Friday, February 23, 2018

Bonsai 101: mallsai, you have to learn to walk before you can run

For those who do not know what mallsai is here is my definition: This is a potted plant, most often woody that has an asian aesthetic that is sold at big box stores or on the side of highways and is labeled as bonsai.

Wow, now that I got that off my chest I feel much better. Thanks for coming folks.

I can’t fool you guys. You came here for some controversy. Well, most of you.

I do not understand why practitioners of the art of bonsai turn their noses at theses trees? Even the word MALLSAI is  used as an unflattering name. So my defense of these bonsai (yes, I dare call them bonsai) is two pronged.

First, the bare roots if you will. The foundations of what a bonsai is. The two things that all bonsai have in common. That is that you get a tree and you out it in a pot. BAM! There You have it.  You might use a piece of slate, plastic pot, a carved rock, it’s all good. Then you stick a plant  in it.

We can all agree that monocot plants are excluded from bonsai. Also, that a potted plant needs to have the appearance of a trunk. Can we all agree that these things are a common denominator in all bonsai across the world? Yes, I am making some big statements here. As I am a nobody in the world of bonsai I have nothing to lose by speaking truth to power and getting all you woke on bonsai or whatever it is people say nowadays.   

I am bringing kanji into the mix. In Japanese this is how you write bonsai:盆栽. It is made of two characters. The first is 盆. That character means tray. I Know because google translate told me so. Google translate also says that 栽 means cultivation. There you have it a tray for cultivation. OK, when you use 栽 as a noun it means plant. So, it means plant in a tray.

Not to make this anymore boring bonsai aesthetics have changed continuously since the time that japan brought penjing from China. Guess what? Bonsai is a living art so it will continue to change. The fact that there is disagreements on aesthetics in the bonsai world is proof of this.

Part two. One man's trash is another man's treasure. Just like lobster, salmon, beef tongue (wait, i am making a point here) these were poor people's food at one point in American history. Now, these babies are expensive delicacies. Why did I bring these things up? Because its proof of changing tastes.

How many of us were introduced to bonsai because of a roadside precombens nana juniper? I am waving my hand in the air. What if that is your comfort level as far as time and money investment? Do those things a bonsai define?

Maybe, just maybe our view on mallsai says something about who we are. Stop, before you scroll down to start trolling let me say this. If you have looked at the eveidence and are satisfied that mallsai are not bonsai. That is ok. I can accept that. However, this is subjective and we have to respect those who enjoy a tiny juniper in a mass produced Chinese ceramic pot with soil that does not drain well and will probably kill it in a month. Or would you rather they killed an 80 year old Japanese black pine because they had no experience keeping bonsai? Cheers.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Garden apple tree to bonsai, almost

My father wanted me to get rid of an apple tree. The tree was about 10 years old. It was probably planted by a passing bird. The problem is that it was growing next to the wall. so, before things got out of control we had to get rid of it and in the process, I would collect a new tree to turn into a bonsai.

I cleaned the trunk a bit. it was a multi-trunk tree. the smaller trunks were cut back but not removed completely.

Surprisingly (or maybe because there was a concrete slab under half of the roots) there was plenty of fine roots and only a couple of very thick roots. This was the bigger of the roots. The saw cut right through. The tree did not release though.    

The tree had a massive taproot holding it down. the angle was awkward but once the dirt was removed from one side all the way through it was easier to cut through.

I took a saw to the taproot again because it was still very big. I had built this box out of broken down pallets. I covered the roots in compost and watered. Ill prune off the extra bits sticking out but I am pretty much done.

malus fruiting garden tree for bonsai

This is my second time prying a tree from its comfortable home. Hopefully, this one survives.In any case, I have a peach tree to remove next weekend. Wish me luck. Cheers.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Growing ficus religiosa and benghalensis from seed in cooler climates

I have had much success with growing ficus macrophylla from seed. The weather here in Los Angeles is warm enough to germinate the seeds. The seeds grow even better during one of our many heat waves during the summer (here is the link

Los Angeles is many things both good and bad, but it is not hot enough to germinate Ficus religiosa the bodhi tree and Ficus benghalensis the Indian banyan. I have had success  growing each on two different attempts. The first, I put some dirt in a thin plastic ferrero rocher box. It was very shallow and I left it on the window sill when I lived in Pomona. Pomona is 50 miles from the ocean and is much hotter than where I grew up and now currently live, Inglewood. During a very hot heatwave near 100f I noticed that all the f benghalensis seeds had sprouted. It looked like a carpet of microgreens. I was happy and if I had known then that I was not going to germinate that ficus again I would have taken better care of them. I lost them all.

Last year I tried my hand a Ficus religiosa. I used a heat lamp to grow those. It did work. It was not a carpet like the indian banyan, but I took what I can get. My mistake was removing them from the heat too quickly. I lost them all.

So here we are. It's 2018 and I have goals and aspirations. I want to raise a forest of banyans and bodhis.

First things first: SOIL. Oh yes start the controversy.

I am going to grow these seeds in a plastic shoe box. There will be zero drainage.

I started with good ole peat.

I added vermiculite for texture.

Then I added fine volcanic cinder for more texture.

I mixed it all very well. Then I got my shoe box. I chose this to keep humidity high, but I will have to monitor moisture levels. Because there is no drainage I will have to mist.

Here is the box with the soil in it.

These are the seeds.

Here are the seeds on top of the soil.

And here is the first misting.

Los Angeles is to cold for germinating tropical ficus seeds. so I got this:

I bought this heat pad to boost the temp. It was setup in a corner of the kitchen. A Styrofoam sheet was placed underneath to conserve heat.

I pushed it and forced three shoe boxes on the heating pad.

Three days after the setup was completed I was pondering on whether the seeds needed UV to germinate. I went to check the boxes and discovered a lone plant growing. I thought that it might be a weed, though the leaves did look like a ficus (looked like most dicotyleodn sprouts).

peepel bodhi seedling

Then I noticed it wasn't alone, and that there was a very small one that was just the size of ficus seeds. I was satisfied.

peepel bodhi seedling

I have been obsessing about Indian Banyan since I started my bonasi journey. I am satisfied with my experiment up to this point. Cheers.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Bonsai 101, branch ramification and how can I get some

There are many words and phrases used in bonsai. One of the bigger ones is the word ramification. We all know what ramification is, but can we explain it? For all of you that speak a romance language, we can plainly see the root word rama. Which we understand to be a branch. So, ramification is the way branches grow. Booyeah, hit it on the head. Shortest post ever. No, I wish but in bonsai, we like to make things complicated.

In bonsai, we are looking for miniaturization. We are looking to reduce the size of the tree by reducing the size of the trunk, and the branches, and the leaves. How do we do that? Well, here is the basic theory:
First, we must let branches grow from the trunk. These branches we will call primary branches. These primary branches should grow around the tree in strategic places. The primary branches will become the “skeleton” that will support the rest of the tree’s growth.

Once you have established the primary branches and the tree will grow new branches on the primary branches. These new branches are called secondary branches. Because these branches are younger they should be thinner. A third set of branches will grow on the secondary branches and so on and so forth. These branches will be thinner than the secondary branches. As the branches get thinner the leaf size will also reduce.

The Ideal pattern for branch ramification is to have a pair of new branches grow from the tip of each level of branches. I’ll illustrate below.

This is the ideal situation. Of course, we all know that ideal may not happen consistently in bonsai. There a few things you have to take in mind when you are planning out a plants growth and ramification. Understand your plant species growing habit. Azaleas grow very different from ponderosa pine trees. Learn when and how to prune. This will help develop small compact branches.

You may be asking your self why do the branches have to grow in pairs? Let me show you what happens:
The branch keeps on growing but you only have the one branch. where you could have had 8 branches with small leaves now you have one. There is no ramification.

One last thing is this very interesting article on the growth habit of trees ( There are two types of plants. First, we have plants like palm trees and most pine trees. These have a dominant growth usually at the top. The dominant tip seems to keep growing the strongest and fastest. These type of growth especially among conifers leaves a conical shape on the tree. These trees are monopodial.

Monopodial Pinion Pine

Next, you have trees that grow new branches on lateral buds on different branches. Those trees do not have a dominant growing point, so these trees grow in a much more round shape like many of the deciduous trees. These group of trees is called sympodial.

I think it is important to understand this so we can plan how our trees are going to grow. Cheers.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Understanding the why in everything we do/ are we automatons?

Do you contemplate these questions? Why do I work the job I do? Why do I do the things I do? Why ask why?

Sometimes we do what we do because that's how we have done it for years. Sometimes we do things because it takes too much effort to change, or maybe we do not know any better?

In bonsai, there is this culture of reading things on the internet and taking things at face value. When we are new this is understandable. We do not know anything. As time progresses we hold on to those “rules” and sometimes we do not let go even though maybe we should.

A certain bonsai professional who I like to quote (Ryan Neil) said that we should know why we do what we do. He likes to ask if anybody repots on a schedule. Then he points out that there are only three reasons to repot a tree. One reason is the loss of percolation, another is decomposition and finally, change of style. Those reasons are not dictated by a timetable.

He asks this is because he wants the bonsai community to stop doing things out of sheer tradition. That we should know the horticultural reasons why we do the things we do in bonsai.

