The Courage to Cut, or Not

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Yesterday I was in my backyard with Steve Piper working on some trees that I had grown from seed. They are crabapples. Years earlier, I had stratified the seed in my refrigerator in a plastic bag with some sand in it. Pretty soon, those seeds sprouted and started growing, right in the refrigerator. Apples do like their cold! I was really late in getting them planted, so I ended up planting seedlings rather than seeds. I grabbed a few Anderson flats and put a layer of soil in the bottom, then built up a berm of soil to lay the tender roots on. I didn’t want to crush them by trying to shove them into soil from above. I then added a strip of soil on top of a row of seedlings, then layed down another row of seedlings on top of that. When I got done, the whole tray of seedlings was sticking out of the soil at roughly a forty-five degree angle. So as these seedlings began to grow, they natural grew straight up, reaching for the light. Fast forward seven or eight years and I have these wonderfully twisted trunks without a single wire scar, all on accident!  

This spring I laboriously rooted pruned and repotted into clay pots roughly eighty of these trees. At that time, I had to cut off about seventy-five percent of the roots because they were encircling the pot and tangled in the drainage mesh. I knew my Crabs and that they could take such harsh pruning. They grow roots profusely and are presently growing right out the drainage holes. Now that they have regained some strength after the spring ordeal, it has come time to give them a good pruning.  

I pruned them hard two years ago when they were out-growing their little four-inch plastic pots. But they ran again and now were towering at two feet tall – a little unwieldy in the wind and lacking much side branching. As we came to look at each specimen, we had to determine whether we were going to keep it as a shohin as originally intended, or let it grow into a medium sized tree. This was largely determined by the size of the curves available. In some cases, we made a drastic cut, leaving no leaves at all, but always a visible bud node. On others we were able to save leaves and still have some good curves.  

What we knew is that the foliage mass of the tree is what will drive its strength. The larger the foliage mass, the more strength the tree has and its ability to respond to our training increases. But overriding that, we had a need to get the trees to a height that we could easily manage and also induce some back budding to get branches to grow.  

I would have preferred to do the work a month ago, but that’s the way the schedule goes. The idea is to cut it in May or June so that the tree has enough time to grow new leaves before  the heat of the summer hits and burns the trunk. Be sure to keep this in mind with any defoliation technique. We really ended up with some home runs in this batch. The trees have a great  start. In many cases, we left a long branch to give the tree some strength and help it thicken and develop further. Every tree we touched was a viable bonsai and the reward of diligent work.  

Watering the trees all these years was a bit of a task. I even had to have help to keep them weed free. But now on to the real point. Every time we touch a tree we need to have a clear purpose in mind and a clear direction for the tree. Each tree needs a different kind of treatment for each stage of development. Can I begin developing branches, or am I still working on the trunk? Can I do a little of both? Do I have the courage and patience to make the hard cut, the best cut? And then let it recover.  

Or for some of us, do I have the patience to not cut and let the tree build up strength and bulk. Many of us have weak trees simply because we keep cutting off the very foliage the tree needs to get strong. Our task as a bonsaist is to balance the needs of the tree at any given moment, whether it be water, air, sun, styling, or growth. Have fun in the sun this summer with your trees and be on the lookout for each one as you water and prune.

Scott E