I’m pretty sure I have said it before and, apropos of nothing, I will say it again, I get bored REALLY quickly. I have a short attention span and absolutely hate doing the same thing twice. These are all really bad characteristics for a bonsai wallah. What keeps me coming back (for nearly 30 years now) is bonsai’s infinite variety and the mechanics of constantly trying new things. When I started this business fifteen years ago my parents were dead against the idea and admitted they didn’t think I had the discipline to work for myself. As it turns out I don’t have the discipline NOT to work which sucks as all I ever do is work. Anyhow, before I spiral into a deep hole of self loathing let me get to the point.

It’s been many years since I got my first mugo pine from the Italian Alps. I have been lucky enough to visit some of the wildest parts of those stunning mountains and the trees I have seen profoundly affected myself and my bonsai. High in the Alps where the air is thin and cold, the sunshine is brilliant and the snow is deep and cold for a large chunk of the year, close to the tree line is the natural range of the mugo pine. Mugo survives where the average summer temperature is just about 10° C and winter temperatures drop to below -30° C. Snow can pile up several meters deep compressing the flexible pines into incredible shapes. During the spring snow melt huge chunks of compacted snow and ice can wreak inconceivable havoc. Add to the mix possible rock falls and 100mph wind speeds laced with ice crystals and sand and you have the crucible in which bonsai magic is formed.

The Italian Alps, the home of mugo pine trees.

The Italian Alps, the home of mugo pine trees.

Over the last fifteen years I have been privileged to have a lot of mugo pines. Sadly most passed through my hands pretty quickly and I have never entirely got to grips with the species in the way I have with other types of pine used for bonsai. On balance I have relied on the wisdom and experience of others and the underlying horticultural “wisdom” we tend to accept as being “gospel” in bonsai circles. However, on balance, this has let me down and the results are some fairly spectacular failures and heavy losses equivalent to being hit by a train. Like they say it’s not how we fall down but how we get up that defines us. In Bonsai, dead trees are inevitable, it happens, most often those deaths can be attributed to what we have done along the way. However if we are folk of honour we will acknowledge our mistakes, suck up the loss and give the fallen tree the respect it deserves by learning from it’s demise and not being so stupid henceforth. A man who never made a mistake never made anything and mistakes are the price of an education. Education costs, simple. Sadly many folk in bonsai are not prepared to pay for education seeing the value as limited. Having spent the last thirty years obsessively cultivating bonsai I have my own opinions about that.

There is only one source of wisdom in bonsai, it’s not a forum, a book or a fat bald bloke with a beard. The only place we can learn how to grow our plants is from the plants themselves. Everything we need to know about bonsai is written in plain sight right there in the pots on our benches. The trouble is most of us don’t speak “tree” and because most folk think the cultivation of bonsai is in some way different, special or more complicated or involved that other branches of horticulture the beginner is on the back foot right out of the gate to mix my metaphors. In this modern age of oppressive health and safety it’s impossible to do anything at all without training. We even need to be shown how to handle a hot beverage and lift a heavy box, WTF. But any idiot can go out and buy bonsai trees, often very expensive ones, without showing they have the required skills. Then, once it’s all gone horribly wrong they come back demanding a refund because i am such a despicable low life crook.

Mastering the cultivation of bonsai trees requires a deep understanding of horticulture. Plants need light, air, water and a growing medium that’s suitable for it’s roots and that’s pretty much it. We make our lives tough by using unfeasibly small pots that, most of the time, do not have the required amount of root in them. By and large we make it almost impossible for our bonsai to thrive because we are constantly pissing about with them. I have always said bonsai happens when we are indoors watching TV. Our constant poking and prodding just upsets our trees and in many cases ensures they will never become bonsai. Up there in the Alps there are beautiful examples of naturally dwarfed and stunted trees that can make you burst into tears and cry like a little kid with a crayon stuck up it’s nose. I have lost count of the number of bonsai collections we have purchased over the years, many from thirty plus year veterans of the hobby. I can honestly say that I have been close to tears over many of these occasions at the tragic sadness of tortured trees fighting to survive. If we don’t stop the nonsense and start to learn our horticulture properly sooner or later somebody is going to ban bonsai because it’s cruel and so they should. Bonsai is considered an art form because that’s what we make it. A lot of what I see is the art of the torturer. What other art form is created at the expense of it’s subject?

