Getting Started - Reflections on year 1

dbonsaiw

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With all the great advice I've received from folks on BonsaiNut, I thought maybe other newbies could benefit on some reflections on my first year of bonsai. Probably my single biggest piece of advice is find a copy of Andrea Merrigolli's maple bonsai book and study it like you would for a college exam. As far as I can tell, there is no single reference source for maple bonsai anywhere near as thorough as Andrea's. IMHO, bonsai is a particularly holistic art that requires a good deal of knowledge in an array of topics to succeed. There is a certain amount of foresight required to develop a tree and I would argue that a newbie is destined to acquire these skills the hard way (read "dead trees") without having at least a general overview of the entire process. This book is an indispensable tool for anyone looking to grow maples (or other deciduous trees). This is not a casual read, coffee table book - it is encyclopedic and dense, requiring study.

"It depends" - probably one the biggest and most frustrating refrains in all of bonsai. But, of course, it depends. Different trees will require different care, so a general question on bonsai care will always be met with "it depends". Different cultivars within the same species will require different treatment, so it depends. A maple growing in Germany doesn't have the conditions as one growing in North Carolina, so it depends. A formal upright and literati aren't developed the same way, so it depends. The upshot of this is two-fold - first, be as exact as you can be when asking questions to elicit a more exact response. Folks here are pretty free with sharing their experience, so if someone with experience tells you it depends, it's because there are many nuances that need to be explored. Second, context is very important. In bonsai, we cannot always extrapolate from one situation to another, so it is crucial to understand the exact context in which advice is being given so that it is not applied incorrectly.

Practice and experiment - As disappointing as it may be, the first tree we develop will likely not be an award winner. Practice every aspect of what you learn. Wire the branches of trees in your backyard to get a feel for it. Bend trunks until they snap. Find a scar and try to fix it. Work on roots. Air layer. There is no substitute for hands on experience. Find cheaper material to work on. Your more expensive material will thank you for it. One of the biggest advantages the more experienced practitioners have is an understanding of how the tree will react to their work. So experiment and see what happens.

Soil components - This is a particularly confusing topic, especially for beginners, and one that no one seems to really agree upon. This is one area where "it depends" is the best answer. This is because soil doesn't exist in a vacuum. Rather, soil, climate and the bonsai practitioner are 3 aspects of soil that go hand in hand. Provided you stay far away from potting soil, there are any number of acceptable soil choices. Those choices will be somewhat winnowed down by the particular tree in question. Local climate will impact one's choice of soil components more profoundly. Some climates may require more water retention than others. Freeze/thaw cycles may impact one's decision whether to use akadama. Once your tree's needs are understood and local climate factored in, the habits/time constraints of the bonsai practitioner need to also be considered. Someone with lots of time on their hands may be able to watch the soil during the summer months and water as often as needed. Maybe organics aren't needed as much for this practitioner. The person with a day job cannot dedicate this type of attention and will need a more "hand's off" soil that requires less attention.
 

dbonsaiw

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Some ramblings on bonsai as art:

Art is ultimately the representation of a subject through a medium. For example, a tree can be represented in oil paint on canvas. The artist decides the composition, proportions and style (realism, impressionist, abstract etc.). The same tree can be represented in marble by a sculptor.

There is something almost comical to the art of bonsai in that we are trying to create the representation of a tree using a tree as the chosen medium. Regardless of the medium chosen, the representation is entirely that of the artist's choosing. Nothing about the bonsai is accidental horticulture. Like the painter/sculptor, we decide where the roots go and what they look like, same for the branches, trunk and movement and foliage. Proportion and style are ours for interpretation.

The nature of our medium is relevant only to the extent it guides us in the creative process. Otherwise, as art, bonsai is more representation of tree than tree itself.
 

sorce

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Yet every fragment of mirror reflects the whole. From a lesson in Zen Meditation, every raindrop contains the entire moon. ;)

Makes me then wonder...

Is the more difficult task, seeing the whole from the pieces....

Or avoiding the lies of the intact reflection?

