Collecting

A Punishing Urban Environment

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.

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After a few decades of this, most woody plants will either be dead or extremely damaged.

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.

The trees on the outside of the planting are the most likely to get punished. This simplifies finding and digging potential bonsai material.

The trees on the outside of the planting get the most punishment. This simplifies finding and digging potential bonsai material.

Much easier than digging a tree out of a pile of fist-sized rocks!

Much easier than digging a tree out of a pile of fist-sized rocks!

Large single trunk mugos like this are very hard to find on this side of the Atlantic ocean.

Large single trunk mugos like this are very hard to find on this side of the Atlantic ocean.

As this is probably not the ideal time of the year to be collecting a mugo, the tree was treated as a balled-and-burlapped nursery tree and planted in a raised bed with minimal root disturbance. If all goes well it will be planted in a container in Spring 2016.

As this is probably not the ideal time of the year to be collecting a mugo, the tree was treated as a balled-and-burlapped nursery tree and planted in a raised bed with minimal root disturbance. If it doesn’t die, it will be planted in a container in Spring 2016.

Trunk detail

Trunk detail. Nice job, snow plow operator! In my experience mugos backbud well so I’m not worried about the leggy growth. This is certainly a 10+ year project though. 


A Big Thuja That Was Collected This Spring

This large Thuja occidentalis was captured in April of this year. All of the pictures except the last one were taken in April soon after collection, when the tree was still in it’s dull winter colour.

The trunk is huge with some dramatic movement. The deadwood also tells some fascinating stories, particularly the massive break in the 8″ diameter middle section. One has to wonder how damage like this could be done without completely uprooting the tree.

This tree certainly doesn’t present any easy design solutions, so it will be a  challenge. Currently these are the best pictures I have of the tree as it is tucked away in the rehab area.

Hard tree to photograph as the base is covered by some branches.

Hard tree to photograph as the base is covered by some branches.

I've been planting all of my larger collected trees in pure perlite for the last couple of years.

I’ve been planting all of my larger collected trees in pure screened perlite for the last couple of years.

 

Before root washing and potting up, giving a glimpse into the massive base. This is a good example of the impenetrable root mass that Thujas are often collected with. Hosing out as much muck as possible greatly simplifies watering the containerized tree.

Before root washing and potting up, giving a glimpse into the base of the tree. This is a good example of the impenetrable root mass that Thujas are often collected with. Very little of it is actually live root. Hosing out as much muck as possible greatly simplifies watering the containerized tree.

Some details:

A more recent picture of the tree. It has been under shade cloth the entire year.

A more recent picture of the tree. It has been under shade cloth the entire year.


Happy New Year!

Thanks to everyone who has been watching this blog through its first year. Despite my infrequent posts, it has done much better than I expected with over 33 000 views since its inception last February!

Anyway, back to bonsai! This is my first work of 2013 – some thinning and coarse adjustments on a Siberian Elm. I posted some work on this tree back in July.

    Siberian Elm, collected from hedge in April 2010.

Siberian Elm, collected from hedge in April 2010.

    This tree grows very fast. In the growing season it is cut back somewhat indiscriminately but in the winter I can really focus on the branching and use the new growth to take the tree to the next step.

This tree grows very fast. In the growing season it is cut back somewhat indiscriminately but in the winter I can really focus on the branching and use the new growth to take the tree to the next step.

 

    After the work the tree looks quite pathetic, but the goal has been achieved: removing unnecessary new growth and cutting back the remaining twigs to one or two buds.

After the work the tree looks quite pathetic, but the goal has been achieved: removing unnecessary new growth and cutting back the remaining twigs to one or two buds.

    April 2010 before collecting.

April 2010 before collecting.

 

    March 2012

March 2012

 

    April 2011

April 2011


Prep Work on Another Juniper

This is a Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scorpularum) that was collected in the Kootenay region of the Canadian Rockies back in 2009. Although slender it has nice movement, great deadwood details, and lots of branches.

Aside from maintenance pruning and wiring down some primary branches, this tree has never been worked in detail. Today I cleaned the bark, worked on some deadwood, and cut back quite a bit of growth in preparation for its summer styling. Preparing a tree for styling is almost as important as the styling itself. It has taken three years of cultivation and menial work to produce what is now almost a pre-bonsai. It is a long road from fresh yamadori to having something that is ready for bonsai work.

In terms of styling, this tree still has me scratching my head. The main problem is that the view of the trunk with the best movement and lean does not show the lovely natural shari. I will have to make some compromises when styling this tree… either in deadwood, or trunk movement.

Before work.

After work. My favorite view of the trunk… but the shari is at the back.

Another view showing the shari.

Possible front, although the top half of the tree is leaning strongly to the back.


