect the bark.
The ring is prepped – better to make more twists that you think you will need!
I positioned the tie down points in the places where I thought I would need them and secured the ring with a twist. Since this pot is round, it was easy to rotate the ring to adjust the position of the tie down points slightly. The same method could be used with just about any pot with a lip, but in the case of a rectangular pot, for example, adjusting the position would be more cumbersome.
I ran each guy wire through a short piece of tubing and secured this around the branch.
Then I could thread the wire through one of the loops and pull it down into position. With this arrangement, I don’t need to worry about wire scarring and I can leave the guy wired on for an extended period.
This tree has a long way to go, but there’s some potential there.
Deciduous species that grow continuously throughout the growing season (vigorous deciduous) include hornbeams, some types of maple, and the little autumn olive trees I enjoy working with, Elaeagnus umbellata. I discussed one of these recently in this post, and wanted to briefly show you the pruning process.
This shohin size tree had some wire applied in the dormant season and has been growing well since. You can see the new growth has extended significantly (see the nearly white stems?) and the leaves are over-sized.
To bring something this small back into shape, I need to prune back to just two leaves on each new branch to encourage ramification (more complex branching) and remove the leaves to force a new, hopefully smaller flush of growth.
In the photo above, you can clearly see where the whitish growth emerges from the older, gray-brown stem right at the tip of my middle finger. I have already cut it back to the two leaves that remain.
Then I cut off each leaf leaving just a tiny triangle of surface area as a sort of insurance policy. That tiny remaining leaf bit will provide a little energy while the tree starts a whole new set of leaves.
Once most of the leaves have been removed you can see the wire that has been in place since the spring. Removing that wire is much easier with no leaves, so I will do that now.
One branch was left a little crazy. The lowest branch on the left is a replacement branch to one that had become too thick. I have left a few leaves at the end and will continue to allow it to thicken up a bit. Those leaves really illustrate the scale we are working with.
A closely cropped image gives a better idea of how this little guy is developing.
With some luck I will get a new branch at each of the two leaf stems that was left at each tip and have twice as many twiggy branches next time.
If you had asked me early in the day, yesterday, “What’s one thing you have gained with experience in bonsai?” I would have said the confidence to take dramatic action without the fear and hesitancy I had as a newb.
I remember how scary it once was just to repot a tree, and I have watched new members of my local club struggle with the same hesitation. With experience, I have become more confident in a number of bonsai operations, including some bold ones I did yesterday. Then, whether he knew it or not, an experienced artist helped me see that I still have some hesitancy to overcome.
I had the pleasure of spending the day with a study group working with Sergio Cuan of M5 Bonsai Works. I brought the Azalea, pictured above, and a few other trees (which, shamefully, I did not photograph before work started). Among them was the Elaeagnus umbellata shown below in a photo from a couple years ago.
I started the day with an operation I would have once thought very scary – a complete defoliation. To be fair, defoliation should be scary unless you are absolutely certain the tree is healthy and the variety can handle such a procedure. I have defoliated Elaeagnus in the past, including one just a couple of weeks ago, and I know they do well.
As is my habit with these (and some Ficus varieties) I left a tiny triangle of the base of the leaf at the end of each petiole. After defoliating, I wired the tree completely (a task that would have been impossible with a tree full of leaves) and Sergio helped me set the branches.
I’m excited about the future of this tree and looking forward to working with Sergio to develop the apex which is yet to really exist. The apex will be down around the first three branches you see coming off the upper trunk line, and the branch extending up past the top of the photo will be removed after the top part of the trunk thickens up a bit.
If you didn’t think that one was all that scary. Check out this “after” photo.
That’s what I did to the azalea I showed you at the beginning! Do you like it?! (I left three tiny leaves at the top just for you.)
Seriously though, an azalea at this stage of development — the stage where it goes from being an azalea bush to taking its first steps toward becoming bonsai — requires bold action. This little Satzuki specimen (Kahoku-No-Tsuki) had some nice features to offer.
It has nice surface roots (nebari) and a gently curving trunk line. Both have great potential, but for a much smaller bonsai – so, choppa-choppa! No fear!
