Article 51 – ‘Peat! the hue and cry’

Introduction Evidence indicates that the use of peat also known as turf dates back to Roman times where it was used for domestic purposes – heating and cooking and in the 7th century continued to play a significant economic role in countries where trees were scarce; for example, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands and Estonia.

Peat is the formation of plant material that has not fully decayed in acidic or anaerobic conditions, it is comprised of wetland vegetation, bog plants, mosses, sedges, and shrubs. Peat as it forms holds water, which slowly creates wetter conditions allowing the area of wetland to become more extensive. Peat harvested usually in blocks (briquettes) is left to dry prior to being used and in some countries it is used today on an industrial scale to generate electricity; elsewhere peat is mainly used in horticultural applications.

Peat harvesting

The hue and cry – Peat is unique to natural areas called mires, bogs, moors or muskegs, which cover approximately 3% of the global land surface that are highly significant to global efforts in combating climate change. According to environment correspondent Matt McGrath “Peat Is the most efficient carbon sink on the planet, because peatland plants capture carbon dioxide (CO2) naturally released from the peat, maintaining an equilibrium.” Meaning that the carbon stays in the bog, locked away from the atmosphere, but it takes thousands of years for peatlands to develop.

In the UK there has been a huge drive by the government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) to phase out the use of peat by both amateur and professional gardeners their argument is as follows:

“When we mine peat for gardening we unlock those reserves of stored carbon and three things then happen:

1. A peat bog is drained prior to mining. It immediately starts emitting greenhouse gases. After mining, the remaining peat continues to release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere

2. The carbon in peat, when spread on a field or garden, quickly turns into carbon dioxide, adding to greenhouse gas levels

3. The unique biodiversity of peat bogs is lost. Rare birds, butterflies, dragonflies and plants disappear. It is much harder to restore a peat bog than to replant a forest.”

In 2011, the UK government set voluntary targets to end sales of peat-based compost for domestic use by 2020, Natural Environment Minister Richard Benyon stated that “The horticultural industry has made real progress in reducing peat use, but I want to see peat eliminated from the amateur gardener market by 2020”. In a letter to Environment secretary George Eustace, signed by TV gardeners Alan Titchmarsh, Kate Bradbury and James Wong, “this has been an abject failure.”

Others joining the ‘Hue and cry’ are a few garden centres including B&Q and the Blue Diamond group of garden centres who sated they were committed to phasing out peat but gave no date as to when. Asda, Lidl and others said they had targets to reduce peat sales but not yet to end them, Wyvale Garden Centres, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s have yet to respond to the survey.

Nonetheless, gardeners love peat because it delivers superb results in gardening, but some argue that peat is not the only way to get organic matter into soil, and it’s not even the best way; so why is it making a comeback? Because it’s cheap peat bogs are cheap to buy – cheaper than farmland. You drain them, dig out the peat, put it in a bag and it’s ready to sell. Nothing sustainable can compete with peat on price, so it enjoys fat profit margins. Profit margins that the above mentioned garden centres will not relinquish; does the word hypocrisy spring to mind here.

But is there an alternative to peat? – Carbon Gold was created by Craig Sams, founder of Green & Blacks Chocolate, in 2007 as an organic, peat-free planting aid for the retail sector. The company has created composts that mimic the properties of peat. Peat is a blend of black carbon and lignin the fibrous woody matter, whereas black carbon is made by using charcoal making techniques that convert woody materials into pure horticultural carbon or ‘biochar’.

According to a Sams spokesperson, “We blend it with lignin-rich woody material such as coir from coconut husks, to reproduce the profile of peat.” “It works as well as peat in the garden and it stays there much longer, the carbon in biochar remains for centuries and is porous, so it represents a long-term investment in improved soil fertility.” The Sams spokesperson added that “Commercial organic growers, who are looking for a high-performing peat-free alternative, are adopting it on an increasing scale.”

But carbon gold is expensive over 23€ for 20kg and this does not include the cost of delivery, much more than the price of peat – the above cost may seem trivial but much depends on the amount required. Finland is the world’s leading manufacturer of peat supplies and according to recent reports, said Finnish government is now looking at ways to reduce its peat consumption – but at what cost and to whom? Moreover, since the present pandemic (C19) took hold unemployment has risen prices have sky-rocketed as products have diminished, hence 30 million new gardeners have joined the horticulture brigade and the numbers are increasing.

Perhaps peat harvesting or mining will eventually be phased out, but there still remains many arguments and debates on this issue both for and against. Taiga Bonzai’s policy is not to get involved in controversy, but to bring to our readers attention issues that concern all aspects of horticulture including the husbandry of miniature trees. Until next time, BW, Nik.

Article 50 – ‘Used, Abused and Unloved’

The Birch family (Betulaceae) is comprised of 6 genera worldwide all of which, contain trees or shrubs. Of these 3 genera are represented in the wild in Scandinavia, the Silver birch (Betula pendula) the Downy birch (Betula pubescens) and the Dwarf birch. (Betula nana) The dwarf birch is mainly confined to the Tundra and mountainous regions of Europe, the downy birch can dominate the landscape up to the tree-line, whereas the silver birch is found at lower altitudes.

B.pendula B.pubescens B.nana

B. pendula is able to reach 15 to 25 m in height with a slender trunk usually under 40 cm diameter. The trunk’s bark at first is brown, but changes to white as the tree develops. Branches are long and hang down, hence it’s common name ‘The weeping Birch’, leaves are short with slender stalks 3 to 7 cm long, they are triangular with broad wedge-shaped bases and slender pointed tips, the foliage pale to medium green has a paper feel to the touch.

