A flat-top, bald cypress bonsai story, and a question. 

I posted a pic in the social media jungle a few weeks ago. It caused some debate (aside from the flack I got from the recycle bin in the background, that is).  

It wasn’t really my intention to stir the puddin’ (at that time), I was just showing a tree that I thought was beautiful. But there was one guy that took umbrage to me calling this bald cypress, styled in the flat top style, a bonsai. Its a xstyle created by the great Vaughn Banting of New Orleans some 30 years ago and, I thought, was an accepted style. No, really, a gentleman said the above tree wasn’t a bonsai. It was slightly surreal. 

Let’s follow the development of the tree pic by pic and then we can talk philosophy. 

The tree belongs to Jim Osborne from the Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society. GNOBS for short. In his words:
“Adam, the first pictures are from 2003.”

Yeah, he’s kinda goofy.  Don’t know these guys. 

“The tree was about 8 feet tall. It was collected from the Ormand swamp, just a few miles west of New Orleans. I choose this tree because of its location close to dry land and small size as it was a spur of the moment dig and I did not have the usual collecting tools with me.” Sounds like he didn’t want to get his feet wet….

“Also in the first few pictures you can actually see me making the “trunk chop”

“On that same day I decided to create a hollow in the trunk to add interest, as the tree did not have the usual fluted base.”all of Jim’s pics were printed pics, like real photographs from film and all that even. “In the subsequent pictures you can see it’s development.”

“Branches were chosen and allowed to grow unchecked for a growing season, then cut back.”“This process was repeated for several years until natural taper was created.”“Some further work was done on the hollow and the chop was worked to a point where it flowed into a major branch. At that point the lower branches were kept in check and the upper portion of the tree allowed to grow freely”  “Branches were selected and wired into shape. It is still being refined.” 

“The tree won the Vaughn Banting award in 2011 for design excellence at the Louisiana Day of Bonsai.”

This photo is stolen from Alan Walker, this was the tree in 2011 after winning that Vaughn Banting award. 

“The tree also won the Johnny Martinez award (a Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society award to honor a long time member who had passed away) in 2010 at the Spring Garden Show at the New Orleans botanical garden.” 

Enough from Jim, if he gets to talking you’ll talk all night long. Here are some of my pics showing the carving, the ramification and branch structure.  

Not fancy carving but honest. That’s better, oftentimes, than fancy. 

A flat top is a composition of “Y’s” and “V’s”. 

Filling in the spaces for maximum photosynthetic possibilities. 

Good moss. 

He’s a hobbyist bonsai artist, now, not a professional, and that makes it so much more spectacular. 

Nice ramification shot from the top. 

Good bark character too. It looks old. 

There’s that recycle bin I got in trouble with. 
It’s really a fantastic tree. It’s still developing and 14 years in training is a considerablly short time to achieve it. 

Let’s talk about the flattop style and whether it’s considered “bonsai”. And please, feel free to comment and agree or disagree. All comments, unless lewd, crude or rude, will be allowed. 

You all can probably guess my opinion. My definition of bonsai: “a bonsai is a relatively small, relatively young plant that is artistically treated to look like a big, old tree”

 Now, that’s a very specific definition in that it limits bonsai to the representative side of art, like a landscape painting or a portrait. It should look like a tree. But it’s broad enough to allow for the, sometimes, ultra stylized versions of trees from Japanese artists like Kimura or Chinese artists like Cheng.  It also allows for the natural looks from people like Dan Robinson or Walter Pall. I also believe in the Naka mantra that we should make our bonsai look like trees, and not our trees look like bonsai. 

So where does this all leave Jim’s tree? That particular individual who commented on my original post came out and said that, since it’s not a Japanese style, it’s not bonsai. That poked a lot of bears that day. 

Now, granted, it was the Japanese that formalized the techniques and styles of bonsai, after all. Of course, it was the Chinese that created the art, and then the Japanese imported it. And it is a Japanese word, “bonsai” that the world uses to call these small trees in pots we so love. I get all that. Indeed it was the Japanese that introduced the world to bonsai. They named many of the concepts, from nebari to Jin and everything in between. And it is true that many Japanese nursery owners don’t accept the flattop style as a bonsai style. Or even the bald cypress as a good subject to work with (bald cypress have serious dieback every year on the branch tips, they grow too fast for some Japanese nursery men, and they are incredibly apically dominant, so much so that you lose bottom branches if you don’t keep the top in check and you need to, about every 4-5 years, chop and regrow the top, if it’s in the typical conifer/Christmas tree style, or your top branches get out of scale. To me, that’s a challenge. I’m an artist and I accept the difficulty. But the Japanese nurserymen are, first, businessmen. They grow what sells. A flattop bald cypress doesn’t sell over there. They’re on a serious Sargent’s juniper kick right now. 

