Friday, August 18, 2017

Why I hard prune my ficus and azalea, it hurts me more than it does you

chinese banyan bonsai

We are in full summer now. I have noticed that some of my plants are pushing a flush of new growth. Among the plants pushing the hardest are Guamuchil (Pithecellobium dulce), Coastal Live Oaks, and Chinese banyan.

Regarding branches and leaves when we make bonsai most of us desire that we develop good ramification and in turn, we get leaf reduction. The challenge here is that try as hard as we may, we can only guess as to where the tree will push new buds.

I have noticed that on my Chinese banyan a new branch will grow from the lateral bud closest to the place I pruned. In a lot of trees in front of where a leaf grows, there is a place where a bud can grow. When that bud grows it is called a lateral bud. Sometimes on a Chinese banyan, only the lateral bud closest to the cut will grow. When this happens everything is for not. Why? because what the tree is doing is creating a continuation of the branch. It is replacing the section it lost. What we need is for the branch to split into two smaller branches. This splitting is what creates ramification. What happens is that the mass of the one branch is split into two. The new branches are smaller. The more you continue to do this the finer the ramification. If you replace one branch for one branch then no ramification has happened. You are actually a little behind because you have lost a lateral bud.

lateral bud growing near cut
Only one branch grew. No ramification here.

What are we to do? For ficus and azaleas at least the answer is simple. Hard prune. A hard prune is when you cut-off large portions of many branches.
pre bonsai bonsai
Hard pruned Azalea

Have you ever pruned a tree and got it to the size and silhouette that you wanted? Then the secondary branches grew close to the edge of the cut. Your tree outgrew the silhouette without contributing ramification. You are going to have to get rid of those branches because they make the tree silhouette bigger than what you wanted.  This is where a hard prune comes in handy.

Have you ever looked at your tree and wished that it would back bud from further down the branch closer to the trunk? For ficus and Azalea, a hard prune might be the ticket.

back budding after a hard prune

Some drawbacks to this are that you do not know exactly where the tree will bud. I can live with that. The other is that you might lose a branch, or one of the branches might not bud. That's a harder pill.

This is a good way to fix those leggy ficusses and azaleas. This is a good example of what we want. Where a cut was made there are now three branches. Choose the two branches that are most parallel to the ground.

Let those branches get leggy than prune them close to the trunk. That's how you'll get the desired ramification on azaleas and ficus. Cheers.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Make my garden tree a bonsai

My friend Lucy Ravitch is an amazing math teacher. She has written books for children on math. She posts a video on ideas to teach children math every Thursday (this is the latest one Anywho, She told me that she was looking to get rid of one of her landscape trees. Like any good bonsai lover dreams of yamadori bonsai filled my head.

This is the tree in question. My daughter is standing underneath it. This is a strawberry tree, Arbutus Unedo. It is a European tree that grows mostly in the Mediterranean. The best feature of this tree is the reddish-orange fruit and fragrant bell-shaped flowers it has from late fall to winter. It also has a very beautiful flakey bark, and to top it off I love the menthol-like scent it has. Yes, I love this tree.

An added plus is that because it was designed as a topiary tree it has amazing curvy branches.

A few negatives are the reverse taper of the trunk, not all the large branches are at the bottom, and the branches are too long.

Add caption

I started the air layer with a gardening saw. I cut two rings to mark the top and bottom edges of where I am going to remove the bark.

I used a flat gouge to remove the bark. It came off easy, a little too easy. It has very delicate bark. I used my fingers to remove the rest of the bark.

I coated the top edge of the cut with rooting hormone.

After, I soaked sphagnum moss in water. I cut a heavy duty trash bag to size. The trash bag will hold the sphagnum in place. I squeezed most of the water out of the sphagnum moss and placed it in the bag. I use zip ties to hold everything up.

air layer for bonsai

air layer for bonsai

I am worried that the air layer will not take. I promised to remove the tree by August even if the layer does not take. Also, I have never seen this tree, so I am worried about back budding. I saw a picture of Graham Potter with a huge strawberry tree that was shaped into a bonsai, so I believe that it is possible. Wish me luck. Cheers.

Update 07/31/2017
I went to chop the tree down. I checked the wound for roots. No roots to be seen anywhere. In fact, the tree had a callus forming on the exposed wood. The callus was slimey and spongey.  I was a little disappointed but not surprised.

