The Colourful Maple

In the genus Acer there exist many varieties all of which produce a range of colour unsurpassed by most other tree species, be they the small to medium Japanese maples including the ‘trident’ maple Acer buergerianum, the ‘broad palmate leaf’ maple Acer palmatum shirasawanum; (‘Shirasawa’s’ maple or ‘full moon’ maple) and the serrated ‘red leaf’ maple Acer palmatum dissectum amoenum. To larger varieties including the ‘sugar maple’ Acer saccharum, the American ‘sycamore’ Acer pseudoplatanus and the ‘Norway’ maple Acer platanoides. The family Acer is extensive especially with Japanese varieties therefore, this discussion will be restricted to two – these being the ‘Norway’ maple and the serrated ‘red leaf’ maple.

The Norway maple A. platanoides can be found in eastern and central Europe, Scandinavia, Asia and Russia its range extends well above the arctic circle for example, TromsØ in Norway. It is a deciduous tree that when mature can reach heights from 20–30m, its trunk shallow grooved and grey-brown in colour attains a diameter of approximately 1.5m. The dark green palmate 5 lobed leaves are opposite to each other and are between 7–14cm long by 8–20cm across with the petiole 8–20cm long, which secretes a milky fluid when damaged or cut.

The flowers 15–30 yellow to green have 5 sepals and 5 petals 3–4mm and are arranged in a cluster with stalks that are proportionally longer, allowing them to form a flat or slightly convex head. Flowering begins in early spring before the new leaves emerge. The seeds are flat and disc shaped contained in a two-winged casing arrangement that when shed, rotate as they fall to the ground. The autumn colour is usually yellow to orange to red.

Acer platanoides leaf & seeds

Under ideal conditions Norway maples can live up to 250 years, but as they are often planted in urban areas for decorative and shade purposes this reduces their life expectancy, because if the root system is restricted they will intertwine eventually girdling and killing the tree. A. platanoides has become a popular species for bonsai in Europe and can be seen as medium to large bonsai sizes in a multitude of styles.

Natural enemiesA. platanoides is a hardy species although in some areas it is under threat from the Asian long-horn beetle Anoplophora glabripennis a large insect approximately 1.7 to 3.9cm with antennae twice its body length. Originally native to Japan, Korea and China it is now found in North America, Canada and in Europe; the UK, France, Austria, Italy and Germany. It is said that this pest arrived in the western hemisphere in wooden crates in egg form, which later hatched and multiplied.

This insect kills trees by eating its way through the trunk and to date has not only infected the maple, but other species including Aesculus, (Soapberry, Buckeye and Horse chestnut) Alder, Birch, Hornbeam, Beech, Ash, Prunus sp., Willow, Planes, Sorbus and some species of Poplar. Signs of attack are exit holes 1–2cm diameter, sawdust or ‘frass’, (insect excreta) sap oozing from exit holes, dead or dying branches and yellowing leaves. Insecticides such as imidacloprid, clothianidin and dinotefuran have been used to eradicate adult beetles and as trunk injections to target larvae.

 

Asian longhorn beetle

Other unwanted guests include a variety of lepidopterans that feed on its foliage. A. platanoides like most fauna does have its fair share of diseases, although they are more unsightly opposed to life threatening. Such diseases include the ‘powdery mildew’ Uncinula bicornis, and verticillium wilt caused caused by 6 species of this genus V. dahliae, V. albo-atrum, V. longisporum, V. nubilum, V. theobromae and V. tricorpus and White spot caused by the fungus phyllosticta. Shown below.

 

White spot on a maple

 

The serrated ‘red leaf’ maple Acer palmatum dissectum amoenum commonly referred to as the palmate maple is native to Japan, China, Korea, south eastern Russia and eastern Mongolia and many cultivars have been produced for their colouration and various leaf forms. This small tree or shrub when mature can attain heights of between 6 to 10m in single or multiple trunk form. Its leaves are palmate but serrated resembling a delicate ‘lace-like’ pattern with 7 to 9 pointed lobes, approximately 6 to12cm long with single serrated margins. The flowers cluster around a central stem, which bears a single flower that is first to develop, with five red or purple sepals and five whitish petals. The fruit consists of a pair of winged samaras (a winged nut or achene containing one seed) each being 20 to 25mm in length containing a 6 to 8mm seed.

A. palmatum amoenum is usually found at higher altitudes throughout Japan and South Korea and can be considered hardy, but is prone to perish in periods of drought, hence watering regularly is required. However, A. palmatum amoenum will not survive in soggy or wet conditions therefore the medium should be well drained in addition, fertilization is not necessary, but if applied should preferably be in a slow release form and used sparingly.

Natural enemies – As with other maple varieties it is susceptible to attack from pathogens and verticillium wilt as described above, it is also prone to attack from the common Gypsy moth Lymantria dispar. This insect is classified as a pest and is listed as one of the 100 most destructive invasive species known worldwide, because its voracious larvae can consume the leaves of over 500 species of trees, shrubs and plants.