All this is interesting if we think of bonsai as strictly a Japanese thing but, you see, here’s a demographic to ponder:  There are more bonsai practitioners in the rest of the world than there are in Japan. Bonsai is, like many “traditional” arts in Japan, is dying out. It could be said that, if it weren’t for the interest in bonsai amongst non Japanese peoples, there might not be bonsai. Proof? How many Japanese nurseries have western apprentices now? Can you name more western bonsai professionals than Japanese nurserymen? How about with the affiliated crafts like stand making or scrolls or suiseki, or even pottery? It’s becoming a global art, whether the old guard like it or not. And when a thing becomes “Art”, that means one has artists who think that maybe the old way of thinking about things might not be the “right” way. 

But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t space for traditional ideas. That’s what the old timers have to understand, what they have done before is a stepping stone to increasing the global appreciation and recognition of “Bonsai” as a true artistic pursuit. If it’s not allowed to grow, it will be relegated to the dustbin of other, quaint, folk arts that old men do when they’re not taking a nap. 

Change and innovation is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be, but it can also be embraced and guided by those that have come before. Like Mr. Kobyashi is doing in this YouTube video from Bonsai Empire. He’s been practicing bonsai for 40 years, and he admits that his past tree styling has been to either win awards (which means to cater to the status quo) or to sell trees (even more so a pursuit of the status quo. Buyers most often buy what they are told is tasteful).watch the video. His goal now is to make art and to bring out the natural spirit of the tree. To, dare I say it, make art. 

Here’s Jim’s flat top bald cypress again. This time with a little better background and on a stand. This is the natural progression of a bald cypress in the wild. It’s what an old, gnarly, broken tree looks like. If you drive the highways through the bayous of Louisiana, or on Alligator Alley in South Florida, it is this type of tree you’ll see. 

I’m gonna call it a bonsai. 

Thank you Jim, my friend, for allowing me to show your tree to my readers and to let me rant philosophically about it. No one is going to read the words really, but they will look at your tree. And that should make up for all the guff that this post will generate. 

Posted in branch placement, carving, goings, Horticulture and growing, rare finds, sculpture, yamadori | Tagged , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Haunted hackberry bonsai

Well, being the unlettered man of toil I pretend to be,  I don’t have much to right to an opinion in some things but, I must say, what a gnarly old hag of an arboreal specimen I have before me. Scarred, beaten, majestic. Beautiful. This and trees like it are the kind of trees that make me poetic and wistful. They look old and storied. Maybe a tree from the dawn, a seedling at some pre history faerie wedding or Druid ritual. One can imagine the lost bones of a warrior brave hidden in the hollow trunk. Or a child sacrifice to the elder gods.

I picked it up from Cosette at the Multi-Club picnic and auction back in October 2016. I’ve been waiting until now to work on it. 

First step, weeding. 

That’s better. 

It’s been a long many months with me just looking, studying, sizing up the angles and site lines. I think I know now what the front is. 

This is how it sits presently. 

I kinda like this side for the movement. 

Not sure if the top supports it though. 

But if I choose that front, I’ll lose this branch.  

This side is cool. And, if I use this side…
…it removes the slingshot effect of the secondary trunk too. 

Let me ponder with an orange. Oranges make you think. They focus the grey matter, so to speak. 

Let’s get to work. 

Chop chop chop!First, it needs to be shorter. 

Then the crotch branches….

The multiples and, of course those growing down (you’d have thought that the tree would’ve gotten the memo about geotropism, right?) must needs be removed. 

I’m running out of daight tonight but let me point out the pointing branches. What is a pointing branch? Well, it’s one that is straight, and pointing. 

In bonsai, see, we don’t like straight lines much. That’s why we invented metal wire, actually. It wasn’t for the movement of electricity or industrial purposes. Or for jewellery or anything purty like that. No sirree, it was purely for the artistic pursuit of line and the aesthetic goal of aged, bent branching in Bonsai, that our metallurgic ancestors created copper and then, subsequently, aluminum,  wire. Indeed, invented and massed produced solely to make a straight branch crooked. Think about that amazing Factoid whilst partaking of your favorite cold beverage. 

