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Around here we start re-potting trees around the end of February and stop around the end of November. I am a bit of a stickler for doing things at certain times based on my experience of successful (or not) outcomes. Scots pine yamadori needs to be bare rooted at some point in order to remove the old mountain soil and to get rid of dead material and begin the process of creating a root system suitable for life in a bonsai pot. Yesterday evening once it cooled down a bit we set too on this little chap. The candles are extending in the top of the tree so time was good (August is the other good option). Enough root was uncovered to allow a good prune and the removal of some big lumps of wood. Getting it set up in the pot was something of a wrestling match there for a few minutes.
The Green Dream range of bonsai tree fertilisers has been a mainstay of the UK bonsai hobby since Colin Lewis introduced the Original product way back in the 1990s. As we expanded the range our primary concern was always the products integrity, value and environmental credentials. To that end we have now changed the packaging for the larger units. Previously packaged in plastic buckets we have now gone to a purpose designed unbleached corrugated cardboard that has a large proportion of recycled material and is easily 100% recyclable pretty much everywhere. Believe it or not this has cost us slightly more than the old plastic buckets (price has remained unchanged) but it has reduced our plastic output by approximately a tonne every year. The product is contained within a light weight re-sealable bag within the box thus maintaining the packages convenience and storage ability.
We do appreciate this may not be to everyone’s liking but we believe it’s important we all do our bit to help keep our wonderful world clean and tidy.
No ‘bloke’ would admit to owning a bonsai tree just because he liked the flowers. I know we are all supposed to have our radar tuned to ‘sensitive’ these days but bonsai, in many circles, remains a macho sort of pastime for ‘real men’. I was bought up in a place where flowers were for girls. But take a look around social media at this time of year and bonsai pages are awash with images of flowers. There’s a mixed message here perhaps but in my book flowers on bonsai trees are great so long as the bonsai beneath is a good one.
These days a lot of plants go through my hands, in excess of fifteen hundred a year typically. Because of that I don’t really develop attachments to bonsai as easily as perhaps I once did. These days I have to put a lot of work into a tree, over several years, before I succumb to it’s charms. Of the three thousand odd trees on the nursery there are only perhaps half a dozen I hang onto for anything other than business.
This particular blackthorn has a story and I now intend on keeping it. Way back in the mists of time when I had hair and a waist and before Kaizen Bonsai was even thought of I wanted to have good bonsai but, was so poor I didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. Getting what I wanted was going to take some ingenuity and hard work. I met a guy who had some blackthorn for sale and trusted me enough to do a sale or return deal on six of them. Amazingly within the week they were all sold and I got to keep one from the proceeds. This particular example was sold to what became one of my life’s best friends. Graham Black, a cantankerous old sod and wily character who taught me so much about life and gave me so much strength, courage and confidence I sorely lacked at the time. I can confidently say I would not be here today doing this if it were not for Blacky.
Much like me Blacky ploughed his own furrow in life, didn’t suffer fools and was opinionated to a fault. Plain speaking folk are my favourite kind and Blacky did plenty of that to my sorry snivelling face back then. The influence of this man in my life was simply massive. Blacky’s passion for bonsai was simply enormous unlike his skill. He enjoyed bonsai in his imagination, seeing clearly what the trees he had would become in umpteen years time. They never really made it though because he kept changing his mind and didn’t learn the requisite patience bonsai demands. However amongst all his wonderful failed and mis-guided endeavours this little blackthorn remained untouched by and large. Respect for an old tree is a rare commodity these days but old folk may have learned a thing or two.
The tree actually made it into one of John Hanby’s Newstead events and got immortalised in the book too with Blacky’s imaginative display complete with a scroll depicting pit-head winding gear in deference to it’s Welsh heritage. A few years later my good friend moved away to Portugal and his trees were left with me to sell. Several, including this thorn were disseminated amongst our mutual friends and I reluctantly let this one go. Then a couple of years ago Blacky passed away and left a massive hole in my life, there is not a day goes by I don’t think of him and rely upon lessons he taught me.
