Collecting Trees from the Wild Part One
by Walter Pall
The author with an ancient collected Juniper
The Ethics of Collecting Trees from the Wild
There are opposing positions on this subject. Both those who defend this activity and those who oppose it have their reasons for adopting one position or the other, reasons that will be explored.
Why obtain material for bonsai from the Wild if it is something that is not very attractive and, in addition, looks as if it would be a very laborious task?
Those who are favour of it have several reasons in defence of their position:
· Many native species, often the best for bonsai training, are very difficult or impossible to find in a nursery.
· In the nursery, trees are cultivated to grow as rapidly as possible and generate money. This means that, in many cases, they will not have the desired quality for bonsai.
· Trees grown from seed or cuttings need decades to reach a quality similar to that of trees collected from nature. Even then, there is an enormous difference in quality.
· The character of a tree only develops with age. A collected tree expresses the struggle for survival through its appearance and bark. This is very difficult to achieve with nursery seedlings.
· Collected trees have a unique history, written expressly for each one of them, making them more interesting and desirable.
· Collecting trees from nature can be fun and some might even go so far as to consider it a sport.
Why should these trees not be collected?
Those who oppose this activity also are supported by good reasons:
· In the majority of cases, the trees will not survive the procedure.
· Even though permission maybe available, it is a license to kill if you do not know exactly what you are doing.
· Independent of the fact that trees are never collected in nature reserves or parks, they always come from a specific biological habitat.
· Collected trees often need years to re-establish themselves before actual shaping can begin.
· For those who are not experts, many trees collected from the mountain have too much character. Quite possibly they will not know how to make use of their potential.
Of course in all civilised countries, just going into fields anywhere and collecting trees is forbidden. There is always a property owner, even though it may be the government.
For that reason, it is essential to get permission for the collection of plants. It is best to study beforehand where and what it is that you want to collect. Generally it is possible to obtain permission, except for trees in nature reserves or parks. If you explain to the forest ranger or farmer that you are looking for very small trees of lower quality and that afterwards, footprints will be erased and holes filled, usually you can count on getting a favourable response. Often, they can even tell you where you should begin looking.
They may also think you are crazy, but that is something you will have to accept.
It is best to get written permission in order to avoid difficulties that may arise later on. Many good areas belong to farmers who have a habitual relationship with trees that often even includes being bothered by them. Sometimes, a small compensation accompanied by the promise that holes will be filled is sufficient.
Clearly, you may also find people who think that a fortune can be made from bonsai. For that reason, it is better to say young are looking for specimens for your garden. It is a small lie that harms no one.
The collector of bonsai may face danger during the hunting season, generally in Autumn, so be particularly careful in this season.
Anyone who does not have much experience with trees and does not know with certainty how and if it possible to keep a collected tree alive ought not even attempt it, not even with the mandatory permit.
An essential requirement for this activity, in addition to a permit, is having extensive knowledge and experience, at least in gardening.
Anyone who does not know the tree and its needs is better off abstaining. Although the technical term may be 'material for bonsai', the bonsai enthusiast should never forget that a tree is a living thing that must be treated properly.
The base of this Juniper in the Rocky Mountains is more than 12" (30cm) wide. It is possibly over 500 years old, but, in spite of that, it can be collected because it is found in a crack full of humus
Many times the experienced collector finds a tree that is good itself, but knows that after collecting there will not be much chance of it surviving. It is a very common situation since the best material for bonsai is usually found in locations where the conditions for survival are very harsh and so the trees are weak and greatly castigated by nature often with roots that are very ramified and exposed.
This means that you will not find a compact rootball and the majority of the roots will break off and be lost in the collecting process. The best rule is: in case of doubt, leave the tree where it is.
Logically, no matter how good the tree may be, do not dig it up if the season is not right. Most trees that are found by chance and collected during vacations are not likely to survive.
If you find several suitable trees, but are unsure if they will survive, it is best to take only one in order to gain experience and to be able to collect the others later on.
Locations can be found where, by collecting the trees growing there, you are even saying them certain death. Such would be the case for example, with those places where highways or roads through the forest have been constructed or widened, where ski-lifts are constructed or under lifts or high tension cables under which all types of new growth is regularly destroyed.
As you may have read, even though it does not have to do directly with bonsai, there are organisations dedicated specifically to saving trees.