“There was a crooked man….” 
Speaking of which, Guaracha and Dave repotted the tree for me. Say hi fellas!

Such gentlemen. Let’s see if I can make a tree here. 

It’s gonna be all about the wire now. I have to transform the branches for young straight things into old, bent ones. 

I’m not worried too much about the wire scars. That’ll make the branches even more mean looking. 

The main branches are done. Now to the twigs. 

First, I think that too needs to go. 


Onward fearless soldier. 

As you can see from this (trees) right side shot, the structure I’m leaving is very non-traditional. Most bonsai stylists would remove that front “trunk”. I’m keeping it for two reasons. One, it’s an old branch, it adds to the eccentric nature of this tree. Second, it’ll annoy many people. Art, sometimes, should make you uncomfortable. The scars, the structure, the age of this tree should be off-putting. It should be hard to look at. The challenge is to make the structure cohesive, natural, and whole. This, ultimately, is what working on all those little trees is about. Practice. All those little trees are what artists call “a study”. It used to be that when an artist, be him a painter or sculptor or what have you, would practice on small details like a hand, or a tree, or a cow in a field. And when it was time to undertake a major work, the hand and the vision and the skill were already there to add to that work. Here’s an example on a small winged elm root cutting. I called it a “study in line”. 

It’s not the best example of an exposed root bonsai but it looks aged. Just from the movement of the branches. Btw, that finger is for the ignorant ass who didn’t know what a “study” was. 

Back to our hackberry. Sorry. 

Essentially, the tree will have two tops. This one in front. And of course the top, top. On top. 

And the parting shot of course. One can’t end a blog without one. 
Let’s see how it grows. Look for an update soon. 

Posted in branch placement, Horticulture and growing, rare finds, redesign, refine | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Building a maple or two

Whoa?! What?Are you drilling holes in trees again Adam? It looks like one of those parasitic worms trying to stick its tendrils into a tree and the tree is trying to get away. 

How about we start at the beginning? Let me ‘splain. We have three trees. Here are two:This is one I’ve been pruning for shape for about 8 or 10 years. All that movement is from chopping, regrowing, healing, chopping. Repeat. 

This was from the compact disc root layering experiment. 

It’s ready for some chopping. Let’s begin with it. 

Fortunately, its budding back all over. 

I have all kinds of branches to use as a new leader. I’m thinking around here. 

Or here. Somewhere….aha…I see, I saw. 

Now, a little contouring. A rusty tool (where are my good tools?) 

A sharp knife. 

That’s better. You’ll hear nowadays to make a square cut instead of an angled one like I just did. If this shoot wasn’t here:I would be making a straight cut. You don’t know where the new shoot will pop from and, as likely as not, if you made an angled cut, it would pop from the bottom of the cut instead of the top. 

There are plenty of shoots down below the cut, that makes me feel better than doing a blind trunk chop. 

I can get rid of some there are so many. 
A bit of wire. 
Here’s a tip, the skinnier the branch, the more movement you put into it with wire. Especially close to the trunk. As the branch thickens, those exaggerated curves will grow out and be more natural. And I’ll be chopping the branches back to the first curve anyway. 

One last thing, to focus the growth hormones, always point the tips upward, especially in this building stage. You’ll get stronger, faster growth. 

On a cut like this I’ll use a wound sealer. This is inexpensive duct caulk (say that aloud, very loud, in a crowd: DUCT CAULK!)

Now, normally I wouldn’t be fertilizing at this time of the year, but I want to accelerate that new leaders growth, which will then accelerate that chop healing. I am expecting it to get about 4-5 feet tall this year. 

Now, the second trident.I’ve been building this tree for maybe ten years. The first cut is healed, as are all the subsequent ones. Keeping a strong leader growing makes the difference. Some call it a sacrifice branch, some, an escape branch. Call it what you want, it works. 

 Now that’s a gnarly trunkNow it’s time to add some branches.  

The donor tree. And, back to front, the tool of the day, the liquid courage, and the cures for the effects of that liquid courage. 

I need a branch here, at the base of the healed chop. 