Imagine my delight when late last year my other good friend Stu’ returned the blackthorn to me. Thankfully he had kept it nice and it still looked just like it did when Blacky handed it to me. It’s here to stay now amongst the other half dozen trees I hold special and it can be planted on my grave when I’m gone. I have always thought bonsai should tell a tale and for me this one certainly ticks all the boxes even though in reality it’s only mediocre but, much like Bagpuss and Emily I love it.
Scots pines are coming along early this year. I’m not normally troubled by them until the beginning of May, but this year we are definitely early, probably spurred on by last summers good weather and a mild winter here.
This big lump arrived here about four years ago. I took a risk on it simply because it looked very weak and was not long since it was collected. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. If everything in life were as simple and reliable as a scots pine I think we would all be a lot happier.
This image tells the story. Three years of needles 2018 on the end preceded by a gap where there were flowers, next 2017 and the little tiny ones are 2016. The needles the tree came with were HALF the size of those tiny ones, about 6-8mm. Notice no significant extension growth at all. Because the tree was so weak, dealing with the root system would be impossible even though the pot was largely filled with heavy clay and rocks. The improvement in the trees health was achieved with some very careful management of the trees growing environment and soil management.
Today we are at the point that I can deal with that soil. The tree has good buds for this year that are now turning green and elongating but there is not a single adventitious bud on the tree. Left to it’s own devices this tree will lose what little strength it has from this point onwards unless we deal with that field clay. I have been here a hundred times before with collected scots and this operation is critical to finally getting this pine firing on all cylinders.
New white root ends and greening buds along with a warming forecast means there is absolutely no risk involved in this work. The soil is also nice and dry which makes the work much easier and more pleasant.
The grass has been an important element in managing this trees very poor root system. Anyone who turned up at the workshop with weeds like that would normally get a slap but here I used it to suck moisture from the soil. Without it, even in summer I only needed to water about every 7-10 days simply because the pine roots were not drawing any water. By having the grass dry the soil, I could water every time it wilted which was every couple of days in summer. That meant I was getting more oxygen into the rootball which helped develop the pine’s roots. Grass is also good at supporting fungal activity in soil.
Look closely at this image it tells the whole story right there if you can read it? Here are the bullet points…. Either end of the rootball consists of perlite and pumice mix the collector used. This has good root growth. In the middle the grey patch is field clay with very little root growth. The upper part of the rootball shows the grass roots, mostly in clay and very little, if any, pine root but good root development just below that. Roots grow in the most suitable zones of a rootball like this one where there is the most adventitious mix of water, oxygen and nutrients. One thing that is very evident is the absence of mycelial hyphae. It is there but only just, and in small pockets. I would guess that 80% of this rootball is not working at all and explains the poorly condition of the tree as a whole.
Here we are directly beneath the trunk. Solid clay with no root development whatsoever. This clay consisted of about 70% of the pots volume. I entirely stripped the rootball down removing every little pocket of clay and rocks. I will NEVER wash a scots pine rootball like this but it’s absolutely vital to clean ALL of the soil away at this stage. Once this was done the cause of the trees serious problem became evident. A large root just under three inches in diameter had been cut when the tree was collected. This left behind a tiny amount of small roots which in the long run proved insufficient to promote growth. However with careful management it was enough to keep the tree alive and that’s now the start of a fledgling ‘bonsai’ root system. I would stab a guess this tree lost 90% of it’s roots when it was collected and that resulted in this drawn out process.
Now potted in 1″ pumice and bark with a light surface dressing of our No3 Bonsai Soil Mix. Going forward this tree goes outside into full sun with minimal watering until the new seasons growth is fully developed. From then on watering (by thorough soaking) will only be done when the soil is very dry. For this year that will help develop the trees all important mycelium and draw out strong root extension. I may give a very light fertilize with Green Dream Original probably just once. Next year if all goes to plan I will ramp up the watering and fertilising. Based on previous experience, in the second and third year after this work the tree will literally be lifting itself out of the pot and so I can go to re-potting in the normal way with root pruning to develop the correct root structure for bonsai. This year the tree will make those adventitious buds and hopefully if I did my job right the needles will be nice and long this summer.
