It’s hard to believe but it’s Easter already and seeing as it was December last time I posted anything here a spring rant is long overdue.
Here at KB holidays are few and far between in common with most of the beleaguered British underclass known as the ‘self employed’. In actual fact I have not had a holiday, like the ones where you go somewhere nice, for OVER 30 years. Bonsai and summer vacations are not compatible and in our business winter is just too busy to get away. Not that I give a toss, I have everything in the world I need right here and the thought of having to take on traffic and travelling crowds is sufficient to persuade me to stay home. However what we do manage to achieve these days is extended weekends and bank holidays. That is a stupid idea really because when we do get back to work the effort of clearing the backlog of orders far exceeds any benefit the break afforded us. So, we tend to just work every day regardless.
After the Christmas break our workload increases exponentially. Turnover for January is typically five times what we might do in an autumn month. We go from shipping a couple of dozen orders a day at the scrag end of the year to between one and two hundred a day from January until May. These days that can include up to a thousand kilos of soil products a day and for a geriatric old bloke like me that’s a tough ask. On a good day we manually shift 5-7 tons of stuff between us however that’s the easy bit.
Ever since the governments actions to limit the spread of Covid (H’m that worked out well) our supply chains have been in crisis. Factories shut down and materials were hard to get. Container shipping prices increased up to ten-fold as the world clamoured to restore order and then on top of that we let a megalomaniac loose on eastern Europe which caused panic across the timorous markets that we allow to determine the price of pretty much everything. That’s resulted in insane price inflation although a LOT of those increases have little to do with the cost of materials and a lot more to do with an explosion in admin’ costs associated with rules, regulations and an exponential increase in UK import costs. That coupled with the cost of fuel, which is a BIG percentage of the cost of literally everything, has been killing us.
As an example let’s look at our supremely popular soil product S-Te. The manufacturer informed us that this was finished. It’s produced using propane gas and because the cost of this went into the stratosphere he pulled the plug. What followed was a frantic negotiation on my part to secure our supply. The net result was me stumping up a good five figure sum to secure many tons that would ensure our stock for a few months and I had to actually OFFER him a big price increase as an incentive. After that I can’t tell what will happen. This example was repeated multiple times for up to half our range of Bonsai Growing Media.
So I have spent a LOT to secure at least some of the supplies we are all going to need. So now I have hundreds of pallets of stock sitting everywhere from our warehouse to southern Italy. How long this will last I can’t tell. In the long term I think we are going to loose some of the staples we currently take for granted. Everything is in flux and our position remains precarious. That’s all very stressful and a lot to deal with, I don’t sleep much these days.
Here’s an example that’s still ongoing. We sold masses of Akadama this year, even at the inflated price it carries these days folk want it in the worst way. All of the regular channels were out but I managed to find several tons on the other side of the channel. We put that on the road mid-February. As of today (5 April) it’s still on the other side of the water. Somehow it’s got caught up in a simply incomprehensible web of complication caused by asshole customs agents and transport companies. I have been spending up to three days a week dealing with these Muppets and I’ve lost a good five figure sum in sales that would have helped see us through the lean summer months.
Bearing in mind our web site carries over 1500 product lines almost every single item has become an insane battle to secure supplies. Even if I can buy the items I need, moving them has become extremely difficult in most cases. Nobody in the UK answers emails or phones. Transport companies are by and large asleep. Here’s a great example. I had a delivery of tools and wire, this amounted to 4 big pallets. This arrived Ok and went into our warehouse late September. Before we could put any of it into the system I needed to get all my import paperwork in place in order to determine my final costs and therefore determine the retail prices. It took the freight agent over FOUR months just to get that out to me so the stock sat there untouched. How can it take 4 months just to get a bill? Anyone who knows me will be laughing about now but why on earth do I have to resort to profanities before anyone will do their jobs these days? I’m so tired sorting all this out. I just want to give up and go cut grass for a living.
Still, the good news? H’mmmmm, thinking hard here………. Ho! I know, it’s spring, sun is streaming through the window, my recent bout of sciatica is finally on it’s way out and the garden is looking good.