B. pubescens commonly known as ‘The downy Birch’ attains a height of 10 to 20 m with a slender crown and a trunk up to 70 cm with smooth, but dull grey-white bark finely marked with dark horizontal lenticels. The branches unlike B. pendula do not hang down they radiate outwards and slightly upwards. The leaves are ovate-acute, 2 to 5 cm long and 1.5 to 4.5 cm broad, with a finely serrated margin and have a velvet or hairy feeling to the touch.

B. nana is a monoecious shrub growing up to 1 to 1.2 metres tall, the bark is non-peeling and shiny red-copper in colour. The leaves are rounded, 6–20 millimetres in diameter, with a blunt toothed margin and are a darker green on their upper surface. Leaf growth occurs after the snow has melted turning red in autumn. The wind-pollinated fruiting catkins are erect, 5–15 millimetres long and 4–10 millimetres broad.

Used – Research has shown that sap from birch, which contains Xylitol, fructose and glucose, amino acids, vitamin C, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, manganese, zinc and high in polyphenol antioxidants that are known to protect body cells against damage from molecules and free radicals. According to research and other such findings, polyphenols safeguard an individual person from several conditions that include type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, certain types of cancer and Parkinson’s. The properties of birch sap are considered health-beneficial and has been widely consumed by people of Scandinavia, Russia and North America.

Birch trees provide the predominant hard wood source in northern Europe, and some varieties of the silver birch produce highly priced veneers and decorative wood furniture. The downy birch is used for construction, plywood, wood flooring, furniture, shelves, coffins, pulp and fire wood. The dwarf birch secretes a yellow fungus from the wood and when processed is called Moxa, according to some sources it is regarded as an effective remedy in painful diseases. The yellow dye collected from the leaves is used as a hair conditioner and treatment for dandruff.

Abused – Apart from the many benefits mentioned above, the birch species arguably gets more than its fair share of abuse for example, it is constantly under attack from animals, insects and fungal infection. Scandinavia is riddled with herbivores that constantly feed on birch, for moose it is a smörgåsbord (Swedish for buffet) who can devour large swathes of bark leaving bare wood open to attack from fungi and wood boring insects, whilst smaller creatures deer, will strip the foliage bare especially on young trees.

Consider the bronze birch borer (Agrilus anxius) an insect native to North America found in the southern portions of all Canadian provinces and in the northern United States from Maine to Idaho, Colorado, and Utah; is now found in Russia and Europe. Although it prefers to attack weakened trees it will attack healthy specimens as well with devastating impacts on forest ecosystems.

Bronze birch borer (Agrilus anxius)

Adult beetles are small with a flat head and elongated bodies. They range in colour from olive green to black with bronze reflections and are approximately 6.4 to 12.7 mm long with the females being larger than males. The eggs are initially white but turn yellow as they mature, their shape is oval and are 1.5 mm long by 1 mm wide. The larvae are white, legless and have flattened elongated bodies about 12.7 to 15.2 mm long with a small enlargement in the second thoracic segment and two brown spines extending from the last segment of the body. This insect is considered a serious pest to birch species. The adults cause minor damage by feeding on the leaves, but the main damage is caused by the tunnelling larvae interrupting the flow of sap reducing tree growth causing mortality.

Although the bronze birch borer is a major pest there are other insects that cause havoc for example, the Birch leaf miner (Fenusa pusilla) attacks all birch species, Aphids (Aphis gossypii) a very common insect pest that will swarm over and devour the leaves of all species of birch. The Forest Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma disstria) a major player in foliage destruction. Of course there are other insects considered as pests; white grubs, weevil larvae, and wire worms.

All Birch species are susceptible to fungal attack for example, Birch dieback a disease that causes branches in the crown to die off causing stress that may result the tree’s demise. The pathogenic fungi (Melanconium betulinum), (Anisogramma virgultorum) and (Marssonina betulae) were found in association with affected trees. Birch dieback usually attacks trees that are under stress for example, exposure to phenoxy herbicides used to control broad-leafed weeds, drought and winter kill.

Indications that all is not well are; firstly the foliage becomes scant and turns yellow a sign that chlorosis is present, another indication is leaf tips and new shoots start to curl wither and drop. Secondly small branches or twigs become barren as new leaves fail to develop. As the disease spreads whole branches may die as well as parts of the crown, the lower parts of the tree may develop densely bunched foliage; the tree usually dies within three to five years of the development of symptoms.

Unloved – why is this? – in bonsai the birch tree is not a popular species although it is found in some collections. Is it because of its susceptibility to the many pests and disease that it is prone to, which might affect other tree species in a collection. In short the answer is no, because all plants can be attacked by some form of fungal disease, insect infestation, poor incompatible soil mediums, drought or excessive watering.

There are a number of reasons why it is unloved (a) because of its nature for example, birch are prolific in their release of pollen, which for many sufferers of hay fever and asthma are susceptible, hence people with these afflictions avoid the species altogether. (b) Another possible reason is that unlike many deciduous and coniferous species that can be shaped into various forms like their wild counterparts, birch in their natural setting are mainly formal uprights. Nonetheless, there are exceptions to the rule where in the wild some trees have had their natural shape altered drastically, due to some catastrophe.

However, much depends on you the artist/designer – the old rules are not set in stone, they are but mere guidelines. If you are a traditionalist then hear the words of master bonsai horticulturist John Yoshio Naka who stated “Don’t turn your tree into a bonsai – turn your bonsai into a tree.” Alternatively if you are a free spirit akin to Paul Jackson Pollack the American abstract painter, then you can do what you like. The full article on this topic ‘Different Perspectives’ can be found on this site the date is May 14th 2017.

