In the past, several discussions have led me to serious reflection. As enthusiasts what are we missing, or need to acquire in order to really prosper in this fascinating hobby both horticulturally and artistically? The answer is not a simple one, but one that nonetheless can and should be reflected upon.
A question that is better answered by each and every one of us is: What has drawn us to this fascinating, sometime challenging and rewarding hobby? We each have our reasons and beliefs why we practice the art of “Bonsai”. It has been stated many times that “the journey” is a long one, what draws us to it, better yet what inspires us to continue along its torturous, frustrating and often challenging path? Unlike acquiring a degree of some sort, a bonsai education takes a lifetime; the degree is never truly finished nor acquired. The reverend “masters” will openly admit, “There is much to learn, I have refined my skills, but mastered none”.
Raising a bonsai from a cutting or a seed is not unlike raising a child, from the moment of conception we are fascinated with “new life”. The conception part is relatively easy and painless; the developmental stages on the other hand are plagued with uncertainties, frustrations and rewards. As the first newborn arrives home, the uncertainties set in. How do we raise the infant, it’s our first? How do I know what it needs, when it needs it, and what upsets the balance? We trudge through it and low and behold we attend their graduation. In that time frame we have not only educated and nurtured the infant into a functioning adult but have acquired an education ourselves in the process. Raising a child teaches us much; the growing seedling is no different.
We armed ourselves with literature, surrounded ourselves with family, friends and more experienced professionals to aid us on our journey, in seeing this child rise to fruition. Everyone has a different opinion and difficult advice. How do we apply these principles to our chosen craft? The similarities are so alike that it is nearly impossible to distinguished between the two.
Bringing the child home
We take our infant home from the nursery only to find out that the formula the neo-natal unit had the child on is not available or is no longer suitable as he/she has developed an allergic reaction to it. So we quest the market for a suitable substitute to meet its needs and feeding requirements. Finding the right baby formula is not unlike finding the proper soil components so our “younguns” can grow to maturity. Like a child a tree requires moisture and oxygen to live; the latter is provided by a free draining soil along while employing proper watering techniques.
A child will tell us when it needs its bottle; a tree on the other hand will often display its malcontent in a more subtle fashion. When parched a tree's leaves will often droop, indicating not unlike a crying child it requires to be fed, or in this particular case watered. When a tree loses its leaves out of sequence, or they turn yellow, once again it is not unlike a child who is crying because of a bout of colic or having a soiled diaper, it is merely the trees reaction to its living conditions. Feeding a child too much, results in a bellyache, whilst our trees may not get a bellyache, they will demonstrate their discomfort by throwing their leaves. It is their way of telling us, they require immediate attention, as our current course of action is simply not acceptable. Should we persist unknowingly or otherwise with the current course of action, in an act of self-preservation, the tree simply turns itself off. In some cases, many will seed and bloom prior to their demise as a selfless act of preservation in the hope of propagating the species. That’s how “Mother Nature” intended things to be, when human intervention is not a factor in the equation.
Contrary to popular belief a tree is not on intravenous, it only takes up the moisture lost through perspiration, and therefore watering excessively will soon lead to its demise. A child that is fed excessively intravenously will also succumb, drowning in its own fluids. The tree with sodden roots will react similar to a child that requires its bottom to be changed. Imagine how miserable you would feel having wet tootsies for days on end. Wouldn’t you throw a conniption as well? A common affliction of WW I veterans was trench foot disease. The fungus was a direct result of, hours spent for days on end in water-laden trenches. The comparable affliction of our beloved trees would be root rot.
The dirty diaper
A diaper not unlike a bonsai pot, that is full or crap will lead to numerous afflictions. Albeit, the child will not succumb to a “crappy” diaper, it sure can make ones life miserable until dealt with. A tree, not unlike a child, enjoys the luxury and warmth a clean diaper provides, or in the case of the former, free draining soil, free of crap. As you wouldn’t think of covering baby’s bottom with heavy cotton, the same consideration should be given on soil components selected. How is the latter accomplished? Component size is of great importance when mixing our substrate. Let’s take a look at what the substrate does for our trees. First and foremost it anchors a tree to the pot, until such time as the roots have colonized the pot and have attached themselves to the sides and bottom of the pot. Until this colonization transpires, anchoring the tree to the pot with wire is the method most widely used. Secondly, it must provide an avenue for retaining moisture in order to replenish fluid loss during the day. Thirdly, it must provide a medium for the tree to find its nourishment on demand and, last but not least must provide the free exchange of oxygen for the lungs, uh, I mean roots.
