Nursery Stock to Bonsai, Order of Steps

TrunkTickler

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Hello bnuts,

I've been in the deep end of the bonsai world for a couple of years now and I'm still confused on what the general steps should be from going from nursery stock to bonsai?

My general question is, should the roots be worked/reduced first or the foliage worked/styled first?

Is it better to shape the top, with a full pot of (no good roots) to promote new foliage growth/ backbudding, etc, utilizing the full pot of roots?

Or, reduce/work the roots (looking for radial roots/better bonsai roots) while the foliage is full, then proceed to shape the top X amount of years later when you have new strong radial, shallow, etc roots.

Follow up, I'm guessing this will be highly specific to the species you are working with and would apply more to certain species more than others. I know that you can essentially cut a ficus back to a small stump with little foliage and roots and be fine, while if you do this with a juniper, it is death.

For junipers, I've learned from Mirai (I think) the junipers 'energy' is in its foliage, so in this case, is it better to do rootwork with a full foliage mass, then shape the top when you have strong roots?

Contrary to that I have seen many people style the tree (reduce the foliage) while it is still in a large nursery pot.

I would like to get a colorado spruce out of a nursery pot and on its journey to becoming a bonsai, but I can't chase the buds back while I am also reducing the roots, correct? I had good backbudding this year (from trimming growth last fall), should I keep chasing the buds back to the trunk. while it is in a nursery pot full of roots? or should I sort out the roots over several years then tackle the top once the roots are more radial/shallow?

What should my steps be for getting a spruce from nursery stock to bonsai?

Cheers,
Connor
 

Leo in N E Illinois

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Yes,
It depends. As you correctly surmised.

Seriously, each individual plant needs its own plan.

Generally, for vigorous deciduous trees, like elm, maple, hornbeam, willow, bald cypress, metasequoia, ginkgo, service berry, apples (all malus) and many more. If the tree in front of you is healthy and in good condition. AND if the time of year is favorable for that species (early spring, when buds are just starting to move, or after the summer solstice, but before growth for the season has slowed to a stop - at least 4 weeks before the autumnal equinox in my area. (Note in areas with extremely hot summers this period may not be an option). Generally for vigorous deciduous trees everything, major root work, major pruning (major chopping) it is all done on the same day. If you wire that day you too the order is Prune - wire - touch up pruning - your major root work - then repot, or pot up into its new container. I have tried breaking it up, root work first, then following year the pruning, and the reverse, the pruning, then the following year the root work. In general, you will be ahead of the game in development if you do it all at once.

Note: this only applies to healthy trees. Weakened trees you will need to go slower.

Remember, vast majority of fine bonsai pots are 3 inches or less in depth, with 4 inches in depth being the maximum for ''off the shelf'' pots. So when you first work the root system - work it hard enough that it is less than 3 inches if at all possible. This will avoid having to purchase custom pots in the future. Cascade pots are deeper, deeper root systems are okay, but they are best only for cascading trees.

Junipers are their own thing. Generally, work the roots first, while you have maximum foliage. Depending on your climate, if favorable, you can get away with doing just about anything at just about any time - those guys in California are lucky that way. Generally for the rest of us you work the foliage and the roots in different years. Also junipers dislike root work, so never repot them more than necessarily. Once every 5 years to once every 15 years is not an unreasonable schedule. As long as the potting media drains, don't repot unless you have to do so to get it into a display pot. Leave ample time to recover. In my zone 5, I give mine a year, 12 months, with no work after repotting.

Spruces and other elongating species as Ryan Neil calls them. Generally when you have maximum foliage in front of you, you can work the roots first. Allow a year or two for recovery. Then begin the foliage work. Spruces are definitely one of the trees that you can do a lot, then give them time to recover, often more than one season. Then you can hit them hard again. I removed 75% or more of the roots of a root bound Colorado blue spruce, it took 3 years before I saw enough growth. Then I did the first round of pruning, I'm in year 2 of waiting for recovery to be sufficient.

Your individual climate will alter the amount of time needed for recovery. Aftercare and horticultural skill also makes a big difference. Get water, sun, and fertilizer at the point where they are ''just right'' is not easy. Too much or too little of any of the 3 (sun, water, fertilizer) will slow recovery.