I’ll do it by a thread graft. Basically, drill a hole all the way through the trunk and insert a branch through that hole and let it grow, filling the hole and grafting with the tree, and then you cut off the donor tree.  

It’s the easiest graft to do, with a high probability of success. 

While I’m at it, I think I need one here too. 

I like to seal the wounds with a cut paste (the snot variety) that stays flexible when dry. I also like to secure the grafts with wire and, of course, put a little movement in them. I also tie the pots together to minimize movement. 

Here’s a short video to let you see what I did a little easier. ​
​I’m digging the music. 

Here’s that first tree again. 

Look at that nebari! Instead of a blind trunk chop, I put the grafts exactly where I wanted them and I’ll chop it next year. It’s Daves tree. You’re welcome Dave. Cabron. 

I’ll cover some approach grafts in a future  post. 

Posted in Advanced basics, branch placement, Horticulture and growing, progression, tips and tricks | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Sugarberry….aw, honey honey…..you are my bonsai tree….and I think I love you!

Two collected hackberries. 

If’n you follow me on Instagram or the Facebooks, you’ll remember that I was lamenting the loss of a stand of native celtis nearby. Now, granted, it’s been heavily collected from by fellow bonsai practitioners but, as some have suggested, that’s not the reason for the decline. It’s two fold, one, see that dirt road? It goes to a lake with a boat ramp. The road is heavily traveled, for being a dirt road, with those hunting the elusive bass we call largemouth (It’s funny, I had a girlfriend I could describe as a large mouthed. Or big mouthed. I originally hunted her but ended up running as fast as I could away from her. Ahhh, to youth and my sweet roison dubh). The road is bulldozed and leveled quite often, fishing being a little more popular than native trees. This constant “improvement” keeps making the road wider and messes with the drainage. The first tree I’ll be working on is a root from a big tree that was felled to widen said road. I’ll get back to that in a bit. 

The second reason the stand is declining is it’s being choked out by the dreaded Brazilian Pepper tree. Truly a scourge for native trees, it (SCHINUS TEREBINTHIFOLIUS) loves Florida and, considering that it’s seeds keep getting eaten by wildlife and sown everywhere,  Florida loves it. I don’t know a solution and I’m not sure one could be found. It is true that it was man that brought the pepper tree into Florida but it is speculated that it was the ocean that brought in the buttonwood from Africa, one of the most beloved “native” trees now. There’s a treatise in there somewhere. But I’m not going to write it. Yet. Back to the other…hack…job. Ha!

This tree is actually a root from one of those larger, bulldozed trees. 

It’s, ah, unique. Let’s see what I can do. The structure is definitely not traditional. But it is growing strong. Let’s do some chopping to induce backbudding. 

Ans some branch selection. 

And what about the top? Those two, very strong growing apices? 

I think here:

And here:That’ll work. 

Now a little wire before I turn to the roots. This is so close to the trunk….I need a wedge….that works. Some heavy wire….

….and some movement. Now to the roots. I don’t really know how the rest will go until I see them. 


uh oh

Mind the gap. Looks almost like a pair of legs. 

Now what? Well, let’s make the best of it. I’d like some surface roots so I’m scoring some places on the trunk that’ll be under the soil line. That should help with more roots. 

Especially at this odd angle. Some good soil, the new blend. 

And there was some mycorrhizae in the old soil, I add it to the new soil. 

Some more wire and….welllllll…I know. Let’s see what happens. I love a challenge and this is surely a challenge. 

Let’s look at the other tree. It’s a little more normal. 

First, gotta find the bottom. When I collect a tree and pot it up I usually bury the nebari so the surface roots don’t dry out after the collection. 

Obviously I need to chop this back. I might remove it totally in the future but maybe not. You can’t glue it back on so I’ll leave it here for the time being. 
Lots to work with still. 
Next, into the training pot. 

This root is a little highIt goes. 

There we go. 

It’s looking good. Now for a touch, just a touch, of wire. Ok, a lot. You know me, I wire. I’m of the opinion that if you’re not using wire, it’s not modern bonsai. Here’s an analogy for you: traditionally, man painted with his fingers. Then Ug, the Picasso of the cavemen, picked up a feather, the first paintbrush, and revolutionized the art of painting. It’s the same principle with wire on bonsai. The practice is less than a hundred years old, so most definitely not traditional, but that’s how modern bonsai practitioners make trees. That doesn’t mean not to use clip and grow, I use both techniques, even on the same tree, but if you’re not wiring, it’s like only using your fingers whilst painting a picture, you can only get to a certain level of refinement because of the limitations of your tools. 

