Let the tree talk to you, just don’t be surprised if they say they want to leaf……

This is a clients tree, chloroluceun tortum, the Brazilian raintree.

It’s a humble little tree really. But she likes it. And that’s all that matters.

It had a Jin on it, but this is all that’s left of the deadwood. The unfortunate thing about having smaller trees is the impermanence of deadwood features that are intricately detailed. Exposed wood and hollows (Shari and uro, in Japanese) on the trunks work, but anything projecting and convoluted tends to rot fast. The reason being is it’s the heartwood, the middle of a trunk or branch, that has the oils and resins that resist decay, and on smaller trees, there’s mostly sapwood. Ah well, c’est la vie, we can enjoy them while we have them.

Looking at the trunk, you’ll notice that it’s beat up just a bit. Like someone’s been whacking it with a chain. That’s funny, I just had a vision. Let me paint a picture: Before you we have Nutz T. Squirrel, red dew rag tied on his head, a septum piercing in his nose. Black leather jacket with his motorcycle gang emblem “Tree Ratz Scooter Club” stretching across the back, and the usual FTF and The Shocker arm patches on his shoulder. Nutz is standing before the raintree, lazily swinging a chain, crooked smirk on his face. He has some anger issues and my clients poor tree is before him. And Nutz, our biker bad boy squirrel, has a chain.

In reality, Nutz likes to chew on things. It’s an instinctual imperative because if he doesn’t, his teeth will grow so long, they’ll pierce his brain and then instinct won’t be a thing anymore. Squirrels love our trees, the new buds are sweet morsels, the bark helps to grind down the continuous tooth growth, not to mention the flowers, fruits, etc. that they love.

But there is one thing they don’t love, one thing that will chase Nutz and his gang away: cayenne pepper.

Sprinkle some of that on the soil surface and up the trunk and those squirrel biker thugs won’t bother your trees anymore.

Unless, that is, they’re from Louisiana. There’s nothing that chases away the Louisiana chapter of the Tree Ratz. Sorry. The only thing you can do at that point is to pour them a glass of wine, because, as Justin Wilson always says, “A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine”

Ok, I’ve been talking to trees way too much today. But you all have this question on your mind: “What is this raintree telling me?”

Those in the temperate regions of the world might be able to guess. It’s exhibiting signs of senescence (for a really long explanation of senescence, visit this blog post)

Senescence is a little like what’s happening with smartphones nowadays, planned obsolescence. They even kinda rhyme:

“My leaves are turning brown

Like it’s planned obsolescence

But it’s really just a process called

Leaf senescence

Like an iPhone six

with a battery going dead

The leaves on my maple

Go from green to red”

In the case of a raintree, they turn yellow. But fear not my friends, this is an entirely natural process of renewal, new growth, getting rid of the old and tired to make way for new, verdant leaves.

And behold! There they are!

The tree, our mighty chloroleucon tortum, has a hard time dropping old leaves to make way for new ones (kinda like the way the Bonsai crowd is so conservative in their adoption of new science. I mean, a drainage layer? Ever hear of the science of fluid mechanics?).

I love the new growth on a BRT. It’s so cute.

So what do we do to help the tree along? Easy peasy, lemon squeezy, get out some sharp and pointy scissors and cut off the old leaves.

By doing this, you advance the growth cycle by at least two weeks, and sometimes even more.

This raintree is a different one and was defoliated and wired mid-winter (December or so in Florida).

Looks good now, right?

But, and this is a big but (and I like big buts, because I cannot lie, the practice of horticulture is an art, and what works for you could be different than for I), I am in Florida, my trees are outside (with all that means in winter in Florida, freezing temps at night to possible 85f in the day), my experience and care may be better (or worse) than yours, and the trees I’m working on are healthy. That’s the most important thing: they are healthy. You may see me defoliate trees often, but they all get chances to grow unhindered afterwards. I don’t believe in keeping a tree manicured as though for show (especially one in heavy training). The only way they get energy is to grow and collect the suns rays and make sugar through the process of photosynthesis.

And you know how healthy the tree is by how quickly they respond to practices like this one, or to a repot, or a hard prune, etc.

Here’s the tree (the cayenne pepper one) two weeks later.

I think it worked. ‘Nuff Said. Follow that link above.

I think the next post I might visit some sugarberries, or maybe a hornbeam. Or both. How’s that sound?

Posted in Advanced basics, Horticulture and growing, maintenance | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Did it have to be another juniper?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…..two junipers walk into a bar, one says to the bartender, hey I’ll have a jin…..

We have before us two varieties of juniper. Both do quite well in Florida, the one on the left is a parsonii and the other is procumbens nana.

Before I get the question, no, they don’t get an appreciable dormancy period in Orlando. Even the shimpaku we grow don’t. And they live long, even happy lives, here in sunny Florida. That should throw some wrenches in some people’s juniper bonsai world view now, dontcha think? Don’t get me wrong, there are some junipers that don’t like Florida, like the California juniper (because it’s too wet here) or the Rocky Mountain juniper (too wet, not enough elevation, and too hot I’m guessing), but we can grow junipers all the way down into Miami. Really, I wouldn’t lie about this (I may lie about some things, but that’s just to get a laugh usually, like the pigeon poop fertilizer post a few years ago….).

The two juniper we have here are, above, a parson’s juniper and below, the ubiquitous Japanese Garden juniper. Let’s start with it. This tree belongs to a client, Janice, who is really a bougie fan. She bought the tree for the pot, believe it or not. It’s my job to make her see the tree for a good bonsai.

I had styled it around Christmas time and she grew a little more fond of it then. But, now, she isn’t fond of it at all. Let’s see what a new pot will do for it.

Wow, looks better already! Let’s discuss the “Japanese Garden juniper” as I repot, shall we?

The botanical name of the plant is juniperus procumbens “nana”. Sometimes you see it as “green mound” as well. It is a dwarf of a tree that is (here’s the controversy on it….typical in the bonsai world) called, unsurprisingly, juniperus procumbens. The controversy is, first, where it’s native to (either the mountains of the Kyūshū region of southern Japan or the southern coastal and island regions of Japan and Asia). Second, whether it is a real native tree and not a cultivar that was introduced. And third, whether it’s its own species or a variety of juniperus chinensis. Told you it was controversial. I’m just gonna call it P. Nana.

