Percolation problems? Dam it.

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

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 conditions quickly and move on. I know my trees, and what to look for in each one. I get to spend a little time with them everyday. Last thing. Be sure to have a few bonsai buddies on tap for watering when you leave for more than a day. Help each other out. See you in September. 

Scott Elser

Azalea Pests and Diseases

I have been wanting to get back to talking about pests and diseases for quite awhile – since the first couple of articles last year. Mostly because I was only able to hit on a few highlights the first go around. We introduced some of the broad issues and a short list of the chemical solutions to fight them. But going forward, I would like to addresses pests and diseases more specifically and hopefully give you the tools to both identify and treat them on your trees. As my own challenges with these problems occur, I have been trying to keep a photographic record so that I could share them as the need arises. While documenting such an outbreak of leaf gall on my azaleas, it occurred to me that I had a nice little package on azaleas, with some good treatment strategies, so here goes. Be forewarned, I only have one azalea bonsai in my collection – a Kozan variety Satsuki which is blooming right now. But I just counted and I have 38 azaleas, plus about a dozen rhododendrons in the landscape around our house. Most are very old and mature, and nearly all are summer blooming, putting them in a class with the Satsuki breed that we usually see as bonsai. It has provided a great learning ground, and may also help you with your landscape plants as well as your bonsai. 

Azalea Leaf Gall
This is a very unsightly disease and the cause of my latest round of spraying. I first saw this disease on a bonsai many years ago. It causes the leaves to thicken like a jade leaf and then distort into grotesque forms. It first starts out a light lime green. They usually occur randomly across a plant. The easiest solution is to just prune them out and that may be all that is actually needed to control it. The galls won’t kill the plant, but they will weaken the branch. But they just plain look bad. If you don’t get them pruned, they will turn white and fuzzy as they start to fruit and give off spores. You can see both stages in the photos, but don’t let them get that far. I discovered a relative epidemic once I started trimming the bushes around the house and found them thriving just under the new green leaves. They start to appear at, or just after flowering. Once they are removed, you can spray with the fungicides propiconazole (Bannermax, Fertilome Liquid Systemic) or chlorothalonil (Daconil) to prevent future outbreaks. I am just trying this spray treatment now, so I cannot verify the effectiveness yet.  

Azalea Leaf Gall

Grrrhhhh. I hate these guys. My wife was at Portland Nursery last week and they had a sign up that basically said, give up on azaleas and don’t plant them, all because of these guys. They are really becoming a nuisance the last few years in Portland. The nursery also said there are some resistant varieties out there. But as I said, I have about fifty mature plants to protect and they are my favorite landscape plants, pretty much ever, short of a Japanese maple. So they are here to stay and I am digging in. I am including photos of these buggers in three different stages. You can find better photos on the internet if you like. I am sharing these just to let you know the threat is real and can be dealt with, and that you may have to recognize them in different forms. The first signs are the stippled leaves. This may remind you of spider mites, but if you turn the leaf over, you may see adult or juvenile lace bugs running around. And they do have legs! I put this one guy on my barbecue and it was hard to keep up with him. Note also the black dots of fecal excrement. The lack of webs also tells you that it is not spider mites. I have also included a photo of spent lacebug carcasses to further indentify their presence. 

The short solution is to use a product with Imidacloprid in it and they go away. This is a systemic treatment and affects most bugs that want to suck on leaves. The problem being that if not used properly, it may affect good insects like bees. I really don’t want to enter into that discussion and don’t have strong enough information to properly guide you. I am just making you aware of what you are dealing with, both from a diagnostic and treatment point of view. There are also other direct contact sprays that you can use. The challenge will be getting the spray to them. I suggest a tank sprayer that you can get a high pressure on and stick the nozzle up under the branches so that you get all the undersides of the leaves. These guys should be fairly easy to kill, similar to aphids.   

Juvenile Lacebugs


Lacebug carcasses


Lacebug damage

Azalea Bark Scales
You may have never heard of these critters, and I hope that you never do. But, I have had todeal with them at both my old and new house, on azaleas and also Andromeda. These guys look like wooly aphids, or a wooly scale. They like to hang out in the crotches of branches or in the grooves of bark where they get more protection. Most sucking insects feed on the sap in the leaves, which is traveling up from the roots, through the xylem and out to the leaves. These bark scales suck on the sap that is flowing down through the phloem. That means that they are resistant to most systemic treatments like imidacloprid, which only works on the sap flowing up. Very few systemics are able to work both directions, but there are some that do, and of course are expensive and elusive. What is so insidious about these guys is that they hide out under the canopy, out of sight, where they go unobserved until permanent damage occurs. They tend to colonize on single branches of a plant, sucking it dry until you see it start to slowly fade and then eventually die. Pruning back the leaves reveals many tiny cottony tufts along the stems of the plant. But take heart, there is an effective solution. It’s work, but it can be done. Immediately prune out the infected branch. Pretty much it’s toast down to the roots. That means that you will have to grow a new branch to fill in, but in the landscape this is not a problem, just a patience issue. On bonsai, if you are paying attention, it should never get this far. But once you have pruned out the dead branches, it opens the tree up to spraying. Since the purpose of the cottony white shell is to protect the bug once it is stationary, the only time you can effectively treat them is in the spring – April-May, while they are out crawling around to a new home and have not yet developed their shell. I leave it to you to select your favorite poison. Some have suggested using a spray oil to suffocate the bugs in other seasons, but I have not tried this. I have had full recovery of plants using this method though, and am in the process of treating a few plants at our new home. 

