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Field-Grown Bonsai

The empty field before the planting began. This used to be an area for growing landscape material and is mowed on a regular basis.
They don't make them like they used to. This will make short work of any clay soil.
Tilling the area. We are only going a few inches deep, just enough to turn over the sod.
Tilling the area.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.

This time of year is the perfect time to do some planting.  The foliage has gone dormant on the trees and the roots will continue to grow until the coldest months of winter are upon us.  All of the trees’ energy has moved down into their roots.  Planting can be done without worrying about high winds or excessive heat stripping moisture from the leaves faster than the roots can pump water.  We decided to plant some of our pre-bonsai out into the fields, where they will be able to grow freely and develop thick trunks faster than would be possible in a bonsai pot.  What started out as a plan to plant out about a dozen Dawn Redwoods expanded to include Mugo Pine, and then Zelkova.  However, some of the Crab Apples were out-growing their pots, and Trident Maples make a great trunk out in the field.  There are a couple Red Pines that are just existing in under-sized pots.  Japanese Apricots too develop a fantastic appearance between their trunks and flowers, and what about the Seijou Elms?  When all was said-and-done almost 70 trees were chosen to train.

This location was an easy choice for where to grow the trees.  It’s an area that once was used to field-grow landscape material, and some of those plants still remain.  It’s far enough away from the tall grass that a mouse might think twice before venturing out to chew a ring of bark off, and close enough to be accessible by hose.  It’s also currently mowed on a regular basis.  Time to get the rototiller to prepare the beds.  We didn’t dig deep into the soil, just enough to turn over the sod.  Row spacing was done based on the size of a tractor mowing bed rather than reasons for the trees’ development.  90% of their top growth will be cut off one day anyways.

Half-way through the tilling we decided to remove a boxwood that was in the way (a remnant of the landscape plantings).  Will it find its way into a bonsai pot one day?  Not likely. The trunks are pretty straight and lack character, but the process of digging the plant remains the name none-the-less.  First we tie up the foliage to create room to work and to protect the branches from the shovel.  Next we scrape the surface to remove grass/weeds from the area we want to dig.  This also exposes any surface roots so we can judge their approximate spread.  Next we dig down around the plant, just to cut through the roots, not to try and pry out the plant.  When we have done this all around the plant, we can safely lift it out and carry it off.  We also backfill the hole as to keep from tripping on it later!  And it’s back to rototill!  Notice the color difference of the soil between wet (dark) and dry (light).  The same type of color shift occurs with bonsai soil and can be used to judge when a plant needs watering.

With the rows prepared we started gathering our plant material.  Zelkova and Mugo Pine “Valley Cushion” were chosen, along with Dawn Redwood.  Zelkova and Dawn Redwood are quick to develop trunks and can be trunk-chopped once the desired trunk caliper is reached, readily pushing out new buds on old wood.  The Mugos will not be quite as willing and will have to be maintained a bit more.  Crab Apples tend to form a cylindrical trunk without taper unless trunk-chopped.  One particularly fat-trunked one was chosen to plant still in its pot, allowing the roots to escape from the drainage holes, and making for an easier transplant later.  Although slow growing, the Chinese Elms “Seijou” form a fantastic gnarled bark.  These ones have already got a nice wide base, but the tops need to thicken up for smoother taper.  The Trident Maple are known for their ability to be chopped!  Japanese Apricot are a hardy, vigorous-rooted plant that will quickly fill a container with a dense mass of fibrous roots.  So much so that we used a saw to cut notches out of their root-balls so that the roots may grow radially.  The other plants (except the Mugos) had their roots fanned out by hand.

The Mugo Pine had a nice colony of mycorrhiza that we did not want to tear apart.  Mycorrhiza help a variety of plants to better take up water and nutrients, but are most often seen in pines within bonsai.  Although they are a fungus they are beneficial, will help your plants, not harm them, and you should be happy to see them!

Once all of the rows were laid out we used a hand-shovel to plant the 3-inch containers and a post-hole digger made perfectly sized holes for the 6-inch ones.  Everything was watered well and mulched.  The mulch is just a mix of shredded bark and foliage that will improve the soil, help retain moisture year-round in the ground, as well as keeping it cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  The black dirt in the grass is potting soil from summer annuals and the black dog seen running fast is Lucy, one of our two dogs.  The plants will be left to grow for 3 years or more.  They will not need much watering, only during periods of drought, and will be occasionally pruned to make sure they develop good structure for future bonsai.