Big Thuja Update

This big Thuja was collected in Fall 2010 and had its first serious root work just over a month ago. It is growing very nicely now, and I moved it into full sun the other day.

As soon as possible this tree will need some major thinning to prevent weakening of the interior growth. Probably 50% of the foliage will need to be thinned. However, before that I decided to cut back some useless branches at the top of the secondary trunk.

This tree actually seems to be two trees/trunks growing together. The main deadwood trunk, and an apparently younger but still interesting trunk behind it. They could work together for a final design, but I think I would prefer the simplicity of the main trunk alone. However, I need to be sure that I can kill off/separate the second trunk without harming the living part of the nicer one. And I am still not 100% convinced as I saw some root fusion when I repotted it last month. The entire deadwood trunk only has one live vein.

Here is the tree as collected in October 2010.


Strange but Interesting Potentilla

Usually when you collect a tree, you have a rough idea of the final image you wish to achieve. Other times, you just see something interesting and decide to “collect first, ask questions later”. This Potentilla fruticosa was one of the latter.

It was collected last spring and hasn’t been touched except for a couple rounds of indiscriminate hacking of long branches.

Shaggy potentilla bark hides much of the details.

After removing the bark, the embracing fused trunks with interesting movement become more clear.

Another view. This little tree has some decent natural shari on both trunks as well.

This one is going to take some more thought. I have some ideas, but nothing solid yet. For now, I will continue to let it grow, hacking it back every couple of weeks.


Spring Flushes

We are finally getting consistently warm temperatures, so my trees are really starting to move. Looking at them gives me a reminder that I have a lot of work to do 🙂 Sorry for the busy background… bad camera settings.

Dwarf Japanese Yew

Korean Hornbeam

Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Alps’

Ginkgo. If only the leaves would stay this size!


Sweet Little Thuja

Mother nature has done a nice job on this little cedar. It was collected in April and the shallow, dense root ball allowed it to be planted right into a bonsai pot. The shaggy growth hides much of the details, but this tree has excellent movement and taper. Not only that, it has perfectly placed branches with lots of interior growth. If it grows well this year and next, I would expect this tree to be show ready in fall 2013.

This is probably the front of the tree. The Chuck Iker pot was chosen just because it was the right size, but it is actually a pretty decent match to the tree.

One of my favourite features of this tree is the first branch, Shown here from the back, you can see that it has excellent natural movement and character. Like many old Thuja branches, it has been torn down from the trunk, presumably by heavy snow and ice. The relatively fresh looking wood here makes it look like the tear happened only in the last few years. Although this tear happened in nature, it can be replicated artificially as a bonsai technique to redirect an old upward growing branch.


Toronto Bonsai Exhibition at Canadian Art Gallery

This weekend marked an important event for bonsai in Canada. The Toronto Bonsai Society was asked to present a display of bonsai at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection as part of The McMichael Tree Project Exhibition. The seed for this exhibition was planted several years ago, and the Tree Project provided the perfect venue.

The McMichael Gallery houses a number of important Canadian artworks, including several pieces by members of The Group of Seven. It was therefore an honour for TBS to have been asked to share their bonsai alongside these great works. For their contribution to furthering the art of bonsai through this event, members of the TBS Executive were granted the BCI Award of Excellence.

I spent most of the day there and tried to get some decent pictures. Unfortunately the lighting and backdrops were not ideal for bonsai photography, but hopefully you can get an idea of some of the trees that were exhibited.


Thuja occidentalis Slab Planting

The other day I planted this Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) on a slab I picked up from Aichi-en in Nagoya, Japan. I believe the slab is made of concrete, although the artist did a very good job of giving it a natural form and texture.

I had the help of a friend who has much more experience planting trees on slabs than I do. I was expecting to have to make a retaining wall out of muck like Bjorn does for a white pine in this excellent video, but I learned that this step is completely unnecessary with healthy Thuja because of its incredibly dense root characteristics.

Unfortunately I didn’t get many pictures of the process because I was busy working on the tree 🙂 However, the key points to planting Thuja on a slab are as follows:

  • The material should be well established and have a dense, fibrous rootball. Most Thuja can produce this in two years of growth in a coarse bonsai soil such as a lava rock or pumice based mix.
  • Do not disturb the rootball any more than is necessary. In other words, don’t rake the whole thing out. This will weaken the structure of the rooball and will make it difficult to keep it intact once planted on the shallow stone.
  • Remove thick, downward growing roots.Thuja collected from rocky areas typically have few of these, as was the case with this tree. Once the rootball is shallow enough, leave it alone.
  • Trim long, thick roots that extend beyond the desired perimeter of the rootball. Excessively long fibrous roots can be tucked underneath the rootmass once it is placed on the stone.
  • Tie it in tight. Drill more holes if necessary.
  • Work in soil where necessary, If the rootball is dense and was undisturbed, relatively little soil will need to be worked in near the trunk.