Pines - are a whole separate matter. You definitely have to accurately estimate the health of the tree in front of you.
Generally root work and foliage pruning are done during different years, but sometimes you can get away with all at once. It is very individualistic.

White pine group, especially Japanese White Pine - is idiomatic, most of your work will be done in late summer, early autumn. I can not pretend to know much about them, ask Adair.

Single flush pines, - most are 2 needle, but some are 3 needle and 4 needle, or in the case of the Single needle Pinyon Pine, 1 needle. All these pines have a single flush of growth. Most of your work will be done after the summer solstice. Usually repot and foliage work in separate years. Vance is your best source for Mugo information. I would generally do root work first then foliage work, though with mugos in good health you can sometimes get away with everything all the same year. Check in with Vance to get details.

Double flush pines - Japanese Black and Japanese Red pines are their own thing. Adair is our best information source.

Then there are the odd pines, that nobody knows what to do with. Bristlecone pines for example. Your bet is as good as mine. I would do root work and foliage work in different years. I would do root work first, allow recovery, then foliage work.

So that is my 2 cents worth.

Seriously - it is the tree in front of you that writes the script.
 

TrunkTickler

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Wow thanks so much for the reply Leo, lots of great info there. Maybe I'll have to bight the bullet and subscribe to Mirai.

For spruce and other conifer work, would you do a hard repot like you described for your spruce after the summer solstice or in the spring? I am always hesitant to work conifer roots in the late summer/early fall.

There would be no benefit in dividing the same amount of work across the two time? Say 30% fall 30% spring, opposed to 60% in spring or fall?
 

Leo in N E Illinois

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@TrunkTickler - I have never subscribed to Mirai. Everything I wrote is available from multiple sources. I did watch the Ryan Neil video where he explains ''elongating species'' so I quoted that because I know it is the current ''in fashion'' terminology. Don't get me wrong, if the price tag for you is affordable, you certainly will get a lot of very valuable information from Mirai live. I may even join myself at some point in the future. He is producing good really educational videos of very high quality.

I don't know about splitting up the work. I would think the danger would be forgetting about how much you did in the first round and going too far the second.

More important, especially if a tree is new to you, learn what good healthy growth looks like. I had problems with JBP for years because I thought relatively weak growth was healthy growth. Not until I saw a locally grown tree with big foxtails of new shoots, just before decandling, did I understand what healthy growth is. Trees on display in shows are often needle plucked to the point of looking fairly sparse. And if you don't understand that the sparse look is only temporary, and mistake it for healthy growth, you end up working on weak trees and then they die. I finally started having better success with JBP when I would let them get bushy foxtails of growth before doing major pruning or styling or wiring or repotting. Now my survival rate has come way up. Haven't lost more than one or two since that realization.
So learn what healthy growth looks like for each new species you try.

You are in Ontario, you have Lake effect from Lakes Huron and Superior, your climate is not wildly different than mine. You more so than anyone further south from me, can do well with summer repotting. If I were you, you could repot spruce anytime after the beginning of July. And because your July is mild, your tree will recover nicely. Just make sure you don't have vacation scheduled right after you repot. Keep up on the watering right after repotting. At first the tree won't need as frequent of watering, because the roots are not there yet, do not let the spruce get too dry. Then when roots start to form, the need to water will increase in frequency very rapidly. So be observant in your after care, watering frequency will change over the course of 2 or 3 months.

You could get away with repotting spruce from July 1 to September 15. For you, I would target the July 15 to August 15 time period as being the best time for summer repot. This applies only to a zone 5 climate, the rest of you BNutters in zones 6 and further south have a different calendar.
 

Leo in N E Illinois

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@Leo in N E Illinois, where would you put Pitch Pine in that list of Pines? Are they single flush?

You are in zone 7, central New Jersey. Your summers are long enough that pitch pine should behave like a double flush pine. I'm guessing your growing season is around 200 days, give or take. So for you, Pinus rigida, Pitch Pine is a double flush or multiple flush pine. You should do your candle pruning about 100 days before your average first frost date for YOUR OWN LOCATION. Look at your weather almanac for local weather and count the days back to know when you should candle prune in your area. I suspect it will be similar to when they decandle in Atlanta, probably a few days to a week or so earlier than Atlanta.