I have spent most of the year so far bitching about not re-potting bonsai or at least not re-potting too often. The whole notion of Bonsai trees and free draining soil seems to be one of the top mis-understood aspects of bonsai tree cultivation but I’ll save that for another day. Why we actually re-pot bonsai and when that should be done, by and large, seems to be deeply immersed in ignorance. However what we call bonsai trees and their long term maintenance and the situation with trees in development towards becoming bonsai are two entirely different things.
Where development of bonsai is concerned, the most important aspect is that of developing a ‘bonsai’ root system. By that I mean a pot full of fine dynamic feeder root mass largely free of big chunks of wood or old mountain or field soil. Anyone who has re-potted an old Japanese bonsai tree will be familiar with this. Developing such a root system can be very easy with something like an elm or maple but in the case of evergreen varieties and in particular pines I regularly see folk struggling. Trouble is most of what is written about re-potting pines is based on working with existing bonsai trees. Working with yamadori seems to scare a lot of people in my experience.
Day 1 for this scots pine to begin it’s bonsai journey and obviously we start from the bottom up – roots.
Simple rules apply here. Never mess with the roots of a tree that is not showing strong growth and annually improving vigour. If you have not owned the tree long enough to do this or cannot read the signs wait until you have or can. Secondly never work on the roots of pines that are dormant. Fast swelling buds and thick fleshy white root ends are good indicators if working in spring. Summer re-potting is also a good prospect particularly with European natives like scots and mugo pines.
White root ends and extending buds = green light. Look at that mycelium too!
Root work for yamadori such as this big scots involves the complete removal of old mountain soil. This is an important step in order to develop that valuable ‘bonsai’ root system. Many folk go white at the prospect but in my experience a pine will never grow properly in a small pot OR develop that root system until this is done. Where first root work with yamadori is concerned simply allow the soil to dry out prior to beginning work. Then patiently pick out all the old soil right back to the trunk. NEVER wash the roots at this stage unless you really want to kill your tree. Then all that is required is to cut out as much thick wood as is possible and shorten large thick roots where they exist, cut back to where roots emerge closer to the trunk. Be patient, this is going to be as long process and this shortening MAY have to be done in several stages. Finally gather up ALL the root and put it into a suitable sized pot and work it into a suitable soil mix.
Three hours later, not much different but the future of this pine is assured and with half the soil volume the growth rate will rocket.
This work will increase a pines growth rate, make larger needles and more back budding very quickly. All important factors in pushing a pine tree down the bonsai road. Subsequent potting can focus more on root pruning for development of fine root mass and having cleaned out the old soil completely this becomes the work of minutes rather than hours as in the case of this beast I did yesterday.
Folk often ask me about mycelium in relation to pines. In my opinion those of us who keep pines do not actually keep pine trees we keep their mycelium. If that fungi is happy your pine will be happy. If a pine tree has no fungi present chances are the root system is too wet or full of junk not conducive to it’s well being. In the case of this tree the original mountain soil was largely devoid of hyphae but the pumice and perlite around that was solidified by a huge mass of hyphae. Now that the growing medium is consistent and correct mycelium will colonise the ENTIRE root ball. Seeding mycelium is not necessary, creating a good environment for it to thrive absolutely is.
Few things in bonsai are as simple as the cultivation of pine trees. Sadly few things are less understood in bonsai that the cultivation of pine trees.
It’s been more than thirty years since I bought my first indoor bonsai tree and began my journey into this amazing hobby. One of the things that has helped me enormously is a funny quirk in my head that allows me to remember all the little details. Even now I remember everything about my special trees. Where they came from, every little thing I did along the way and how they responded to my actions. This also includes the effect of weather which, especially in the UK is an ever present phenomenon that has an impact upon our activities. Don’t assume that good weather is good for trees and bad weather is bad. Most hardy trees need the winter as much as they need the summer. What I have learned is that the weather is not to be trusted but trees are and will thrive regardless of what the sky throws at them.
