How smoothly do your growing seasons go?

SeanS

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This is my first spring (Southern Hemisphere) where I have what most would consider “a lot” of plants. Seedlings, cuttings from last season, air layers etc. Japanese maples, tridents, JBP, elms, flowering quinces to name a few.

Most plants have responded well this spring and are growing, but some have either pushed a few buds and then shrivelled up and appear pretty sad, or have leafed out over most of the plant with a few branches or the planned leaders not waking up or doing as above (started to leaf out and then shrivelled up and the branch died).

So my question is, what should be expected in the spring time, and the following growing season? Do most bonsai growers experience and accept a certain level of uncertainty (we are talking about plants here after all) and failure, and should that just be accepted as a part of growing bonsai? Do you have trees that just don’t respond as expected? Do you have leaders on plants still in development just not wake up, or swell buds and then just stop? What percentage of seedlings should we expect to just die after the winter? How often do you have to change plans when it comes to plants?

I guess to summarise, should I be concerned that I’m doing something wrong or is a certain level of failure ok and part of the game each season?
 

badatusernames

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I think typically if full-on leaders are dying back my guess would be that there's something wrong with how they're being stored (or maybe watered?)

I'm about to head into a similar winter as you - lots of new to me stuff - so I might be in the same boat come Spring, but I more seem to recall people talking about the risk of that kind of thing happening, and what to do to avoid it, as opposed to a shrug and "it'll grow back". Were they covered / did it get particularly cold / was there a heat snap before the end of winter that caused them to start waking up before plunging back into dormancy?
 

badatusernames

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Actually, I just checked what weather is like in South Africa and it seems to indicate that lows are more like 11 degrees C or ~52 degrees F, is that accurate? Maybe they didn't get cold enough?
 

63pmp

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I expect everything to recover after winter dormancy, even those trees that were repotted. Anything that is not healthy is due to something I'm doing wrong, usually it's from being pot bound, which is rare. I don't always get all the repotting done when needed but usually I can carry them through till next year.
 

0soyoung

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Generally, bud break happens when buds have had enough chilling or enough chilling and warm forcing time. Buds will break independent of what is going on with the rest of the tree, so buds that open and then wilt are symptomatic of no roots being in service. This can be because there are no roots, roots are dead (winter freeze damage), are still too cold to function properly, or were just drowned by your well-intentioned, but nevertheless over-watering (i.e., too frequent).

Buds that seemingly fail to open either have not had enough chilling/forcing time or are dead. If they are dead, they are brittle and easily knocked off the stem. Over-winter bud death is usually either due to a pathogen (fungus/bacterium) or desiccation of the tree during the winter. All it takes are a few bright sunny rainless and maybe (dry) windy days, especially so if temperatures remain below freezing.
 

Wires_Guy_wires

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I guess to summarise, should I be concerned that I’m doing something wrong or is a certain level of failure ok and part of the game each season?
It's part of the game.
I have a little over a 150 plants in pots. I treat most of them the same, and this causes some plants to thrive and others to underperform. It takes too much time to do tailor made approaches when it comes to watering.
So I fiddle around with soil, sun exposure, nutrients, types of containers, and things that require attention once or twice a year.
If they perform bad in one year, I'll switch some stuff around and they'll do better the next year.

I have trees that have a tough time surviving here, and others that are perfectly fit for my climate. A couple dropouts happens to the best of us. But if all of them are doing poorly, we ourselves might the the cause of it, and that's worth investigating.
 

sorce

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Pics!

What do the dead ones have in common?

The simplest way to avoid problems is to use local material that you only cut minorly before spring and fall growth and only repot safely when necessary.

That baseline will allow you to see what few plants may be able to be worked a bit harder.

Almost everything cut more is unneccesary for design and detrimental to health.

Layers and cuttings should be expected to fail until they don't.

Sorce
 

SeanS

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What do the dead ones have in common?
The 5 tridents seedlings don’t seem to have anything in common apart from them looking dead. My other 30 tridents are all doing well.

The one little shohin JM lost the small top branch that I was planning to grow as the next section of trunk and apex.

Perhaps the 2 celtis seedlings that started budding out and then dried up had more much root work than those particular plants could handle, while the other 3 that were treated the exact same way when I repotted them appear to be fine.

It’s not like I’ve had catastrophic failures of an entire crop. It’s single plants that just aren’t happy. I think @Wires_Guy_wires is right, some plants just don’t behave as expected and shouldn’t cause any lost sleep. I was more trying to find out what level of failure most others sometimes see and are ok to live with.
 
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Short answer: not very. The weather is mostly good, but almost every year, some random event or events happen to screw things up. Windstorms, ice storms, 116 degree days, or just damp weather that encourages pathogens happens most years. It's just part of the game in Portland.

Despite all this, the trees I lose are only seedlings or attacked by critters. Bonsai is challenging.
 

Shibui

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None of the plants you are talking about require more chill than they will get in Jo'berg so winter chill is NOT the cause. Nothing you grow will need winter protection either.
I have experienced some winter/ spring losses but it usually turns out there is a cause that can be avoided.
In my experience, watering is probably the number one cause of death or die back. We get used to not watering through winter when rail is plentiful and trees are dormant then suddenly days get longer, more sun and less rain. Trees also start to grow and suddenly have a much higher requirement for water. Unless you keep pace with the sudden changes plants in small pots can die or suffer damage.
Maples - JM in particular - can be affected by a fungal infection in cold, wet conditions. I've lost a few JM from this over the years. Not so many since learning to keep them up on airy benches in winter. Occasionally infection gets into roots after root pruning. Chinese elm seem to do better here if root pruned much closer to spring when they can heal? quicker. Maybe Celtis are similar? Were any of the affected trees kept on the ground through winter or after root pruning?

There will always be a natural attrition rate where individuals are susceptible to some environmental factor, pathogen, etc. so losing a few seedlings or young plants is normal as nature culls the weak but always keep looking for reasons for any losses.
 

SeanS

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@Shibui you may be right about pathogens getting into some of the freshly repotted trees. At present I have to keep some of my young stock (seedlings/cuttings/layers) that I repotted this year on/in a repurposed raised wooden herb planter bed. It still has soil in it and the trees are in their pots sitting on the soil. It's likely that the soil may may be harbouring pathogens which may have found their way into some of the pots resting on top of it.

This is due to limited space in my current garden, and needing to keep a lot of my plants in a small protected "nursery" area to keep everything safe from our 2 pet bunnies.

In exactly 8 weeks however I'll be moving to a new property with a massive garden (by our SA apartment estate standards), and will have a huge dedicated bonsai area where I'll be building proper raised benches and have all of my trees raised up and enjoying their own little bit of fresh air. I can hardly wait! I suspect some of this springs strange responses may be due to cramming plants into the current small area and the above mentioned herb planter soil situation. By December 1st that should all be sorted when I move all my plants to the new bonsai area.
 

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