I decided to move to plan B. I would remove the tree and try to plant it in a pot. It was easy to remove the tree as it had no tap root and all the big thick roots were on the surface. I used a pick to dig a trench around the trunk. When I had dug the trench and cut the branch like roots I used the top of the tree as leverage to sway the tree loose. it took two tugs and a push and the tree was free. I pruned all the branches and took the trunk home. There I used a hand saw to remove about 4 feet of trunk.

I made some clean cuts to the bigger roots. Then buried the roots in a compost, sand, and pumice blend.

Do I think the tree will take? I am hoping so. I will put it in semi shade and water like normal.

Friday, May 12, 2017

ramification of the roots???? can I call it that?

Hi everybody, It's me again. Sometimes I write the darnedest things. This is going to be one of those things. Disclaimer: What I am writing is going to be from research and not experience.

However, I have a personal philosophy. I never discard anything even if it goes against my beliefs or is contrary to what I perceive is logical until I feel I have pondered and meditated thoroughly. Why? Because I do not know everything. My understanding of how things work is in flux. Every time I learn something it adds to how I perceive things. Enough with the philosophy.

In the bonsai world, There are those who claim that field grown trees grow thicker trunks quicker than pot grown trees. The idea is that because the trees root system can develop without any constriction than the tree can reach its full potential. Makes sense, if you give a tree the ability to grow its roots and branches to the greatest possible length then its growth should likewise do the same. OK, I get it.

Let me continue by saying that every method of growing bonsai stock has its problems. It's all a question of which one you would rather deal with. The problems you have to deal with when growing field trees is that most people do not have the space to grow a tree's root system to its full potential. Contrary to garden myths, trees do not grow a root mirror image of the canopy. In fact, roots extend far beyond the edge of the canopy. So, if you can not grow a full root system you can not grow a tree as quickly as it otherwise could. But it will grow faster than it does in a pot Ivan, you say. OK, let's say it does.  You wait 3-5 years growing this tree. Its trunk is large. You need to fit this trunk and its roots in a relatively small pot. You cut down the branches and start to dig a circle 2-3 feet away from the trunk. You are not removing any dirt. What you are doing is using the shovel to slice off all the roots outside of the 2-3 feet circle. Why? Because the tree needs those roots that you cut off. It took 3-years plus to grow them. The idea is that by cutting off the roots the tree will grow more roots in that 2-3 foot circle. Enough roots to keep it alive when you pull it out of the tree a year later. Yes, even after you cut the roots it will take another year until you can pull the tree out of the ground. And guess what? You can't grow 3 years worth of roots in one year. The tree is at a deficit in root mass.

Of course, growing in pots has its disadvantages. We put bonsai tree in pots to slow down the growth. This happens when we have larger plants in growing pots. Even if you grow a seed in a pot after the third year growth will slow down. Not to mention root bound plants. Normally root bound plants present big problems. Roots that grow in circles or in weird directions are a cause for concern. In bonsai, we prune roots every once I a while. those roots might not be that big of a challenge. However, just like in field grown trees pruning a lot of the roots will cause the plant to slow down its growth.

What are we to do? The answer my friends is blowing in the wind, literally. The answer to this is something that I had seen but did not know what it was for.

Air Pruning, Have you ever seen bonsai growing in colanders?  Why would somebody do that? Well here is the idea.

If you grow a tree in a pot the roots will all be watered. The roots will grow like normal. When the roots hit the side of the pot they will start wrapping around the pot. They will grow unchecked in circles.

When you grow a tree in a colander there is air drying out the dirt from every side. When a root grows to the edge it will shrivel and die. There will not be enough moisture to keep the tip of the root alive. The tree will be forced to grow roots from closer to the center of the root mass out. The idea is that because the tree is continually growing roots from the center out it will have a large root mass that will need no pruning, therefore, keeping the growth momentum steady even when transplanted. it's like how we prune trees to build ramification.

Of course, I started my own experiment.

air pruning

Half of these are Japanese Black Pines and the other are Ponderosa pine. I repotted them in hydroponic baskets. My concern is that the baskets might be too small. I used half fine organics with pumice, coarse sand, and perlite in equal parts.  

Two of each pine seedling was placed in the baskets and then placed in a traditional pot. I think that the roots of these will grow out of the baskets.