I'm in zone 5b, my growing season is only 95 to 110 days long between freezes below 28 F or -2 C. For me pitch pine and Japanese Black Pine have usually been single flush pines. My growing season is too short to use the double flush techniques. If I do decandle a JBP, I have to do so before June 15, or I will not mature the new growth by the first freeze date. Bitter experience taught me this is true. Immature foliage is not as cold hardy as fully mature foliage. Often new buds have not even started growing by June 15, especially if I have a cool ''Lake Effect'' spring, where cold wind off the Lake keeps my spring afternoons at 45 to 55 F (7 C to 12 C). Japanese black pines, and to a lesser extent pitch pines need daytime highs above 78 F (25 C) to properly wake up and start growing rapidly. Sometime my candles don't get moving until July 4. Too late to candle prune.

Some years I can get away with decandling, (a warm spring) but most years I just treat them as single flush pines. Meaning I do my branch selection in late summer or early autumn, the bulk of styling work is done in autumn.
 
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TrunkTickler

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I don't know about splitting up the work. I would think the danger would be forgetting about how much you did in the first round and going too far the second.

I'm trying to get these trees into a forest planting from 5-3 gal pots, I should do this over two years? or summer repot, then into the forest in spring? I guess it really depends on the ratio of fine roots (to keep) and large problem roots (to remove).

You could get away with repotting spruce from July 1 to September 15. For you, I would target the July 15 to August 15 time period as being the best time for summer repot. This applies only to a zone 5 climate, the rest of you BNutters in zones 6 and further south have a different calendar.
@Leo in N E Illinois does this apply to American larches as well?
 

Leo in N E Illinois

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I'm trying to get these trees into a forest planting from 5-3 gal pots, I should do this over two years? or summer repot, then into the forest in spring? I guess it really depends on the ratio of fine roots (to keep) and large problem roots (to remove).

You did not say what species you are working with. If it were elms, and spring, before leaves opened, I would not worry about fine roots, just get the root systems small enough to plant them together into your tray, or the final forest pot. Elms and other deciduous are not usually repotted in late summer as described for spruce. Survival is not as high. So it is usually avoided.

For sake of clarity, it depends on the individual species, each species has their own rules. And it depends on the size and health of the actual tree on the bench in front of you.

does this apply to American larches as well?

As I said above - species dependent. -
Larch are treated like deciduous. You are in the area where larches are very good for bonsai. Visit the Montreal botanic garden, and I believe there is a big Ottawa show every year.

Larches are only repotted while leafless. Any other time is very likely to result in death. Best time is in late winter, early spring. When you see the dull brown buds begin to swell, and turn golden. THat is the time to repot. You can repot through the time you begin to see green line patterns appear on the buds (that is the green of the needles seen through the translucent bud scales. Once the bud scales protecting the buds split and new needles are exposed it is too late to repot. I have killed a number of larches by repotting too late. Larches are the first of the deciduous to wake up in spring, you need to be observant to catch them at the right time. I have killed all my larches by repotting too late. I currently do not have any.

Not trying to be harsh, but I do want to ''slow your roll'' so that you don't kill trees you like.

The most difficult aspect of bonsai to learn is timing. Learning to adjust advice from others to your local climate calendar. If you timing is good, you can get away with rather drastic work. If you miss the timing window for your climate, you will have more failures, not always death, but long periods of recovery will be required. When ever I read someone's advice, I check the location of the author, and mentally adjust to a calendar for my location. I know Adair is in Georgia, not terribly far from Atlanta, so I always remind myself what Atlanta weather is for the time of year he is talking about. Then I think about when that would be for myself.

If you are itching to do something right now, and the forest you want to assemble is a species that should wait, go out and by yourself a half dozen spruces, and go to town on them.
 
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So 100 days from my expected frost date would be July 10ish... obviously we are a couple weeks beyond this.

Though im letting mine grow out anyway, what would happen if I were to candle prune at this point? Would no buds form in time for the tree to grow healthy next spring?
 

River's Edge

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Wow thanks so much for the reply Leo, lots of great info there. Maybe I'll have to bight the bullet and subscribe to Mirai.