The more I look at the chopped branch…the more I’m thinking of removing it. Not yet though. Patience. 

Let’s review: 

Two collected celtis lævigata.

 One, kinda weird, a leftover roots from a bulldozers swath of destruction. 

The other, a more traditional looking specimen.  

A solution for the one….maybe…

And an initial styling for the other. This one will be sweet, like sugar (see what I did there?) I’ll revisit them both in a years time. Both will be sweet, you’ll see. Stay tuned, mi amigos, they develop fast. 

Anyone wanna go fishing? I know this one spot…….

Posted in branch placement, Horticulture and growing, rare finds, styling bonsai, yamadori | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

I Feel So Soiled

Now there’s some pretty soil. With all the partisan political divisiveness of late, I figured that I’d introduce a calm, nuanced, and non-controversial subject into the æther. Try to, you know, relax the dialogues on the interwebs and facebooks a little, so to say. This is a safe subject. Indeed. It’s time to make the soil!

In that spirit, let’s talk about soil a little…..no one argues about soil, right? Before I begin, here are three links on soil from Da’ Blog: The epic oneThe personal oneThe update. Read them. There’ll be a test. 

Let’s see now, we have lava (the pointy heads call it scoria. What do scientists know, right?) Lava is my go to, I’ve used nothing but it at times. It’s great for Florida, it doesn’t fall apart, has good shape and porosity, doesn’t hold too much water. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold much nutrients either (this is called “cation exchange capacity” abbreviated henceforth as CEC. It is a measurement of the electrostatic charge of a particle in reference to fertilizer molecules. How much fertilizer sticks to a soil component. This is important in the coarse, granular soils we use because, startlingly, 75-80% of all fertilizer drains right out of the bottom of our pots. It helps for the soil particles to be able to hold a little between applications. At least I think so, there’s enough fertilizer pollution in Florida’s groundwater as it is now without me contributing to it too much more). 

This next is expanded slate, a newer product that’s almost a ceramic, marketed by the Espoma company (and American Bonsai Tools too, I might add). It holds only about 10-15% of its weight in water and about zero CEC. I use it to improve drainage; in Florida we have rain, it being the Sunshine State and all. We can have more rain in a few hours than most places have in a month. This aggregate is basically to help keep my mix drier. Funny story, we once had a British gentleman (aren’t all British men, gentleman? Well, not really, I know one guy….likes to call other bonsai people names, not very “propah” at all, come to think of it….)  visit the Orlando club and claimed that England had a lot of rain. Granted, it rains a lot in the United Kingdom of Great Britain, but it’s more like drool as opposed to the explosive projectile deluges we get here. Anyway, the funny thing is he kept asking if we had hawthorn yamadori and if we knew of a bloke called Tony Tickle. I said, “Mr. Tickle? Isn’t that a character in a children’s book? ” Hi Tony! Owe you a pint for that one. 

Moving along, I have a pumice source now (the aforementioned American Bonsai Tools). I still don’t like the look of it but I’m liking most of the properties. Well, except for one: see, it doesn’t have a high CEC (because of the silica composition) but does, the way the pores work, (called index solution trapping) hold nitrogen in the surface matrix. What I’m learning and not liking is, when it’s relatively dry, it holds those nutrients and is very stingy in sharing with the plant, but in times of saturation, it will leach them excessively (as opposed to the way cation exchange happens). Here’s the scenario: in the summer, we have the flooding rains and then the heat dries the soil out pretty quickly. I’ll need to water again the next day if it doesn’t rain, ( I call this the “Wet/Heat/Dry Cycle”, it’s one reason why akadama doesn’t hold up well here). But, in the  winter, the soil will stay wet for days, and pumice will give off too much fertilizer during these periods of saturation. Not good for trees that we don’t want to be actively fertilized at that time. I should add, this is mainly an American pumice problem (or what could be called a new pumice problem). The older the pumice or the more degraded it is, the higher the CEC will be. But that’s some high level stuff right there (go Here to read an abstract of a study done in Oregon on pumice, there are definitely some 25¢ words to learn) conversely, my favorite characteristic of pumice is it’s crushability by the roots. The roots need something to hold onto, to embrace and, much like the way your Aunt Joanne does when greeting you at the family Christmas get together, crush. Pumice should be soft enough for this (there are several grades of pumice. Everything from those stones you grind the callouses off your heels you get from wearing what my uncle used to call “come-hump-me-pumps, to horticultural grade. Which is really the cheapest grade. It’s soft, often floats, and works great in bonsai soil). 

