Bonsai Repotting Adventures

This time of year we are always insanely busy. It gets to the stage where we judge our output each day by weight rather than order numbers. A bad day is currently about 500kg of goods but we have shipped over 1200kg on our better days this year. For an old man and his son-in-law that’s a lot of graft. Currently work has ground to a crawl as we have been let down by a supplier and so I thought I would take the opportunity to share some of my most recent Bonsai Repotting Adventures.

Regular visitors to this blog might have noticed that for 14 years i’ve spent this time of year ranting and raving about why I think most folk are re-potting bonsai both too early and too often. Whilst I realise this is good for our business it’s far from ideal for bonsai and there are many things much more important than the few quid we earn supplying ‘Bonsai Soil Products‘ to our lovely customers. Rather than spend my time fussing over what everyone else may or may not be doing I thought I would share some of my own recent bonsai re-potting adventures.

We have had an incredibly mild winter and that’s a GOOD thing by and large. 2023 was one of the worst years for cultivating bonsai that a can remember and I have a LOT of those behind me these days. As in most years I have filled my greenhouse with a huge number and variety of trees, primarily for protection from wet. A long mild wet British winter can be very detrimental to bonsai in a number of ways. Whilst most folk are worried about root rot and the like most hardy varieties in good condition can deal with wet feet. My own concern is more related to the degradation of deadwood and bark quality. A dry winter under cover makes a massive difference to these oft overlooked elements. Protection from howling north-easterly onshore winds that affect us out here on the east coast is also very important especially to finely ramified trees like elm varieties.

The downside of putting plants inside is that they will begin growing much sooner than those left outside. This can cause problems when temperatures begin to rise. A couple of days ago my greenhouse hit 25 degrees Celsius whilst outside it was 9. This means plants flush much earlier but once early summer gets here indoor temperatures are too high for some species like maples. A sunny day in May can easily see the mercury blast over 50C whilst it’s barely 15C outside. As soon as my trees buds begin to open they go outside unless my intention is to keep them in for the entire growing season. These things can get complicated but used wisely a greenhouse can add several weeks to our meagre growing season.

There is a simple rule to follow that ensures optimum timing for re-potting bonsai. I covered that in some detail in an earlier post When To Repot Bonsai.

These days I have largely stopped trading bonsai trees and concentrate on doing my own work and my own bonsai. Everything’s always for sale apparently but you’ll have to speak to Catherine about that 😉 Previously we were just pouring trees out the door and to a greater extent my bonsai activities became little more than a job running a production line. To some extent I lost my soul doing that but now it’s stopped and thanks to some hard work with my mentor Kevin Willson i’m back doing my own thing, not just producing a commodity to sell and I like it.

So, here are a few images of trees I have worked in the last week with hints and tips I thought ya’ll might like to see…..

Japanese Maple

First up a Japanese maple I bought a year ago. Whenever I bring in a new tree I leave it alone for the first season to get a measure of it’s vigour and general condition before I go blundering in unsighted. This little guy was unusually almost too vigorous as can be seen by the ugly coarse growth. This tree needs slowing down a bit which almost never happens especially in such a small pot.

The great thing about Japanese bonsai is that you get a good root system and a nice well prepared flat base to the trunk which makes repotting a doddle. As it turned out this tree was mostly planted in massive coarse Lapillo. A very bad choice in this case for such a small shallow pot where it can hinder fine root ramification and reduce root volume. The grains were mostly the size of marbles and above.

Now planted in pure Akadama graded to about 4mm and with the old soil cleaned right back onto the trunk base this tree should gradually come back into a sensible equilibrium. In time work can begin in developing appropriate ramification and refinement. There’s many years to go on this journey.

Japanese maple I bought a year ago.

Japanese maple I bought a year ago.

Japanese maple bonsai cleaned out and root pruned.

Japanese trees tend to have beautiful flat trunk bases because the folk that produce them know what they are doing.

Repotting bonsai like this is a joy!

A good water and then I have to wait until summer before work can continue on this one.

Korean Hornbeam

This lovely old tree came from a collection I bought a few years ago. It sold instantly and the new owner put it in this large plastic pot. These hornbeams grow very slowly in Blighty and restoring one like this is the work of many years. Repotting is not something that needs doing very often but when this tree came back to me last year I decided to clean it out to and make sure I have the most vibrant root system possible. A little prune, a little wire and a bag of our Premium Bonsai Compost No1 along with an old Chinese pot guaranteed to wind up somebody and we’re good to go.

Korean hornbeam in restoration.

Field Elm

Imported from Italy back when such things were easy. This big lump was a cheap and cheerful buy I intended to flip quickly. When it arrived in a plastic tub it had almost no branches. Last year I repotted and cut the base of the trunk nice and flat. A year later it was lifting itself out of the pot. In order to keep elm developing quickly I tend to repot every year simply because these trees make so much root and if they get pot bound they have a habit of dropping branches in my experience.

Italian field elm in for some TLC.