Sorce
 

dbonsaiw

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Makes me then wonder...

Is the more difficult task, seeing the whole from the pieces....

Or avoiding the lies of the intact reflection?
Always wanted to say this - it depends!
 

sorce

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Always wanted to say this - it depends!

May it be the last time!

The largest part of why I appreciate your reflection is that it understands the shallow layer at which this true response resides.

The key to peace is having the courage to keep asking the questions knowing the answers will never be correct and only lead to more questions.

It always comes from within.

Sorce
 

penumbra

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May it be the last time!

The largest part of why I appreciate your reflection is that it understands the shallow layer at which this true response resides.

The key to peace is having the courage to keep asking the questions knowing the answers will never be correct and only lead to more questions.

It always comes from within.

Sorce
I don't know man, I think it depends.
 

dbonsaiw

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Reflections of Overwintering

Personally, I approached overwintering of my maples the way a parent would approach sending their child off to war - with great fear and trepidation and an uncertainty of whether one would see him again. Although the potential parade of horribles presented by winter is worthy of discussion, I believe the discussion with newbies should at least start with the fact that maples want and need winter. Winter dormancy is not the enemy - it is essential to the health and survival of our trees. It should be embraced by the newbie. In fact, whatever winter preparation we make, the tree has a few million years of evolution head start on our prep. My winter prep anxiety was uncalled for and led to me making worse mistakes than anything mother nature sent my way. Some things I believe I learned along the way:

1. Winter dormancy should be viewed as a good thing, not the enemy. In fact, it even gives us the opportunity to appreciate ramification on deciduous trees.
2. Preparing for winter begins with the last feeding of fall - something like a 0-10-10 to harden the plant off for winter.
3. JMs want to go dormant, so our job is not to keep the trees warm, but rather to keep them cool and in dormancy for as long as possible.
4. The real enemies of winter are:
(i) the freeze/thaw cycles - The trees will freeze and trying to prevent this is a losing battle. In fact there is nothing wrong with freezing. Rather, it is the repeated freeze/thaw of the root system that causes damage. The key is to limit quick temperature fluctuation that affect potted trees - that answer is to put the pot in the ground and/or mulch to provide insulation. Remember, the insulation is not there to keep the tree warm necessarily, but rather to cushion against the fluctuations in temperature. This way, for example, my trees remain frozen even on a day like today when temps hit the mid 40s for a few hours. An unheated garage is intended to accomplish the same.
(ii) desiccating winds - The constant pounding of freezing winds has the potential to dry out and kill branches/buds. An unheated garage or some plastic sheeting can be used to buffer winds. We aren't mummifying our trees, but rather providing some shelter on a few sides while still allowing for air flow.
(iii) extreme cold - The above-ground portion of the tree is not something I concern myself with in zone 7B. The roots, however, do not go dormant and remain much more sensitive to extreme cold. Burying the pot/mulch/unheated garage provides the protection needed.
(iv) frost after the tree breaks dormancy - The beginning of spring is actually a little scarier than winter itself. The protections of dormancy are generally sufficient to get the tree through winter. In spring, however, the tree lets its guard down and breaks dormancy, thereby losing its winter armor. A sudden frost has the potential to kill new buds. The solution is for the grower not to let his guard down just yet and keep an eye on the weather. Trees may have to do a little in-the-garage, out-the-garage dance until risk of frost disappears.

As for winter watering, I don't yet have a handle on this, but obviously the tree needs much less water in the winter. Since repotting my trees out of potting soil and into an 80% inorganic bonsai mix, I'm simply much less concerned about overwatering and "wet feet". That said, I tend to water every 2-3 weeks for trees in the garage. For those that are outside (even if in a cold tent) I found snow to be a god-send. It provides the insulation I discussed above, thereby preventing quick fluctuations in temp, and also waters the plant when the time is right and the snow melts. Case in point, rain and mid-40s for the past few days here has melted all the snow (we got about 8"). The snow I piled into the tent is still there and keeping my maples cool and watered. (I have a collected azalea in there as well that seems to stay warmer, stay frozen for less time and the snow melted on it only. Maybe it gets a bit more sun in that part of the tent, but I'm starting to think the azalea has a higher "body temp" if such a thing is even possible).

