Article 27 – ‘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.

Article 26 – ‘The solo enthusiast versus the club member’

Filming a silver birch wood recently a passer by enquired why, as the trees were devoid of foliage and looked rather ugly. The reply given was that some of the footage would be used to support a discussion on a pending bonsai article. As the conversation developed, he remarked that he had always been interested in bonsai and would like to know more about the art, now he had retired. “Are there any bonsai clubs or associations where one can join?” Unfortunately there are no bonsai clubs in this area that I am aware of was the reply. “That is a pity, bonsai are sold locally in garden centres and stores so there must be some interest.” Yes you are probably correct in your assumption, but it really is up to the individual whether he or she wants to be part of a club or stay as a solo enthusiast.

The solo enthusiast

For my part being a member of a club was not an option when my interest in bonsai began in the mid 1970s because, (a) my work meant much travelling with long periods away from home. (b) There were no clubs or associations in my then vicinity where one could gain the much needed knowledge. (c) Not having permanent roots and leading a nomadic existence is another factor. These are the reasons for remaining a solo bonsai enthusiast. Moreover, it can be argued that there is not much you can achieve as a club member that you cannot do as a solo enthusiast; you just have to work a lot harder.

Meaning that to gain bonsai knowledge, one has to immerse ones self in plenty of research for example. The attributes of a particular species of tree/s you may have and how to care for it or them, when to feed and what kind to use, when to prune and when to wire, preventing or eradicating pests and disease and the type of soil composition to use. At that time there were a few horticultural books and magazines to shed some light on these subjects, but there was no world wide web as we have today, so much of the work done was mainly trial and error.

However, now there are countless bonsai clubs and associations world-wide many accessible via the world wide web. All offering tips, tricks and advice from both the novice and the experienced through written text and production of video presentation, many of which can be found on Youtube – some good, some bad and some indifferent. The problem is that it takes time to trawl through it all to find what is relevant to ones needs without getting side tracked, which can be a real pain in the rear or a learning curve depending on how you approach the task.

Arguably the world wide web is very useful in that with one click of the mouse button, here is a site that has everything you need. From pre-bonsai specimens, soil compositions and fertilizers, ceramics, training pots, tools, various gauges of wire both copper and aluminium, cut pastes and wound sealants etc. But just going on line and purchasing what you think you need for example, a ready-made tool kit can be expensive, (100€ to 300€) only to find that improvisation using some standard DIY tools can reduce the cost considerably.

Another bone of contention is finding a reputable supplier who may not be in your area and the down side is the cost of postage, because bonsai equipment especially ceramics are relatively heavy. One can bargain for discount but, you usually have to purchase more than you need to get this. With ceramics, you see a pot listed that is presumably ideal for your tree, but when it arrives via the post it does not resemble its advertised picture. It looks awful when associated with your tree – now you are stuck with a pot you don’t want having paid good money for, which is now redundant – a hard and expensive lesson.

The club member

Being a member of a club or association, can reduce much of the hard work a solo enthusiast has to endure due to the pooled knowledge. For example one is able to receive information on the following subjects.

  • Care and general maintenance of bonsai

  • Advice on soil compositions and fertilisation

  • Styling, wiring and pruning, applying jin or sharimiki and uro

  • Prevention against pests and disease, how to make horticultural soaps

  • How to make basic tools and turntables via improvisation

  • Ceramics, how to choose the correct shape, size and colour

Moreover, a club is able to purchase different gauges of wire in bulk that can be sold at cost saving money. Initiate agreements with a supplier/s for example, the sale or return of ceramics and tools for either hand or power use. In addition, field trips can be organised, lectures and demonstrations from the experienced can be arranged. These are just some of the many advantages a club or association member has over the solo enthusiast.

What does it take to start a club?

It all depends on the level you want to start at, jumping in at the deep end will cost money you cannot recuperate. Stating off small is much easier, a few friends and or colleagues meeting once a month at a members house or apartment is a good way to start, failing this a coffee house or tea room will suffice. Advertising is always a headache and can be expensive especially if using the local press. One way to solve this is by word of mouth, putting adds on shop notice boards and if possible garden centres.

Another way is to make a web site, one does not need a degree in computer technology to achieve this as there are ready-made uncomplicated sites, able to accommodate your immediate needs. Such sites can be had for under 20€ for a years subscription and it is a way of putting the word out; getting known. Another consideration is to make a public presentation as an incentive to motivate new members to join. Such a presentation should be made by a member, preferably one with bonsai knowledge. The presentation should be short (10 mins) with time for questions and answers in addition, there should also be bonsai trees on display to aid the incentive.

Immediate needs

The club will need a chairman/woman to start and chair the meetings, which should be kept to a minimum leaving the majority of the allotted time for members to integrate. A secretary/treasurer who deals with the status quo and any new developments. All relative information can be channeled back to the members via email, rather than a printed format, which can be expensive and time consuming. A bank account for subscriptions and payments, the former to be agreed upon by the members.

As the club grows a venue will need to be found, preferably one free of charge, or one at low cost, because this is relative to the amount of each member’s subscription. Meaning, 12 x the monthly hire cost divided by the amount of members. A venue is important because it facilitates the need to accommodate such activities as discussions and demonstrations on bonsai horticulture, it also allows for members to meet and greet and share their knowledge. The exchanging of plants, cuttings and seeds, ceramics and other appropriate items, thus the club or association becomes a family.

A personal perspective

As stated, the bonsai club does have advantages over the solo enthusiast, but there is a more appropriate reason for its existence and it is for the following reason.

As we know nothing in this world lasts forever, even us mere mortals are part of the cycle of life. Our bonsai if cared for properly will undoubtedly out last us, but what then becomes of them once we shed our mortal coil. Will all the hard work, time and effort go to waste if homes cannot be found for them. Arguably one can sell them at auction where they are cared for by ‘green-fingered’ enthusiasts, which is the norm, but what actually happens to them is any ones guess. Going down this path fills me with trepidation, because those professing to be knowledgeable when they are not leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. What is more appropriate is to donate a bonsai collection to a club where they can be distributed among the members, whom will care for their health and continued development, which is a more appealing course of action.

The long dark cold days of winter are fading from memory as spring approaches, which for the bonsai enthusiast is when life begins anew, a time where our enthusiasm in bonsai is rekindled, not that it was ever diminished. It matters not whether one has only an indoor bonsai so called because of their temperate characteristics, a hardy outdoor species or a collection of both, the learning curve begins again. As stated the solo enthusiast has much work to attend, whereas the club member can reduce this considerably. Nonetheless, whatever your chosen path, success in your endeavours as bonsai enthusiasts is always tantamount. Until next time BW, N.