Repotting Large Established Conifers in Fall

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(The following is a reprint of a write-up I did for the Evergreen Bonsai Club newsletter dated October 2009.)

There is a brief window in the beginning of our fall season, before the leaves have fallen, and the trees go into their deep winter rest, that presents an opportunity to do some end of season repotting with your coniferous bonsai. Sure it’s fine to wait and repot your conifers during the traditional time in February, just as winter’s back is about to be broken by the thaw that leads to spring. But there can be serious advantages to repotting conifers in the fall if one is willing to go to the effort to protect the trees from harsh winter exposure.

One of the biggest advantages is getting a jump on next year’s growing season. By repotting now, the tree can begin to heal and recover before it goes dormant; giving the tree more time to enjoy that strong growth spurt that often happens with a good repot when spring comes. But make no mistake, trees which are repotted at this time will need their roots protected from hard freezing temperatures, and will need to be sheltered from wind. Our gusty fall and winter winds can be dangerous for a freshly potted tree. Unprotected from those winds, a tree may shift around in the pot, potentially damaging its roots since the tree won’t have a chance to “grab the pot” the way it would once spring growth generates new roots. If you do not have a set up which will allow you to do this, it’s best to wait until February/March before touching the roots on your tree.

Recently Eric Ridgeway and Charlie Anderson got together to take care of a couple of their larger established conifer trees. Eric recently acquired a nice Engelmann Spruce (Picea engelmannii), which he would like to have ready for the 2010 convention. It’s an old collected specimen from Mount Hood, OR. By doing the repot now, Eric gives the tree a good lead on the growing season next year in which to respond to the styling and wiring which will occur this fall.



It’s very important to have your new pot prepared prior to getting the tree out of its current container. While there are many ways to do this prep work, the general principal is to cover your drainage holes with mesh and secure them in, run wires which will tie the tree in to the pot, cover the first inch with a coarse layer for drainage, and then add a thin layer of the actual potting soil to cover the drainage layer.





After removing the tree from its pot, the tree’s root ball is initially loosened by spraying with a hose. (Take care not to use any more water pressure than needed, but realize that many of these peripheral roots will be removed anyway, so the damage from the water is minor.)




The root ball is further worked out by using a root hook to loosen the old soil and effectively removes the peripheral roots. When the edges have been worked over, the tree is turned on its side and the bottom of the root system is similarly reduced. Excessively large roots are removed with concave cutters or garden shears. (Please note that the tree’s old soil is not being completely removed. It is just being reduced enough to promote vigorous new growth, and allowing it to be placed into a smaller pot more appropriate for show.)



 
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Once the root ball is of the correct size; the tree’s front and position in the pot are secured with the tie in wires.




Soil is then added, and settled down into the nooks and crannies of the pot. It is very important for there to be no pockets of air left in the soil. Often a chopstick is a very helpful tool in this process. Gently poking it into the soil and wiggling it around will vibrate the smaller particles of soil down where you need it. Be sure that the edges are pressed in, as this will help the tree be more firmly settled into the pot.




It can often be nice to use a sifted soil component like Akadama to provide an aesthetically pleasing surface layer. Also mosses can be added to help reduce soil washout, and add to the visual appeal of the bonsai.



With the repot complete, this tree will be left alone for a couple weeks before any style work begins. Even then, extra precautions will be taken to make sure the tree does not shift while wire is being added to it.

Also included is a photo of Charlie’s beautiful Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), which was also repotted. This tree was recently acquired from the REBS Show & Sale in Santa Rosa, CA. This beautiful old tree was repotted with the exact same methods as those used on the Engelmann Spruce.



With correct aftercare these trees will flourish in the spring and enjoy the head start which has been given to them.


Victrinia Ridgeway


(If you would like to receive the Evergreen Bonsai Club newsletter, please feel free to pm me with your email address.)
 
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The Engelmann Spruce - Why this pot?

A lot of time and thought was put into the purchase of the pot which the Engelmann Spruce went into. It was chosen for its rectangular shape, color, minimal decoration, heavy feet, and strong lines. All of which speak to the old and masculine esthetic of the tree. While it may seem like the tree is a little “tall” for the pot at the moment, that feeling will change when the wiring work brings those branches into lower positions and when the overall height of the apex is reduced. For a good general guideline on choosing pots for trees read David DeGroot’s book Basic Bonsai Design available on-line through www.absbonsai.org!
 

Redwing

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Very nice post -- thank you! While I'd personally do a few things a little bit differently here and there, no doubt this is very solid advice throughout.

I really like the tree. Nice choice. The ready availability of this sort of material in the US goes a long way toward compensating for the scarcity of quality field-raised imports from Japan.

I look forward to seeing more of this tree.

-rw
 
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I'd put North American yamadori up against any other. I never cease to be thrilled by it. I'll have to post a massive Ponderosa of Daniel's for you sometime... you'd love it. And with that one, even I hope he won't do anything with the deadwood that's already there.