They may also be found in pasture land where trees are regularly cleared or in gravel pits and quarries that have to be enlarged.
So, therefore, these are locations where you can collect trees that are practically condemned without feeling guilty.
The chief objective of one who intends to collect a tree ought to be keeping it alive. The chance of survival of the tree depend on:
· The experience of the enthusiast
· The type of tree
· The special conditions of the location
· The preparation of the tree
· The tools used
· The season of the year
· The amount of rain in the location where it is to be collected (it has to have rained in previous days)
· The difference in climate between the place where it was found and the location where it will be placed (the greater the change, the more danger for the tree)
· Care after collecting
Tools for collecting trees
The serious enthusiast has the proper tools. A strong, sharp-edged shovel, long-handled pruning shears, pruning scissors, a strong pickaxe and a collapsible saw are needed.
Sometimes heavier equipment is needed such as a block and tackle or a chainsaw.
For trees that are found on large rocks or on walls of rock, climbing equipment is necessary. A rope at least 75 feet (25m) long can also be very useful. Trees can be lowered with it and it can also assure one's safety while working on dangerous terrain. In addition, a large quantity of wet cloths will be needed for wrapping the rootball as well as large plastic bags.
A backpack with an aluminium frame in which larger trees can be placed will often be indispensable for long trips. There are special devices designed for hunters enabling them to transport a large amount of game over difficult terrain. Obviously, these can also be used for large trees. A large knapsack will serve for carrying most of the tools, but will usually be too small for a tree.
Several bottles or a large container of water are important for the one undertaking this task and also, perhaps, for the tree. Bringing along a camera is a good idea.
Collectors often travel through areas little frequented by other people. A small accident that generally is not very serious may become a tragedy.
For that reason, a first aid kit should always be carried. Carry a mobile phone with emergency telephone numbers. If you are accompanied, it is always advisable for the others to also carry a mobile phone or walkie-talkies.
In view of the list of tools, it is understandable that some people look first for a road for their cars and then a suitable tree. But do not be discouraged yet.
The expertise is in finding, not in looking
Whoever goes into the mountains in search of 'ready made' trees to be used right away as bonsai is going to be very disappointed. With very few exceptions, there are no trees out of doors that can be transplanted directly to a pot and classified as bonsai. At most, good raw material can be found, that is, material with more or less interesting shapes that provide starting points for the experienced enthusiast. In truth, the most worrisome and complicated trees are very often the best ones. For that reason, only an enthusiast with sufficient years of experience will be capable of finding truly great material, because he will be able to see on the site itself the basic shape and will know how to decide if the tree can be used or not.
The expertise is in finding, not in looking. This means that there is not much likelihood of success if one goes searching with the firm expectation of finding a pine pre-bonsai that would be ideal for the 'formal upright' form passing by all the deciduous trees and even pine trees that might lend themselves perfectly to being shaped in other forms.
There are some people who go into the forest to look for mushrooms and always find more than the rest of the group. There are fishermen who always catch more fish than all their companions. There are bonsai enthusiasts who find many more good trees than an entire group.
What do these people have in common? They know secret or even several that the others possess, but the likelihood of having such persons as instructors is slight.
Then how can you discover one of these secrets? Clearly, everyone will think that the secret is in knowing the right location. Well no, the secret lies in recognising guidelines which works as follows:
The bonsai enthusiast goes walking through the field and at some point in time finds a tree that meets all the requirements for being good bonsai. A suitable location has been found; where there is one, there will be another close by.
It is not a question of knowing an especially good place, but of finding each time a location that, even in areas where you have never been before. If you go looking in another location and by chance find another pre-bonsai….well, you can start to draw conclusions.
What do both locations have in common? What is the reason for the trees being so small in both places?
If, for example, in both cases it is a location that is close to an area of wild pasturage, where in winter deer come to nibble the shoots of small beeches, you have found a clue. It follows that you will have greater possibilities of success if you go to places where there is pasturage for livestock.
Whoever repeatedly enjoys this type of success will recognise that there is a whole series of clues like this that narrows the search. Acquire more knowledge about trees, open a dialogue with them, understand them better and you will find more and more suitable specimens to be worked on and to be converted to bonsai.
Where can you look quickly?
Start in a place for which you have a permit for collecting trees or a least, where the possibility of obtaining it exists. There is no sense in looking for the best pre-bonsai in nature reserves if collecting there is not permitted.
Where are the best possibilities?
