A bit of pruning

This Spruce has been one of my favourites for years. It started as a simple, half dead, christmas tree bought cheaply and pruned rigorously.

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Last year it got it’s first bit of wiring which already lifted it from tree in pot, to something almost Bonsai.20170306_132818

After some very full and healthy growth this spring I thought it was ready for some “final” forming. I mostly just pruned the middle and the top to get a more layered look. It might need some more, the tophat it has now needs to be more refined, but that can wait till next year.

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Five Beeches for €10,-

Beeches are my favourite trees, their thick muscular trunks and smooth bark have a combination of elegance and power I like. Where I live, The Netherlands, a lot of people have Beech hedges. These are sold as youngling of around 4/5 years old at around ten euro per bunch of five 2cm thick younglings to be put in the ground in rows to hedge. About six years ago I bought one of those bunches and put a few in the garden to grow thicker and two others in a pot to be trained as Bonsai immediately.

Beeches are very nice and hardy, but they do have a few quirks that make them difficult for Bonsai, especially the European genus which is also sensitive to light (or too much of it). Most importantly they have a very distinct way of leafing out. Generally they have one flush of leaves in spring and that is all you get to work with that year. They also don’t leaf out in individual leaves, instead when their buds swell they throw out an entire branch at once. In general such a branch has 3 to 5 leaves and is very soft the first week. When you cut these new soft branches back to the first two leaves before it hardens it will yield a reasonably compact tree and when healthy and fed well it might even decide to do a second flush of buds halfway through summer. For growing it as Bonsai this is very important because treating it like that is practically the only way to get a nice structure with dense foliage. For this reason many growers find Beeches difficult. They also very rarely backbud on old wood making “foliage management” very important and it’s best to buy them with a thick trunk if that’s what you’re going for because they thicken very slow in a pot.

The good thing is that when you do this right, and make sure it watered well and avoid continuous direct sunlight these trees are almost impossible to kill. When treated right you’ll have a few fine trees for almost nothing. Below are two of them in their first year in a pot, with just a wee bit of wire.

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And now, five years later.

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Still not ready, especially the first one needs some further compacting/maturing, but they are rewarding trees to own regardless.

Japanese Maple progression

This little maple was bought in a gardening centre 4 years ago. As usual with Maples from gardening centres, or any plant you buy in one, it was not in good shape. The roots were knotted and went everywhere besides where the should go for a healthy specimen and the little fella was very sensitive. Since starting a Bonsai means making a few big cuts right from the start with untrained starter material the bad health of mall plants shows easily:

  • My experience with Maples from the mall; bought two, both got extremely sick, one (barely) survived, cost 30/40 euros a piece.
  • My experience with (young) Maples from a nursery; bought three, all survived, only one got mild mildew for a month or so, cost 3/4 euros a piece.

Needles to say, and this does not go for Maples alone, buying Bonsai material from a mall means taking a risk. They generally are a bit older and more mature, but they’re also grown very fast and sloppy with all the health risks that brings. My advice with mall bought plants in general for the first year is to not fall in love with the tree and start fantasising about how pretty it might be one day. Needless to say I did just that with this ugly one.

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After some trimming, a proper repot and a year of rampant mildew this one survived. And even better, it started to thrive the second year. Maybe having new shoes and a fresh carpet helped a bit.

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The nice thing about Maples is once they go, they go strong. Keeping a healthy Maple in check means continuous trimming, attention and guidance. Obviously, being a lazy fuck, I didn’t. Which resulted in this flurry of leaves the year after. Even worse, not trimming and doing any leaf reduction meant zero density and long shoots that weren’t very tree-like.

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Since last summer a repot was well needed I figured the first step of forming it into a mature Bonsai was needed too. It’s just like kids, first you let them run around for a while and then you start guiding them, or so I’m told.

I didn’t do much, I removed all branches that were too long and didn’t have the ramification I’m looking for. After that I removed half of the outer most leaves in early august to stimulate some back budding. Every bud close to the trunk that formed last summer will grow into a new branch with new possibilities next summer. Now here it is, comfy in a new big pot, the blue one it was originally in got destroyed in the proces I’m afraid.

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Next summer I will go full Bonsai-Sensei on this one and see with some wiring and continuous attention what form it might grow into. This will also mean reducing the amount of fertiliser given to aid in curbing this one’s enthousiasm for wild growth.

