A seasonal change in gardening focus, courtesy of commentor Kristine:
A few weeks ago, commenter StringOnAStick asked if I could send in a photo of my bonsai for the Garden Chat. There’s a bit of a tale behind it, so I thought I’d rattle on a little.
That’s my tree [in the top photo]. I think it’s a Ficus retusa, which is a common ficus used in bonsai. It was given to me as a gift way back in late 2003, and since it was my first bonsai, I didn’t realize that it needed to be treated differently than other house plants. Did I read the instructions that came with the tree? Hah. I watered it once a week or so, just as I did the philodendron and other plants. I didn’t take any photos of it at that time, but as I recall it was doing all right. It had leaves, and they were green.
Then one night, I left it out during what I think was a hard freeze. All the leaves fell off, which at the time I thought was no big deal. It’s a tree in winter. The leaves fall off. But one thing I did not realize was that ficus trees are tropical, which means leaving them outside during NE Illinois cold snaps was a no-no.
This was how the tree looked in June 2008. All the larger branches had died, and little spindles and the odd leaf were all that remained. I don’t know why I kept it. It was a pretty rough time in my life—I’d lost my mom the year before, and life was day job, house stuff, and dogs. I think I just forgot about it.
This was how it looked in May 2017, when I enrolled in my beginners bonsai class—not much improvement over time. Our instructor was and is the Curator of Bonsai for the Chicago Botanic Garden, and he struck me as the sort of person who takes every tree to heart. I cannot describe the look on his face when he saw this tree. “Stricken” might suffice. He gave me some advice about care and wired some of the branches to change their direction of growth, but I got the impression that he didn’t expect the tree to make it.
This is the tree post-wiring, in early June 2017. You can see how the direction of the branches has been changed so they spread out. The instructor had cut away some of the branches, and the ones remaining have a few more leaves.
The good news is that with consistent watering, feeding, and no further exposure to temperatures below 45F, the tree came back. Over the next couple of years and several more classes, I would bring in my fully-leafed tree, which my instructor would then trim within an inch of its life and re-wire. Overall, he was very happy with its progress, and I can state with pride that my tree rescue earned me a high five from the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Curator of Bonsai.
Today, the tree is pretty vigorous. It’s also overgrown. It’s supposed to look like a Mini Me version of a regular size ficus, which means I need to trim, shape, and create denser areas of foliage called clouds or pads. But I’m not sure how I want the tree to look and every time I stand over it with scissors in hand, I freeze. I should simply relax and trim away. The branches are like hair—they’ll grow back…in a year or two. One thing our instructor told us is that these trees are never “finished.” They’re a living thing, always growing and changing.
In closing, I wanted to show off my other bonsai, a little serissa. At the end of the last bonsai class I attended, way back in 2019, the instructor gave us all snippets that he had trimmed from a larger bonsai serissa. Serissa propagate readily—all he did was insert the leafy sticks in small pots filled with bonsai soil. I admit I was a little disappointed with my stick. It was smaller than everyone else’s and I didn’t think it would do well. But it survived, put forth branches, leaves, and this spring, a few flowers. It’s proving difficult to shape because serissa like to put out long, spindly branches with too much space between the leaves—they shoot out in a matter of days and I trim them as I find them. It’s currently a shade over three inches tall, and I don’t know if it will get much bigger. I am thinking about repotting it in a proper bonsai pot next summer.
What’s going on in your garden (including indoor gardens!), this week?
Very interesting story, Kristine.
Lovely trees and a cool story to go with them. :)
“Bonsai… the ancient Japanese art of plant torture.” — villain in an old Doctor Who episode
I have the same fear when I prune the roses at church every spring. I cut them back to little stubs, sure that I’ve killed them, and in six months they’re huge masses of flowers again. I tell myself most plants must be adapted to this, after half a billion years of being nibbled on.
I’m deeply depressed so I’m holding on to small things on purpose.I got some orange and some deep pink/purple pansies for my winter yard and porch. They look great together.
Later I could not resist getting some yellow and blue pansies. The combination looks nice together in a pot.
I love your little serissa! Very sweet, and there are flowers!
