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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.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Entry Display at Wigert's Bonsai

      In February I wrote a post about a Christmas visit to Wigert's Bonsai, thanks to the generosity of our daughter Kira and her husband Trent. I included as many pictures as I reasonably could, because sometimes, a picture really is worth 1,000 words when it comes to getting across what a place is like. 

But there was one picture I had not taken, and, I discovered, no one else in our party had either: a picture of the display that greets visitors when they first turn into Wigert's driveway. That display is quite eye-catching, and I was kicking myself, figuratively speaking, for not having thought to get a picture. (The display is some distance from the rest of the establishment.)

Then, two months ago, my wife visited Kira and Trent again, and was able to get a picture for me. (Domo arigato, sweetie.) Here is her picture:

Entrance display at Wigert's Bonsai, North Ft. Myers, Florida.

The main tree, its roots growing over the large chunk of reef rock, is a Ficus, presumably F. microcarpa. The shrubs flanking it on either side are Podocarpus (I don't know the species). The bamboo makes a fine backdrop, in my opinion.

Here's a closer view of the main tree:

Root-over-rock Ficus, presumed F. microcarpa. The picture was shot late in the afternoon,
which makes for the strong interplay of light and shadows.

I suppose that, technically, this tree is not a bonsai, since the tree-and-rock composition is not in a container or on a slab. But that really doesn't bother me in this case: it's a still a fine example of the bonsai practitioner's art!

To jump to my February post about our visit to Wigert's, click here.

:-)  :-)  :-)

Sunday, November 15, 2020


     That could have summed up my reaction a few weeks ago, when I heard Ryan Neil say that trees and shrubs photosynthesize through their bark as well as their foliage. They don’t photosynthesize as much through their bark, but they still do it. This has a number of implications for fall and winter care of temperate-zone trees.

(Readers of the Fort Wayne Bonsai Club newsletter has already seen this in my latest Stuff from Steve.)

First, a little botany review. At some point in late summer or fall, temperate species stop producing new foliage and direct all their resources to two purposes: producing more vascular tissue (bulking up), and storing carbohydrates – sugars and starches - for the following spring’s growth push. Just when they make the transition varies from species to species; for example, some maples (Acer) switch over as early as late July, while Austrian pine (Pinus nigra) does so in early-to-mid September. But they all make that shift.

Inside every plant cell is a structure called a vacuole, enclosed in a semipermeable membrane. Some plant cells have more than one, and fungi and some microorganisms also have vacuoles. However, to keep this discussion simple, I'm going to stick to a scenario of a plant cell with one large vacuole. Here is a diagram. Notice that the vacuole can, and often does, take up more than half the space inside the cell.

"V" marks the vacuole.

During spring and summer, the vacuoles in temperate-zone plants contain water and not much else. But as the growing season progresses, sugars and starches for the next spring are stored up, dissolved, in the vacuoles. At first only what is left over from foliage production and other metabolic needs is stored. Once the plant - for our purposes a bonsai or bonsai-in-the-making - makes the late-season switchover described above, carbohydrates storage goes into high gear.

And while stored in the vacuoles waiting for spring (for any who may not know) those carbohydrates serve another function: antifreeze! Water that contains anything else in solution freezes at a lower temperature than pure water – sea water freezes at 29 degrees F (1.6 degrees C), for example. And the greater the concentration of solutes in the water, the lower the temperature at which it freezes.

Trees and shrubs continue to produce and store photosynthates as fall progresses. That’s true for deciduous trees, even after leaf fall, as well as for conifers, because of the aforementioned photosynthesis in the bark. Production and storage slow down as temperatures drop and day lengths shorten, but they don’t stop. In fact those processes don’t stop altogether even when ambient temperatures are well below freezing because of residual heat inside the tree’s tissues. It's true that for all practical purposes, trees can be considered dormant at temperatures below 42 degrees F (5 degrees Celsius); but carbohydrate storage in the vacuoles continues past the winter solstice, albeit at a very low level.

