Article 85 – ‘Plant husbandry 3’

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai in this article we look at the question of health and vitality regarding trees/plants in our care, many of our followers have asked us to give a deeper understanding of the importance of plant care and maintenance.

Introduction – plants regardless of their origin be it from a nursery, the wild, cuttings, seed and grafting etc destined for bonsai are susceptible to loss of health and vitality if not afforded care and attention. Although there are a number of factors why this happens, the main five to consider are – 1. plant research 2. soil medium 3. water 4. position or location. 5. pests and disease will be discussed in the next article ‘Plant husbandry 4’ because of its intended length.

Research – today due to trade agreements we are able to obtain a variety of plants from other realms that can be found at various outlets. Many displayed give the impression of pristine health and vitality however, if purchased the plant/s will be transported to an environment far removed from that of origin. These new conditions are completely alien, because of environmental changes in heating, lighting, air circulation and water especially if the plant is from a temperate zone. Hence conditions must be adapted to suit their needs not the other way round.

When looking for potential plants from a vendor the first action is a thorough examination, if possible remove the plant from its container and examine the root ball for signs of healthy growth and/or damage. It is a good idea to have a ‘pocket sized’ test kit with you to ascertain the soil pH. Inspect the trunk, branches and foliage, look for signs of damage, discolouration of leaves and check for unwanted pests; it is more likely than not that some will exist usually the ones not visible to the naked eye.

Next read the label (that is if there is one) it will tell you it’s common name and possibly its family and species in latin, but that is usually about all. Consult the vendor ask where the plant in question originated, if the answer given is acceptable, move on to the next stage which is transportation and isolation/quarantine failure to do the latter can result in some unwanted nasty surprises for example, cross contamination, infection and demise. We have all had experience of this at some point or another.

If collecting from the wild the examination process is much the same, but with a little more thought. The first question is does the plant have any possible potential bonsai characteristics for example, from the classic design list Chokkan, (formal upright) Moyogi, (informal upright) Sokan, (twin trunk) Bunjin-gi, (literati) Kengai (cascade) and Shakan (slanted) etc. Check the distance between the branches if they are too far apart then the proposed specimen in reality has no potential and even hard pruning will not necessary force the plant to produce new growth to fill the voids although much depends on the species; if in doubt walk away.

The following bonsai class includes Komono 15 – 26cm, Katade Mochi 25 – 46cm, Chumono Chui 40 – 90cm, which are common sizes when collecting from the wild and the root spread will vary considerably depending on a particular species, age and rate of growth. The general rule of thumb when assessing the area of root spread (although it is not accurate) is to imagine the tree in a horizontal position left or right. Visually mark this position noting where the tree’s apex would be and place a coloured marker, then measure the distance from the apex to the centre of the trunk this is the radius.

Whatever the measurement is, will be doubled which will give an idea of the root spread area it applies to all points north, south, east and west mark these points with a stick or flag; this gives an indication of the area to be excavated. Therefore, if you were trying to harvest a potential Omono Dai 76 – 122 cm specimen for example, the work involved would be tremendous because you need as much of the root ball as possible, otherwise the plant may not recover from its ordeal. Do not cut corners, the roots are vital to the plants survival especially the feeder roots.

Moreover, not only do you need permission to harvest the tree, you have to put the land back as you found it. If you have little experience in tree harvesting get a professional collector to undertake the work and yes it will cost money for this service; the tree’s health and welfare are more important than your desires; think before you act – if in doubt walk away.

However, far too often greedy people try to cut corners and undertake tree harvesting themselves on private and public land including parks and other protected areas without permission. Because they are aware of the fact that without experience they cannot be granted a licence. The consequences of this despicable selfish behaviour is that not only will the tree suffer and die, it deprives the public of natures beauty. Below is an image of a scots pine devastated by a collector whose non professional actions have caused the demise of this potential Yamadori bonsai.

200 year old scots pine destroyed

There are other factors to be taken into consideration when harvesting and again much depends on the species, some trees depending on the terrain may appear stunted almost dwarf like. For example, the root system of the dwarf common juniper (Juniperus communis) can travel many metres under rocks, through cracks and crevices and are impossible to excavate. As are the most sought after Yamadori often located in mountainous areas whose roots have to travel long distances through rocky terrain in search of nutrients and minerals due to poor soil conditions. The specimens mentioned here cannot be harvested for good reasons and should be left alone.

