The Seven States of Bonsai – Part Four

(Yes, bless it all… this is the end.)

Continued from Part Three…

Recovery: The period of time between activities in which the tree is expending energy on healing and sealing wounds, or on regaining strength post damage.

Once a tree has been worked over (especially its roots) leave it alone for several weeks. Water it of course, and protect it from weather… but don’t feed it, and try not to move it around too much. Just let it be. There is such a thing as loving a tree to death, and fussing around with a tree after it’s been through the equivalent of internal surgery is a very good way to bring that about. If you decide the next day that you don’t like the new position of a tree in its pot… you’ll need to fix it in a couple of years, so be sure before you set the tree into its new position.

The Golden Rule of Pines: Do only one major process in a given year. Either style it – or work on the roots – but not both in the same year.

This rule can be a safe guideline to follow for most any tree, especially if you know little of the tree’s past. Certain species of elms (Zelkova) when in good health can handle having their roots as well as their foliar mass savaged in the same sitting. Trees like those are tough as nails, but again it’s all about knowing your tree well.

(This is a Japanese Grey Bark Elm that was hard pruned, root worked, and had the lowest part of the trunk mass carved away so it could settle into it’s grow flat. The last photo is it a few months later, pushing beautiful new growth without missing a beat.)

There are those for whom a lot of the rules of recovery don’t apply… and they tend to be professional bonsai growers. Mostly that is because they have available the facilities to very carefully manage a tree’s environment and thereby it’s recovery.

(A photo from Telperion Farms in Oregon)

Dormancy: The period of time when all activities of growth are slowed or stopped. Most pronounced in cooler climate species which drop their leaves; even tropical’s have slow periods of activity before they enter another growth period. This period of rest is very important in helping trees prepare for the next active growth season. Meeting dormancy requirements often means northern tree species will not long tolerate being in a warm southern climate, where the dormancy period is short or non-existent. Larch (Larix) is an excellent example of a northern tree which is difficult to keep from the Mid-Atlantic States south. Dormancy is entirely related to regional weather patterns. Being aware of , and working with, the species which grow well in your area will help you meet this basic but important need, and have greater success in keeping trees alive and healthy where you live.

(Korean Hornbeam)

When a northern climate tree is dormant, do not feed it, and watering is generally kept to a minimum. Protection from wind and deep freezing beyond the tolerance of the species you are working with, are the only things which you really need to worry about. Packing your trees with snow around the base of the tree and around the pot is a great way to keep the temperature of the pot from dipping below 32, and will keep your soil evenly moist.

To help trees prepare for dormancy feeding 0-10-10 fertilizers will help harden off branches and strengthen roots for its winter rest. This should be done in the late summer when you have stopped feeding nitrogen rich fertilizers to slow down foliage growth.

Dead: The most important thing to know about “dead” is that dead does not always mean dead. Even trees can have near death experiences only to pop back unexpectedly. More than one tree has been added to the debris pile when its pot is being reclaimed only to have the owner find that the tree decided to sprout again with no intervention from them. Beyond loss of foliage, generally you’ll know death or dieback has occurred when branches are no longer turgid but rather get a puckered appearance, similar to a grape turning into a raisin. Or when you scratch test the tree, there bark resists or is difficult to scratch and has no green under the cork or thin skin of the bark.

When “dead” happens the thing to do is assess why it might have happened. Look back over the care and environmental conditions along with inspecting the tree itself. Check for disease, or environmental damage. See if there was a lack of rootage, or obvious root rot, and use that information to help you prevent it in the future. If you isolate that a pest or fungal disease may be the cause of death, immediately (after sanitizing all tools and your hands) inspect any other trees in proximity to the affected tree. If you are not sure how to handle a disease/pest, get experienced advice as soon as possible, as cross contamination happens very easily. Though often challenging to deal with, fungal and inspect damage is easiest cured in the early stages.

In closing… Knowing your tree well, as a species and an individual tree, before ever doing any heavy work is often a key to success. Rare is the tree which we will perform heavy work on that we have not had for at least a few seasons. That time lets you know how the tree reacts to your regional environment and set-up, and gives you a better chance at understanding the reactions the tree will go through as a result of that work. Though I admit it can be very hard to wait! That pain is lessened by having enough trees to keep you occupied until you feel confident about the tree(s) which were recently added to your garden. One nice thing to know though is that experiance with a species will tell you when you can speed things up. And finally, be mindful not to be SO careful that you let fear hold you back from doing the work that needs to be done. That will halt your progress faster than anything.

The omission of specific pests, diseases, fertilizers, soil composition and other hyper detailed information has been intentionally left out as it would not be possible to explore those things in the context of an essay.

Most of all enjoy your trees… the more time you spend with them, the more attuned you will become to their subtle changes and needs.


6 responses to “The Seven States of Bonsai – Part Four”

  1. Is that Eric wielding what I believe is a knitting needle? One of the first thoughts I had reading the opening was about helping trees recover in a more shady spot. But a shady spot is an objective description is it not? My shady spot is more shady because it is so hot here whereas perhaps up north your shady spot is less shady than mine. How scientific would I really like to get though?

    • It is indeed a knitting needle …. They make great chopsticks … 5.0 mm us #8 seems to be the most “chopstick” like … Works a treat …

      Re: shade is certainly subjective … The key is to control transpiration during recovery … Major root work damages the roots and reduces their ability to transport moisture to replace that which has been lost …

  2. Interesting read, you two are blessed with your common interest. Well designed and laid out site!

    I will disagree on one point “Only do one major task a year on pines.” Depends on the Pine, depends on the person. We frequently style pines and then at the end of the styling repot them- Ponderosas, JBPs, etc. Garnted , work with professionals, but still if you have healthy trees and are willing to provide the aftercare, these tasks can easily occur on the same tree in the same year. Same with Junipers- Western, RMJ, Shimpaku, healthy, style and repot same year/same time, provide appropriate after care and protection.

    • There are those for whom these ideas do not apply… lol But let’s also keep in mind this whole thing was framed for newer learners… for whom care and caution is a better friend. I’ve never killed a pine by being respectful of that ‘Golden Rule’… but I totally agree it can be done. It’s a matter of knowing your tree and being sensitive to what it needs after getting worked on both ends. But I’ve also seen really advanced people, and even masters, lose a tree by being over-confident on what a tree could handle.

      I really appreciate you taking a look, and the time to comment, I have always had a huge amount of respect for you. 🙂



      • One funny thought about that over-confidence… in the instances that are coming to mind… the tree had not long been in their care. Food for thought.

      • I absolutley agree about the over confidence. Most of the time when you see trees killed (like following a demo…) is because folks apply too much stress to a tree that is unable to handle it- typically material still in its native or big box store soil. Here is the conundrum. We repot Shohin almost every year. Any idears? Love the blog. The artistic side shows extremely well!

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