I am confident that this little… hm, what can we call it at this point… this little stick-with-roots is going to push out a bunch of new branches. In fact, my guess is I will get more than I need. Sounds like a tree I should follow up on. Let’s call that a plan.
The Elaeagnus defoliation and the dramatic cut back of the azalea had me feeling confident, but I also had a willow-leaf oak with me. At the start of the day, I shared that I was just looking for some long-term guidance. I had collected the tree a couple of years ago. It had a nice curve right at the base and was developing some rough bark. I thought it could be something sweet one day, but I just hadn’t figured out what that would be yet.
I would have been perfectly content to go home without making a cut on that thing, especially if I had a plan for moving forward, but Sergio surprised me. He made a sweet little drawing of the tree he could envision in the mess of branches. I guess I had been too hesitant!
Totally stoked to move forward, we wired the main branches, set the structure, and removed the branches we didn’t need — big moves that I had been too scared to do.
I can’t wait to see how it responds, and I look forward to sharing that tree with you in a future post.
A big thank you to Sergio Cuan. It was a pleasure, and I look forward to seeing you next time.
I have decided, at least on a small scale, to experiment with and test the suitability of American Beech as bonsai material. Beech are a mainstay of the temperate deciduous forests I love, and they are readily available for collecting.
Problem number one, as the Latin name suggests, is that American beech, Fagus grandifolia, have big leaves. Grandi = big. Folia = leaves. I look forward to being able to address leaf reduction on the species eventually, but I have only been collecting beech at one or two specimens a year for 4 years so I don’t have trees at a level of refinement that answer this topic yet.
At this early phase, I am prepared to report on only two things, each with a different degree of confidence.
First, THEY SURVIVE COLLECTION. I feel confident in saying this. Of the beech I have collected, all but the largest attempt survived the collection process. That’s six successes out of seven attempts, not a bad rate. The one failure I had was really oversized and I probably shouldn’t have attempted it in the first place. Attempting to collect large specimens may be less likely to succeed, but I believe there is a significant range on the smaller end of the scale, easily up to four inches in diameter or so, that is very likely to survive when collection is done carefully.
A significant factor in successful collection is timing. I like to collect when the buds are starting to lengthen but before they open. That said, I have also found that the jostling of the digging will shake a still-tight lengthening bud to the point that the leaves will begin to emerge during the process of digging and transporting back home. So handle with care!
Second, THEY ARE SENSITIVE TO REPOTTING & ROOT PRUNING. Of this I am less certain, and indeed it seems contradictory to the first conclusion. Nevertheless, each of the few trees that have been repotted, usually a couple of years after collection, have really seemed to sulk about it for some time afterward. Following a repot with root pruning, certain branches may show significant weakness and many of the leaves across the tree will partially brown or show other damage.
One month ago (at the end of April in Northern Virginia) I removed the tree below from the box it had been recovering in for two years. I completed this operation with the same timing I described above for digging. The buds were lengthening, some of them significantly.
Beech before repotting with extending buds
I did have to remove some unsightly roots in addition to some more general root pruning you would expect in order to get it into a smaller pot.
Beech in its new pot before branch movement
I also did a small amount of branch movement. You may be able to see the first branch crossing in front of the trunk line. One thin branch on the right was wired out of the way, and this larger first branch was pulled back toward the smaller trunk in the back with a guy wire. Can you see the difference above and below?
Beech with a couple of low branches wired back
The tree hasn’t done too badly, but there are a lot of brown edges and some leaves are smaller than expected, as if starved because the root that fed them had been shortened or removed. This includes the small wired branch, so I should pay attention in the future to see if wiring impacts leaf growth.
Damaged and weak growth following repot
Below is how it looks today, one month from repotting. Not bad, but this is the “thinnest” the leaves have been on this tree since being collected.
Just for comparison’s sake, look how full the beech below is a little over a year from collection.
Another beech with full leaf canopy
With feeding and time they usually demonstrate a full recovery, but I have lost one small small beech after keeping it for three years. It did not survive the winter following a repot. It just didn’t seem strong afterward and this is the only reason for not surviving I can put my finger on.
