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Article written by Marion Thompson

Lithops. Stone plants. Living stones. Flowering stones. Brains. Each one unique. They are one of the most fascinating succulents, and anyone who sees one reacts differently. Background

My journey with lithops started with a few given to me about two years ago. Thinking I could treat them as I did any standard succulent, I started out with supreme confidence. If there is one thing this plant will do, it is to humble you. Given that I live in an area about as far removed in climate from their natural habitat, that was pretty much always going to happen.

At that point I decided I needed to educate myself.

Lithops are small mimicry plants which are made up of two leaves which are fused together. These leaves are semi-translucent and the flattened top part operates as a window and is the means by which the plant receives the light it needs. They are found in areas of Southern Africa which are extremely dry and receive minimal rainfall. As a result of this, their capacity to store water is immense. They also sit close to the ground to protect them from the heat.

Annual Cycle of Lithops

Lithops follow a very distinct annual cycle, and it is this which is the most important to understand. Having said this, different species do follow slightly different timelines.


By spring, the new leaves should be established, and the old leaves should be totally dry. The new leaves continue to grow and become established during this time.


In summer they become dormant. In their natural habitat this ensures they survive the hottest and driest time of the year. They require little to no water at this time and any water they receive will cause them to rot.


In autumn, they start to grow. The groove between the leaves will open up and a bud will emerge. In each case a single flower will appear. The flowers open during the afternoon and are mostly yellow and white. Lithops will only flower when they are between 3 and 5 years old. In nature, lithops will start flowering after the seasonal rains start, so the beginning of autumn is the time to start watering.


During winter, the plant continues to grow. At this time, the leaves will separate and start to shrivel, with new leaves growing from between the old leaves. The new leaves receive all their moisture and nutrients from the old leaves. In some cases, more than one set of new leaves will appear, and in this way lithops may form clumps. The leaves continue to dry until they are thin and papery. At this point, they can be removed.

Watering through the seasons

It is very important to understand this life cycle and to ensure watering is appropriate to each stage. In my experience, this is where things go wrong with these plants.

  • In summer, when the plants are dormant, do not water at all. If they shrivel badly, a small amount of surface water can be given to them, but only until they plump up again.
  • The end of summer is the time to start watering. It is always best to water deeply, as lithops have long taproots which do not receive surface moisture. It is important to allow the substrate to dry out completely between watering. After flowering, watering should be steadily reduced. By the end of autumn, watering should be stopped to allow the plants to prepare for winter.
  • While the old leaves are shrivelling and the new leaves are appearing, it is important to not water the lithops. They derive all their moisture and nutrients from the old leaves and it is important that this process is allowed to happen. Watering at this stage will halt the absorption of the old leaves and inhibit the development of the new leaves.
  • Once the old leaves have dried out, watering can be gradually increased. In mid spring some deep watering is called for, once again letting the soil dry out properly between watering.
  • As it warms up and summer approaches, reduce watering.

For me, there are two critical issues to growing lithops.


The first is to understand the watering patterns and to work out how best to fit these into my own conditions. I live in an area with high summer humidity. In fact, we probably have higher levels of humidity all year round than lithops would find naturally. I have to work around this in working out how much to water. Summer is especially tricky as they do not want any water at this time and the environmental humidity can be significant.

Growing medium or Substrate

The second consideration is choice of substrate. I started with far too much organic matter in my substrate and I lost a fair number of lithops to rot. This soil just did not dry out fast enough and lithops left sitting in moisture are prone to rot. I then started adding pool filter sand into my mix and this helped, but still wasn’t sufficient. I have now started using pumice, which is widely recommended for lithops and other succulents. I prepare a mix with 90/10 proportions. The 90% is made up of pumice and some filter sand. This mix allows me to provide different consistencies in the substrate. The 10% is made up of soil. The health of my lithops has shown a significant improvement since making the change and I face summer a little less afraid than I have previously.


These little plants can be frustrating and at times soul destroying. But when you get it right and are able to watch the leaf changes and the flowers appear, they are by far and away the most exhilarating plant to own.

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Written by Jacques of McMerwe Farms


When it comes to shrimp or for that matter fish breeding, creating the perfect water parameters is a must. The most important water parameter is pH, closely followed by ammonia and nitrites. If shrimp do not have the correct pH, they will unfortunately slowly die over time. So every shrimp keeper and breeder needs to keep a very close eye on pH!

Image caption. Amano shrimp on Small particle (3-5mm) Akadama

The challenge

The biggest problem with keeping aquatic livestock is understanding that even if the water from the tap has a certain pH, the ecosystem in your aquarium or tank has an equilibrium of where your water parameters equalize. By adding tap, rain or borehole water to your tank or aquarium with the right pH means nothing if your ecosystem changes this.

What is "Equilibrium?"

Each tank has its own equilibrium. Most aquarists use chemicals (pH uppers or downers) that they add to the water. This can be extremely dangerous. What they don’t realize is that this is only a temporary change. These changes also create inconsistencies in other water parameters. For an example KH, GH and TDS which are also important for your shrimp and fish survival rates.

Image caption. Black King Kong on Small particle (3-5mm) Akadama


When it comes to shrimp breeding, consistency is key. You need to keep everything as stable as possible, especially pH. Shrimp are very sensitive to changes in water parameters. Therefore, by adding products (pH uppers or downers) that alters not one, but most of your water parameters, you create a nightmare for yourself when you try to balance everything. These changes and inconsistencies cause more shrimp to die than just leaving them at the incorrect pH.

The ideal pH

Neocaridina Shrimp

pH of 7 – 8.5

Caridina Shrimp

pH of 6 – 7

Most aquariums with an inert substrate (a gravel that does not change the water parameters like silica sand or most gravel you buy from most aquarium stores) will equalize your aquariums pH at around 8 - 8.5. This is relatively acceptable for Neocaridina shrimp and hardy fish but not for Caridina shrimp or more sensitive fish like discus. They require a much lower pH.

Why Akadama? Stable pH for up to 3 years

Using a product like Akadama lowers the pH of your aquarium and keeps it constant without having a severe effect on your KH, GH and TDS. This creates a much better and safer environment for your shrimp if you only change one water parameter and it keeps it there for as long as 3 years.

Image caption. Blue Bolt Shrimp on Small particle (3-5mm) Akadama

Lowers pH

Akadama can also be used for Discus and many other fish that require a lower pH. The more Akadama you add the lower your pH will be. For neocaridina shrimp a 250ml cup of akadama should be enough to drop your pH as far 0.2 - 1 on the pH scale. For caridina shrimp a 2cm layer of substrate will be sufficient to give you a desired pH of between 6 and 7. It is important to always measure the pH a week after you have added substrate to your tank or aquarium.

Its natural

One of the best things about akadama is that it’s a natural product and does not leach anything into the water.

It basically just changes your pH, making it by far the safest product to use. You do get other aquarium substrates that you can use, but akadama is by far the cheapest and safest option for any new or experienced person in the hobby.

Other products like ADA Amazonia, Dennerle Scapers soil and AquaEl Helps Advanced soil also work great for shrimp, but they come at a hefty price and usually release ammonia in your water for up to 4 weeks which is toxic to your livestock. The only benefit they have above Akadama is that they might contain other trace elements. These elements are truly negligible and may not justify the pricetag of these Akadama alternatives.

pH buffering

The effect Akadama has on pH is called buffering (lowering the pH). This buffering effect lasts between 1 – 3 years, but this will change from tank to tank as every tank is used differently. Doing water changes, adding fertilizer for plant growth, adding food for your shrimp/fish, gravel vacuuming your tank and many other factors has an impact on the duration of the buffering effect. Another important factor is the quality of Akadama, the harder the better (Bonsai Tree provides the hardest and highest quality Ibaraki Akadama)

Image caption. Blue Diamond Shrimp snacking on a Cape Cone.

