Sunday, October 25, 2009

Notes on a Bonsai Master Class

The Albuquerque Bonsai Club brought Harold Sasaki to town over the weekend for two workshops. I attended both.

His introductory lecture was aimed at the newcomers to bonsai and was keyed to keeping your bonsai alive, something obvious but often overlooked when everyone is concentrating on artistic styling. He mentioned light and water as the critical environmental factors.

Using leaf size to approximate light requirements, he pointed out that large leaves are adapted to low light conditions and small leaves (like our nanas) were adapted to high light levels. However, during the NM summer he cautioned that we might have to shade or mulch the pots to keep soil temperature low even if the plant is fond of full sun.

To avoid overwatering (rarely a problem in NM during the growing season), he recommends subirrigating ("dunking"). Not only does it fully wet the soil, it sucks in air from the soil surface as the water drains when lifted out of the watering container. It also prevents salt deposits from forming on the rim of the pot.

Mr. Sasaki also discussed the choice of material, emphasizing good root structure and trunk potential. Even as "instant bonsai" they can produce worthy material if selected carefully.

The morning session had everyone working on Green Mound junipers, aka Juniperus procumbens cv nana. A good time was had by all as we hacked enormous quantities of foliage off the 5 gal. plants. The results were varied depending on whether one had a trunk hidden in the mass of greenery that provided a sinuous upright curve or, like mine, was an "octopus."

Here's my before...

and after...

Next posting, the afternoon session wherein our hero does battle with an enormous Harry Lauder's Walking Stick. Stay tuna'd.

Friday, October 2, 2009

First Frost

The Weather Service is predicting an early freeze tonight with near record low temperatures here in the Near North Valley. I spent the late afternoon carrying in the tender tropicals and smaller bonsai. Some of the hardier potted plants were ganged up under the back porch and covered with sheets, as were the Hibiscus and Ipomea in the Hidden Garden. I also covered the Coleus and calla lilies in the front courtyard.

We'll just have to wait and see how things turn out. At the moment, the outdoor thermometer in the back shows only 42. Perhaps the cold air pooling hasn't topped our 8' cedar fence and has been stopped in the front yard. Then again, the swimming pool is 25,000 gallons of thermal mass, which certainly helps. Finally, the thermometer is underneath an arbor of thick Wisteria. If the cooling is radiant, then the Wisteria will take a big hit. If its cold air drainage, it might be safe.

Terrance certainly knew something was up--he's been spending more time in the burrow at the east end of the Vinca. This morning he was about 3" deep in the leaf litter. Its the same location as last year's hibernation, so it looks like he's found the perfect spot.

Monday, September 14, 2009


I found Terrance browsing through the yarrow a few days ago. He took a pass on some leftover shrimp tails. Yesterday he may have eaten some melon, but I didn't actually see him chow down. Some other critter may have put those nibble marks on the fruit pieces I left out.

Late Saturday afternoon he wandered across the porch in front of the backdoor, something he hasn't done in quite awhile. I think the shorter days and lengthening shadows make the east side of the yard warmer for him in the afternoon. I gave him his periodic weighing. He clocks in at 13.25 oz or 378 g. Seems to be having a good time, mostly in the Hidden Garden or in a burrow at the corner of the house at the very western edge of the Vinca bed.

Last year he dug in for hibernation in the first week of October. The year before he stayed out until late October. I'll be curious how the early fall weather runs this year and where he decides to dig in.

I haven't seen Sally the Salamander since August, but they are reclusive beasts and awfully well camouflaged.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Isn't this supposed to be a desert?

While out in the Hidden Garden this morning, sitting at the table on the phone with Caro, a strange black and yellow fellow about 10" long slowly crept out from behind the big stuccoed box that houses our obsolete water filtration system. When I first saw its head, I thought, "snake." But soon it waddled out with four fully operational limbs. It certainly was moving cautiously, not in the speedy little jerks I'd expect from a skink or lizard. When it turned towards me, its flattened head and widely sprawled shoulders and hips gave it away as a salamander.

Now what's a salamander doing in the Hidden Garden? I guess that's proof positive that we've got a healthy ecosystem. Plenty of plants grown thickly together, probably lots of WUGs (wiggley, ugly grubs) to eat, moist understory, no predators (you think Bella is going to eat a salamander?).

However, we're a good 1/4 mile from the Alameda Drain and fairly permanent water. There's a landscape pond maybe 1/5 mile away. Either way, its a long crawl in a hot, dry world for a critter like Sammy Salamander to make it to the moist haven of our Hidden Garden.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Perhaps the Worst Heat of Summer is Past

Terrance weighed in at 13.5 oz this morning, his heaviest ever. That's a great sign as we head into the final 10-week push before hibernation. For awhile there he was going after watermelon, shrimp, and strawberries, but today he turned his nose up on the melon and went hunting in the Hibiscus... after he warmed up.

Last night a dry air mass moved into NM and, with nothing to hold the heat in, it got down to the low 60s. That's a welcome relief from the humidity and heat of the last few weeks. Last Monday the pump on the front swamp cooler failed, so the box fan just pushed 100+ degree air off the roof into the house all day. I came home to a kitchen hot enough to melt lead. Luckily, Lowe's is open late and had a suitable replacement.

In the garden the 8" Hibiscus blooms look like something you'd see in Alice in Wonderland. The Agastache is nearly 5' tall. Monarda has almost finished flowering. The Solidago is just getting ready to start. The various sage species are doing fantastic. Alas, the Crocosmia were weak this year with only a single one flowering.

