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"And the LORD God made ... trees that were pleasing to the eye ..." Gen. 2:9, New International Version.

"Bonsai isn't just something I do; it's part of what I am." Remark to my wife and daughter.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Mr. Toad Comes to the Show

     Fort Wayne, Indiana, has sister-city arrangements with several cities in other countries, including Takaoka, Japan. The annual Cherry Blossom Festival is one element in Fort Wayne's ongoing efforts to acquaint its people with things Japanese. And the Fort Wayne Bonsai Club has a presence at the Festival each year, displaying trees, selling bonsai-related items, and answering questions about the art of bonsai.

This year an unexpected visitor came close to stealing the show at our display. Early in the afternoon a girl of maybe six peered into the depths of Ed Hake's Japanese maple forest, turned to an adult with her and asked, "Is that toad real?"

Unbeknownst to Ed, a live toad had found its way into the middle of his forest planting. It backed about two-thirds of its body under the moss cover and then settled down, presumably to wait in ambush for passing juicy bugs.

Sitting motionless in Ed Hake's maple forest.
A number of people peered in to see the amphibian, then went away and returned with friends to have them see it too. No one disturbed it. It continued to wait there quietly, the unplanned show-crasher.

Ed took it home, in the forest, at the end of the day - his home likely being where the toad had found its way in among the maples in the first place.

:-)  :-)  :-)

Monday, March 26, 2018

Winter to Spring and Back in 24 Hours ...

     ... over, and over, and over again. So it has been for much of the last several weeks. Days with highs above freezing followed by nights with lows below freezing, one after another, are almost starting to feel like "the new normal!"

This weather pattern has been playing merry hob with my temperate-zone trees' spring responses. My American larch is typical, I think: Normally, from first green to full bud burst takes about a week, in my observation. But the first green - bud break - appeared several weeks ago, and as yet none of the buds have opened enough for individual needles to be distinguishable! I can't help but be concerned that this abnormally extended pattern of freeze-and-thaw will do some injury to new and still-tender foliage.

In an effort to buffer conditions for my cold-hardy trees, I decided to put up a small inexpensive greenhouse to hold them until temperatures are no longer doing their winter-to-spring-to-winter dance. My wife came across this product on-line; it measures 7 feet by 10 feet (a shade over 2 meters by an even smaller shade over 3), assembles in a couple of hours, and costs less than $80 US. I plan to keep it to use in future years as a temporary spring shelter for newly-repotted trees. 

Temporary plastic greenhouse to moderate temperatures for temperate-zone trees.
We recently moved, and our new location is windier than I expected. The tie-down equipment that came with this greenhouse is as inexpensive as the rest of it - OK, it's cheap. And a little story Ryan Neil told in a Mirai Live stream some weeks ago wouldn't leave my mind.

Every spring, Ryan and Masahiko Kimura's other apprentices would put up a temporary greenhouse on the premises. Part of the process was to tie it down with lots of heavy ropes. The first time Ryan Neil was involved in wrestling with the ropes, he turned to another apprentice after a while and asked, "Why are we doing this?" The answer went something like this:

"Well, ten years ago, this greenhouse took off. It was a windy day, and the whole thing lifted off the ground, sailed the length of Kimura's property - high enough to miss the bonsai there - and took out that second-story window on the far side of the street." (End of questions.)

Rather than provide a mini-sequel to Ryan Neil's story, I decided to add my own tie-downs to what came with my little greenhouse. My anchors are dog-tethering stakes - the kind with a business end like a spiral auger - and I used 3/16" nylon twine (almost 6 mm). My measures seem to be adequate: the wind picked up this afternoon while I was moving the trees into the interior, and while the plastic cover flexed and snapped and the tubular frame flexed slightly, everything stayed in place.

A closer view of the tie-downs. I decided on the Lilliputian approach: more thin ties instead of fewer thick ones.
(Think of Lemuel Gulliver immobilized on the beach by dozens of thread-fine ropes.)
The greenhouse is unheated. The trees' containers are resting on a single layer of landscape fabric on top of the soil, so get a bit of heat seeping up from the earth. The greenhouse itself will block the wind, and will reduce heat loss at nite by a few degrees, I expect. I put a min-max thermometer inside so I can monitor the temperatures.

Here are the trees inside, ready for the door to be rolled down and zipped shut for the nite.

The greenhouse holds all my hardy trees, with the exception of my largest, a Thuja occidentalis, a.k.a. American arborvita.
It's as cold-hardy as a musk ox, tho, so I could safely leave it outside on the sheltered side of the greenhouse.
:-)  :-)  :-)

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Six-Year Bonsai-from-Seed Competition

     A friend of mine once remarked that for some people bonsai is a pastime, while for others it is a passion. If a six-year bonsai contest won't show who's passionate about the art of bonsai, I don't know what will! That's what the Bonsai Nut forum recently launched: a competition to see who can grow the most bonsai-worthy Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii) from seed over six full growing seasons.

The contest started January 1st, 2018. Contestants could acquire seeds and get their supplies ready before that date, but nothing more. The contest will close at 11:59 PM on December 31st, 2023.