Update 05/25

As part of the experiment, I potted a couple of trees in the baskets and then slipped them into plastic pots. Tree A is an example of this.

Nice Trunk on this

I did that because I figured it would dry much slower in the two pots. This would protect the tips of the roots as they grew out of the pot. Then I would be able to see if there was progress.

Close Up

I decided to take a look at this tree's roots. when I removed the outer pot I saw this. 

There are actually two roots coming out of the pot. The big one and a smaller one in the back. You can see that the bigger root is already drying out. It is developing a brown spot.

Now, let's look at tree B. It is the same kind of tree California Coastal live oak. It is the same age and about the same size.

I potted these trees in the same soil mix, watered and fertilized the same. same amount of sunlight. All things were equal. yet, there are no roots coming out of this pot or any other of the oaks. Even the cork oak which is still pushing out new leaves has no roots coming out. I would venture to say that the air pruning is working. 

Update 06/02/2017
We have a small problem:

air prune coast live oak

This pot was out drying like normal. I picked it up and noticed a moist circle where it was sitting. I turned the pot over and was happy to see the tree growing many roots. Problem is that I need the roots to shrivel up inside the pot. What is the problem? apparently, the bottom of the pot is retaining too much moisture allowing the roots to stay alive. 

Solution: I need to raise the pots off of the surface covering as little surface area as possible. 

Update 06/15

In my air pruning mania, I potted plants that in hindsight should have not been put in baskets. Here is an example  of one:

Here is a close up:

I saw this and thought that maybe it is not wise to air prune plants that make aerial roots like some ficus species. On the plus side, I know that the tree is growing. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

CA Coastal Live Oak Cuttings, or Driving down the one o one

What is your favorite part of spring? For me, it's softwood cuttings. I am by no means a cuttings master,  but I have had my share of experience. I have made cuttings throughout the year regardless of the season and the ripeness of the branch. Most cuttings grew a few did not. The failure was not related to species. Usually, what happened os that I would prune a plant. Then I would try to root the cuttings. Most would make it but some would not. Yet, I would never have a 100 percent failure. I attribute this to the very mild climate.

I want to try California Live Oak softwood cuttings. I think that it will be successful. Here in southern California, we had lots of rain this winter. The Oaks have pushed out lots of new growth. I have access to many Live oaks so I can take a few cuttings from each and try my luck.

These branches are new and have not lignified. The branches are very flexible. The leaves have hardened though. I am going to take as much of the branch as possible. I am not going to cut any branch smaller than five inches.

For the planting medium, I am mixing vermiculite and perlite in a ratio of 1:1. I am using a taller pot so that I can bury the ends of the cuttings about three inches.

This is what the cuttings look like. It has too many leaves for it to survive. The leaves would cause all the cutting to lose too much moisture through perspiration.

I removed the growing tip and all of the leaves except for the top two. The top two just underneath where I cut the tip off.

Just before I put them in the pot I shaved an eighth of an inch from the bottom of the cutting. I did do it twice per cutting on opposite sites. Then I added rooting hormone and planted the cuttings and watered.

California coastal live oak softwood cutting

Even if they fail I'll be able to try in the winter one more time.

I am hoping for the best. I am trailblazing (That means I did not find any info on the web). Updates sure to follow. Cheers.

Update 05/01/2017:

it was a fail.

Friday, April 7, 2017

In Bonsai Rules are meant to be broken, or Do bonsai tree "rules" help or hinder bonsai development?

I live in the U.S. but was fortunate enough to play the greatest sport in the world. Yes, I am speaking about rugby. If any sport embodies the pure concept of sportsmanship, athleticism, and determination rugby would be the closest one. One thing was made clear in rugby. They do not have rules. Rugby has laws. These laws are unbreakable. This reinforced to me that rules are meant to be broken.

I would venture to guess that because bonsai culturally came from Japan there is a prevailing idea in the west that the way things have always be done is the way we should do them. This is reminiscent of The Karate Kid. Do not ask why just do. As bonsai has spread over the world every country has made it its own. Except in the west. We cling to our notions of what Japanese bonsai should look like and try to emulate that. Before I start upsetting more people I would like to say that I know I am generalizing.  Yet, if you are new to bonsai you will come across certain rules more often than not.