Remember that the higher the concentration of dissolved substances in water, the lower the temperature at which that water freezes. This means that as fall goes along and more and more dissolved carbohydrates are stored in a tree’s cells, the more cold-resistant that tree becomes and the deeper the cold required to kill it. As a matter of fact, the strengthening of the tree’s cold-hardiness stays pretty closely in step with the falling temperatures! Temperatures around here in mid-December are colder than in mid-October (all else being equal), but by December the tree has more “antifreeze” stored up in its cells than it had in October. Temperatures in the northern hemisphere usually bottom out in mid-January (give or take a bit) and by then carbohydrate concentration in the vacuoles has reached its strongest. (To me, the elegance of the whole setup demonstrates the sheer skill of the Creator.)

What does this mean for fall and winter care of bonsai and bonsai-in-the-making?

First, if a tree needs any fall pruning or working, do it as soon as possible after the transition away from foliage growth has begun; make sure not to do it before that. You want the tree to have as much time as possible to heal over the trauma, but you also don't want to interfere with production of leaves and needles - primary photosynthesizing surfaces – until that production stops naturally.

Second, keep up light fertilizing through the fall, and even (very light) into early winter. The tree will still benefit by it. And the same goes for water: keep the soil at least moist unless and until it freezes. (For any who don't know, freezing won’t harm a temperate tree’s roots; neither will staying unfrozen. But do try to avoid alternating freeze-and-thaw.)

Third, and contrary to some conventional wisdom, it’s best to give all your trees some light throughout the cold months, even your deciduous ones. Remember that they can photosynthesize through the bark. At the same time, if you can’t give your deciduous trees any light during the winter, you won’t lose them as long as you can keep them below 42 degrees F (5 C.). They just won’t get off to quite as strong a start in the spring.

One more thing: please remember that all of this applies only to temperate-zone trees. Tropicals are another ball of wax – or should I say “of bark”?

:-)  :-)  :-)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

From the Greatest to the Least

     The ponderosa featured in my last post is not only the largest of my pines, but with an estimated age closer to 50 years than 45, it is also the oldest and most mature.

Here is the youngest and the smallest. I haven't yet identified its species.
One year old. The trunk is about twice as thick as a pencil lead.

About a year ago, my wife accompanied our oldest daughter, who is a skilled semi-professional jeweller, on a rock-collecting trip to Arkansas. They had a fine time, finding plenty of interesting rocks and crystals, sharing a tent, and enjoying each other's company.

And our daughter noticed some pine seedlings, newly sprouted that spring. She's a competent gardener herself, and she brought some back. She gave one to me to see if I could eventually develop it into a bonsai. I potted it up in a small plastic tray (see the picture), using a fairly coarse mix.

By the end of the summer it had matured enough to start producing its needles in bundles - 3 to a bundle, never 2 or 4. That and the fact that the needles are naturally twisted have let me tentatively identify it as a loblolly pine, Pinus taeda. However, Arkansas has four native pine species, so I'm not going to say I'm sure of its species for another couple of years.

It spent the winter under triple-layer shelter, directly on the ground, with my half-hardy specimens. If it is a loblolly, it won't be cold-hardy much below 10 degrees F (-12 C) in a pot, if it is even that cold-resistant. It came thru this winter fine, so the protection it was given must have been adequate. It is now acclimating to the open air. Its terminal buds are elongating and will soon open.
This year's candles getting ready to open.
I suspect the yellow spots on the needles are needle rust, so I've treated the tree with Cleary's 3336F, a systemic fungicide. I will also consult a more experienced pine grower.

I may not live to see this tree developed into a creditable bonsai - loblollies can live well over 200 years. But I'll try to follow Colin Lewis' advice to us older geezers in such a case: "Do it right for posterity!"

Stay tuned for more on my little "gift pine"!

:-)  :-)  :-)

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Repotting That Ponderosa

     In my last post, I mentioned the yamadori ponderosa that I intended to repot the following day.

I bought this Pinus ponderosa from Andy Smith of Golden Arrow Bonsai last summer. Andy collected it in 2017, and estimated it to be 40 years old at the time of collection. In August 2019 he brought the tree with him when he visited Fort Wayne to lead a B.Y.O.T. workshop (saving me shipping costs, which I much appreciated.) We did the first styling in that workshop. Here are a few pictures.