Generally in areas that are considered extreme. That is , places that offer places that offer a species minimum necessary for sustaining life, the limit. If a tree is found in a location where there is little available to keep it alive, but too much to cause it to die, it will remain small, grow compactly and will develop an interesting shape. A location that can be called extreme will often depend on the species. A pine tree continues growing strongly in practically pure sand, while the same soil causes great difficulties for a beech tree.
Consequently, a beech that by accident is growing in a soil of pure sand can be very good beginning material. For the pine tree, more conditions need to be lacking, as for example, a greatly exposed location on a very inclined slope in the crack of a rock.
High areas generally offer more possibilities for success. But there are a large number of slag heaps, quarries, embankments, quagmires, declivities with steep slopes, banks of streams that become torrents in the Spring, rocky terrain, large stones covered with plants and coastal regions, that is, almost any places that the farmer calls 'uncultivated'.
The main problem is that trees collected from these areas have the very great disadvantage of being very weak. Consequently, the likelihood of their survival is very slight right from the beginning.
For the survival of a collected tree, locations that are much more favourable, that are actually good for the growth of the species, but where, due to environment causes that occurred a single time or over many years, trees cannot develop naturally. This may be the case along the edges of roads where vegetation is regularly cut down, pastures where animals nibble the shoots and branches or where even the trunks of small trees are broken or the farmer cuts back the vegetation, edges of forests where deer nibble the new shoots in Spring and the renewed growth in Winter, slopes left after avalanches where damages is repeatedly done, but without the trees finally dying, military training areas where trees are constantly broken, but not killed.
All these places, with the exception of avalanche slopes, have various advantages. In most cases it is possible to obtain permit for collecting, since it is ethically sustainable to collect a tree which if not collected would not only suffer, but also would be unlikely to survive. Since the trees are growing in good soil and are relatively young, they will have a healthy, ample rootball that is very helpful to their survival after being collected.
Inexperienced enthusiasts usually think that most good trees are found in very hidden away and untouched areas. They are completely mistaken.
Man, with his machines and animals is the best generator of raw material for bonsai. The best trees are found especially along roadways or even in towns. Fantastic specimens can be found in places where for decades a hedge has been pruned, where someone has pruned away the trees in the garden, where many years ago livestock passed through the thicket, nibbling on it, where someone for several decades has kept small trees in pots or in a cemetery where a shrub was kept small. Logically, a permit cannot always be obtained for removing the tree, but nothing is lost by asking.
The best time to look for trees is when it is not possible to collect them due to the season, since you will not be tempted to carry them off and you will not take the first one you will find. Since, for the tree to be collected with any likelihood of success, you only have a little time in Autumn and a few weeks in the Spring, there is a great deal of time to make a selection.
Evaluate the Tree
An outdoor specimen with bonsai potential has little value if you cannot be sure that it is going to survive before you dig it up. To be able to determine that, it is necessary to examine the roots. Also, you have to know what type of tree it is and what its probable reaction will be. The roots must be as compact as possible so that a solid rootball can be dug up. Sadly, many times this is not the case.
In addition, before removing the tree from the ground, you should check to see that it really has possibilities for becoming an attractive bonsai when it is shaped. The key elements are thick surface roots, the nebari and the lower area of the trunk. If these parts are not attractive now, they probably never will be. Usually, everything else can be arranged in some way.
Does the trunk have the right thickness for the final shaped height of the tree in accordance with the position of the branches? If the trunk is too thin, it is best to leave it where it is. Perhaps the crown can be pruned so that it may recuperate over the years.
Does the trunk have useable movement and appearance of age? Does the tree have lower live branches from which you can form a new apex if necessary?
A 500+ year old Juniper collected from the Rocky Mountains collected by the author, and the same tree pictured with the Walter, 8 years after collection.
There are many dead trees next to live ones in areas where growing conditions are extreme. If you set out to look for material in Spring or Autumn, especially with deciduous trees, it may happen that it is impossible to tell at first glance if you have a dead tree or a live specimen before you. The answer to that should be clear by looking at the buds, but, in case of doubt, scratching off a little of the bark with a fingernail and verifying that the tree is green should give an answer.
Trees rooted in cracks in rocks or flat stones generally have created a very compact rootball and, in many cases, due to lack of nutrients and water, have grown into an interesting shape. Very often, these trees can be collected immediately with a compact rootball. If you are very lucky and the tree lets itself be extracted easily, you can even risk collecting it out of the usual season.