Since the pumice isn’t good at holding nutrients, my soil additive for that is pine bark, sifted, partially composted and ph controlled. I use Fafard organic soil conditioner. It holds water and fertilizer very well and the roots love it. And it’s a perfect medium for growing the microbes we need in a bonsai pot. I’ve written about mycorrhizal and bacterial symbiosis before, and every time I research it, there’s new information expanding our knowledge. The fauna down below is good for the flora up above. 

I also use a calcined clay aggregate (OH NOOOOO!! The dreaded Turface!).  It too has a relatively good CEC and holds water. It works good in Florida, much the way akadama performs but without the rapid breakdown that turns akadama into a brick. I don’t understand the vehemence that is shown towards this product. It’s not bad as a component in a soil mix. It could be this for one statement I overheard someone say “I’ve never deigned to even think of using a cheap product like that on my trees” that is the real antipathy. Take that as you will. In some parts of the country, turface is more expensive than akadama. 

I will usually use an expanded shale product, but I’m out of it at the moment.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet (from this post and those linked above), I’ve done a lot of research and put a lot of thought into my soil. I don’t take someone’s word or use “traditional” soils just because they’ve been used for generations (For hundreds of years it was believed that bathing washed off the natural defenses that a body produced against disease. Before we discovered the germ theory of disease. And that bloodletting worked too, before we stopped believing in the “humours”. No one asked why though, did they?)

So here is this springs soil mix recipe.  Notice that when I do my measurements, they’re a little heavy on some ingredients  and lighter on others. Here you go: 

One part lava (usually its two but I’m using pumice this time, an almost identical component)

One part pumice (and if you’re not pronouncing it “pooomice” you’re just not cool) 

One part expanded slate (ignore the leaves and twigs, they don’t count) 

One part bark (a little lighter on it). 

One part calcined clay (and its “calcined” not “calcinated”) 

This batch should get me through the next few weeks of repotting. Hopefully. A full batch fills an 18 gallon plastic bin. Like I said, isn’t that pretty? I should be a hand model.

Next few posts, I’ll be immersing myself in the wonderful world of the sugarberry tree.



Posted in Advanced basics, Horticulture and growing, philosophical rant | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

Bald Cypress Forest 

We have a tray:

We have some trees:

We have a strong beer:Tray-tree-beer? Will we have bonsai? Seems likely. We might need more beer, even if it is a German one and not Japanese. 

Let’s review. Tray:Made by a retired Lieutenant Paramedic from the Orlando Fire Deptartment.  He just recently passed away. I never met him but I’m told I would have liked him. A good friend of Rick’s. You’ll meet Rick a little later in a nice video snippet. I love this kind of tray. Too bad it’s not mine. It belongs to the CFBC.

  Trees:Five small bald cypress, taxodium distichum, purchased from Dragontree Bonsai down in Palm City, grown from seed by da’ Man hisself, Robert Pinder. I know him and like him. You would too, give him a visit if you’re in the area. I got about forty cypress from him for a Central Florida Bonsai Club program taught by the amazing Rick Jeffery. I mentioned him up there about a hundred words ago. Here’s a video of the aftermath, Rick is the distinguished, mustachioed gentleman with the white hair. 

We put these together for the raffle table at the upcoming Bsf/Abs Convention here in Orlando in May on Memorial Day weekend. We didn’t use all the trees so I got homework.  

So, tonight is a forest kind of night at The Nook. 