Root growth after 1 year, it’s solid.

Experimental soil mix.

Flat base thanks to previous surgery.

A reciprocating saw makes light work of reducing the roots. This took about a quarter hour.

I don’t have a front for this yet and no styling work has been done.

Anyone want to choose a side?

Dwarf Japanese Maple

Japanese maple tend to be one of the first trees to break cover at the end of winter and of those some of the first will be the dwarf forms like katsura or in this case what I assume it kiyohime. This tree came from a collection I bought a year ago. It looks to me like this is one branch of what was a larger tree once upon a time. Kiyohime are basally dominant and when not cared for correctly often the tops die out in whole or part. I can’t say that’s what happened here but I would wager a hefty sum it did. There was a lot of die back when it turned up.

Not repotted in decades the first job is to get it out of that pot. A rubber mallet was pressed into service and just before I worked up a sweat it all parted company. Once out I found an interesting hack to ensure the pot was not going to become waterlogged, it did come from the north-west. Either that or someone was trying hard to save a bit of soil.

The tree was planted either in John Innes No2 or garden soil. Hard to say but at least it cleaned out easily enough. I did spend some time last season giving this little tree some TLC and it’s vigour improved significantly so a drastic root prune this year is safe enough to complete. Now in a new more appropriate training pot this will grow like a weed this year. A big pot is not always a good idea and in this case a smaller pot full of vibrant root will produce better results than that other big blue fence post.

Japanese maple, likely kiyohime. Not repotted for decades.

Perfect timing for a repot. A week later it was in full leaf.

Interesting use of a little pond basket. Anyone like to hazard a guess what it’s doing there?

Garden soil / John Innes was de riguere in the 1980s.

In 2024 we have better soil options for bonsai cultivation.

Not 100% cleaned but most of this lump is solid wood.

Far from bonsai but at least it has a chance now and hopefully the die back will stop.

Chinese Elm

I make no secret about my love of Chinese elm, one of the finest deciduous species in bonsai. Trees like this one (less the rock etc’) are actually sold as bonsai in this country but they are very far from that being an appropriate moniker. However I have proven again and again just how quickly they can be developed into significant bonsai. So I put this one on/in this water worn limestone. I know it’s currently shit but I did make this one out of an identical type of elm about 6 years ago.

A bargain bin elm and 6 years of skillage.

I know right! We’ll come back to this one at a later date.

Privet Cutting

This silly bit of privet stump clutters up my bench and has done for a long time now. I really can’t be assed to style it so it gets the hedge treatment. For those of you that follow my work this may be familiar from the daft video I did a while back.

No doubt i’ll regret this little pot come summer but for now this odd little stump displays a certain character.

English Elm

Ulmus procera are everywhere, easy to find and collect. Over the years I have had hundreds and hundreds of these beautiful elms. However I have never seen one quite as nuts as this one. I gave it a first style last year and murdered the roots but it grew happily all summer. Now allied with the crappiest pot I could find. Not one for the purists….. like I care!

Privet Bonsai

Over the last 35 years I have owned literally hundreds of privets and a lot of them have gone on to become well know and important bonsai. Trouble is I never kept one for myself. I blagged this one from the garden of a mate a few years ago as a bare stump we jacked out of his hedge. It was potted properly about 4-5 years ago when the base was cut dead flat. To be honest I could not really figure out what to do with it and was too busy and preoccupied to care so it languished outside in a corner whilst the deadwood rotted away (that’s a good thing).

So recently I thought it was time to buck up my ideas and sort it out. I intended to make a video of the work but by the time I figured out what to do we were too busy so it’ll have to wait. I have been looking at this for years now and just could not solve the puzzle. In the end I photographed it from every angle. Then with a little chemical help from my friend Jack Daniels and a good herf the answer fell into my lap whilst flicking through those images. I can’t recommend substance abuse as a bonafide bonsai technique but we all have to walk our own path despite what anyone thinks.

Because I have neglected the tree for a long time now repotting was extremely overdue. In general privets should be repotted every year because they make so much root and sulk badly when pot bound. I got fed up trying to water this last summer and so a repot just had to be done. However the rootball was so compacted even a reciprocating saw was not going to sort this one out so I turned to my special root pruner.

Maybe I can shoot my movie in the autumn. In the meantime I would welcome your opinions. Answers on a postcard as they used to say. It won’t change my mind, I already know what this tree will become but it’s interesting to know what ya’ll think.

Privet overdue for styling but most bonsai benefit from us leaving them alone.

At one time this was the ‘front’. Sometimes we have to leave our ideas at the door and bring an open mind. At least 4-5 years since it was last repotted.

Absolutely solid root mass. There’s no way to rake this out in the conventional way.

Root pruning the easy way. I do know what lies beneath so this is perfectly safe, quick and fun.

Bonsai root pruning sorted!

Anyone need a door mat?

Ready to go back in it’s pot.

Work completed, this is the other side. We’ll come back to this one later in the year.