The things we don’t know when we are new to something…
I bought into my house many moons ago. In the spring I started cutting down this ugly dead-looking thing that was in front of the house. My neighbor came over and let me know that the “ugly dead-looking thing” dies back in the fall and was going to start coming back in a few weeks.
I took him at his word, and he was right! Who know?
The year the tree hit my house, all was chaos for months until I could truly move my stuff back in 6 months later in November. I had forgotten to bring in the christmas cactus that I put out in the spring and they had been through a few freezes. Looked awful. I brought them in and they recovered. Such a joy when they survived and bloomed!
Indoor plants require watering, something my ADD precludes me from accomplishing with any sort of regularity.
There is a big Bonsai place in Cottondale Fl that we pass on the way to the beach. I’m always surprised garden girl doesn’t make me stop! (Oh, she says we stopped once an they were too expensive)
Her big ass plants that have been outside are ready to some in but she moved them to the basement so the soil can dry because they are really heavy.
Tied up in removing a deck that rotted this summer. I have a lot of seedlings started that are about the right size to transplant into the garden to grow for the winter, but the deck is urgent. It had gotten unsafe, and I want to beat the cold weather. It was also the front porch, so I was concerned for delivery people. I prefer gardening.
Floridas gardening seasons are a bit odd, compared to the rest of the country. Planting in fall, to grow over winter, often works better than planting in spring, especially for perennials. A lot of asters and chrysanthemums bloom both fall and spring. My Georgia asters are still gorgeous, but the earliest ones are growing to seed, which I collect. That is the other fall task, collecting seed for next years garden. I love dark purple and blue flowers.
The next task is snagging as many bags of leaves to compost as my neighbors throw out. Non gardeners think leaves and pine straw are something to get rid of, but to a gardener, it is like gold. Enrich the soil, and everything is so much easier. Water stays in the soil, plants grow better. It’s amazing. And all you have to do is make piles of leaves.
trying some new things like scabiosa and stocks. Lots of reliable coreopsis and rudbeckia.
We are having our first frost of the season, my apt. balcony pothos garden is currently wrapped in a bedsheet after I decided to keep it outside through to ’22…no room! Miss E is moving back to town so I am babysitting all of her plants (&assorted stuff) on the inside. Not sure if one can bonsai a devil vine, though.
We got a ton of wiri wiri peppers this summer. We started with a small cutting and the plant turned into a small tree. It grew in a container in front of our house. Full sun. We picked them and we’ve got a bag of them in the freezer. Should last through the winter and well into next spring.
They’re hot as hell. But not just heat. All kinds of flavors behind the heat.
Right now my gardening consists of observation only.
We hit peak color at some point in the last week or so and it lasted maybe 3 days. The leaves are now falling with great abandon and all I can do is watch them accumulate. Normally I’d be shredding a few bags every day and putting them on the compost pile so they’d be ready by spring. Not gonna happen this year. I’ll just have to buy a couple extra yards when the time comes.
Dorothy A. Winsor
Love the plant and the story, Kristine. I was at the Botanic Gardens two weeks ago and cruised their bonsai garden among others. The plants were outside at that point. I guess they take them in?
Dorothy A. Winsor
First time that’s happened
Impressive save! I love bonsai and wish I could develop the gift to not kill them. I remember my father raising bonsai pines, but my tendency for over-attentiveness and fussing just don’t work with them. I’m having enough trouble not killing off all the succulents I’ve purchased during the pandemic.
@Gvg: I love the perfume smell of stocks.
Mike S (Now with a Democratic Congressperson!)
Cute happy little bonsai trees. Thanks for sharing the story.
@Dorothy A. Winsor: They do take them in once the temps drop. The bonsai greenhouse is a pretty impressive place–separate spaces for deciduous and tropical.
I love bonsai, but just can’t prune. End of story.
Most people around here get rid of their leaves. I’ve been mulching them into the lawn and raking them over the beds for about 10 years now. This year, I collected some of the mulched leaves in the mower bag and stuffed them into the compost bins. Amazing how those leaves vanish after you work them into the existing compost.