Not out of the woods just yet - 44 days to spring.
 

dbonsaiw

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Some thoughts on tools - this is not the place to save money. Quality tools last far longer and perform more consistently than their cheap counterparts. In the not so long run, you will end up spending more money replacing garbage tools than buying quality in the first place.

19 days to spring
 

dbonsaiw

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As I come to the end of my first year in bonsai, I thought I'd share what's been going on in my garden. First, it's worth mentioning that, while I am still very much a newbie, the amount that I have learned in the past year is unbelievable. In addition to the pics, I have a coral bark maple planted in the ground that will be used for layers as well as an enormous shishigashira which I may have killed in attempting to repot this guy out of a 25 gallon pot.

My goal for year one was to learn and get things started. Given the long trajectory of developing a bonsai, I wanted to make sure that I had material that I could get a little more "immediate" satisfaction from, as well other material that I would develop longer term. I very much like maple trees, and deciduous trees more generally, but have tried to mix things up. I also wanted to try a few different styles.

I started on a few junipers, and have been growing one as a cascade. It's a classic species for bonsai, but I have learned that it is far from my favorite. Some smaller pines (various) are being allowed to grow out. I need to learn a great deal more about pines before proceeding. Pines and deciduous are like day and night as far as development. Also tried my hand with some box box spruces, and one set was planted as a forest. The spruces generally have not done well and most have died. Forest looks like it is dying. Post-mortum is I probably just took off too many roots - its not a trident maple.

Then there are a number of big box maples and one nursery maple in grow boxes that have been chopped. The nursery maple is an animal and is doing great - back budding and happy. The others had some sap flow but no buds just yet. These are intended to be among the longer term projects. New leaders will need to be grown and this will take a few years.

For the last maple I chopped, I took a bunch of cuttings first so that I have material to use for grafts in the years to come. Planted them in perlite and covered with moss. Leaves are starting to open and I'm hoping roots are growing.

I very much enjoy the big box maples. They are relatively cheap and I get a larger trunk to work with right away. I've found that the root systems and trunks aren't that much different than a "better" ground grown tree. Depending on the success of the back buds, I plan to continue purchasing these trees.

The need for a more immediate "fix" led me to purchase a big box privet. I was able to repot that and heavily prune its branches to create a little tree. With a denser canopy, this guy will look pretty good quick.

Of course, sometimes you just need better material. And not all sellers of pre-bonsai are the same. I'll omit the negativity (other than saying stay away from the Etsy-type sellers) and focus on what I liked. I'll start with Kaede bonsai. These are smaller seedlings, but the material is quality and the price is right. I also like what I received from green thumb bonsai. Ground grown, larger trees. I've been staring at a trident maple I purchased from them all winter and still can't decide what to do with it. I'll leave him to grow out in the interim. As much as I butchered it, the stewartia I got is great. Finally, I had a little shopping spree at Valavanis - these too are seedlings, but the quality is incredible, albeit the tress are a bit pricey. For example, I have two koto hime - the one he sent me is much stronger and healthier than the other one I purchased from elsewhere for $10 less.

Yamadori has generally been a bust. I got a decent red cedar, but found that I do not have sufficient identification skills to be successful. So now I have some choke cherry and black locust that I don't have any interest in developing. Can't discount the learning experience though. I now have an equipped yamadori bag and have a better understanding of the work involved in collecting these trees. I will learn better how to identify the trees I want to collect and will mark certain trees when in full bloom for potential collection next season.

I've also received permission from a few people to layer their maple trees (yay!). One guy requested that I teach him about bonsai and give him a layer from his tree as well. In return, I can take what I want from his tree (Not sure he realizes the parts I am eyeing).

I'm thrilled that spring is finally here and looking forward to seeing what grows.
 

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