Other places that produce compact rootballs are moist areas. These areas are not necessarily wet during the entire year and over the whole surface. In marshy soils, small islands with very thin layers are created that may become quite dry in Summer. In these areas of central Europe, as in Scandinavia and Siberia, Scots pines (P. sylvestris), Swiss mountain pines (P. mugo montana) and Birch (Betula pubescens) are found. These trees can only grow during a short period, during those weeks in which the subsoil is permeated by air and quite dry. For this reason, they often grow with very little development in height and generally have a bark with a great deal of character. These trees have compact rootballs and can be removed from the soil with a sharp shovel without losing many roots and with high probability of survival.
Just the opposite occurs with trees that are growing in sand or gravel. They attract attention because of their beauty, but, in general, they are very difficult to collect. Often the roots of the small tree penetrate many metres (yards) below the poor soil searching for nourishment and it is not possible to remove them without ruining the greater part of the indispensable fine roots. In these cases, do not even think of taking the tree away, not even as a test. It is much more sensible to opt for improving the rootball and compressing the ramification right there, in situ.
The rootball can be improved by digging a deep ditch around the tree. To do that, use a sharp-bladed shovel since areas with clean cuts stimulate the new growth of fine roots. If the soil is very stony, the ditch can also be dug with a heavy pickaxe. It is important to keep the rootball intact and of a sufficient size for the tree to go on living without problems. Pruning the roots allows for the creation of many new roots and, particularly, for the growth of new root tips from the old ones. This process is similar to the pruning of branches that stimulates the development of buds from aged wood.
Since the rootball is considerably reduced, it is advisable to prune the crown proportionately. To do that properly, it is necessary to be thoroughly acquainted with the reactions of the tree. Deciduous trees have a totally different reaction from that of conifers.
A deciduous tree will usually bud from old wood if the branches are pruned a great deal. And the same can be said of the roots.
It is much more difficult with conifers. They cannot bud so easily from old wood, especially if needles are not left on so that the tree can continue to feed itself. That means that if an intense pruning (that for a deciduous tree would be suitable and would even keep it healthy) were carried out on a conifer, it would die.
For that reason, it is not advisable to prune a conifer too much if its roots have been worked on a great deal.
Once the tree's strength is restored, it can be pruned little by little as intended for its development as a bonsai. Trying to 'balance' the crown and roots of the tree, as is often recommended, makes no sense. The tree itself knows much better what to do. Even Japanese collectors have had the same experience. After digging up a juniper, they leave the branches and needles intact. A year later, they can prune away long branches.
This is a mugo pine with lots of potential. Unfortunately it grows in a
forested surrounding, on very rocky and sandy grounds. It will be
extremely difficult to get enough roots when trying to lift it right away.
Proper preparation over a couple of years is the key here.
Logically, once the ditch is dug, it has to be filled in again. For that, using good soil stimulates the growth of roots. The method described here is basically a layering of the strongest roots. In layering, it is especially important that the new roots can be surrounded by soil that can retain water, but that can also drain well so that the necessary oxygen can reach the roots. Soil with these characteristics is very hard to find in the majority of places where you have found interesting material, precisely because the trees are interesting because they are found in poor soil. Anyone who wants to do it particularly well will have to bring along soil that has the same characteristics as the right soil for bonsai, according to the species concerned.
Dan Robinson has had spectacular successes in collecting junipers and pines that were considered uncollectable in the semi-deserts of the Rocky Mountains. Their roots were growing in extremely dry gravel and were too long. Dan cut off all the large roots on one side of the plant and tied a perforated plastic bag full of soil mix similar to that used for layering around the cut-off areas. He kept the plastic bag generally moist and, after a time, applied the same procedure to the other side of the tree. After this process, he could take the tree home without worrying, and with a large number of new fine roots.
Trees are often found that, due to the dropping off of their own leaves or needles, have over time created their own compost directly underneath the crown. It is a good idea to remove this soft soil very carefully and fill the ditch with it. This will also obtain the secondary effect of uncovering the beginning of the nebari. On the other hand, this is important for recognising the possibilities for future shaping and, on the other hand, since generally the structure of the bark of the trunk and that of the part of the trunk that has been underground a long time are very different, it will allow for uncovering the trunk early in the process.