Maples are fun regardless. Even if they don’t have the form you want, they will always give you lots of colour, growth and little leaves that are a joy to see. I can advice anyone to start with a few Maples, just don’t buy them at a gardening centre, it’s way cheaper and more rewarding to buy a few 3-yearlings at a nursery for a few euros a piece. They grow so fast when treated right that within a few years you’ll forget how small they once were.

Mallsai Zelkova progression

It started two years ago. As a leaving present at my last job I got a scrappy little Zelkova mallsai. For those unfamiliar with the word, a mallsai is a mass produced bonsai sold in big garden centres that are generally produced in China by people wanting to make easy money. Obviously there is nothing wrong with that but these trees do tend to be barely alive when sold across the ocean. Most of the time they are grown in very bad soil with nearly no drainage and the pots are too small and heavily rootbound. When left untouched a tree like this generally dies within a few years. Garden centres call them Bonsai but in the state they are sold they’re as much a bonsai as I am a supermodel. Their style can be best described as what a uninformed person, say a child, would deem to be a Bonsai. I think the (horrible quality) picture below says enough.

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Regardless of quality I was very happy with the little fella. Mostly because it was given by people I worked with for 6 years and getting something that lasts from them is a lovely gesture, but also because a little tree like this can completely transform when you give it some attention. Also quite often they are Zelkovas which is a really good breed for Bonsai that is very rewarding to work with and reacts well to pruning and proper care. Another upside of Zelkovas is that they have good ramification and leaf size to start with making it a lot easier to look Bonsai-esque than  most other european deciduous trees (Beeches, Oaks, Hornbeams).

A bigger pot, some light pruning, a nice root treatment and fresh well-drained soil with a bit of fertiliser. And within two summers you can see the effect already.

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The tree is much fuller and is teeming with dense foiliage that is on it’s way to proper Bonsai quality ramification and form. The only thing I did was to remove the most bottom branch and angled the trunk a bit forward. The pictures below are from this summer, only 3 summers after I got it.

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And there you go, on it’s way to be a proper Bonsai! And that for just €40,-, a bit of soil and a fresh pot. If you know what you’re doing it’s by far the easiest and cheapest (time-wise) way to get some good trees into your collection.

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Just a little wire, Picea Abies

This Norway Spruce (Picea Abies) was bought two years ago in a gardening center. It was one of those trees they sell for half price in the back and it was not in a healthy shape. Basically it was a dense half dead cone of falling needles. I saw some potential in the trunk shape and eventhough I’m more of a deciduous man I took it home. I thinned it out quite heavily and then let it be for two years. With this first round of pruning I made sure to open it up, give it some air and find some interesting movement around the trunk. The thing I love most about growing bonsai is how happy and healthy you can make a tree by just repotting it and giving it some love. This one was very rewarding and this spring it showed some very vigorous and compact growth.

I decided it was ready for some first styling steps. I think the basic form is already getting close to how I see this tree going, a simple healthy formal upright.20160511_172817

The only thing I wanted to do this year is to give the bottom two branches a bit more room so they will fill out more in the coming years. I’m still not sure how to go on from there but this little change alone really makes me look forward to how it will develop further. 20160529_163851

Wild Beech progression, Fagus Sylvatica

I found this wild Beech in the forest 5 years ago. It was a small shrub with lots of small low branches stuck between a few bigger brothers. I supposed it wouldn’t amount to a proper tree and since it was allready in a good starter shape I dug it up. Usually beeches don’t have a lot of viable low/short branches with buds close to the trunk, but this one did so in the pot it went. The movement of the trunk in particular was the reason I had to take it home. I like local species and eventhough european beeches are really hard to form I have a soft spot for them.

This is the first year, just after the relocation. I still left some branches on to have some buds further away on the branches as backup.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As strong as beeches can be when you treat them right it started to leaf out very well the coming year, and even better; close to the trunk. That meant those unsightly branches could be shortened further when the leaves fell to make room for younger and denser growth next year.IMG_20130204_071640

Which rewarded me  with some nice progression. It’s still not a bonsai by any means but it is getting somewhere. Young fresh branches with plenty of room for buds and ramification.20130728_141041

Skipping forward two more years of careful pinching the young shoots after every second leaf in spring and one or two carefull corrections it is starting to look like a Bonsai in the making. It has some nice movement, something vaguely nebari-esque and fills in quite well.

Mind you it’s still a beech so keeping it compact is hard, backbudding is impossible and thickening of the branches takes ages, but I like it so far. Next year I’ll try to make some proper pictures.20150906_134153

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