This tree was collected ca. 1995 by John Biel in preparation for the IBC ’97 convention in Toronto. Dozens of cedars and larches were collected to be used as workshop material for that event, and afterwards they were dispersed around North America with their new owners. If you’ve seen or heard of a thuja or larix in the USA that was “collected in Canada some time ago”, there is a fair chance that it was collected by Reiner Goebel or John Biel in the early ’90s in preparation for the convention. John and Reiner are two of the old guard of the Toronto bonsai scene.
Marc Noelanders styled this larch during a workshop at IBC ’97 and the new owner took it home. Unfortunately the owner passed away a year later and Reiner Goebel inherited the tree.
Here is the oldest picture I have of the tree in 1998.
The tree developed quickly in Reiner’s hands – here it is in 2004:
In 2006 it was potted into an outstanding Horst Heinzlreiter pot. At this point the tree was near its prime, with dense ramification.
Reiner is doing well, but as of this year is completely retired from bonsai. I bought this tree from him in 2015 and it was in a state of decline. It had not been pruned for a few years and most of the interior growth was dead. The tree was also quite weak – I don’t think it had been repotted since the previous image in 2006 (9 years prior).
The best features of this tree are the stunning old bark and the exceptional nebari (collected larches with good nebari are very rare). To highlight the elegant trunk and delicate bark, I removed the majority of the old low branches which had gotten too thick. This was a difficult decision as the branches had incredible character and old bark all the way out to the secondary branches. However, major changes were necessary in order to come up with a design that brings out the key features of the tree and is sustainable for many years into the future.
A few weeks ago I sat down with this tree and did some rough wiring. This is the best solution I could come up with. I’m pretty sure it isn’t better than the original design, but the important thing is this tree can be maintained in this image for a long time. I would really like to add a secondary trunk on the left side to make it a twin trunk, however it will be difficult to find a small larch which has comparable bark characteristics. Next year it will be planted either in a nanban-style container or on a flat stone.
When you have a lot of larches spring can be somewhat of a disaster. Pruning, wiring, unwiring, and collecting more larches (glutton for punishment) all tend to fall within a fairly short window.
That being said, here are some larches at various stages of development that I have been working on over the past few weeks of this very strange spring (weather-wise).
Most of the old crusty larches I collect need grafting. It seems the older they are, the farther the living foliage is from the interesting part of the trunk. Three thread grafts were started on this larch in spring 2014 and all three of them failed this summer (despite not yet being separated from the donor branch).
I’m not sure why they failed, but I think it might have had something to do with long period of time elapsed. Ideally, once started, a thread graft will grow rapidly and then take within a few months. Unfortunately, these grafts hardly elongated last year therefore they had no change of reaching the thickness required for fusion until they really started to take off this year. But in July of this year when they should have been fusing, they were instead girdled and died. This is purely anecdotal, but I believe that the callus that formed around the edges of the drilled hole was somehow too hardened-off or otherwise too old to readily form a graft union with the threaded branches by the time they were thick enough to do so. Or maybe the drilled hole didn’t form a callus at all.
Anyway, they failed and I needed to re-graft. Late summer is not a good time for thread grafting larch, so I tried a traditional approach graft instead.
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.
This old American larch (tamarack) bonsai, along with two others, was stolen from a private collection in Toronto on June 23rd, 2014.
If you have seen this distinct bonsai, please call your local police department and/or contact the owner Elisabeth Leslie ewleslie[at]icloud.com
The bonsai community is tight not only in Toronto but worldwide. Hopefully we can use this to our advantage to help get this lovely tree back to the owner.
I bought this tree in December 2012. Being an established forest, it had some nice character but also some major challenges. Besides the unsuitable pot, the forest had far too much symmetry and the branches were too “stubby”, for lack of a better word. The variation in the trunks (diameter and height) is limited, Some of these things would be easy to correct, but others more difficult or impossible. The year 2013 was spent just growing it out and lightly pruning to develop a more elegant branch structure.
As a side note, this tree spend the entire winter out on a bench completely unprotected. This was the coldest winter in southern Ontario in over 20 years with many days in the -20 Celsius range and a few in the -30s. Fortunately there was a lot of snow and this larch was right at home.
The first step for this year was to wire everything. This probably took 12 hours, spread out over several days. Conifer forests just take so much wiring, it can be overwhelming.
The next step was to plant it in a more suitable container. This slab was custom made for the forest by local potter Geoff Lloyd. One thing we neglected to think about was the front of the slab. The slab was designed for a forest pointing to the right, yet this forest obviously points to the left. As a result I ended up using the “back” of the slab as the front. It is still an attractive side, but has a slightly less interesting profile than the other side.
The next step was removing the tree from the old pot and raking out the perimeter of the root ball. The bottom of the rootball was not touched at all. The perimeter needed to be raked out quite a bit so it would fit within the boundaries of the narrower new slab.
A muck mixture was made to mold the rootball within the contours of the new slab. The mixture was something like 2/3rds humus, 1/3rd chopped sphagnum, and a cup or two of akadama dust, plus water as needed.