This next pic is my hand. My hand is two things: first, it is going to be the tool of choice today for the repot. Second? It’s the last thing you see if I slap you upside the head for choosing the wrong sex for your baby chicken…….

So yeah, really, just my hand.

I gently massage the old soil out of the roots (you could consider this an initial potting really, there was only bonsai soil as a top dressing, the rest was regular potting soil).

The question that is on the minds of all those who’ve read that junipers die without the best soil, the only soil for a tree in a bonsai pot, bonsai soil (or substrate if you’re inclined to be that cool kid in the convo and be on fleek).

The tree was in a pretty big and deep pot, and, if you’ve read my posts before, you’ll know that, the deeper the pot, the better the drainage. And it’s drainage that is important for junipers. They like to be on the drier side (or, more specifically, since I am going to stop trying to anthropomorphize plants, they’re more adapted to dryer climes).

But today I’m putting the tree into a drastically smaller and shallow pot (the new pot fits into the old pot), so we need proper bonsai soil (see the last post) for this tree. And of course it’s going to be my signature SuperMix© I’m using. You can trust me because I’ve won a Major Award.

Below, you’ll notice that I did not bareroot the tree. My technique in an initial repot is to gently massage a trees roots, removing much of the old nursery soil, but not all. I am a big proponent of protecting the microbial elements (such as beneficial fungus like mycorrhizae) in the pot. If we bareroot and wash out all the old soil, the fauna population has to recover and, especially with conifers, those microorganisms are often the only way a plant can uptake water or nutrients from the soil. But what about all that crappy soil and drainage? I do the initial clean out above, making sure that I clean out totally underneath the trunk (that’s why you see the new soil mounded so much in the pic with the trophy) and wiggle the tree down on top of the new soil. Then I tie the tree in (below)

And make sure to gently add new soil from the top, chopsticking it between the roots. I also very rarely cut roots on a juniper, instead just raking it out and fitting it into the new pot.

By putting new soil on top and gently pushing it between the roots, that new soil is replacing the old soil, pushing it to the bottom on the sides. When the next repot comes, we will have achieved 100% bonsai soil, if we follow the same repot regimen.

I like to add some of this product, for the micro-organisms it adds to the mix.

And that’s it today for our stoic little P Nana.

It looks like it’s dancing there. I need to do some carving and reworking of those jins, the bottom left was there when Janice got it and I added the one on the right. But, as John Naka taught, one insult at a time.

Ultimately I’d like to see the tree taller (it has all kinds of character, a good root spread, a thick trunk, mature branches. But it lacks the element of height. It looks like a mushroom).

Next! A parsons juniper. Let’s quickly go over the etymology of it, just for fun (I am a word man, better than a bird man).

In the trade, they call this tree juniperus chinensis “parsonii”. But, if’n you dig deeper, you begin to uncover a deeper story. The accepted name is now juniperus davurica expansa “parsonii”. It was introduced into the USA from a NY nursery in 1862 by, predictably, Parson’s Nursery. The mistake in its name comes from that nursery, but they got the plant from Japan, so the mistake is weird. Why not call it japonica?

Anyway, it’s a tree that grows well into zone 11, and as high as zone 5 (USDA), perfectly suited for Florida.

This tree was collected by Kathrin, in Sarasota, one amongst about 5 I believe.

I told her I’d be honored to style it for her. And even use some copper, just to show off.

What’s funny is I’ve heard, recently, someone describing aluminum wire as being sissy wire. I’ve always found that using properly annealed copper, like these rolls, was easier to put on a tree as it is softer than the equivalent sized aluminum (for holding strength).

But before wire, we need to clean the trunk. Now, my friends, this is one technique that is often misunderstood. Both the how and the why.

I’ll go over the how first. The goal of the cleaning is to remove the scaly bark and get down to the underlying red. First thing you can do is to use a knife or pick to flake off those scales.

The next step, after manual bark removal, is to use a soft brass brush (not nylon or stainless steel, which are too soft and too stiff respectively). The goal is to brush away the brown outer bark and get to that red. But don’t go too far, if you see white or a tan color you’ve gone too far. Like below.

You can see the brown, red and white/tan layers.

This juniper has very prominent sap lines.

You don’t get that often on a smaller tree like this. What that tells me about this tree is that it’s been taken care of well; one of the goals of brushing is to expose and, believe it or not, stimulate them.

The stronger the sap line, naturally, the stronger the tree. By removing the top layer of bark, the juniper will replace it by growing more. The more bark growth, the more prominent the sap lines become. Kathrin has been taking care of this juniper very well.

Above, you can see the root at the end of the sap line. On most junipers, you can trace the sap line from the root to the foliage. This makes them predictable when pruning; often, if you kill a branch on top, it kills the sap line to the root. I say often, the younger the tree the less often this happens. A good example is below. You can see how below that dead branch is a furrow between the more prominent sap lines. It’s only certain conifers that do this, most plants can readjust the sap line horizontally and re bud at the cut.

The aesthetic reason for cleaning the bark like this is to give us a nice red/purple color to contrast with any dead wood and the green foliage.

It’s a funny thing but there is often both an aesthetic reason for using a bonsai technique and a horticultural one. Interesting how that works (it’s almost as if nature is trying to train us into cultivating things). I’d recommend a book called:

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

Its a book about that very thing, the idea that plants are using us to help propagate, take care of and cultivate them. Its a fascinating hypothesis, especially with some of these bonsai trees that have been in cultivation two and three times their natural lifespans.

Back to our parsonii, it’s time for wiring.

I said that copper wire, if properly annealed, is easier to apply than aluminum (if you factor the size needed to hold a branch in place, example: a 12 gauge copper wire holds the same as a 5-6 mm aluminum wire. But it’s as soft (like butta!) as 3 mm wire). Now, shhhhh, don’t tell anyone but, the next time you see a newly returned western apprentice give a demo where there’s only aluminum available, they look a bit awkward using it. They’re just not used to it.

The difficulty with copper is in repositioning it after you’ve applied and moved the branches. Copper gets stiffer the more it’s moved. So there are some techniques you need to know when using it. One good tip that’s easy to remember, as you apply the wire, is to bend the branch where you need it, as you wrap the wire around it, so that you get a little more working movement out of the copper before it stiffens up.

But this is a juniper post, not a wiring post, so here’re the after pics.