Since we stopped selling 1500 trees a year I now have the luxury of doing my own bonsai. It’s taken me thirty years but I’m now finally back doing what I intended right at the start and it’s a nice thing to do.
I have 2-300 trees here I have kept back over the years and some are actually in danger of becoming decent bonsai. Over the years I have spent a lot of time helping other folk to do bonsai and at the same time selling all my best trees to those same folk. For too many years I have looked on enviously as those trees developed whilst mine went past on a conveyor belt like a crap parody of the The Generation Game.
Being in business today is not easy, the stress is high, the rewards are slim and the insecurity is hard to live with. A couple of my good friends have retired recently which makes me SOO envious. Foolishly I followed my heart in life and ended up in the bonsai business that’s not generated a pension for us so I will have to die in the saddle but i‘m Ok with that so long as I can do a little bonsai, ride my bikes and occasionally enjoy a Herf at my local bike shop where we can put the world to rights.
So, have a great Easter break everyone and enjoy those simple pleasures because very soon that’s all they are going to let us have!
Here’s a few pretty pictures from the last week around the garden. Enjoy. I’m off to cut the grass 😉
A Spring Rant is Long Overdue.
My new infatuation, purple leaf crab apples.
Everyone in Bonsai loves a spring maple don’t they?
Little nire elm grown from a cutting waking up.
Another type of red crab apple.
Spring colours. Always a great time in the bonsai garden.
Trident in full leaf.
Recent Oak project. Good oak take many years to develop.
Here’s how you know an oak is good to work.
First pot and rough branch shaping. That deadwood will go in time.
English elm, just plain weird.
In bonsai you just have to do the best you can with what you got.
First up please accept my apologies for the silence these last few weeks. This time of year I’m a dead man walking, we’re so busy. Getting over a ton of soil products out the door EVERY DAY is killing us all, even my strapping 30-year-old son-in-law. Normal service will be resumed soon 😉
Just time to point out a special offer price on some Japanese unglazed pots I bought far too many of. It’s against my religion to offer a sale price but this lack in concentration has proven I’m far from infallible.
At this time of year I get a lot of people asking when they should begin re-potting their bonsai. Unfortunately I can’t give a straight answer to a question like that because, as with most things concerning bonsai, it depends upon many factors. However there is a simple answer….
When you see signs of life.
The notion of re-potting bonsai in the dormant period is a carry over from the old horticulturalists’ BARE ROOT SEASON. November to April. Now if you are planting a hedge, and your garden is not under water, this will work just fine and has done for generations. However bonsai trees are not planted in the ground and very often they are a little more exotic varieties from foreign climes. assuming that you can treat a variety from southern Japan the same as one from the dark cold and wet shores of Blighty, upon careful consideration, is simply impossible. However conventional wisdom based upon the ‘bare root’ season suggests that early spring is the time to re-pot all bonsai. The authors of those old books have a lot to answer for!
Simply suggesting that early spring re-potting suits all trees is like saying everyone should drive the same car, live in the same house or eat the same food irrespective of whether you are a humanoid biped, a dog or a giraffe. That sounds stupid right? So does doing all your re-potting in early spring, that’s as stupid as suggesting we should all live on cake! Go outside and take a look at your bonsai benches. You will most likely see trees local to your immediate area as well as those from Japan, China, Korea and any number of foreign shores. Also the plant varieties you have there could have originated anywhere, we have been very efficient at moving plant species around the globe over the last 200 years.
Another issue is how you define ‘early spring’. In my early days at local bonsai clubs I was told it was March. From decades of experience I can say that early spring varies from year to year and place to place. For our purposes we can say that early spring has arrived once plant growth begins in earnest. I live by the coast and our winter lows are no more than -2 Celsius. Go 6 miles in land and the temperatures are typically 5-7 degrees lower. If you live in the north, spring is much later than it is in the south. If you live at altitude spring will be later than if you live on a south facing slope at sea level. Everything we do in bonsai should be dictated by our plants. Get the timing right and you can experience dramatically better results than if you get it wrong.