My bonsai are hanging tough, with the Ginkgo doing well in the heat. With the little seedlings added in a forest arrangement ("Journey" style), the canopy effects a nice isosceles triangle. Lost a big but untrained Cotoneaster in July--it was new this year. Took the year-old wire off my little Sanseveria but will have to soon rewire the new shoots. Might consider repotting it in root-over-rock style while the weather is warm (only for tropicals, too hot for other transplants). The dwarf holly is doing fine and breaking back very vigorously.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

July Blooms

The Hibiscus have been blooming profusely for the last ten days. The blossums are 8-9" in diameter and really striking. The plants showed a distinct trend in size related to sun exposure: the one in almost full sun is larger than the one in partial shade. Interestingly, they all started blooming within two days of one another, so sun vs shade didn't seem to affect that.

Meanwhile, the Adenostoma has bloomed more profusely than ever before. And that after its pot was cracked and the plant hastily repotted last fall. Seems to have survived and done well with a little new soil.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Terrance Weighs In

Caught up with Terrance last weekend (5/25). His weight is now 12.75 oz (363 g), up 0.15 oz (4 g) from a week earlier (5/18). Maybe all that turkey, shrimp, and strawberries.

Meanwhile, the garden is growing prolifically with the warm weather and occasional bit of rain. The catalpa behind the swimming pool is particularly lush with blossoms this year. The smoke tree is also doing well.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Late Awakening

Finally spotted Terrance today. He apparently spent the winter just off the porch in the eastern-most part of the Vinca bed. That's only a foot or two from last year's spot. Must be a good one.

This is the latest I've ever known him to awaken. Last year he was up and about in early April. At any rate, he weighs 360 gm (12.6 oz), which is about average.

Meanwhile, the pool is open, although its only 60 F. With temps in ABQ expected to be in the lower 90s by the end of the week, it'll be swimable by next Saturday, in time for Mothers Day.

Also open are the iris. This year the bronzes are particularly strong.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Ginkgos' Journey

For the last two weeks of March, the little Ginkgo forest looked pretty bleak, even though 5 of the 7 trees were showing at least the initial breaking of buds. But the two outermost trees, the larger of the 6 seedlings didn't look like they were going to make it--not a hint of green. Well, this Friday I could finally set my mind at rest; their apical buds were cracking their bud scales.

Here's the current state of affairs. Note that now the sun has started moving northward, a slant of late afternoon light cuts across the courtyard every day.

A closeup view shows the left-hand two small trees. On the left in the picture is actually the second tree from the left in the overall picture. Just in from of the trunk of the largest tree is the apex of the nearly bare left-hand-most tree. If you look very closely, you'll see a hint of green between the bud scales.

While the small seedlings (about 3-years old) definitely break bud first at the apex, the older tree has been sprouting somewhat irregularly. The terminal apex has some activity, yet several lower branches are also showing signs of movement. In one case a downward bending branch has most of the growth on its uppermost bud near the down turn.

This seems like a case of apical dominance combined with basipetal transport. Somehow, the plant "knows" which way is up. The uppermost bud becomes the source for auxin that suppresses the buds below, even if they are distal to the uppermost bud.

Blakeslee et al. have recently done work on the cellular mechanism of auxin transport.
On a cellular level, directional auxin transport is primarily controlled by an efflux carrier complex that is characterized by the PIN-FORMED (PIN) family of proteins.
Looks like these are the proteins that form the basis for positive gravitropism. There is a theory that statoliths (starch grains) in the cells sink to the bottom of the cell and somehow influence PIN proteins in pumping auxins out of the downward side. A nice description that shows how complex this might be is at John Kimball's biology website.

For now, it looks like it'll be a couple more weeks before we have a leafy green forest.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

March Madness--Repotting Bonsai

Yup, it's that time of year--juniper pollen, warm days, chill nights, and the bonsai starting to break bud. The Ginkgo are showing the faintest hint of green as their bud scales crack open. Looks like everyone survived: the old 18-incher and its two slender buddies. The seedling that cracked its stem in the wind two years ago may turn into an elegant literati.

This morning the Albuquerque Bonsai Club met at Roger and Judy Case's house for soil processing. Roger had a couple cubic yards of red lava rock trucked in and for $1/gallon you could screen all you wanted.

I came away with 5 gal. plus 5 new Ginkgo seedlings. John's thought was to plant the larger #18 in the middle of a forest of smaller ones. Using all but my literati candidate, I placed them in a "Journey" arrangement--large focal point forward and smaller groups of three behind in an oval pot.

Here's the before:

The trick is to make sure that no 3 trees for a straight line, which is harder than it looks. The result is not particularly striking right now, but when they leaf out in the next month, I'll have an isosceles triangle of leaves formed by the groups canopy. Let's hope they all survive the transplant shock.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin Day

Happy Birthday, Darwin. And Lincoln, too.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Its been 60+ degrees for MLK Day and that means one thing--pollen. Yes, spring has sprung even if the snows of February are still out there... lurking at the edges of the Colorado border, but somehow avoiding us. The local weather station hasn't started reporting pollen counts, especially my nemesis, juniper, but my daily sneeze count is up significantly. I'd be only too happy to have a quick cold snap down to 10 degrees--something that would freeze those juniper pollen grains rock solid.

Ric bought a pair of beautiful state-of-the-art snowshoes after our initial outing, but it hasn't snowed since. Must be very frustrating. I'm still without skis so that's no small loss for me. After all, we need an El Nino year before we have really nice winter weather.

Meanwhile, back in town the Albuquerque Bonsai Club got the year off to a good start with a meeting to set up the agenda for 2009 and a look at tropical bonsai. I got some good tips on how to defeat the dreaded scales that have infected a few plants. Neem oil plus a little detergent applied weekly for at least a week.

The little Schefflera will be easy to handle, but the 8' palm in the living room will need to be hauled outside every weekend for a good spray.