I will continue to watch, test, and report back. Stay tuned.
In my area of Northern Virginia, boxwood have had new leaves for six weeks or more already. Buds that were set last fall extended at the beginning of April, give or take a little, and the trees have had time to recoup some of the energy that was used for that spring push. The new growth is still somewhat tender — not fully hardened off — but this also means it is still easily distinguished from last year’s growth. This is one of the reasons I think now is a great time to do some refinement pruning.
I hope I am not overselling the level of development of my boxwood by using the term “refinement.” The examples I am sharing may not meet the highest standards for bonsai, but the branching and leaf pads are at a stage in development that I would consider refinement.
It may also be worth distinguishing refinement from maintenance. The former term suggests adjustments are still desired, while the latter does not. The boxwoods I am pruning today definitely have some areas that need adjusting, but the overall branching structure is set.
Above is a single trunk example shown prior to any pruning. You can see the the foliage pads aren’t very neat, and cleaning these up is one of the goals.
You might also notice that the new, lighter colored growth seems to be pretty consistent across the whole tree. It’s not longer on top and shorter on the lower branches as can often happen. In fact, just about ever new shoot has 6-8 leaves. This is a good sign that the tree has well balanced energy and a signal that this tree is in refinement. Another goal as we work is to maintain this balanced energy.
So here’s what I do — step one, remove the growth extending downward — probably no big surprise, right?
The opposite growth habit of boxwood manifests in a predictable manner. If one pair of leaves is on the left and right side of a branch, the next two will be on the top and bottom. Buds grow from the base of leaves that get sufficient light, so you will likely have situations, like the one shown above, where you have a branch growing up and a corresponding branch growing down.
Remove those downward pointing branches, focusing first on the bottom sides of each pad. Before long, the bottom side will seem more orderly and the branches you missed will be easier to find.
As you go, you can also pluck some of the old leaves, especially those that extend downward and any you come across that are discolored or damaged. Be careful, though. Sometimes an innocent pluck at the base of a new branch can break off the new growth with it.
Don’t get too obsessive just yet about downward growth. Give each pad a good pass, and know that you will find more as we move to the next stage.
Even that first pass makes a big difference. Here’s the before image on the left and then the tree after the first pass removing downward pointing branches on the right. The cleaner lines of the bottom sides of the pads already make the tree seem more refined.
The next stage is to reduce the shape and density of each pad by working from the top. Just as it was from below, there are two operations that you can do simultaneously: pruning branches and plucking some of the old leaves.
You are not trying to remove ALL of the old leaves, just the ones that are damaged, extend beyond the silhouette you want, or make an area of branches and leaves far too dense.
As you prune the new growth avoid pruning all of the new leaves from any branch tip! The new leaves are much more efficient than the old, and if you remove all the current year’s growth you may not get new growth from that branch next year.
As you prune, you will easily be able to distinguish the dark green old growth from the brighter new. In the branch below (removed from the tree for visibility) you can see how each pair of leaves emerge from the branch at 90 degrees from the last. In this case, the scissors are placed to remove two pairs of new leaves, and leave two pair (four new leaves) below the cut.
Keep in mind that in some cases, cutting back to the first pair of new leaves may not reduce the silhouette as much as you want. When this is the case, look a little deeper. You will often find that you can remove the too-long branch back down to a point where you have two other fresh shoots.
How far to go is a matter of aesthetics. What shape do you want from those pads? How perfect do you like the lines? How much space do you want to see between pads and between branches?
This feels like a good place to stop on this one. I actually find that taking a photo, and then analyzing that photo is one of the best ways to determine what needs more work. In fact, the photo of the twin trunk tree, shown at the top, helped me see that I want to further thin and lighten the first branch.
I may work on that yet, and I see it as something to look forward to. I find refinement pruning on boxwood extremely satisfying! I hope you do too.
It’s been a rough spring! I am having one of those existential seasons that make me question how I can be so incompetent after more than two decades in bonsai. I lost several trees. While none would be considered excellent bonsai by the greater bonsai community, they were my trees, and losing trees is never easy.
