The phrase “bonsai is not a rescue mission” is sometimes used to discourage eager bonsai enthusiasts from trying to make a bonsai from every plant they find. Instead, we should focus on the best material we can possibly get our hands on, thus increasing our chances of making something we can be proud of.
Sometimes, however, bonsai really is a rescue mission. Story time!
Last August I responded to an online ad where someone was selling their collection. Not knowing what to expect from the vague description and two blurry pictures of some tropicals, I arrived surprised to see a very old and once impressive bonsai collection in its final death throes. This elderly gentleman had been doing bonsai quietly in his backyard for 30-40 years, away from the clubs and shows, and now was in the predicament of having to sell everything due to failing health.
He had (understandably) put off selling them for years, but in those last few years the trees suffered greatly. To make matters worse, everything was planted in pretty much pure topsoil and was weak to begin with, therefore many were unable to handle the stresses of erratic watering.
Some of the tougher species were still hanging in there, but other more finicky ones like this impressive Japanese white pine had no chance.
After much haggling I went home with two larches, a ginkgo, and a Japanese maple – three very tough species that had managed to survive but were now in serious need of rehabilitation. This was August 2014 and some of the trees were already showing fall colours- A sign of definite stress.
I’m happy to report that all four trees survived the winter and were completely barerooted and repotted this spring. They seem to be doing well and I anticipate that they will have recovered their strength by the end of this growing season.
If you follow the traditional guidelines, the best time to wire and repot Larix laricina is when the spring buds are just starting to open. This is usually the most practical time to unwire larches too, because around here it is the only time they are without needles and not frozen in the ground. This “spring buds just starting to open” window can be very short – often just two weeks in mid to late April. Needless to say, if you have a good number of larches like I do, spring gets pretty busy. Add to that repotting a couple dozen more trees, building a new bench set up in my yard, and a couple of collecting trips, and you have an insanely busy last few weeks.
Here is one larch that I recently worked on. This tree changed hands a couple times in the last few years, and I snatched it up almost exactly one year ago as soon as I had the opportunity. I was collected about 20 years ago yet has spent most of that time in bonsai limbo, without a coherent design. Most of the finer tertiary branches used to create this structure were grown last year.The tree was also gently repotted into a simple Yamaaki container that suits the semi-cascade style pretty well.
After a few more years of ramification development, this will be a killer chuhin sized larch, and I am proud to be its new caretaker.
I overwinter this tree in my insulated garage. It can handle the cold, but keeping it in the garage allows me to appreciate it throughout the winter. The disadvantage is it breaks dormancy about one month early meaning it has to be run in and out of the house throughout most of April, which is probably the most unpredictable month in the Toronto area, weather-wise.
Daily bud-pinching has been underway on this tree for about three days, even though the ground outside is still pretty much frozen.
Way back in 2011 I remember seeing this Bonsai Tonight post of a Boon Manikitivipart workshop where a participant tried out a root arranging technique of the deciduous bonsai genius Ebihara. What a great idea, right?
Last summer I acquired a maple that turned out to be perfect to try this technique on. It already had several years of root training therefore a good number of flexible lateral roots were present. Still, a fair amount of prep work was needed. The base of the rootball needed to be completely flat and all unnecessary roots removed. Hopefully this will improve the nebari as I rebuild the branch structure of this tree over the next several years.
As a side note, Boon posted an update about the tree in the Bonsai Tonight post on Facebook. Apparently using plywood was a mistake as it rotted quickly. Keeping that in mind, I used pine.
Tuesday November 25th at 7:00 pm marks an annual tradition at Bonsai@RBG – the year end social and sale.
I’ve made some good buys at this sale in the past and have also sold some good stuff. While it is primarily a social event, this year is special because two local bonsai vendors will have sales tables – The Bonsai Guy and Kim’s Nature. Their presence will ensure there will be no shortage of trees, pots, tools, and soil available for your buying pleasure.
The event will take place in the Cafe Annex at the RBG Centre.
Hope to see you there!
This small Ulmus pumila was displayed at this year’s Toronto Bonsai Society Fall Show and Sale.
The tree was developed from a naturally layered low branch from a much larger elm that was collected from a hedge, along with many others.
Finding worthy trees to collect in urban environments is just as difficult (if not more so) than finding worthy trees in the wild. The criteria is the same though – you are looking for trees which have been growing for a long time in an environment where they are repeatedly punished such that they develop the characteristics we are looking for in bonsai. It is therefore often helpful to first look for the environment. Once you’ve found that, finding the tree is easy (or easier).
I’ve noticed one particularly tough urban environment that is common in snowy climates: the perimeters of parking lots where massive piles of snow and ice accumulate after the snow plows come through. Any plants (particularly conifers) unlucky enough to be in a place where it is convenient to pile snow have a good chance of developing the characteristics we look for in yamadori.
Common species planted on these borders are tough, low-growing conifers like yews, junipers, and mugo pines. If you see something you like, act fast to get permission and dig. Often these parking lots are managed by contract landscapers who will rip out these ugly plants during the spring cleanup. I learned that the hard way this spring when a patch of mangled junipers I wanted to get at was replaced by some lilies as I procrastinated over approaching the landlord.
I was inspired to write this post because recently I dug a mugo pine from a very similar situation.