In the green container shown below are a number of birch saplings, the result of seeds blown in to my bonsai area from the adjacent forest that are now in their 3rd year of growth; a mixture of B. pendula and B. pubescens. Initially the idea was to grow a birch forest, but idea was shelved, because it is highly unlikely to find these two species in close proximity, hence the overall composition would be incorrect. The two larger saplings in the centre were originally intended as a twin trunk design (Sokan) and were shaped but, all the others are in their natural state. These saplings when in leaf will be separated into their individual species and like the Sea buckthorn in the previous article they too will be given away. Until next time, BW, Nik

Mixture of B. pendula and B. pubescens

N.B. As you will have noticed this article is numbered as 50, hence forth all articles will be numbered in numerical order to assist in keeping an uncomplicated filing system diminishing the time searching the archives.


The Sea Buckthorn (L. Hippophae rhamnoides) a compact deciduous shrub (2 to 4m high) is native to the colder climes of Northern Europe and Asia, it grows in poor soil mediums and can tolerate temperatures well below freezing. The bark is rough in texture grey brown to black with a greyish green canopy, leaves are alternate, narrow and lanceolate with silver undersides and pale green upper surfaces.

The Sea buckthorn has oval to roundish fruits ranging from pale yellow to dark orange, these contain high amounts of vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, flavonoids, health-beneficial fatty acids and high amounts of vitamin B12. In Scandinavia the benefits of consuming Sea buckthorn fruit has long been known as it probably has in other parts of the world however, cultivating this shrub although uncomplicated requires a little thought.

Sea buckthorn fruit

The shrub is ‘dioecious’ meaning that male and female flowers grow on individual trees and the sex of seedlings can only be determined at the first flowering, which normally occurs after three years of growth. The difference between the sexes is as follows; the male flowers have from four to six apetalous flowers, whilst the female has only one apetalous flower containing one ovary and one ovule. Fertilisation is created via wind pollination, hence both male and female plants should be in close proximity.

Sea buckthorn plants can be easily obtained as garden centres and nurseries have them in abundance, but they are saplings approximately 2 years old and ascertaining whether they are male or female is extremely difficult as they have yet to flower. Of course the containers in which the plants are housed have labels describing what they are, but it is highly unlikely to include the sex. One could ask the attendant as to the plant’s origin to determine whether it is male or female, they should have this information available if they are reputable traders, but more often than not they are unable to provide an answer. Hence purchasing Sea buckthorn plants is a bit of a lottery.

Sea buckthorn develops an extensive root system, the roots live in symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing Frankia bacteria, the roots also transform insoluble organic and mineral matters from the soil into more soluble states and vegetative reproduction of the plants occurs rapidly via root suckers for example. The bonsai version of the Sea buckthorn in the ‘literati’ (Bunjin gi) style shown below is 5 years old and has yet to produce apetalous flowers in order to determine its sex.

Photographs were taken 1st April 2021

The main reason for this phenomenon is partly due to heavy pruning it has received. However, in late spring of 2020 vegetative reproduction rapidly appeared with several new plants protruding up through the soil medium and in July of that year the plant was taken out of its pot and all the new shoots were carefully removed and replanted in the yellow container and left to fend for themselves.

Winter of 2020 was quite hard with plenty of snow constantly thawing and freezing with more snow build up. In previous winters all bonsai were covered with hessian for added protection, but last year they were left uncovered, hence they were subjected to a hard time. In March 2021 the soil medium in the yellow pot was a block of ice and the chance of survival for these yearling plants seemed minimal. It is now April, the soil medium has thawed out and the young plants have survived; to say the Sea buckthorn is ‘resilient’ is very apt considering the hardships it must endure.

The next question is, what will happen to these young sea buckthorn plants as they are surplus to requirements? One will be kept as a backup should some catastrophe befall the ‘literati’ bonsai, the remainder will be given away. You might ask the question of why not take them into the wild and replant them, sadly the answer is no, because (a) there is no permission to do so, (b) soil pH would be incompatible to the plant’s needs and (c) they would be subjected to the onslaught of human and animal activity; until next time BW, Nik.

‘Patience is a virtue’

It’s that time of the year for some to commence their bonsai horticulture labours, but for others snow still remains, the north of Scandinavia is still going through the remnants of winter and just when the ground was beginning to thaw, along comes more snow Monday 05/04/2021. Nonetheless, buds are beginning to break on some of the trees in the collection; Birch (Betula) and Sea buckthorn (Hippophae) and progress in re-potting some trees that need it is underway, but that is the sum total thus far.

The main reason for the slow progress is the dreaded affects of (MgC12) magnesium chloride that was discussed in the last post ‘It’s an ill Wind’. Until the snow has completely dissipated the machines cannot sweep the roads, hence any attempt to prepare and prune is futile; work that will become a set back therefore, one has to be patient till at least the end of April, but much depends on the weather because as stated it is unpredictable.

Once the highways, roads and pavements have been swept and the dust particles have settled, the area where the trees are housed can be cleaned to remove all residue, then attention can be focussed on the plants. The container or pot in which the tree is housed is placed in a plastic bag (cling film or plastic wrap is an alternative) and sealed around the trunk with electrical tape, this is to avoid any water containing (MgC12) particles from entering the bag and contaminating the soil when the trunk/s and branches are washed. It is important to do this because if the soil is contaminated, the possibility of necrosis appearing is greatly improved.

Having just read the above paragraph you are now thinking “hold on a minute, if (MgC12) is on the branches and trunk will it not be also in the soil?” – a good question and you are correct in assuming this and the answer is yes it will. Magnesium and chloride are essential chemicals needed for healthy growth and the soil medium will already contain these but, a balance has to be maintained, it is the amount induced or exposed to or lack thereof which is the problem.

