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 59 – ‘Fertilizer is not food’

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai in this post we discuss the purpose of fertilizer, often misunderstood and misused.

Introduction – the ideology that fertilizer is a source of food is a misnomer, because plants produce their own food in the form of sugars via photosynthesis and moisture from the soil. The minerals in fertilizer provide the ingredients needed for photosynthesis and growth, when minerals are deficient or absent in the soil, fertilizer is added to maintain an adequate supply.

Plants – in their natural settings are able to survive quite well mainly due to their root systems, which have the ability to spread and travel great distances in search of moisture and nutrients. But bonsai are confined to relatively small containers and thus are restricted from this practice therefore, they have to be fertilized. The questions of which fertilizer to use, solid or liquid, what is the dosage rate and how often to use it, one might assume it would be relatively straightforward and this is where mistakes are made, which in many cases cannot be undone; hence a little more thought on the subject is required.

The pH factor – the first step is understanding from where the plant originates and the soil type in which it is grown be it ericaceous (coniferous) or organic (deciduous) and the relevant pH factor. Detailed descriptive articles on these topics can be found on this site, ‘Bonsai Soils’ March 27th 2016, ‘The pH factor (part I)’ April 22nd 2017 and the ‘The pH factor (part II)’ May 6th 2017, these are important steps in the learning curve of knowing, which directive to adopt; especially for those new to bonsai horticulture.

Soils – of course many horticulturists make there own soil compositions depending on the species and their specific needs, some use Akadama (akadamatsuchi, red ball earth) a naturally occurring, granular clay mineral used as soil for both deciduous and coniferous species, Seramis, Turface and Oil-Dri that are fired clays whilst others will use soil from the same location of where the plant originated; if at all possible.

However, there are other factors to consider because soil contains a multitude of living organisms that consume, digest, and cycle nutrients. These include archaea, bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, (mycorrhiza) algae, protozoa, and a wide range of insects; mites, nematodes, earthworms and ants all of which are important to the vitality of a soil composition. Such organisms are classed as either acidophiles, (that thrive under acidic conditions) Neutrophiles (that exist in a neutral pH environment) and Alkaliphiles (a class of extremophilic microbes capable of survival in alkaline environments).

Another factor is the balance or imbalance of a soil’s chemical structure and the three primary nutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Secondary nutrients include sulphur, calcium and magnesium, minor nutrients consist of iron, manganese, copper, zinc, boron, molybdenum and chlorine. Soils with high acidity may have toxic amounts of aluminium and manganese.

Nitrogen (N) is essential for growth and a necessary part of chlorophyll helping plants photosynthesise, phosphorus (P) is needed for the development of flowers, fruits, and root systems. Potassium (K) keeps roots healthy, aids in the flowering/fruiting process and assists in aiding plants tolerate stress to some degree through periods of drought therefore, a soil test kit is advisable to check the balance between them. (See article the ‘The pH factor (part II)’ section Soil testing applications).

Having conducted a soil test and determined the balance or imbalance one can select a fertilizer that will give you the correct amount of nutrients required. On any package of fertilizer be it powder, granulated or liquid there are three numbers that correspond to the amounts of nutrients in the product for example. 5-5-5 is referred to as a balanced fertilizer due to (N) (P) and (K) having equal quantities. Other fertilizers may show a different numbering for example, 4-10-6 which indicates that (N) is low (P) is high and (K) is medium. This numbering system is the same for all manufactured fertilizer products regardless of their form.

However, different species require fertilizers suitable to their needs for example, conifers are not considered to be heavy feeders hence one annual application of a complete garden fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or 16-8-8 will suffice, which can be applied in early spring before the plants break dormancy, or in late autumn. Deciduous trees and shrubs require a more well-balanced fertilizer, in which the three main nutrients are closer in proportion, such as 10-10-10, that provides nitrogen for green healthy foliage, phosphorus and potassium for flowering, fruiting and root development.

Applying fertilizer – how often are bonsai trees fertilized due to their confinement? There are a lot of arguments on this topic because all species are individuals each having their own requirements. Some advocate a weekly basis whilst others state fortnightly or monthly is adequate in addition, fertilizer should be given sparingly after watering has taken place. The general consensus that bonsai can or should be fertilized during the entire growing season from early spring to mid-autumn has logic however, older mature trees are often fertilized less frequently. Much depends on the species, time of year, stage of development and health; indoor trees can be fertilized all year round. The problem with over fertilization boosting the (N)-(P)-(K) levels can weaken and stress out a plant often causing its demise.

Left = liquid – right = granulated

Which form of fertilizer to use, powdered, granulated or liquid? – There are many different opinions from all quarters on this subject, some argue that liquid is better because it is instantaneous, but it usually drains out of the bottom of the container although much depends on the quantity given. Some maintain that a top dressing of powdered fertilizer is better as it penetrates into the soil after watering, although the majority of the particles will remain in the pot there will be a loss due to drainage. Others plumb for granules tiny pellets that are mixed in the soil when the container is being prepared, these are slow release and are preferred by many.

Another factor to consider is the cost of fertilizer, many fertilizers if in liquid form normally come in small bottles and if purchasing online the cost of shipment is added increasing the overall price. A 250ml bottle diluted 4 times (1.5 litres) will not last long during a season although much depends how many trees are in the collection and how often they are fertilized. Whereas half a teaspoon of granulated (slow release) added to the soil medium at repotting time will last at least two seasons. If one is unsure of what fertiliser to use the well known horticulturist and TV presenter Alan Titchmarsh gives a good presentation on this subject. (link to his presentation is given below)

As stated fertilizer is ‘not food’ nor is it a ‘one-size-fits-all’ it is a way of replenishing the nutrients within the soil medium which the plant needs for healthy growth and each species will require a specific level of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) to sustain this. Hence it is advisable to do a soil test before purchasing fertilizer, because there has to be an accepted balance between (N), (P) and (K) for each species, this does not mean to say that you need an assortment of fertilizers far from it; one for conifers and one for deciduous will suffice. Until next time, BW, Nik.