Sunday Morning Garden Chat: Slow Gardening

Sunday Morning Garden Chat: Bonsai - STOCKPILE 2
A seasonal change in gardening focus, courtesy of commentor Kristine:

A few weeks ago, commenter StringOnAStick asked if I could send in a photo of my bonsai for the Garden Chat. There’s a bit of a tale behind it, so I thought I’d rattle on a little.

That’s my tree [in the top photo]. I think it’s a Ficus retusa, which is a common ficus used in bonsai. It was given to me as a gift way back in late 2003, and since it was my first bonsai, I didn’t realize that it needed to be treated differently than other house plants. Did I read the instructions that came with the tree? Hah. I watered it once a week or so, just as I did the philodendron and other plants. I didn’t take any photos of it at that time, but as I recall it was doing all right. It had leaves, and they were green.

Then one night, I left it out during what I think was a hard freeze. All the leaves fell off, which at the time I thought was no big deal. It’s a tree in winter. The leaves fall off. But one thing I did not realize was that ficus trees are tropical, which means leaving them outside during NE Illinois cold snaps was a no-no.

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This was how the tree looked in June 2008. All the larger branches had died, and little spindles and the odd leaf were all that remained. I don’t know why I kept it. It was a pretty rough time in my life—I’d lost my mom the year before, and life was day job, house stuff, and dogs. I think I just forgot about it.

Sunday Morning Garden Chat: Bonsai - STOCKPILE

This was how it looked in May 2017, when I enrolled in my beginners bonsai class—not much improvement over time. Our instructor was and is the Curator of Bonsai for the Chicago Botanic Garden, and he struck me as the sort of person who takes every tree to heart. I cannot describe the look on his face when he saw this tree. “Stricken” might suffice. He gave me some advice about care and wired some of the branches to change their direction of growth, but I got the impression that he didn’t expect the tree to make it.

Sunday Morning Garden Chat: Bonsai - STOCKPILE 1

This is the tree post-wiring, in early June 2017. You can see how the direction of the branches has been changed so they spread out. The instructor had cut away some of the branches, and the ones remaining have a few more leaves.

Sunday Morning Garden Chat: Bonsai - STOCKPILE 2

The good news is that with consistent watering, feeding, and no further exposure to temperatures below 45F, the tree came back. Over the next couple of years and several more classes, I would bring in my fully-leafed tree, which my instructor would then trim within an inch of its life and re-wire. Overall, he was very happy with its progress, and I can state with pride that my tree rescue earned me a high five from the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Curator of Bonsai.

Today, the tree is pretty vigorous. It’s also overgrown. It’s supposed to look like a Mini Me version of a regular size ficus, which means I need to trim, shape, and create denser areas of foliage called clouds or pads. But I’m not sure how I want the tree to look and every time I stand over it with scissors in hand, I freeze. I should simply relax and trim away. The branches are like hair—they’ll grow back…in a year or two. One thing our instructor told us is that these trees are never “finished.” They’re a living thing, always growing and changing.

Sunday Morning Garden Chat: Bonsai - STOCKPILE 3

In closing, I wanted to show off my other bonsai, a little serissa. At the end of the last bonsai class I attended, way back in 2019, the instructor gave us all snippets that he had trimmed from a larger bonsai serissa. Serissa propagate readily—all he did was insert the leafy sticks in small pots filled with bonsai soil. I admit I was a little disappointed with my stick. It was smaller than everyone else’s and I didn’t think it would do well. But it survived, put forth branches, leaves, and this spring, a few flowers. It’s proving difficult to shape because serissa like to put out long, spindly branches with too much space between the leaves—they shoot out in a matter of days and I trim them as I find them. It’s currently a shade over three inches tall, and I don’t know if it will get much bigger. I am thinking about repotting it in a proper bonsai pot next summer.

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What’s going on in your garden (including indoor gardens!), this week?

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