The previous post ‘It’s an ill Wind’ explains the symptoms and results of excessive exposure to (MgC12) resulting in necrosis, which is the degeneration of cellular tissue, that weakens the plant making it susceptible to attack from Biotic diseases; insects and fungi. Necrosis is an Abiotic infection caused by human activity and the excessive use of chemicals, the dried out particles become airborne, transmitted via the wind and can effect plants at any time anywhere.

As a result foliage is covered in dust reducing the plant or tree’s ability to photosynthesise properly affecting the transportation of sugars from the leaves to the roots retarding the plants health, hence it is prudent to check on a plant’s condition. A useful tool in cleaning foliage, branches and trunks is a pressure sprayer (shown below) use distilled water with the sprayer’s nozzle set to medium fine and medium pressure, until next time, BW, Nik.

Pressure sprayer

‘It’s an ill Wind’…

Winter is waining, the long dark days and nights are drawing to a close, the once crisp white snow now wears a dirty grey/black mantel of dust as it slowly melts away, but let us not be too hasty to shed those warm layers needed to combat the cold for the weather can change its mind as it is apt to do.

It is reassuring to know that winter’s demise is imminent here in Scandinavia (although its return is inevitable) but, with the coming of spring the problems begin again for example, Biotic and Abiotic disease. The following is an extract from the new book…. Taiga Bonsai (Simplifying The Art)

Biotic diseases are caused by living organisms, fungi, bacteria and pathogens left by viral infected insects for example, the ‘Red band needle blight’ (Dothistroma) that affects conifers mostly pines, causing needle loss eventually killing the tree. Ash dieback affects Ash trees and is caused by the fungus (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus) which blocks the tree’s water transport system causing leaf loss and ultimately dieback of the tree’s apex or crown.

Horse chestnut canker a bacterium species known as (Pseudomonas syringae pv.) causes extensive bleeding areas on tree stems. (Phytophthora austrocedri) affects Junipers causing dieback of foliage, stem and collar lesions and eventually death.

Biotic diseases usually appear on random plants but, can effect different plants with various levels of severity often with visible signs of disease for example, fluffy masses of mould, orange pustules and round leaf spots, wet or water-soaked lesions and irregular shaped leaf spots. Viruses often cause cankers and irregular colour changes such as mosaic patterns on leaves or unusual foliage colours for example, reddening of the leaves. Nematodes, a microscopic worm are also classified as a biotic disease causing root rots and irregular root growth. Arguably biotic diseases are part and parcel of nature’s rich tapestry something we have to accept.

Abiotic diseases are the result of non – living causes, the result of human activity – herbicides, pollution, an excess or lack of nutrients that plants require for growth. For example, Chloride (C1-) and Magnesium (Mg+2) are both essential nutrients important for normal growth. However, excessive concentrations of these nutrients may harm a plant with chloride being responsible for foliage damage as opposed to magnesium.

High concentrations of MgC12 ions in the soil may be toxic insomuch that they are able to effect and alter water relationships meaning the plant can not accumulate water and nutrients naturally. The effect of chloride in the conducting system causes an accumulation of necrosis in leaves or needles and where dieback first occurs, leaves are weakened or killed, which can lead to the death of of a tree.

A common cause of necrosis is brown, dead or wilted leaf tips and yellowing of older leaves. If this is the case, then the plant should be removed and cleaned immediately by washing the whole tree including the root ball with distilled water and the decaying foliage removed; the container or pot should also be cleaned and the plant re-potted in a fresh soil medium.

Necrosis on Conifers and Deciduous

When dried out particles of (MgC12) become airborne they travel great distances, contaminating all they come in contact with especially trees and shrubs be they of natural proportions or bonsai and also back into the soil where they react causing chloride toxicity. Remember the line in the opening paragraph “the once crisp white snow now wears a dirty grey/black mantel of dust” this is the residue of (MgC12).

Symptoms associated with exposure to de-icing, salt sprays, aerosols or road dust differ from root absorption, the side of the tree facing the road may exhibit more damage and foliage will have surface deposits of salt crystals or dust. These usually appear in a distinct pattern affecting other plants that are in close proximity.

One of the major causes of excessive concentrations of (MgC12) is due to the de-icing of highways, streets, roads and pavements via the use of granulated magnesium chloride (MgC12) applied during the winter months that is different to halite road salt. (sodium chloride NaC1) Liquid (MgC12) solutions are also applied to non-paved roads during spring and summer months for dust suppression.

Pest and disease problems in bonsai are often the result of more than one cause, these are referred to as complexes for example, aphids and leafhoppers often spread various plant diseases in the process of feeding. Weak plants in abiotic conditions (nutrient deficient soils) are more susceptible to attack by various diseases and insects. In such cases it is not enough to simply treat a tree with pesticide or fungicide, all cases of the complex should be addressed to ensure good health and vitality in the tree’s development.

Magnesium chloride according to the powers that be, this chemical be it in granulated or liquid form is mandatory for de-icing and suppression of dust. But, when the snow has gone and the roads and pathways have dried, (MgC12) still remains on the surfaces and when the machines start sweeping these areas, the dust as stated becomes airborne – an ill wind. The area where my bonsai trees are housed is open to the elements and prone to (MgC12) residue; to say that it is a pain in the neck to have to be constantly cleaning, is an understatement. Arguably there should be a consultation regarding (MgC12) usage; until next time BW, Nik.


“The road is long with many a winding turn”

Having been absent for some considerable time and my sincere apologies for this, but my attention was focussed on more pressing matters taking me down roads, that were complicated, tedious and often boring. But these are the journeys we are compelled to take during life’s long learning curve regardless of what entity we are engaged in.