For spruce and other conifer work, would you do a hard repot like you described for your spruce after the summer solstice or in the spring? I am always hesitant to work conifer roots in the late summer/early fall.

There would be no benefit in dividing the same amount of work across the two time? Say 30% fall 30% spring, opposed to 60% in spring or fall?
For spruce and other conifer hard repots, i prefer the spring. I do divide the work, as in partial repots for sensitive conifers like Hemlocks. This becomes a segmented repot due to their finicky root systems. And as Leo pointed out the partial repots take a while to get on to a clear system. My experience with late summer early fall repots and collections is that they can work but the recovery time is much longer for conifers in particular.
 

sorce

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trying to get these trees into a forest planting from 5-3 gal pots, I should do this over two years? or summer repot, then into the forest in spring? I guess it really depends on the ratio of fine roots (to keep) and large problem roots (to remove

What species?

Sorce
 

TrunkTickler

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You did not say what species you are working with. If it were elms, and spring, before leaves opened, I would not worry about fine roots, just get the root systems small enough to plant them together into your tray, or the final forest pot. Elms and other deciduous are not usually repotted in late summer as described for spruce. Survival is not as high. So it is usually avoided.

For sake of clarity, it depends on the individual species, each species has their own rules. And it depends on the size and health of the actual tree on the bench in front of you.
Not trying to be harsh, but I do want to ''slow your roll'' so that you don't kill trees you like.

The most difficult aspect of bonsai to learn is timing. Learning to adjust advice from others to your local climate calendar. If you timing is good, you can get away with rather drastic work. If you miss the timing window for your climate, you will have more failures, not always death, but long periods of recovery will be required. When ever I read someone's advice, I check the location of the author, and mentally adjust to a calendar for my location. I know Adair is in Georgia, not terribly far from Atlanta, so I always remind myself what Atlanta weather is for the time of year he is talking about. Then I think about when that would be for myself.

If you are itching to do something right now, and the forest you want to assemble is a species that should wait, go out and by yourself a half dozen spruces, and go to town on them.

I'm still working on gathering species-dependent info, but I was referring to spruce then went off on a tangent thought about larches :p

Please, be as harsh as required, I really appreciate the knowledge and experience from local (relatively lol) experts.

I've been trying to gather as much info from local people as possible and avoid the general seasonality discussion. Learning to adjust other climates advice to ours would be difficult, haven't tried that yet :)

I've heard a variety of opinions on larch collecting/repotting, there seems to be a lot of misinformation or at least a lot of different opinions but I've only stuck to spring for them.
 

sorce

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Ok

I don't know anything about Larch, but I wouldn't repot in fall, then also forest up in spring for either.

'm trying to get these trees into a forest planting from 5-3 gal pots, I should do this over two years? or summer repot, then into the forest in spring? I guess it really depends on the ratio of fine roots (to keep) and large problem roots (to remove).

The problem I'm seeing, with my regularly successful method of summer repotting in full bush, is getting them close enough to one another at once to form a forest.

You would almost have to ensure GREAT health, and prune nearly the entire facing sides when forresting them.

I believe it would be best to repot without touching the tops after growth in summer.

Allow full recover, 1-3 years.

Then Prune the tops as appropriate for your forest. This should take 2-7 years. As it is both actions AND recovery.

Then forest them up.

Of course, you can do it all at once, but some may outcompete others, leaving you with dead trees, which may fit the design.

Plan plan plan....then plan morest for your forest.

Sorce
 

MattE

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Ok

I don't know anything about Larch, but I wouldn't repot in fall, then also forest up in spring for either.



The problem I'm seeing, with my regularly successful method of summer repotting in full bush, is getting them close enough to one another at once to form a forest.

You would almost have to ensure GREAT health, and prune nearly the entire facing sides when forresting them.

I believe it would be best to repot without touching the tops after growth in summer.

Allow full recover, 1-3 years.

Then Prune the tops as appropriate for your forest. This should take 2-7 years. As it is both actions AND recovery.

Then forest them up.

Of course, you can do it all at once, but some may outcompete others, leaving you with dead trees, which may fit the design.

Plan plan plan....then plan morest for your forest.

