Today’s post is the story of a little Rocky Mountain juniper I collected during a trip to my Dad’s memorial in Montana. I was his caregiver the last two years of his life and he used to like to watch me work on my trees. He was a best friend, patron and advocate for my career as an artist. I like to think this little tree embodies some of his spirit for the zest of life in the way it has responded since I collected it back in the summer of 2009. The day I potted it up was 106* in the shade in Portland! While we are never certain about the outcome of transplanting trees–especially old ones–I was concerned about the heat this one would have to endure directly after transplanting. So it got a lot of TLC in the way of misting and gradual introduction to sunlight. I potted it in 100% pumice in the plastic pot you see it pictured in. The roots were few and woody and that is the miracle of pumice; it holds on to just the right amount of moisture and drains excellently in spite of how much water we throw at it. I don’t have any photos of it right after collecting in July 2009, so the first pic I took was last December before deciding to style the tree. It had three years to recover and you can see by the photo was robust and ready to go. I did some light thinning along the way since it was collected, but mostly the work on this tree consisted of watering and fertilizing and protecting from extreme cold in winter and extreme heat in summer. Here’s the first shot of the tree before work began December 2012:
I used the lens cap of my camera for scale for you to get an idea of the size of the tree. It pretty much looks like a dense little bush at this point. I did find out that it is a male because it produced pollen flowers for the first time last spring. Male junipers tend not to have the best looking foliage for bonsai but this one has pretty nice color and texture for a male. After three years of caring for the tree and studying it for the best front, I decided to tilt the tree to the right and bring the trunk to a more upright position. This also put the peculiar little bit of deadwood in the front at a more interesting angle. I can only guess but I believe it was once a root that supported a branch which was also gone by the time I discovered the tree. New trunk orientation:
The next step was branch selection which is a fancy way of saying pruning. I wanted to keep only those branches that were in good positions up and down the trunk; the rest would have to go. One of the reasons we let junipers grow freely for some years before we do anything to them–that way we will have lots of options when it comes time to style them and we won’t stress the tree out too much. After removing some branches the trunk can now be seen a little better:
Notice how I’ve kept the entire length of the branches I’ve selected? If we remove all the extension growth–that is the long tips you see at the ends of the branches–it can stress the tree out enough that it will all but quit growing. A shot of the branches removed:
With a lot of the foliage now out of the way we can finally see the trunk of this little guy, just under 2″ in diameter at the soil level. And the next step is to clean the deadwood and bark of the juniper with a soft brass brush; this brings out the grain of the dead wood and the nice red tone of the live bark. It’s this juxtaposition of life and death that gives juniper bonsai much of its allure:
Now the tree is ready to be wired. I use copper wire from Jim Gremel on all my junipers for best results. Jim ‘soaks’ his wire at annealing temperature which results in copper that is soft as butter and as easy as aluminum to work with. The key to using copper wire is to not bend it much before applying it to the tree; that includes tossing it on the ground each time after you cut a piece off to use. That only ‘work hardens’ the wire and makes it stiffer and more difficult to apply to the branches. Here’s a shot just after applying the wire and rough placement of branches:
The next step after applying wire is to ‘set’ the branches into position; we put side to side and up and down movement into the branches by gently bending the wire into position around the trunk and in relation to one another. Our goal is to place the branches so that they don’t cover one another and can get all the sunlight you can give them. We also want them to look nice in relation to one another and like they belong there. Like they have been there for a long time…this is why we bring the branch down in orientation to the trunk, as though the force of gravity through the centuries is weighing the branch down. We also want to bring the foliage in closer to the trunk to accentuate its features–live veins and dead wood. Here is where I left the tree back in December of 2012:
Out of focus and right behind the tree is a piece of juniper deadwood that came from the same area I collected the tree from. At this point, winter was setting in so I put the tree into an unheated greenhouse and misted the foliage twice daily and watered the tree carefully. I wasn’t afraid of over watering because the pumice has such good drainage but the tree lost over 50% of its foliage, it was going into dormancy and it was in a greenhouse which conserves water loss, thus the need for less water. One of the things I watch for as well is the die-back of branches due to the styling process. I’m seeing less and less of this as I gain experience, but there always seems to be one or two branchlets or even whole branches that die back. No pain, no gain as they say Seriously, however, along with experience and time comes the realization that we can and need to bend the branches more aggressively than we did when we were first starting out. This just takes time and experience–to be able to gauge how far to take a branch or a tree for that matter.
As winter gave way to spring, I noticed the tree was responding well to its new form and it didn’t even change color when the cold weather arrived for most of January. A good sign. And then in February, I noticed new shoots popping out of the tips of branches every where on the tree. It was strong enough to get it into a bonsai pot is what I decided! I found an inexpensive unglazed pot at a nursery in Seattle that was of a comfortable size for the first pot. I don’t usually like to put a newly styled tree into an expensive handmade or antique pot in case things don’t work out–best to start off in something a bit more humble for it to prove it’s pot-worthy, don’t you think? So, here you go, the tree in its new home, all styled up:
Some dimensions for you: pot is 10″ in diameter by 3″ deep; tree is 11″ in height and the trunk is 2″ at the base. This photo was taken late March and the tree is filling out nicely here mid-May. I will be laying on some Rose Society organic fertilizer this week. I don’t know for certain the age of this little tree, only that smaller ones like this can be older than one might think. But I am looking forward to many more years enjoying its charm–I hope you have as well.