However, all is not lost when attempting tree harvesting, it can be done in stages if you have the patience and build up the skills before hand. A good way to learn is if you know of someone a neighbour, friend relative or landscape artist and ask to assist them for a day or two, in return for your labours ask for the shrubs or small trees that will normally be discarded. Be up front and tell the person/s that you are a bonsai student and need the plants to further your knowledge and that you have no intention of selling them.

Once you build your knowledge and expertise the road ahead does not get easier it gets harder especially If you are in difficult terrain. The procedure is always the same thorough examination of the proposed candidate and inspection of the surrounding area be it a bog, roadside ditch, open field or rock strewn landscape and all will present problems that must dealt with accordingly. Make sure you have the correct tools and apparel for the task. Carefully excavate and investigate the root system to ascertain, which roots can be cut and which to leave. See article 83 ‘Plant husbandry 1’

Remember the tree needs its root system for the transportation of moisture and reception of nutrients. In addition, you can remove unwanted foliage to maintain a balance between top growth and roots. When the operation has been carried out, the soil is carefully replaced and the tree is watered and left to recover for another year. On return checks are made for new root growth and if possible, the process is repeated on other inaccessible roots. The collector returns the following year, inspects the root system and if all is well harvests the tree. There are many videos on tree harvesting where you can get some idea of the undertaking, but be warned – not all collectors are professional. Here are two channels that might be of interest that are related to this subject.

Gro Bonsai –

Terry Erasmus –

The final class include Omono Dai 76 – 122 cm and Hachi-Uye known as six handed growing to heights of between 102 – 152cm and Imperial the largest 152 – 203cm and are arguably the most majestic of all Bonsai seen in the Japanese imperial gardens and other prominent arboretums around the globe. When maintenance is due to be carried out heavy cranes and moving equipment is required plus a small army with many hands that work carefully and quickly so as not to give undue stress to the tree.

Research of all plants is crucial, failure to do so only ends in misery, loss of time and money. Most people carry smartphones connected to the world wide web, enter the plant’s name and find the requirements to ensure it’s health and well being for example. Soil medium composition ericaceous or organic, the pH factor, correct watering, position for example, full sun or shade and what pests and disease is the plant susceptible to; this is the basic information required. Alternatively go to this web site where you can find all the information you need, alternatively contact us direct email is in the about tab.

Soil mediums – these range from ericaceous, (acidic soils) neutral to alkaline (soils with a clay/chalk structure) the scale shown here indicates the divisions between the different soil types. Most plant species live in soils from 4.0 through to 9.0 although there are species of plants that thrive outside of these boundaries. A pH chart for most bonsai plants can be found on this site indicating which soil type to use; Article 27 ‘The pH factor’ (Part I.)

It is not only the pH level that is important, soil medium and the components combined within play an important part in the medium’s structure. There are many types of soil compositions ranging from acidic to alkaline including: Peat – Sandy – Clay based – Chalk based – Silt – Loams – All purpose – Organic and Inorganic. We have written articles on this subject and the information you need can be found in article 28 ‘The pH Factor’ (Part II). In addition, another point to consider is that the soil medium must have good drainage – wet soils are detrimental to the plants health.

Water – is a very important factor as its chemical components can either allow the plant to thrive or not, because the differences between rain water predominantly neutral and what comes out of the household tap has an effect on bonsai trees and shrubs. For example, coniferous species require rain water or water that has been treated, we researched this topic, experimented and found that by adding vinegar to tap water neutralises the alkalinity. (1 teaspoon of vinegar to 7 litres water) See articles 35 and 36 ‘A teaspoon of vinegar parts 1 and 2′.

Position or location – all plants need natural light to photosynthesize meaning the production of sugars that are transported to the roots. With plants that require and outdoor location, full sun, part sun and shade or full shade should be positioned where they receive the benefits they require. Indoor or temperate plants should positioned in a south facing area preferably with good light and ventilation, although this is not always possible due to the position of the dwelling.