My dream piece of lawn equipment is an electric lawn tractor with mulch collection capability.
Some of the flowering and fruiting bonsai are stunning, the rose trees especially.
“Seeds of Doom,” IIRC. One of my favorite Baker episodes. The insane millionaire and the alien seed pods.
Daytime highs have dropped into the 40s here in NE Illinois. Between that and the gloom, I can’t make myself go out to deal with the balance of the leaves. Most have been mulched and left on the lawn, used as cover, or added to the compost bins. But many remain.
Instead, I’ll take a walk with friends, then take Gaby to the local pet food store to bathe her. She had a rough summer with allergies that led to a bacterial skin infection–she’s now on a stronger antihistamine, an antibiotic, and will require weekly baths with medicated shampoo until further notice. I feel like a criminal. I had been spot-treating various places for weeks, not realizing matters had gone systemic. Then I took Gaby to the groomer’s last Thursday and oh boy. Groomer is taking care of another dog that requires weekly baths for the same issue, so she spotted it immediately.
I went to a bonsai exhibit at a museum north of Boston two years back (Tower Hill Botanical Gardens). A couple of the trees were over 150 years old. Dedication! I was so tempted to start, but then who would continue?
Meanwhile all my food vegetables have been torn out, large potato crop. Garlic planted. Leaves falling. Freeze in two days. Cleanup and trimming to do.
You know, “Fall.”
I decided to try and grow an amaryllis this year for the first time. I’ve got it potted up but it’s still dormant so I feel silly fussing over it.
I have a little Christmas cactus that is covered in buds but it too is odd. On one side the buds are growing and getting ready to open while on the other side they’re mostly just sitting there being buds. I have no idea why.
It’s all respite threads this morning. I wanted to convey that I just took the Sunday Review section of the New York Times and tore it into small pieces suitable for cat litter. Most satisfying.
I guess this is our first baud-less day. It’s going to be a long slog until he gets back.
Yes. Baud really is irreplaceable.
@zhena gogolia: I suggested to Baud that he could send me 30 or so Baud quips that I could dole out as needed while he’s gone. Kind of a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency sort of this.
Baud being Baud, he referred me to the Balloon Juice archives instead. :-)
In a witty sort of way, of course.
Beautiful bonsai! I can only admire, I don’t have the patience to grow them.
Snowing here. We’ve had mixed rain and snow since Friday but it’s just snow right now. Accumulation expected to be about an inch, but it’s melting off pretty fast. The leaves really started dropping with this weather, so lots of raking and mulching to be done later this week.
I capitulated and brought my potted tropical hibiscus inside after pruning it back to fit better through the doors. But I report with satisfaction that the 7 foot high dwarf (ha!) banana tree is dead, dead, dead and finally removed from the pot before the roots shattered it. They’re easy to grow, so if I want another I’ll just buy another 4 in. potted one and start over again, but it never produced bananas, probably because I don’t have a long enough summer. I couldn’t have gotten this one back in through the door between the height and spread anyway. All other fall planting chores finally finished earlier this week in the nice weather, but I’m still waiting for the begonias and cannas to die off enough to dig out the tubers for storage. And my nasturiums are still putting out flowers ?
“The bonsai: the ultimate miniature.” –Dr. Will Hayward, Twin Peaks, who is later in the series revealed as an avid bonsai culturist.
People will their trees to the Botanic Garden. There’s one that iirc is over 400 years old, but I think it came from Japan.
@jnfr: I’d guess it’s a light issue as well.
I have a couple of echeveria that concern me because even the southern exposure–the only decent exposure in this house–isn’t enough for them. The larger one is getting stalky and turning towards the light.
A grow light may be the only solution. My house is in the 60s so I doubt they’ll go dormant.
@Kristine: Well OK, then!.
I hate it when someone gives me an excellent solution shattering my sloth. ?
So how to get the cats to stop peeing in my Meyer lemon pot? I’ve had it for years, but the introduction of a new cat has everyone behaving badly in the sunny back room. The tree is not happy. I already had hardware cloth on the base to stop digging. Maybe various clutter and obstacles on top to discourage walking there?
