Sunday, 18 April 2010

Small Bonsai, Small Work?

TOH and I were recently talking about the amount of maintenance needed for shohin and mame bonsai, and this particular case came to mind as being a good illustration. 

This is one of our shohin Cotoneasters that has quite a history.  It started its bonsai life as a cutting, given to us by a former club member around 1998.  TOH put it into a shallow training pot in akadama and then... bear in mind that we were just starting to seriously learn about growing trees in pots back then.... horror.  The roots had somehow rotted out and the whole thing fell out of its pot, practically rootless.  Emergency situation: TOH wrapped up the whole thing - plant, pot and soil - in a clear plastic bag, stuck it in the greenhouse and left it there to recover.  It was a much smaller plant then, the trunk measuring about 3 - 4 inches in length (8 - 10 cm) and already trained as a semi-cascade but sort of in a straight line rather than with the downward arc that you'll see in these photos.

Evidently the plant recovered, our watering skills improved and the Cotoneaster has even been deemed worthy of living in this Japanese pot with a vaguely celadon-ish colour and a lovely crackle glaze.  This is one of the earliest trees I practised my wiring on, which is how the downward trunk arc was induced.

But this is one bonsai that still needs a skillful hand with the watering as it is prone to the annoying condition that I call frickenmossalloverthefrickentrunkandbranches-itis.  And it is a right bugger to de-moss the trunk, believe you me. And conversely, it can be easy to underwater this one as well, given the shape of its pot. 

For some reason or other we've not really paid a lot of attention to this guy's pruning recently.  He's not gone out on show for about 2 years now, so I'd say the last time he was re-potted was at least either 3 or 4 years ago.  Water still drains freely so he'll just have to let us know sooner or later if his roots are in need of a soil and refresh jobbie.

So anyway, here is said shohin before its first spring clean, note the moss growing on the trunk and rear branches.  I think we also missed summer and autumn pruning last year, which is why the branches are rather overlong.  The one good thing is the pot is a doddle to spruce up.

These photos were taken about 3 weeks ago; the new leaves had only just started showing themselves so I'd not pruned as heavily as I would've liked, erring on the side of caution.  I did thin out quite a few branches and had shortened the rear considerably.  The moss was removed with a dry single-tuft toothbrush, which I get from a periodontist (and is also available online).  Here we are about three-quarters through the moss-removal + pruning process, the birds-eye view giving a better look at the branch structure:

We are still going to have to work on improving branch lines and acquiring tertiary branch structure. Hopefully the long branches can be shortened even further by this autumn.  And I will have to get rid of the old leaves at some point.  I'll either be lazy and wait for them to fall off, or I give it a couple of days and see if I'm feeling industrious.  Hmmm....

Now I may have implied that this shohin is larger than when it came to us, and indeed today it stands about 6 in / 15 cm high from the feet of the pot.  But getting a toothbrush, much less a finger between branches is still not a job for the fainthearted, as sometimes the gap between branches is practically millimetric.  And it requires a relatively steady, un-rushed hand to remove the moss without damaging any new shoots.  No shoot casualties when this was done, I'm happy to report. 

So despite being a small-ish shohin, the little bugger still took over an hour to prune and clean up:

Again with the ubiquitous moss thimble accent plant to give an idea of scale.  The sticky-out branch on the upper left will go once I'm sure there are more shoots that have backbudded behind it.  I tend to leave a minimum of 3 shoots (not leaves) when doing spring pruning.

At some of the shows in the past, people have judged this tree in the mame category, but really TOH and I think of it as a shohin.  I suppose it is smaller than a lot of the shohin that go on display, but it is still way larger than the stuff we grow and consider as mame in our heads.  (Please let's not get into the sizing debate here since that is just an old, boring story as far as I'm concerned.)

Because the point I'm trying to get across is that, for all that they are small trees, shohin and mame do require a lot of attention to detail.  The upside of their small size is that they are easier to lift, carry and display.  They take up less room in the garden.  On the other hand, they are a bugger to transport over long distances unless you are kitted out properly.  Losing (or having to retouch) your top-dressing can be a nightmare.  Cleaning limescale off the smaller pots is not a fun job, particularly when you have a lot of them to display.  Then there is the daily maintenance - keeping them alive and watered properly throughout the year does require a keen eye.  Over the 10 years or so that we've been growing shohin and mame, we've developed a rhythm and a system that seem to have worked for our lifestyle and growing environment but that has also meant a lot of trial and error.  Possibly more of the latter. 

Our bonsai are checked twice a day in the summer; on really hot days I will arrange to work from home so I can water thrice in a day if necessary.  Most of them are in pure akadama, except for some of the fusspots that like a bit of organic matter thrown in - big trees or small.  The shohin, mame and thimble pots are placed in the shadier parts of the garden or greenhouse but on the other hand, I don't run out there to check on them specifically during the day.  The day job has to come first, unfortunately.

TOH started growing tiny trees after seeing one of Gill Taylor-Duxbury's displays in the late Nineties, and took it on sort of as a challenge rather than as a desire for respite from bigger bonsai.  I sort of picked it up by default.  But if ease of life is the primary moving factor, I'm not convinced that specialising in very small trees is the way to go.  My choice would be the medium-sized trees as the simpler compromise.

So. Fast forward to yesterday.  After a bit of warm weather, this is what the cotoneaster looks like after another clean-up.  It's still hanging on to a lot of last year's old leaves, but it really is too much of a pain to remove them all as there isn't a lot of space between branches to get cutters in there.

Now I don't hold any of our trees up as shining examples of bonsai perfection. As a matter of fact I showed these Cotoneaster photos to TOH, whose first words then were, 'Still got to work on that branch structure, but we'll get there....'

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