I didn’t do too much pruning, the tree was mostly in shape, but I’ll touch it up a bit. First, the pruning strategy is different with a juniper than with other trees (the example above about killing the sap line is one example), but if you understand the physiology a bit, you’ll kill less.

It has been said that the strength of a juniper is in the foliage. Conversely, the roots are weak (hence the gentleness needed when repotting them) and what that means is that many hormones needed for vigorous growth are hard to replace if we prune incorrectly (many hormones are synthesized in the roots, auxin being one of them). And without those hormones….. wait, let me talk a little about plants and why they do what they do.

There are some people out there that just don’t believe in plant hormones. They think that energy causes growth (energy is an incorrect term really, it’s carbohydrate and sugars that should be used when talking about “energy”, but many people need to use words they are comfortable with. Also, since I’m rambling a bit, I am tired of people saying that you need to “feed” plants by fertilizing them. Plants get their “energy” from the sun, through this amazing process called photosynthesis, not from fertilizer, it’s not a “feeding” process, merely a chemical reaction, plants get their energy from photosynthesis. If you’d like, they “feed” themselves. When we fertilize, it’s analogous to vitamins and minerals or steroids. Do you know what happens to a plant that’s “weak” and you fertilize? You often kill it, because the stored carbohydrate isn’t enough to support the artificial stimulation that, say, a high nitrogen fertilizer causes. Sorry. Back to hormones). I say that people don’t believe in hormones because that’s not what they learned. Most of the research on plant hormones has only come out in the last 5-10 years. Previously, scientists (I know, scientists are evil and all that, I understand your Luddite tendencies, but bear with me). If you went to college and got your degree in horticulture within the last 10 years, you may need to go back and get your continuing education credits to stay current (and no, I don’t have a degree in horticulture, but I can read. I have the same attitude that Mark Twain has about “schooling” vs. “learning” though. A man teaches himself, sometimes with the help of a teacher, sometimes in spite of a teacher, but mostly on his own).

Hormones are the origin of all plant processes. Plain, simple, period. “Energy” is used by the plant only when the hormone “tells” the plant to use it. There are triggers from the environment that cause hormones to activate, or stop growth, but it’s hormones or lack of them that “tells” it to do something. And hormones will kill the plant too. Here’s an example: take any deciduous tree, in spring, let it pop new growth, defoliate it a month later, then again a month later, and again. And again. You’ll get all kinds of back-budding and growth. But next year, you may not get a tree that comes out of dormancy. You see, you’ve used up all the “energy” by making the tree keep putting out new growth all year, and it had no time to store it for the winter and then the spring growth. What have you done? You kept stimulating the growth by the manipulation of hormones and used up the carbohydrate.

Hormones are like an inexorable computer program. Once you hit “enter”, the plant goes through with the commands until it can’t go any more. ERROR CODE: death.

What does this have to do with a juniper? It used to be taught that you should pinch the growing tips on a juniper. This weakens the juniper (uses the energy) because it’s continually trying to maintain an equilibrium between growth and energy storage. Unfortunately, no one cares enough about juniper to spend the money on a real study about hormone distribution in the plant’s body (junipers are one of the easiest plants to grow, so who cares, right?) so we only know what works and can only guess what’s happening. But we do know that we need to selectively prune the strongest growth tips, preserving those on the secondary branching on any one particular branch. It’s my guess that we are preserving the auxin (which collects in the growing tips but is synthesized in the, weak on a juniper, roots). This technique also helps to keep the tree reverting to juvenile foliage (that would be the spiky foliage. Adult foliage is the soft, what they call scale, kind). A juniper reverts to spiky foliage when under stress, it opens up to get more sunshine on the surface and to aid in water absorption through the stomata. Stress includes drying out, not enough light, too much pruning, too much nitrogen fertilizer, bugs etc.

If you look closely at Kathrin’s tree, there’s very little juvenile foliage on it. She takes care of it well. She practices overhead watering and occasional foliar fertilizing, it stays in full sun, and the soil dries out before watering. This is crucial on a parsonii juniper because it almost always has a mixture of juvenile and adult foliage, usually half and half. Look again at her juniper. Amazing.

I’m very grateful to be able to work on it. Thank you Kathrin, and thank you Janice. I hope I did a good job on your respective trees.

Posted in Art, branch placement, Horticulture and growing, philosophical rant, refine, roots, wiring | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Akadama, the ideal Bonsai soil





Soilless mix.

Whatever you call it (the only correct and descriptive phrase is the last one), it’s a controversial subject. One can have a more civil argument discussing the left/right division in the US political paradigm of contemporary society than you can talking about Bonsai mix. Sounds like a good topic for the blog, right? Yeah……

I will only, briefly, touch on the technical concepts I’ve discussed before (there are at least three or four previous soil posts here, here, here, and here), leaving the bulk of the data and science in those other posts, but the basics will be covered. I’ll try to be accurate to actual science but I’ll still be roasted by the true believers out there (I call them the Gatekeepers of the Status Quo, among other things). But I can handle it, I live by a motto “I am myself, for that I came”.

Let’s begin with some fundamentals of what a plant needs in the root zone. Here’s a basic breakdown: water, air, structure, nutrients. According to soil scientists, the best make up of a soil is 45% mineral/inorganic, 25% air (yes, the spaces between the particles), 25% water, and 5% organic. How I synthesize this for Bonsai, you need four particle characteristics in your mix for healthy trees:

Beyond being the correct size (from 1/8″ to 1/4″ or, for the rest of the world, except for Liberia, the USA, and Myanmar, 3-6 mm) we need particles that:

– break down

– that don’t break down

– that hold water

– that hold nutrients

Let’s discuss.

A particle that breaks down, fractures, erodes, wears down etc. This is important because roots need something to adhere to and crush (say that in your best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice: TO CRUSH!!!) It’s just an example of the Metal nature of Nature. It’s about entropy, degradation, the transformation of one thing into another. Some examples of this would be bark, horticultural pumice, horticulture charcoal, perlite etc.

Next, a particle that doesn’t break down. This is important for air capture between the soil particles, and to have structure for those roots to grow between. Air is important because it’s not water in liquid form that plants use but as a gas as it evaporates. It’s a gas exchange process in the roots.

Next, a particle that holds water. I think this is pretty obvious. Rocks like scoria or expanded shale hold almost no water (though it will hold water within the structure through surface tension). Clays, organics, pumice, etc do this well.

