Spring is a time of renewal and our bonsai trees are waking up!
Not everyone realizes that most bonsai trees are outdoor plants. While there are a few tropical species that can live indoors, even most of them prefer to be outside when it is warm. For the majority of trees, if they aren’t allowed to go through their natural cycle of dormancy they will eventually weaken and die.
Here in Cleveland, spring is upon us and our trees are coming out of their winter dormancy. Buds are cracking open to reveal new leaves, new needles, and in some cases even blooms!
Take a look at these photos submitted by a few of our members and their trees enter spring glory.
The Cleveland Bonsai Club is very proud of club member Mel G who took home the President’s Award for his Shohin display, as well as Best Accent Plant, at the MidAtlantic Bonsai Society Spring Festival last month. Mel’s display consisted of: Top–Japanese Back Pine, Upper left–Star Jasmine, Upper Right–Japanese Chojubai Quince, Lower left:–Zelkova elm, Lower Right–Kumquat–Outside tree–Shimpaku Juniper. Note that each pot is a different color and shape which is one of the important criteria for a good shohin display.
Well done, Mel!
At our April 2019 meeting member David Bennett gave a presentation on utilizing Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) for bonsai.
David talked about some of the benefits of this tree, such as the fact that it is locally available and hardy to the area. It is shade tolerant (though prefers sun), fast healing, has good needle reduction, and tends to have compact growth when cultivated properly.
Because it is fast growing David prefers using guy wires instead of wiring branches and pointed out that hemlocks tend to have a lot of “memory” in them and bends don’t always hold. He also warned that they don’t usually backbud on old wood so that needs to be taken into consideration when styling the tree. They are also strongly apically dominant so need frequent pinching to maintain shape.
Bonsai trees come in many different sizes, styles and types but one thing that is common to a refined bonsai is the appearance of age. A bonsai should appear to be much older than it actually is (in general, some bonsai truly are hundreds of years old!).
It is often said that a bonsai is the artist’s interpretation or impression of a tree. While some bonsai are replicas of full grown trees in their glory that have been rendered in miniature, there are also many that are made to look like an ancient tree that was kept small by nature and the elements. Those natural trees are the true inspiration behind the bonsai art, originally found in harsh mountainous environments. Trees that are naturally stunted in this way can be worth tens of thousands of dollars and are known as yamadori.
To me, some of the best bonsai are recreations of these unique trees found in nature and should be able to tell a story of how they ended up in such a form (rather than simply be bent into a S shape like so many mass-produced “bonsai” you might find at a box store). I like to look at these twisted form and imagine how they might have ended up that way. When designing my own bonsai, I try to continue this element of realism into the composition. Let’s look at a few trees and guess their stories.
Take this tree, for example. It is easy to imagine that while it was still young another tree fell onto it, knocking it to the ground but not killing it. As the tree recovered, it grew around the fallen trunk and branches and back up towards the sky, ending up with the twisted base and trunk that you see pictured. Eventually, the dead tree that caused all of this rotted away leaving its tale of woe in the victim’s twisted form. The tree also had to fight soil erosion that exposed the roots and threatened desiccation in the harsh environment.
In this next example, perhaps this tree was nearly blown over. But I think it is more likely that it was growing on the side of a cliff, clutching the rock face for its very life and the elements and gravity pulled down against the upward growth. A rock outcropping above could have forced the strong lean as it reached out for light. In my own backyard I have a similar tree growing beside a creek. Early spring storms flood the creek and erode the bank as the tree slowly falls over the side, held in place only by strong support roots on the other side.
This poor, tortured soul looks as if it hasn’t had a pleasant day in its life. Try as it may to thrive, harsh desert winds beat upon it, blowing sand stripped the bark, falling rocks crushed and deformed, and animals grazed on its branches. You can see where the main trunk snapped, leaving a side branch to take over as the new trunk line. Another branch was not so lucky and remains as a lifeless, bleached appendage. Yet through it all a vein of live growth persevered and managed to survive. Eventually, enough growth was able to make it above animal grazing level to thrive, a head of healthy green to contrast with the gaunt skeleton below. A constant reminder of all that was endured.
