The High Price of Too Many Trees

Return to Branch Tips index

The purpose of this column, from the very beginning, has been to advance the art of bonsai in Portland as far and as quickly as we can. I have been endeavoring to share the bonsai knowledge that I have gained in 25 years of pursuing this art. Some of this information comes via direct instruction from those who have studied extensively in Japan, and other tidbits from my own personal experiences. Most of those experiences are triumphs, but a few are tragedies. This is one of those times that I hope you can learn from some of my mistakes.  

As I mentioned in my last column, my bonsai collection started unobtrusively on an apartment balcony. Since that last writing, my now considerably larger collection is moving back to within a half mile of that first apartment. It will be time to pare down the collection to a more manageable size, because quite literally, that is all the space I will have. It took me many years to build up the collection, acquiring trees whenever and wherever I could to find the finest my budget would allow. I was able to amass quite a few quality trees, and many of them large. The trees are large enough that they make me think two and three times before tackling one, either for styling or maintenance. And there are so many of them. So many that I cannot properly care for them. And therein is the crux of the problem. Shifting interests and time constraints.  

About ten years ago, I took up dancing (Yes, all that stuff you see on Dancing with the Stars) and that started to eat into my time with lessons, etc… It was a very good thing though, as I started spending more time with people instead of trees on Saturday night. Now that I am very happily married (Yes, we met dancing), bonsai is not one of those activities that we generally do together, but Lisa is my biggest bonsai supporter. So if you couple all those factors in with trees that are growing and developing rapidly, each season multiplying the amount of care required, it’s a recipe for disaster. So, this month I have an example of what can happen when you have too many trees.  

The photos tell just about everything. These branches used to belong to a Western Hemlock that won the Best Conifer award at the National Show in 2008. But the wire from that show came off only two years ago. There was always something else to do, and well, hemlocks don’t grow too fast, do they? I will get to it next month. And the next month. And I really can’t see up inside there too well. It was a shock to see just how much I had let things cut in. Eileen Knox was so kind to help me unlock the tree from it’s bonds, but as you can see, some of branches were way beyond repair. I cut the ones shown off a year after the wire was removed. In one section, we simply removed the entire lower branch (Which improved the tree significantly). As you can see in the photos, some of the wire was simply embedded too far to get out. So, now I have some hints on how to avoid and correct this situation.  
1.    Make sure you can maintain the trees that you have. Having too many will not do justice to the ones you that you cherish. Only you can decide that number, but I bet you have some neglected ones. Go for the best.  
My addiction is that I like a great number of species, deciduous and conifers, and many
forms. And of course large ones. I just de-wired a large mountain hemlock. It took five hours just for that little chore.
2.    Wire cutting in is very predictable in certain areas, so check there first. The apex – it’s always growing much stronger than the rest of the tree and thus thickens much faster. Any place that you made sharp bends. The more the tissue is damaged, the more repair that is needed and that is where it thickens the most. Small wire on a branch with larger wire. This one is trickier. Since you have large wire on a larger branch, you don’t always notice how tight the fine little wire is, like a tourniquet, strangling the tree. Since it is fine, it buries itself deep very quickly.
3.    Watch deciduous trees in the spring – they are elongating rapidly and the negative effects of even the slightest scarring can take awhile to mitigate. Watch your conifers in the fall, when they are literally bulking up, storing up reserves for the winter.
4.    Always remove wire in the same order that you put it on. That means starting with all the fine wire on the tips of a main branch, then working back up the branch, gauge by gauge. That way the branches are supported as you unwind.
5.    Remove fine wire by unwinding. I unwind everything up to about 14 gauge, then I get out the wire cutters somewhere between 14 & 12. Two reasons. The first being that you will always miss some of the fine wire if you don’t keep it in one piece by unwinding. The second is that you risk actually cutting the branch off with fine wire. The bottom line is to always use the method that will cause the least amount of damage to the tree. Be ABSOLUTELY SURE to support the branches just as you did when you applied the wire. Remember, especially with copper that work hardens, the wire is twice as strong as when you put it on. If you are not careful, it will just rip a branch right off, no questions asked.
6.    To remove deeply embedded wire, unwind it as much as you can, retracing the steps you made when you put it on. This may require you to cut it after each revolution. On completely buried wire, I sometimes cut one end short, making sure it is straight as possible, then pull it through the other side.  

Remember, all is not lost, even with heavy scarring. The tree has already been rerouting the flow of resources around wire, so if you remove it with care, it will just keep on growing. Seal any bark that comes off with cut paste. Light scarring will dissipate over time, even on something like a maple. In a conifer, foliage can be arranged to hide something excessively grotesque. Or, you can simply cut it off and replace it with something else. Above all, don’t get your hands stuck in the cookie jar with too many trees to take care of.


Leaving wire on too long

Leaving wire on too long