Wednesday, 15 June 2011

To Sphagnum or not to Sphagnum?

That is a rhetorical question, for in no way do I wish to emulate the Bard. (Well, only a little :o)

Nor do I wish to make this a 'how-to' post.  That was never the purpose of this blog.  Loads of other sites on the interwebs for that, some with people advocating their way or no way.  And they probably do it with a lot more brio and conviction than I ever will. 

Once in a while, though, I will answer a question or tell you what we do and why.  What you do with that information is all up to you.

This one is a result of a remark a friend made, when TOH said we top-dress our newly re-potted trees with chopped sphagnum moss.  This protects the top layer from drying out, since this is the layer where the feeding roots tend to be most active.  The contention is that, this would encourage the roots to grow into the sphagnum (i.e. up towards the surface) rather than down into the soil (i.e. towards the bottom of the pot). 

The only time we've ever had the experience of roots growing towards the top of the soil is when we used to lay down the large cakes of rapeseed fertiliser.   This acted like some sort of root magnet but we have long since gone for other forms of fertiliser, since the decomposing rapeseed cakes are a blackbird magnet as well as a root magnet.  The blackbirds used to chuck the rapeseed cakes off the bonsai and go for the grubs that would inevitably come with the decomposition factor.

So, going back to the chopped sphagnum layer.  What we do is blitz the stuff in a food processor, so that it comes out in relatively fine flakes.  We first started out by grating it over a fine-meshed metal sieve, but ditched that for a more high-tech method.  'Cos I'm all about the user friendliness, y'know... :D

A thick-ish layer (about 5 - 8 mm) of this finely-chopped sphagnum is laid over our top dressing of fine Akadama, then tamped down and misted well so that the whole lot doesn't go flying off at the initial watering.  The newly re-potted bonsai is then given a VERY thorough drenching, then left alone until the layer of sphagnum starts to show signs of drying out.  Then it gets drenched again, then only re-watered until the sphagnum does its show-and-tell thing again.  And so on ad infinitum for the rest of the life of the bonsai (or until real live moss starts growing over the existing sphagnum layer).  Which is basically the same way we water every potted (or not) thing in the garden - accent plants, kusamono, et al.

To illustrate the sphagnum business, this is a 7-lobed Japanese maple (previously featured in this post) that was re-potted at the tail end of this Winter.  The top dressing of sphagnum moss is lighter in colour before watering, thus making it easy to identify which trees are in need of a drink:

And after watering (check out the water mark on the bark of the tree), it goes a darker colour (and so does the Akadama; click to enlarge the photo).  The moss also clumps together when it's wet:

Before watering, the top layer of akadama just beneath the sphagnum is only very slightly damp while the lower layers of soil deep beneath will still retain more moisture; hence the feeding roots will naturally find their way towards this source of water.  Another person I know used to call this 'making the roots work'.

The sphagnum moss layer prevents erosion of the top soil layer, particularly for people like me who use a watering hose.  Here is where we haven't bothered to replenish the sphagnum dressing on this exposed-root Trident Maple, which of course is not the most energised of bunnies at the moment:

I suppose, if I were less careful with the watering and kept the soil evenly damp all the time, the roots of our bonsai would probably work their way to the top layer of sphagnum moss.  I would probably also have lost lots of trees by now.  Still, we have been using this top-dressing method for the past 10 years at least, so there must be some merit to our madness.

Some people say the moss should be taken off after a time - I've never bothered as the birds tend to do that for me, either through boredom, foraging, nest-building or just the desire to cheese me off.  If anything, we wind up having to renew the moss layer after a few months as it gets eroded by watering and bird activity.  And it is fairly easy to tell if moss has started growing due to over-watering; it has this sort of manky look to it, plus the surface would always be wet to the touch anyway.

A word about the sphagnum-blitzing business, though: it really does tend to get blown away by the slightest breeze once it's finely chopped.  And watering - either with a hose or by dunking - is another quick way to lose the lot when it's freshly laid.  Hence our utter reliance on a good nozzle that has a 'mist' feature.  Never say you haven't been warned...

BTW, did anyone notice the gratuitous pun embedded discreetly up there?  Energised?  Bunnies? Yes? Yes?

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Now WTF was that about?

Well Blogger, you've locked me out of here for over a month, but I'm too relieved to be back in - and too knackered from the almost continual frustration - to even get worked up about it.

'Cos I has pics! And had nowhere to post them while Blogger was doing its nut. Other than Twitpic, that is.