Arguably the problem is that knowledge in many fields often fails to be updated and starting my journey into bonsai horticulture in the mid 1970s there was very little knowledge available. Today there is a wealth of information to be found via the world wide web and of authors whom dedicate their experiences to this horticultural art form.

However, a message has an expressive language depending on the properties and ideas it contains. Many written works either delve too deeply into the subject which can cause confusion often leading to a loss of interest, whilst some barely scratch the surface. Therefore, it was felt that a new book was needed, one that slotted between giving the reader a clear and concise message easy to comprehend and one that would include other relative topics rarely discussed. Here at Taiga Bonzai the aim is to unravel the complexities by simplification, because bonsai horticulture has changed much since its commencement in 6th century China.

My first book on bonsai was sent for publication in the autumn of 2018 but to date knowledge of its progress has not been forthcoming, possibly due to unknown factors although constant efforts were made as to the status quo and possibly due to the current pandemic situation. Therefore, a decision was made to write a second edition adding more up-to-date content. The book “Taiga Bonzai – simplifying the art – revised edition” (page count 200) was completed in December 2020. Feedback from the many followers of Taiga Bonzai suggest that this new written work should be available as an E book to avoid a repeat of the recent publishing experience; as to cost, this has yet to be determined.

In the next article to be posted we look at the end of winter and the problems it creates in its wake.

Until next time BW, Nik.

Pinus strobus radiata (Monterey pine step 1. May 2019)

Now is the time of year for a brief excursion to see what potential material if any, is available and low and behold a 64cm 4 needle eastern white pine was on offer for under 15€ a bargain considering that most members of the white pine family usually have needles in bundles of 5, rarely in 3 or 4; hence these command a higher price.

Originally from eastern North America white pines can now be found world-wide mainly as a timber source due to their rapid growth. The white pine family subgenus Strobus has several varieties including the Nana, Aurea and Macopin groups. It prefers well-drained or sandy soils and humid climates, but can also grow in boggy areas and rocky highlands. It is said to be a hardy tree (zone 3) withstanding temperature around -30c, but this for mature trees young trees need to be protected against frost damage.

On young trees the bark is relatively smooth and grey in colour with branches spaced approximately every 10 to 15cm on the trunk with 5-6 branches appearing like spokes on a wagon wheel. And because of this branch configuration, the Monterey pine according to some purists is not a suitable candidate for bonsai.

But nothing ventured nothing gained, this ‘ugly duckling’ has been transferred to a wooden box to allow for root expansion, fertilised and the heavier branches were removed to encourage development of the thinner branches.

Monteray pine

For some styling, pruning and wiring in one session can be done on some species, but applying the same directive to a 4 needle white pine can be deemed an act of ebullience as opposed to patience, because of the amount of stress the tree has to endure, requiring a longer period to recover. This white pine will have no further work done until the candles have developed however, in the meantime a potential design is suggested.


Monteray pine 2

If we look at the tree we denote movement in the main trunk from soil level upwards, which can be enhanced by bending it down from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’. Then from point ‘B’ to point ‘C’ a second and third bend can be applied sending the trunk slightly to the back then forward and right bringing the apex back over the centre to avoid the ubiquitous ‘S’ shape. To achieve this directive the main trunk has to be wrapped in raffia with supporting wires added to the proposed bend’s outside radius, (red lines) then taped and the bending wires attached.

The last part of the exercise will be to prune in necessary and wire into position the side branches, as for the right hand secondary trunk’s position and styling this will be determined once the left side has been styled into position.
Further updates on this tree’s progress will be posted, until next time BW, N.

Expansion clamp design and construction


In the article ‘Wiring practices part 2B’ it was mentioned that the twin trunks of my mountain ash/rowan, Sorbus aucuparia were trying to fuse together, which would have spoilt the overall design. (image a) Hence a 3cm block of wood was wedged in place to keep them apart, purely as a temporary measure. (image b)

Rowan red wires & wood

Having given some thought to the problem 2 options came to mind, (1) to use 4 heavy guy wires (red lines) to keep the trunks apart, but where to attach them – they cannot be attached to the plastic container, because (a) the amount of tension and force required would distort it. (b) The present angle is too acute and the wires would slip down as soon as tension is applied damaging the bark.

Alternatively build a large box around the container and attach the wires to that, this was also rejected, because to reduce the steep angle the wires would require a minimum extension of 45cm on either side resulting in an overall measurement of 135cm container 45 + 45 + 45. Moreover, using wires to keep the trunks apart creates tension in the length of the trunks as opposed to force centred at one small area, hence the decision was option (2) design and construct a small expansion clamp.

The following image shows the ‘new’ expansion clamp in situ, a device that can be adjusted by periodically turning the handles giving equal force to both trunks. Below this are two more images showing plan A & B followed by a tutorial on how to make this clamp


Expasion clamp in situ

Expansion clamp A

Plan B. overview

Expansion clamp construction

Before we begin the tutorial, Europe uses the metric system as are the dimensions given here however, there are countries that use the imperial format, the reason for this is because threaded bars have different threads for example, UNC (Unified National Coarse Thread) and UNF (Unified National Fine Thread) therefore, when making threads they have to correspond to the type of threaded bar being used.

The tools required for the project include: a drill press as it will give accurate alignment when drilling; if access to such is not available a cordless drill can be used, but ensure that all components are aligned properly and the drill bit is perpendicular to the worked object.

Drill bits 3mm for pilot holes and holes in the back plates, 4mm drill for the 4 x 5mm threaded bars, 5mm drill for the 6mm bars, 6mm drill for plate B. A file, Phillips (star pointed) screw driver, punch, ruler, marker, masking tape, hammer, vice, electrical tape, plastic shrink wrap (optional), hacksaw, 4mm & 6mm taps + holder.