Phenology is the study of the timing of biological events and their relationships to climate and one another. Such events include bird migration, animal hibernation and the emergence of insects as well as the germination and flowering of plants. Our great grandparents were much more closely in tune with these events. Back then a lot of what went on in our country was dictated by the farming year. School holidays for kids were based on when extra help was needed in the fields and gardens. Nowadays most folk get their information about climate and the weather from TV. If you believe what you see on TV, especially the BBC, it might be time to consider your sanity.
Re-potting bonsai at the wrong time can cause a great deal of stress and is a very common cause of failure. With the correct aftercare it’s possible to do almost anything at any time but few folk have the facilities or skill to get away with such actions. Choosing the best time ensures we are working with the plant and giving it the best chance of growing strongly. Re-potting bonsai is a strange operation. Trees growing in pots become stressed over time as the pore space in their soil decreases beyond a critical point. Some trees are happier than others in a pot bound condition. For instance Japanese five needle pine (Pinus pentaphylla) NEEDS to be pot bound in order to do well and develop great bonsai characteristics. On the other hand Chinese elm will suffer very badly indeed if not re-potted every one or two years. So we take a tree that is already a little under stress and increase the stress more by re-potting in order to reduce the stress levels of the plant. But, strangely, it works because trees are tough and WANT to grow and thrive. Re-potting bonsai too early means cut roots in wet soil in cold weather that leads to rot and fungal infection and excess die back of the roots left behind after pruning. The soils we tend to use are also very open and mean cold can get to the roots much easier causing further damage. Also little has ever been said about the actions of beneficial fungi and bacteria within soil. Often these helpful allies will be severely compromised after re-potting.
So, once you have decided to re-pot one of your bonsai how DO you know when is the best time?
In general, and with few exceptions deciduous trees should be re-potted once the buds begin to crack open and show green (or red in some species). The pictures below hopefully illustrate when this point has been reached.
For evergreens the subject is a more complex one but again, as a general rule once you see signs of genuine growth you can jump in.
Living in the UK spring can be elusive. Most bonsai folk are very keen to see their trees growing. Around February we emerge into the great outdoors hoping to see signs of life. However wishful thinking and a magnifying glass won’t bring the spring any closer. It’s not unusual to see warm sunny days at 12 Celsius in February where I live but then it’s not unknown to see snow at easter or frost in May. The fact that your tree is showing signs of life does not mean spring is here. Plants are dictated to by the weather and in particular prevailing temperatures. So, don’t be too keen to get out there, spring is always further away than you think. Also remember that a cold snap can do immense damage and January or February in the UK, even March, can throw up some very cold weather. Those periods can also proffer warm spells lulling us into a false sense that the spring we all long for is closer than it actually is. Out here on the east coast where the weather is mild and, by UK standards, dry we do not begin re-potting until the end of March at the earliest even though our average is close to 450 re-pots every year. Remember the old folk lore of 12 degrees for 12 days before planting.
Just one final tip I can pass on. If you use a damp, NOT WET, soil in which to re-pot your trees it’s not necessary to water in the tree after completion of the work. That’s another of those old ‘bare root’ ideas. Puddling in a hedgerow works fine but puddling in a bonsai does not. Use a slightly damp soil mix, pack it into your pot and trees roots in the normal way and assuming you can keep the plant under cover only give a light sprinkling of water once the soil becomes dry on the surface. Over the following weeks try to maintain the soil just damp but not wet. Once the tree has leafed up treat as normal. Excess wet after re-potting is the biggest cause of failure. Think of it like this, would you want your bare feet in that soil mix? A wet claggy soil is cold and roots will not grow in it. An open soil that’s just damp is a considerably warmer and nicer place to be and will encourage the formation of new roots and fast healing. That means earlier growth, a longer growing season with more development opportunities and better quality bonsai trees and that’s what we are all here for right?
Lonicera showing new shoots & ready for re-potting.
Siberian maple buds opening. The perfect moment to re-pot
hawthorn ready to re-pot
Crab apple budding up. Perfect timing for a re-pot
Quince ready to re-pot.