Next, a particle that holds nutrients. This is a concept called cation exchange capacity (cec). Now, this concept is misunderstood a bit. When talking about nutrients, there’s surface storage (think of a puddle…scoria and pumice have porous holes in it where nutrients can pool), and CEC. Cec is an electric charge where the soil particle is negatively charged and nutrients are positively charged, holding the nutrients to the soil. When you water, the positive particulates in the water make the nutrient available to the plant. This cec concept is important in our coarse soil, for as much as 80% of fertilizer just pours through the drain holes in the pots. You need something to catch it before it’s gone. Cec!

So, with all that, let’s address the title.

Akadama is the ideal soil component for bonsai.

Akadama is an andisol (andosols) or andic soil. In USDA soil taxonomy (the naming of things), andisols are soils that are formed in volcanic ash and can be defined as soils having high proportions of glass and amorphous colloidal materials, including but not limited to things called allophane, imogolite and ferrihydrite.

Colloidal means the molecules are dispersed evenly in a suspension or matrix.

Allophane, imogolite, and ferrihydrite are all very useful minerals or mineraloids, from industrial, medical, and, for us, soil, usage.

Ferrihydite is where we get the orange-ish color.

But all those 25¢ words don’t mean much really. It’s like when the bonsai snob uses Japanese words to describe something, like nebari (root base) or ume (plum) or soji (removing the top layer of soil and refreshing it with new mix) or what have you. Let’s break it down (no pun intended):

Akadama holds water, it holds nutrient, it breaks down, it has structure. An ideal particle of dirt (Yes, my friends, Akadama is technically dirt. I’ve seen it with decaying roots and leaves out of a new bag). It is mined in Japan and is literally dirt cheap…..in Japan. That’s what makes it ideal as well, for the Japanese. So let’s add another characteristic to my criteria: cost (which, if you are economically literate, translates to availability; the less available a thing is the more expensive it is….Supply and demand)

So, here’s the deal….some people say that we must use Akadama (or, as I’ve seen it recently, akedama….potato/potaaato I say) because it’s the best dirt to use……meh. If that were the case, why was the Aoki mix developed (pumice, river sand…which is a lot like stone or expanded shale, scoria, and Akadama)? Interesting question. Further, in southern Japan, where the Japanese black pine are farmed, they use about 100% scoria (you ever see a Christmas tree farm? Imagine that, but they’re all informal upright bonsai trees, ten dollars each!).

This is the aoki mix.

I like it. But I don’t like the fact that it is surface strip mined out of the sacred cryptomeria forests in Japan, dried, mixed, bagged, and sent, literally, halfway across the globe to be used by asshole me, a crazy, snooty, bonsai guy in Florida.

Here’s my mix:

I see a cat….

We have…..pumice:For water retention, structure, and crush-ability.

Scoria (red and black, just for fun) For structure and minor water retention..that’s the red flavor above.

Expanded shale and or slate (what I have available, I’ll use both)

It’s for structure without water retention (it rains a lot in Florida,it’s all about drainage here).

Charcoal, used for its mild cec, it’s water retention, it’s attractiveness to microbes and it’s crush-ability (it used to be thought that charcoal doesn’t degrade, as there is evidence of hearth fires from the Paleolithic ages, but recent laboratory experiments show that it does, and the thinking is that it is the charcoal, in nature, being concentrated in a singular spot, by either rain or human activity, that slows the amount of degradation occurring).

The roots love charcoal by the way. Charcoal attracts mycorrhizae.

And the last is called NutraAgg by the American Bonsai tools guys. It’s a naturally mined product that is almost miraculous in its water retentiveness and Cec. It’s used on golf courses to save on watering and excess fertilization, it’s local, stable and it works.

It holds water, nutrients, and degrades slowly.

My mix ratios, and this is my new mix as long as I can get the components, 2 parts scoria, 1 part shale/slate, 1 part pumice, 1 part NutraAgg, and about one part charcoal.

I call it the SuperMix.

I like to think of it as a standard mix that can be added to or taken away from for a particular tree, say….add some composted conifer bark for added microbial colonization and cec, or adding kanuma (a highly acidic pumice from Japan. And there isn’t a real replacement for that I’ve found.) We use it on azaleas and other trees that need high acidity to process nutrients (Look up the ph a blueberry needs!).

I sift out most of the fines, but you can adjust your particle size down to 1/16 of an inch and use it for trees needing more water (the smaller the particle size, the more surface tension act in keeping water molecules higher in the pot).

You can also add moss to the top of the soil for that.

That’s a water jasmine in Winter Silhouette. They need lots of water.

The ratios are important because if you have too much, say, charcoal, it creates an imbalance and you could have too much of certain microbes, like mycorrhizae, and instead of helping the tree, they smother it. Or too much pine bark, or Akadama or turface, or NutraAgg, it holds too much water and fertilizer, and you get growth when you don’t want it (say in January in Florida with a trident maple). Or you have too many “structure” particles, like the shale or maybe decomposed granite or chicken grit. If you’re in Arizona, you’d need to severely change my mix to suit the hot/dry environment you’re in. Or the wet/cold environment.

Where does this leave us in the “Bonsai Soil Wars”? Well…….I have put forth some science, in this post and the above linked ones, I’ve stated my preferences and reasons for them. I don’t argue, because it won’t change closed minds. If you really look through those previous soil articles, you’ll see I’ve changed my mix a few times.

I don’t use conifer bark because of availability, the brand I used, Fafard was purchased by another company, and they phased out the small sized, composted, ph balanced product I prefer to use. So I use charcoal and the NutraAgg.

I don’t use calcined clay (turface and other brands) anymore because the particle size got too small. I was discarding half the bag after sifting.

I tried diatomaceous earth, it’s worthy, but only in the correct percent (15-20% of the mix. Any more and you hold too much water).

I’ve tried LECA, crimson stone, Grow Stone, and just about everything else. Yes I’ve used Akadama. All of it works. And to tell you the truth, which I try to do, you can grow bonsai in broken glass, if you learn the hardest lesson there is to learn about bonsai. A lesson all the Soil Warriors ignore because they are RIGHT, by god, and you are WRONG!

That lesson is….Da Da Da Dum!