Where that goes wrong, on occasions catastrophically so, is when we start messing with things we don’t really understand. Putting our impatience upon a tree and expecting a certain level of ‘performance’ allied with an ill founded and inexperienced understanding will cause problems. I despair at the amount of desperately sad plants I see being slowly tortured to death by fumbling hands, it genuinely breaks my heart, right at the outset I got into bonsai because I have a powerful love of trees and their place in the world and because I believe they can teach us how to be better people. Every day it saddens me to see suffering trees in our hobby wether that be through ignorance or the strutting pride of their owners. Since the advent of the internet things have become much worse as ignorance has spread faster than time honoured and long understood wisdom. Bonsai really is an anachronism in this fast moving modern age, though i would argue, so are we.
In my experience the single most destructive activity in bonsai cultivation is the unhealthy obsession folk seem to have with re-potting. I have written at GREAT length on the subject of Repotting Bonsai and the requirements of the growing media we choose to use in Choosing Soil For Bonsai Trees. I have also covered correct timing in When to Re-pot Bonsai. What I didn’t really cover was the effects of weather on the process and that’s where a good memory comes in handy.
Just a few days ago I was advising folk hang fire on re-potting. In the UK SPRING IS NOT February despite what the weather looked like and in spite of climate change pundits telling us that’s now normal. It’s certainly not unusual to have something of a false spring here. I have seen it in five of the last six years here on the east coast. As we all know it’s more likely to snow at easter that at Christmas. Creating beautiful bonsai trees is all about doing the absolute best we can for our trees and that means every choice has to be our best. Re-potting bonsai early will NOT make spring happen any sooner no matter how much we wish it would. When I started bonsai we would re-pot around end of March going into April and May. Today folk start right after Christmas and by end of March (still the optimum time for most deciduous species) it’s all over.
Most re-potting work is entirely unnecessary, especially for older trees, many of which will give their best after five or even ten years in the same pot undisturbed assuming we have the appropriate skill required to cultivate bonsai at that level which is rare. The obsession with ‘free drainage’ is entirely unhealthy and largely only appropriate to accelerated growth regimens used with raw material. Any recently re-potted bonsai has, by default, a well draining soil. For mature bonsai this phase has to be managed so as not to encourage too much coarse fast growth which can ruin a trees maturity and fine ramification. In time drainage will reduce as pore space within the soil is filled with root and normal care can resume. For mature bonsai, re-potting once drainage reduces looks like the work of a mad man to me and guarantees ultimate failure in the quest for old mature and magical bonsai.
Before I run myself down a rabbit hole with all that let me get back on subject. The weather was unseasonably warm here a couple of weeks ago but now we are back to normal. Gales, freezing rain, heavy daytime rain followed by hard overnight frosts and constant temperatures in single figures. Normal fare for an early British spring time. So if you were seduced into re-potting bonsai too early because of the nice weather some consideration needs to be given to those trees now. What might that be?
In the case of most, simply moving into a greenhouse seems ideal. If you have the facility it’s a good course of action. However be aware that warm temperatures may bring on fast growing varieties too soon and then moving them outside later in the year can cause problems, certainly not ideal. A closed greenhouse with little air circulation is also bad and will encourage fungal problems, particularly with overly wet soil and freshly cut roots. Putting trees in the shade is a seriously bad idea in the UK, they need sun to recover. The ideal situation for most species is under a light open cover with direct natural sunlight protected from the wind and rain. Soil should be kept just a little more dry than normal. In this situation the cold (for hardy plants) is immaterial. The primary concerns should be the wind and the wet. Control these aspects correctly and all will be well. As foliage develops a preventative fungal and pest control spray is a very good insurance.
Think carefully about re-potting, it’s important but largely misunderstood, mis-used and unnecessary and can prevent bonsai trees reaching their full potential. Learn your horticulture, time your actions correctly and consider after care, it’s just as important as the task itself.
I have been threatening to do some workshops for a while now. Problem is actually twofold. First I am old, really busy and mostly worn smooth out. Secondly the workshop is actually full of old motorcycles and I don’t have a place to put them. However, my sense of duty has got the better of me and so here are some dates for 2019. Only available first come first served, paid in advance. I have been taken for a fool too many times and so payment is strictly up front and non refundable in the case of a no show. My weekends mean a lot to me and I don’t give them up easily. Thanks for understanding.