With some good strong beer. For those who are interested, and why not if you ain’t, this is a style of beer called “urbock”. Basically, it’s a bock beer which has been smoked (smoking beer? I thought you drank it?!)  A “bock” beer means that it is a lager that is of a higher gravity (more alcohol) thats brewed during the winter for consumption in spring. Being higher gravity it takes more time for the yeast to convert the sugars (malt) to alcohol. The monks made it to get one through the fasts that are associated with Lent. There are also double (doppel) and triple bocks for your, um…religious observances. They tend to be very malty and dark though, in recent years, they have been adding more hops to balance them out. I’m sure that the hopheads will come out with an IPA version soon (though an IPA is an ale and a bock is a lager…..don’t get me started on that differentiation. Different yeast and fermentation times/processes etc.). I must make a note, the two products most Americans associate with the word “bock” are Shiner Bock, from Texas, and Amberbock, from Missouri. The former is just a slightly stronger pilsner (amber lager if you insist), in my opinion, and the latter, as my beer school instructor liked to say, is neither amber, nor bock (Amberbock was once called Michelob Dark, but at that time, Americans were not liking anything with the word “dark” in it. It was all about Budlight or MillerLite and all that crap, so the rebranding guys got on the job and came up with the catchy name, “Amberbock”). Enough about that. This beer, of which I am enjoying responsibly, is a finely crafted,German made beer with a strong malt flavor, balanced well with the hops and the smokiness. The high alcohol (7%) is not a detriment to the flavor, you can hardly tell it’s there (here’s one last beer factoid, the most popular beer in Germany, by sales, is……..sigh, Budlight. Sadly). 

Before I pass out, ahem, let’s get this forest planted. 

Prepare the pot!Screen

L shaped staples.  

Extra tie downs. 

The soil mix I’m using is a combo of my regular bonsai mix-The only difference in it and previous mixes (just use the search bar up top, you’ll find several blog posts on soil) is the addition of some pumice, the white particles. 

Since these are cypress (a swamp tree) I’m cutting it 50/50 with my regular nursery mix. Which is 50/50 pine bark and perlite. 

It should hold water and allow for good root growth. 
To prepare the trees….

 ….I’m just going to tease out some of the soil and work the roots down. 

Some base soil…

I’m not cutting off many roots at all. 

Maybe just some high ones

I want the roots to become an interconnected, tangled mat, almost like one tree, as the forest matures. 

Now you will see why I put so many tie downs. This is the biggest trunk. Usually we start with it. They call it the number one tree. Whomever they happen to be. 

You see that there’s not much variation in the tree sizes, I got stuck with the leftovers. 

The only challenge with making a believable forest is to avoid what Rick calls the “picket fence” effect. All your trees lined up in a row, like a fence. Most beginners (and many experienced) do this often. The trick: plant your trees in clumps. This one has three. 

All those wires are kinda important. Tie them down tight. Any movement after will damage the roots. 

Tighten on top….

And bottom. 

The placement is made of two clumps, I had only five trees (though the multitrunk is considered more than one, technically). I spaced them on each side of the pot to give a “trail” look to it. When it’s dressed up (which I’m not going to do) you can add moss and stones to give the impression of that trail or a dry riverbed or whatnot. If I had more trees I’d stick with the two clump composition but shove as many trees together as I could. 

And, as you might have guessed, I don’t care if it’s an odd or even number, as long as your groupings aren’t symmetrical or in straight lines, it’s fine. Only those who drink gin and tonic have the time to count trees. 

And the spacing between them is pretty natural. I can fit only two fingers here. 

But almost my whole hand here. Dirty fingers…..dirty boy. 

Back filled with soil, now I need to fix the tree heights. The thickest one should be the tallest. 

That’s about right. 

Some fertilizer and a top dressing of chopped sphagnum moss, to help retain moisture. It helps to have a cypress on the label of your fertilizer. 

One should wear gloves when handling sphagnum moss…..If I had regular moss I’d make it all pretty for you, but, alas,  I can’t grow moss for some reason. That yellow/greenish granular stuff is a pre-emergent weed preventer. I hate pulling weeds. 

And viola!Yeah, I know, not much to look at. 

How’s this? Looks kinda natural. The photo flattens it out unfortunately (compare the aerial shots above to this, you know it’s not as flat as it looks here), but that’s ok. If you go to the joint Abs/Bsf convention in May (Go here for info!) you can buy some raffle tickets and win it, and fix whatever problems you see. It won’t hurt my feelings. 

And Bob’s your uncle! See ya’!