I have many examples of trees planted in the same mix, are the same species, right next to each other, and dammit if one uses water more than the other. This is the secret to watering:

Each tree needs a differing amount of water at different times of the day, the month, the season, and the year of development/repotting stage.

And that’s the lesson in soil components. It’s ok to use a standard mix, be it Aoki, Brussels bonsai, American Bonsai tools, or my aptly named SuperMix. Or make your own. Just adhere to the particle requirements and you’ll be ok. It doesn’t matter what Joe Blow in California uses, or Jack Off in Alabama says that all the professionals use, or what Georgie Porgie up in New York has used all his life.

Just learn how to water it, and you’ll be fine.

But you can’t argue about that now, can you? And there’s no better joy in the world for the keyboard warriors like a good social media argument where they throw up all the memes and gifs they’ve been fiendishly hoarding in their smart phones, and the gratuitous appeals to authority reasoning, the name dropping (make sure you tag them so they know who you are), and the kow towing, sycophantic sleaziness.

Sorry, I got carried away in my prose, it won’t happen again…..in this post, at least.

To quote Shakespeare ” Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war!”

Posted in Advanced basics, Horticulture and growing, philosophical rant, roots | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

The return of the Bonsai Turkey

Well, my bench looks like a mess. What is happening here? We got trees, pots, and it looks like the beer is hiding behind the trees…..GET OUT THE BUSHES AND IN MA’ BELLY! I do believe I have a few tasks before the cerveza gets recycled into its constituent parts, though.

I have this new pot, which was purchased at the last Winter Silhouette show, from a new Bonsai potter named Ben.

Isn’t that awesome? I just love it.

His business just happens to be called……

Ben’s Bonsai PotsCheck him out.

I found him, and this pot, just in time, you see….

….we have, The Turkey, as I call it, a green mound ficus, and it has a broken pot.

To read it’s humble beginnings, Go here

The trees binomial name is a ficus microcarpa “crassifolia”, what is sometimes called “green island” (which is incorrect) but should be called “green mound”. But green island sounds so sexy, doesn’t it?

The pot it’s in was made by Martha Goff, and is a great pot for the tree, but she was out of the size I needed when I saw her last.

One of my cats decided he wanted a taste of turkey, or was chasing a lizard or a bird or something, and….crash!

Hence the need for a new pot.

And I really liked this one.

Oh well. The life of a crack pot

The second tree, which is also an update, is this green island….

You saw it here last, and looking like this when we left it.

It’s grown quite a bit.

The top….

Has filled in a bit. But no backbudding below the top growth, as expected.

It has added three leaves at the growth tip. Aren’t they nice and shiny? The interesting thing, I always say that new leaves are more efficient at photosynthesis, right? What does that mean? Well, my friends, put on ya’ larnin’ caps, get ready to take notes.

If we lived in an optimal world, with all variables being perfect, a leafs photosynthetic efficiency is only 30%. That is taking into account that the leaf is clean, new, that the light is direct and of the best wavelength. But…..BUT, the sun isn’t of the best wavelength (the longer the better, that’s what she said), therefore the corrected optimum efficiency is 11%. But, because of the real world, and all of the mitigating factors that come from it, the actual number is between 2-6%. So, with all the sunlight a plant gets, it uses very little. That’s why I stress getting rid of inefficient leaves all the time, orienting them to collect the sun better and pruning out shaded ones. A corollary question to this data set: how much carbohydrate is stored, after the plant uses what it needs for cell processes, growth, etc? Not to get into too much detail but it’s only about .5-2% of all that’s created (check out the book Photosynthesis by David Oakley Hall; K. K. Rao; Institute of Biology (1999). Cambridge University Press). Which is why I stress that a tree must be healthy and rested before you begin to beat it up. Much like how the Six Fingered Man made sure that the Wesley was healed before he was strapped onto The Machine.

Which is why this tree won’t be pruned again until it’s full. But it’s pushing real well now. Tropical trees are on the higher end of the stored energy curve.

On those branches where I left the growth tips intact, I did get some elongation.

Some more backbudding.

It’s pretty predictable, even in the winter (as winter as December in Florida gets).

This one needed to thicken, so I removed the leaves except for the grow tips, and there’s no backbudding but…..

There are two new leaves and a new growth tip.

I could go on and on about hormones and manipulating them for specific growth habits, but I feel as though I’m beating a dead horse a bit.

A clear “proof of concept” tree.

Predictable growth in the winter (winter is more categorized by lack and duration of light in the tropics. With lower nighttime temps thrown in for good measure)

I’m not sure that I’d have as good growth in July with this tree. Well, maybe better.

But it’s easy to see what has happened in the last few weeks.

Let’s get to The Turkey. Repotting in December? Am I going there too?

Technically, I’ll be slip potting. But yeah. If you have a cracked pot you gotta do cracked pot things.

Tie downs! You gotta love how many holes Ben put in for tie down wires. Well done!

My new soil mix, which I really should be doing a post on soon.

It has pumice, zeolite, red and black lava (scoria), expanded shale and slate, charcoal and there might be pine bark. I’ll go into details with the upcoming post. I think you’ll notice a lack of calcined clay. Why? Simply put, I can’t find the particle size I want.

Slip potting is easy. Cut the wire on the old pot…..

Pull out the tree (hopefully with a good root ball)

Examine the roots. The roots are pretty good….

Put tree into new pot, without raking the rootball.

Tie it down.

I put some fertilizer down, a half organic, half synthetic blend.

And then figure out what to do with the broken pot.

I think I can use it for something. But that’s another post!


It’s probably time to remove the old wires and do some pruning.

It looks like it’s growing to me. Which reminds me…..

I told you I’d show you the difference in leaf shape between the green mound and the green island.

Green mound on the left, with the pointy leaves.

Green island on the right with the roundy leaves. To remember a mnemonic , “I’m trying to make a point about the green mound leaves by showing that the green island leaves are round, like sailing around an island.”

Phew, that deserves a beer.

And it is now midnight and I must needs sleep. So here we are sans wire, before a restyle.

I will see you tomorrow…..

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…(( _ _ ))..zzzZZ

Well, it’s not the morning but it is tomorrow, annnnd!!!!!

Welcome to another episode of…..Back Bumper Bonsai!

Those of you who follow my social media feeds know that I often work on trees as I wait for my kids to get out of school.

I know it’s a corny thing, but I will continue with it, mainly for the alliteration.