What size is best?

Akadama comes in different size granules, those of interest to us is the fine (1-3mm) and small (3-5mm). I have used the fine as I prefer its appearance and the shrimplets can’t enter or hide in the substrate, although other users are equally happy with the small. Its my opinion that the fine particle size also reduces the chance of food particles being stuck in my substrate and creating anaerobic pockets. The double red line and Ibaraki brands of Akadama is recommended as some users have experienced problems with cheaper, softer versions.


As one of the largest shrimp breeders in South Africa, I can truly recommend Akadama.

  1. It lowers the pH
  2. Does not release anything dangerous into the water
  3. Is extremely cost effective.
  4. Its a good-looking substrate too, making colours like green really pop.

Jacques is one of the largest shrimp breeders in South Africa. You can visit his really cool website here https://mcmerwe.co.za/ or follow him on Facebook here https://www.facebook.com/mcmerwefarms

Be sure to catch Jacques in-depth video on breeding freshwater shrimp here:

How to Breed Shrimp - A full guide - YouTube


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Bonsai Tree | Tree Talk by Terry Erasmus - 3w ago

By Harry Lewis of Living Desert Plants

In my last article, I discussed how one can go about propagating Haworthia, to create copies of a single desirable specimen. An interesting alternative to this is to cross breed two separate plants with desirable traits, to create offspring sharing the traits of both parents. To do this, one must learn to play “birds and the bees”...

Haworthia pollination

Pollinating Haworthia is an often far more rewarding alternative to tissue propagation. It is, however, a tad more difficult to get the hang of, as there are many variables that play a role in flowering.

The small and delicate flower of a Haworthia

Haworthia plants need a few years to mature enough to flower, with the fastest growers generally only experiencing their first flowering season after 3 years. Slow-growing species such as H. maughanii can take up to 5 years or more to flower. Some, such as H. marxii, can even take more than a decade!

In addition, flowering is highly dependent on the season, as Haworthia generally do not flower year-round. Many species have different flowering seasons as well. One might pick two specimens to cross, but never end up getting them to flower at the same time! My H. truncata tend to flower during the end of the warmer months leading up to fall, and my retusoid Haworthia (H. retusa, H. picta, and so on) tend to flower when it starts getting cooler leading in to winter at the end of fall. This means I won’t be able to cross them.

Haworthia are luckily neither exclusively male nor female. This makes it somewhat less complicated to find suitable plants for breeding, as they possess both the male and female reproductive organs in their flowers. The male reproductive organ is called the stamen, which carries the pollen, and the portion of the female reproductive organ that receives pollen is called the stigma.

For a beginner, I would suggest waiting until there are two plants in flower at the same time to try out this technique on them. You will probably not get an amazing first batch of seedlings, but it is worth building up the experience regardless. Note that all Haworthia can hybridize, so one does not necessarily need two plants of the same species to successfully pollinate. They are, however, not self-fertile, meaning you cannot pollinate two flowers that are on a single plant with each other.

A Haworthia transplanted in Ibaraki Akadama (small particles) flowering for the first time

There is only one tool I use to pollinate Haworthia, and it is surprisingly simple. Many breeders use a technique that involves removing the flower petals to access the reproductive organs of the flower, and while I have done this successfully, I believe it to be overly complicated and time consuming. For my technique, one only needs a toothpick, some tape, and a single hair from a paintbrush. Make sure it is a new and unused paintbrush, as you don’t want paint residue messing with this process!

Now we will play the part of the bee, so to speak. After taping the paintbrush hair to the toothpick, gently wiggle the hair around inside of the first flower. You will notice it has some yellow residue on it when you remove it again, and this is the pollen. Now do the same in the flower you want to pollinate, and then back again to the first flower. In this way you will pollinate both flowers. It’s as easy as that, and after a few days, the flower petals will close and in time fall off as well, revealing a green seed capsule underneath. This seed capsules takes 6-8 weeks to ripen, after which it pops open and releases the seeds. To prevent this, you can either tape closed each individual seed pod, or you can cover the flower stalk in some fine netting so it catches any escaping seeds. The material from hairnets designed for cooking is good for this.

Using the paintbrush hair to pollinate Haworthia

Sowing Haworthia seeds

Now it is time to sow the seeds. Germinating Haworthia for the first time is a trial-and-error process, so I would not suggest using valuable seed from impressive plants for your first attempt.

Haworthia seeds require warmer day temperatures and relatively cool night temperatures to germinate. As a general rule when sowing, the days should be around 25⁰C, and the nights should not go below 10⁰C or above 20⁰C. This means they cannot be sown in winter, as it is too cold. In the Western Cape of South Africa, which is a winter rainfall area, I sow my seeds from October until April. The latest I have sown and germinated Haworthia seed was mid-May, and those only barely managed to get going before the colder temperatures started.

The container you use for sowing does not need to be deep, as Haworthia roots do not grow excessively large until they are about two years old. If you are sowing a small batch, any small Bonsai pot is perfect. As Haworthia do not have strong roots initially, the mix you use needs to support the plants and keep them growing in the right direction. I use a mix of one-half 2-4mm crushed LECA, and one-half Professional Seedling Mix from Bonsai Tree. I soak the mix and let it drain out excess water before sowing. Make sure you fill the pot as close the top as possible, as seedlings seem to struggle if they are not sticking out from above the edge of the pot.

Once your mix is ready, you can finally sow your seeds. Do not spread the seeds out too much, as growing the seedlings close together will help them support each other. The seeds do not need to be covered with any soil. I cover mine with very fine pebbles to help with support and prevent the seedlings from being moved when I water them. Haworthia seeds also require high humidity to germinate, so cover the pot with plastic or place it in a ziploc bag. Make sure the plastic does not touch the seed or soil, as this will interfere with growth.

After 7-14 days, the seedlings will germinate. One week after this you can remove them from the plastic to prevent rot and fungus from forming. The seedlings can be lightly misted with water daily, preferably early morning or early evening, and should be kept well-shaded for the first two months. I suggest keeping them under 60-80% shade cloth. Make sure they do not get any direct sunlight, as they are sensitive at this stage. Once they get stronger, they can be slowly adjusted to the same amount of light as your adult plants (for adult Haworthia I use two layers of 40% shade cloth), and can be watered every other day. Haworthia seedlings grow slowly, and you can expect to be able to plant them in their own pots after about two years. Do not do this too early, however, as they tend to struggle to recover if planted out when they are too young.

Haworthia seedlings in a professional seedling mix from Bonsai Tree

Harry Lewis is a qualified nature conservationist, with a National Diploma in Nature Conservation from Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and an Advanced Diploma in the same field from the University of South Africa. Between 2015 and 2018, Harry worked with large carnivores, such as lions and leopards, but has now moved back to his hometown of Stellenbosch. He has always had a passion for everything nature, including succulents, and now runs Living Desert Plants, a small succulent nursery, from his home. He specializes in growing Haworthia, but also stocks a wide variety of mostly indigenous succulents.

To contact Harry Lewis you can call him on 0741951144, email harryLivingDesert(at)gmail.com and follow him here: www.facebook.com/LivingDesertPlants/

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By Harry Lewis of Living Desert Plants


Many succulents are quite easy to propagate, and usually only require that one pulls off a leaf or two in order to grow more plants. Not so, however, with the genus Haworthia.

