I make a fig weep……

Behold, yonder tree, sitting on yonder table, shaking in anticipatory dread for the tortuous and barbaric bonsai techniques that soon will be practiced upon it. Verily, it’s naming, the Weeping Fig, shall prove true today. Ficus Benjamina, or, as many a bonsai elite likes to call it, “that piece of junk”. 

This tree belongs to a client, and it was her dad’s tree before. My job today is to repot, refine, and re-dress the wounds. 

The lessons: 

Respect for the tree and it’s history. 

Pruning and dressing wounds (I know I talked about that with the tamarind but I need to revisit it. You’ll learn why) 

Now, I kinda teased on the social media interwebs that perhaps I’d be brutalizing and cutting up this poor tree. If I were that brazen in my chop lust, a vile tree abuser, a hack, perhaps I’d cut it about here: But then, I wouldn’t really, because I understand that this ficus is a benjamina, the least likely to bud back where I’d want it to. I’d end up with the a tree budding out here: That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, I could work with that. But, in chopping a benjamina and not leaving green, I could really kill the whole thing too (which is why there will be no defoliation either) 

 Damn benjamina. 

But I’m not goin’ a’choppin’ today. My axe will stay hanging in the woodshed. 

First lesson:Respect. 

My clients dad kept the tree this tall. For whatever reason, I’m not going to turn this tree into a totally different tree just to gratify my ego. I’ll try to bring out its full potential as the tree it currently  is now. That’s what it means to refine. 

That brings us to the next lesson: Wound Management.

We have some pretty gnarly wounds. Like the last post on the tamarind, I’m going to carve out the wounds into an “eye” shape to speed healing. This style tree doesn’t really call for big holes in the trunk so we are going to try some Cheng Cheng-Kung healing techniques. 

Here’s the wounds carved out. 

I’ll cover them with cut paste. 

This brings me to a comment I received (and after I responded, I then got another, even more, brusque comment) about the “proper” way to prune trees. I was told, quite succinctly, that when one is pruning trees, one should always leave the branch collar to speed the closing of the wound. To illustrate:The branch collar is the swelling just off the trunk and at the base of the branch. It  is a collection of dense, specialized tissues that give structure and rigidity to the branch, basically holding it to the tree. Before there was real research into plant physiology, tree surgeons would employ all types of techniques and tricks when pruning trees (keep in mind, I am talking about trees in nature or landscape trees) to get them to heal. It was the work of a man named Dr. Alex Shigo who actually used observational science, experimentation, and horticultural knowledge to really show the correct pruning techniques for fast healing, structural integrity, and health of the tree (His Wikipedia entry). His research is vast and long (one of his books is $86 on his website) and I’m going to just touch upon his teaching. The most practical application of that teaching is the “proper” way to prune a branch. It’s a three cut process. The first cut is to ensure that the weight of the branch, when it falls, doesn’t tear the bark down into the trunk of the tree, it’s a partial cut and you do it on the underside of the branch. The second cut removes the branch. The third cut is the finishing cut, you perform it just at the branch collar. By leaving that collar intact, you are keeping the differentiated cells intact that ensure quick healing, but it also keeps the structure of the tree intact; in the case of a windstorm or other mechanical force acting on the tree, it won’t break at that cut site. 

This is how the tree heals after that cut. 
A slight bump, but it healed strong and fast, keeping pathogens, insects, etc. out. It’s the process he called “compartmentalization”. But, as you all may know, when we prune bonsai, unless we want a new shoot or wish to carve a Jin, we don’t keep the branch collar. We want there to be no evidence of a branch that has been pruned (what is called “the hand of man”). So that little bump on a “properly” pruned branch is not desired. That’s why we have these tools called “concave cutters” and “spherical knob cutters”, to remove that branch collar. But, unfortunately, when this aesthetic principle of bonsai is introduced into the outside horticultural world, they tend to not understand it very well. In fact, the followers of Dr. Shigo have almost created a cult around his teaching. (Check out this website). And they are correct, if we wished to have a quick healing cut, we should leave the branch collar intact. But we want that smooth trunk line (when we do. I usually want the meanest, ugliest scar to denote age and struggle, but sometimes I want it to heal too).  And with the cuts we make and how we dress them, we have hundreds of years of bonsai practice and experience to back up our techniques. Just like the correct pruning on a full size landscape tree ensures quick healing on them, if you apply the techniques that are used in bonsai on bonsai culture trees, with the type of pruning we employ, it works. (To get back to the “comment” I received, the main complaint was that the tamarind wasn’t pruned properly to begin with, never mind that I was dressing an old wound that I didn’t make in the first place and was not pruned well. As often the case with zealots, they can’t see beyond their world view. I’m interested in what Dr. Shigo said about cleaning out old, improperly pruned wounds, but I ain’t got $86 for his book. In his defense, it’s his heirs that are selling it for that price, he passed away about ten years ago). I’ll also be using, like I did on the tamarind, cut paste. That’s a big no no too. 