Not only did I bring The Turkey, but I brought the companion green island ficus to our proof of concept subject above.

I was using it as a kind of control (don’t ever mistake me for being scientifical, or rigorous, or even rational, in my tests. When I cite scientific things, they are from real horticulturists, but when I do my own stuff, remember, I’m just a bonsai guy. Never take what I or any other Bonsai person says without verifying, from a non Bonsai source, what we put forth a The Word. There are real scientists who get paid to do real science, and I lean heavily on their research. And I can change my mind because of it. I am not a traditionalist by any means nor am I dogmatic. And I will ask a teacher why. Bugs the hell out of them too.

Anyway, this “control” ficus only grew where……Unsurprisingly, there has been some damage and accidental leaf removal….

Interesting, no?

But it is showing signs of senescence (leaf dormancy and drop) which means it’s beginning to want to grow again. The yellowing leaves below.

So I figured I’d help it along, as I worked on the Turkey. See what responds faster, green mound or green island.

So as to not make this post too long….Bob’s yer uncle on the green island…..

With a nice zig zag in the apex even…..

Show of hands…how many people don’t like my zig zag?

I know it’s not “traditional” but I like it. Tell me what you think. I know it’s early in the trees development but, I think it’ll be cool.

One piece of wire and….

….back to The Turkey.

Again, for the sake of brevity, I’ve cut it back except for a few places.

On the bottom left, I had kept a branch coming off the “trunk”. I’m going to remove it to clean up the line.

And then on the top I have a thick and a thin branch (the thin has wire on it).

To help with the perspective and proportion, I’m getting rid of the thicker one (as you travel up a tree, the branches should be thinner the higher you get. It helps in the scale and proportions, I talked about this in the last post).

And there we go. More compact and I think the trunk is again the main focus of the tree.

Back in The Nook, using some cerveza as a stand, I present to you, The Turkey!

I’ve cut most of the growth tips (for backbudding) and fertilized it. Now it’s time to let it grow.

What types of posts would you all like to see next?

I’m planning on a few posts on collecting trees from the yard and the wild. An updated soil post, maybe some carving posts.

What else? Put your ideas in the comments.

Posted in Advanced basics, Horticulture and growing, rare finds, roots, tips and tricks, updates | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Can you say “taper”?

Let’s talk bonsai….just what is it?

When I was a yungun’ and being learned in thinking and reasoning, I was told to begin at the beginning. So that is where I shall begin (don’t worry, it has to do with the tree above, but sometimes, the long way is the short way, so to speak).

Now, a bonsai, if you literally translate it, is a plant in a tray. Adding some context and anglicizing it, it’s a tree in a pot. One could add the spiritual nature of bringing nature into the garden (Japanese gardens tend to be very small, hence the miniaturization of the trees). But, since I’m a teacher and writer, I have a much better, stock answer.

Bonsai… (imagine this spoken in an expounding, neo-Shakespearean manner, with sweeping hand gestures and wide spaced feet)….BONSAI is…. The Art of taking a relatively small, and relatively young plant, and making it, through various horticultural and artistic techniques, look like a big, old, tree! (What’s funnier is if you imagine one of the old Looney Tunes characters saying that……like Foghorn Leghorn…”I said, boy, you know…I said, Bonsai is, ah, the art, you know, THE ART…you listening boy, I said, the art of taking, you see boy, a small and young, ah, plant…….”)

Now, we ask ourselves this question, “How does one do this?”

Well….by using various artistic and horticultural techniques, of course….aha! Well, we have the artistic: proportion, perspective, and framing. Framing is the container and the pot, proportion is the placement of the first, the second and successive branches. How far up from the soil level (look up the Golden Mean), how far from each other, their placement around the trunk (look up Fibonacci Sequence…).

But today I’m talking about perspective.

The concept of perspective is what the Bonsai peeps call “taper”. Perspective is, in its simplest definition, the viewers position.

Taper, in Bonsai, is perspective. This is an exercise I use when teaching beginners (and not so beginners) what I mean (I also use it to explain another technique of perspective: that of tilting the tree slightly forward, towards the viewer). I say, “You trust me? Ok then, close your eyes, imagine you are walking in some primordial forest, full of the ideal, a priori trees. You walk up to one, right up to the gnarled root base, you reach your hand out to feel the rough, mossy trunk. You tilt your head up and try to see the top of the tree, the crown (what bonsai people call the apex). There you are, the roots spread out at your feet, clutching the earth, the branches and leaves like a framework supporting the firmament, and the trunk, like looking down a railroad track, “tapers” to a point, so high up it makes you dizzy”

Now, even the skinniest of trees, when viewed from this “perspective” have taper. Serious taper. This perception of taper is what programs our brain to view that taper on a bonsai and relate it with height. And bonsai, in case you didn’t know, is an art of illusion, of tricks and forced perspectives, that fool the brain into believing a little tree is bigger than it is. And that’s why we are always pushing the concept of taper. Let’s get back to our ficus.

It has a pretty wide base. Up top, it’s pretty thin. Not bad taper….

…but that taper could be a little better. You can probably guess, if you are long suffering reader of the blog, what I might be doing next to this tree.

You’re probably right. But it’s already doing it to itself. Defoliation Nation…man.

I accidentally let the tree dry out, and a tropical, like this here ficus, equates drying out with the winter time. In the winter, they drop leaves. And that’s what’s happening here. You’ll also have leaf drop when the light duration and intensity changes, like when you move a ficus indoors to protect it from the cold. I will recommend to my Northernly challenged students to go ahead and defoliate when you bring them in, and you’ll get a new set of leaves that are adjusted to whatever indoor light set up you have. Try it. It’s easier for a tropical tree to make new leaves (which is true of most broad leaf trees as well) than it is to adjust the chlorophyll to compensate for the low light.

Back to my tree and forgetting to water, if you do it, don’t be alarmed (well, not too much) if you miss a day or three (whoops!) of watering. Chances are the leaves will grow back. Hopefully. I’m not worried. Not much…….

Anyway, look at that trunk! Lots of aerial roots, most of which will go away from my scissors, this isn’t a banyan style tree, though it is a ficus, so I’ll beep a few, but only just enough.

If I see a tree with this many aerial roots, my guess is that it’s been in too much shade, not watered enough, rootbound, or a combination of all three.