 

Gypsy moth

 

Another unwanted pest briefly mentioned in the article ‘Selecting material for bonsai part III’ (Looking for bargains) is the ‘red spider’ mite Tetranychidae urticae, which includes approximately 1,200 species. These mini beasts live on the undersides of plant leaves spinning fine protective silk webs and causing damage by puncturing the plant cells to feed resulting in wilting, discoloured crumbling leaves. The image below shows an A. palmatum amoenum prior to ‘red spider’ attack, the whole left hand side of the plant and the mid to upper section of the right side was saturated with these pests.

 

Fire cracker before attack

To eradicate these mini beasts a number of approaches were used including tepid water and various insecticides all of which had little effect. Another solution was to use an aerosol spray called ‘Raid’ from SC Johnson that did kill the insects, but had an adverse affect on the plant insomuch that the residue from the spray penetrated the leaf pores causing them to wilt and die. A more serious problem was that it was causing die-back in the petioles and seeping back into the branches. The only solution was to cut out the infected wood, thus 75% of the tree was removed. (Red dotted areas)

The remaining part of the trunk and root system was thoroughly cleaned and repotted in fresh soil then placed in a shady position for the duration of the summer 2016. In October the same year the tree was brought inside where a constant temperature was maintained with no humidity and placed under a full spectrum lighting system. This A. palmatum amoenum showed no signs of life until late June 2017 when a few buds appeared, in late July it is starting to produce growth as depicted below, but will take some considerable time to fully recover.

fire cracker after

Arguably, the moral of the story is to check any plant you might acquire for signs of infection and if it is attacked by unwanted pests, try using horticulture soap or a diluted pyrol bug and larvae killer; it is a safer option as opposed to using aerosol insecticide sprays. However, when disease becomes a problem with the Acer genus there is not much we can do, because there is no remedy for fungi that cause canker disease for example.

Root Rot – is caused by the pathogen phytophthora, which attacks the root system and crown of many species of Japanese maple. A tree that is infected will show signs of discolouration, wilt, branch die-back, leaves falling prematurely and black or red sap oozing from the trunk. To prevent canker disease it is important to ensure that the medium in which the tree is planted has good irrigation.

Anthracnose – is a fungal disease that causes foliage distortion, stem die-back, cankers and girdling. The signs that a Acer is infected are black spots appearing on the leaves, which is caused by humidity and wet conditions. Any leaves infected by anthracnose must be removed and destroyed immediately, because there is no chemical treatment available. Although it is said that anthracnose can be prevented by applying a preventative fungal spray when new buds are about to break.

Leaf Spot – disease can be caused by various strains of fungi commonly known to attack plants and signs of infection are coloured spots on the leaves, as a result leaves may be discoloured and fall prematurely from the tree. Another form of spotting is ‘White-spot’ caused the fungus phyllosticta it is prevalent in humid and wet conditions. A preventative measure to ward of leaf spot is to make sure any and all unwanted dead or decaying debris is removed from the soil surface and to make sure that the soil medium has good drainage. Although leaf spot is not considered detrimental to the tree’s health it is annoying because its presence is ugly.

Powdery Mildew – is a powder-like fungal growth found on stems, buds and leaves, which can spread quite rapidly and does not need any moisture to grow and is prevalent in shaded areas having moderate temperatures. Signs of powdery mildew disease is easily visible as it causes leaf distortion. Some practitioners use Neem and horticultural oil to prevent powdery mildew attacking maples whereas others state that good care, maintenance and well-being are sufficient to keep this disease at bay.

Until next time BW, N.

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Selecting material for bonsai part III (Looking for bargains – update)

As stated in the article posted August 3rd 2017 now is the time when the local nurseries or garden centres start selling their stock at reduced prices and thus many bargains can be had quite cheaply. Although a proportion of trees and shrubs will show signs of fatigue, hidden amongst them one can find some good specimens for example, the White spruce Picea abies (syn alba) discussed in the last post August 6th 2017. Here is another specimen a Ginkgo biloba commonly known as the ‘Maiden hair’ tree or 白果 (bái guǒ), ‘white fruit’, and 銀杏 (yínxìng), or ‘silver apricot’. Original price 35€ sale price 17,50€.

Ginkgo on sale

Hidden in this mass of foliage somewhere there is a potential bonsai waiting to reveal itself – I just had to find it. But first my apologies I forgot to video the work nonetheless, here is a written explanation of the process, which should suffice.

Removing some of the foliage exposed a twin trunk of equal height in a ‘Y’ formation, but the composition seemed unbalanced because one trunk was thinner than the other. To retain movement and perspective, the thinner trunk was cut back to a stump to add character rather than remove it entirely. The main reason being is that Ginkgo do not heal wounds like most deciduous broad leaf species the scars are always visible. The stump’s bark and cambium was removed and the bare wood treated with a water based black dye and lime sulphur to create a burnt silvery appearance. The long, straight, thick inner branches were cut back because wiring was impossible however, wire could be used on the leading shoot at the apex and thus was loosely wired into position.

The tree was removed from the pot to check the root ball condition, 30% of the roots were trimmed back, the old soil was replaced with a sand and grit based loam, then repotted in the same pot slanting to the right to create movement. The whole process including cleaning, re-potting, pruning and wiring took approximately 2.5 hours. The cuttings were saved and treated with rooting hormone powder and planted in the same soil composition as the main tree. These will be cultivated and then given away to other bonsai enthusiasts.