Back to our tree. This is the front. 

I kinda like the other side as the front. But the structure of the tree, the top, doesn’t support it. I could go to all kinds of heroic measures bending the top back to the right and all that like I did in the tamarind post but a ficus isn’t a tamarind. Once a ficus lignifies, it doesn’t like to be moved. I could try a wedge cut and, like I said, be all heroic and masterful. Or I could just use the front we have and refine it. 

The only issue using this front is this knob of obverse taper up near the top.

We are going for smooth, clean lines like this.   

Time to go back to The Nook for some serious work. 

Knob (play along for me and pronounce that “kah-nobb”) 

No knob. 

Big wound.  Some cut paste. Call me the branch pruning iconoclast.  Let me direct you down here to where there were never any branches and there’s a wound.   I need to clean them up too. No cut paste on these ones though. I think the tree could use some gnarliness near the buttress. 

The trunk line.  Since I’m talking about Dr Shigo, I should mention that the way we prune and structure the tops of our bonsai is anathema too. When you prune a landscape tree you need to keep in mind wind, rain and snow load, and the continued upward growth of the tree. Never “top” a landscape tree, by shortening it you shorten its life, weaken the structure, and stunt its growth. 

But a bonsai is pruned for aesthetic purposes. We are making a short, relatively young tree look like a big, old tree. Which means wider, rounded canopies….. more simplified branch structures…..and taper, natural proportions, and forced perspective. 

And we use wire on our trees to move branches into positions we need them. 

Now for the roots. I think it’s been a few years since this has been repotted. I’m going to steal the moss. Shhhhhhh, don’t tell….And I’m afraid I need to use some sharp toothed persuasion to remove the tree from the pot…..…..now there’s a saw you’ve never seen. Ha!

Yeah, the soil is all nasty. 

I think it’s prudent in this case to get the reciprocating saw out. It’s new pot is a tad more shallow. 

Gotta make it fit!

​Quick work in time lapse. 

Some raking, washing etc. 

Which Dave did most of, thank you maricon. 

And we are done. 

Considering I’ve had so much attention on social media about this tree (some people even wanted to buy it) I’d say that the tree speaks to many people in its current style. And I personally think it’s impressive as is too, chopping it would just make another short, boring ficus like so many people have already. Here’s the before: 

And the after. There’s not too much difference really, it just has cleaner lines. I consider the ficus benjamina to be a canopy tree, which means it’s almost grown like a topiary. Almost. You still need to control the growth using clip and grow techniques, but in between pruning sessions, let it fill in. 

Some after care with this tree, if you cut the roots like I did, you should really keep the tree in the shade. The lack of fine feeder roots and the propensity for the benjamina to shed branches is a bad combination. I would not be surprised, as well, if any of those branches with wire decide to die too. They really don’t like to be manipulated much and I left some branches I’d have normally removed, just for that possibility. 

Keep an eye out soon for a new video on the Adamaskwhy YouTube channel and do me the favor of subscribing to it and this blog. And please like, share, comment, especially comments, we are needing questions for a special “Ask Adamaskwhy why” video segment, I especially like it when I’m challenged (as evidenced by the middle body of this post). See ya’ soon!

About adamaskwhy

Visual artist specializing in bonsai, mostly.
This entry was posted in carving, Horticulture and growing, philosophical rant, refine, wiring and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to I make a fig weep……

  1. Annette Hawkins says:

    Thanks Adam for a very good blog. How tall is this Benjamina? Annette

  2. Cosette says:

    I can breath now, I thought this tree had potential all along.

  3. Lydia Ruddy says:

    Look on abebooks.com I found a copy if Shigo for ~$20. Much more reasonable price.

    And for the record I am an ISA Certified Arborist (aka Shigo Cultist), and I find the manipulation of physiology involved in bonsai truly fascinating. I understand why some of what you do flies in the face of what arborists learn. You are manipulating trees in an entirely different manner than in used in Arboriculture.

    Keep it real, and keep it you!

    Lydia Ruddy

    On Sep 30, 2016 5:21 PM, “Adam’s Art and Bonsai Blog” wrote:

    > adamaskwhy posted: “Behold, yonder tree, sitting on yonder table, shaking > in anticipatory dread for the tortuous and barbaric bonsai techniques that > soon will be practiced upon it. Verily, it’s naming, the Weeping Fig, shall > prove true today. Ficus Benjamina, or, a” >

  4. carterbeall says:

    I like this very much, but I am curious why you chose to leave that branch (on the left in the photo with the blue background) which is thick and extends straight up whereas most of the branching is horizontal.

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