To be able to obtain a natural trunk base, the structure of the bark must be identical. The bark becomes very rough due to atmospheric influences and these atmospheric influences have not affected the part that is underground. However, care must be taken not to leave the fine roots around the nebari uncovered on the surface. If the upper layer of soil were removed from them, they would likely die.
After the ditch is filled, the tree must be pruned. But the branches ought not to be pruned indiscriminately. At that time, you should have a fairly clear idea o the future shaping and should remove only those branches that you are sure you are not going to use for the design concept you have. In the case of conifers, it is advisable not to prune too close to the trunk and to leave a sufficiently long piece of the pruned branch so that, if need be, in the future it can be shaped as a jin. There will always be time to cut it off completely later on. For Junipers and Spruce, prune carefully, since they ought not to lose more than 25% of the crown at one time.
Logically, these preparations can only be made at certain times of the year. For deciduous trees and conifers, the best time is generally at the beginning of Spring. Just when the buds are starting to open, that is, during a time limited to a few days, is the safest. The exact moment varies depending on the type and also, to a large measure, on the climate and microclimate. All that remains is for the bonsai enthusiast to familiarise himself with the tree and 'to think like it'.
In central Europe, the best time for collecting trees is between the end of March and the end of April; in the Alps and northern Europe, the best time may extend into May or even June. For conifers a good time for preparation is the end of the growing period (after the formation of the buds for the next year). But as I have already said, the exact time depends on the type of tree and the climate.
In central Europe, it is between the end of August and the end of September. In the special case of the ordinary Juniper (J. communis) and the Norway Spruce (P. abies) it is better to collect them at the end of Summer since they experience a strong growth of roots in Autumn.
This way they can survive the cold season of the year much better and in Spring they will have several weeks of time to continue growing before the hot season starts. That is just the time when they can be removed from the soil in the mountains. In the case of, it may be advisable to collect them in Spring or at the beginning of the Summer, since at that season, you can see if they are in good health. Healthy trees can be marked to be collected in Autumn.
Sometimes, coming back many years later, it is impossible to find a tree on a craggy terrain. In order to find it, it is advisable to remember some showy stone or a large tree. Visual memory is a great advantage. A drawn map is not a luxury. Even GPS receivers can be used.
Once a tree has been prepared, it should be left in peace for as long as possible between preparation and collecting; for at least one active growing period and, even better, two to four of them. But the bonsai enthusiast must be prepared to find a hole on the day he goes to collect the tree he prepared. And this also forms part of the ethics of collecting; the work of others must be respected and a tree that has obviously been prepared should not be removed from the soil, even if it is a very good one. Usually bonsai enthusiasts are honest.
Sometimes you may find a fabulous tree, but one that is impossible to collect. In cases like this, the possibility of layering must be considered. This works, for example, with Junipers including very old ones.
When searching and collecting, bringing a camera is always worth the trouble. A photograph of the place will always be incalculably if the tree has become a lone tree ten years later. Also, a photograph of the tree can be taken that will augment your collection, if it is not possible to collect it.
Digging the Tree Up
Whether because the tree was prepared well ahead of time, or because the tree has a naturally good rootball, the time will come when it will have to be removed from the soil if you want to make it into a bonsai one day. To do that it is essential that that time be the right time.
If it not has been done already, this is the time to prune away everything you are certain you are not going to need in shaping the new bonsai. If however, nothing has been definitely decided on, it is better to stop for a moment to think about what is going to be done.
The likelihood of the tree's survival will be greater if, shortly before removing it from the ground, a heavy rain has fallen. Thus the tree will have absorbed a large quantity of water and will be capable of withstanding the shock better. Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that on the day when you carry out the operation it has to be raining cats and dogs!
During subsequent weeks, it would be better if the climate where you are going to locate the tree were pleasant. High temperatures without rain are like poison for most trees, including even those that have not been collected recently. If there is soil, grass weeds, stones or other material on top of the rootball, you should remove it very carefully.
With a sharp-bladed shovel, try to remove the largest rootball possible, although if the rootball is very stony, it may be better to work very carefully with a strong pick. The rootball should have a diameter of at least seven or eight times the thickness of the trunk. That means that if the trunk has a diameter of 2" (5cm), you will have to mark a circle with a diameter of at least 14" (35cm).