My new ponderosa as Andy delivered it.
The work in progress.
(The cluttered background in this picture is due to an unavoidable camera angle.)
Finished for the day. You can see Andy Smith in the background, in the blue cap.
The tree spent the winter outdoors but sheltered from the wind, and by early this month the buds were swelling noticeably. However, temperatures were swinging up and down like a roller coaster, with daytime highs often above freezing but nightly lows frequently below. I finally got an almost week-long stretch of mild weather, and before the foliage opened too far for repotting to be safe this spring. Thankful for the opportunity, I went ahead.

Here's the tree before work began. I anticipated that I might have to adjust the planting angle once I saw the nebari. Also, some topmost branches had gotten disarranged when I finagled the tree into my car after the workshop last August.
April 7, 2020. Ready to repot.
The pot, a gift from my friend Dave Burke, is an unglazed ceramic rectangle. An aeration layer of scoria, particles between 6 and 7½ mm in size, is ready in the bottom.
This pot is a little shorter and a little narrower, but also a little deeper, than the pot the tree came in. Volumes are similar.
I've mentioned before, usually to the surprise of friends in this country, that pines and their close relatives are exotic to me. I grew up in the tropics, and tropical rainforest trees are my "default" models, all the way down to my subconscious, of what to expect from trees and shrubs. I've killed more pines and spruces over the years than I care to mention, as I've slowly learned the specifics of how they differ from tropicals and just how they should be handled as a result.

I've learned a lot of those specifics in recent years from Ryan Neil and the Bonsai Mirai live streams. (Unlike me, Ryan grew up surrounded by pines, if I understand correctly.) For one thing, it's finally gotten thru my head that a conifer should be never be fully bare-rooted when repotting. Never. Just halfway. I tried two of Ryan's techniques which I hadn't used before, the first of which has to do with that "bare-rooting only halfway": I carefully removed about half the existing potting mix from a "window" in the approximate center of the root mass and more or less under the base of the tree. Here's a picture from below; you can see light coming thru some gaps between structural roots (red arrows).
The "window" in the original soil mass.
(Ryan Neil refers to the area immediately under the base of a tree as its sin - pronounced "sheen" and only coincidentally written in our alphabet the way it is! He says a healthy root mass in the sin is very important to the tree's long-term health, but I don't yet fully understand why.)

I also used Ryan's anchoring approach - the second of his techniques I tried for the first time - using stainless-steel wire and small wood screws. I think the results were good, but I have no pictures.

As I mentioned in my last post, I decided to use his 1:1:1 mix of  akadama, pumice and scoria; all particles were between 2 and 6 mm. That's a smaller average particle size than Ryan uses for ponderosas, but his location gets 52 inches of rain per year to my 40, so I'm not especially concerned. Also, the new pot is not especially shallow, a factor that helps drainage. Mycorrhizal inoculant was sprinkled over the roots before soil was filled in.
For any who don't recognize them, the pumice is white, the scoria is black and the akadama is tan.
A large back root, which could not be removed now without endangering the tree, forced me to pot the tree farther forward in the pot than I intend it to eventually be. That root will be shortened at the next repotting, when I replace the outer "donut" of soil and leave the sin untouched. I will then also be able to adjust the front a little (clockwise as seen from above). A top dressing of shredded sphagnum finished things off.
That root adds interest, but constrains the planting position. Guy wire is a precaution.
And that's all for this year. I'll fertilize the tree well, adjust some branches next year, and repot again in 2021.
The tree in its new home.
Well, almost all: the spring weather wasn't quite done with me and the tree yet. Tonite our low is forecast to again be below freezing and the cold is supposed to stay around for the next three days. Even a ponderosa's roots shouldn't be exposed to such chill right after repotting. So the tree is now on the ground next to the south wall of our garage, under the overhang of the roof, screened from the prevailing wind, and with the pot and its contents swaddled in a fabric made for cold protection of early-season vegetables.
Tucked in until the weekend.
Ciao for now!

:-)  :-)  :-)