My overall conclusion is most of them suffered from nutrient deficiencies and/or root damage caused by record rainfall last summer. That makes it sound like it’s no fault of my own, but I struggled with how to respond to problems as they became evident, and I definitely made some bad decisions along the way.
It’s time to move past that, embrace the growth and renewal of the past couple of months, and start looking to the future (and start writing again). One way I am looking ahead is by playing with propagation. This week I started two Japanese Maple layers. I have had success with these in the past and expect them to do well. If you’d like to know my process for these, you can read about it HERE.
I am far less confident in my latest experiment – a BIG boxwood layer. I have taken successful air layers off this same boxwood before but have never done an air layer this large on anything! The good news is, this is a zero risk experiment. I plan to remove this whole section for the future design of the parent plant, so if it fails and the part of the tree above the air layer dies, it’s no loss. It is going to be cut off anyway.
Since this is such a large layer, I expect it to take a long time and I felt like I had to do things a little differently. Let me show you what I did.
The long, straight upper bit of this plant is the subject. The future design of the lower part of the tree is on the back from this view, and not the topic for today anyway.
I used chalk to mark where I intend to remove the bark and cambium, then used a very sharp knife to cut along the lines, peel the bark, and scrape all the green cambium away from the white sapwood underneath.
After I have it fully scraped, I always recut the top line just to make sure I have the cleanest cut I can get. This is where the new roots will grow.
Here’s where things get different. I intent to use this plastic pot rather than my usual bag technique. I cut it down one side and cut out the bottom to fit around the trunk, but I also have to figure out how to secure it in place and keep soil from coming out the gaps and drain holes. Since it is wrapped around a trunk, it’s a bit more awkward than just putting mesh in the bottom.
I decided to use a scrap of screen which I wired to the tree below the bottom cut.
Then I built up a thick lip of twisted raffia on top of that wire. The pot will rest just above this lip which will serve to hold it in place.
For good measure, I secured the raffia with vinyl tape and then bent down the screen so it would cover the drain holes in the bottom of the pot.
Can you guess what’s next?
Well, yes. Attach the pot, and also dust the top cut with rooting hormone.
The pot fit nicely above the lip of wire, raffia, and tape. More tape was used to close the cut side, and it was filled with a soil mix that includes a couple handfuls of fine sphagnum moss.
The goal is to keep the cuts damp and dark so new roots can form. With the open top, moisture can be monitored and the soil can be watered at any time.
I have no idea how long this might take. My assumption is longer than a year.
Whether it will work at all is another question. We shall see. One way or the other, I will learn something. And isn’t that a kind of success in itself?
In 2017, I collected a couple of Virginia pines, Pinus virginiana, and put them in grow boxes to recover. After two years they were both growing strong, so this spring I am removing them from the wooden boxes, adjusting the planting angle, and doing some related root work.
This one is in a rather shallow box, and laying over at an angle. In the photo above, the back corner is propped up by 8 inches or so. The angle will need to be adjusted even more than that, and yet there is a thick root behind this trunk that is essentially pointing up at this angle. This, and other roots will have to be removed.
Once out of the box, I was really happy with the root development from the past couple of years. There were many fine roots, and I wasn’t worried at all about removing some of the larger roots that were at a bad angle.
As you can see above, I decided to leave some roots exposed. I think this adds interest and creates a wider base at the soil level.
You may also notice that I removed a large branch from the left side of the tree. I left a couple of inches, removed the bark, and peeled back some wood to create a Jin. I think there is another big cut that is needed.
Ah! Much better. There was no taper in the upper section of the trunk line, so I removed and jinned it too. This should be good I This pot for a few years while I set a design.
The second pine repot is in a video for your viewing pleasure. Sorry I didn’t get all dressed up for you. Check it out!
Even after 20+ years in bonsai I am still trying to learn patience. In the case of one chunky boxwood that I collected a couple of years ago, I am practicing that patience while I gradually work the tree back to a size appropriate for a future, finished tree.
If you’ve ever looked at large boxwood growing in someone’s landscaping, you may have seen how the branches can grow quite long and only have leaves out at the ends. That outer foliage can be so dense that the shaded inner branches may be completely leafless. This was the case with this old landscape plant, so it will take some time to build strong enough growth closer to the trunk.