The first component is any form of impermeable aggregate available in your area. Natural aquarium gravel could be a source, as well as flushed “crusher dust” or coarse sand for that matter. The component of choice is crushed granite, which is sold in feed stores as “chicken grit”. One must be careful when using this product, as it is often found that “crushed oyster shells” are also sold as chicken grit. Whilst the former is a great aggregate, the latter is a pour choice due to its high sodium content. The component size should be anywhere from 1/8” – 3/16”. This size has been found suitable for the majority of trees grown as bonsai, although 1/16” components would be more suitable for “mame” bonsai.
The second component provides the moisture retention capacity of the soil. This component is usually any form of permeable material like lava rock, haydite, calcinated clays etc… although “perlite” may possess attributes desirable in bonsai substrate, its greatest disadvantages is it is unsightly and floats to the surface, in doing so, will often lead to soil collapse For these reasons perlite is seldom found as a component of any decent substrate. Although some folks will/may add an organic component to the substrate, this is the main “feeding” component of bonsai substrate. It has the capacity to store up to 50 times its weight with water and nutrients. Therefore, it has the ability to both water and feed the tree on demand, whilst maintaining the preferable moisture content of the substrate.
The third component found in our substrate is any type of organic component of the aforementioned sizes that although decomposes readily, will not cause soil collapse during the decomposition process until subsequent repotting. Fir bark has been found suitable for this means. Another component widely used, and possessing similar properties is known as “ pine soil conditioner”. Although, this component is readily available at most garden centers in the US, I have failed to source an outlet here in Canada. Of late, I have started using Sequoia bark (available from the Orchid Society in my area) it size ranges from 1/4 - 3/8”. A quick trip in the blender renders my preferred component size, the same can be said of Schultz “Orchid Mix” that is readily available throughout Canada. Although the particles are much larger than preferred, once again a quick trip in the blender will solve this inconvenience. Another added benefit of using “Orchid mix” is the addition of horticultural charcoal in the mix, which has proven over the years to be extremely beneficial to plants and trees.
The most important factor when developing and mixing bonsai substrate is component size. We use particulate matter of a certain size to provide a free flowing area for both water to drain and oxygenate the roots in the process. Components of varying sizes would lead to closing of the air spaces we have so diligently provided our trees with during the triple sifting process required to generate a proper bonsai substrate.
Peat moss or peat as it is often referred to, has absolutely no place in bonsai substrate and should never be used. Learned enthusiasts have long drawn the conclusion about its use as unfavorable. Why you might ask? It retains too much moisture! The second reason is its relative inability to regain said moisture once dry. What one will often see when watering the tree is, that although the tree has been thoroughly watered, the soil is still dry. The water has found the pass of least resistance and exited the pot. If one were to sift just below the surface one would be amazed indeed to find dry soil. Probably the chief disadvantage of using peat is the compaction of the air spaces between the components, the latter leads to inadequate oxygen exchange in the substrate.
The ill-fitting diaper
We have discussed formula; lets discuss the consequences of an ill-fitting diaper and how it relates to our chosen hobby. We all know the results of an ill fitting diaper, it either fails to adequately share the load or if too large, fail to adequately contain the load. How does a diaper compare to a bonsai container? Quite simple! The bonsai container, not unlike a diaper has a specific function in the tree’s life. A properly fitted diaper not unlike a properly sized container, which drains well, is warm and comfy.
Unlike a diaper, (although the new ones are now designed for little boys or girls due to their physical differences) a bonsai container is at times species specific. The watering requirement or uptake of individual trees will often play an important role when choosing a suitable container. The sole purpose of a container (with the exception of anchoring the tree and display purposes) is to act as “a dinner table”. The tree should be able to eat what is placed on its plate in one sitting, and only replace the moisture loss during the course of the day, until the next watering takes place. Hence, the warm comfy diaper! The latter is easier said than done, so let’s reflect on the tangibles here. In the beginning, more often than not the root mass dictates the size of the container. This is where the similarities end. Whilst as a baby grows the need to increase to a bigger size in maintaining its comfort becomes paramount, in bonsai culture we do the opposite. In subsequent years, this mass is reduced and eventually a container aesthetically proportioned is chosen. In doing so, there is always a caveat. The chosen container must be able to assist in sustaining life. Not only must it be of adequate size to meet the trees demands, it must also be suitable in meeting the trees living conditions and climate. An ideal container is one that will drain freely and allow the substrate to contain only enough moisture until the next watering, while providing sufficient surface area to keep the roots cool during heat waves at the height of the summer. Should the container fail to provide these conditions the results is either a sodden substrate or a parched one. Albeit, in the short term this may not be hazardous to the tree’s health, the tree will not develop its full potential, will put on a sickly appearance and in the long run could invariably lead to its demise.