Posted in Horticulture and growing, roots, styling bonsai | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Collecting from the wild (actually, my nursery) 

I have this tree that I’ve been growing out (well…..I have many trees, but this one is in the ground, it was a volunteer, maybe deposited by bird trying to poop on my head, a southern hackberry, a name I prefer to sugarberry, which sounds like some special technique practiced on a sugar daddy, ummmm…..anyway, it’s a celtis lævigata that has grown too big, much like this sentence) that needs to be collected. Like I said, big, and in the ground. I meant to dig it out about two years ago. I got sick though, and that’s all I have to say about that. But this isn’t about collecting it. Maybe soon, but I’ll need help with it. Today’s post is a quick one, easy peasy, with only a few big words and two or three diagrams and illustrations. What I’m after today are called “suckers”. No, really, suckers. I think that they’re called that because it’s believed that they “suck” the energy from the main tree, growing off the roots as they do. 

There are different names we could use, adventitious shoots, basal shoots, root sprouts, water sprouts, but I like suckers. Who doesn’t like a good sucker, huh? A tree that does this is called surculose. Whatever that means……..ok, I had to look it up, it’s root (heh heh) is Latin for sucker- surculosus plus the ending ‘ose. Which doesn’t help much, does it? Anyway, I thought the Latin word for “sucker” was “fellator”? 

Let me explain what I’m actually doing. We have a southern hackberry. Oh, by the way, here’s a “fact” that most people are taught in school that is untrue (like the one that human blood is blue until it hits the oxygen in the air). We were taught that a trees roots only grow as wide as the canopy. 

The real fact is that the roots grow 2-3 times as wide as the canopy. This is important on our hackberries. You see, on the roots (and many other trees, like elms or bananas) are buds (technically meristems, cells which can differentiate into various organs, like more roots or shoots) that will sprout into new trees. In this way, one tree can create its own thicket or stand or forest even, without having to produce seed. Which might explain the low fruit production on many celtis; it might take less energy to reproduce this way than making fruit. A stand of trees like this are genetically identical and the actual term is a “genet”. The most famous example is the quaking aspen colony (its called “Pando”) in Utah that is sometimes considered the largest organism (by mass) on the planet with 47,000 individual trees connected by one root system. It covers 106 acres (43 hectares). The scientist believe this colony is anywhere between 80,000- 1,000,000 years old  That’s right, a million years old! 

The problem with the trees being genetically identical is that if something external affects one tree (say, a bug or a disease) it could wipe out the whole colony. Which many people believe is happening to Pando. It’s dying. They just don’t know what the cause is, whether it’s drought, insects, or disease. Or a combo of all three. Sad really.

How does all this relate to bonsai? We can collect these “root suckers” and make bonsai of course. 

They grow like this in the ground. 

The idea is to pick some of the better ones and cut them out. 

Hopefully you have some more roots….…..but they’ll still grow from the cut ends. There’s a rock embedded in the base of this tree. 

This one is just cool. Good movement. 

But the best use of small ones, like I’m collecting today, are for making little forests or groves, with connected roots. For those so interested, the soil is 1/2 perlite, 1/2 pinebark. Nothing special except it’ll grow roots. 

It’s almost like a raft, but the idea behind the raft is for a fallen tree to grow roots where the trunk is touching the ground and the other side to grow new trunk from the branches. 

I’m not sure where the front is yet….

It’ll be cool. Very natural looking. I’ll probably add more when it goes into a proper pot, I have plenty more trees to choose from. 

Not bad for a backyard nursery and a “weed” tree. Generally, you want to pass up collecting small trees like this for unless your plan is to grow them larger (a good ten year project) or if you want to make little forests like this. Or if you want small trees I guess. What you generally want are bigger trees with character and movement. Like this one-which is going to make a fantastic tree, can’t wait to work on it. 

One last aesthetic tip. When making a forest or clump, the fattest trunk should be the tallest tree. It’s “older” and therefore should be taller. 

Get out there now (or when the ground thaws I guess….) and find yourself some root connected trees and put together a cool little forest. Make sure you get permission first though. 

After care for something like this: no fertilizer until new growth hardens off, but plenty of water (hence the heavy organic component). I also tend to keep them in the shade and protected from the wind to minimize water loss due to evaporation. I’ll keep you up to date, cross your fingers, hopefully I get good results (that’s the cue for the Perpetual Intermediates out there to tell me that they’ll all die because I didn’t get a “proper” root ball. Go ahead, say it, sign your name to it, though, and own it. I’ll publish your reply) 

Next time, a small cypress forest and a Chinese elm or two. 

Posted in Horticulture and growing, rare finds, roots, tips and tricks, yamadori | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments