Just like the title says, this tree isn’t a special variety or cultivar, it’s just a plain Ficus microcarpa, what them old timers called “retusa” (click here for a clarification of the mistake make too many years ago as to why they called it that. I can’t explain why some still call it that except for stubborn intransigence to change).

We know it’s a regular F. Microcarpa by the leaf, notice the white dots on the margin:

That’s a tell tale sign that’s not very evident on many other F. microcarpa varieties. Some other characteristics are marked dieback to the next node, larger internodes, grey bark.

Let’s defoliate it so we can see the structure before wiring.

Here’s dieback btw:

The regular species is a little more difficult to ramify than the cultivars like tiger bark, but the trunk and roots tend to grow faster, so you’ll often see a big F. microcarpa trunk with grafted foliage and branches.

As I’m defoliating and start seeing the structure I’ll edit out some of the odd branching I come to. Like here:

There’s too many from one point, and they’re coming from all over. The first thing I look for is taper, next, movement. And with this somewhat ramified tree, I’ll keep the branches with more, well, branches.

There, done.

Now we can see. Definitely the result of topiary or hedge clipping, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (in fact, it’s important in developing broadleaf trees that back bud well) but this one has gone too long without the necessary corrections needed to get rid of odd knobs and fists.

But wiring will fix that.

I believe that this was originally styled as a windswept, which is a tough style to maintain with ficus, so I’ll bring it back into an informal tree form.

I’ll move the front to here.

And spread out the canopy to accommodate the new style and front. But not tonight, I’ve been waiting in the parking lot for my son to finish a Boy Scout meeting and I’ve lost the light, it seems.

So, go get yourself a beverage, take a break, and I’ll see you tomorrow when the sun is shining again.

Good morning my friends! I’m in The Nook now, and ready to get to work.

Let’s get some wire on this bad boy. Now, the front will be here, remember, so the goal will be to bring some balance to the Force, um….the tree.

The two basic, (bordering on an almost dichotomy even) ideas in bonsai composition deal with tension and harmony. Tension is all about creating drama, unease to the viewer, building a sense of struggle and adversity. It’s a tough feeling for me and many artists to convey. To give you an idea of some styles you’d be familiar with exhibiting tension are slant (shakkan), windswept (fukinagashi) , literati (bunjin) and deadwood (sharamiki). They tend to make the tree unbalanced, or, in the case of sharamiki, almost dead.

The reason these styles are hard is because we as artists like to show resolution of form, an balance of the story. It’s incredibly difficult for me to design a slant style tree because it’s inherently unbalanced. The apex tends to be away from the center mass of the trunk. And that’s not natural. Most trees in nature will grow in a balanced, stable way, with most of the mass of the tree over the trunk, simply because that is, in engineering terms, the easiest way to hold the weight of the tree. The upright formal style, chokkan, is, by default, the most natural style. Though it tends to look like a Christmas tree.

As I said earlier, our tree looks like it was styled originally as a windswept. As evidenced by this cut:

….And the general way that the branching is arranged.

Harmony is achieved by balancing the trunk and branches so the tree looks stable and strong. I’m going to try to bring the tree into balance. First, I’ll deal with the apex.

Center of the base of the tree:

Before moving the top:

And after:

Now for the other main branches:

And now the rest, with detail wire.

I’ve said this before, but there are two times when it’s “OK” to cross wires, contrary to all the old books. They both have to do with getting a proper anchor for the wire.

The first “taboo” but acceptable wire cross has to do with adding smaller wire alongside larger wire when wiring out to the branch tip.

At the end of the larger wire, loop the smaller wire around it. Like so:

The second instance is when wiring a side branch using smaller wire, in order to get a proper anchor to not only bend the branch effectively but also to protect the branch from breaking off at the connection point, you may need to cross over the bigger wire.

Here’s a standard wiring strategy:

Here’s the crossed one: view from above

And below:

Here’s the tree wired, before moving the branches:

Move a few branches here and there:

Getting there. Now let’s fix the roots with a quick repot.

I’ll tuck that tail into the pot, don’t worry.

Oooof, just a little pot bound….

That’s better…

Now to cut off some long ones…

Cram it back into the pot…

Some soil, fertilizer, pre-emergent weed preventer, and a granular systemic insecticide (for thrips. Ficus microcarpa are savaged by thrips down here in Florida. I use granular imidacloprid for this. The brand is Bonide, but whatever you can find should work).

The eagle eyed readers will notice the soil mix today is a bit different than my normal mix. Because of the shipping problems of late (Covid Times), I’m not able to get all my ingredients, and therefore, because I am low on soil, this mix is utilizing new lava rock (scoria) combined with used soil.

Don’t be concerned with reusing old mix, it can be better, if you follow the new science, for your trees in the long run.

The method: first, make sure the tree(s) the soil came from didn’t suffer from any diseases, then, dry it out, and sift out the fines and the old roots. Then mix in new components, like lava or pumice.

My standard Adamaskwhy SuperMix™️ at the nursery has at least 20% old soil mixed in (the product that American Bonsai retails for me is 100% new components, for shipping and Agricultural phyto-sanitary regulation purposes).

Soil science studies are showing that the microorganisms present in soil are more important than they used to think. Bonsai professionals are slowly figuring this out, especially when using organically derived fertilizers. In a nutshell, fertilizers are broken into water soluble and water insoluble nutrients. Take nitrogen, you have most synthetics being water soluble, meaning that a plant can take them up easily just from the roots. Some organic fertilizers, like blood meal, have a large make up of water soluble nitrogen as well, but many require a microorganism like mycorrhizae or a bacteria to unlock the nitrogen so the plant can utilize it. So adding the microorganisms into fresh soil (by adding used soil or adding the organisms directly by using a product like Espoma Bio-Tone, and don’t worry, I get no money from affiliate links) helps the tree in the long run to stay healthy.

The bonsai community is very conservative and slow to change, hence the reticence to accept new science (or any new ideas it seems) when it’s discovered. There are still people recommending you wash your old pots with bleach to kill any pathogens. But in most horticultural fields, they don’t (unless the plant was diseased of course).

Anyway, back to our subject, this regular, raffle table Ficus microcarpa (follow the F. Retusa link at the beginning, but don’t get me started on the misnaming of this species as Ficus retusa, that’s a real battle to get those recalcitrant bonsai practitioners to change)

Here’s the tree after repot and tweaking the branches a bit more .

You’ll notice the first branch on the bottom left. That’s a new shoot that’ll be the new first branch and that’s how it’s developed. First you let it grow, then chop it when it’s a good size.

Ultimately, the branch will grow secondary branching, and I’ll cut to those to develop ramification.

Here’s a top view to show all the ramification. It’s well on its way to hopefully becoming a good tree.

The trunk, as most ficus will, should still get larger in the bonsai pot. Those aerial roots towards the bottom will thicken the base and make it more interesting, and the branching will develop pretty quickly.

And all this tree needs is time. That’s the one thing you can’t rush. But, for now, “Bob’s yer uncle”.

Heres the before pic, for comparison:

So next time you see a sad little raffle tree, look at it a little more closely, give it a chance, it could be a gem. You could find a real treasure from someone else’s trash they just want to get rid of.

3 thoughts

    1. I use a commercial product called OH2, but unless you want a 50 pound bag I would recommend Preen. It comes with fertilizer (Preen Plus I believe) or without, which I suggest you use as different plant species need different fertilizer requirements

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