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.

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