The depth depends on the terrain and the type of tree. For safety and in case of doubt, it is best to dig very deep, by at least three times the width of the tree. It would not be the first time that, after removing a tree from the soil, it is found that the main roots went much deeper than expected. What appeared to be the roots of the tree may turn out to be the roots of small nearby shrubs.
It is also advisable to check the position of the roots before removing the tree from the soil. To do that, clear the base of the trunk, grasp the tree firmly by the trunk and move it carefully. With a little experience it is possible to determine in what direction the main roots are growing.
In wet areas, they usually grow toward the side that gets the sun and, in dry areas, toward the shady side. Many times, it will be necessary to remove a lateral root mass if the main roots have a strong tendency toward one side.
It may also happen that roots are found that are so thick that it is not possible to cut them cleanly with the shovel. For that, sturdy branch cutters should be on hand in order to make clean cuts on branches or roots up to about 2 ½" (6cm) in thickness.
The majority of trees have a main root that penetrates the soil vertically, almost precisely underneath the trunk. It is essential, although difficult, to cut it back very carefully. To do that, the shovel is introduced from a certain distance, on a level, underneath the tree. If it doesn't work, it is also possible to work underneath a tree with branch pruners. For very large trees, it may be possibly necessary to remove them with a block and tackle anchored to another tree. In any case these tasks must be performed very carefully in order not to harm the small roots. It is not so important as you often think it is for the rootball to remain intact. In fact, it is most likely that, in finally removing the tree from the ground, it will fall apart. It is much more important to keep the largest possible amount of fine roots. I have often have good results by shaking off the rootball very carefully immediately after removing it from the soil. Clearly, you must always remember to keep a great deal of fine soil, so that the tree can preserve its mycorrhiza.
If it is possible, you should not try to remove the tree from the hole by pulling upwards on it, but instead by pulling it to one side, placing a cloth underneath it and then making it roll over the cloth toward one side. Then it should be possible to reach under the tree from the opposite side and pull the cloth. Next, knot the cloth so you can then proceed to remove the tree from the hole. Clearly, if the rootball is truly compact, you can take it right out of the hole and then wrap it.
Medium sized or small trees can be put into plastic bags. For large trees, possibly plastic garbage bags would be best, since they can be closed very well and they hold moisture for a long time. If you want to do things correctly, moss should be brought to fasten around the roots, although you can substitute wet newspaper for that.
Sometimes a good tree is found, but it is not possible to transport it immediately. By wrapping the rootball with wet moss and leaving it in the shade, you can leave it this way for several days without any problem. In any case, it is important that, during the often long and difficult transportation to the car, the fine roots not be damaged and, above all, that they not dry out. Some rootballs crumble, damaging many roots due to shaking during transportation. For this reason, it is often advisable to remove soil from the rootball with great care before transporting it.
However, in the case of Junipers and pines, this should be avoided as much as possible, since these species depend a great deal on having the roots keep the original soil of the place where they were found with the proper mycorrhiza. If the road to be traveled is very long, enough water for the person to be burdened with it should be carried.
Generally, trees that are found are much larger and voluminous than you want. When planting them, it is advisable to prune them to a greater or lesser extent. If you do this task before transporting it, you will make the operation easier.
Once out of the ground, it will be much easier to check whether you have pruned off everything that you are not going to need now you can see the tree in much greater detail (including the beginning of the rootball) and it is much easier to get an idea of possibilities for shaping.
The experienced bonsai enthusiast will determine the basic shaping right there and will prune off what is not going to be part of said shaping.
But, be very careful with conifers. Pines, Spruce and, although to a lesser extent, the Larch and Juniper suffer greatly if they are pruned too much. Their metabolism will be so confused that they will then have great difficulty in developing or they might even die in spite of having a fine rootball. You can tie an excessively voluminous crown with the rope that we advised you to bring at the beginning of this series of articles, although adhesive tape for wrapping packages may be substituted for it.
The best results are obtained with trees that do not have to be dug up, that is, those that have rooted in a crack or over a stone and only have to be lifted off. Perhaps it will be necessary to cut off some roots with pruners or even a saw. These quasi-bonsai that have had to survive most of their time with very little space for their roots, can be transplanted directly into a pot and, after one growing season, it is already possible to begin shaping them.
If you have the luck to know a location where trees can be collected from rocks, go equipped with the necessary tools. It is very useful to have a large, solid pick available. It is also very helpful to carry a crowbar and a heavy hammer. Perhaps you will have to work with a block and tackle. A special band saw that can be placed around a root so it can be cut even in difficult positions, is worth its weight in gold.