After mucking the perimeter, the rootball was completely mossed. The purpose of this was mainly to prevent erosion of the freshly worked rootball, but of course there is an aesthetic benefit as well. Besides the muck, no new bonsai soil was added. The roots still have plenty of room to grow in the original root mass. Larches are perfectly happy with dense matted root balls with scant amounts of soil. It will be a long time before I need to refresh the soil again.
Now that the tree was in its new container, the branches could be placed. Many guy wires were used to reposition the trunks. Again, the goal was to give this tree a definite leftward movement. This was accomplished by pulling most of the trunks to the left and extending out the leftward growing branches while compacting those growing to the right side. I find forests to be immensely challenging as there are so many design considerations. The branches and trunks were adjusted again, and again over several sessions. I am still not 100% happy with the design but I think it is the best I could do without removing or adding trunks. That is still a future option, but for now the work is done.
Thanks for reading. Don’t acquire too many forests if you value your sanity!
This is a busy time of year. Once the ground thaws the larches start to move almost immediately. Then, you only have a few of weeks to get all the wiring done. This is a main disadvantage of wintering larches in the ground.
This small forest and a much larger one have taken up a lot of my free time over the last week or so.
The other deciduous trees have already lost their leaves, but the tamaracks are just reaching their peak. They produce the most incredible golden yellow, which my cell phone camera cannot even come close to reproducing.
A friend of mine is selling his larger bonsai, many of which are native collected trees that have been in training for decades.
Please note that these are not my trees, and I am unable to answer questions about pricing/size/ etc. For more information, drop me an email and I will put you in contact with the owner.
This larch forest has been mine for less than a year and needs work in several areas: 1) pot selection, 2) positioning of trunks, 3) secondary branch structure. All of this year’s cutting will be done with branch development in mind. Keep in mind that larch are best appreciated in the winter, like most deciduous trees.
The issues with the branch structure can be seen below. I think this larch was over-pinched i.e. new growth was completely removed resulting in stubby looking branches with very little secondary branching. This gives the branches an awkward look and leaves very little to build pads from.
Pinching is useful on larch but more so for refined trees. This forest is still early in its development. Many branches on the tree need to be much longer, especially those on the outside of the forest, and in the upper areas of the tallest trunks. Pinching is counter-productive to this development.
To attempt to remedy this, I have let the new growth extend into the late spring.
Instead of pinching it all off indiscriminately, I nipped back the growing tips with scissors to slow their extension and leave something that can be wired in late winter 2014. In general, strong shoots were cut back more than weak shoots. Further detailed cutting will be left for the winter when the tree is bare.
The Toronto Bonsai Society Spring Show and Sale is being held June 15 & 16 at Toronto Botanical Gardens in the Garden Hall. This event has been happening for decades and is surely the largest and most consistent annual exhibition of bonsai in the GTA. The sales tables are a great place to pick up pots, bonsai, pre-bonsai, tools, and books. I’ve bought several trees from TBS shows/sales, including the one below which I am currently prepping for the show.
With their vigorous summer growth, larch develop needles in all sizes and all directions, and the same goes for shoots (although less-so with mature larches). Two simple things can be done to minimize the wayward bushiness of a summer larch – reducing spring fertilization, and needle plucking. Reducing fertilization is pretty self explanatory – if you are trying to “bonsai” your larch (instead of develop the branches/trunk) don’t fertilize it until the spring growth hardens off.
Needle plucking is self explanatory as well – try to make your larch look like a Japanese white pine. This involves plucking (by hand) all downward growing needles to clearly define the underside of the foliage pads. Downward growing buds/shoots should be cut with scissors. Excess horizontal needles can also be plucked, although be careful not to remove all the needles from a growing center. Also, needles that are growing along the branches in between buds should be plucked, although these are usually only an issue on young (1-2 year old) branches.
Summer wire application on larches should be minimal unless you are something of a masochist (larch are best wired in spring as the buds start to colour up). However when prepping a tree for show there is nothing wrong with wiring the odd branch, again with the goal of defining the underside of the foliage pads.
In keeping with the larch posts, I thought I would talk about what is perhaps the most infamous pest of Larix laricina – borers. Borers are insect larvae that chew on the living tissue of trees as they tunnel around inside the trunks and branches, invisible to the naked eye. The parent insect (usually beetles or moths) lay their eggs inconspicuously on the bark of the tree and, upon hatching, the little demon-spawn chews its way in.
One interesting thing about borers is they are usually only a problem on weaker trees with a subdued systemic defense. Strong trees with a heavy sap flow are better able to restrain a potentially disastrous borer infestation. What does this mean for bonsai growers? Borers are most likely to gain the upper hand on recently collected trees, or very mature and slow-growing bonsai. In other words, borers pick on the weak and the elderly, making them complete assholes. This source says that “the chewing of some [borer] species may be heard by someone standing near the tree”. Ok now that is just scary.
Most often, a borer infestation is not identified until the damage is done. Just one enterprising borer could potentially girdle a trunk or a branch, causing the sudden death of a huge part of your tree.