Ginkgo before and after

Ginkgo cuttins

G. biloba is the only living species in the division Ginkgophyta, all others being extinct and is one of the best-known examples of a living fossil, dating back 270 million years. G. biloba are dioecious meaning some trees are male and some female. Male trees produce small pollen cones each bearing two microsporangia spirally arranged around a central axis. Female plants do not produce cones, instead two ovules are formed at the end of a stalk and develop into seeds after pollination. These seeds approximately 1.5–2 cm long have a soft fleshy light yellow-brown outer layer called the sarcotesta, which although attractive to the eye, contains butyric acid that has the odour of vomit.

But arguably what makes this species an attraction in bonsai are its leaves, that are unique among seed producing plants. They are fan-shaped with veins radiating out into the leaf blade, sometimes splitting, but never cross connecting to form a network. They are a vivid green during the growing season turning to a deep saffron yellow in autumn. A good bargain and well worth the time and effort, until next time take care BW, N.

Selecting material for bonsai part III (Looking for bargains)

In the articles Collecting material for Bonsai I and II discussions on how and where to find potential material included. Unwanted plants from gardens, waste sites, areas designated for development, roadside ditches and of course the wild all of which require permission to obtain. Other sources are arboretums, which are great places to visit, but due to their vast acreage one needs the minimum of a day to see the vast variety of species. In addition, there are usually plants for sale that can be had for pennies such as this Balkan Chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum acquired for 4€. Obviously it has a long way to go before having any potential as a bonsai, but time and patience is the watchword.

Balkan chestnut. Turku

The garden centre – In spring garden centres start receiving new stock, a vast variety of flora ranging from ‘common-every-day plants’ to the exotic. Where according to some experts one can find a potential bonsai for the price of a shirt approximately 40€ to 60€. However, this new stock imported from other climes including temperate is usually rife with unwanted mini beasts, which if not eradicated can have a devastating effect other bonsai in one’s collection.

Evidence to support this claim goes back to the spring of last year (2016) when a Red Japanese maple Acer amoenum dissectum was obtained and unbeknown was affected by red spider mite Tetranychus urticae. Signs of the infestation was not visible when acquired, but in a few weeks the pests revealed themselves having made colonies not only on the red acer, but on other species in my collection. Removing these arachnids was time consuming, some plants were saved but others including the common lemon Citrus limon (L.) Osbeck and Pomegranate Punica granatum unfortunately had to be destroyed; not a decision taken lightly, hence one has become highly vigilant where pests and disease are concerned.

However, one should not be deterred by such a misfortune because, all plants regardless of their species are hosts to a multitude of mini beasts as is the soil in which they grow. It is part of life’s rich tapestry, it is just knowing the good from the bad. More information on pests and disease can be found in the article of the same name posted earlier.

Returning to the subject of the ‘Garden centre’ and what can be found as potential or pre-bonsai can reveal some pleasant surprises even a bargain. Because tucked away in some corner will be specimens that look past their shelf life so to speak, wilting foliage or decay giving an unsightly appearance, which most of the general public shy away from; hence they are reduced in price as shown in the following image.

Picea

The image shows a group of Picea just crammed together on a large display table and as we can see there is an obvious health problem determined by the brown areas or dead foliage. When young, Picea grow very quickly producing dense foliage. This dense foliage reduces the much needed light and air preventing inner bud or shoot development, thus die-back occurs. In natural circumstances Picea can grow to 35–55 m (115–180 ft) tall and the problem of light and air circulation is significantly reduced because, the foliage is less dense due to reduced growth rate and element onslaught; snow, ice, wind and rain. But in bonsai dense foliage is a requirement although much depends on the species concerned therefore, to solve the light and air problem the branches have to be thinned out to allow the weaker shoots and buds to develop.

Nonetheless, within this group of sorry looking plants there was a specimen that had potential, but to find it the plant needed scrutinization. On closer inspection the tree’s natural design was already there, a twin trunk formal upright and as both trunks stem from a single root it can be classed in the Sokan style. To the novice working on such a specimen may seem a daunting task meaning knowing what or which foliage parts to remove. But in actual fact it is a relatively easy process providing you examine the plant to determine its potential; what it has to offer from a design perspective and use this as a guideline.

Picea untouched

But before any work could be undertaken all debris and mini beasts residing within of which there were many including larvae, various caterpillars and arachnids had to be removed. Starting from the base going up, the roots (Nebari) were exposed and only small unwanted roots protruding upwards from the trunk’s base were moved. The main rootball was kept in tacked as was 60% of the original soil and the reason for this approach is because as the tree was about to go through a major change, the less stress applied, the better the chance of survival.

Much of the strong foliage was removed allowing the weaker branches to develop. These were wired into position using aluminium wire as opposed to copper as this is the first stage in its design. To add some character to the tree, both trunks were subjected to the jin technique and the smaller trunk was positioned slightly away from the main. The tree was re-potted and wired down in a temporary container a plastic seed tray with aluminium angle riveted to base to allow air circulation and holes drilled for drainage and. The whole process including cleaning, re-potting, pruning and wiring took approximately 4 hours.