As you can see in the photo above, the tree is already doing this sort of serious growing. The more-than-12-inch branch I am holding in my hand has grown from nothing in two years from a part of the tree that had all of the branches with foliage completely removed. The other parts of the tree could benefit from a response like this so I am doing some significant reduction of the growth on the longest, old branches.
Those long branches are offering many adventitious buds, as you can see above, and with some heavier pruning these will gain strength. When some of these gain enough length and vigor, I will be able to further reduce these branches.
The focus today, then, is removing significant foliage mass from the ends of these long branches including all the branches moving to the right of the main trunk in the image below.
The black dish tray on the right is full of clippings just removed from the long branches. Removing this stronger apical growth will push more energy into the many sprouts popping up along the branches.
You may also notice a bright, silvery area along one branch toward the middle of the image. This is an air layer, covered with aluminum foil, that was started last spring, and I think it’s time to remove it.
Here’s that same layer removed and potted. I hope you can see why I thought it might be worthwhile to use layering to work this plant back in size. There’s no use wasting material that has potential to be a good tree!
All I can do now is use some of that patience and leave it alone. I will fertilize strongly this season, and I may even start another air layer, but there is a good amount of time before a plant like this will be styled – a couple more years at least.
For now, I will have to satisfied with the opportunity to take a hard look at the trunk line and base to begin to consider the planting angle and front of this future bonsai. I am definitely planning to remove the straight, thick trunk rising vertically from the first split, easily visible in this next image. With that in mind, do you think I should go with this first front and trunk line as a leaning or semi-cascade style?
Or this second possible front that would change the angle upward to highlight the strong taper evident in the trunk line that wraps around to the left?
Compared to the Midwest United States, where I grew up, winters in Northern Virginia are rather mild. Most daytime highs are well above freezing. Occasionally, however, we get a blast of very cold, arctic air, like the one rolling in today, which causes worry for the well-being of my bonsai, accustomed-as-they are to this milder climate.
Some of you may have read about the expansion and improvement of my winter storage cabinet. (You can go HERE if you want to check it out.) I’ve been thrilled with it’s performance thus far. When closed, this enclosure is generally six to ten degrees warmer than outside temperatures, and I attribute that difference solely to the radiant heat from the house and enclosed window.
As good as this is, the forecast is calling for single digit temperatures (Fahrenheit) which is cause for concerns for a few of the more tender, less cold-hardy specimens I am keeping here, so I have decided to add another heat source. This…
What is it?
This is a small radiant heater that I have fashioned from a number of unused terra-cotta pots. You may have seen a similar candle-powered version which is a great emergency strategy for power outages and the like. This one is a bit different because it is electric.
When I expanded in the fall, I included the exterior power outlet inside the frame of the enclosure. This makes putting my heater into the cabinet super easy.
Let me show you what I have.
The bottom half of the heater is a terra-cotta pot with an old clip lamp I had lying around. The cord extends through the drainage hole, and the lamp is secured in the center pointing upward.
The bulb I am using is a ceramic heat emitter designed for pet reptiles. You should be able to find a similar product wherever you buy pet supplies. This sort of bulb comes in 60 watt and 100 watt varieties (if not others). I am using the smaller bulb, but could increase the heat output with the larger if I was so inclined.
The top half is a series of ceramic pots bolted together through their drainage holes. Suspended above the heat lamp, these absorb and gradually radiate the heat into the space. This many pots may not really be necessary with a consistent, electric heat source, but I assembled these originally for use with candles, and have since adapted to the electric version I am sharing today.
There’s nothing else to it, and I’m sure you could fashion something similar with some spare pots and a little ingenuity.
I have placed my heater on the ground level of the enclosure — heat rises after all. I plugged it in to get warm and sealed the door so the heat can build up a bit. I hope the heater will give a little boost to keep the space even warmer than outside where the temperatures will be dropping all day. We expect arctic winds and sub-freezing temperatures by the evening.
In the meantime, I’ll be checking the thermometer that hangs within from the warmth of the house. Keep your fingers crossed for me.