If the light source is inadequate you need either to find another location or add a suitable lighting fixture. We have researched this topic and experimented with various lighting systems over a three year period to ascertain their longevity and cost, the end result was a preference for the light emitting diode (LED) which NASA is experimenting with for the production of space horticulture. The following article is a comprehensive paper, see article 03 ‘Lighting for bonsai’.

Other factors detrimental to the health and vitality of plants due to stress are: excessive pruning to the root ball and foliage, splitting, channeling, grooving, hollowing, extreme sharimiki/jin application and extravagant bending of branches although much depends on the plant species. At this juncture we can only reiterate that the key word is and remains ‘Research‘ before undertaking any work, until next time, BW, Nik.

Article 84 – ‘Plant husbandry 2’

Hi welcome to Taiga Bonzai, we have discussed what happens below ground with the root system and its functionality, in this article we concentrate on what occurs above ground in the foliage and its production of sugars and starches that feed the root system.

Introduction – photosynthesis is a process used by plants to convert light energy into chemical energy through cellular respiration that can later be released to fuel the plant’s activities. Some of this chemical energy including sugars and starches are synthesized from carbon dioxide and water and stored in carbohydrate molecules. In most cases oxygen is also released as a waste product which stores three times more chemical energy than carbohydrates. 

Photosynthesis process

Light energy – although various species of plant perform photosynthesis in different ways, the process always begins when energy from light is absorbed by proteins in a reaction centre, which contain green chlorophyll and other coloured pigments referred to as chromophores. In plants, these proteins are held inside organelles called chloroplasts, that are most abundant in leaf cells, while in bacteria they are embedded in the plasma membrane.

In these light-dependent reactions, some energy is used to strip electrons from suitable substances including, water and oxygen production. The hydrogen freed via the division of water is used in the creation of two further compounds that serve as short-term stores of energy, allowing its transfer to drive other reactions. These compounds are reduced nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH) and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) namely the ‘energy currency’ of cells.

In plants sugars are synthesised by a subsequent sequence of light-independent reactions referred to as the Calvin cycle. It is here that atmospheric carbon dioxide is incorporated into existing organic carbon compounds, such as ribulose bisphosphate. By using the ATP and NADPH produced by the light-dependent reactions, the resulting compounds are then reduced and removed to form further carbohydrates, including glucose.

The light spectrum – in article nos ’03’ ‘Lighting for bonsai’ we discussed our 3 year research program on different forms of lighting that are used in horticulture production. The reason for this was to find a lighting source that could mimic the spectrum. Included were traditional incandescent bulbs – Tungsten (now removed from the market replaced by energy-saving bulbs) CFLs, (Compact fluorescent lamp) Halogen, HID, (High intensity discharge) HPS, (High pressure sodium) and LED, (Light emitting diode) the latter the only one that could come close to mimicking the light spectrum. 

If we look at the light spectrum shown above, we see a band of colour change from ultra 400 nanometers to infra at 800 nanometers. It is argued in some quarters that plants use the whole light spectrum for growth, this maybe the case in some instances, but in reality plants only use ultra to cyan for growth and red to infra for flower and fruit. The area between ultra and infra approximately 525 to 625 nanometers the middle part of the spectrum called white light is not that beneficial to plants, which has shown to be the case in NASA’s experiments for growing plants in space.

Nutrient movement – soil mediums play an important role in how plants receive nutrients, if the structure is compacted it will severely limit the roots ability to move toward nutrients in addition, it also restricts water movement thus preventing root growth. Properly prepared soil mediums allow for root-run, water movement and drainage, for more on this topic see article nos ’09’ ‘Bonsai soils’. As the roots pump water to the foliage the leaves in return send sugars and starches to the roots, this cooperation between root system and foliage ensure growth and vitality.

The xylem showing nutrient (white) and water (blue) movement

Thus far we have discussed the functionality of the root system below ground (article 82) and now what is above ground – the foliage and its purpose – photosynthesis and transportation of sugars and starches and the importance of light. Although these are crucial elements in bonsai and horticulture production, there are other aspects to focus on including heating, ventilation and water.

Plant husbandry – plants including bonsai endemic to particular regions subjected to the elements of the seasons do not require heating. Established plants will adapt their growth cycles as they have for countless eons moreover, ventilation is not a problem as there is always a constant circulation of air. However, plants from temperate zones (often referred to as indoor plants) do require some form of warmth during the cold times in order to survive and this can cause problems.

