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"And the LORD God made ... trees that were pleasing to the eye ..." Gen. 2:9, New International Version.

"Bonsai isn't just something I do; it's part of what I am." Remark to my wife and daughter.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

"What's so special about akadama, anyway?"

     If you're like me, you've wondered that more than once. Articles in bonsai magazines, professionals giving talks, bonsai blogs and websites, all urge us to use akadama in our potting mixes. And testimonials back up the claim that our trees’ root systems will thank us if we do. But akadama is expensive (partly because outside of Japan it must be imported.) Is it worth the cost?

"Double Red Line," one brand of akadama.
There are others available as well.
I had the chance to find out just what it is that makes akadama different, and so good for plant roots, in a recent live-stream broadcast from Bonsai Mirai.  In a word, it’s the structure.

Akadamatsuchi, in Japanese, means “red ball earth.” Akadama, the soil-mix component, is a clay product, dried but not fired. (Despite what a label sometimes says.) Like all unfired clays, it has a good cation exchange capacity, or CEC. For any unfamiliar with the term, the essential thing to remember about CEC is that the higher a substance’s CEC, the more nutrients, in usable form, it can hold on its surface where plant roots can get at them.

But there’s more to akadama than that. Almost all clays, the world over, are composed of microscopic plates. The structure is not very flexible, and when particles swell and shrink due to wetting and drying, they tend to fracture along the plate boundaries. This results in a greater and greater number of smaller and smaller particles in a given volume, and that means an exponential increase in total surface area within that volume of clay. More surface area means more water is held. But because of the plate structure of most clays, the total air space within that volume does not increase along with the water retention. The result: soggy soil.

Mining akadama in Japan.
Akadama is mined in one small area on Honshu, the Japanese main island. There, a particular combination of soil minerals and heat from subsurface volcanic activity come together to produce a clay with a structure based on tiny tubes rather than tiny plates.

To borrow Ryan Neil’s imagery: imagine a game of pick-up-sticks, where every stick is a narrow tube. Toss the tubes and they come down in a disorganized pile, with individual tubes running every which way. Now pick up your pile of randomly-oriented tubes and squeeze out the spaces between the outer walls of the tubes. What you end up with looks like an (oversized) akadama particle.

The tiny tubes – tubules – are still large enough for the smallest root hairs to grow into their water-vapor-rich and nutrient-rich interiors. Once a root hair does that, it keeps growing until it fractures the tube from the inside, and fractures the particle. The two smaller particles created by the fracture each have their own tubule systems, and new root hairs emerging from the sides of the original root hair (now becoming a rootlet) grow into them. They grow thru them, grow large enough to fracture them, and their side-emerging root hairs start to colonize the new, smaller particles that result – and the process goes on and on. Air spaces are getting smaller at the same time, but the root hairs being produced in growing abundance are still small enough to make use of them.

The result of all this is a compact mass of densely-branched, thriving roots – just what is needed for healthy, vigorous bonsai!

Not all the akadama on the market is of the same quality. Given what akadama costs in many places, it’s a good idea to check the quality of a batch before you buy. Ryan Neil’s suggestion: look at how much dust is in the bottom of the bag. If there’s very little dust, it’s good akadama. If there’s a lot of dust – move on.

And not every plant species thrives in akadama. Common juniper, Juniperus communis, grows thruout the northern hemisphere’s temperate and cold zones, and can make a very good bonsai (especially if obtained as yamadori.) But it should never be potted in akadama: for reasons no one yet knows, akadama is the kiss of death to common juniper.

Sooner or later, the supply of akadama is likely to be exhausted, and it costs more than many hobbyists care to pay anyway. What can be used as a substitute? Diatomaceous earth (horticultural grade) has a CEC almost as high as that of akadama, and a somewhat similar tube-based structure. Ryan Neil is experimenting with it in his potting mixes, and others are as well. I’m looking for sources willing to sell it in small quantities. (No success so far.)

Is Japanese akadama unique on the planet? Not quite, it turns out. Ryan Neil told a little story: He sent a bag of akadama to a soil scientist at a California university, asking for a full analysis. After running all his tests, the scientist told Ryan that there is one other place on earth (just one) where the mix of minerals and the level of volcanic heat are such as to produce an identical clay: Mt. Hood, Oregon. A local bonsai practitioner then went up to Mt. Hood, dug out some local clay, and sent it to the same scientist for analysis. The result: there was no difference between that clay and Japanese akadama, none.

Hoodah thunkitt? 

(You can watch the Bonsai Mirai stream “Soils” for yourself, free, at this link. Ryan covers more than just akadama.)

:-)  :-)  :-)

Saturday, January 6, 2018

"Budget" Doesn't Have to Mean "Uninteresting"

     Many of us are practicing bonsai on a budget. There are different reasons. Maybe our budget will only stretch so far. Maybe other pursuits are higher in our personal priorities than bonsai. (I'll forgive you.) Maybe we don't want to spend a lot on bonsai material until our skills improve.

