I’ve been working on this tree since 2013 and some of that work is documented here. Recently a friend helped me plant it on a natural limestone slab which I collected from a lakeshore. We decided to make some modifications to the slab, one thing lead to another, and it turned out to be a much larger project than I expected.
The photos below tell the story.
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.
Blaauw’s juniper is a variety of J. chinensis that has foliage very similar to Shimpaku, except it is a deeper blue-green when healthy. Blaauw’s (often called “Blaauwi” around here) used to be very popular in Toronto as a shimpaku substitute because they were readily available in nurseries as single trunked specimens. This was well before my time. I have never seen a nice single trunked Blaauw in a nursery. Blaauw in general is quite rare to see in nurseries these days, presumably having gone out of fashion in the landscape trade. Nevertheless, some impressive Blaauw’s juniper bonsai survive today as reminders of “the old days” of Toronto bonsai, the most highly regarded one being this Blaauw forest by retired-from-bonsai-artist Bob Wilcox.
This raft style Blaauw was gifted to me this spring by a good friend who is one of the matriarch’s of bonsai in Ontario. She created it something like 20 years ago from a discarded workshop tree after the student had cut all the branches off one side in an effort to make a bonsai. Raft plantings, like Blaauw’s juniper, are another thing that used to be very popular with the previous generation of bonsai artists, but have seemingly gone out of fashion.
Anyone who has a juniper knows that they are a lot of work. When you have eleven trunks growing in one pot, it is about eleven times more work. The amount of work involved in cutting and wiring this tree is the main reason it was passed on to me.
When I received it back in May, it was obvious there were some health issues. The trunks on the right were turning that grey-yellow colour that you never want to see in a juniper. I decided the problem was related to the poorly draining soil the tree was in, so I immediately bare rooted it with the garden hose and planted it in a coarse inorganic mix of lava rock and haydite.
By August, the group had regained quite a bit of strength and the colour had returned to the trunks on the right. So it was ready for some desperately needed thinning.
This juniper was not paid much attention over the last few years except for the occasional pinching. As a result, there were masses of foliage growing from the crotches and in some cases 4-5 branches emerging from the same point. I went over the whole tree, removing all the foliage from the crotches and simplifying the ramification to two branches at each branch point. This process took approximately 3 hours. One of the trunks on the right was still recovering, so I hardly touched it. Removing foliage is probably the worst thing you can do to a weak juniper.
I will let the branches elongate more because to my eye they are too short and stubby. I anticipate that next summer it will be thinned again, then detail wired.
The design of this group is quite unique, with the largest trunk being almost on the outside of the planting. It is certainly unorthodox as far as forest planting design goes, but I like the directionality of the trunks, as well as the gentle movement that was wired into them many years ago. I would also like to restore the original planting position which was lost when I did the horticultural repot this spring. I think with the right container (ideally a stone slab) and lots of wire, this retro bonsai will one day shine again.
I’d just like to point out that last year at this time I had zero forest plantings. Now I have four! I will probably have to quit my day job to maintain them all…
This forest was assembled almost exactly three months ago. It began to flush out nicely but then developed some health issues – the leaves were damaged and discoloured, and the new growth was weak. It was definitely not a pest issue. I am pretty sure the problem was a pH imbalance brought on by the moss I covered the soil with. Well, not the moss exactly, but the grey stone dust in which the moss was growing (it was collected from a gravel lot).
Who knows. I was too lazy to actually research the issue, and the tree never really seemed to be fatally ill. Whatever the problem was, it went away and the tree has been growing strongly for the last few weeks. Unfortunately the earlier problems kept me from cutting back the spring shoots, which means the tree is already behind schedule in terms of ramification development.
Today I cut off all the ugly damaged leaves and cut back the growing tips. I think complete defoliation may be appropriate for this species but I am still just getting acquainted with it, so maybe next year once I have a better feeling for what it is capable of.
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.
Like many bonsai enthusiasts, I am obsessed with old, collected trees. For several years I have been heavily biased towards collected material and still am today – nothing (well, almost nothing) excites me like a stunning piece of yamadori. Nevertheless, I find that wild material almost always lends itself to a dynamic, survivalist image. If I were to fill my yard with this material only, I would have a pretty monotonous bonsai collection. Already my collection is lacking in delicate deciduous trees (nine years of bonsai and I have never had a japanese maple!).
I was recently inspired by an article in Bonsai Focus #120 entitled Easy Does It, Forest Planting by Nobuyuki Hirose (see the preview of this issue here). In this article Mr. Hirose and his apprentice use young beech and hornbeam seedlings to create simple yet elegant and attractive forest plantings. The careful selection of the material and design of the planting made these “sticks in a pot” into something special.
Armed with these images in my mind, I visited my friend Andrew who works at a gigantic (read: millions of plants, literally) wholesale nursery and picked up a trunkload of American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), and European Beech (Fagus sylvatica).
Today I made a nine tree forest planting of American Hornbeam. This species grows locally, although I have never found one worth collecting (most people who collect them trunk-chop them drastically, thus creating a long-term project). Like most hornbeams, these have fine twigs, smooth bark, and small buds – things which are useful for a small group planting that is best appreciated in winter.
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.