Even this strong grower was no stranger to the elements. Fate deposited multiple seeds near to each other that took root and the brothers fought each other for decades while harsh storms bent and snapped branches. Eventually, a gale broke the larger of the two nearly in half but it wasn’t enough to kill it. Weakened, it still continued to grow and struggle against the world.
When you look at bonsai trees, whether your own trees or someone else’s, what stories do they tell?
One topic that comes up frequently, particularly as winter approaches, is how to safely overwinter bonsai trees. There is no one answer but there are several important guidelines to keep in mind.
First is the hardiness of the tree. The hardiness zone refers to the annual extreme minimum temperature of a region. It is used as an indicator of what plants can survive winters in that region. For example, northeast Ohio is zone 6a and generally doesn’t exceed -10°F. It is important to remember that this is for a plant growing in the ground. A plant in a pot does not have any insulation for its deeper growing roots so a good rule of thumb is that you lose a zone when the plant is in a pot unless additional measures are taken. Therefore a plant that is hardy to zone 6 is really only hardy to zone 7 when it is in a pot and unprotected.
When we talk about winter protection for a plant there are really two things we’re looking at: temperature and wind damage.
For plants that are hardy beyond your zone, (for example a zone 3 plant living in zone 6) you likely will not need any temperature protection. Even in those cases, though, it is advisable to give some protection to the roots to ensure the best chance of survival. So how do you do that?
One method is to simply put the plant into the ground. Dig a hole and either remote the plant from the pot or put it into the hole pot and all (assuming your pot is capable of withstanding the cold temperature). Some bonsai practitioners will remove their tree from its ceramic pot and put it into a plastic pot for overwintering in the ground. Then, cover the rootball as you would when planting a tree in your yard. Be careful to not plant it lower in the ground than the current surface level of the tree to reduce the chance of water damage. For easier removal in the spring, some choose to backfill the hole with woodchips, mulch, or sand.
Another similar method is to place the plant on the ground and “heel-in” with mulch piled up to the level of the first branch. Again, sand or woodchips works here. Some people use straw or hay but there is a danger of weed seeds getting into the bonsai soil if you do that. Hay and straw can also be attractive to mice which can then chew on the roots or trunks and kill the tree.
Speaking of mice, it is generally advisable to wait until everything is well frozen before putting away your trees for the winter. Some people in the USA use Thanksgiving as the target weekend. Doing so increases the chance that vermin will have already located their winter quarters rather than making a home in your trees. To further decrease the odds of rodent damage you can also spread around some mouse bait (taking care that your dog doesn’t get into it if you have one!).
Some people choose to use a structure such as a greenhouse, shed or unheated garage. That can work but there is a danger of temperature fluctuations. Generally, you want to buffer the plant against rapid changes in temperature. If you get a warm winter day or a stretch of warmish days in the early spring you don’t want your trees to warm up too much as they could come out of dormancy, lose their ability to handle extreme cold, and then die when it cools back down. If you have no other option you may end up doing the “two-step” in the spring and taking your plants outside during the day and bringing them back inside every night.
Wintering inside a heated structure can be deadly for plants that require dormancy. If a plant needs dormancy and doesn’t get it then it will usually weaken and die within three years. So, bringing them into your house, a heated garage, or a warm greenhouse will usually kill it. This does not apply if it is a tropical plant (which doesn’t require dormancy and will die if it gets too cold) or if you’re merely applying minimal heat to keep the temperature consistently around freezing.
The other factor to consider is wind. This is usually the most dangerous aspect of a bonsai tree’s winter survival.
As wind moves across a plant it causes moisture in the plant to evaporate. This is the primary reason why deciduous trees lose their leaves in winter. However, there can also be moisture loss through the bark and buds. Even trees with thick, waxy leaves or needles (which are designed to minimize moisture loss) will often benefit from wind protection.
As we noted earlier, trees growing in the ground year round have roots below the frost level in the soil so never freeze. If the tree loses moisture, the unfrozen roots are able to replace it. Bonsai trees, even if put into a hole in the ground, are not below the frost level so once the soil freezes the roots are not able to replace the lost moisture so the tree can desiccate and die.