So how does one choose an appropriate sized container? The size as mentioned is dictated by the root mass, for the most part. The daily intake of the species iaw the species guide permits us to formulate an educated guess, while keeping in mind the moisture retentiveness of the substrate. Contrary to popular belief, a shallow pot will retain more water than a deep pot, regardless of the surface area due to the perched water table. I will not discuss this phenomenon here as a link can be found in the “Learning to walk…” article, which discusses it at great length. Suffice to say that keeping this known phenomenon in the back of our minds will play dividends in the long run. Regardless of the size of the container, the perched water table exists at a height pre-determined by the resistance of the substrate composition, adding a so called “drainage layer” serves no useful purpose with the exception of adding false peace of mind to the enthusiast, as the perched water table will form above said drainage layer. Manipulation of substrate components on the other hand plays an important role alongside container size and tree uptake.
A proper container is one of suitable size for the tree’s requirements, is aesthetically pleasing, complements the tree vice causing a distraction and last but not least, provides enough space for bottom growth until subsequent repotting, not unlike buying slightly oversize clothing for a growing toddler.
With daily feedings both our child and trees are prospering. As they grow their needs change, therefore we must modify their daily intake from straight formula to something more sustaining. With a substrate containing an organic component, the mere decomposition of this component will provide the tree with sufficient nutrients to sustain life, but in many cases insufficient to really prosper. This is further exacerbated in totally inorganic substrates. A direct relationship can be extrapolated between the necessity of daily vitamin intake of humans, found in particular foods or an appropriate vitamin supplement. Our trees on the other hand receive their nutrients as discussed via the decomposition of organic matter. Although the decomposition provides adequate nourishment, our trees require certain micro nutrients to thrive. Understanding the nutritional deficiencies of our trees is paramount to healthy growth. A multi vitamin containing the appropriate minerals can be found in balanced fertilizer, one that has an even distribution of Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium. Nitrogen is responsible for promoting strong stems and healthy dark leaves. A lack of Nitrogen will result in thin, weak shoots and small, yellow leaves which rapidly fall. On the other hand too much Nitrogen produces sappy stems, large leaves both of which are vulnerable to fungal attack. Whilst Nitrogen is the main components for sustaining life in plants, phosphorus is necessary for strong, healthy roots and for prolific fruit production. A deficiency reduces root growth causing general poor vigour and discoloured foliage. The last component is potassium which is necessary in balancing the effects of Nitrogen, is essential to flower production as well as promoting resistance to fungal disease and generally hardening off the tree against harsh environmental and climatic conditions.
Not unlike a child who later develops and affliction and requires special care, certain tree species have specific needs when it comes to their growing environment. The alkalinity of the soil plays an important role and is one that is often overlooked. Having said that, no harm will come to the tree if the PH level of the soil is not exactly correct. The easiest method in lowering the alkalinity for trees that require a slightly more acidic soil is the occasional feeding of “Miracid”. I have had difficulty on acquiring such a product in my locality; however, any good “coniferous fertilizer” containing an NPK of 30-10-10 will do nicely when applied a fortnight or even every second fortnight at half strength. This is the simplest and safest method to lower the soils PH.
An anemic child who has developed an iron deficiency is given iron supplements. In bonsai culture the affliction is Chlorosis, the latter is caused by the lack of iron in the soil. Whilst iron is insoluble the natural action of the soil transforms this necessary mineral making it available to the tree. Although iron is not a part of the chlorophyll it must be present for the compound to form. In alkaline or neutral soils iron can be “locked up” thus appearing, as it is deficient. This often happens when excessive amounts of lime, phosphates or heavy metals are present in the soil, poor drainage or where over watering is practiced.
Growing trees and siblings
We seem to be getting along well and have a little experience under our belts, so we decide to bring a second one home. Are things the same? Well maybe, but probably not. Ask any parent – they will tell you each one is different and the same applies to bonsai. Although of the same species, some trees not unlike siblings will react differently to practiced methods. Once again not unlike siblings each one will respond differently and has specific needs. These needs must be met and maintained in order for the child or bonsai to develop its full potential. I have two Fukien Teas, Fred and Ginger, they are indeed brother and sister, and for the love of me I have yet figured them out. They have been in my possession for 3 years now. Their behaviour is mind boggling to say the least. While one is flourishing, the other throws a tantrum and vice versa. I have yet for the love of me been able to have them fully satisfied at the same time. This constant battle in meeting their demands is not unlike parenting children. Just when you think the battle is won, they throw a curve ball at you.
Not unlike brothers, or brothers and sisters, different cultures have different needs and demands. The learned enthusiast has gained the necessary experience to deal with these individualities. And although one can treat its collection as a whole, one must remain cognizant of their varying needs and cater to those needs on an individual basis. Regardless of the experienced you have gained, not unlike parenting; don’t pat yourself on the back yet. You have raised six children into well-adjusted adults, and then the seventh child comes along and throws everything you have learnt out the window. None of the previously proven methods and rules seems to work; this one has turned your world upside down. Isn’t parenting and raising bonsai fun!
A trip to the dentist
Mother nature has taught us to avoid unpleasantness or things that make us downright miserable. So please explain why one would take a tree home, break its arm, set it, place it in a cast, not to mention giving it a root canal along the way and then expect it to be happy and prosper. Wouldn’t it be better if the first trip to the dentist were a pleasant one, vice a root canal? I am pretty sure that a child is more apt to return to the dentist if the past experience was a pleasant one. A tree not unlike the human body needs time to recuperate from surgery. As with humans doing numerous surgical procedures all at once, without recuperation and mending time is indeed life threatening.
The first thing one should do when bringing a tree home from a nursery is change its diaper, wash its bottom, and place it in a warm comfy one. In bonsai talk this translates to: bare rooting the tree, placing it in bonsai substrate suitable for the species, fitting it with a proper container for its current stage of development and give it its first meal (a dose of 10-52-10 at half strength followed by a dose at full strength 2 weeks later). Which is more apt to provide positive results? If the latter cannot be accomplished it is better to leave the tree in its current soil and pot until such time as you can properly take care of it.
Acquiring an education
Bonsai not unlike a toddler takes time to develop and master the lessons learnt. The parent through thoughtful nurturing and caring accomplishes the latter. Like a child a bonsai needs time to nurture and develop. This developmental phase is either carried out in the ground or a grow box of suitable proportions. It is not conducted in a bonsai pot. During this developmental phase the tree is pretty much left on its own to develop and flourish, only necessary “shape pruning” is carried out, not unlike correcting faults or unwanted behaviour in a child. As the toddler develops it is soon time to attend kindergarten and for a bonsai, receives its first training pot. This is when and where the formal education and training will take place. In the case of the tree when the trunk has reached the desired proportions. Over the next couple of years the tree is pruned, shaped and trained. Like a child, it is receiving its formal education.
While acquiring an education, for the lessons to be successful and comprehended, the teacher must teach at a level easily understood by the child. It is further understood that one will not progress to the next phase until previous lessons have been understood and mastered. The bonsai enthusiast also needs to apply these principles while nurturing its tree. Too much all at once only leads to confusion. Not unlike the child the tree was not capable of taking in the information, as it was incapable of following the path of instruction provided by the enthusiast. This is also comparable to receiving multiple surgeries all at once. The body, as the tree needs time to recuperate between surgical intrusions. In bonsai talk this translates to “growing seasons”. Now finally one may be able to comprehend why it takes so long to develop a bonsai, regardless if it was grown from seed or acquired from a nursery. The only difference between the two is time.
Acquiring Yamadori or nursery stock is comparable to adopting a child, someone else has molded it and although it may have been provided with a sound up bringing, it may possess faults that require correction, or have to repeat a grade in order to correct training flaws. The advantage nursery stock or Yamadori have over seedlings and cuttings, is that the enthusiast will generally acquire these trees with the developmental phases already carried out (girth). This phase for the purpose of this discussion is known as primary school. Once a tree has matured to the level prescribed herein it is now ready to commence high school. In this case a bonsai pot.