Viva Liberace!

How many of you have seen this tree at one of our auctions or raffles? Well, not this one exactly, but many a tree just like this have made their way off our benches and into the donation pile. Such was the destiny of this Engelmann Spruce. Many years ago when my grandfather passed away, I inherited most of his bonsai. He’s the one that actually got me interested in bonsai, and he must have dug this up as a seedling on one of our collecting trips. It’s had an interesting life so far. 

2015: Engelmann Spruce recovering from neglect

2015: Engelmann Spruce recovering from neglect

After watching some Floridian bonsai teacher on television, my grandfather was convinced that planting trees in pure sphagnum moss as a soil substrate was the way to go, and this tree was one of those experiments/victims. Actually, the tree did not suffer too much as it was in a very shallow plastic saucer so that it couldn’t hold much water anyway. It literally sat in the back corner of my bonsai bench for many years. The tree started out only 10-12 inches high – where the first branch is in the picture. It started to grow, then shot up. But the container and myself did not keep up with the rapid growth and the tree’s health ultimately took a nose dive. 

Every year I try and winnow down my collection, a tough prospect. This tree was on its way out. I had too many trees already and we moved to a new home 2015: Engelmann Spruce with less space for bonsai. Lisa, my wife adopted the tree, esperecovering from neglect. cially after hearing that it was my grandfather’s. You know, like finding a stray cat on your doorstep. Our first step was to replant

the tree into a larger container and get it back to health. The tree responded quickly to good soil and better conditions (light, water, fertilizer). After only a year the tree was ready to be styled.  

I love bunjin trees and this one in particular was a good candidate. It had no lower branching and was tall and narrow. But what this tree had over any garden variety seedling was age. It was obviously very old already, with flaking bark at the base. Engelmann also has nice short needles, so the scale would work great. Our challenge was to come up with a design that could take advantage of the great bark at the base and make this stripling into something.

You can see Lisa in the photo bending the trunk with #6 copper. Actually, she might have had a little help with “her” tree. We ended up using rebar, blocks, and guy wires to hold the trunk in place. We applied so much force that we were already cutting into the bark before we finished styling. We should have used some raffia here. Experience is a great teacher. Spruce is very flexible, but can easily spring back. I wanted to both exaggerate the angles, and get plenty of movement going. The tree already had good caliper, so there was a lot of grunting involved.

This is also about the time the tree got it’s nickname. I explained to Lisa that this was a bunjin or literati style tree. Being an unfamiliar word, she just sort of unconsciously inserted the closest sounding word she knew – Liberace. You know, the flamboyant pianist from the sixties and seventies that wore sequins and ruffles on everything? That guy. So the name stuck. You can see the results just a few months later.

Lisa “bending” the trunk

Lisa “bending” the trunk

The original photo was taken in early February of2015, and the styling happened just a few weeks after. The styled photo was taken in June of 2015 after the first flush of growth, and at its new home. 

The tree responded incredibly well and we had nice, lovely wire scars by fall. We dewired the tree and it was later rewired in the spring of 2016. We also moved it into a new Jim Gremel nanban style pot. You can see by the container sizes that this was an aggressive move. It definitely slowed the tree down a bit, but it recovered nicely. However, it was later hit by a bout of Rhizosphaera Needle Cast on a few of the branches, which I initially thought was just a symptom of the repotting. When Todd Schlafer presented at our club, he mentioned the disease, which strikes spruces. After a bit of internet research I confirmed the disease, treated it, and the tree did just fine this year. 

Fast forward to this fall, 2017. I lightly wired some extending branches and tuned things up a bit. I also started opening up the trunk, removing a bit of bark to help disguise the wire scars. I hope to make this one very old and gnarly looking tree. Three growing seasons and look what can be accomplished. One or two more years and it may be ready to show.


2015 Strong growth after the initial styling

2015 Strong growth after the initial styling

2017 The tree is well on its way.

2017 The tree is well on its way.


Percolation problems? Dam it.

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So you’ve been diligently watering and fertilizing all season, but the water now just seems to run off the edge of the pot and into oblivion, leaving your root ball high and dry. You check the soil and it’s still dry under the surface and the water is not getting where it needs to go. Even though we are transitioning into fall, the trees are still consuming a lot of water. One of the main causes of this loss of percolation is the build up of unused fertilizer on the surface of the soil, along with weeds, old leaves, dead moss, etc… The soil is too compacted for the water to penetrate. There are a few ways to address the situation. 

