A Little Bit of Cypress in the Sun

Ironically enough, I titled this post forgetting that I actually did most of the work at night. When the temperature often hits 95 F (35 C) by 10:30 in the morning, one tends to do these things. Sorry for some of the photos in advance.

Today I’m going to walk through some of the work I did on a cypress I’ve had for about 4 years now.

It’s been through its fair share of trauma. When I first got it, I did a trunk chop right above the base. I did it because that’s what people told me I should do. I didn’t know enough to say otherwise. The year after, however, I had gotten enough of seeking advice before every choice I made. I decided to just mess around and see what would happen.

I proceeded to blowtorch the same area I had cut just a year before. I don’t know why I did, I just know that I did.

Much to my surprise (and excitement), not only did the tree survive, but pushed more growth than ever the next year. Obviously, the only conclusion I can draw from this is that, like a brush fire clearing old growth to make room for the new, torching your trees is beneficial for their health, and you should immediately set every tree in your collection alight.

Because this is the internet, I feel I must reluctantly point out that my previous statement was, in fact, a lie. My tree did really put out more growth than ever, but this is likely due to it finally recovering from the past two years of torture. Stored energy and whatnot. If there is anything to be learned from this at all, it’s that trees are much hardier than we often give them credit for.

Please don’t torch your trees unless you’re a professional.

Anyways, on to the meat of it.

I bought this tree from a nursery solely because of the buttress roots. I quite like them, and two of the largest even have some exposed deadwood.

The tree had been in a nursery pot for the entirety of my time with it, and it’s finally time for a repot to begin training it.

Before anyone calls me out for doing a repot so “late” in the year, let me make two things perfectly clear.

First, I am a student, on a students schedule. I will continue to be a student for many years and (hopefully) multiple degrees. Getting a degree in any major is a long and arduous process, and (I think most will agree) a physics major is even more so than most. As much as I adore my trees, school comes first. You may disagree, but that’s your opinion, not mine, and this is how I choose to do my bonsai, not how you choose to do yours.

Second, I live in Florida. The normal rules just don’t apply here like they do everywhere else. It’s not uncommon for our growing season to extend from the last third of February to the tail end of October.

That’s why it’s okay for me to do something like this:

I also took the time to wash off a good portion of the potting soil it was being kept in.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you potting soil isn’t good for anything. Nursery pots are big, and quality bonsai soil is expensive. I find 1 part perlite to 2 parts potting soil a good mix for trees in really hefty nursery pots.

After the root work, I was left with this:

Now it’s time for some pruning. Some people will tell you that you should do all the cutting, styling, and refinement before doing any rootwork, as any unnecessary motion will hurt the roots. You (and I) should listen to those people. I just forgot. What’s done is done.

Here’s some shots of the tree without the pot in the way.

I love the red in the bark. Anyone who tells you cypress aren’t gorgeous is a dirty rotten liar.

As you can see, I had no shortage of material to work with.

I got to work thinning out to better see the shape of the tree. Getting rid of branches I thought were too long on the trunk, reducing to one branch when multiple came from the same spot, general high level stuff like that. I did, however, leave a generous amount of material, including anything I was remotely unsure about removing. A mistake I have often made, and will surely continue to make, is to remove material earlier on, only to wish I hadn’t later on down the road.

Here’s an example of some easy material to remove. These branches here are just too close to the crotch of where this trunk splits.

Now that I’d thinned things out, it was time to decide what I wanted to do about the height of the tree. Currently, it was just too tall for my liking, and so the decision to cut must be made.

After much deliberation, I decided on here:

You’ll notice I left some room above the top branches. I did this solely for aesthetic purposes; I intend to carve the tops of the trees into a point as deadwood.

At this point, it was about 1 a.m., time to call it a night. I took some soil mix and potted it up and watered it, so the roots wouldn’t be exposed all night.

I picked up here the next morning, thankfully with better lighting and a nicer background.

Fun fact: my white background is actually the underside of a decommissioned battlebot arena.

Anyways, the next thing I did was mix up some proper soil to replace what was thrown on the night before. Currently, I was using American Bonsai’s Supermix. It’s a fantastic soil, and I highly recommend it. For a cypress though, I like a bit more water retention. For that, there’s nothing like diatomaceous earth. As long as you’re willing to rinse out the dust.

Here’s the tray I made specifically to rinse out soil. Cost me all of 3 dollars.

When rinsing DE, wash it until the water is clear, and then twice more for good measure. The amount of dust in this stuff cannot be understated.