Materials are: 30cm x 4mm x 3 cm aluminium flat bar, (steel can be used)

3 x 12cm x 5mm and 24 cm x 6mm threaded bar, soft rubber foam and adhesive,

2 x 6mm hexagonal threaded barrel nuts and 8 x 1.5 x 3mm bolts with nuts + washers. Note: (threaded bar is usually sold in 1metre lengths) all these materials are available from supermarkets and hardware stores.

Step 1. Cut the aluminium bar into two 12cm lengths and the remaining 6cm in half (3cm) and file away all rough edges. Tape the two 12cm lengths together ensuring they are properly aligned, measure, mark and centre punch the holes as shown above, then drill out the 4 holes using the 3mm pilot drill. Separate the 2 x 12cm bars and select one to be plate A the other to be plate B. Tape the 2 x 3cm back plates to plate B ensuring alignment is correct then measure mark and centre punch 4 holes and drill through using the 3mm pilot drill as shown below.

Back plates

Separate plate B from the back plates making sure you mark which back plate is on the left and which is on the right and the way they were first fitted, this important because if they are incorrectly placed the holes will not be in unison and the plates when bolted on will be out of alignment.

Step 2. Re-assemble plates A and B and ensure alignment is correct which is easily attained by inserting the 3mm pilot drill into the holes, then tape them together. Using the 4mm drill bit, drill through the inner holes in both plates, with the 5mm drill repeat the process on the outer holes. Separate the two plates and on plate B only use the 6mm drill to widen the 2 outer holes, this is to allow the 6mm threaded bars to fit snugly and turn in the recess provided by the back plates.

Step 3. Using the 5mm tap carefully thread the inner holes in bars A and B, then cut one length of the 12 cm x 5mm threaded bars into 4 equal lengths (3cm) and file off all rough edges, test fit by screwing these bars into the holes of the plates to check for alignment if all is is fine remove and set aside. Using the 6mm tap cut a thread in the outer holes of bar A ensuring that the tap is straight and perpendicular, again this is important because if these threaded bars are out of alignment the clamp will not function properly.

Step 4. The 2 x 12cm x 6mm threaded bars need one end on each to be filed down so that the bar is able to turn easily without scarring the recess, regardless of whether one uses aluminium or steel. Remove any rough edges on the other end and insert it/them into the hexagonal barrel nuts so that the ends are flush with the outer surface of the nut.

Measure and mark the exact centre on the surface of the barrel nut and make an indentation with the punch, check the alignment, if it is out use another side of the nut. Wind some masking tape on the protruding end of the bar close to the barrel nut as this will stop it from turning when you drill through. Using the 3mm pilot drill carefully drill through the nut and inserted bar, change drill bit to the 4mm and widen the hole then repeat with the 5mm; remove all burs. Insert the 2 x 12cm x 5mm threaded bar into the barrel nuts and wind electrical tape around the bare threaded ends.

Step 5. Assembly, bolt on the back plates, insert the 4 x 3.5cm x 5mm bars or lugs into A and B ensuring they face in opposite directions, wind electrical tape over the threads and cover with shrink wrap, to stop any hard contacted with the trees’s bark. Shrink wrap although optional is perfect for this kind of project. Finally, cut some foam rubber and glue it using contact adhesive to the areas between the lugs as a cushion for the 2 trunks.


finished clamp

This expansion clamp was specifically designed for my Sorbus aucuparia having two trunks each 3.25 cm in diameter, but can be adapted for larger or thinner trunks by widening or closing the gap between blue lugs as the case may be. Of course new holes will have to drilled and tapped to accommodate any alterations.

The advantage of this clamp is that it is adjustable able to do more than a static block of wood can. The clamp will stay on the tree for a period of two more growing seasons, periodically turning the handles to increase the gap between the two trunks.

Regarding maintenance concerning the bare threaded bars, these were sprayed with WD40 and molybdenum grease was inserted into the back plate recesses to reduce wear and tear; alternatively petroleum jelly (vaseline) can be used if the former is not to hand.

You are free to use my design or in part thereof should you wish to make this clamp, the materials aluminium flat bar, hexagonal barrel nuts, 5mm and 6mm threaded bars cost under 20€; the 3mm bolts, nuts, and washers had been purchased previously. (1,50€) Naturally making only one clamp does leave surplus material, but fret not, it can be used for other projects for example, bending clamps as described in the article ‘Making bonsai clamps’. (8th October 2016) Until next time, BW, N.



WIRING PRACTICES (Part III – new wire as opposed to reclaimed)


“When wiring bonsai always apply ‘new’ wire not ‘used’ because (a) used wire has lost its original properties and is inadequate (b) re-using old used wire is seen as a niggardly practice”

Well the bonsai outlets would say that for obvious reasons, but what if you are a student existing on a pitiful grant. A pensioner whose allowance does not keep pace with inflation or someone having a career change, where finance has to be kept under strict control. Moreover, claiming that wire once used will loose its properties is incorrect as many bonsai enthusiasts regardless of their financial status, use reclaimed wire because it is more cost effective especially if their collection is large.


Reclaiming wire

In the last century (1970 to late 1980s) an abundance of wire (copper/aluminium) was available, reclaimed from old telecommunication systems, industrial electrical wiring complexes, house-hold appliances and many other sources. But with the advancement in technology and the digital age, sources have dwindled, yet there is still sufficient to be had providing one knows where to look for example, scrap yards, recycling plants and from those whom reclaim wire for re-sale.

Reclaiming wire can be an arduous process as the core/s has/have to be stripped from the coating, achieved either by fire or manually. But using fire as a method of removal especially from old Polyvinyl chloride cables, (PVC) harmful quantities of dioxins a group of highly toxic chemicals are emitted, which if inhaled can have serious repercussions to one’s health. Moreover, it is not advisable to do this if ones neighbours are in close proximity and to avoid repercussions, it is far better to do it manually which is safer and relatively easier.

