I find watering this time of year to be challenging. Yesterday only about 6 of my trees needed water – the others were fine. Before and after work it is dark out. This morning the hose was frozen and no water would come out.
Watering in spring – how nice!
In colder areas, trees are moving into winter storage areas and facing increasing amounts of snow. Whatever the climate, the cold or dormant season poses challenges to tree health. If I don’t water trees selectively, over or under-watering can stress trees and facilitate fungus growth or infestations – problems that are hard to address in winter for trees that are semi-dormant. Insects are a particular problem where I live because it doesn’t get cold enough to discourage pests like pine needle scale. Even though fall is a great time to perform many bonsai tasks, tree health comes first.
What to do? Good question. I often spray insecticides in fall or winter to get ahead of pests that can take over quickly in spring. When I plan ahead, I give my trees a dose of systemic pesticides toward the end of the growing season to inoculate them through winter and early spring. When watering, I try to identify trends relating to which trees dry out quickly and which dry out slowly. Even if like sizes and varieties aren’t grouped together in the garden, knowing which need the most water helps me stay on top of the task.
A particular pine in my garden has been thirsty almost every day this month – possibly a sign that it needs repotting. If the soil has broken down over several years, drainage can decline making it harder to give trees a proper dose of water. A quick chopstick test can help determine whether or not a tree needs repotting (if the chopstick goes in easily, the tree is less likely to need repotting).
If I’m not around the garden during daylight hours, I’ll sometimes dig into the soil a little ways in the dark and feel how moist the soil is. I’ve also relied on assistance from friends and neighbors when I need help with the watering.
A good hedge against many of these challenges is soji – removing the top layer of soil to encourage good drainage (see “Summer soji”). One of the best benefits of this is simply interacting with trees that may not otherwise need work this time of year. Taking these trees off of the bench for a few minutes and looking them over can reveal nascent infestations and make clear whether or not a tree is thirsty. When the work is done, it’s far easier to gauge the drainage which can help determine whether or not spring repotting is in order. Soji can also help with weeds and make the garden look tidy.
Winter remains one of my favorite bonsai seasons because trees prepped for exhibit this time of year can look fantastic. I’ve found it’s not, however, a time to take much of a break from basic maintenance activities.
I’ve enjoyed bonsai auctions for a long time. You never know what material will show up or how much it will go for. They are a great way to gauge the market for given trees within a given audience and can be a great source for new material.
Bay Island Bonsai holds an auction every year on the first day of their annual exhibit – typically the Saturday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I got to help with the event this year, logging purchases as bidding on each lot closed.
A mix of medium sized trees
As I was busy before the event, I didn’t get much of an opportunity to look closely at the trees for sale. I noticed there was a good mix of coniferous and deciduous trees for both large and small budgets, but I didn’t plan to bid on any – I have plenty of trees to keep me busy in my small garden.
Pine, ume, junpier and maple on the block
Going once, going twice…
As so often happens, I watched lots come and go only to get caught up in the bidding. That one looks interesting, I thought as I tried to catch glimpses of a white pine on the other side of the room. And the price seems reasonable, I told myself as my bidder card rose into view. Before it was over, I had two new trees.
The first was a white pine that upon closer inspection revealed teeny, tiny, green needles surrounded by the previous year’s yellow needles. The tree was healthy, but not vigorous. More interesting was the tree’s bark. Turns out the tree was grafted, but onto what stock I do not know. Jimmy Inadomi performed the graft years ago so I may have an opportunity to investigate further.
The main reason I bid on the white pine was that I like the variety and they are hard to come by. With nice movement and some interesting deadwood, I figured the tree could make a nice project.
The second tree I bid on was a Utah juniper. Although it lacks the twisting so characteristic of good juniper bonsai, it has interesting deadwood with some age on it. It’s also a reasonable size – easy to carry and a nice potential addition to a medium display.
Both trees need plenty of work to get them into shape, but it’s the kind of work I enjoy – getting the trees healthy and making key styling decisions.
If you missed BIB’s auction, fret not – the Golden State Bonsai Federation is hosting their Annual Fundraiser at the Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt on February 23-24. The event includes an auction on the 23rd. See you there?
Reserve the date – on October 4-6, 2013, Michael Hagedorn and Ryan Neil will celebrate the inaugural Artisans Cup of Portland Bonsai Exhibition, the most exciting bonsai event on the horizon for 2013. Here are some of the more salient details:
- The event will be held at the Portland Art Museum – an fantastic home for the event that promises to elevate the appreciation of bonsai far beyond the relatively parochial bonsai community
- 150 bonsai will be displayed at the exhibit
- Submission is open to anyone – both amateurs and professionals are invited to exhibit trees
- There are no restrictions on who may work – or have worked – on the trees in the exhibit
Knowing how much effort is required to stage relatively small bonsai exhibits, I cannot imagine how much time Michael and Ryan are investing to ensure the success of this ambitious event.
Bonsai in the museum (photo from Artisans Cup website)
One of their biggest accomplishments has been sharing details about everything – and everyone – that’s contributing to the event. They’ve set up a website that answers all of the basic questions, a blog that they’ve used to personalize each contributor, and an active Facebook page with additional details and up-to-the-minute news.
The exhibit promises some outstanding specimens as significant cash prizes will be awarded to winning trees – $10,000 for first prize, $5,000 for second prize, $3,000 for third prize, and $500 for the best companion plant.
What is required for entry? Four photographs (one shot from each side), a brief description of the tree and its container, and pertinent contact information.
- Submissions will be accepted May 1 – July 1, 2013 – see Submission Instructions for details
- Ryan and Michael will select the top 150 submissions two months before the exhibit – while both plan to display some of their own trees, these trees will not be eligible for awards
- The fee to exhibit trees selected by the jury will be $120 per display – either one large tree with companion plant, two medium trees with companion plant, or some assortment of shohin bonsai and companion plants; avant-garde displays will also be considered
- Five judges – David De Groot, Colin Lewis, Boon Manakitivipart, Peter Warren, Walter Pall – will select the prize-winning trees; judges may submit trees to the exhibit that will be eligible for judging, however special precautions will be in place to ensure fair voting
- Submissions of deciduous bonsai must include photographs of the trees in winter so the trees can be juried without leaves
For those who want to participate but don’t live near Portland, Ryan and Michael are arranging transportation from New York, Nashville, and Los Angeles to drive trees to and from the event. Any required permits along the way will be obtained by the drivers to ensure smooth transit.
Visitors to the event will not only be treated to an outstanding exhibit but to an impressive collection of bonsai vendors. Ryan and Michael are aiming to elevate bonsai in the Unites States and are doing what they can to support our local artisans. U.S. made pots and stands will be available, as well as an assortment of other bonsai-related wares.
Even those who may not be able to attend will be able to enjoy the exhibit through photographs. Bonsai Focus will be shooting the show and producing a book, and the judges comments will be posted online for educational purposes.
Sponsors for the event are welcome, and there is still opportunity to offer support. Expect a Kickstarter campaign later this Fall.
Although I’m not affiliated with the event, I’m a longtime friend of Michael’s, and a big fan of both Ryan and Michael’s work. I’m excited about attending the exhibit and have been pacing around my garden of late looking for suitable submissions. Even though the event is a year out, I’d like to thank Ryan and Michael for their work to date on the project and offer what encouragement I can. Thanks to both of you – I’m looking forward to it!
Ryan Neil (photo from Artisans Cup blog)
Finding the right soil mixes for my trees has proved surprisingly tricky – and not for lack of trying. I’ve experimented broadly over the years, and have benefitted from the advice of both American and Japanese bonsai professionals. Still, I find room for improvement.
In the past few years, I’ve moved to mixes that retain more moisture than previous mixes. The effect is subtle the first year after the repotting, but as soil particles break down, the moisture retention increases. I’m learning a lot now about soil I selected two, and sometimes 3 or 4, years ago, and I’m looking to experiment further.
The most basic variables – the properties of the particles themselves – are simple.
- Decomposed granite retains less moisture than other ingredients and weighs a lot
- Lava retains some moisture and is not light
- Pumice retains some moisture and is lightweight
- Akadama retains lots of moisture and breaks down over time
It’s also clear that smaller particles retain more moisture than larger particles. So far so good.
Then time comes into play. Some soil particles, like akadama, break down over time. This is actually a very well engineered feature. Newly repotted trees typically require great drainage to develop new roots – exactly what we get when soil mix is fresh. As time passes, akadama breaks down and retains more moisture. Whether this is good or bad depends on our goals for each tree.
This brings us to the next variables – variety and stage of training. In general, soils that drain well require more frequent watering and are great for generating vigorous growth. Soils that drain slowly require less frequent watering and are great for reducing vigor. How each variety responds to different soils also comes into play, but that’s a topic unto itself.
Once the “perfect” soil has been selected and the tree carefully repotted to the most exacting of standards, we face two additional variables – watering habits and weather. There’s nothing – outside of moving – to do about the weather, so I’ll leave it at that. How we water ultimately determines the success of the soil we’ve selected.
For years I’ve used a simple mix that drains well. In short, it keeps my trees healthy as long as I water enough. So much so that some of my more mature trees are a bit more vigorous than I’d like them to be. That’s why I started using soils that retain more moisture. I’ve since learned that using different soil mixes is great for the trees, but it’s increasingly hard to make sure I’m giving each tree the appropriate amount of water. The young trees in coarse soils need lots of water, and the older trees dry out more slowly. A solvable problem when one’s around to water all of the time, but a bit of a puzzle otherwise.
I’m doing what I can with the hose this year, and I’m changing the soil mixes I plan to use next year. For starters, I’ll be using more decomposed granite.
Decomposed granite drying in the sun
Large, medium, and small particles of DG
Long a component of “Boon Mix,” decomposed granite, or DG, as folks say, retains less water than the other ingredients I use. Using more of it will help with several pines that are still early in their development.
A few of my deciduous trees have the opposite problem – they are drying out too quickly. For these trees, I’ll use smaller particles that retain more moisture. The example that comes to mind is a group of young Japanese maples that I picked up at a bonsai sale this spring. They are planted in coarse soil that would be great if I were around to water more often.
Where do I get the basic soil ingredients I use? From any number of places. I buy akadama from Deer Meadow Bonsai and other local vendors. I find the non-bonsai specific ingredients at local rock yards including American Soil & Stone and its neighbor Acapulco Rock & Soil. Both are worth a visit if you’re in the area.
American Soil & Stone
Acapulco Rock & Soil