Haworthia, a genus that is indigenous to southern Africa, has become popular collectors’ items, with species such as Haworthia truncata (commonly known as “perdetande” or “horse’s teeth”) being absolute must-haves for enthusiasts. Hybrid plants and odd mutations, such as variegation, have only recently caught the attention of the general public. With many exceptionally rare and beautiful plants slowly becoming more available in the collecting community, many people will be interested in learning how to propagate their best specimens.

Methods of propagation

The most important thing one has to keep in mind when propagating Haworthia is that they cannot grow from pure leaf tissue. Haworthia leaves contain no meristematic tissues, or growth cells. The stem is the only plant part that contains this tissue, and this is what allows regrowth. Therefore, any Haworthia propagations must have at least some meristematic tissue from the stem.
Keeping this in mind, there are three main techniques that can be used to propagate Haworthia. These are leaf cuttings, root cuttings, and coring. I only opportunistically take leaf cuttings, as I believe it to be an overly complicated technique with a higher risk of failure. Root cuttings are far easier and less invasive, whereas coring is much faster to produce pups.

For effective propagation, all of these techniques require that the plants be removed from their pots. I also suggest giving the plant a gentle rinse to clean off any particulates and lower the chance of infections. You will need a sharp, sterile scalpel, some clean fishing line, and a flat surface to work with.

Leaf cuttings

Leaf cuttings on Haworthia are a reasonably steep learning curve. This method generally only works with Haworthia that have thicker leaves. Plants such as H. truncata work well, whereas H. arachnoidea would be incredibly difficult. Remove any roots that are growing close to the leaves so you have ample space to work with. Make incisions on the stem on both sides of the leaf, and along the base of the leaf. Carefully pull on the loosened leaf. Make sure that it comes loose with some of the stem tissue on its base. After removing the leaf from the plant, let it dry for 3-4 days. It can then be placed on top of the soil, with some soil covering the base. A mix with fine Ibaraki Akadama or crushed 2 - 4mm LECA is a good choice for soil in this case, as these provide stability to the leaf. Water lightly after 2 weeks and roots should start to form. Pups appear after 2-3 months.

Figure 1: Leaf cutting of Haworthia truncata in a mix containing crushed 2 - 4mm LECA

Root cuttings

Root cuttings generally only work on Haworthia with thick, tuberous roots, such as H. truncata and H. maughanii. Use your scalpel to make a small circular incision in the stem around the head of the root. This will loosen the root enough for you to safely remove it. Make sure that a piece of the stem comes off with the root, otherwise the root is likely to shrivel up. You can plant the root so that about 5mm sticks out above the soil. I suggest using the same soil mix used for the adult plant, so that the roots don’t experience as much transplanting shock. In this case, I use pure Akadama for my root cuttings. Pups should appear in 2-3 months, and in my experience should be large enough to safely plant on their own after about 18 months.

Figure 2: Root cuttings of Haworthia truncata planted in Akadama


Coring is, in my opinion, the single most effective technique to multiply Haworthia. It is, however, also the most nerve-wracking, as it is essentially cutting your plant in half! If done correctly and at the right time, plants will start to produce pups in less than a month, and they should be removable after 12 months. It is best done at the start of the growing season (which varies for each species), as this is when the plant is normally expending the most energy into producing new leaves. With coring, this energy goes into producing pups instead.

The easiest way to core a plant is to use fishing line. Gently work the line through the outermost or lowest ring of leaves on the plant, as close to the base as possible. You can gently pull leaves apart to allow the line to slide lower. Both ends of the line should meet once it is completely worked in, and should be facing towards you. Firmly pull each end separately until you start to feel resistance, which will mean the line has started cutting the stem. Once this is done, pull both ends over each other so that the line forms a complete circle around the stem. Then, pull both ends in opposite directions until it cuts completely through the stem.

Figure 3: Coring a Haworthiopsis attenuata using fishing line

It is important to keep some leaves on the base, otherwise the core will not be able to produce energy to survive and create pups. You should immediately replant the base of the plant, as you do not want it to lose roots to dehydration. Make sure as little soil particles as possible end up on the cut section to lower the chances of an infection. You can use tweezers to remove any large particles. Let the “head”, or top part of the plant that you cut off, dry for 3-4 days before replanting. It is incredibly important that the head does not receive any water at least for the next month. During this time period, the cut section is highly susceptible to mold and fungus if it gets water.

After replanting the head, I suggest using a piece of aluminum wire to secure the plant in the soil. This wire is often used to curate bonsai trees, and is a safe method for succulents as well. Haworthia roots grow rapidly and have surprising strength in them, and tend to lift unsecured plants completely out of the soil! This is especially true in my gritty mixture, which consists of 2/3 fine Ibaraki Akadama and 1/3 crushed 2 - 4mm LECA. While this mixture provides space for the roots to breathe, it also gives them something to push against!

Figure 4: Haworthia atrofusca “Mutant”, head and core, planted in my gritty Akadama/LECA mix

Figure 5: Replanted head of Haworthia atrofusca “Mutant”, planted in my gritty Akadama/LECA mix

Figure 6: Successful core of Haworthia truncata, with pups forming after 1 month, planted in pure Akadama

Harry Lewis is a qualified nature conservationist, with a National Diploma in Nature Conservation from Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and an Advanced Diploma in the same field from the University of South Africa. Between 2015 and 2018, Harry worked with large carnivores, such as lions and leopards, but has now moved back to his hometown of Stellenbosch. He has always had a passion for everything nature, including succulents, and now runs Living Desert Plants, a small succulent nursery, from his home. He specializes in growing Haworthia, but also stocks a wide variety of mostly indigenous succulents.

To contact Harry Lewis you can call him on 0741951144, email harryLivingDesert(at)gmail.com and follow him here: www.facebook.com/LivingDesertPlants/

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Bonsai is an ancient Japanese art form where natural tree forms are created in miniature, in a tray-like container, for the purpose of contemplation. It surely must be of the most popular of the Japanese arts in South Africa today with many bonsai clubs gathering around the country, members meeting to share their enjoyment of this fascinating art with one another. The challenge of creating nature in miniature, as a living piece of art; seeing to its daily needs and being rewarded in turn with that connection to nature missing from so many urban lives today fuels the growing number of enthusiasts.

The Monkey-thorn (Senegalia galpinii) is a very popular species for bonsai locally. This tree in the Pierneef Style was grown by the author from nursery bag stock and is roughly 25 years old, rather young as a bonsai.

Originally the Japanese who although did not discover bonsai but rather popularized it to Westerners, based the styling of their trees on the Japanese Black Pine and the way it grew in nature. These are known today as the Classical Japanese styles and they include Informal upright, Leaning trunk, Cascade and more.

The Root-over-rock style is very popular and can readily be achieved using any of the locally available Fig species. This tree is a Chinese maple, imported from Japan by the author.

South Africa has its own styles too, thanks to pioneer bonsai grower Charles Ceronio, now deceased, who wrote a very popular book on the subject. In it he featured styles to which every South African can relate; Baobab, Pierneef, Flat Top and Bushveld to name a few. Defining these styles help bonsai artists to create natural looking trees in miniature.

Getting Started

The author working on his favorite species, the Japanese Black Pine.

Although some believe they are created from special seed, bonsai are often commonly available species you may even have growing in your backyard right now. South Africa is blessed with an abundance of flora highly suited to bonsai cultivation, some of which are also unique to our country. To name but a few indigenous species popular among local artists; Baobab, Witolienhout or False Olive, Num-num, Bladdernut, Coral Tree and the Wild Olive.

