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Incoming BYTES
contains highly variable subject matter including commentary on the mundane, the extraordinary and even controversial issues. At Incoming BYTES
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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bonsai: Specialized Techniques Creating Unique Trees

Special Techniques can produce Spectacular Bonsai   Photo www. coolgizmotoys.com

Here at Incoming Bytes we admire the durability and tenacity of trees. Do you?  Most gardening types do.   Trees thrive, existing against all odds  in difficult, brutal weather conditions.  Trauma to  natural trees is caused by forest fire, stripped bark, torn wood, loss of branches, --and in the extreme, crowns and trunks are easily snapped off. All trauma causes damage; nature does her best to repair it,  and therein lies the secret to creating special bonsai!

Callus growth: Nature's Repair
  Disease, insects,  and drought conditions over long periods can also cause major or partial die-back of normally healthy, large trees, leaving only a small part of the tree to survive. Have you ever seen very old trees with large portions of the trunk wood  exposed, weathered and dry without bark,  yet there is a  narrow strip of live, healthy bark remaining?

  On these trees, perhaps only a substantially-reduced section  of the crown --or   a single branch -- of necessity--may display live foliage.
 In   higher elevations,  trees subjected to extreme conditions barely survive year to year with extreme swings in temperature, ice and snow, blowing sand, disease, insects, little water,  and brutal, constant wind.  Trees grow  as they must to survive under such conditions, and are often stunted, distorted natural creations of great, but tragic beauty.
   The damaged or threatened tree in nature always compensates  by sealing damage quickly and allowing the equivalent portion of foliage to die back.   The  remaining section of live bark and trunk will then  be capable of providing adequate nourishment for the remaining foliage until the tree repairs itself with callus growth when possible.

   Venerable old bonsai  in highly valued collections often display these characteristics that have developed naturally or otherwise.  Such features  may be created by careful manipulation of  otherwise ordinary, normal trees.

 You can create this natural illusion with bonsai, -- using specialized techniques. For now, let us concentrate on  trees displaying  a simple strip of live bark and wood.  In the following photo, only a small portion of the tree trunk  seems to be  alive and growing.  Is it an illusion? Study it carefully.

Create Bonsai:  Old and New Spirits of the Forest Joined (c) 2012

In fact, the image is a 'tree in design'  or  'tree under construction'  using our  special technique of  joining old and new. Note the fascinating facial character on this silvered, weathered  piece of driftwood. Looks kind of old and grumpy, doesn't he?

Let's get artistic and duplicate that natural  process right here in your workshop or potting shed.
By the way, there's no hurry. It takes time. You can start developing a pseudo-trunk any time, even in mid-winter, and find a live tree later.  The project can actually be as fancy or as simple as the piece of wood you are fortunate enough to discover.

To create a bonsai with that image, you will first need :
  •  a suitable  piece of a natural  tree, which can be root wood, a branch, or  a silvered piece of driftwood 10" to 16" long. Your selected piece of wood will become the  pseudo-trunk of your new bonsai.   The size  you need depends  how  large or tall you wish your bonsai to be.  Old trees in nature usually have a noticeable, developed taper on their trunks, so your chosen piece of wood should be naturally tapered to a  larger buttress at the bottom.  Wood must be free of decay -and the more it looks like an old,  natural, but miniaturized 'tree trunk' the better.  Suitably placed "dead branches', splits or cracks are acceptable and can be a beautiful accent.
  •   A young,flexible, healthy living tree  of suitable height with very little taper and few branches --but a healthy root system. If it is bare-root nursery stock, prevent the the roots from drying  out by planting it in damp peat moss or other suitable medium temporarily.  Species can be almost any variety suitable for bonsai. Juniper is a bonsai favourite, as are many hardwoods such as Trident maple.
  • Ordinary tools:  you probably already have some if you are a do-it-yourself person:  A small saw, narrow chisel and hand wood carving tools will do. 
  •  Pencil or pointed  black marker
  • Environmentally-friendly wood preservative and paint brush
  •  Pliers and Tools suitable for pruning (secateurs,  hand clipper or bonsai tools)
  •  A suitably sized plastic training pot,  ie. 10" .
  •  peat-moss based, free-draining potting soil.
 Let's get at it!  Remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for this project, you are not only the creator but  the beholder!

 Take time to carefully study the piece of deadwood (driftwood, root wood, branch material) for the most attractive, natural  presentation of the material at hand.
Determine the 'bottom' of the new 'trunk' and mark it.
  The bottom of the pseudo trunk will sit neatly on the surface of the potting soil.  Carefully cut the bottom to the correct angle.   Be safe, use gloves, eye protection and caution when using tools.

Stand the trunk in the predetermined position and visualize where the 'top' of the trunk might terminate. The ultimate design  of the foliage of the live tree and the overall artistic  vision desired will determine where the 'top' of the deadwood will be.
Remove any excess wood or undesirable sections. Carve the top to the desired shape.
Tear the wood fiber back to simulate a broken, torn top if desired, using pliers.
 Smooth and wire-brush the remaining surface to the desired texture, keeping in mind the surface you are simulating is  a natural. aged tree trunk.
Treat the wood with environmentally tree-friendly wood preservative or lime sulphur and allow it to dry thoroughly. Pay special attention to the base and  surface that will  come into contact with the soil when  established in the pot. 