Glad you liked the tree... I hoped you would. I was not leaving without it being mine the moment I saw it. I wanted it for myself... but I decided to give it to the hubby instead because I wanted him to have a tree of this caliber to style. It's mere hours from being quite a beauty.

V
 

Red Truck

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First coarse layer of drain rock school I see. Do we understand what this achieves? I still do it.

Truck
 
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Victrinia, Beautiful post and a great acquisition! Very high potential, I am excited to see what becomes of thsi tree.
 
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First coarse layer of drain rock school I see. Do we understand what this achieves? I still do it.

Truck
My thought is that it allows water in the lowest part of the pot to meet less resistance when flowing out of the pot by contacting less surface area.
 

GOZTEK

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i am waiting till at least mid december to start repotting, we are still in the growing season here i have leaves still come out and some of the trees have lots of growth most probably because its like end of september here. I am still going out with shorts and t-shirt, and our growing season starts again on february so lots to do.
 
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i am waiting till at least mid december to start repotting, we are still in the growing season here........and our growing season starts again on february so lots to do.
OI!:eek:

That would not be enough of a break for me... lol
 

Red Truck

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My thought is that it allows water in the lowest part of the pot to meet less resistance when flowing out of the pot by contacting less surface area.

I had never thought of that Victrinia and I like it, Thanks!

Truck
 

Bill S

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Great post Victrinia, and I am jelous of the tree, I have avoided spruce, but this one can come to my place anytime.

Only point I add, because I have seen it done too many times(including myself, before reason set in), is that when "poking" in the chop stick, it's not to keep poking to push the soil down and in, but to insert the chop stick, and wiggle it side to side a little, changing the direction often, this lets the soil get into those pockets without much root damage. I have seen some sit there jabbing in the chop stick with a fair amount of force, ouch!
 
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Great post Victrinia, and I am jelous of the tree, I have avoided spruce, but this one can come to my place anytime.

Only point I add, because I have seen it done too many times(including myself, before reason set in), is that when "poking" in the chop stick, it's not to keep poking to push the soil down and in, but to insert the chop stick, and wiggle it side to side a little, changing the direction often, this lets the soil get into those pockets without much root damage. I have seen some sit there jabbing in the chop stick with a fair amount of force, ouch!
It is hard to find good spruce.... I think this may be the prettiest one I've ever seen available.

As to the chopstick thing.... I used the word "gently" very intentionally... One doesn't have to stab it to get the desired results. ;)

Kindest regards,

Victrinia
 
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Thanks for taking the time to document what was done, very well done - I need to do the same. Great seeing you and Eric at the convention.

Juniperus Californica
 
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Thanks for taking the time to document what was done, very well done - I need to do the same. Great seeing you and Eric at the convention.

Juniperus Californica
Considering what great photos you take... I think that would be marvelous to see.... :D

It was great meeting you too... I really enjoyed the convention... I'll be back again.
 

Attila Soos

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Vic,
Do you guys have collectable Sitka spruce up there? I remember seing many stunted ones, growing on cliffs and rocks on Vancouver Island, when I lived in British Columbia.
 

ghues

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Hey Miss Vic, A great post and tree......
This fall re-potting is something I can relate too as we (BC forest industry) plant our seedlings in both the spring and again in late summer/early fall to match the two root egresses that we get here in the PNW. If I'm not mistaken this spruce tree had new root growth in the picture with the hose, showing that its healthly and taking advantage of the mild fall weather. The key as you pointed out is to protect them after the repot.
Geeeezzz another convention.... two in the fall....lucky. Hope to see you next year.
Cheers
G.
 

Attila Soos

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Hey Miss Vic, A great post and tree......
This fall re-potting is something I can relate too as we (BC forest industry) plant our seedlings in both the spring and again in late summer/early fall to match the two root egresses that we get here in the PNW. If I'm not mistaken this spruce tree had new root growth in the picture with the hose, showing that its healthly and taking advantage of the mild fall weather. The key as you pointed out is to protect them after the repot.
Geeeezzz another convention.... two in the fall....lucky. Hope to see you next year.
Cheers
G.
Talking about the devil.... (re. Vancouver Island). May be you have an opinion about the Sitka spruce (I hope I don't highjack this thread, but since it is about a spruce..). I was talking to Jim Gremel at the GSBF convention, he said that he planted a few hundred sitka spruce seedlings for bonsai stock, but after a few years of struggling with them, he threw the whole batch away. They are too much trouble, he said. I have a few young ones in my backyard myself, here in L.A. it is the only spruce that can grow this far south (and nobody here knows that they can grow in this area).
Do you guys collect them for bonsai up there, on the Island? I don't remember seeing anything on the Internet. May be they have some undesirable characteristic that makes them less popular in bonsai circles?
 
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Vic,
Do you guys have collectable Sitka spruce up there? I remember seing many stunted ones, growing on cliffs and rocks on Vancouver Island, when I lived in British Columbia.
It's not a species we intentionally go after... we tend to go for Mountain Hemlocks, Yellow Cedars, and Lodge Pole Pine (costal form)... so the better question is... where did you see them? Opportunity is usually more a factor than anything up there... you go for what you find.
 
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