A tapering trunk is desirable and contributes much to the character of a bonsai tree. In order to achieve it a seedling may be grown in the ground, using specialist techniques for many years. This is a Hackberry or Celtis sinensis of about 15 years of age, grown from seed by the author.

If you cannot find suitable plants at your local nurseryman there are online sources of seeds which can be a rather fun way of starting your collection and even perhaps getting more of the family involved. A neighbor might have a tree you like and will allow you to take cuttings or perhaps even to air layer a branch from it.

Bougainvillea make wonderful bonsai subjects. Not only are the water wise and easy to find, they flower for months of the year.

There are also many specialist bonsai nurseries around which retail ready-made bonsai. Purchasing a tree from one of these nurseries ensures you get the correct care instructions and you will also have someone to go back to and ask questions as they arise.

The container

Although the plant is most important, you will also need a suitable container into which the roots can grow. There are many types of containers an artist can use or even make themselves but the most common one is the ceramic pot. Unlike the typical pot plant pot, containers intended for bonsai cultivation are shallower than they are wide, with the exception of bonsai representing trees cascading from a mountain or cliff.  The container is either unglazed, revealing the clay’s natural hue; or glazed. Glazed containers are available in many colors and it is the bonsai artists personal preference which determines which best enhances the tree planted into it. Sometimes a black container will be used to contrast strongly with white flowers the tree bears, or a blue container might be selected to complement the bright green leaves. Read more about choosing a suitable container here.

The soil

Despite being plants, it is not recommended that you grow bonsai in garden soil. Pot cultivation is quite different to growing in the ground and to support a dense network of fine twigs and branches a lot of roots are needed. A more open, fast draining medium is best and where oxygen exchange will provide the ideal environment for roots to thrive. The growing medium must also retain some moisture for the roots but not so much that they become waterlogged. There are many components available today from which the artists may make up their own unique growing medium. These might include akadama, pumice, LECA, stone, bark, perlite, peat and more.

Tools of the art

The modern bonsai artist has many tools to choose from which make applying the techniques used to train these small trees easier. To begin with a basic pair of scissors is a must but soon a branch cutter will be needed to remove unnecessary branches and to reduce the length of branches which have grown too long.

A wide variety of bonsai tools are available today which make this artform more enjoyable.

As an enthusiast’s confidence develops and their collection of trees grow and mature, specialist tools can be purchased to remove candles, bend thick trunks or create and refine deadwood. Aluminium and copper wire is used extensively, specially prepared for bonsai growers, it is applied to the branches of the tree so they may be bent into the desired shape.

What bonsai need

The needs of a bonsai are much the same as those of any plant; water, oxygen and food. Watering is generally a task performed daily, often by hand with a suitable spray nozzle, but one can also use irrigation systems including drip irrigation, watering cans or even a basin with water into which you can soak the bonsai tree. If your growing medium is suitable and drains well, you need not worry about oxygen.

Every few years a bonsai is lifted from its container and the roots are carefully raked and cut, and the old growing media is replaced. This helps to maintain the health of the tree.

Fertilizers used by bonsai artists are usually organic as it is far more difficult to give too much and burn the roots of the tree than it is to do so with chemical types. Fertilizers can be applied in pellet, solid, granular forms or liquids which are sprayed or watered onto the tree. Depending on the desired outcome the artist might fertilize more or less and may change the type of fertilizer used to have a higher nitrogen content to encourage growth or to one which has more phosphorus for more flowers.

Bonsai myths

One of the most common myths in bonsai is that if you bonsai an apple tree you will get miniature apples. Although it is true that leaves do become smaller as a result of frequent pruning; flowers and fruit do not. If you want a bonsai will small apples, then it would be best to choose a species which already has them such as the crab apple. Similarly, if you want to create a really small tree then small leaves will help to create the illusion so it is better to find a plant with small leaves to begin with that will further miniaturize than to start off with very large leaves.

A farm, forest or your backyard may be the source of wonderful material. The author developed this Rockspray, planted originally as a cutting, in his front garden. When collecting always get the landowners permission first!

Another myth is that bonsai are very fragile and need to be kept indoors. There are indeed some tropical species of trees which do adapt to the environment indoors rather well, the majority of plants grow better outside. Improper watering is probably the most common cause of a trees demise, either too much or too little and most likely less to do with whether you have ‘green fingers’ or not.

Appreciation Part of the enjoyment and luxury of having a potted bonsai is to display them inside the house from time to time where you can appreciate them either on your own in quiet contemplation or over dinner with friends. Most bonsai clubs also hold public exhibitions of their members’ trees and it is a rather good idea to go along to these as you will be able to meet the people who grew them. They are usually more than happy to share their knowledge frequently and most also run beginner’s courses.
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This post is part 2 of the 2 part series on grafting Hackberry. Read part 1 for the first type of graft.

The Taiwanese bonsai artist featured in this video clip is Master Chang Yong Zhou.

Method #2: Cleft Grafting

This grafting technique is very commonly used in grafting all manner of fruiting trees. In fact I am told that some Taiwanese bonsai practitioners come from a farming background and it is this background that they drew from and adopted the technique for developing bonsai.

I have not personally tried this method yet but plan to this spring as buds become active, as this is when this type of graft has the highest chance of success. The following factors will also contribute to the success of these grafts:

  1. Your trees must be growing strongly, most likely planted in a wooden box (learn how to build one here) or some oversize container as this species is a gross feeder and drinker. Better still this graft should be done while the tree is still being field grown.
  2. The graft should be done as trees are waking up from winter dormancy and sap flow is just beginning. You can confirm this as buds begin swelling. If they are open then you have missed your chance this season.
To perform the graft you will need the following tools:
  • Sharp saw
  • Sharp grafting knife
  • Parafilm grafting tape
  • Electrical insulation tape or Plastrip.
  • Grafting sealer

Grafting Hackberry, method 2 - YouTube

  • Decide where you want to graft.
  • Identify the branch which you are going to use to graft with, which I will from now on refer to as the scion. It will need to be growth from the previous season, not older.
  • Saw the branch and then split it slightly using the grafting knife and a mallet or a flat chisel.

  • With this step completed you should now prepare your scion by cutting the branch and making the necessary cuts using your sharp grafting knife. The scion must be grafted in the same direction of sap flow so do not reverse this or the graft will not work.

  • Wrap the scion with parafilm, which is breathable and perishable, leaving a piece at the end. 

  • Enlarge the split of the cut branch and insert the wrapped scion ensuring the cambium makes proper contact.

  • Continue the parafilm wrap onto the branch and then finally wrap with either your electrical insulation tape or plastic to create a tight wrap.

  • Seal any gaps or openings with grafting sealer to prevent moisture ingress or air.
  • The the buds on the scion should develop if the graft was successful.
  • After a month or so has passed the area will swell slightly and 
  • Begin reducing the sap flow to the scion by cutting the whip on the entry side of the graft, so the graft strengthens its sap flow to the trunk.
Success! Final comments on method #2

If you have never performed a graft like this before then I would suggest practicing it a couple times to improve the chances of success before you try it on your {future} bonsai tree. You can use multiple scions on a single branch which will also increase the chances of success. 

Selecting which method to use Method 1

This method is ideal for placing branches onto a trunk or primary branch where you need them.