"Before" (this is actually a picture from last summer).

The rootball tied into the stone. I'm guessing only about 25% of the rootmass was removed for this planting.

The result. I am happy with the stone and the more upright planting angle. This is actually closer to how it was growing in the ground. This tree still has a lot of development ahead of it, so there is no point in adding moss. No top pruning was done. The tree just looks thinner because it shed its foliage last fall, after the first picture was taken.


Spring Work on a Siberian Elm & Bonsai Aesthetics Aluminum Wire

This tree took a step forward over the last couple of weeks, but still has a long way to go. It is one of several Ulmus pumila I got from this old hedge in 2010.

Just out of winter storage

As a side note, this winter I ended up with about 10 kg of Robert Stevens’ Bonsai Aesthetics aluminum wire. This is the first tree I actually tried it out on. It is pretty good stuff… only slightly softer than Japanese anodized aluminum with a bit less holding power, but at a fraction of the price. As is typical with aluminum on deciduous trees, I found myself using wire about 1/2 the thickness of the branch to achieve the desired bending power. It is worth noting that this wire is pure glossy black, as opposed to the copper-ish colour of Japanese aluminum wire. It will be interesting to see how the colour stands up to the elements over this growing season.

Setting some secondary and tertiary branches with Bonsai Aesthetics aluminum wire.

Root work came next. This is the first time that this tree has had focused root work since coming out of the hedge. Almost all of these elms had massive taproots. This one needed some work with the reciprocating saw and a die grinder to further reduce the taproot. Furthermore, a few excessively long roots had to be pruned back. This may look extreme, but every root I have cut back on one of these Siberians has produced new roots near the cuts – even tap roots 15 cm in diameter.

Reducing a massive taproot with a reciprocating saw, then a die grinder fitted with a carving bit.

The root system of this tree is not ideal, and needs much further reduction, but this is where I left the work for this year.

This Nick Lenz pot was the right size for the rootball, but the tree is not planted at the right angle. I'm not concerned about that right now, since this tree is still very much in training.

This Elm has an excellent trunk for a classic informal upright design, but the nebari is terrible due to the presence of large taproots. On an informal upright elm, the nebari is one of the most important features. Root grafting may be in this tree’s future.


Perlite as a Bonsai Substrate

Perlite is readily available and cheap, but I’ve never really used as a soil component because it is too lightweight (floats/doesn’t weigh down the pot) and it is really ugly.

However, I’ve noticed that there seems to be a practically religious following in Italy of bonsai growers who swear by using pure perlite for rehabilitating recently collected yamadori.

As evidence of the powers of perlite, check out these amazing pictures taken from this thread on the forum Master-Bonsai.com, which is administered by Andrea Meriggioli (a young professional in the very serious Italian bonsai scene):

Pinus nigra... once of those "oops" trees that did not exactly come out of the ground as expected. It is amazing that Andrea even bothered to try with this tree.

As far as pine goes, this is practically no roots.

Planted in pure perlite

Here it is budding out. The tree is still alive today!

It even has roots coming out of the pot in the same growing season as it was planted.

I’m not sure if perlite can be given all the credit for this pine pulling through. Andrea also used a number of tonics when he planted the tree (“radimix, bioxim, and antym kombu40 etc.”), whatever that stuff is. Nevertheless, it is an impressive story.


Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) Hedge. You’re Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t

This hedge belonged to a buddies neighbour in an old Toronto neighbourhood. It had been growing there somewhere between 50-70 years, and was sheared back pretty much every year.

Looks great, right? Unfortunately, it is the infamous Siberian Elm. They have a bad reputation for bonsai. The idea is that, being a pioneer species, they tend to die back once they reach bonsai maturity and you try to slow their growth down. We knew this going into the project, so common sense should have said “don’t waste the effort, step away from the hedge”. I received this warning from a more experienced bonsai friend who had suffered Siberian Elm Heartbreak in the past.

Well, being the fools that we are, we dug them up anyway. All of them.

Now I have plenty of great Siberian Elm trunks that grow incredibly fast and are lots of fun to work on. But I am trying to not get too attached. In the mean time, I have a few ideas that I am going to test to try and stabilize them for bonsai cultivation. But I am not getting my hopes up.


Growth Rate of Stressed Thuja occidentalis

This is not a rule, but you can see that Thuja in some stressed conditions (especially drought, poor soil, and crushing ice) grow as little as 2 radial centimeters every 40-50 years. This promotes the development of great bark and deadwood character in small trees. Good junipers cannot be collected in my part of Canada, but Thuja has much of the drama that is so desireable in Juniper bonsai, combined with a unique ruggedness.

The picture of the rings is from where the old top of this tree was cut back after collecting (not a dead tree 🙂 ). This tree was sold last year.

Old Thuja bark