First of all, if you have just repotted in the last year or two, the soil underneath is likely fresh and still granular. Just scrape off the crust, down to the good soil and replace with fresh soil if needed, and then top dress with shredded moss (half dried, clean sphagnum and half fresh green) to start re-growing a nice healthy carpet on the soil surface. That carpet of moss does many things and one of the most important is grabbing that fresh water from your hose and directing it down into the root zone. Be sure to not go too deep in your cleaning efforts. It may be best to wait until you can repot in the spring to tackle the roots properly. 


Rope dam applied to sloped and compacted root ball. 

If we have hard, compacted soil from a tree that has not been repotted in four or five or more years, we need a different strategy. It is likely that the loss of percolation is impacting the health of the tree. So we need to get that water in there to build up the health of the tree BEFORE a Spring repot we can address the roots and compacted soil. So how do we do that? Something that I am trying this year is to build a small dam around the edge of the pot with a length of rope. I just used some half-inch sisal rope I had on hand. I cut it to length and fastened it to the soil with staples made from bonsai wire. I really like the natural fibers best. Cotton or hemp might also work well.  

In my case, I was dealing with a very old mountain hemlock with steep sides to the root ball. The first time I repotted it I had to use a reciprocating saw to cut a slab of roots from the bottom just to get it back into the pot. It had been many years since the previous owner had done anything. In my last repotting, I shoehorned the tree into a new pot, so I did not have a safe opportunity to really tackle the issue properly. And so, my current dilemma. In this case, I made two rows of rope dam to slow down the water so that it would percolate into the root ball and the technique has worked marvelously. It also keeps the fertilizer from washing away. 

Another method, which I have not yet, tried myself, is to make a wall all the way around the outside of the rim of the pot with duct tape, or something similar. All we are trying to do is to redirect the water into the pot. Of course, this method is more drastic, and there will be some clean up later, but we do what is needed for the health of the tree. Give these methods a try. 

That’s the reason we try to leave a quarter to half-inch drop between the rim of the pot and soil level when we repot. Actually, since my first draft of this article, Ryan Neil has released a new video on Mirai Live about this very technique. He goes into great detail about the symptoms and signs of a flagging tree and how to address the situation. 

I wanted to fit in another seasonal subject here. Actually, it’s several things that are very interrelated, so pay attention. As you will see in my Hard Won Truths for this month, this is the best and most important time of year to fertilize. But why? The tree is now doing several things. It has shifted from foliar growth to vascular growth. That means that it is storing up energy for winter and beginning to build its defenses against the cold, packing nutrients into the cells. It’s also creating new cells and building vascular tissue, as well as next years buds. We want to supply as much nutrition as we can to the tree to help it build. All of the foliage has hardened off by now, so we don’t have to worry about long needles, large leaves, or long internodes. 


Unfortunately, this means that since the tree is putting on vascular tissue (growth rings) any wire we have on a tree may be cutting in. If it is starting to cut in now, it is really going to be dug in by the end of the season. I think that I may have more experience than anyone around at dealing with deeply cutting wire and ugly scars. Wire has stayed on many of my trees way too long and at times I have been forced to just cut them off. Branches fool you because they don’t all cut in the same amount, or in the same areas. The branch tips rarely cut in. 

Look for the areas where you made a sharp bend, or where you have had a lot of foliage growth, or where a branch forks from the trunk or another branch. Those are the areas where the tree adds tissue the quickest. Elongating species like fir, hemlock, and spruce are perhaps the worst since they have most of their strength in that vascular tissue and tend to really bulk up this time of year. 

But all of this also means that this is the best time to wire. You can get that branch setting mass in just a few months, and any minor damage done by bending or applying wire can be repaired by the tree before winter. So if you take wire off, put it right back on, if needed, to maximize your efforts. If you remove the wire on conifers, before it starts cutting in a little, then you really haven’t gained much. Worse, if you don’t rewire it, the tree will add tissue in the position that you just tried to correct. 

So the trick is to be able to work your tree so that you only take off and replace what is needed and save yourself some work. If it has been several years, then it has likely out grown the length, if not also the strength, of the wire and it will have to be redone. So that is how my fall work is shaping up - lots of unwiring and rewiring. But, I am making more headway than in the past.


Water Wise

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It seems like water has been a subject that I at least touch on every few months in these articles and it is about time to revisit the matter once again. Why cover it so often? Mostly because we are all on this journey together, constantly learning and upgrading our skills and technique. 