This mugo pine sits right on top of a big boulder.
This is the very best situation for outstanding material with very high survival hopes.
It should be possible to collect it with a firm rootball. But here one can see that for some big trees extra efforts are necessary.
After cutting the tree's roots and reducing the foliage, a wrench is used to pull it off the rock.
The recently dug up tree has to be transported and given the necessary care as soon as possible. For that reason, there is no sense in converting vacations into a kind of safari in search of a tree to collect because the tree removed from the ground that does not receive the necessary care, will not likely not survive in the trunk of a car.
Once home, the best thing to do is to put the tree in a large rainwater tub. The next day the tree will be very moist and the enthusiast will have recovered his strength and will be eager to work.
The experienced bonsai collector will have determined prior to arriving home what he is going to do with the tree. For the majority of recently collected trees, the best option is to place them in a wooden box that fulfils the functions of container and will permit the tree to recover from the traumatic treatment it has undergone. To do that:
· It must be easily accessible and must not present problems for watering.
· The soil mix that you use must be permeable and must be able to retain water. Given this case, its composition should be improved by adding coarse sand and peat. It is better for the peat to be bark humus. Actually, you could prepare a mix similar to one you would use in a bonsai pot: a mixture of coarse sand, peat and humus. Somewhat coarser like that which would be used for a tree in the process of being trained, with good drainage, to avoid rotting of the roots.
· The location must be protected from the wind. A fence would be ideal, some type of wattle screening etc, placed in the direction from which the predominant winds blow.
· Place the ensemble in a shaded or semi-shaded location in order to complete the protection of the tree.
Before planting it, take advantage of a last opportunity to analyze the rootball. All roots that are clearly dead must be removed. The live roots, thin and long, must always be left even if they have wrapped several times around the rootball. These roots will nourish the tree and assure its subsistence. Cuts that are not clean and broken parts must be gone over again with very sharp pruning scissors since a smooth cut will facilitate the growth of new roots and callus formation.
The cut area must always be pointing downward. You never know if this very part of the root will someday emerge on the surface in the pot. A root with a rough cut will not do very well. Also, new roots always grow downward.
When working with roots, never consider whether the rootball will fit into a pot or not since that is not the main problem. First you must get the tree to survive and to do that it will probably be too large for any pot. After two growing periods in the wooden box, you will be able to dig the tree up again and prune the rootball more severely. Often it will be better to plant it again in the same place and leave it for one or two more years before pruning the rootball again to obtain the right size for the final pot. Do not cut off the thick roots since these roots will have importance for the tree corresponding to their diameter. It is always better to think about the method of pruning incorporating the training in it. There is always the possibility of layering.
Nick Lenz who, for many years has been working with native trees in the eastern United States, thinks that more than 50% of all trees collected do not die because the rootball is too weak, but mainly because of parasites that have been brought along with it.
The tree, having been weakened due to transplanting, is not capable of mobilising its natural defences. So, as prevention, Lenz recommends subjecting recently collected trees to a treatment with insecticides and fungicides.
He even goes so far as to put the trees in a large plastic bag so that the air will remain contaminated and will kill the last parasite, at the same time maintaining very high levels of humidity in the air. The trees are subjected to this treatment in the same place where they were found so that the parasites do not end up infecting the entire bonsai collection.
Make a hole with a shovel for placing the tree in the soil of the wooden box. The hole should be quite a bit larger than the rootball. The tree is placed in the centre, with the help of another person, if necessary, to hold it. If the tree is too large and, due to the shape of the rootball, it appears that it is not going to remain very firm, it is advisable before closing the hole to put in a strong stick to which the tree can subsequently be fastened.
The soil is usually placed over the hole. It should never be tamped down, since that would hinder the subsequent supplying of air and, also, would break some of the fine roots. Next, the rootball has to be 'muddied'.
This means that it must be watered with special intensity so that the soil is distributed well among the roots, securing the tree in its position. Now you can proceed to water the tree, adding a growth hormone such as vitamin B2 or Super Thrive to the water.
Some authors (Peter Adams for example) explain that, before planting the rootball, they leave it an entire night in a receptacle of water to which a growth hormone has been added. Nothing will happen if, in the beginning, the level of the soil is higher around the trunk than in the rest of the box. Over the time, it will level off.