Brent Walston presents a number of guidelines. He doesn’t like to call them rules but understands that most people do call these guidelines rules. However, these are the most common rules the bonsai neophyte is supposed to use.:

Trunk and Nebari Rules:

1. Height should be six times the caliper of the trunk.
2. Trunk should lean slightly toward the viewer.
3. Trunk should flare at base to visually anchor the plant.
4. Roots should radiate from the flare.
5. No eye-poking roots (directly at viewer).
6. Apex should lean toward viewer.
7. Trunk should taper as it ascends. No reverse taper.
8. Grafts should match understock and scion so that they are unobtrusive, or be placed low enough to disappear into the nebari.
9. Curves in trunk should not result in 'pigeon breast' (roundness toward viewer).
10. Apex should finish in the direction set by the base. 'Flow' should be maintained.
11. Trunk line should not move 'back on itself'. This is one of my rules and difficult to explain. It relates to the flow of the tree. A trunk line that moves back on itself creates a 'C' curve.
12. For formal and informal upright, the apex should be over the base.
13. In informal uprights, too many 'S' curves will be tiresome.
14. As a tree ascends the curves should be closer together (related to branch placement).
15. A tree should have only one apex.
16. Twin tree trunks should divide at the base, not higher up.


1. No crossing branches, or branches that cross the trunk.
2. No eye-poking branches (pointed directly at viewer).
3. First branch should be placed approximately one third the height of the tree.
4. Succeeding branches placed at one third the remaining distance to the top of the tree.
5. Branches go on the outside of the curves (No belly branches).
6. Branch caliper should be in proportion to the trunk. Branches that are thicker than one third the trunk caliper will be too thick.
7. First branch should be left (or right), second branch right (or left), third branch should be back branch.
8. Branches should visually alternate, no parallel branches.
9. Branches should diminish in size and caliper as they ascend.
10. There should be space between the branches to 'Let the birds fly through'.
11. First and second branches (Left and Right branches) should be placed forward of the mid line          not directly behind the tree.
13. Only one branch per trunk position, no 'wheel and spoke' or whorled branches, or bar branches (branches directly opposite each other).
14. Branches should create an outline of a scalene triangle with the apex representing God, the middle corner man and the lower corner earth.
15. Secondary branches should alternate left and right and follow the rules of main branch placement, except there should be no secondary branches moving up or down. This creates the foliage pad.
16. To create the illusion of an old tree, wire the branches down. Young trees have ascending branches. The branches near and in the apex can be horizontal or ascend since this is the young part of the tree.
17. Branches for cascades generally follow the rules for uprights, except that the trunk moves down.
18. In twin trees, there should not be branches between the trees which would cross the trunks. The outside branches of both trees creates the triangle of foliage.
19. A jin should not be hidden in foliage.

He even adds a disclaimer to some of the rules:

1. Soils should be uniform, not layered. (New rule, you will still find controversy).
2. Fertilize full strength. (New rule, there will be controversy).

For more of these rules go to:

Am I saying these rules are “bad”? No, of course not. What I am saying is that following all these rules will not necessarily produce an aesthetically pleasing tree. In fact, To create a “good” looking tree we will probably have to break some of these rules. This is so especially if you say or believe that bonsai should look like trees in nature.                                                  

Does penjing have as many rules as bonsai? Is penjing a relevant form of miniaturized tree? What about bonsai in the Philippines or Thailand.  Why do I bring that up? Because for the most part they have their own aesthetic conventions and maybe we should too. I have included some pictures of bonsai from the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum that I took on a trip to Washington D.C. These fantastic trees are definite rule breakers.  

chinese elm penjing

This is just my opinion. I understand that everybody has an opinion. Cheers.

Friday, March 31, 2017

worlds biggest bonsai

I thought that this was an interesting piece of news. Why? Because the biggest bonsai sounds like an oxymoron. I am not sure if I would consider this a bonsai. Yet, bonsai (盆栽) means tray planting. However, The underlying uniformity of bonsai lies within the miniaturization of said plantings. This is Literally a full grown tree whose roots have been encased in ceramic. Is this Duchampian art created to push our notions of what bonsai is?

Honestly, I for one have not made up my mind. I do not want to be quick to judge. I do want to trust my instinct and perhaps reconcile both.

Let me know how you feel about this. True bonsai? Or bonsai monstrosity? Cheers.

Biggest bonsai

April fool's. Cheers.