Method 2

When field growing sacrifice branches are used extensively to thick the trunk. Once these branches have performed their primary function rather than cutting them off at the base you can use a portion of them. Simply cutting them back, at the right time, will produce prolific back budding but it might not be where you need it. With this graft you can utilize the entire stub of the branch which you kept and at the same time the branch you graft will emerge at a convenient angle.

Reasons for Grafts Failing These are the most common causes:
  1. The cambium did not meet or insufficiently so is the #1 cause of failure.
  2. Timing was wrong. The cleft graft should be done in early spring and the approach graft in late spring.
  3. The scion or rootstock was not strong enough or healthy.
  4. The scion was inserted the wrong way round (reversed sap flow).
  5. The scions dried out during the operation or afterwards.
  6. The graft was not properly protected with grafting film.
  7. The scion was not properly secured, allowing movement.
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Carolyn from The Atrium tells us why indoor plants makes her happy and why they will do the same for you too!

Because it’s good to ‘forest bathe’ in your own home

Scientists call it Biophilia, sounds a bit like a stomach illness, but apparently it’s the word used to describe the connection we feel to nature. It’s that transcendent state of being surrounded by open sky and greenery. It makes us feel happier, relaxed and spiritually connected. Remember how good it was last time you walked on an open patch of lawn? Or picnicked under the shade of tree blowing in the breeze.


'Forest bathing' is the new sun bathing


In Japan, the latest ‘Biophilic’ trend is forest bathing or or shinrin-yoku.. Overworked urbanites have started retreating for hours at a time into the forested parks around the city – not to jog, or hike, or do yoga. But just to be.  

According to a study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, people living in areas with less than 10% tree canopy were found to be more likely to feel depressed, stressed and anxious.

We don’t even need science to know that being in nature feels great! The problem is, in our digitally connected urban lifestyles, we don’t get into nature enough.


So why not bring nature inside?


Benefits of indoor plants Plants improve mental health

Being around plants makes us feel good. Looking after plants make us feel even better. Gardening is tangible, it gets us away from a flat screen and interacting with a living breathing thing. We can use our two hands to care for something and watch it flourish. This boosts confidence levels, and plant styling unleashes creativity, problem-solving and dexterity. Caring for a living thing gives us purpose – and plants don’t cry, wet their beds, throw tantrums or need regular walking.

Caring for a living thing gives us purpose – and plants don’t cry, wet their beds, throw tantrums or need regular walking.

Studies have shown that increasing the number of indoor plants reduces boredom. Plants are a source of fascination and wonder, and provide the perfect resting spot for computer wary eyes. They liven up a dull corporate space, bringing a feeling of vitality. Our minds need to be stimulated and one of the best ways is to bring the energy of outdoors, indoors with plants.

In a University of Michigan study, memory retention increased 20% while being around plants, positively effecting learning abilities.
Physical health

There’s good bacteria in plant soil called Mycobacterium vaccae, the bacteria is found in most garden soil and indoor plant soil. It has been found to improve breathing, reducing allergies and asthma, and increasing serotonin levels. 

Plants also release oxygen. This purifies our air, making us feel awake and energised.

Extensive research by NASA has revealed that houseplants can remove up to 87 per cent of air toxins in 24 hours

Want to fight winter colds and flu? Plants are the most inexpensive and hottest looking air purifier available!

Studies have proven that house plants improve concentration and productivity (by up to 15%), reduce stress levels, and boost your mood

If you’re looking for a green fix of health & happiness, try a plant. Just one very minor caveat: plant shopping is highly addictive!

Visit The Atrium for more information and for your indoor plant requirements

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Whenever the opportunity presented itself at a festival, convention or other event I have asked fellow bonsai enthusiasts if they were successfully able to graft on Hackberry (Celtis sinensis). The answer was always in the negative.

I believe that being able to graft is an invaluable skill for any bonsai artist to master or at least be capable in. The styling opportunities it presents are really useful. Sometimes in the design of your tree a branch in a particular position would make such a big difference to the positive and negative spaces or would simply fill a gap in your canopy. However, I find that hoping and praying that a bud will form into a branch in that precise position, especially on a reasonably old tree, is really a gamble which you are most likely to lose.

I regularly graft onto common deciduous species such as acer and ulmus (Read more about this here) but all my efforts with celtis have been in vain. Without anyone locally that has met with success I determined to look internationally for help.

When the chance to visit Taiwan at the end of 2017 for the BCI convention came up, I immediately began looking for a Taiwanese master who would be willing to teach me more about how they create such fantastic Celtis, and of course how to successfully graft with this species.

I am about to show you the two methods which were demonstrated to me and I trust they will inspire you to try it at home.

Method #1

This method is essentially an approach graft, which I had tried many times before. However, on further contemplation it has occurred to me that where I went wrong was that I was trying to graft a tree which was in a relatively confined container and thus possibly not growing as vigorously as it would need to in order for the graft to be successful.

Celtis, whatever the species is which we have here in South Africa, is a slow healer. When you see this, you should expect it not to graft easily either. In contrast the species I mentioned before heal quickly and easily, thus they will also graft easily as the cambium has the ability to fuse rapidly (the reason they are also able to callous quickly).

Although I have not personally tried this method, as I have been focusing on getting the trees I wish to graft on super healthy, I would suggest the following as two requirements for this graft to be successful on Hackberry bonsai:

  1. Your trees must be growing strongly, most likely planted in a wooden box (learn how to build one here) or some oversize container as this species is a gross feeder and drinker. Better still this graft should be done while the tree is still being field grown.
  2. The graft should be done at the peak of sap flow. This will be just as spring leaves become leather hard.
To perform the graft you will need the following tools:
  • Sharp saw
  • Sharp grafting knife
  • Some wire
  • Parafilm grafting tape
  • Sealant (in the video sealant is not used however I would encourage you to do so. The climate in Taiwan is tropical and thus very humid which in my mind is a game changer)

Hackberry grafting method #1 - YouTube

  • Decide where you want to graft.
  • Identify the branch which you are going to use to graft with, which I will from now on refer to as the scion. It will need to be hardwood, not softwood from this season’s growth. It should be flexible enough to be bent around to the position of the graft without snapping. There should be a fork in the branch.
  • Remove the bark and some of the wood of the scion using your grafting knife on both sides of the scion.
  • Carefully saw the trunk and then widen the cut using a grafting knife until the scion fits TIGHTLY.
  • Secure the scion in place with parafilm which will eventually perish of its own. Alternatively, you can use Plastrip grafting tape too, which also does not stretch as much.
  • Seal any gaps or openings with sealant.
  • Further secure the scion using wire. If the scion has any movement it will not fuse.
  • After a few months have passed confirm the graft has taken by checking the girth of the scion where it enters the trunk and where it exits. If the graft was successful, the girth at exit will be noticeably thicker.
  • Begin reducing the sapflow to the scion by cutting the whip on the entry side of the graft, so the graft strengthens its sap flow to the trunk.
  • After a few more months check if the graft is still doing well and if so, you can sever the whip entirely.
Success! Final comments on method #1

You will notice the fork in the branch being grafted onto the trunk. Although I am not 100% certain as language was a bit of a barrier between master and student despite the best efforts of an interpreter. I believe the fork serves two purposes; firstly to increase the sap flow and also present a branch which can be used in the future design of the tree which emerges from the trunk at a more natural angle i.e. not out of the side.

Watch this space for the next method.

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Freshwater is becoming an increasingly rare resource globally. In the Western Cape of South Africa where I live never before have we experienced drought to the extent that we are now. At the time of writing this article, every citizen's total daily water allowance has been reduced to 50L per day. This must include what we use at home, work or at the shopping mall. No municipally supplied, potable water may be used for irrigation. It is at such times that we must be especially conscientious about how we use water on our bonsai and take whatever means possible to save this precious resource.