If the wooden box is in full sunlight, the crown can be covered with a shade netting that can be found in various densities in specialised gardening shops. This netting prevents drying since it will reflect more than 50% of the sun's rays. In addition, this mesh will permit the creation of a moist microclimate that will be beneficial to the tree during the first weeks. It can also be sprayed with anti-evaporation protection as is done in greenhouses when valuable conifers are transplanted. Anti-evaporation protection is a solution that is mixed with water and applied to the needles with a sprayer. This substance creates a fine layer of wax that is not impenetrable, but that reduces evaporation notably, depending on the concentration. The film is rain-resistant, but disappears by itself after a few weeks.
As has been said, the container can be a wooden box, but also a large plastic tub, a plastic washbowl, or an extra large bonsai pot if you have one available (which would be unusual). Logically, all these receptacles must have one or, much more advisable, several holes for drainage. Some professionals insist that it is essential to have the soil sterilised.
The rootball does not have to be cut to the measurements of the container, a container must be found in which the rootball will fit. It is preferable to have the tree fit exactly in the container. It is not good if the container is too large because too much moisture will accumulate in the soil that could cause the roots to rot. The container must be strong enough to support the weight of the tree, generally large and heavy trees, together with the soil. It must also be kept in mind that almost certainly in the coming months the whole thing will have to be moved, so very large trees it is advisable for the container to have handles.
As has been said, the mix that you use now will be more permeable than the soil that will be use subsequently as bonsai soil.
Good results have been obtained with a mixture of 40% coarse sand, 30% akadama and 30% composted bark humus. Pumice stone has proved to be very efficacious as soil for the bottom of very large receptacles. It has characteristics similar to those of akadama or lava granules, but it is lighter. Many enthusiasts avoid using old soil for fear of bacteria and the remains of fertiliser. However, it is advisable to add soil from healthy trees in order to include mycorrhiza.
Immediately after planting the tree, the soil has to be watered thoroughly. Afterwards it only has to be kept relatively moist so that the roots will be stimulated to grow. On the contrary, the crown has to be sprayed with water daily to keep it always moist. In no case should fertiliser be applied before the tree shows clear signs of growing.
The container should be placed in a shady location, if possible, away from currents of air. Here it must stay until the tree shows clear signs that it has caught on.
Then it should be placed in semi-shade and, subsequently, in sunlight. It is important to protect the tree right after collecting from frosts or desiccating winds.
To do that, the ideal is to keep it in a cold greenhouse for the first year. For very valuable trees, a heating system may even be installed in the floor, a system that you can find in shops specialising in accessories for greenhouses. It appears that in Japan they even install small nozzles in the floor, under the roots, that regularly blow warm vapour on the cold roots.
Serge Clemence has developed a method with which he has succeeded in getting even trees with poor roots to catch on well. He carries a rucksack full of sphagnum moss to the spot where he found the tree. Immediately after digging it up, he wraps the rootball with the moss and ties it.
Once he arrives home, he places the tree in a receptacle just as it is and adds soil around it. He says the success is astonishing. After a growing period, the moss is full of fine roots. Even trees with fibrous roots collected from cracks in rocks, have caught on this way. With this method it would also be possible to plant trees in soil outside. Nick Lenz has developed a method for making a larch layer easily with sphagnum moss. He discovered that the layering only worked well with live sphagnum moss and thinks that it is due to some hormone. Logically, this fact would be a great endorsement for Serge Clemence's method.
Wait at least one growing period before starting to shape the tree. It is important to make clear that you are talking about growing periods and not months. If you collect a tree in Autumn and plant it immediately in a wooden box, it may catch on that Autumn, but you have to wait until it has definitely caught on in the next Spring or Summer before starting any preparations for shaping.
If a tree was dug up in Spring, possibly the first shaping tasks can start in Autumn if it has enjoyed a Summer 'crowned with successes'.
This table shows the timetable for a collected tree to be converted to a bonsai.
For example, for an old conifer (more than 50 years old) with a good rootball, between 3 and 7 growing periods may be necessary before being able to start shaping, while shaping itself may take between 5 and 10 periods. From the time a tree is found until the day when it can be called a bonsai, between 8 and 17 periods or, indeed, years pass. If the roots were not in an ideal condition from the beginning, the complete process may even take 11 to 22 growing periods. It is clear that shaping continues over many years.