Picea before & after

This Picea has gone through a drastic change and has a rather scant appearance, but given time will eventually reach its full potential as a bonsai. It was originally priced at 60€ but had been reduced to 20€ due to its ugly condition, which is arguably less than the price of a shirt – a bargain and such bargains can be found, all one has to do is look.

As an after thought one may ask ‘why did I not video the work‘ as seeing the practical process from beginning to end may help the novice who wishes to attempt the same. A good question, but in truth, the cleaning process had been completed before the concept of filming had crossed my mind; perhaps next time and until next time take care, BW, N.

A brief respite in the work load

After an eventful 2 months of hectic work and a few thousand kilometres traveling most of which was sat behind the wheel of my old VW, I am taking a few days off to catch up with developments regarding this site. First and foremost I wish to thank Africanbirding, Anju Agarwal and Rustedrootbonsai for their comments in following my posts. Your support is greatly appreciated – many thanks.

As we know August is upon us and here in Finland although still warm our summer is waning and in a few weeks the temperature will start to decrease. The colourful blooms of the parks and gardens will slowly fade and become a distant memory and the long cold dark days will return as will the snow and ice – winter is looming.

So now is the time when the local nurseries or garden centres start reducing their wares. A common practise for those whom lack the facilities to over-winter their stock and must get rid. Hence, prices are reduced to 30%, 50% and even 70% therefore, many bargains will be on offer. For the novice such venues are an ideal source for a variety of specimens on which to learn both indoor and outdoor. Last year I found a White pine Pinus parviflora for the princely sum of 1€ and it is doing well and to date have found a few more specimens, one of which a White spruce Picea abies (syn alba) that will be the topic in the next post in a few days.

I am in the process of forming a bonsai club due to the many requests and thus, have included my email address for those wishing to establish contact, which can be seen at the top of the home page. But in the meantime, it is back to the grind; so until next time take care, BW, N.

 

 

 

Different Perspectives

Arguably the largest faction containing the most experts and critics – politics and cuisine aside are the arts, which include music, dance, fashion, literature, film, painting and of course bonsai horticulture. The experts or critics have a field-day reviewing the work produced passing comments such as, there is no composition, no balance, depth, movement and is unnatural for example. This perspective was applied to the works of American painter Paul Jackson Pollock, (01/28/1912 – 11/08/1956) professionally known as Jackson Pollock, known for his unique style of drip painting.

The pundits, experts or critics did not know what to make of his work and usually their first question was ‘What does it say or mean‘? Pollack replied “The painting has a life of its own and I try to let it come through. The experts whom were not artists themselves so used to reviewing portraits, landscapes and marine scenes, unable to see the work for what it represented simply dismissed it giving poor reviews. Pollack retorted that “Painting is self-discovery, every good artist paints what he is.” His style and approach to painting made him into the leading force behind the abstract expressionist movement in the art world.

 

Breaking the rules

Arguably, this same perspective is applied to bonsai and there are those referred to as purists, who argue that we should adhere to the rules; but what are these rules? In short the definition of bonsai literally means ‘Bon’ a pot or shallow container and ‘Sai’ the tree or shrub, which are the only two components in bonsai. It does not include any other items such as rocks or miniature figurines. In addition, the purists perception of the rules also dictate the following. A bonsai composition should have balance, depth, movement and rhythm, emphasis, contrast, proportion, space and unity, that which is depicted in the original catalogue of styles. And if one wishes to remain a purist, he or she should adhere to this principle.

It is often stated in bonsai circles that what we are trying to achieve is to mimic what we see in nature, creating miniature adaptations of full sized trees. But like Pollack’s approach to painting, bonsai has also changed and this is where the rules get broken, because some bonsai styles have little in common with their wild counterparts. They are depicted as bizarre, twisted shapes, some with just a sliver of bark to keep them alive with the cambium bleached, burnt or painted. Such specimens although ‘living’ have a plastic aura about them, which arguably defies reality, yet they are considered attractive often depicting rare natural beauty as shown below.

 

Bizarre bonsai

 

Nonetheless, the purists or experts engage themselves in heated discussions concerning other designs that are not bonsai in the true sense of the word, that is if we adhere to the rules. For example, the styles ‘root over rock’ Sekijoju and Ishitsuki ‘root clinging to a rock’, a design that has caused much contention. Experts examine the composition and criticise the artists work. The rock is either too big, too small, the wrong shape, texture and colour, it lacks emphasis, is out of balance and has no proportion. Furthermore the composition does not match the pot. But Sekijoju and Ishitsuki are classed as Deshojo and do not appear in the original catalogue of styles. Neither do Ikadabuki, Netsunagari and the much frowned on Tanuki, these are designs that have gradually appeared through time.

 

Screen shot 2017-03-07 at 7.03.54 PM

 

A modern perspective

It is fair to say that bonsai design an art form, has changed over the decades and is now a concept in the mind of the individual designer and his/her perception of how it should appear, should be respected regardless of someone else’s viewpoint. In reality, a painter having completed his or her work will make any final adjustments, put it in a frame and consider it finished. But bonsai is completely different, because it is a ‘living’ sculpture requiring care and attention, constantly shaping by pruning or wiring and thus it is never finished. Even bonsai centuries old are not perfect (see the 1000 year old Ficus ginseng that resides at Crespi, Italy) posted in the article ‘New material for bonsai part II’.