I thought it might be nice to share some of my water saving tips with you, but I would also welcome you to share your tips with me so I can include them in the list below. Lets just keep it bonsai orientated please, I am sure how many times you pee into the toilet before flushing is something everyone else wants to read about :) 

Tip #1 Double potting

I am not actually too sure if this is the correct term, but I do believe it fairly accurately describes what is to be done.

On my recent trip to Taiwan I noticed many of the bonsai trees, although in their own bonsai container, were positioned on top of another much larger container of some kind. This varied from a large cement pipe to a wooden box.

Image caption: A Hackberry in Taiwan that has been "Double potted."

As you know, surviving in a small container is a pretty strenuous life for a tree. This is made all the more demanding when the ambient temperatures rise, humidity is low, moisture content in the little growing medium there is is reduced to almost nothing by the end of the day; and then on top of that we are adding nitrogen rich fertilizers in an attempt to stimulate the tree into growth, oh, and should it actually grow a twig we quickly snip it off as it is out of profile!

The idea behind double potting is to:

  1. Encourage rooting in the chosen "primary" bonsai pot
  2. but also to provide adequate growing space for additional roots in a larger container below
  3. which can better ensure the trees health in more demanding times (such as as the scenario I described above).

To double pot, simply take your tree in its current container and place it firmly on top of a another slightly larger container (of any material) and give it a bit of a wiggle to embed it properly. The growing medium in your second container should drain well, so it should be sifted if it is not a graded product, and it should retain some moisture. Fertilize only the container which your tree is in to encourage roots to grow in this more "hostile" environment. Fertilizer run-off will in any way enter the container below. 

"Double potting" is not the same as "Potting up." 

Potting up encourages fast growth and does provide additional rooting space but requires much more water and fertilizer to keep all the medium moist and achieve the required results. Also, by simply lifting the main container and snipping the roots (at any time) which have grown through the drainage holes into the container below you are good to go. With potting up, you will need to essentially repot the tree.

Image caption: The growth of this shohin sized Hackberry bonsai of mine would by now have stagnated completely in our rainless, hot summer. Since double potting it a couple weeks ago it has sprung back into life and is growing very healthily, plus the water which was wasted in an effort to wet it properly now drains into the container below filled with Professional mix.

Water saving benefit

Water runoff from the main bonsai pot will now empty into the container below and serve to support the tree. Previously this water would have simply dripped onto the ground benefiting nothing.

Tip #2 The Tub

This next tip is probably going to appeal most to bonsai growers who have smaller trees and smaller collections but depending on how desperate you are to save water this solution might start looking really attractive at some stage.

Its really a simple method of watering to put into place and you may not need to buy anything as you probably have what you need laying around the house.

You will need:
  • Any tub or vessel for that matter that will hold water and not leak. It should be deep enough so that when you put the bonsai with the deepest pot into it, the soil surface should be completely submerged.
  • A second tub, of any depth but it should be a little larger than your longest bonsai pot- optional.
  • A rigid grid or several strong rods or dowels of the same diameter which you can put onto the tub in order to rest your bonsai tree onto while it drips.
  • Liquid fertilizer - optional

I am sure you already know where I am going with this, but the idea is to fetch your bonsai trees, one by one and soak them in the vessel filled with water. You must ensure that the container is completely immersed. When you first dip the container a lot of air bubbles will come to the surface (plus perhaps some nice fat white grubs if you are using a growing medium rich in organic material). Wait until these bubbles stop coming to the surface and then slowly lift the tree in its container out of the water while trying not to wash off any of your growing medium by disturbing it too much.

The 2nd tub now comes into play. Before the time prepare it by laying your grid (I use an old braai grid, but you could buy a small piece of mesh from a metal shop also) over. Place your bonsai onto the grid and leave it there till it stops dripping. You could fetch another tree and it can be soaking while you wait. After you have watered all your trees you can simply empty this collected water back into the 1st tub.

Image caption. Placing the drenched bonsai tree onto a grid will allow the water to drip into the bucket so it is not wasted.

If you can get some liquid fertilizer and add it to your liquid in the first tub then you will be feeding your trees at the same time. Every time you dip them you will be feeding them also. This may reduce the amount of time you can keep the water before having to replace it due to an unpleasant odour, but if so you can still throw this water onto your trees one last time using a watering can. Keep topping up the bucket with fresh water as needed.

Water saving benefit

When you water with a hose considerable water is needed to wet and then to saturate the growing medium. Much of this water then drains from the container and falls onto the ground below. By using a vessel and immersing the tree in it you can ensure that the growing medium is completely saturated with water and whatever run-off there is will be caught and can be re-used.

Tip #3 Shade

This suggestion is in my opinion not a long term solution and should be used only when you have to eg. the height of summer or during the hottest or driest time of the year. Various species of trees prefer different amounts of sunlight, for example the needs of a camellia compared to a pine would be rather different. If a camellia is placed in a position of too much sun the leaves may scorch and discolor and growth will be greatly stunted. Pines however require as much sun as you can give them or growth will be lanky.

When I think of shade I also think of temperature and not only of sunlight. Sometimes you will hear people refer to a certain temperature in the shade and in the sun. Temperature can have a dramatic effect on our trees but I think we often attribute it to excessive sunlight. There is however a difference and it does matter.

Ways you can provide shade:

  • Shade-cloth
  • A large garden tree
  • Positioning your tree in a position behind a larger bonsai so at a certain time of the day the smaller, shaded tree will receive less sun.
  • Create a lower shelf onto which you can place trees which require less sun (and you might even catch some of the water runoff from the trees above when you water)

Shade-cloth is commonly used by bonsai enthusiasts around the world. I don't wish to get into a debate about the percentage to use nor the colour of fabric, only to suggest that you don't use 80% as this although perfect as a windbreak, will reduce sunlight too much for most plants. I believe I have mostly used 40% in a green fabric. The precise percentage and colour you can get answers on from other growers in your area or the local co-op.

Image caption. When I constructed my bonsai area I made the roof in such a way that I could drop removable frames with stretched shadecloth in and remove them when they are not needed for maximum sun.

What I do want to place some emphasis on is that although it will take extra effort, try to create temporary shade-cloth solutions. The reason for this is that in summer the shade created is welcome however for the rest of the year it is unwanted. For example, if you have just defoliated a maple in late spring placing the tree in shade at first is advisable or the new, young leaves may burn in the sun. In winter when we in the western cape receive rain {hopefully!} if your trees are still under shadecloth, they will be standing in very wet conditions for much longer as the drying effect of the sun would be much less than without the shade-cloth covering. 

Image caption. This shade-cloth was stitched so that it could be fed onto stainless steel cables. This means it does not wave around in the wind and enables me to pull it back when I don't need the shade. The side tassels were made by cutting the fabric into thin strips which frightens birds but also helps reduce late afternoon sun which would otherwise slip below the horizontal fabric.

Garden trees do offer some relief for bonsai placed beneath them during the hottest times of the day. If you have such trees in your garden then utilizing them instead of shade-cloth is a free, ready-to-use solution although you of course have no way of knowing just how much sunlight you have reduced.

A small word of caution here is that if these trees are inhabited by squirrels, they may be inclined to steal your fertilizer or even bury nuts in your growing medium. Another potential problem, depending on the garden tree is that some of them may be infected or harboring pests which could drop down onto your trees, contaminating them also. Lastly, if it does rain the canopy of leaves will prevent most of it from reaching your trees, which means you might be left scurrying around in the rain moving your trees (although this is sure to provide some entertainment to family and neighbors).

