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Setting the stage for Pine Trees

Setting the stage for Pine Trees - A Re-cap of Gary Woods on March 21st

Sooner or later, if you stay with Bonsai, you will have a Pine under your care. It is fairly inevitable. I began working with bonsai when I started a few Black Pine seeds for a friend. True to the nature of bonsai, you never can find just the information you need when you need it. I didn’t but I figured keeping the seedlings growing would get me there eventually. Well, after many years of messing around and sheepishly asking questions, I finally got an understanding of the what, the why, and the how of bonsai pines when Gary Woods presented to the Club last month. It helped a lot to finally have a framework for all the snatches of information I have collected. I hope it helps others in the same quandary.

The Pinus genus is a large, old family of trees which have found a way to adapt to a variety of environments. The key distinction for Japanese bonsai is between trees acclimated to the high altitude mountains or the monsoon-oriented trees found on the coastal plains. The former group are the traditional 5- needle white pines (5-needles to each bundle sheath) and the latter are the 2-needle black pines. The management of these two groups are different. The management of other pine species rest somewhere in between these two management types depending on their natural environments. White pines bud one time a year only; they have naturally short needles (1 to 1 ½”), grow very slowly and require less water. Black pines are vigorous growers and will bud two times a year. It is possible to force them to bud three times a year with an acknowledged risk to the overall health of the tree. Adapted to monsoon existence, they expect lots of water which drains away quickly. The natural state of black pine needles are long (2 – 3”). A reasonable black pine bonsai can be developed from seed in about 10 years which is a reasonable time investment. Therefore, Gary spent most of the workshop identifying the management of Black Pines. At the end, he contrasted white pines briefly.

Gary stressed that one of the problems with working in pines is that all things are possible when you start from seed. You are forced to make three decisions before beginning.
1.) . Cutting the Seedling. One of the characteristics of black pine seedlings is to extend a branchless trunk between 8” to 12”. During the first month of seedling development, the seedlings are cut and re-rooted to alter that basic design and bring the branches closer to the ground. If they are not cut, your ultimate scale will need to be based on more than an 18” height with correspondingly longer development times. You create a smaller composition by cutting the seedling as short as ½” of the first needle cluster.

2.) The next decision you need to make is the final height you want. This will determine the overall scale of your composition and more critically the final size of the trunk you will need to balance your design.

3.)The third decision is the selection of your sacrifice limb(s). The nature of black pines is to grow straight up and they will not be tamed. Rather than fighting this tendency, you use it to build the trunk design you want and improve root development. Without sacrifice limbs, your tree may not grow at all due to poor root development. There are two areas to your pine: the area of sacrifice and the area of tree design. The sacrifice limb can grow to 3’-5’ tall but the design area is the base and includes only the finished height of your design. You shorten the needles and practice ramification in the design area. The sacrifice limb continues to carry the natural state of a pine tree, long needles and large internodes. The last step in your development plan is to cut off the sacrifice limb(s) and heal the wound(s).

To give you an idea of where to begin and where you are going, Gary brought in examples from his collection. If you can imagine 10 years down the road, a reasonable pine bonsai is about 18” tall with a 2-3” trunk when continuously grown in a pot. The final needle clusters will naturally only produce one candle per cluster. Gary stressed repeatedly that veteran bonsai designers actually have a full 10 year plan in mind and this plan extends to each bud maintained on the tree. Given the time taken to develop pines, he strongly recommended allowing yourself plenty of experimental space. This means starting as many as 100 seedlings and making different decisions to understand what will happen. You have to lighten up and play.

There are four tools which you use in the annual development cycle of your bonsai.

1. The time at which you work your buds in the spring. This determines the length of growing season for the tree. The growing season in turn determines the needle length. In Central Ohio, the time to work is May 15th thru June 15th.

2. Pruning of the candles and needles. Here you are balancing the energy of the tree within your design area and allowing for rampant growth in the sacrifice limbs. See description below.

3. Application of fertilizer and water. Pruning is very stressful for your tree. You need to build its energy to a high level to be able to handle it. A weak tree which is pruned will go into a full year of dormancy and thereby cost you additional time. Gary feeds heavily in fall and early spring with a premium fertilizer. He uses a time release fertilizer from “Nursery Special”. Throughout the growing season , he feeds every two weeks with any standard fertilizer (Miracle-Gro or Peters). As previously mentioned, Black Pines expect monsoon rains.

4. Your tree design or 5 year plan for this tree, so you remember where you are going as perform candle and needle work.

Pruning of the candles and needles. In fall when the deciduous trees drop their leaves, remove all of the previous year’s needles and part of the current year needle crop. If you are looking at a strong candle cluster, pull lots of current year needles to force growth back towards the center of the tree. If you have a weak candle cluster, pull just a few of the current year needles to pull energy into that cluster. That is, remove all of the current year needles in strong shoots; remove half of the needles in mid-strength shoots; and leave the needles alone on weak shoots. Remove needles with tweezers, not fingers. Ramification candle work is done in fall. Cut candles back to 2 buds per cluster. Remember a developed tree will only present 1 bud.

In spring (May 15th and later), you will begin by removing the first flush of candles to regenerate new candles of equal size all over the tree. Since the tree is in rapid growth, axons and sugars are highly concentrated in the candles. You want all pruned candles to use up their energy stores at the same time regardless of its initial size. Therefore, you cut large candles to ½” above the needle collar, the place where pre-emergent needles are absent. You cut medium size candles to !/4” above the collar. You cut short candles flush with the needle collar. All candles will be on the same timing now and a new flush of buds will emerge.

Working with White Pines. We ran out of time and energy at the workshop. However, the basic differences in working with White Pines are as follows:

1. Eliminate the heavy spring feeding. Do not feed a white pine until the new needles are fully out and hardened off.
2. Cut the needles. Do not pull them when you are doing needle work in fall.
3. At the first hint of spring, look over your tree. If a candle has a run-away length in comparison to others on the same tree, break off the tip.
4. During the spring work period (May15th – June 15th), the tree is not expected to create a second flush of needles. Therefore, cut all candles to the length of the shortest candle to balance energy.

While we did not get all of our questions asked or answered at the workshop, we cleared up a great deal of confusion in the conflicting information we all have read about handling pine trees. No wonder we get confused. There is a lot of complexity to the process. Thanks to Gary we all got a good appreciation of what a master artist knows to produce quality bonsai. We also have a better chance of improving the results with our own trees. Happy growing!!!

By Shelby Conrad