I find pines a bit fascinating, maybe because I rarely saw them while growing up in Ecuador. So I decided to jump in. I had received some JBP seeds (along with some Japanese maple and trident maple seeds) several years ago as a freebie for ordering a certain minimum amount at one time from Dallas Bonsai, and still had them.
The packet of Japanese black pine seeds, 'Sanshu' variety, imported from Japan. 
There were 30 seeds in the packet. After 24 hours soaking in (initially) warm water, all but one had sunk to the bottom of the cut-down styrofoam cup.
JBP seeds starting to soak.
After they finished soaking, I spread them between two sections of paper towel and wrapped damp sphagnum around paper towel and seeds. Everything went into a polyethylene bag, which was labeled and placed in the refrigerator. My wife and daughter were told they were there, to make sure the bundle wasn't mistaken for sauerkraut gone bad or something equally repulsive to their sensitivities, and discarded! 
The "remove" date was also noted on Google Calendar.
Three days ago, after 60 days of cold stratification, I took the seeds out and planted them. I decided to use peat pellets, the ones that expand into fat little barrel shapes when wetted. One seed went into each expanded pellet.
30 seeds, ready for planting. I don't know if the blue-green spot on one seed
on the left is mold on the seed itself, or something that was in the sphagnum.
Planted and ready. The "envelopes" around the peat pellets are biodegradable. 
Humidity covers in place. These "micro-greenhouses" will be easy to move whenever necessary.

It remains to be seen how many of the seeds are viable; they sat on the shelf for at least three years before being planted, maybe longer. But I've never heard that the seeds of any pine have short viability periods, so I think I have reason to be hopeful.

And speaking of hopeful: after entering the contest, I told my wife, "Now I have to live to at least 71 years old, in order to win this contest!"

If you would like to check out the Bonsai Nut forum, follow this link.

:-)  :-)  :-)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

"What's so special about akadama, anyway?"

     If you're like me, you've wondered that more than once. Articles in bonsai magazines, professionals giving talks, bonsai blogs and websites, all urge us to use akadama in our potting mixes. And testimonials back up the claim that our trees’ root systems will thank us if we do. But akadama is expensive (partly because outside of Japan it must be imported.) Is it worth the cost?

"Double Red Line," one brand of akadama.
There are others available as well.
I had the chance to find out just what it is that makes akadama different, and so good for plant roots, in a recent live-stream broadcast from Bonsai Mirai.  In a word, it’s the structure.

Akadamatsuchi, in Japanese, means “red ball earth.” Akadama, the soil-mix component, is a clay product, dried but not fired. (Despite what a label sometimes says.) Like all unfired clays, it has a good cation exchange capacity, or CEC. For any unfamiliar with the term, the essential thing to remember about CEC is that the higher a substance’s CEC, the more nutrients, in usable form, it can hold on its surface where plant roots can get at them.

But there’s more to akadama than that. Almost all clays, the world over, are composed of microscopic plates. The structure is not very flexible, and when particles swell and shrink due to wetting and drying, they tend to fracture along the plate boundaries. This results in a greater and greater number of smaller and smaller particles in a given volume, and that means an exponential increase in total surface area within that volume of clay. More surface area means more water is held. But because of the plate structure of most clays, the total air space within that volume does not increase along with the water retention. The result: soggy soil.

Mining akadama in Japan.
Akadama is mined in one small area on Honshu, the Japanese main island. There, a particular combination of soil minerals and heat from subsurface volcanic activity come together to produce a clay with a structure based on tiny tubes rather than tiny plates.

To borrow Ryan Neil’s imagery: imagine a game of pick-up-sticks, where every stick is a narrow tube. Toss the tubes and they come down in a disorganized pile, with individual tubes running every which way. Now pick up your pile of randomly-oriented tubes and squeeze out the spaces between the outer walls of the tubes. What you end up with looks like an (oversized) akadama particle.

The tiny tubes – tubules – are still large enough for the smallest root hairs to grow into their water-vapor-rich and nutrient-rich interiors. Once a root hair does that, it keeps growing until it fractures the tube from the inside, and fractures the particle. The two smaller particles created by the fracture each have their own tubule systems, and new root hairs emerging from the sides of the original root hair (now becoming a rootlet) grow into them. They grow thru them, grow large enough to fracture them, and their side-emerging root hairs start to colonize the new, smaller particles that result – and the process goes on and on. Air spaces are getting smaller at the same time, but the root hairs being produced in growing abundance are still small enough to make use of them.

The result of all this is a compact mass of densely-branched, thriving roots – just what is needed for healthy, vigorous bonsai!

Not all the akadama on the market is of the same quality. Given what akadama costs in many places, it’s a good idea to check the quality of a batch before you buy. Ryan Neil’s suggestion: look at how much dust is in the bottom of the bag. If there’s very little dust, it’s good akadama. If there’s a lot of dust – move on.

And not every plant species thrives in akadama. Common juniper, Juniperus communis, grows thruout the northern hemisphere’s temperate and cold zones, and can make a very good bonsai (especially if obtained as yamadori.) But it should never be potted in akadama: for reasons no one yet knows, akadama is the kiss of death to common juniper.

Sooner or later, the supply of akadama is likely to be exhausted, and it costs more than many hobbyists care to pay anyway. What can be used as a substitute? Diatomaceous earth (horticultural grade) has a CEC almost as high as that of akadama, and a somewhat similar tube-based structure. Ryan Neil is experimenting with it in his potting mixes, and others are as well. I’m looking for sources willing to sell it in small quantities. (No success so far.)

Is Japanese akadama unique on the planet? Not quite, it turns out. Ryan Neil told a little story: He sent a bag of akadama to a soil scientist at a California university, asking for a full analysis. After running all his tests, the scientist told Ryan that there is one other place on earth (just one) where the mix of minerals and the level of volcanic heat are such as to produce an identical clay: Mt. Hood, Oregon. A local bonsai practitioner then went up to Mt. Hood, dug out some local clay, and sent it to the same scientist for analysis. The result: there was no difference between that clay and Japanese akadama, none.

Hoodah thunkitt? 

(You can watch the Bonsai Mirai stream “Soils” for yourself, free, at this link. Ryan covers more than just akadama.)

:-)  :-)  :-)