For many of us, getting our first cell phone was the un-tethering of our lives (Now we are glued to it). We were able to call in grocery lists, or make that flat tire call. Then all of a sudden, we could take pictures and send a text message. I actually purchased my first iPhone so that I could more easily send texts. That phone served me well beyond it’s like expectancy. It was a 3gs. That tells you something about me. I am not usually a first adopter to technology. I mean, it took three generations for me to jump on board. I upgrade only when it serves my needs or the darn thing wears out. But the time came, and I upgraded to an iPhone 7. Yep. Four generations there. Then within a day I thought it was the most marvelous piece of technology that I had ever touched. Everything worked the way that I thought it should, intuitively. I could do the things I needed to much easier. But enough about the iPhone. Now about watering. It’s time for another upgrade.

I changed my watering practices a bit this year and the results are stunning. My trees are growing better and stronger than ever. That is partly due to a better fertilizing regimen, but also due to better watering practices. Of course, you have to throw the rest of the bonsai skills in there – repotting being the major one – doing it properly. Then there is pruning – the right amount at the right time, pinching, etc… 

But it all comes down to watering. What is the difference this year? In a phrase, it’s not overwatering. Now that has been really tough, having gone through the wettest winters on record. But I can’t control that in my situation. Unless you have a covered area, you can’t either. But all the trees survived that better than expected. The key this year has been to check water a couple of times a day – not an easy feat for those of you who commute to work. I commute about twenty feet down the hall, so I can check water when needed. I usually like to check twice a day, once about 10-11 am and again in the afternoon. Sometimes I do it three times a day, which would be better. Above 90 degrees and I am definitely checking three times.

But all that is the same as I have been doing for five years. What is different is not watering everything, all the time. I now pay much more attention to each plant and how it is using water from day to day. I have some Magnolias in full sun and they are barely using one full watering a day. So sometimes, I skip two waterings on them and wait until they have used up what they have. 

On the other hand, I have a Rocky Mountain Juniper that sucks water like there is no tomorrow. Nick Lenz in his book about native trees for bonsai said that he gives his RMJs just a whiff of water at a time. Why then is my tree sucking the pot dry? Water and oxygen balance. MyRocky has doubled its foliage mass this year. That’s no mean feat for an RMJ. It is obviously cranking on all cylinders. But I still wait for the top of the soil to dry a bit before I water it again. The point is to give the tree all the water it needs, but no more. 

I used to water everything the same and somewhat control the water by the particle size of the soil – fine particles for shohin, coarse particles for pines, especially five needled pines. But that led to some trees being overwatered, or not enough. So now I drench each tree that I am actually watering, to make sure I get plenty of water into the shin, the soul of the tree, right under the trunk. Or I don’t water at all. The danger I used to have was applying just a light coat of water. When I thought the tree was wet on top, it was really dry inside the pot. Those now dry roots die, then rot because they can’t uptake water anymore and are drowning in it. So once the cycle is started, it takes diligent effort to correct.

I have been able to significantly improve the health of several trees this year that were flagging by limiting the amount of water they receive. Just paying closer attention and being patient for them to grow on their own terms. I have to figure in several factors.

1.  Overall health of the tree. How well and how rapidly is it growing.

2.  Size of the container relative to the size of the foliage. Depth plays an important part here.

3.  Species of the tree. I am watering single-flush long needle pines – which are all alpine species, like Ponderosa, Limber, and Lodgepole only once a day. My azaleas and maples are never allowed to dry out.

4.  Daily weather – hot and windy, or wet and cool?

5.  Position in the garden. I have trees that get morning sun and afternoon shade, and the opposite. What condition is it moving into?

6.  When can I water again? It has to do well until I can get back to it. Better to give a healthy tree extra water than let it dry out.

Now that we are entering into the summer in earnest, many trees are hardening off, forming a cuticle on the leaves that limit moisture loss. Some are even going dormant. They are not rapidly expanding, so even though the temperatures are going up, the amount of water is going down. I have really noticed this in the last week or two on some trees. More or less, conifers. 

On other trees, especially ones that were heavily pruned in late spring and are now in their second flush of growth, are showing no signs of slowing and require even more water to keep them from burning. As a hint, I moved some deciduous trees that were growing slowly into a bit of shade and they are really taking off. That means that they are using more water in the shade than they were when in full sun. Go figure.

Am I taking any more time to water than before? Not really. My collection takes only about 15-20 minutes each session. I learn to evaluate the water