Sorce
Side note... i have been on here for about 3 years now.. keep to myself dont know many people im not in any of the "clicks" but my favorite is Source lol every time im reading posts randomly looking at purdy Bonsai he always has a comment or a joke or some form of knowledge that gets explained in a funny way shape or form lol.
dont ever change
 

Paul G

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Yes,
It depends. As you correctly surmised.

Seriously, each individual plant needs its own plan.

Generally, for vigorous deciduous trees, like elm, maple, hornbeam, willow, bald cypress, metasequoia, ginkgo, service berry, apples (all malus) and many more. If the tree in front of you is healthy and in good condition. AND if the time of year is favorable for that species (early spring, when buds are just starting to move, or after the summer solstice, but before growth for the season has slowed to a stop - at least 4 weeks before the autumnal equinox in my area. (Note in areas with extremely hot summers this period may not be an option). Generally for vigorous deciduous trees everything, major root work, major pruning (major chopping) it is all done on the same day. If you wire that day you too the order is Prune - wire - touch up pruning - your major root work - then repot, or pot up into its new container. I have tried breaking it up, root work first, then following year the pruning, and the reverse, the pruning, then the following year the root work. In general, you will be ahead of the game in development if you do it all at once.

Note: this only applies to healthy trees. Weakened trees you will need to go slower.

Remember, vast majority of fine bonsai pots are 3 inches or less in depth, with 4 inches in depth being the maximum for ''off the shelf'' pots. So when you first work the root system - work it hard enough that it is less than 3 inches if at all possible. This will avoid having to purchase custom pots in the future. Cascade pots are deeper, deeper root systems are okay, but they are best only for cascading trees.

Junipers are their own thing. Generally, work the roots first, while you have maximum foliage. Depending on your climate, if favorable, you can get away with doing just about anything at just about any time - those guys in California are lucky that way. Generally for the rest of us you work the foliage and the roots in different years. Also junipers dislike root work, so never repot them more than necessarily. Once every 5 years to once every 15 years is not an unreasonable schedule. As long as the potting media drains, don't repot unless you have to do so to get it into a display pot. Leave ample time to recover. In my zone 5, I give mine a year, 12 months, with no work after repotting.

Spruces and other elongating species as Ryan Neil calls them. Generally when you have maximum foliage in front of you, you can work the roots first. Allow a year or two for recovery. Then begin the foliage work. Spruces are definitely one of the trees that you can do a lot, then give them time to recover, often more than one season. Then you can hit them hard again. I removed 75% or more of the roots of a root bound Colorado blue spruce, it took 3 years before I saw enough growth. Then I did the first round of pruning, I'm in year 2 of waiting for recovery to be sufficient.

Your individual climate will alter the amount of time needed for recovery. Aftercare and horticultural skill also makes a big difference. Get water, sun, and fertilizer at the point where they are ''just right'' is not easy. Too much or too little of any of the 3 (sun, water, fertilizer) will slow recovery.

Pines - are a whole separate matter. You definitely have to accurately estimate the health of the tree in front of you.
Generally root work and foliage pruning are done during different years, but sometimes you can get away with all at once. It is very individualistic.

White pine group, especially Japanese White Pine - is idiomatic, most of your work will be done in late summer, early autumn. I can not pretend to know much about them, ask Adair.

Single flush pines, - most are 2 needle, but some are 3 needle and 4 needle, or in the case of the Single needle Pinyon Pine, 1 needle. All these pines have a single flush of growth. Most of your work will be done after the summer solstice. Usually repot and foliage work in separate years. Vance is your best source for Mugo information. I would generally do root work first then foliage work, though with mugos in good health you can sometimes get away with everything all the same year. Check in with Vance to get details.

Double flush pines - Japanese Black and Japanese Red pines are their own thing. Adair is our best information source.

Then there are the odd pines, that nobody knows what to do with. Bristlecone pines for example. Your bet is as good as mine. I would do root work and foliage work in different years. I would do root work first, allow recovery, then foliage work.

So that is my 2 cents worth.

Seriously - it is the tree in front of you that writes the script.
Thanks for the detailed reply!! Lots of helpful info on questions I've been meaning to ask.
 
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