Decide the best visual route of attachment for the live tree to follow.  A sketch to visualize the finalized appearance of the tree could come in handy.

Mark and carve your chosen path for the  groove or "channel'  into the length of  the driftwood, ensuring the most natural routing, following the natural grain and twist of the dry wood. The depth of the channel should be approximately half of the diameter of the trunk of the new tree, and at depth, the groove should be marginally wider than at the surface. When prepared carefully the trunk should fit snugly into the channel.

Before you fit the tree into the carved channel, ensure the root of the live tree is  first adequately pruned with the main tap root removed, and remember to leave as many small feeder roots intact as possible. Keep the  roots moist at all times.

When the tree fits correctly,   score and remove a small strip of the live bark from the new tree  just at or below the depth of the groove for the  length of the live tree on both sides where the deadwood will contact the live tree.  You may or may not wish to treat the 'damaged' area of the live tree with growth hormone.  My project tree was left untreated.

Time to join the old and new!  
Carefully place and fasten the tree  into the groove.  Remember, the tree must be held in place securely, as it will attempt to 'push itself out' of the groove as it grows in diameter.

Use small blocks of wood fastened in place with handy wire, and/ or plastic tie-wraps-- to avoid damaging the  live tree with the wire.   Since trees always repair themselves by growing a callus on the edges of damaged bark, the 'damaged' area will respond and begin to heal itself.   The tree grows larger  in diameter in the groove, filling it, and eventually  the callus growth will lock the live trunk tightly in place naturally --although it may take several growing seasons to do so.

"Plant"  your new custom-designed combination tree in a training pot, leaving the " ancient trunk" sitting  slightly above the soil, or even 'offset'  for the first couple of growing seasons.  Why? Because your live tree may need to be replaced if it is accidentally dried out or otherwise fails to  grow.  No point in wasting all that preparatory work on the beautiful, artistic  one-of-a-kind trunk! ) 

 Check regularly during each growing season to make sure the 'live' tree is held securely in the groove, and adjust the retaining wires and blocks as necessary to avoid leaving ugly wire marks on the live bark.

After 3 or 4 growing seasons, the wires and blocks can be removed.  If additional 'channel infilling' is needed in areas, carefully score the live bark along the 'join' seam on each side of the live bark. Use a sharp knife and do it in early spring, just as  sap begins to run.  Callus growth will soon fill in the channel completely. 
Keep the tree alive, watering regularly.  New crown growth may be slow, but, as with all growing things, you have time on your side! Prune off any dead or undesired branches.
If your tree is growing rapidly, start pruning and shaping after the first season.  Be careful not to loosen the tree from the deadwood.
The  tree in our demonstration ,  a White Spruce, (Picea glauca)   has been in process and allowed to grow undisturbed  for 5 years.  Notice the crown is only now growing happily. *Note how  the  unique pseudo-trunk was 'offset' by notching the plastic pot to accommodate the final design. Excessive roots will once again  be pruned off to encourage root growth under the "trunk"  when re-potting the tree into a new  pot.

Extra Grumpy & twiggy -- *offset from training pot
In this photo Grumpy  just been removed from the growing shelf (November) to  be bedded down for the winter. Looks pretty upset, doesn't he?  See the grumpy faces?
 In the spring it will be time to re-pot  our new creation and carefully determine the final design of this healthy foliage.    "Twiggy", but healthy-looking, isn't it?
This somewhat stubborn  tree grew and progressed very , very slowly.  It was grumpy,  resisting putting out any new growth for a couple of years,  but we  insisted.
Foliage will be be  selected, pruned and shaped early in the spring and the dry wood will again be treated with wood preservative.

By the way, who says trees don't respond to kindness ?    Study Grumpy's face again...
 Grumpy is bedded down for the winter.  He's already sound asleep. See?

Grumpy is sleeping, bedded down for the winter.

Patience on a bonsai project of this type is essential, but patience learned is also one of the appealing aspects of  the art of bonsai.  Depending on your geographical location, perhaps even after only a  mere couple of growing seasons,  your live bonsai will be healthy and thriving.  It will then be time for you  to get creative and practice  the art of designing your live foliage.  Try this technique, and don't forget to photograph the progress as you go!
Maybe your tree won't be as grumpy.  Have fun!

Is that Incoming I hear?


    1. What a beautiful post Raymond.. trees to me are our life's blood for without them we don't exist.. simple.... I found this post very informative I often wondered about Bonsai trees and I found how you grafted these together very interesting .. Loved the photos..Are these what you have done personally?

    2. Hi, Dreamwalker, yes, without trees we would not exist, they produce our oxygen and consume carbon dioxide. Bonsai is a beautiful art; in the top photo are commercial trees which are many years old.
      The 'project tree' I am working on shown in the other photos is a white spruce, only about 5 years old--using only one method of creating a special tree. It will change substantially in the next year or two. The foliage is now growing rapidly and will be shaped and 'designed'. I will maintain a photo file on this tree and likely do a follow-up post on it later this year. You would love this hobby--it teaches one patience, inner peace, --and brings one ever closer to nature. Thanks for commenting! ":) ~R


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