We’ve already learned that I might be under watering a tad. And it’s entirely possible that the tree has been crowded on the bench, with all the lower trunk being shaded, but it’s not rootbound. But we will visit the roots later.

Let’s get the tools out and try to improve the taper.

Do you see how the thickness does not change from below the branches to above the branches?

That’s pretty common after the initial chop, which may have been done 5,10 or even 15 years ago, that the original owner thought he/she was done with the chopping. But the initial chop is just the beginning (🎶 The first cut is the deepest…..🎶).

So I’m thinking this is a good place to cut. There’s a new leader I can wire up….

…..and it’s not too harsh of a transition.

Chop!Hmmmmnnnn….that could make a good little tree.

…..there’s even on or two roots. Let’s get a pot…..

Tie it down into said pot, backfill with good nursery soil (bonsai soil dries out too fast in a deep nursery pot, so use a good draining potting soil instead)

Also, standard practice amongst professional propagators is to cut the leaves. This reduces transpiration and the cut leaves create ethylene gas and abscisic acid, which pushes root growth (yes, my friends, defoliating a tree with roots does the same thing. It’s an adaption to protect from an insect infestation like a plague of locusts that defoliate a tree, or if it dries out, or maybe a denuding wind storm, like maybe, gee, I don’t know…that bitch Hurricane Irma..it induces root growth to help the tree recover faster)

There’s the chop. I like to use a sharp knife to clean the cut and today (not every day though) I will seal the wound.

I’m going to try a new product for sealing the wound. You can get it in the door and window section of your favorite DYI warehouse.

I have high hopes for it. I like the way it’s formed, and that it’s less like clay and more like putty.

I’ve used the duct seal that’s all the rage with the kids, and it kinda melts in the Florida sun. I shall report back on the efficacy (you like that word, right?) of this product.

Here’s a trick. Notice the cut below ⬇️

I want a new branch in that area. The one that was there was too thick (just as the trunk needs taper, but the branches, as you go up the tree, should be thinner and thinner until you have twigs on the crown). By leaving a stump like this, I am leaving the “Branch Collar” intact (I could write a constitution on the branch collar, but I won’t). What does this branch collar have to do with growing a new branch? Well, it is within the collar where we have a concentration of undifferentiated meristematic cells that, when we cut at certain places, will magically turn into new buds and, therefore, new branches (it’s not magic, it’s hormones).

Under my thumb! Big and ugly wire. And a careful bending using some pliers (bend the wire, not the branch. It lessens the chance of snapping the branch). And the bones are reset. Now I’m going to slip pot the ficus into a slightly larger pot.

Which is an easy explanation, one slips it out of a smaller pot and slips it into a larger pot, without touching the roots. This technique is good for repotting out of season if the soil is compacted and the health of the tree is in jeopardy.

This new pot has about a half inch to an inch more space all around the root ball, and it’s deeper.

Tied down well.

And the dramatic finish.

Pablo approves.

I did remove all the leaves except at the top (reference this Post for the reason why) And I left all the growth tips intact. This, along with no root cutting, will cause elongation in the branches. I fertilized with a half organic and half synthetic fertilizer as well. Growth is good, growth creates new, efficient leaves, which produce sugar, which is then turned to carbohydrate, which means that, in the spring, it’ll have energy to accommodate it when I start pushing ramification. It’s now winter in Florida, but that doesn’t matter much, for, if you did this to your tropical trees, in a good indoor setup during the frozen winter, they’ll do the same thing. You need high light, soil temps above 65f, and adequate water and ferts. Try it. The leaves will be huge but don’t worry about that, you need to defoliate when they go back outside in the spring anyway. And that’s that.

Look for an update next year.

Posted in branch placement, Horticulture and growing, rare finds, refine | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

I’m at it again, trying to stand when I should be sitting…..

Uh oh, what am I doing now? Why sit when you can stand?

Let’s get a’buildin’!

I have some rusty angle iron, some twisty legs off a coffee table. A channel piece from something. All cast off metal. Found objects. The inspiration was the coffee table legs, of course. That’s how it works with me. I find an object and it gets the gears moving.

This was a few planks I had joined for the last stand I made, back in May, but I changed the design and didn’t use it. So I have a top and the pieces for the bottom. Not to put them together.

My old welder I just got back from my old job.

It’s a little beat up but I know how it works and how to fix it. The fabrication should be easy……maybe.

The legs will be the feet of the stand.

And the angle iron will help hold the board.

Just a few tacks…

It does not want to penetrate. Damn. Old welder or rusty weldor. Or both.

That’s holding a little better. It just has to stay so I can run some stronger beads.

Now I have to do some strong welds and then grind down those ugly tacks.

Strong but still ugly. There’s a joke there.

Getting the hang of it again. Like riding a bike. Of course, the last time I did that the chain broke and I fell off and dislocated my shoulder. What can go wrong here? Famous last words.

Welding is playing with fire that’s brighter than the sun and just as hot. It’s like wielding the elemental power of the universe. Fun stuff.

You should try it.

The angle iron is on, now for the flat piece.

Not totally flat. It has some structure. But notice how thin it is? Those legs are about 3/4 inch square. The flat piece is a bit….thinner.

welding thick to thin is hard. Let’s see if I still have it.

Aww yeah.

Not blowing through. You have to heat up the thicker metal with the wire electrode (I’m using a mig welder with a shielding gas mixture of argon and co2) then zip back and forth to the thinner material, making sure you don’t blow through the thinner stuff.

The penetration is good. That’s what she said.

I almost blew through there on the left. But I held it together.

The bottom is done. Mostly.

Now for the wood. That’s what she said.

As much as I like the bark on this front edge, I don’t think it will work on this piece.

You’ll see why in a moment.

Before I finish the wood I’ll need to drill some holes.

Notice the uneven edge….

That makes it easier to center it on the bottom. I just kinda eyeball it.

Now the finishing treatment.

Ima gonna play with some fire!

Burn baby burn.

Just enough to darken it. It’s pine from repurposed pallets by the way.

And since I tend to do things a bit alternatively, instead of polyurethane or what have you, I’m using wax from a candle to deal it. A “pine” scented one, to be precise.

Hey, it’s almost Christmas time.

I just rub it on….

Then I use the torch to melt it, and then just polish it with a rag.