Of course one can debate the issue of bonsai design indefinitely for example. Some have argued that the traditional 2D styles of the Japanese are unnatural, because the main emphasis or focal point should be the trunk. Branches that cross the trunk should either be removed or positioned away. Moreover, some practitioners contend that there should not be any scarring or imperfections as this is considered ugly, the tree must be perfect in every way. But this is a contradiction because, the techniques of sharimiki and jin (Scarring) are often incorporated into the tree to add character and are common in Japanese bonsai design.

 

Jin

 

When we look at trees in their natural state they all have branches radiating in all directions with many going across the trunk. Many trees will have natural scarring and other imperfections including broken branches, which indicate that the tree has been subjected to trauma at some point. The beauty of nature is that it is not only wild and untouched, it is real and if we are to maintain reality, then the following statement from bonsai master John Y. Naka is very appropriate. “Don’t make your tree look like a bonsai, make your bonsai look like a tree”. The following image depicts a group of Silver birch Betula pendula in their natural state.

 

Birch wood winter

 

Starting at the beginning

A question often asked especially from novice bonsai enthusiasts is ‘I have a young sapling, which I grew from seed and I am not sure of how to shape it.’ In actual fact this problem is not uncommon even for the more experienced, arguably the most important factor in design is to get the best potential out of the tree. With an untouched or virgin sapling you basically have a blank canvas on which to work, but in hindsight it would be prudent to do some research.

This can be achieved in two ways (a) if your plant is native to your region, then a trip to where full sized counterparts are growing is a good way to start. There you can study the trees formed by nature and a photograph or two, is a base on which to work. (b) If the tree is not in your region, then look on the world-wide-web for your species both as a full sized wild tree and as bonsai. In both (a) and (b) the images collected can be saved on computer. Using ‘Photoshop’ or a similar programme you can draw, cut, copy, paste and make alterations until you have a suitable design. Alternatively, bonsai styles showing various designs can be found here in ‘Bonsai Styles Parts I and II’. But the question is, will your bonsai look like a tree or some bizarre representation.
When considering a design there are a few factors to remember, that is if we adhere to the rules and these are:

  1. Taper – a fat trunk that gets thinner towards the apex.
  2. Movement – the trunk will either bend to the right or left or will incorporate a combination of both.
  3. Nebari – partially visible roots that radiate around the base of the trunk.
  4. Branch placement should alternate on both sides of the tree.
  5. Ramification – or the fine ‘twiggy’ bits at the end of the branches.

Of course all of this takes time to achieve and depends on the species and their particular growth rate. But before shaping begins, inspect the tree for any side shoots that may be developing as this will determine branch placement to the sides and rear. And where a trunk bend can be placed, because as we are always told a branch never appears on the inside of a bend only on the outside as shown below.

 

Trunk taper

 

This hand-drawn image a common design in bonsai referred to as Moyogi arguably contains most of the characteristics that may placate the purists and or critics. But does it look natural a true representation as would be found in nature, some would say yes, whilst others would probably disagree. The problem with any art form regardless of its genre is that it is prone to change and evidence of this can literally be found everywhere. It is the individual artists interpretation, we do not have to like it or partake in its culture just accept the fact that it exists. Nonetheless, the experts and or critics will crawl out of the woodwork and start pointing the finger. To conclude this discussion the following anecdote has been included.

 

The Bonsai exhibition – is it all worth it?

Nothing in this world is perfect no matter what the entity, perfection is something that we strive for, but rarely attained. Nonetheless, designing miniatures trees for shows or public display is another entity, that for my part simply has no appeal. Because the exhibits although attractive in their own right do not look natural, they have the appearance of a carefully shorn groomed poodle. However, my presence at such venues be they aquatic, bovine, equine, domestic and horticulture was one of the requirements of my profession.

Many years ago a commission to produce an article on a bonsai exhibition came into being, which required much consideration as to how it would be presented; revealing, quirky or serious. Arriving early before public admittance gave the opportunity to view the exhibits and the actions of their owners. Some had their specimens draped in black cloth to protect the flowers from the light, so they would be in their prime when viewed. Others were snipping here or there, trimming the moss on the pot to a fine carpet-like appearance akin to that of an 18th hole putting green.

Some were busy polishing the bonsai display stands, others spraying the trunks and leaves to give a fresh morning dew perspective. The whole activity in the display tent seemed rather intense reminiscent of worker bees in a hive, which gave a rather stressful, but comical atmosphere. Because the experts would soon be there to cast judgement and some would be elated, whilst others dejected. Having spent some considerable time documenting the theatrics and obtaining all that was needed, a trip to the beer tent to write the article was the next course of action. With the thoughts “is it really worth all the aggravation” going through my mind.

 

Swimming in the deep end or paddling in the shallows

Bonsai is not only an art form it is also a science meaning, that the enthusiast does require some horticultural ‘know-how’ in order to care for the health and welfare of a plant. Arguably such research can be considered a voyage of discovery; a learning curve as one gains the knowledge. But like any hobby one can become engrossed to the point where it tends to take precedence superseding other interests and can be expensive. This can be likened to constantly ‘swimming in the deep end’, whereas stepping back and taking control ‘paddling in the shallows’ is less stressful not only on the mind, but also on the wallet. Nonetheless, the degree of intensity to which a bonsai enthusiast will submerge his or herself is an individual choice.