But surely stripping wire is a long tedious process? To the novice it may seem the case however, equipment is available from simple ‘hand’ operated home-made devices to motorised machines, here are a few examples to give you some idea.



Wire used for bonsai

Usually a single flexible cylindrical strand of copper or coated aluminium, is formed by drawing the metal through a hole in a die or draw plate and is available in various sizes expressed as gauges. This single solid strand or core consists of one piece of metal that provides mechanical ruggedness and because its surface area is less than multi-core wire, exposure to corrosives and the environment is reduced.

Wire produced via this manufacturing process has what is called ‘shape memory’ and what happens within the material at the nanoscale of atoms and molecules is different from what is occurring on the surface. Therefore, if a piece of wire is bent around a branch the internal crystalline structure is deformed and will remain in its given shape.

Shape memory alloys including copper and aluminium are able to change between two solid crystalline states referred to as ‘austenite’ and ‘martensite’, at low temperatures they are in the form of ‘martensite’ and easy to bend, but when subjected to high temperatures they become ‘austenite’; making the material harder. Therefore, when preparing reclaimed wire for bonsai, the annealing process is needed to change the crystalline structure prompting the object to revert back to its original state.



Copper and aluminium wire have different temperatures that change their crystalline state which has to be controlled to maintain their ‘martensite’ properties for example.

The melting point of copper is 1083 degrees centigrade but, the annealing temperature is between 700 to 800C. Copper is a good heat conductor and as we are only concerned with this metal in wire form, the process of annealing happens once it glows red. The wire is then removed from the heat source and allowed to cool naturally returning to its ‘martensite’ state and is easily bent into a new shape.

What if we choose to cool the wire quickly, what happens?”

Quenching red hot wire immediately in water, the molecules can retain an ‘austenite’ state making the wire brittle. If the wire is allowed to cool (300 to 400 C) then doused in water it will still retain its malleability, but can be slightly harder. However, much depends on the gauge, thin wire cools quickly as oppose to thick. Therefore, experimentation and using a temperature probe will assist in deciding when to quench the gauge/s you are annealing.

Annealing copper can be achieved several times and as we are only concerned with bonsai wire, rigid control of the process is not mandatory. Nonetheless, constant annealing does have its adverse effect, because the crystalline structure (nanoscale of atoms and molecules) will eventually degrade with oxidation being the most obvious sign.

Aluminium has a melting point of 450 – 560 centigrade although much depends on what additional elements have been added to the alloy to make it harder. Generally speaking, the annealing temperature is between 300 to 350 C for approximately 20 minutes, after which the wire is allowed to cool (approximately 150 C) then immersed in water to retain its ‘martensite’ properties. But as stated before a thinner gauge heats up more quickly than a thicker gauge as does the cooling down.

Moreover, if the temperature of the annealing process is too high, it can cause not only the destruction of the coating applied during original manufacture, but create an ‘austenite’ state making the wire brittle hence, care has to be taken to avoid over heating. Annealing aluminium wire can be done many times, but like copper it will degrade over time.


Heat sources for annealing

These will be discussed momentarily, but first a relevant question. “Is the wire straightened before annealing or after?” Bent or kinked wire is difficult to straighten, especially if held in a shaped position for some time exposed to the elements and attempting to straighten it in this cold state, would not be met with much success.

In addition, when wiring bonsai especially large specimens, long lengths (over a metre) are used, which could be problematic because to anneal properly, the heat source has to be large enough to accommodate its entire length. Far better to fold or coil the wire to reduce the length, then anneal and straighten after; which will be discussed shortly.

There are several heat sources for annealing including, an open fire in the back yard/garden, a barbecue, propane gas torch, kiln or small forge and the domestic oven. However, not everyone has the freedom to choose their preferred heat source, because of (a) environmental restrictions and (b) source and the cost.

Apart from an open fire or propane gas as used by many, another option is an old barbecue one with a working temperature gauge attached. A small one coupled with a bag of briquettes or coals is ideal for annealing copper. Stack the wire heaviest gauge on the bottom building up the pile with smaller gauges on the top. Once the required temperature is reached place the stack on the coals, close the lid and wait; periodically checking for the colour red. You will also need a container of water in situ for cooling.

Aluminium having a lower temperature can be annealed in a domestic oven. Pre-heat the oven to its maximum (normally 350 centigrade) then prepare a baking tray by lining it with 2 sheets of aluminium foil to stop any unwanted residue from contaminating it’s surface. With the temperature reached put the tray in the oven for 20 minutes then remove and allow to cool down, after 10 to 15 minutes put the wire in water to quench it.

If one needs to know more regarding the annealing of alloys, there are several sites on the internet providing more information, this article is only an introduction to annealing.


Straitening the wire

Straightening annealed wire can be achieved by various methods, the easiest form being a cordless drill and piece of wood. To a jig with rollers where the wire is threaded through, to more elaborate expensive machines. (

Here are a few ‘youtube’ videos where one can see the ease of straightening wire.

As the above information indicates there are several options for straightening wire, the drill and piece of wood being the simplest and cheapest method especially with small gauges. (1 to 2.5mm) But as the gauges increase (3 to 6mm) straightening becomes more difficult due to the tension and force required.

Having given this conundrum considerable thought, the plan at some point is to design and make a simple jig where all gauges (1 to 6mm) can be straightened relatively easy. However, with ‘simplicity’ being the watchword it will have to be cost effective and easy to construct with just a few basic tools. In the meantime a little more research is required. Until next time, BW, N.