Once that’s done, I mix in soil…

…fertilizer (I just use whatever’s cheapest at home depot)…

…and a mycorrhizal inoculant.

Chopstick all of it in and your done.

Finally, the wiring. This was a pretty standard wiring job, and the only thing I really want to share is the way I manipulated one branch in particular. This one branch was the thickest on the tree, but it was coming out at just too sharp of an angle for my liking. Simply wiring it down might leave a bit of an odd bend where the branch connects to the tree.

So of course, I moved where the branch connects to the tree.

The branch is still connected on the underside, and should heal up nicely in time. The tree will grow to fill in the gap.

I finished up the rest of the wiring, and voila. Ignore some of the branches that aren’t wired; most of them haven’t ligotomized yet (that is to say, gotten hard, have wood, etc). I don’t like to wire those because I’m inexperienced and tend to damage or break them.

It’s far from being a finished tree, but I quite like the direction it’s heading in. Hit me up with any thoughts or critiques, I’ll happily respond, if not agree, to all that I can.

Thank you for wanting to know more today than you did yesterday.

The Fool Takes Flight

Jaded /ˈjādəd/ [Adjective] – tired, bored, or lacking enthusiasm, typically after having had too much of something

Somewhere around two weeks ago marked the end of my first year of college. It also marks the end of what I can only describe as my almost year-long hiatus from taking care of my trees. To put it shortly, I’m back. And none of you ever knew I’d even left.

4 years ago I happened to stumble upon an AskReddit post talking about bonsai trees. Much to my surprise, it said that essentially every conception I had of what these tiny trees were was wrong. Apparently, bonsai trees didn’t come from bonsai seeds They could be nearly any tree in existence. They were not grown, they were shaped, artfully crafted over decades. Sometimes even centuries. And there was a community of people on Reddit dedicated solely to doing that very thing.

And for some reason, I thought this was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

Fast-forward back to today. I’m back at home from school, back at home with my trees. At college, it never bothered me, but now that I’m back, I’ve been realizing just how much I’ve missed working on my bonsai. Along with this realization, I’ve sighed in relief. Part of me was afraid that upon coming home, my desire to return to working on my trees wouldn’t come with me. Over the past few years, my trees have become part of my identity- to lose my love for them would mean to lose part of myself. A part that I was particularly proud of. And yet, at the same time, it would feel worse, even wrong, to force myself to do work on them. I’d feel as if I was betraying myself, trying to live as who I’d once been, and not as who I had become. Acknowledging this fact only serves to make me happier, as my desire to care for my trees returns home with me.

It’s been this return that finally pushed me to starting writing this log. A few years ago, I’d had the chance to ask a rather prominent artist why he decided to get into bonsai professionally. Instead of answering directly, he gave me what he described as a piece of jaded advice.

“Don’t sell bonsai to feed your family.”

For whatever reason, this is something I’ve pondered over endlessly since hearing it. It may have something to do with the fact that, until today, I never thought to look up what exactly jaded means, and only had a vague idea. I really don’t think he meant for me to mull it over nearly as much as I have. But regardless of whether he meant it, it’s come to have a meaning to me deeper than face value. Don’t practice bonsai to feed your family. Don’t do it to become a renowned artist, or to impress others, or for anyone other than yourself. Practice bonsai because you want to. Plain and simple. And if fortune and fame and adoration happen to follow, then that’s just an added bonus. Isn’t it?

Or maybe selling bonsai is just a bad way to put food on the table, and I’m merely an armchair philosopher trying to find meaning where there is none to be found.

Writing about my trees has been something I’ve wanted to do for quite some time now, and is in no small part inspired by Adam Lavigne’s blog which I so enjoy reading. I want this to be a place for others to learn as I do. The site is named Dunning, Kruger, and Me, after the Dunning-Kruger effect. Wikipedia describes it as “the cognitive bias of illusory superiority […] in which people mistakenly assess their […] ability as greater than it is.” I chose it to serve as a constant reminder to myself that, as much as I think I know, there is always so much more that I don’t. There will always be more for me to learn.

If you’ve somehow managed to read this far, I appreciate it, and hope that you’ll be happy to know that this is the first and last post that doesn’t focus on the trees. It wouldn’t feel right not to have any trees in the inaugural post, so I’ll leave you with one from a couple years ago, the first I ever took of a tree I could say I was proud of.

A ficus salicaria purchased from Wigert’s Bonsai Nursery and styled by myself

Thank you for wanting to know more today than you did yesterday.