So, getting back to my point. I have not had great success with mugo pines in bonsai cultivation. Sure some have done well but some have not and until I see 100% perfection I will not be happy. There are a lot of factors to consider before we can take a step forward with any wild collected tree. Firstly I live at sea level in the UK. We have largely cool summers but 20°C is double what a mugo normally sees. We have mild wet winters, the opposite of what a mugo has in the mountains, frozen dry conditions. Even in summer on a crystal clear day our light is weak in comparison with the brilliant high UV light experienced at ten thousand feet altitude. In the mountains the growing season will likely begin in late May as the snow recedes and will all be over by mid-September. Those factors alone should make us wonder if keeping a yamadori mugo pine is even possible.

Take a look at this picture……

Growth rings on a mugo pine.

That twig is about 6mm diameter and each segment is about 6-8mm in length and represents a years growth. That’s about fifteen years to grow 10cm. This tree has a 5″ diameter trunk so go figure how old that might be. I came up with (assuming a consistent growth rate) something from 317 to 448 years so lets go nuts and say this tree is two hundred years old.

There is not much soil in the high mountains. Most mugo actually live in their own needle litter, some moss and a bit of grit and sand that blows in. There’s not much in the way of nutrients and in summer not a lot of moisture around either. A root will follow a crack and pick up what it can where it can. Research has shown that often a trees root system can be meters away from the actual tree in a pocket of dirt somewhere else. Therefore collecting one of these is always going to be a bit hit and miss unless you pick it out of a pocket with most of it’s roots in tact. All things being equal we have to concede the odds of keeping a mugo pine alive and actually creating bonsai with that pine are pretty long. On a bad day I would say there’s no chance but look agin, what does the above tell us about mugo pine? It’s pretty tough, right? Just one proviso, mugo are extremely tough and can survive where most others can’t but they don’t move far, in fact they don’t move at all. Much like me getting a mugo to a different place and making us happy is a big ask.

So having spent more than a decade trying to get the best of the mugo pine I was struggling to see where I was falling short. Re-potting only when the tree began making strong growth after several years. Re-potting in late spring once the buds were open. Alkaline soil mix with a lot of pumice and bark to mimic the natural soil. Top in full sun and pot in the shade. Limited use of fertilisers, dry cold winter conditions. Very little pruning and lots and lots and lots of waiting and waiting and waiting, these are very old trees! My mugos were growing but were never doing what I just know they are capable of.

Last year I pulled out a mugo that had been knocking around here for more than five years. I got into it at the wrong price and to be honest it was crap. A three foot straight trunk with a knot at the top, no nebari and no deadwood. Looked like a pissed spider balanced on a cocktail stick. Having had dozens of ground layered mugo pines I figured out an air layer would work and so around April time I stripped a ring of bark and wrapped it in moss and cling film in my tried and tested manner. Nothing happened all summer except the tree growing well as normal. Then around mid-August in just four days the moss filled with fat white roots, looked like a jar of beansprouts. Incredible, less than a week and we had a pound of fresh roots. Around the end of August I unwrapped the plastic, cut up a plastic pot and cobbled that around the trunk in a haphazard fashion before filling it with soil. I then put it back outside in the sun and left alone.

Mugo Pine. They don't come much uglier than this. Spring 2017 prior to air layering.

Mugo Pine. They don’t come much uglier than this. Spring 2017 prior to air layering.

August 2018 successful mugo pine air layer.

August 2018 successful mugo pine air layer.