Many in the bonsai world are familiar with the name of Jerry Meislik, retired ophthalmologist, long-time bonsai artist and teacher, and author of the book Ficus: The Exotic Bonsai. Jerry now has many splendid trees, trees to make any bonsai enthusiast drool, but that wasn't always the case. In a Facebook comment a few weeks ago, he said, "I still remember well lamenting the fact that I could not find material to create fantastic huge-trunk bonsai, and the material I could find and afford was pathetic." [Emphasis added.]

He went on to say, "Now I know that some really nice stuff can be made if one is willing to go with certain styles of bonsai."

Earlier that day Jerry had posted a composite picture of some of his recent creations, saying, "Many bonsai lovers have difficulty since their only material is young and long, and not showing huge bases and [an aged] appearance. For some years I have been working with young, long and uninteresting  material. I think you can do the same thing and create some fun bonsai."

Here are some of the pictures from the composite, full-sized and used with permission. For a sense of scale, it looks to me as if all but the third are resting on an upright piece of standard 4" x 4" lumber (approximately 10 cm x 10 cm).

All photos by Jerry Meislik. No commercial use without permission.
Some of the trees were recently defoliated, which allows more of their structure to be seen. While the trees show different styles (semi-cascade, slanting, etc.), most also show the bunjin (literati) variation.

All the bonsai in the pictures are Ficus, grown from cuttings from Jerry's larger trees, but there are other species and genera that can be used for the same purpose. Among tropical species, parrot's-beak (Gmelina), bougainvillea and schefflera are quite flexible when young. The same is true, if not to quite the same degree, for some temperate species, particularly in the pine family (Pinaceae): pine, spruce, hemlock and others. In addition, young and thin stock of almost any species can  be used for multi-trunk and forest plantings.

So, as Jerry's pictures demonstrate: if you are willing to work within certain limits of size, style and species, there is nothing to stop you from creating eye-pleasing, personally satisfying bonsai!

(With thanks to Jerry Meislik for putting this idea in my head. To visit Jerry's website, click here.)

:-)  :-)  :-)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"The Queen of Trees"

     That is the title of a fascinating documentary on the sycamore fig, Ficus sycomorus. One thing that astounded me was the sheer number of different animal species that a sycamore fig will support, literally from ants and (sometimes sozzled) butterflies to elephants!

Ficus sycomorus is native to a large swath of tropical and subtropical Africa, as well as some other adjacent areas. It may be the oldest species of Ficus in cultivation: there is archeological evidence that it was cultivated in Egypt as early as 3000 B.C. It's mentioned a number of times in the Bible; it was a sycamore fig (or just sycomore - note the different spelling) that Zacchaeus climbed in order to see Jesus over the heads of the crowd in Jericho. (Luke 19:1-9.)

Here's a photo of a sycamore fig growing in Ethiopia. The three human figures in the foreground give a sense of scale. Photo credit to Bernard Gagnon.

Ficus sycomorus has long been valued for fruit and shade. The figs are used for animal fodder, as well as being eaten
by wildlife. They are edible for humans, but not as palatable as the figs of Ficus carica.
And here is a link to the documentary: "The Queen of Trees."


:-)  :-)  :-)

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Larch Fall Color

     If you didn't know that there are conifers that shed their foliage every year and grow a full new set in the spring, just like a maple or an elm, don't feel too bad. You're not alone. Perhaps the best known deciduous conifer is the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum.) The larches are also deciduous conifers, known for their clear yellow fall color. That color is one of the features which make them popular for bonsai in areas where conditions are suitable for their growth.

Larch, species unknown, two blocks from my house. Some of the foliage is still turning.
The cones are smaller than a table grape, too small to show in the picture.

There are 10-12 recognized species of larch, depending on the source you consult, as well as a few hybrids; they make up the genus Larix in the family Pinaceae. Besides pines and larches, the Pinaceae family includes spruces, firs, hemlocks, true cedars (Cedrus), and a few other genera.

Three species of larch are commonly used for bonsai: Larix decidua, European larch; Larix kaempferi, a.k.a. Larix leptolepis, Japanese larch; and Larix laricina, American larch or tamarack. American larch is native to Canada and parts of the eastern USA. My location in Indiana is just within its native range. It's very adaptable, fairly fast-growing when young, and shrugs off cold like a musk ox.

I picked up a pre-bonsai Larix laricina at MABA 2017; my lovely wife bought it for me as an early Christmas present. And it's turning color too.

My larch bonsai-in-the-making. The trunk just above the nebari is a little more than 1 inch in diameter.
This is my first real try with a larch, so I've been reading up on its care and am thankful that I live within its native range. Once the needles fall I will finish styling the uppermost branches. I have a Sara Rayner pot that I think will suit it, come next spring. If all goes well, it should be on display within a couple of years. Wish me the best!

:-)  :-)  :-)