Future articles are now put on hold for a short period, due to an influx of work nevertheless, those whom follow this web site will be kept informed of my return. Until next time BW, N.

 

 

The pH Factor (Part II)

Types of soil and their pH content

In the article ‘Bonsai soils’ there is a more descriptive analysis on the different types, but in short there are 6 basic soils:

Peat soils – are comprised of waterlogged partially-decomposed plant material including sphagnum moss, which is very high in organic matter and moisture with a pH starting approximately at 3.0

Sandy soils – contain the largest particles among the different soil types, that is dry, gritty and because there large are particles creating voids, water retention is not possible. However, sandy soil warms more quickly in the spring. Sandy soils have a pH starting at approximately 4.7

Clay soils – are the remnants of certain types of rocks eroded and weathered to form fine particles, that are high in nutrients, but they can be heavy, cold and wet in winter and very dry in summer. Clay soils have pH from 5.5 to 7.1

Chalky soils – are alkaline or lime-rich predominantly made up of calcium carbonate, they are indicative to particular landscapes including. The UK’s south downs and Wiltshire, Portugal, southern France and Spain. Chalk based soils can be either light or heavy and have a pH value from 7.1 to 8.0

Silt soils – are fertile, light and contain larger particles and are more moisture-retentive than sandy soils and drain more effectively than clay. But have a tendency to crack and crumble losing shape and structure; their pH range is approximately 6.5 to 7.

Loams – are mixtures that may include any of the above soil types depending on the needs of a particular species, albeit acidic, neutral or alkaline. For example, ericaceous plants including Azaleas genus Rhododendron family Ericaceae have a preference for higher acidity. Alternatively, Maples – genus Acer prefer a neutral soil composition, whereas the Burning Bush Euonymus alatus family Celastraceae require soil high in alkaline.

But, the acidic, neutral or alkaline content has great bearing on micro organism survival for example. Those found in acid and alkaline soils Acidophiles and Alkaliphiles respectively, are not as varied as the Neutrophiles found in neutral soil compositions. The pH range of 6.6 to 7.5 is more amenable to their needs in order to function. Generally speaking, there are four types of soil compositions including an all-purpose mixture for seeds, acidic, neutral and alkaline. Although they may vary according to the specific pH needs of a particular plant species.

Seed all-purpose mix – with this soil composition there are a lot of discussions as to which type is correct. Some will argue that the following mixture produces the best results:

3 parts organic matter, such as peat, humus or sawdust, 1 part sand, perlite, vermiculite or a combination of all three and 1 part sphagnum moss.
Others contend that seed soil mediums such as John Innes No1., Miracle-Gro, Levington or Thompson and Morgan, available ready mixed are perfectly capable of doing the job. But regardless of which type is preferred, all seeds require a form of stratification. (Described in the article The Stratification of seeds) Because this is the key to induce the embryo to germinate regardless of which soil composition is used albeit acid, neutral or alkaline. Moreover, it can be argued that seeds once stratified can germinate on a piece of damp kitchen paper, in a saucer of water or simply where they fall as shown below.

Scots Pine seedlings Pinus sylvestris

A good seed soil normally consists of heat-treated loam, sphagnum moss, peat, horticultural sand and fertilizers, which will last for approximately 30 days. After which the seedlings will need to be pricked out and transferred to a low nutrient soil mixture and left to develop. This soil composition slows down the growth rate allowing the plant to ‘put-on-weight’ meaning trunk and foliage development. It is also suitable for cuttings, which have taken root.

 
There are many types of seed soils available world-wide, in Finland a common mixture often used is ‘Musta Multa’, which roughly translated is ‘Black Mould’ a rich composition for most plant types. This product can be likened to the old but familiar ‘grow-bags’ where people who had no gardens or lived in apartments could grow vegetables in confined spaces. On its own this soil compost can be rather soggy if too much water is used, dissipating nutrients via water run off. To prevent this, a little sand, vermiculite, crushed clay or granite chips in the mix, which contain additional micro organisms usually solves this problem. It also allows air to flow through the medium permitting bacteria to function and although retains moisture does not become compact or waterlogged.

 
Acidic soil – The basic elements which cause acidity in soil are, the organic matter itself and the acidic mineral content within, which break down the matter through time making the soil acidic. Soil can also become acidic due to the loss of key minerals, potassium, magnesium, and calcium that have been leached out of the soil by excessive contact with water, thus the soil becomes acidic. This is a common phenomenon in peat bogs and pine forests and such soil is probably the best to use especially for conifers.

 
But before venturing out to obtain a sack full, which is going to upset the environmentalists and is also possibly illegal, there is a an easier method. Acid soil or Ericaceous soil to give the correct terminology is an entirely organic and peat-reduced compost, available at most horticultural establishments world-wide. Brands include, Thompson and Morgan, John Innes No 2., Bowers, Growise and Verve. Nonetheless, an ericaceous compost mix can lose its acidity over a period of time, depending on the amount used. For example, a large bonsai in a shallow pot will deplete the minerals more quickly than one in a deep pot.