There are many ways of offering wind protection. Most people place their trees up against a building. This is often on the north side of the building to lessen the chance of the sun warming the plant too much in the winter or early spring even though many prevalent winds come from the north. Keeping in mind that you need to balance temperature protection with wind protection it is often advisable to supplement being up against the building with leaning or erecting a cold-frame (clear plastic or glass), snow fence, or some other structure to further block or slow the wind.
Wind protection is one of the reasons people often want to use an unheated garage or shed but we already discussed those dangers. Underground structures, such as root cellars, can lessen the chance of temperature swings. However, if using such a structure be advised that evergreens continue to photosynthesize in the winter so will not do best in a completely dark location.
While temperature and wind are the two greatest dangers their are other things to keep in mind when overwintering bonsai trees. Take care to ensure they don’t dry out (you might need to water them on warm days). Beware of varmint damage from mice, voles, rabbits, and deer. If stored in a location with little air movement then mold could be an issue. You also need to keep in mind your particular microclimate as influenced by factors particular to your yard such as buildings, landscaping, etc.
While winter can be a dangerous time for bonsai trees, with a little preparation there is a good chance your trees will be fine!
At this year’s bonsai show the Cleveland Bonsai Club is going to have a table dedicated to pre-bonsai to show the various stages of bonsai creation. So what is pre-bonsai?
In its simplest form, bonsai translates to “planted in a tray” but you wouldn’t call an herb garden in a shallow pot a bonsai! A good working definition comes from Stephen Orr in The New York Times, “the term should be reserved for plants that are grown in shallow containers following the precise tenets of bonsai pruning and training, resulting in an artful miniature replica of a full-grown tree in nature.”
Of course, bonsai don’t just spring up as mature, dwarfed trees. It can take months, years, or even decades for a tree to reach the stage of refinement where it can truly be considered a bonsai.
There are basically three ways of reaching the final bonsai stage. The first is to grow a bonsai from a seed, cutting, or other propagation method. This is the slowest method and can take many decades to have a tree that resembles and ancient, wild tree. The second method is to collect a tree from the wild that already demonstrates many of the characteristics of a finished bonsai. Such trees may have been dwarfed by harsh climates, poor soil, or physical damage. Even these trees can often require many years to reach the refinement stage.
The most common method is to take a tree that has been growing in the landscape or nursery and cut it down into a smaller tree before beginning to refine the design. Some bonsai artists shop at the same garden centers as homeowners looking for bonsai candidates. Others shop at nurseries that specialize in producing plants intended to become a bonsai.
I’ve mentioned “refinement” several times, so what does that mean? It is extremely rare that even a “wild” bonsai (known as yamadori) are ready to be dug up and put into a bonsai pot as is. Most of them require additional work to shape into their final form, which is done by selective pruning and/or bending branches using wire. As they grow and make the transition into a final bonsai form they are referred to as being “in training” or in the “pre-bonsai” stage.
After months, years, or decades the tree will finally begin to resemble the final form the bonsai artist envisions. The tree trunk will have a decent thickness and has taken on an aged appearance. Strong branches will divide into secondary and tertiary branches. At this point the tree is ready for the design to be refined. Think of it as the finishing touches. Roots, trunk, branches and foliage are all the way the artist has envisioned and the tree is in a bonsai pot, tray, or other planting.
While a bonsai tree is never done growing, and thus never truly “finished,” it is only at this end stage that it can truly be referred to as a bonsai tree.
A few of the author’s pre-bonsai trees are shown here.
The Cleveland Bonsai Club is hosting our annual show the weekend of Saturday, September 29th and Sunday, September 30th at Rockefeller Park & Greenhouse.
Come and see more than 50 trees and learn about the art of bonsai! Trees will be on display at all stages of development. Vendors will have trees, pots, and other supplies for sale.
Demonstrations daily! Learn how these trees are selected, potted, wired, trimmed, and cared for from our club masters.
While you’re here, visit the beautiful greenhouses and gardens of Rockefeller Greenhouse.
The show is free and open to the public, though donations are accepted. Free parking!