For decades building designers and heating engineers have tried to conceal heating systems including radiators by positioning them where they are inconspicuous, usually affixed below windows covered by a shelf. People keep plants on these shelves as it is probably the only natural light source available, but this location is detrimental. (a) Because the constant heat evaporates moisture from the soil medium too quickly and (b) constant watering saturates the root system, which can cause problems such as chlorosis affecting the plants health and vitality.

Turning down the thermostat may help in reducing moisture loss but the area is now at a lower temperature, which can have an effect on the plant’s ability to thrive; the average temperature for most temperate indoor plant varieties is 22 to 26° Celsius. If one moves the plant away from the window area then the problems of light loss becomes apparent, which lessens the performance for photosynthesis and healthy growth; is there a solution to this problem? – Yes move the plants away from direct heat.

Returning to the article nos ’03’ ‘Lighting for bonsai’ you can find many references to different lighting fixtures for example, the Hydroponic full Spectrum CFL grow light bulb a 105 Watt 5500K perfect daylight balanced pure white light bulb H105 costing $24.99. Although this may seem a bargain, do not be tempted because the manufacturers claims are incorrect. These cheaper versions of this type of light bulb are not full spectrum, they only emit red light and not the blue light (ultra) needed for growth.

In addition, much depends on the number of plants in your collection, if large or spread out you will probably need more than one bulb because the footprint (the light arc) of one is not wide enough to cover your plant display. Suspending the lights higher to create a larger light arc reduces the power of the lumens, the closer the light source to the plants the more beneficial it becomes. Plus the added fact that you will have to purchase or create some sort of apparatus to suspend the light fixture.

Moreover cheap bulbs may seem an inexpensive solution but many do not have aluminium heat sink plates and get extremely hot, hence fittings to the power source have to be ceramic not plastic for obvious reasons. Therefore, we urge you to research your needs thoroughly before contemplating any purchase, because the cheaper route is not always the best; it may cost more. The image below is one of our LED lighting fixtures purchased in 2016, it is in use from October to May (8 months for 14 hrs per day) and to date (October 2022) there have not been any problems.

Full spectrum LED light setup

Water – it can be agreed that the only water safe for all plant species is rain water due to the fact that it is pure, soft, uncontaminated and sweet to the taste and if collected in containers can be used without repercussions. However, it is not always possible to collect it if one lives in dwellings where rules restrict this practice, the only other option is to use what comes out of the household tap and this is where the problems begin.

Municipal water or domestic water is full of chemicals including Fluoride (F) that was introduced in the 1940’s to assist in reducing tooth decay, Chlorine (CI) a strong disinfectant added to drinking water as a purification technique. Other chemicals found in tap water include, Mercury (Hg) a by product of mining and industrial practises, Arsenic (As), Lead (Pb) and Glyphosate that are major toxins that can do irreparable damage. To find out more on the problems in using domestic water even for human consumption, read the articles nos ’35’ and ’36’ ‘A Teaspoon of Vinegar’ and ‘A Teaspoon of Vinegar’ Part 2.

If domestic water is all that is available it can still be used but it has to be treated, you will need two plastic containers enough to hold 7 litres of water each. Mark one container ‘alkaline’ for deciduous varieties and the other ‘acid’ for coniferous. The ‘alkaline’ container can be filled from the house tap, but must be left to stand for at least 2 days before use. In the ‘acid’ container add a teaspoon of vinegar (the type does not matter) then fill with water from the same tap, this also has to stand for 2 days before use. The vinegar in the water reacts with the alkaline particles creating black streaks these are not harmful, but it is not advisable to consume it.

Black algae in vinegar treated tap water

Your untreated ‘alkaline’ water is for temperate plants varieties only, never coniferous or any other acid loving species including Magnolia, Azaleas and Rhododendron, use the treated ‘acid’ water for these. In addition, you can use the ‘acid’ solution on temperate and other deciduous plants occasionally, if in doubt read the article nos ’27’ ‘The pH factor’ part I or contact us direct, email address is in the about section under our name and logo. Until next time, BW, Nik.