 
Many horticulturists resort to using acidifying materials to counter this. For example such materials may include, pine needles or sphagnum moss placed on top of the soil allowing their acidic properties to penetrate to the roots. The use of Sulphur, Aluminium sulphate and Ferrous sulphate (sulphate of iron) are also used, but these may take some time to become effective, as they need to be broken down by the bacteria. Other methods are to use only rain water with white vinegar added (1 to 2 tablespoons in 4.5 litres or one gallon of water) as opposed to household tap water that has been treated with alkaline agents.

 

To make an ericaceous medium the following ingredients can be used;
Organic compost, sand, crushed clay or granite chips. The amount each of these components used depends on the acidic pH value one wants to achieve. Alternatively one can resort to using just Akadama, which many bonsai enthusiasts use for coniferous varieties, for example the Mugo pine Pinus mugo.

 

Neutral soil – is ready available from garden centres, department and hardware stores and can even be taken from your own garden. Of course the latter will need to be tested to ascertain the pH level, which may be in the region of 6.7 to 7.3 – slightly acid to slightly alkaline – a range that many species of plants can tolerate. But much depends on your particular region and temperate zone.

 

Arguably, there is no specific chart that states what type of ingredients should be used for this soil composition, as horticulturists world-wide have their own preference; what works for them. However, any neutral soil composition needs to be prepared to facilitate moisture retention, aeration and to allow the micro organisms to function, hence the use of grit, crushed baked clay pellets, sand, perlite or vermiculite and even bark chips can be used.

 
Alkaline soil – has a high saturation of soluble salts that are known as either sodic or saline with the former being dominated by sodium and the latter dominated by calcium and magnesium. Alkaline predominantly limestone is mixed with topsoil to produce a medium specifically for plants requiring a high pH level that can vary according to one’s particular needs. Manufacturers whom produce this product are for example, John Innes No3., Thompson and Morgan, Bowers and Rolawn. To make an alkaline soil composition, one can use the following ingredients.
Neutral top soil or prepared loam with a pH at approximately 7.0, clay or silt, washed grit and a lime additive. The amount of lime used will depend on the pH level one wishes to achieve. Tap water should be used as it is normally treated with alkaline agents.

 
The manufacturers instructions are wrong!“We did our research and followed the guidelines, all was fine in the beginning, but now the plant’s leaves are turning yellow and dropping.” Whether you purchased a ready-made soil composition or have mixed your own, it is doubtful that this is the cause for an unhealthy plant. Because reputable manufacturers even those mentioned above have been producing various soil mediums for generations that are tried and scientifically tested. Alternatively, if you have mixed your own soil composition, then you will probably know what ingredients to use and the proportional amount.

 
The possible causes for this down turn in the tree’s health is stress, which can be attributed to various factors. For example, inadequate drainage, no air circulation in the soil, damaged or compacted roots the latter known as ‘pot-bound’, the lack of nutrients, low light and an incorrect pH. These are the common causes why leaf tissue turns yellow referred to as chlorosis because, the essential green pigment chlorophyll is absent. Arguably the first course of action is to check the soil composition’s pH level, that can be found in the chart in part I of this discussion, which brings us on to the subject of soil pH testing methods.

 
Soil testing applications – for a true and accurate pH test of your particular soil medium one should opt for a laboratory test, but this can be expensive. Therefore, one resorts to purchasing various readily available test kits from the basic ‘2-test’ test kit (approximately 8€ to 13€ plus postage and packing) to the more expensive multi-test kits. (95€ to 350€+) Other devices for testing soil pH are in the form of meters both analogue and digital, some are purely for pH testing whilst other are multi-functional as shown below.

Soil pH test kits 5

But before venturing out to purchase a pH test kit, the question is – what type would be suitable and the factors to assist in this decision can be based on two simple questions:

1. The pH range for a particular plant species
2. Was the soil purchased from a horticulture outlet or a self-made composition

1. Most bonsai with the exception of some coniferous and deciduous species are able to tolerate a pH range from 6.7 to 7.3 and have the ability to prosper. For a more descriptive pH requirement for a particular species, refer to the chart in part I of this discussion.
But, any soil composition used in bonsai is an important concern, because this is where the plant receives the nutrients and moisture it needs to thrive.
2. If the soil used was purchased from a store or horticulture outlet, then information as to its composition and pH range will be written on the bag. Alternatively, if you mix your own soil composition/s using ingredients from various sources, then you will ultimately be changing the pH level, which needs to be checked. Therefore, the opening statement of ‘what soil pH test kit would be suitable’, boils down to two factors.

(a) Soil purchased from a reputable outlet will normally state its composition and pH level and even if we add grit, vermiculite, perlite, crushed baked clay etc, the pH level will not change that much. Therefore, investing in pH test kit is not really necessary nevertheless, it is an advantage to have a small one simply for peace of mind and to know what the pH level of a particular soil medium is.
(b) If mixing a particular soil composition using ingredients from various sources, then it is important to know the pH content of each component to ensure that the final medium is acceptable for the species; albeit acidic, neutral or alkaline. Therefore, investment in a testing kit is an advantage.