Nick Lenz is a veteran of the borer wars, and describes in detail his approach to dealing with them in his book Bonsai from the Wild (2nd Ed.). If you live in the North East and grow any native species, especially larch or cedar, you need this book! Essentially, Nick’s approach is to bag and fumigate every larch he collects, assuming it is infested with borers. I have not been this aggressive with my collected larches (yet), although I have been treating them proactively with a systemic insecticide (imidacloprid). Hopefully I don’t regret my complacent approach in the future…
What Nick does not talk about in his book is perhaps the most alarming cases of borer damage – that on mature and established bonsai. My friend and bonsai mentor has experienced this problem this spring in a big way. Here are some pictures of what you hope to never see on your larches.
Fortunately these trees have not yet shown any signs of branch dieback due to the borer damage, although the scars alone are rage-inducing. He treated the infected trees according to Nick Lenz’s prescription outlined in his book.
While I have not personally seen borer damage on my larches, my friend’s experience here has definitely raised my level of vigilance and hopefully yours as well.
The natural stone this small tamarack group was planted on is nice, but far too visually and physically heavy. Today I planted it in a more manageable stoneware crescent by Chuck Iker. See here for an earlier post about this tree.
Here is another new American Larch (Larix laricina) forest I picked up at a recent club meeting from a friend who was selling off some trees at bargain prices.
It is not a small forest – the tallest tree measures about 70 cm. Nevertheless I can move it around pretty easily. It was assembled from young collected trees about 10 years ago. They are starting to show some maturity although it will be many more years before they start to show flaky bark.
The pot is obviously not ideal. Some sort of slab or very shallow unglazed pot would be an improvement, although it will not be cheap to find something of the right size.
Lots of wiring needs to be done as well, and the positioning of some of the smaller trees needs to be tweaked. There are 12 trees, but the planting maintains some asymmetry so I’m not sure if it is necessary to add or remove a tree. The thing that bothers me most is that there are too many trees of the same diameter in the right side of the planting.
Overall I think the basic structure of the forest is well done, and it will be fun to work on over the next few years.
I’ve received quite a few emails from people asking about overwintering hardy trees outdoors. While there is lots of good information out there on the internet, most of it is region specific. What applies in England, Japan, or North Carolina does not apply in Toronto. With that in mind, this information is specific to zone 5-6 and is for people who have no special facilities (heated garage, polyhouses, etc.).
Reiner Goebel of rgbonsai.com has a good article about overwintering trees in the Toronto area. Have a read here. What I do is very similar.
- Use tough species to make life simple. Semi-hardy species (Trident maples etc.) require more attentive care in this climate. My collection consists of Eastern White Cedar, Larch, Juniper, Yew, Siberian Elm, Potentilla, Ginkgo, and few others. All fully hardy.
- Don’t be afraid to leave them on the bench through a few late autumn frosts. They can take it. I usually put mine away in late October or early November. If the ground is frozen, you’ve waited too long 🙂
- Bury the pots in the ground in your garden and water everything really well. This insulates the roots. The risk is not the rootball freezing. It can and should freeze solid. The tree will be fine. The risk is frequent freeze-thaw cycles. This is why unusually warm winters are more of a concern to us northern bonsai growers than unusually cold ones. Burying the pot helps ensure that once the rootball freezes, it will stay frozen until around March, even if there are some freakishly warm days in January (it happens). If your tree is in a massive training box but is a hardy species, just sit it on the ground and mulch around it. Just having contact with the ground will help buffer the rootball temperatures.
- Snow is your friend. As soon as fluffy snow hits the ground, shovel it onto your trees (don’t shovel on heavy wet snow!). Sure, three feet of snow can bend branches but I feel most comfortable when my trees are buried in snow all winter. This protects from -20 degree air temperatures and drying winds. But when the snow starts to melt, brush it away as this heavy slushy mess can really cause damage to branches and fine ramification.
- Try and winter them in a shady spot in the garden protected from the wind (i.e. a north facing corner). This provides a bit of insurance against wind and sun if it is a snow-less winter (like the infamous winter of 2011). It also helps keep the tree dormant as far into the spring as possible. This is important. If your trees break dormancy too early, the tender new growth will be exposed to the unpredictable early spring weather.
- Rabbit-proof your garden as best as possible. When rabbits get hungry in the winter, bonsai bark apparently looks quite appetizing. Even a couple of exploratory nibbles can ruin the image of a tree. Try to board up any gaps under the fence.
- If you have the energy, fence in your trees with hardware cloth to provide further protection from pests. Burying the fence a couple of inches provides me some reassurance against mice, although if mice want to get anywhere bad enough, they will find a way.
- Don’t worry about watering! If you put them away late enough, they should not need any water the entire winter.
- Again, keep them dormant as long as possible. Don’t take them out of the ground at the first sign of spring in March. You know that in our part of the world it is not impossible to have freezing nights in May, and these spring freezes can kill off tender new deciduous growth.
This approach has worked well for me for 8 seasons. There are many ways to do it, but I find this to be the simplest and most foolproof approach. It takes some time to prep the trees for winter, but once they are in the ground you can literally forget about them, sit back, and wait for repotting season to come! Unfortunately, since the trees are frozen solid in the ground, you cannot really work on them in the heart of winter.