Looking at your growing benches and identifying trees which need more shade, you can alter their position by placing them behind larger trees. Although it may help only a little for midday sun, it could help considerably more for afternoon sun, which in my opinion is what does the most damage.

Image caption. By positioning trees next to or behind taller trees, you can help to shade the canopy or even perhaps more importantly, the roots and container.

With a little creativity you can easily erect a lower shelf onto which you can place some trees which will in turn be sheltered by those above them. Such a construction might be nothing more than a couple of bricks with a wooden board on top. Never place your trees directly on the ground where it is easier for slugs and snails to get at them, and for earthworms to burrow into your containers. If you have dogs I would suggest not to place your trees at a level they can reach, as they may "mark" them, steal your fertilizer or use them as a chew toy - or all three!

Image caption. A makeshift shelf in Master Kimura's garden of cement slabs atop cement supports provide additional shade to more sensitive chojubai (flowering quince)

Lastly, sometimes simply moving your trees from their current position into another will go a long way to solving the heat problem. Say you have your trees in a paved and walled courtyard or near a wall; the heat both reflected and absorbed by these surfaces, can easily increase the ambient temperature in this area by several degrees. Heat stress can really debilitate a bonsai tree so simply moving the tree further away from the wall (minimum 1m) which should preferably also not be white or if so placing a reed, bamboo or other screen against it will help tremendously. I am not at all a fan of stone as a ground cover in South Africa, despite its popularity in gardens. In my opinion it greatly reduces ambient humidity and absorbs a large amount of heat which it emits till late at night. Rather plant indigenous creepers, use a mulch of peach pips or bark, or simply bare ground - its still better than stone. I agree, stone can look extremely attractive especially when neatly raked but its a more appropriate covering in colder countries.

Image caption. Below some of my trees I have planted bushes. These bushes thrive off the water and fertilizer runoff from the bonsai positioned on small tables above them. They cool the entire area down and don't reflect sunlight and heat like stone does.

Water Saving Benefit

Positioning your trees in more shade and reducing the amount of heat they are exposed to will reduce the amount of water lost through the leaves and evaporated from the container. This will mean you might be able to stretch the intervals between watering to a day or even more. Be observant of too much shade which will lead to among other things; increased leaf size and longer internodes. However if its the difference between losing the tree and a temporary setback to your styling, the path to choose is really a no-brainer.

Tip #4 Tree Arrangement

Many people mistakenly think that all there is to watering is keeping the growing medium of their bonsai wet. In fact, correct watering may take many years to master as there are so many variables which influence the trees uptake of water. For instance, if the tree has just been repotted it does not have the capacity to absorb much water, or if it has just been defoliated it has no need for much water as no water is lost through the leaves. If you’re interested to know more about the “art of watering” then look at this previous article I wrote.

The logic

If you think of a tree like a Swamp Cypress living in an environment such as the Florida everglades in the USA which is perpetually wet. Then think of an Acacia which in nature can grow in rather arid environments. You cannot imagine these trees growing side by side in the wild now can you; yet we attempt to do just that in our bonsai collections. Trees which prefer certain climatic conditions are not necessarily compatible with those which prefer something rather different so try as best as you can to meet each trees preference.

I am not sure how you grouped your trees in your collection but perhaps you took one or more of these considerations into account:

  • Species: If you have more than one specimen of a species try to group them together. A Chinese maple and a Japanese maple for example are both Acer’s and although their preferences for water, temperature and humidity might be a little different its close enough for us.

Image caption. Grouping similar species, as I did here with all these conifers, makes watering easier as the demands of the trees are very similar.

Size: Grouping trees of similar sizes makes a lot of sense as no tree will be sheltering another from sunlight and you are less likely to overlook watering one as you missed seeing it. However, trees in very small pots are likely to have very different water needs to tree’s potted into over-sized containers. 

Image caption. When you group trees by size its of course easier to see all your trees, and see whether they need or do not need any water at that time.

Special needs: I used this term as here I am referring to trees which were recently collected, trees which are recovering from a disease or insect attack such as spider mite or root rot, trees which have been defoliated and such. Any of these examples, and there are others, may influence however temporarily it might be, the placement of the affected tree or trees.

Image caption. The worst thing you can do to a flowering tree is to overhead water it. So set it aside and water only the soil, carefully, and the blooms will last much longer.

    Water saving benefit

    The benefit of grouping your trees in a manner which is more considered or logical than simply because there was an open spot on your bench, is that when you are walking through and watering your trees it is easier to make those snap decisions to water or not to water. In contrast, if all your trees are just thrown together you’ll most likely end up watering them all the same when in fact some won’t need any and some needing much more.

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    Growing bonsai from seed requires dedication. In fact for most species of plants suited to bonsai I would recommend to grow from cuttings or layering. However for some species these techniques are not options and Japanese black pine is one such species.

    A wonderful semi cascade Japanese black pine styled by Japanese shohin artist and friend, Koji Hiramatsu.

    Deciding to grow pines from seed requires long-term commitment. Depending on the desired size of tree and the growing techniques you choose, considerable time and resources in the form of water, fertilizer and containers may be required. It is likely to be a minimum of 8 years and easily 20 years before you have attained your goal of a high quality shohin or perhaps a fairly nice chuhin sized tree. Mame sized trees can be achieved in a considerably shorter space of time but I would suggest these are not intended as long term projects any way.

    Getting started

    I have been fortunate to be able to source fresh, viable seed from black pine growers in Japan. I do not offer seeds for sale, but from time to time I do sell seedlings and young plants. I am aware that you can purchase pine seeds locally too, or you can try to find someone with a mature tree from which you can get seeds when the tree has cones.

    Storage of your seeds should not be in a sealed plastic bag, ideally a brown paper bag is best. Be careful of insects or even rodents that might steal the seeds to store them in a safe place. The environment should be exposed to ambient temperature so that the seeds can be feel the normal, seasonal temperature changes. Do not store them in a garage which gets hot afternoon such for instance.

    As with most seeds the best time to sow them is at the beginning of Spring. Essentially when you see other trees beginning to wake up from winter dormancy and begin to grow, you can start to think about planting your pine seeds.

    Seeds which sink are viable, those which float are most likely sterile and can be discarded.

    I began the process in September by first soaking my seeds in boiled water which I allowed to cool off to a temperature of around 35 deg Celsius. After allowing the seeds to soak for around 24hrs I threw away the ones which floated (they’re sterile and will never germinate) and retrieved those which had sunk to the bottom.

    Stratifying your seeds for a week or so in the fridge will speed up germination when you plant them.

    Pine seeds seem to germinate better if they have been stratified. This can be accomplished by placing the seeds into moist sphagnum moss in a bank bag, into the door of the fridge (where the cheese or eggs would normally go) just not the coldest spot in the fridge though. You can leave them here for roughly a week or a little longer if you wish. The idea of this last step is to provide a good cold spell so that when removed and exposed to spring temperatures the ambient temperatures should rapidly trigger the seeds into germination. The difference in the rate at which stratified and those seeds which are not germinate, is rather impressive.

    Planting Container

    I have tried plastic seed trays and the styrene type of seedling trays where each seed is planted in an individual cavity. I prefer the plastic seedling tray. I find that making sure water reaches and is retained in the individual cavities of the styrene trays less forgiving, especially when you are using a mix which does not retain much water. The Italian made Deroma range of ceramic unglazed containers would also work perfectly if you are planting fewer seeds.