Soil test kits – Finding a suitable soil test kit does need some research as there are literally countless manufacturers all claiming their particular product/s produce/s the best results. They range from expensive laboratory equipment to analogue and digital probe meters, to relatively small cheap kits you can put in your pocket. The majority of these have been tried and tested with positive and negative results, that can be viewed via the world-wide-web. To give an indication as to the reviews, they have been condensed and listed as follows.

 
Litmus test – requires a small sample of soil mixed with distilled water in which, the paper is inserted for a few seconds. The paper’s colour change is then compared to those of a colour chart and an estimation of the soil’s pH is then determined. However, this method of testing is not very accurate, because it can only read a pH level in whole numbers for example 5.0, 6.0 and 7.0, which is an approximation. Therefore, as soil pH levels are measured in increments of both whole and half numbers for example 6.0, 6.5, 7.0 and 7.5 this litmus test approach is one to be avoided.

 

Chemical test – soil tests conducted by commercial laboratories are accurate in that they are able to determine mineral content and compound structures within a soil sample. For example, major nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Secondary nutrients sulphur, calcium, magnesium and minor nutrients; iron, manganese, copper, zinc, boron, molybdenum and chlorine. Such tests can be expensive, but for horticulturists wishing to use this method of testing there are products available. However, low cost ‘2 test’ test kits (top left image shown above) are only able to give an approximation of the pH level and that is the limit of their capability. Moving up the scale (top middle image shown above) are test kits able to determine the presence of major nutrients and are more accurate in reading the pH level. Alternatively, the test kit (top right image shown above) is able to search for both major and secondary nutrients, but has difficulty in ascertaining minor nutrients.

 

Analogue and digital meters – (shown in the above image) come in various forms from simple pH meters to multi functional probes able to test for moisture content, temperature, light quality and pH. Some manufacturers claim their meters are able to determine the presence of all nutrient categories, major, secondary and minor although this is debatable. Another argument concerning these multi functional meters is why test for moisture, humidity and light. Surely the horticulturist knows whether his or her bonsai has the right water content, knows the temperature/humidity at any given time and is aware of the plants position in relation to the light source.

 

For bonsai enthusiasts who use readily available soil mediums purchased from reputable outlets, a pH testing kit is not that essential. But for horticulturists making their own soil compositions, investing in a testing kit is advantageous as opposed to not. Because it allows for an accurate pH level to be determined correct for a particular species. If a pH testing kit is desirable then arguably preference should be given to those only dealing with soil pH levels as this is our primary concern. Not multi functional meters with reference to moisture, humidity and light content as these are unnecessary. But whatever test device you opt for, make sure it is suitable to your needs.

And finally, a message to O.T. known as ‘Tiger’ – I have some Maple (Acer) seedlings to give away if you are interested. Until next time BW, N.

The pH factor (Part I)

The first signs of demise

Bonsai either given as a gift, individually purchased or one cultivated by other means, grafting, a cutting or from seed is usually lavished with care and attention to ensure its health and vitality. As the seasons progress new buds flowers and or fruit appear, enhancing the tree’s ruggedness and or beauty, a wonderful miniature specimen of its full size counterpart. But things begin to change, autumn is still a long way off, the tree’s leaves start to turn yellow and this is the first sign that something is not as it should be and questions start running through ones mind.

  • Was it watered enough or too much  
  • Was it given the correct type and quantity of feed
  • Should it have had full sun or partial shade
  • Has it been attacked by pests or disease
  • Did it need re-potting
  • Was it pruned at the wrong time of year

One then resorts to searching the world wide web looking for answers in trying to solve the problem/s, but how can we resolve the problem if we don’t know what it is. The above mentioned questions may have something to do with the tree’s poor state of health or potential demise, but not in every case. Arguably the main contributing factor causing a tree to wither and die is the medium or soil composition in which the tree is planted.

Acidic to alkaline

Soil contains a multitude of living organisms that consume, digest, and cycle nutrients. These living organisms include archaea, bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, algae, protozoa, and a wide range of insects for example. Mites, nematodes, earthworms and ants all of which are important to the vitality of a soil composition, which in turn is vitally important to any and all growing mediums. But if these much needed organisms have expired, then the soil is effectively spent and of little use. However, the lack of organisms although of great importance is not the only issue, what is just as important is the type of soil composition and its pH content.

For example, some species such as Rhododendrons and Azaleas family Ericaceae will only survive in acidic soils. Whilst others the common Beech Fagus sylvatica and Hawthorn Crataegus laevigata prefer alkaline and some can be borderline, Cotoneaster family Rosaceae and Hazel family Corylaceae. But how do we know what kind of soil is correct for our particular bonsai? pH is measured from 1 to 14 and if we consider that a pH of 7.0 is neutral, all above will be alkaline and all below will be acidic, as shown in the following chart for the most common species found in bonsai.

 

pH chart.1

pH chart.2

pH chart.3

As the chart indicates most trees will survive in soil which has some degree of acidity up to a more neutral range, whereas others can tolerate a more alkaline based composition. To give a clearer definition consider the image below, which gives an indication of the acidic and alkaline values and the pH tolerance zone for most plants.

Soil pH graph

In the next article of ‘The pH factor’ (Part II) we look at soil differences, the possibilities of changing their pH content and a brief look at soil pH testing devices. Until next time BW, N.