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Trees Lost - Lessons Learned

I’ve heard variations of a statement used by bonsai masters a few times. It is that "you’re not a true bonsai buff until you have lost a treasured tree". Well, if that was the sole criteria, I should be approaching master status! Although it must be said that, with more than a thousand trees somewhere between seedling and "finished" bonsai, it’s not really surprising that, occasionally, I lose one or two.

I’m ashamed to say that tragic losses in the past included Yamadori specimens. When this happens, after all of the effort of securing permission, digging, and protecting from the elements, there is mounting apprehension as Spring heralds no signs of new growth. Ultimately there is the knowledge that you have killed a tree that was succeeding in its struggle to survive in nature. This really is inexcusable and my haste to lift a promising tree is now tempered. I have developed a deeper respect for living works of art and I now understand, more fully, the cautious approach advocated by the more knowledgeable.

Spending a year or two, preparing to remove the tree, is a small price to pay if its chances of survival are enhanced. Gaining the knowledge of how to care for a recently collected specimen is also essential, if you are to avoid the pitfalls. This should include regular misting, great caution with watering, secure tying into the training pot, protection from wind rock, some shade and for best results a plunge bed with a heated cable to encourage rapid rooting.

After growing a larch from seed, planting it out for several years to thicken up and then lifting, styling and refining it, you would think that I would have been beyond the basic mistake stage. I have wracked my brain for a reason, but all I can recall is that I boxed it up shortly before moving house. I used a large, plastic, fishmonger’s container that had very large drainage holes all along the sides. I placed mesh over them to retain the soil. I must have thought that ample side drainage would be adequate - it was for the first two seasons. By then I had forgotten the lack of base drainage. The tree continued to prosper through one of the worst droughts in years. Then came major styling and two years of refinements.

We had a wet winter but I wasn’t unduly worried as my trees have survived worse. I planned the move to a specially bought large pot in the spring. Then the eagerly awaited buds failed to swell and potting was delayed. I couldn’t understand it, the tree had entered dormancy perfectly healthy. There was nothing obvious wrong. By late spring, the dead tree was reluctantly removed from its pot. I was horrified to see that all of the fibrous roots had turned to black slimy threads and dropped away at a touch. Root rot had claimed a victim. Checking for the reason, it was instantly obvious. The lack of drainage holes in the bottom of the large, flat base had allow a high water table to develop and the lower roots of the tree had been sitting in water. Deadly.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, an oak with 10” trunk girth, this time potted in a 5 gallon plastic barrel was coming along slowly. I had drilled lots of small drainage holes in the base of the container but had stupidly placed it onto a flat path. The holes became blocked with fine soil and worm casts and the tree was now sitting in water. Without noticing the problem, I sold this specimen to my friend George. As he transported the tree home, the water leaked, drenching his car boot. From experience he knew that the only solution was an instant repot. It had lost almost all of its fine roots but he saved the tree. After a couple of months planted in coarse, well drained soil and his tender loving care, it started dramatically into luxuriant growth. He has now brought it back to health and, as you can see, it is showing great promise.

Other notable disasters have included: A beautiful (and expensive) Little Princess maple (Acer palmatum Mapi No Machahimie) bought with a disease(verticillium wilt) that was spotted too late. I’ve lost Laburnum and White Mulberry seedlings devoured by slugs so completely that only the roots remained and had pans of seedlings and cuttings demolished by sciarid fly (Fungus Gnat) larvae eating all of the roots.

A quick trawl through the experiences of friends shows that we can all be guilty, at times, of simple mistakes. Newcomers are often surprised that the vast majority of the trees that we grow for bonsai are hardy outdoor specimens. Few understand that indoor bonsai are that much more difficult to keep alive. Beginners often pamper their trees in the mistaken belief that they are not hardy.

James Dahl wrote to me via email "I lost almost my entire collection of 50 trees, when we were forced to move from a rental house before Christmas. I thought that my trees would be fine in the glassed-in porch...I was wrong! It got too hot on sunny days and too dry the rest of the time. I am lucky to have four trees that survived to this day, 10 years later. Since then, I have never brought one inside for more than an hour or two."

Some of the more disturbing losses are not even our own fault. One colleague lost all of his trees, planted out for thickening up in the ground, when a relative thoughtfully strimmed his "weed patch". Another suffered major damage to his collection when the next-door-neighbour employed cowboy tree-fellers to lop an overgrown specimen. They worked without any of the care and attention to detail, that those in this profession usually employ. Whole limbs were dropped onto his side of the garden where, nestled alongside the hedge, were trees in pots and many more planted in the ground. Only the fast action of the family saved a proportion of the potted specimens. The trees in the ground had to be left and suffered badly.

I hope that by relating these, many other disasters can be avoided. Of course I am likely to be guilty of "teaching my granny to suck eggs" but to those of you who are beyond the basic mistakes stage, I hope that this has provided you with at least a chuckle at my expense!

Photo’s, illustrations & text © Kevin Bailey  1999 - 2008

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All Text, Diagrams & Photographs © Kevin Bailey 1998 - 2008