“In anything, we do in bonsai there has to be a reason if not it is about us. Right? This is not about us. Bonsai is not about us bonsai is about the tree.” Ryan Neil

Let's dig a little deeper. let's find out what we are really doing to our trees.

That's it. Short and sweet. Something to ponder. Cheers.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Fertilizers and bonsai, the war between organics and inorganics

Growing and fertilizing plants in pots is different than growing and fertilizing plants in the ground. The soil in pots leach out fertilizer with every watering. I think everybody knows that or is aware. That is why we add fertilizer to bonsai.

One day I was reading a gardening article on fertilizer. To my surprise, the article said that plants do not distinguish between molecules of organic and synthetic fertilizers.

Robert Palvis from says, “Let’s look at nitrate molecules in more detail. What is the difference between a nitrate molecule from a synthetic fertilizer and an organic fertilizer? The pictures below show the two molecules.  
                        Synthetic                                   Organic

Can you see the difference??
There is no difference. A nitrate molecule from either source is exactly the same. Most importantly plants can’t tell the difference between a nitrate molecule from a synthetic source and a nitrate molecule from an organic source.
I’ll repeat the last sentence since it is one of the biggest gardening myths. There is absolutely no difference between a nitrate molecule from a synthetic source and a nitrate molecule from an organic source.” (

On another gardening website, it said that the reason a gardener should use organic fertilizer is to build up soil structure. The next thought was, why do I need to build soil structure in a soilless bonsai potting mix? The answer: I do not need to. This benefit of organic fertilizer is completely at odds with using “boon mix” type of soils.  
It seems the negative thing about synthetic fertilizers is that you have to learn how to use them properly because the margin for error is larger compared to organic fertilizer.

However, If you use organic fertilizer are you maximizing the tree's potential? I would say not.

The paradox is that we put a tree in a pot with soil less potting soil. We bend break and shape the tree. We stunt its growth in a small pot. Then we say oh no, manufactured synthetics are one step too far. That seems counterintuitive to me. To me, it seems that synthetic fertilizers give you more control over how much salts you give the tree relative to the concentration of the dosage.  

A quote from, “The nutrients and exact elements available from an organic fertilizer, such as manure or compost, can only be guessed at without laboratory testing. This means you’re giving an inexact application that may or may not meet your plants’ needs. By comparison, applying inorganic fertilizers is simple, because the amount of a given element and the rate of application are known.” (

Organic Fertilizer pic by F@c@

I looked up the big differences between synthetic and organic fertilizers you may have at home.

Organic- Needs organisms to break down, cold slows down the process, Nutrients are at very low levels. It takes longer to break down the organic fertilizer to stuff your plants can use. This prolongs the life of the fertilizer.

Chemical- the Larger margin for error (unless you use the Walter Pal method for feeding). Fertilizer can be used by plants as soon as it is applied. It is cheaper but not as easy to use as organic fertilizer. It is water soluble so it is leached out very quickly.

I'll give you that by using organic fertilizer you will never burn your trees.  Here is the thing, we who do bonsai create these impossible tasks related to taking care of bonsai. Here is an example. Some people have a calendar on when to prune candles on Japanese black pine. They say that week one you cut off strong shoots, then week two medium strength shoots, then week three prune weak shoots or something similar. My hero Ryan Neil says that is a bunch of nonsense. He says prune all of the candles back at the same time. Why do we like to complicate our lives? Is it not easier to learn how to properly use synthetic fertilizer? Can we learn what to do so that we use the proper amounts? Won't that help our trees and simplify our lives? I think so.

Here are some quotes from Walter Pal on fertilizing bonsai:

I use mainly liquid fertilizer that I get from our cheapest general discount market. In America it would be Walmart... I feed from 20 to 60 times more than the average bonsai grower. From the beginning of April to the middle of October, every ten days everything is fed with liquid fertilizer, using three to four times the suggested dose. All trees are fed equally, whether deciduous, conifers, small, large, repotted, collected or not. This is a span of about 200 days when the trees are being fed. Since the trees are fed three times the normal dose on twenty days in that time, it makes for 60 doses of fertilizer in the growing season. The average bonsai grower feeds maybe three or five times at half the normal dose because 'bonsai trees should not grow'. If you then add two times a year of chicken manure being given to the trees, you can then understand why this schedule is 20 to 60 times more than the average.”

“Too much salt in the substrate is almost impossible if one waters aggressively every day. Even azaleas don't mind my treatment. They thrive very well with very hard water, ordinary baked loam and peat as the substrate and aggressive feeding like all the rest of the trees.”

All in all, if it what works for you is best practice. However, high risk pays high rewards. Cheers.

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.