Bonsai Basics...or How the Ponderosa got into the Pot

By Sara Malone
Pinus ponderosa in its new pot
Pinus ponderosa in its new pot

I had never considered acquiring a bonsai specimen until I attended the ACS Regional meeting in Oregon last August. Our stops included Ryan Neil's Bonsai Mirai and the nursery of Randy Knight, who supplies Ryan with many of his mountain-dug specimens. It was easy to get the fever at Bonsai Mirai; Ryan uses traditional Japanese techniques on native conifers for a distinctively American interpretation of this ancient craft. By the time we got to Randy's, I was on the hunt for one of my very own.

ACS members Maryann Lewis, Gerry Fields, Jack Christiansen and Carol Brant study the pine to determine proper orientation
ACS members Maryann Lewis, Gerry Fields, Jack Christiansen and Carol Brant study the pine to determine proper orientation

Fortunately, the crowd included two ACS members knowledgeable in bonsai, Jack Christiansen and Gerry Fields, who encouraged me to look for a tree. I found a Pinus ponderosa at Randy's that I fell in love with, and with their blessings, I bought it and took it home. Randy's collected trees are referred to in bonsai terminology as Yamador-style, which are the trees taken from the wild and formed into a stylized bonsai. Jack and Gerry estimate the tree's age at about 200 years. They promised to help me transplant it in the dormant season. The pine was still in the box that Randy had built for it when he brought it back from a collecting trip to the Rocky Mountains. Ponderosas have always been one of my favorite conifers,and it is fun to have a different version of this native tree.

A group of us gathered last week to repot the pine. I was prepared; I had purchased a new pot, larger than the wooden box it was in, I assembled soil and lava rock for potting medium and I spent some time determining which was the front of the tree and which was the back. Actually, I only thought that I was prepared! Jack and Gerry arrived with a car full of supplies: a pot that they had purchased specifically for this specimen (which was much smaller than mine), various types of planting media, and tools and supplies that did not resemble anything in my garden shed. ACS members Carol Brant and Maryann Lewis (who is also President of the Aesthetic Pruner's Association) joined us as spectators.

We spent about an hour assessing the tree and its orientation. It was not a simple matter of front vs back. Jack and Gerry, with input from the rest of us, considered all sides as well as the vertical placement of the trunk. They tilted the box up and down, turned it on angles and considered the optimal perspective. Ultimately, we all agreed that the tree should be tilted back and placed in the pot diagonally, neither options had I considered in all of my earlier determination!

Prying the box off the pine. The tree had been in this box since it was dug, about four years ago
Prying the box off the pine. The tree had been in this box since it was dug, about four years ago
We were pleased to see that the pine had a strong, healthy root system
We were pleased to see that the pine had a strong, healthy root system

The next part was not for the faint-hearted. Jack and Gerry pried the box off and exposed a dense mass of roots. I have lots of experience planting trees and am accustomed to trimming and untangling root-bound specimens, but I was not prepared for the way that Jack and Gerry exposed and pruned the roots. Using a variety of tools they separated out the woody structural roots and reduced the size of the mass. The tree had a long, woody, surface root that restricted the options for repotting;they were able to saw most of it off as there were enough feeder roots at its base and on the other sides of the rootball to nourish the tree.

That root on the left was completely removed!
That root on the left was completely removed!
Jack and Gerry opening up the root ball
Jack and Gerry opening up the root ball

Then they prepared the new pot for planting, which entailed attaching wire to the bottom of the container to use to secure the tree, and Gerry formed the bottom drainage layer or round clay balls mixed with large agricultural pumice (roughly 50-50). He and Jack filled the pot with a soil mix from Japan, made of approximately 30% akadama (a hard clay material), 40% lava pebbles and 20% coarse sand. So much for my pails of soil and rocks at the ready! We also sprinkled in super phosphate 0-45-0 fertilizer pellets to promote root growth.

The mix of potting materials ready to receive the tree
The mix of potting materials ready to receive the tree
Movin' on up...er, down, to the new pot!
Movin' on up...er, down, to the new pot!
Once the big woody root was cut off it JUST fit!
Once the big woody root was cut off it JUST fit!

Then it was just a matter of wedging the tree diagonally into the pot and adding and tamping down more planting media. Again, Jack and Gerry used a variety of tools, some specially made for bonsai, some improvised (Chopsticks are effective for pushing medium under and around the roots!) The final touch was to wire the root mass into the pot for additional security and then 'tuck in' the tree with a topping of dried sphagnum moss. We watered it well and decided that it should stay in the greenhouse for a few months while it settles in and builds some new roots.

Jack pushes planting media under and around the roots
Jack pushes planting media under and around the roots
Adding the planting media to the pot.
Adding the planting media to the pot.
The Pinus ponderosa bonsai in its new pot!
The Pinus ponderosa bonsai in its new pot!

Taking care of a bonsai will be a new experience for me. It has to be watered every day right now, with its severely reduced root system, and because the planting materials are inorganic, will require fertilization as well. I love my conifers partly because they are so trouble-free; this one pine will get almost as much attention as my other 500 conifer specimens together! However, I can appreciate different aspects of conifers in this bonsai specimen. And I have Jack and Gerry to guide me and teach me more about this wonderful art form. Thanks, guys, for yet another great conifer experience!

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