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Ritual Bonsai Potting

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bonsais in the wintering pit, already leafing out and awaiting release.

April 10, the day my dad died, is usually the day I repot my bonsai trees. He was fascinated with them, and I'm sure his interest rubbed off on me. I started my first trees in 1981, and built my collection through the 80's and 90's. Over the years, I've winnowed it down to the real winners, trees that I hope I'll have to pass on to Miss Phoebe or Master Liam. Bear in mind that these trees were started not from big ol' nursery stock that's trimmed back and crammed into successively smaller pots, but from tiny nursery starts in the case of the evergreens, and from two-leaved seedlings I collected under the parent trees--beautiful Japanese maples in cemeteries and parks. This is not how most people start bonsais, but I didn't know any better, and I generally don't do things like most people do them.

I love containers. Here is the array of containers I have to choose from. I can't pass up a nice bonsai pot, no matter where I find it. I've been scolded by a real bonsai enthusiast for putting such venerable trees in "cheap pots," but they're good enough for me. I took it as a compliment.

Though I have some tropical Ficus trees that I grow indoors that are passable bonsais, these plants pictured here are not houseplants. These are real trees that need a dormancy period, that turn color in the fall and drop their leaves and have bare twigs all winter long. About mid-November, I take them out of their pots and cover their roots with soil in a 2' deep pit under the deck, and cover it with an old glass shower door, and other than watering them every couple of weeks or so, I let them sleep all winter. I wrap their trunks in foil to keep voles from feasting on their bark. (It hurts their fillings). That was a lesson hard-learned, after voles practically girdled all my trees one winter. They survived with a lot of TLC, but they still show the scars.

The trees are so big now that they have to lie down on their sides to fit in the pit. So when they start putting on new growth in the spring, it grows sideways if I don't get them out of the pit in time. The cold kept me from potting them until just last week. I took pictures to show you how it's done. Here they are in the cart, ready to come up to the potting station, trunks still wrapped in foil. This was a quick and dirty potting. I usually hose all the soil off and trim the roots back about 20% every spring to keep them from growing too much (the idea is to keep them fairly small and manageable). This year, they had put on so much new soft growth under the glass that I didn't dare trim their roots for fear of harming them. So I just added a little fresh soil and potted them up. Onto the display bench with you! It was the labor of an hour rather than three or four.The small pots in the bottom row hold my new starter maples that I dug at Holden Arboretum last year. I'm so excited that they all made it through the winter. They're leafing out without missing a beat. That first winter is their most vulnerable. Clearly, there is a bigger, deeper bonsai pit somewhere in my near future.

The trees were delighted not to be trimmed back and to have some fresh soil to eat. I mix potting soil with builder's sand for better drainage. I have yet to go into the woods to get the moss that covers the bare soil and helps keep them from drying out. One of these days...At least they're potted, happy, growing, and so far the weather looks like it's stabilizing enough for them to stay outside until next November!

Here's how they looked April 23:They'll only get more beautiful, although I have to say I love the tiny-leaf stage of early spring. Best of all is autumn color--the maples just light up with yellow and scarlet. Mmmm. It takes the sting out of summer's end.

I spent most of today in Athens again, at a book signing (fun! Steady traffic! Cookies and sandwichettes! Dumped my punch, but not on the books! Always good!) and then being interviewed on WOUB-TV about Ora Anderson's lovely book, Out of the Woods, to which I contributed some drawings. It was just published by Ohio University Press and it's a keeper.
Took myself out to dinner and just got home, dog-tired again. I'll be up at dawn, though, because all the migrants that have been held back by the cold are coming in at once--11 arrivals yesterday and 3 more today. Warblers, vireos, tanagers, they're all flooding in. See Bill of the Birds for a lyrical list of what's in right now. Ahhhhh. Do yourself a favor. Grab binoculars and GET OUT THERE! The show doesn't last long but man, it's lovely, especially with no leaves to impede the view. Hmmph. This spring...

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