To finish the bottom, I use lacquer, mostly because I like that it dries fast (I’m impatient) and you can polish it to a high gloss or subdue it to a soft luster.

That’s that.

I think it’s cool.

Some nuts and bolts and washers to attach the two pieces….

And Bob’s yer uncle!

I’ll be using it in the upcoming Winter Silhouette show in Kannapolis, North Carolina, December 2nd and 3rd.

You should come on by, see what else I have in mind. It’s a great little show, free and open to the public. The displays run the gamut from classical to very creative. The trees are top notch as well. I hope to see you all there.

I like it my new stand. The tree is a hackberry. I might even use a beer bottle for the companion. Just for fun.

Posted in sculpture, woodcraft | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The green, green island of ficus

Here I sit again, in the back of my PT Loser, waiting on my spawn. And, of course, I have a tree to play with. This time, it’s a ficus microcarpa “green island”. You missed the good parts though, I’ve cut some leaves, some grow tips. I’ve removed the wire too.

It needed it, it’s in a development stage, after all. Contrary to common teaching, these scars are necessary and they will grow out. Well, they’re not, per se, needed but the branch generally will pop back up after wire removal, if they don’t scar, on a ficus, as scarring is the result of the branch growing and the purpose of wiring is to make the branch stay were we place it, and that happens when the branch…grows new material. Those that say otherwise are either not long enough into growing ficus or are trained in non tropical species and think that they can apply that knowledge to figs.

Speaking of fig knowledge, let me share, free of charge, some techniques that’ll get you through the day. Or at least some bonsai tree workshops.

First, let’s talk about the concept of balancing energy in a tree. It’s very popular now to talk about it. When we say energy, we really are talking about sugars and carbohydrates that the tree creates through photosynthesis. This is how a tree feeds itself. No amount of fertilizer “feeds” a tree, regardless of what those advertisements and some bonsai-ists all say. A tree feeds itself through a chemical reaction between sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water (ok, those nutrients in fertilizer do have a role, but it’s only in the facilitation of the processes). This where the “energy” is catalyzed.

The energy (as carbohydrate) is stored in the living xylem (the living wood in the trunk, branches and roots). Therefore, the energy is present in the entire tree, not segregated in roots or growing tips, as has been posited recently. Any branch, root, and trunk pruning diminishes the amount of stored energy available for a tree.

This is where it gets tricky, you see, the idea of “balancing” is valid, but it’s not energy we are balancing, but the hormones that regulate growth. We have auxins, cytokinins, gibberilins, and ethylene gas. Those are the more known ones, with auxin being the most dominant. But, when we prune, it’s not enough to say “by cutting this, hormone X does that”. It’s more correct to say “by cutting this, the absence of hormone X causes this hormone Y to become dominant….”

Like I said, it’s tricky. Let’s use the a juniper as an example. It is correct information to say that we shouldn’t be pinching all the growing tips because it weakens the juniper. We should be proactively cutting back some grow tips while preserving those lower on the branch: See this link, Mike revolutionized the treatment and care of junipers with that article (so much so that there are those who are jealous and try to knock him down. Really. Michaels blog is one of the ones I subscribe to and when I was at an event recently, listening to some guys trying to discredit him, I was annoyed. I just don’t understand the bonsai scene sometimes). And he is correct in the technique, and even the energy production. But it’s the distribution of hormones that is the real reason behind the technique working (also, it takes energy to make auxin and move it to the grow tips, and junipers are not as strong as a ficus when it comes to excessive pruning, but they live in different climes).

Anyway, let’s get back to the Green island fig.

Firstly, on some branches, I’m cutting to a side branch. This is, first, to create taper (going from thick to thin), and second, to cause backbudding.

You’ll notice that I leave a leaf (great band name) on those branches where I cut back for taper or backbudding. The reason is that the green island ficus microcarpa (as well as the green mound variety) are not very apically dominant. What that means is that they are more bush like and not tree like (this could explain why most junipers need to be treated the same way, they’re bushes, not trees….hmmmmmnnn) they want to grow sideways, not up. By leaving green, we are giving the branch indication that it is still viable and alive (the cells have within them two genes that are turned on or off, by hormones, so that they will either grow one way or another. Like if it’s cold, it won’t grow or if it’s arid the cell won’t divide. The same cell, but differing actions. Cool, and we just learned of it this year too. It pays to read and continue to learn, ain’t it?).

What I’m trying to say is that, with this type of ficus, if conditions aren’t favorable, the tree will abort the branch and activate the dormant buds at the branch base. No matter how much stored energy it has. A tropical would rather grow all new branches than try to fix old ones. The same with leaves, which is why a ficus dropping leaves is normal (and predictable) and how we can get away with defoliation so often.

Next, on some smaller branches, I defoliated and left the stipule (the growing tip) intact. This concentrates the auxin (the hormone that is responsible for elongation of the branch) at the tip and causes it to grow longer, thicker, faster (sounds like a great movie).

There are a few I did this to.

Well, more than a few.

The defoliated leaves are circled in yellow. I made a mess.

Now, to go back to the earlier statement about green islands being more bush like: for that reason, at this time (November in Florida) I am leaving the top alone.

I want all the growth I can, and the top acts as a siphon, pulling that energy up, on the orders of auxin. I know to leave the top alone because I have killed off the top too many times on a green island by chopping it prematurely (this same thing happens with azaleas, which is why, as I’ve pointed out before, you see many “Bozo the Clown” style azaleas with dead tops and full foliage around the sides). I suppose I could defoliate the top except for the stipules, but it’s not necessary at this time.

And there we have it. One ficus green island-

Ready for some winter growth in sunny Florida.

Which is kinda like spring most everywhere else.

A little pushing here, some redirection there, free growth on top but regulated growth down bottom. I can’t wait until next year, this will be a cool tree to play with some more.

Before I go, I have entered into a partnership with The Bonsai Supply, and they are offering an exclusive, adamaskwhy.com 20% discount for Black Friday, Shop Small Saturday, and Cyber Monday, on their pots, soil, tools, etc., to my blog readers, Instagram followers and Facebook friends. The code is valid from November 24-27th. To take advantage of it, go here https://thebonsaisupply.com/discount/ADAM20

The next post, we will play with another green island, and I’ll show you the difference between it and the green mound.

See you later!

Posted in Advanced basics, Horticulture and growing, rare finds, redesign, styling bonsai, wiring | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments