Some deciduous trees are tidy. The weather gets cold, the leaves drop off. More often, dead leaves stick around, waiting for us to remove them. Which is a good thing. It’s easy for bonsai enthusiasts to pay less attention to their trees in fall. Cooler temperatures slow growth and reduce the need for water and fertilizer – a combination that decreases our need to check in on our trees. Removing leaves provides a good opportunity for us to see how our deciduous trees fared during the growing season and it’s a great time for us to begin planning for the next. And by removing old leaves we help interior buds get the light they’ll need to be healthy come spring.
I generally clean up old leaves after the majority have turned brown. As I work, I check to see if wires have begun to cut in and if scars have continued to heal. I look for pests lurking beneath dying foliage and ask which shoots are weak and which are strong. I can also get a sense of which trees needs repotting.
One of the big questions about removing old leaves is whether to pull them forward or back and away from buds. This varies by variety. For stewartia, I pull back and away. Each time I approach a tree I gently pull the first few leaves in different directions to see how they respond. I tend to pull whichever direction requires the least amount of effort and puts the buds at as little risk as possible. Stewartia leaves grow from the base of new buds so pulling in any direction can be risky if it’s not done with care.
Leaf to be removed
Pulling leaf away from the bud
Stewartia buds, like beech, can be large and fragile. The more fragile the buds, the more slowly I work. This is especially true when the leaves still have some vigor in them. These leaves tend to snap along the petiole instead of separating at the node. With a careless jerk, the bud can be removed along with the leaf.
Ready for winter – leaves removed
After removing the leaves on this tree, I was happy to notice that I can wait another year before repotting and even happier that there is plenty of summer growth. Most of the vigorous shoots appeared after leaf-pruning and summer cutback this year which gives me more to work with when I re-wire the tree in winter. Which, I expect, will come sooner rather than later.
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