    Growing medium

    I place a fairly thick layer of small hyuga (Japanese pumice) particles at the bottom of the tray. In the middle I use coarse crushed silica with a little bit of Professional Seedling Mix (I cannot tell you the ratio as its by sight, but you don’t want a very wet mix as damping off of the young pine seedlings will then result). On top I finish with a thin layer of fine silica sand. This is by no means the only growing medium you can use, however it is what I have had good success with.

    Placing the seeds

    You could scatter the seeds on the surface and then cover with some more fine sand, but I prefer to apply a more deliberate approach to ensure each seedling has a little space around it. Using a ruler, I will gently push the pine seedling into the fine sand using a pair of tweezers. They should not be planted too deep or this will take longer to germinate or won’t germinate at all. About seed thickness depth is enough.

    Water with a fine spray and when you do the little holes above the seeds will close up.


    As with all seeds prior to germination, all they need is the right temperature and moisture. I place my seedling trays in a protected environment under shadecloth. In a couple weeks you should start seeing the seeds poking up through the soil. You can now gradually move them into more light but not full day sun just yet.

    Healthy pine seedlings sprouting in the filtered sunlight.

    At this time be careful not to over-water them as damping off will occur and you will lose all or many of your seedlings. Allowing the seedlings to dry out will certainly result in their very quick demise though too.

    Cuttings or not?

    In about 2 months the seedlings should be growing quite strongly, and the stem colour begins to change from green to a reddish tinge. At this time you need to make a decision whether you are going to make cuttings of the seedlings or not.


    Japanese Black Pines Ready for cutting - YouTube

    The benefit of seedling cuttings as far as I have seen is:

    1. All the roots emerge from the cutting at the same level making it easier to achieve better nebari on the future tree.
    2. The first nodes are much closer to the soil level, so you create more powerful smaller trees easier, using the sacrifice branches you can grow using the adventitious buds which develop.

    The buds developing very low down on the seedling cutting will come in very handy when developing shohin with powerful trunks.

    On the flip side, the growth of the seedling is greatly hindered initially compared to a seedling which was simply allowed to grow. In my opinion the initially slower growth is outweighed by the benefits in the longer term.

    If you’re not going to make cuttings of them simply planting them over into a ceramic or plastic container is fine. Alternatively, you might wish to use the colander method which I will elaborate on further on in this article.

    If you are going to take cuttings, then follow these steps.

    • Should you only have a few seedlings, then prepare individual containers for growing the seedling cuttings on after this procedure. I usually plant many of them and so prefer to plant them into seedling trays again as less space is required. I pretty much reuse the same medium as I planted the seeds into originally.
    • Prepare some Dip n Root rooting hormone according to the instructions (at the stronger concentration) in the box and set aside.
    • Gently prick a seedling from the tray and using a very sharp blade or grafting knife cut the stem of the seedling so that only about 2cm of the stem remains. Every few cuts you make you may want to sterilize the blade to prevent any cross contamination.
    • Put these seedling cuttings into water until you have a bunch of them.
    • When you have enough, grab a clump of seedling cuttings and immerse the ends of the stems into the mixed rooting hormone and allow to soak for about 2 minutes. If doing a lot of cuttings, you will want to replace the hormone liquid every now and then.

    Taking cuttings - YouTube

    Once you have completed the seedling cuttings, place in a sheltered position with lots of light such as morning sun, bright shade or under shade cloth.

    After a few weeks new roots will emerge from the cut stems of the seedlings.

    Growth in the 1st year

    After another month you can transfer your clearly rooted seedling cuttings into individual containers, planting them into a free draining mix such as the Professional Mix with a little Akadama added. Or you might try something a little different as I will explain below.


    Much has already been written about the use of colanders to grow bonsai. Essentially a very free draining growing medium is used to promote oxygenation aided by the slots or holes in the container which produce prolific rooting. Combined with lots of water and fertilizer the plants growth above ground is enhanced. When roots reach the limit of the container, unlike conventional “closed” containers they do not coil, rather the tips stop elongating and initiate the development of more roots from the base of the plant.

    A few 1 year old pines in colanders.

    This is an effective technique for growing pines, one which according to some authors can shave many years off the development time required for a pine. However, if you elect to use this method you need to be aware that you will need to use the correct growing medium as a fine, water retentive medium will not produce the desired results. Additionally, you will need to be careful with your watering as the medium will not retain much water and if you are unable to water the seedlings before they dry out entirely you will lose them. With all this watering any nutrients in the growing medium will be quickly leached out so you will need to fertilize a lot using mainly solid fertilizer.

    Cascades and Exposed Root Styles

    Cut standard downpipes to the required size, around 150mm or perhaps a little longer. Glue a piece of drainage mesh to the bottom of the cut tube. Fill the bottom ¼ with Professional mix. Add medium pumice till the tube is around ¾ full. Fill the remainder of the tube with more Professional mix planting a rooted seedling cutting into this top layer.

    Seedling cuttings (1 1/2 years of age) which have been planted in custom made containers to encourage root development.

    What happens now is that the roots will elongate down into the tube, weaving their way around the large pumice particles until they reach more growing medium at the bottom. After a few years you can remove the plant from the tube, exposing the roots. You can now use these plants for cascade or exposed root styled trees for a little fun and variety.

    Teeny weeny fun

    If you really want to have some fun plant some of the rooted seedling cuttings into mame sized containers. Use 100% fine akadama as you are going to need all the water retention and growing volume possible. Plant your seedling cutting into a container and top with some chopped sphagnum moss both for added water retention but also to prevent soil erosion.

    Press these potted plants into a seedling tray (with drainage holes) filled with coarse grit. This will provide extra moisture and increase the surrounding humidity. The roots of the plants will grow into the stone, but you can simply lift the potted trees, trim the roots with some scissors and place them back into the tray every month or so.

    A cute little Japanese black pine created from a 1 year old seedling cutting.

    Pines are remarkably flexible at this age. Use some aluminium wire and coil around the trunk. I have found that inserting the wire from the drainage hole, anchored to the side of the container itself helps to prevent too much movement of the tree in the tiny container. I then twist the tree and wire to really tighten the wire on the trunk which will speed up biting in of the wire, which will add character to the tree despite its young age. Then give is some dramatic bends and enjoy your "instant bonsai."

    General care

    Don’t water the seedlings excessively as they will suffer root rot and die. I feed weekly with Seagro or Sea Secret and Kelpak to promote root development and to provide the nutrients needed for strong growth. BonsaiBoost is constantly being added and replaced throughout the growing season.

    These disfigured needles are the result of fungal attack when they were developing.

    You should also spray them monthly to prevent fungal problems and for this you can use something like Unizeb which contains the active ingredient, Mancozeb.

    As you see the plants growing stronger you can move the plants into more sunlight until eventually, they are in full sun.

    I don’t wire or prune at all in the first year, the goal now is to get them to grow as much as possible. Wiring them will only serve to slow them down as they heal into the wired position. There is also no need to prune as you want to get a little girth onto the tree so you can wire and do a little shaping in the second year.

    Feed, water, sun. Repeat. Repeat. And repeat again.

    This seedling cutting in 9cm plastic container is about 1 1/2 years old. Notice the great budding lower down on the trunk which will be used to develop sacrifice branching to achieve a good sized trunk. The leader will be allowed to develop uncut as well to promote rampant sapflow and thus accelerate development.

    Read more about Japanese black pines as bonsai here.

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