@Immanentize: Well, I was surprised when I learned that people do that. It never would’ve occurred to me.
I don’t know how old my tree was when I received it, but I’ve had it for almost 18 years, so I am guessing it’s at least 25-30 years old. Just a kid in bonsai years.
Years ago, my ex and I were walking to meet folks for dinner, and we stopped in front of a store on Belmont with bonsai in the window, and he asked what I thought about bonsai (I had a lot of non-bonsai plants at the time . . . okay, still do). I said I really didn’t want any, because I had no clue how to care for them. A couple of months later, at his family’s house for the holidays, for a gift he presented me with . . . a bonsai. To this day I have no idea what he was thinking; he claimed not to remember the conversation, but it was clear to me that he asked me with the intent of getting me one. I did eventually get a few, because there was a person at the Division farmers’ market who had them, but I killed them all. (Not on purpose.) At this point, I have enough trouble stirring myself to keep my current plants alive–though I might maybe have successfully rooted a rosemary clipping. Rosemary is so fussy, I don’t know if they’ll transplant and live, but I am heartened by the appearance of roots.
Kristine, that is very useful knowledge about the Botanic Garden; if I ever change my mind, I will head there for a class!
edited for clarity
@sab: These are good, and in spite of the name, they don’t hurt the animals paws.
@sab: When we got kittens, I made a drawstring bag out of a fine mesh fabric to keep them from doing that and also to stop them from dragging potting soil everywhere from our large ponytail palm. It was a wrestling match to get the pot inside the bag but it worked. You will probably need to repot your tree and remove as much of the peed -on dirt as possible because the smell of prior pee says “pee here”.
@Kristine: Thanks for posting your bonsai story and photos, they’re lovely!
This is our second fall in our new house and new (to us) state. One of the few surviving perennials here is a Zagreb coreopsis, which I’ve had before but I’ve never seen such gorgeous fall colours from one. I wonder if it’s the neutral to acidic soil, where all my prior experience was in alkaline soils.
I will definitely be propagating some more from this mature plant, especially for a spot in a new bed I just finished that has an excellent view from the dining table. I’m also going to start a ton of perennials from seed indoors this winter; once I started designing the landscaping for all the new beds I created in the backyard, I realized I was looking at $2,000 in plants so I need to definitely grow some from seed. I’ve got seed for a broad range of colours of echinacia, Apache Sunset agastache, blue hyssop, blue flax, Mexican hat, Rainbow Loveliness dianthus, and some seeds I saved from our prior home that may or may not be viable.
Either physical barriers or cayenne pepper on the soil. That’s what I use on my outdoor beds where cats like to poop, though outside you have to replace it often.
J R in WV
We put giant scented (cinnamon) pine cones around the cactus, which is the only pot big enough to attract a cat. Available right now for the Xmas season, so stock up — a couple of sacks full should do it.
@J R in WV: What a great idea! I put cinnamon where the little ants used to come into the kitchen every season change, and the ants and the cats hate it. The ants never came back, and the cats now avoid the backsplash area
ETA I have a bag of pinecones in the basement waiting for use in Christmas decorations. I think I will find a new purpose for them.
Check their website for class schedules. The courses I’ve taken have all been good.
@narya: the main reason I stick with tropical trees for bonsai is because in the winter I just bring them in and treat them like houseplants. Deciduous bonsai need to be treated carefully since they lose leaves like their big siblings and need the dormancy but you can’t just leave them outside.
Bonsai gardeners are extremely tolerant.
They hate bigotry
@jnfr: It has to do with the light exposure. Christmas (and Thanksgiving / Easter) cactuses are triggered to bloom by shortening day length. If your cactus, or one side of it, is exposed to artificial light during the time when it should be dark, then the plant is not getting the signal.
For example if you have a plan and a window, and part of it is getting exposed to a bright streetlight outside, that part of the plant may not do its thing. Or it could be responding to light indoors when you turn on the light in the room during the dark period (evening or night) and part of the plant is getting the light but the other part is shaded a bit from the interrupting light.
Thanks for that great description.