This late emergence of root got me to thinking. As an experiment we decided to re-pot a massive mugo that was growing in a bath tub of a pot. This huge tree was growing well but once we got into it there was very little root and by the time we got it bare rooted there was about 5% mass compared with the foliage. Undeterred we potted it up into pumice and bark, secured it into the pot well and put outside in the sun. A year later the tree is growing like a weed.

The cold winter of 2018 was perfect for mugo pine I guess. Come the thaw and spring flush my newly rooted mugo air layer grew better than ever. By summer a little Green Dream around my makeshift pot was my only interference. By mid-August I was curious to see what was going on and a poke around in the pot confirmed it was full of root. I decided to cut it off the stump but once in the workshop I was surprised to see the bark falling off the original trunk. In just a year the tree had created a mass of new root and jettisoned it’s old root system itself. Now potted into a terracotta training pot we will see what happens in the future. The other big lump we re-potted is doing well too.

Thinking hard about this, as I have for a year now, I remembered being in the Alps around early May one year. There was still a lot of show around and it was horribly cold, just a degree or two above freezing in the middle of the day. In one spot of deep snow I could see the tips of mugo pine sticking up in the snow, the rest of the tree was completely buried and frozen. On those tips were little tiny candles of new growth, actual candles that were pushing through the surface of the snow. At the time I didn’t really think much of it, I just marvelled at the determination of the mugo pine.

Think about what we ‘think’ we know about trees. By and large things are dormant in winter. Come the improving weather roots begin to grow before we begin to see the evidence in swelling buds and eventually new growth. We also believe that roots feed the tree with nutrients and water from the soil so roots grow to fuel top growth, right? I certainly think so, by and large (without going into too much detail) but not all trees are the same. Wherever there is a water source and light you will find some kind of plant or tree that can survive there. When you get to the tree line in the Alps you will find mugo pine, pinus cembra (a type of five needle white pine)a few larch and spruce along with some ground cover willow. So if all trees were the same how come there are no maples up there? Just because a tree has roots at one end, leaves on top and wood in the middle it does not mean it’s the same as all other trees. Trees all have their own unique coping mechanisms and occur where conditions suit them best. A ficus wouldn’t last long in the Alps and a mugo pine wouldn’t last long in the tropics.

My conclusion so far is this. Whilst a mugo is frozen in winter it’s resinous sap won’t freeze. The thick bark of the pine and soft open wood structure allows the tree to store a lot of energy and moisture over summer and this is used in spring to fuel new growth as the roots are still frozen solid. This gives the tree a head start in the short growing season. By mid-summer the new growth is soaking up energy from the sun and this is passed back into the tree for storage for next year and to fuel new root growth which goes on until the soil once again freezes.

When we re-pot bonsai, or pot yamadori for the first time we have to time the work correctly. Ideally a few days before new root growth begins we can jump in. As soon as we have finished work, root development will get under way. This gives the root mass and the tree overall the best chance of a fast recovery and a favourable outcome. If the survival strategy of a tree or it’s natural rhythm of growth is out of sync’ with our silly notions what chance do we have of success?  Hot weather trees go dormant at the height of summer which for a ‘little Englander’ is a bit hard to fathom. As an example ficus and olive do best re-potted at the height of summer in mid-July. If a mugo pine is naturally still frozen solid during our traditional re-potting season of March-May why would we think it should bow down to our convenience. Evidently mugo pine in the UK make root in August and so far, having re-potted a half dozen large and very old trees it appears to be working wonders.

This process of working out what plants need and how I need to change my techniques and approach for their well-being is what keeps my interest alive. Learning to speak Bonsai Tree is what we should all be focusing upon, the other bits of bonsai are pretty simple by comparison.


P.S Just because we are re-potting a tree why do we assume we have to root prune? With yamadori particularly at the first or second re-pot the only reason to root prune is if you can’t get all the root into your pot. If that’s the case think carefully about the size of your pot. Putting a tree in a bonsai pot does not make it a bonsai, in fact it often ensures that tree will never become bonsai.