So there.  Don't blame me for the hiatus this time.  Wasn't my idea, folks.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

A Smattering of Accents

These past couple of weeks have been so hot - and so dry - that I positively welcomed last night's deluge.  And since today isn't really that much cooler, I look back with a bit of nostalgia to the days when it actually was too damn cold... yep, there's no pleasing some people :D

Despite the uncommonly hard winter we had - which BTW makes 2 years in a row - everything in the garden came out in a rush last spring.  Or at least, everything that was going to come out, came out early.  Anything else that didn't, was not going to cooperate for the rest of its natural life. 

Among the precocious performers this year were a magenta-coloured Hepatica (seriously, magenta), Lily of the Valley that flowered weeks earlier than they should have, a Trident Maple that sulked after the hard winter of 2009 but didn't get any winter protection last year either, and a lot of Accent Plants that we didn't think would survive wearing a foot of snow on their heads for nearly 3 weeks. And the reality is that getting the garden geared up to face a similar hard winter will mean several weeks' worth of prep work.  Actually we have lost more trees from drying out while we were on holiday in the summer than we have from a hard winter.  And we have lost more bonsai pots to cats and birds going on the rampage rather than the ravages of the cold.  In point of fact, our broken Bonsai & Accent Pot score for this year is Birds = 5, Frost = 0.

So here was one of our earliest flowering Accents this Spring - a blue Soldanella (possibly carpatica) from Poland which we have had since 2007.

This one self-seeds relatively well and we have also broken up the parent plant several times over.  Being an Alpine, it may not be the easiest thing to keep alive in the wet winters of the UK.  This guy has been in the same (Japanese) pot since 2008 and is planted in neat Akadama.  It's probably also due a re-pot sometime, but at the moment it's still taking in water quite easily.  It lives on the shelving right by an exterior wall, and this is all the winter protection it has ever had.  I still check the Accent Plants almost every day in the Winter, but watering is done only when absolutely needful.

This second one started out as a planting of yellow Iris - possibly reticulata - in a 'dragon's egg' pot that Walsall used to make a long, long time ago.  (David Jones has since stopped making them and we only have three.)  I created the planting about 3 years ago and whatever was the companion plant to the Irises has since died; the Irises themselves have done absolutely bugger all, but 2 years ago, this Epimedium self-seeded itself into the mix.  This is the first year it has flowered.  The first picture shows the flower spike just coming out in February:

And these are the fully open Epimedium flower spikes, with the Iris leaves untidily lying around after having done bugger-all again this year.  The Accent Plant in the background is a clump of Hakonechloa, also in a Walsall pot.

And I leave you with this image of the earliest Accent to flower this year - something like late January; a Buttercup with a posh name: Ranunculus ficaria 'Coppernub' in a teacup-style pot by Brian Albright.

We have had this guy for a while now, you can see what it looked like in the Spring of 2009 in this post

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Meon Springs - an Alternative to a Royal Wedding

Not being wedding-y type people (although we do wish well to every couple that ties the knot) and certainly not street party-type people either, TOH and I decided to spend the day fishing at Meon Springs in Hampshire.  Well, one half of this couple went fishing, and the other half chilled out with unlimited mugs of coffee and a laptop.  Up to you to decide which one was which :o)

But...I took pics!  Oh yes, 'cos it's really lovely country over there.  Meon Springs is within the South Downs National Park and is adjacent to a working dairy farm.  Unfortunately I didn't manage to get up close and personal with the cows, but as them heifers have two very big, very butch boyfriends, maybe it's just as well. 

Here's one of the vistas from one of the hills, as you drive up to the fishery:

And views of the fishing lakes as the afternoon draws to a close:

Imagine having something that looks like this tree but in a nice 12-inch landscape pot (with possibly a bit of depth in it for the roots, as I think this is an Oak):

And my personal favourite, with just the lone angler at the end of the day (double-click on the photo to enlarge):

A big Thank You goes out to manager Keith for treating us like royalty (or was I just a royal pain in the A?).  Even if you don't know one end of a rod from another, the whole area is really rather pretty and I would still encourage you to discover the villages of the Meon Valley in Hampshire.

Oh, and TOH bagged a couple of four-pounders.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Then and Now: Larches on a Slab

There is a plus side to blogging, I suppose.  While blathering nonsense to the ether, I've also wound up with an inadvertent photographic history of the development of some of our trees.  Take this European Larch group, for instance.  TOH created this planting using a bit of fake slate.

This was part of a blog post which dates back to the summer of 2009.  Almost two years later and - wonder of wonders - the roots have stabilised enough that moss has started to grow of its own accord on the surface of the planting. 