Wiring practices (Part II B)



In part 2 ‘A’ we discussed when to wire both coniferous, deciduous and young trees grown from seed in their first year. Other topics were the techniques to bend heavy branches including ‘V’ notching and what happens to the xylem when severe compression and tension are applied. In this discussion we look at an actual wiring project.

Wiring application

When attempting to wire any part of a tree it is advisable to test the resistance of the section in question, because this gives an approximation of what gauge to use. This is achieved by supporting the tree at the base then gently bending it to the right, left, forward and back for a few minutes thus, making the xylem more pliable. The wire is wound around the branch (not the branch around the wire) normally at a 45° angle starting from the bottom going upwards. However, all trees are different some grow quicker than others hence the wire coils may be closer or further apart depending on what one is trying to achieve. The image shown below is an example of how a tree can be wired.
how to wire a tree.part.2.b

Wiring older trees

Trees that are 3 to 4 years will have lignified and the heartwood will have hardened, thus bending requires a little more thought and preparation. The candidate for this experiment has a diameter of approximately 15mm at soil level, a 7/8mm diameter tip or apex and is approximately 150cm in height, which would be normal for a deciduous sapling of this age, but for our purposes it has been reduced to 24cm.

The sample tree (below) is uninteresting due to the lack of movement therefore, we are going to apply bends to the right, left, to the back and front and fan out the branches so that they will eventually come close to the trunk to give a 3D appearance. (the 3 small grey squares represent back branches that will be reconfigured later)
Tree showing bends part.2.b

No doubt the critics will say this directive is incorrect, branches should not be near the trunk as it mars the viewer’s eyeline taking away the emphasis of the trunk which is considered the most important factor in bonsai. Nonetheless, the argument here is between something that has a look of realism as opposed to one of reality.

To explain further after the Chinese introduced the art of bonsai (originally named Penjing also known as Penzai) to the Japanese in the 7th century, the latter produced specimens in their own style. (Zen buddhist) Where focus of attention was centred on a tree’s trunk and branches were not permitted to cross it, but this created a flat 2D image unacceptable to western bonsai enthusiasts because it did not represent reality. A tree as it grows will produce branches radiating the entire circumference; a natural phenomenon.

Furthermore, the American horticulturist, teacher, author, and master bonsai cultivator John Yoshio Naka considered to be the founding father of western style bonsai stated that in order to create a natural look as would be found in nature,”don’t turn your tree into a bonsai – turn your bonsai into a tree.”

Our specimen tree has undergone the flexibility test and has been securely wired starting with the heaviest gauge then moving down through the sizes as we work up the tree. The gauges used are shown below.

wired tree part 2.b
The following image a rough drawn sketch gives an indication of how the specimen would appear after the wiring process is completed showing the back branches marked as ‘Bb’. All the fine branches were wired using 1.5mm and 1mm gauge accordingly.
Wired deciduous tree

To create a natural look the branches were bent down to give the impression of age and the thinner branches fanned out and levelled to enhance the foliage. At this stage the trunk is still visible (a to b) however, as the tree grows and develops more shoots and leaves, these will come across the trunk, (c) and at the apex the trunk will hardly be visible.

This example is for a deciduous tree that arguably have straighter trunks often with gentle curves, but there are exceptions as in ‘wind swept’ (Fukinagashi) ‘twin trunk’ (Sokan) ‘multiple trunk’ (Kabudachi) or even Literati (Bunjingi) styles. But regardless of the species, the wiring process is the same, the only major difference is that deciduous are wired in the autumn after leaf fall when it is easier to visualise shape and form; whereas conifers being ‘evergreen’ require more patience when wiring to avoid trapping the needles.

Wiring mature trees

Many trees 8 years and upwards can be found in some unusual places including, derelict industrial sites, garden hedgerows as well as from the wild. Many will have interesting forms that have been shaped by the forces of nature, the only task remaining is pruning and wiring the branches.

However, if a potential specimen is found with a 4 to 6cm diameter trunk at ground level, its height will probably be in excess of 2m and applying bends using the heaviest gauge wire (6mm) is extremely difficult, especially if the tree is deciduous because of the denseness of the cellular structure. The only way to create shape (referred to as movement) is to use the techniques mentioned earlier ‘V’ notching etc, but there is an easier approach achieved by reducing the tree’s height to a node or bud that when grows will form the new apex.
Rowan reducing the height

The tree pictured above is a twin trunk (Sokan) rowan or mountain ash Sorbus aucuparia rescued from a derelict industrial site due for refurbishment, its original height was over 2m but reduced to 70cm allowing new leaders (1 for each trunk) to grow; height now is 90cm. In spring the branches will be pruned back to encourage new growth. (The temporary padded block of wood ‘green circle’ is to keep the two trunks separated, a new clamp is being designed to facilitate this purpose)

As stated before conifers have more flexibility and can be wired once the proposed section has been tested, if the area once wired fails to hold its shape even after applying the heavy bending technique shown below we can resort to using guy wires as opposed to ‘V’ notching or other applications.


But when using guy wires we have to remember that creating a force in one direction leads to an opposing force, in part one of this article there is an image of a Scots pine and to save you time looking for it, it is repeated below.
Wiring a goose neck pine

This ‘goose neck’ pine has 4 main guy wires attached to both tree and box equalising the tension applied, the top section 5. has been wired in the normal way, but is held down with looping wire 6. to the branch below. The black patches are pieces of felt used to protect the bark from the wire.

Wiring trees can be easy or complicated depending on your approach, the task itself regardless of size just requires a little fore thought and patience. Because at the end of the day it is you who must be satisfied; you are the artist. Until next time when part III of this article (new wire as opposed to reclaimed) is published. BW, N.