Chinese elm ready for re-potting as the buds begin to open.
By far my most successful academic subject at school was English. It’s hard to associate me with any academic pursuit other than carrot crunching and clod-hopping, especially if you have heard me speak. My brain just can’t keep up some times. However I DO consider language to be important and in a time where vocabulary and meaning are being abused like never before a little adherence to clear meaning and grammatical standard ought to be embraced so….What’s the Same But Different?
Has anyone noticed how often in the media folk being interviewed answer a direct question with the phrase “Yes, No…” or “No, absolutely…“. What the hell is that supposed to mean? We live in a world where meaning is rapidly being lost as words loose their original meanings in favour of, very often, their exact opposite.
Couple that with the intentionally ambiguous, possibly mis-leading claims of commercial interests who just want to sell you at any cost and who know’s what way is up these days? I’m going to be knocking on the door of 60 in a couple of years time. Since I was a toddler it seems to me washing powder has been washing whiter that white (whatever that is). Toothpaste has been turning yellow teeth into diamonds and washing up liquid has been making life so easy your dishes ought to be jumping back into the cupboard all on their f***ing own. Don’t even get me started on household and automotive cleaning products, lawn treatments or paint.
Suffice to say, and I have quoted Mr Poe many times here before …
“Believe half of what you see and nothing of what you hear.”
Trusted sources of true information are few and far between. When we take into consideration political expediency and the commercial imperative who’s to be trusted?
I’m not here to make that call for you. I have said here many times…
Sadly commercial interest has made it look like most everything we get into is a bit of a hoodwink and it’s tough to believe what we hear or see. Much like Jack Webb’s Joe Friday in the TV show Dragnet from the 1950’s it’d be nice to have “Just the Facts Ma’am“.
So, in the pursuit of brevity let me just say that, as of today……
We have been testing our new formula over the last 2 growing seasons and the results are sufficiently encouraging that we have now chosen to add this unique element into our tried, tested and proven mixes and as a result they are even better than before.
Our bark ingredients are now also 100% UK sourced.
We sell between 200-1000 litres a day and our products have been supremely popular for at least 15 years now across all parts of the UK with customers coming back year after year and in the words of one of my other great inspirations in life, Forrest Gump…
“That’s all I have to say about that”.
Biochar is now included in all our soil mixes
The same but different. Our soil mixes now contain biochar produced in the UK
It’s been a very productive few weeks around here (A NEW VIDEO!). There’s a great deal going on in preparation for the spring. Organising and sorting out the dozens of tons of products we sell through the spring period typically starts in June thanks to manufacturing lead times, slow boats and UK port delays etc’.
At this moment in time there are about 30 tons of goods inbound from Europe, Japan and China. We already received tools, wire and over 15 pallets of soil products in the last few weeks. Thankfully supply chains are recovering from the insane enforced shut down of the world thanks to the tw*ts in charge. However the fuel situation is forcing many manufacturers to review their ranges and some of the staples we are used to seeing will disappear.
Thanks to bulk buying and leveraging the good will built up over many years of trade KB have not had to increase prices as much as we thought we might. For instance most tools have only increased a few pence here and there. Soil prices this year have typically increased less than 5% and wire has remained roughly the same as it has been for 15 years (about £10). We have also NOT increased shipping costs despite our costs rising for the first time in 20 years. Almost ALL the cost increases we have seen are down the the UK governments actions, rules, taxes and legislation, virtually no increases are due to producers. The UK government is the biggest cause of our insane inflation figure, make no mistake we are getting shafted.
Moving swiftly on it’s a great relief when all this is taken care of so I can get back to doing what I love best, tinkering with trees and bikes. These last few weeks I have been able to spend a little time fettling me bits and bobs. So….. here’s another freebie for all our lovely loyal supporters.
A NEW VIDEO!
It’s taken most of the last week to sort out and here it is totally free gratis.
Apologies for the verbose nature of this one but I feel it’s time we looked at the basics seeing as many folk have demonstrably missed these foundational skills (including some self professes bonsai masters who ought to know better).