Which now looks like this:

The slab is faux slate, so actually not all that heavy (not that anyone is carrying this thing around).  The soil mixture is akadama, some organics (peat substitute of some description) and Keto to bind it all together.  The planting was top-dressed with some chopped sphagnum moss, but the birds made away with all of that almost immediately, and we gave up fighting a losing battle after a couple of seasons.  The Larches were some not-very-expensive saplings bought from one of the Bonsai nurserymen at a show, and TOH keeps threatening to add a few younger, thinner ones to get a bit of difference in trunk size (the close similarity of the trunk diameters make the planting look boring and a bit contrived, IMO).  I suppose it will happen one day, when we find the right size saplings. 

The curious thing about the whole thing is that the group is just sat on top of the slab.  There are no drainage or wiring holes.  Initially, wire was wrapped around the whole lot to keep the planting from falling apart.  Years later and the roots have knitted themselves together, moss has grown naturally and the birds have (fingers and toes crossed) ignored all that freebie nesting material.  Or they have decided that our nicer-looking, more mature trees are better objects for vandalism.  And gravity just keeps the whole planting sat on top of the slab.  Double-click on the photo to enlarge, you will notice the Larch roots sticking out of the bottom edge of the planting, just under the moss.  OK, so some of it is dead Larch needles (so what if I didn't tart up before taking the photo; bite me), but most of it is roots that have given up any attempts of encroachment.

Had we been a bit more anal about clearing out the dead needles, I suppose we would have more moss growing in the centre of the group.  As it is, I'm quite happy to see that what moss we have is thriving without any assistance on our part.  I will occasionally pull out the odd weed, but that is only when my conscience actually wakes up and takes notice of the world around me.

And one can only hope a big, fat pigeon doesn't decide to land on one edge of the slab.  Otherwise, boy will it be in for a suprise :D

The first photograph is courtesy of our friend Stef in the Netherlands, to whom BTW I still owe an e-mail along with a few hundred other folks.  Join the queue, Stef...

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Red Japanese Maple - in flower, no less

Last week ended with a Spring re-potting and pruning session with Teacher-san.  Almost a whole day gratifyingly consecrated to the trees - not just those that needed root and branch work but also those that just needed their top dressing refreshed; plus some weeding, clearing out dead branches, checking benches for pests, etc.  Everything in a pot got looked at, Accent Plants as well as this ornamental red Maple in a very large patio pot.

Although this would be considered a patio plant rather than a 'true' bonsai (unless you are one of those nitpicking purists so PLEASE let's not argue semantics here, OK?), the lessons learned are what are of interest.  'Nuff said.

This is the first year where this Maple has produced so much flower - you'll notice the little dangly things running all the way along the branches, right up to the very edge of the extending shoots.  Teacher-san took one look and said, 'pot-bound.'  Apparently when there is that much flower, particularly when it goes up to the leader shoots, then that's a sure sign that the old root pruners need to come out.

Sure does look pretty, though - a bit like an ersatz Christmas tree.  And when you think all that flowering effort is all about reproducing... oh yes, an oversexed red Maple.  Oh my, oh my , oh my.

Swiftly leaving that topic... in the background, visible through the Maple leaves, are rows of Accent Plants on shelving propped against a wall.  Although this gives them some protection during the Winter, the last couple of years have been pretty hard and we have lost a couple of the more fragile plants.  Even among the plants we keep in the cold greenhouse, we've lost some Shohin bonsai and Accent Plants.  This coming on after a holiday taken during a very hot May in 2010, where a lot of the smaller trees had dried out.  Lesson learned: when you have someone come to water your trees, make sure they REALLY REALLY understand what it is to water bonsai properly.  *sniff, sniff*

The Return of the Prodigal Blogger

Uh, that would be sort of me, I guess.  But more disappearing than prodigal, really.

So yes - another hiatus come and gone.  My excuse is that I was busy learning a trade.  Seriously. 

But, in the background, I took loads of pics - stuff done over the summer last year, a visit to a Yamadori collector's place in the Alps, a couple of shows... the trouble will be remembering what I did so long ago, and finding the photos in my archives.  Especially as I have officially defected from the Sony Ericsson camp and am now iPhoning my way around the planet.  Sort of.  Am I happy with the change?  Sort of.  I could wish for better Alarm Clock apps (being one of those people who want to be able to set a snooze for 04 mins & 26 secs for example. Don't ask me why I want that level of exactitude - I just do).  And I am still on the hunt for a good app that will let me download my Lotus Notes diary onto my phone.  I did get me a business card making app that I plan to play with sometime soon (which means less time spent on blogging, but that's the way it goes).

So, going back to the issue of prodigality.  Lots and lots of pics.  Would that equate to lots and lots of posts?  Guess I'll have to make lots and lots of time...