That’s it for azaleas. Scott Elser

Abstract vs. Realism

If your eyes have managed to scroll down the page before you read this, you are probably wondering what these images of Mount Rainier have to do with anything related to bonsai. They are actually what I do most everyday to support my bonsai habit. That is, creating tee shirt designs for companies like Eddie Bauer, Columbia Sportswear, and Icebreaker. Eddie Bauer is an active outdoor lifestyle clothing brand with headquarters near Seattle and is nearing 100 years old. Mountains and trees figure in heavy with their Northwest heritage and the lifestylethey represent. And since you can see Mount Rainier right out the window of their home in Bellevue, they quite naturally want to feature that majestic giant in just about any design where there’s a mountain. There might be a whole collection with Denali, or Everest, K2, or the Tetons, but there is always Rainier. So every season, I have to figure out a new way to represent the mountain, whether it is the feature or in the background. 

By stepping out of bonsai and using tee shirt designs as examples, I am hoping that we can take a close look at the concepts of what we are dealing with and what we are trying to accomplish in our bonsai. What you can see by these examples, all from the same person, is that there are many ways to represent the same physical object and it can be associated with many different ideas. Maybe it’s very literal, as in a photograph, or abstract – to the point where you might barely recognize the source. 

What we have in bonsai is making some of the same choices in the way that we style trees. So, right off the bat, we put a tree in a pot, and in doing so we have removed it from world of reality and into some level of abstraction, even if we do nothing else. We could go so far as to put a pot of soil out and let the wind blow in whatever seeds it wants and come back in ten years and see what happens, but you can’t get around the fact that someone made the pot. So much for being completely natural. 

Now that we have that tree out of the relative comfort of the ground and into a stuffy, confining pot (which might actually provide much more comfort and stability than it ever had in the wild) we have some decisions to make. How much are we going to intercede on the behalf of both the tree and art, to make a bonsai? 

We have to decide what our goal is, even with each individual tree, and what we want to represent. Do I want to create the sensation of standing on a certain mountaintop where that tree came from? Am I trying show off the beauty of its blossoms? Do I want to show it all full of vigor and health, or is it barely surviving? And more to the point of this article, do I want to show it as a highly stylized abstraction of what a tree can be, or simply represent the singular specimen that it is? Is this tree going to announce itself or just sit quietly in the corner? Will it be highly sculptural, creating defined, consistent shapes or just a, grow as you may, haphazard style?

Culture definitely weighs in heavily on what we want to see. The Japanese refined the art of bonsai through technical prowess and cultural sensibilities. The technical aspects of growing and maintaining bonsai speak for themselves. Plants don’t change the way they work, so we have to learn to work with them, to support our efforts. But the cultural aspect is something that we can control. A good place to start is with Japanese aesthetics. They have learned how to evolve their trees into a style that is both pleasing and maintainable over hundreds of years. But even that style is ever changing, and different among various practitioners. 

The Japanese, it would seem, crave a peaceful balance, with not a hair out of place and as close to perfection as possible. Take for instance, putting moss on the surface of a pot for exhibition. It definitely makes things look better, but for the Japanese, the thought of bringing dirty soil seen on top of the pot into their home is quite unfathomable. Contrast that with myself, who regularly piggy-backs dirt into the house from my waffle stompers. Cultural habits are different and lead to varying aesthetics.

So, back to the trees. Take a look at Mount Rainier 1, the usual view represented of themountain. It’s basically what you see along I-5 especially from Seattle. Then there is view number 2, which I took much closer to the mountain on the southwest side. Doesn’t even look the same. I choose rather consciously to represent the mountain in its most familiar form on tee shirts so that folks recognize it. I myself would be much less recognized by my back side, than my front. That is a constant that I have chosen.  

Rainier 1  

Rainier 1  

  Rainier 2

  Rainier 2

Now take a look at Rainier Park. Do you recognize the mountain? Yet I traced it from the very same views. I just used a few straight lines is all, but it’s the same. Even though its roots are in a very real mountain, it is really just the suggestion of ANY mountain. The shapes are broad and highly stylized, even the trees are just one step away from Christmas ornaments. 

Now observe Rainier Pixel. It’s definitely based on a photo, something we would call real, but now the resolution in some places gets very coarse and you can barely make it out. This focuses your attention to the peak, very much in the same way that we use foliage to frame a piece of deadwood or control the way that our eye flows through design of a tree.

Rainier Park

Rainier Park

Rainier Pixel

Rainier Pixel

Then there is Sketch Rainier. This one is totally made up of lines with no shapes at all. If you get to close, it’s very difficult to decide which is a positive or negative shape, but it becomes much more interesting, and even refreshing with that push/pull aspect.

Sketch Rainier

Sketch Rainier

Puget Sails

Puget Sails

Then there is Sketch Rainier. This one is totally made up of lines with no shapes at all. If you get to close, it’s very difficult to decide which is a positive or negative shape, but it becomes much more interesting, and even refreshing with that push/pull aspect.

 Scott Elser

Spring Show in New Home 

Our annual spring show returned to the Japanese Gardens one fine, rainy weekend in April. Back to the garden, but in new quarters, as our display was divided into two separate rooms across the new plaza, plus an outdoor display by Brian Lonstad. It was a great success, even though it featured fewer trees than we are used to. We saw many new trees and several new exhibitors. 

Folks had a really good time during the day visiting with attendees and Saturday evenings critique was a great hit. During the critique, we voted on the best trees, shown below. Congrats to all of the winners and many thanks to all who participated, either by showing trees, helping set up or take down, tree sitting, and demonstrations. We hope to expand further into the plaza next year with more outdoor displays. Thanks everyone!  See the May Newsletter for the photos of the winners.