Plant music !

Today will be a little different than your typical bonsai blog post. Today I want to share with you some music!

Have you ever read about how music and sound can influence plant growth? There are many studies indicating that playing music can stimulate healthy and more vigorous growth in plants. One study determined genres of music played a role in the outcome, that angry loud music slowed growth and even hurt plants where as positive happy calming music boosted growth. I have always been interested in how sound vibrations can manipulate and change the world around us. The effects of music on plant life is a really interesting topic that I suggest doing some reading about and even experimenting with!

I have been working on a podcast series where during the discussion they talked about a very special album: Mort Garson’s, Mother Earth’s Plantasia, released in 1976. One of the speakers described the listening experience as “visiting a planet full of happy plants ”

Being both a plant & sound nerd, this is a memorable one. Mort was a pioneer with electronic music and the famous Moog Synthesizer.

He composed the album specifically “for plants and people who love them.” It’s a very calming yet energizing album and a popular gardening companion. It can be experienced actively or as a passive listening experience for working on your trees!

If you (or your plants) have not yet heard this gem I suggest you start playing the album right now !

Technique: Weeping Willow wire bite and weights

Salix matsudana aka Chinese willow on the riverside.

Willow is a super fun species. Originating from China, not the Middle East as the Latin name implies, Salix babylonica aka Weeping willow is a common sight in our North American landscape. There are several humongous old willow reaching out over the river side next to my home. It’s a nostalgic tree with a definitive style for many. They create such a beautiful image, harnessing both a strong masculinity and a feminine elegance. I’m sure many folks can think of one or more willow trees that became a significant memory in their lives.

One of many near my home, roots swimming in fresh moving river water.

There is a lot I can talk about when it comes to willows. It’s challenging to organize my thoughts so let’s start by talking about some of the blatant differences from other species. With many very distinct nuances salix presents us with special challenges and advantages fairly unique to this species.

For starters willows can make their own rooting hormones. You may have heard of “willow water”. Soaking cut willow branches in water will cause certain acids and hormones to release and will promote root growth on themselves and other species! Some folks water freshly repotted trees with willow water to help speed recovery. Others use it to root cuttings of all kinds. Another benefit is you can literally cut a fairly large branch off a tree, stick it in water, it will secrete hormones in the water and grow roots. Now, building a nice Bonsai from that cutting is a whole other blog post.

Willows are extremely agressive growers. This comes with pros and cons. On the negative side we see a lot of seemingly random branch dieback and flagging. If the agressive growth is not balanced they may let branches die off. Something to stay on top of. When pruning there will always be a larger amount die back than with most other species. This is something to consider when pruning to balance energy and build subsequent branching. Due to their agressive root growth, they can require two repottings per season, the roots grow extremely fast. Because they are moving so much water they need access to it all the time during the growing season, all of my willows sit in a tray containing a few inches of water. Within weeks after repotting, there will be roots growing out the bottom of the pot into the water. For this reason we must also avoid very shallow pots. Another downside with moving sugars and starches so fast are the pests. It’s a constant battle to keep insects from eating these trees, especially caterpillars. I’ve not had any major damage but I must stay vigilant. The caterpillars have even started trying to hide from me in the wire scars.

All that said , I present to you a twin trunk willow with a weeping design that my teacher started and is now in my collection. This picture was taken after a spring repot and wiring.

Here it is next to one of my teacher’s big mama willows. Zoom in on that trunk !

About a month into the growing season, I was forced to remove the wire. They grow so fast it was biting in hard. I took it all off and rewired a couple branches but mainly the trunks to keep them from falling over. Low and behold not 3 weeks later the wire bit in hard again. I ask myself, how many times am I to wire this tree in one season?! Being young, healthy, in a good soil mix, pampered with fertilizer and algae, this thing is going to be vigorous and agressive!

Above you can see the scars from the first wiring as well as the wire from the second application already biting into the trunk.

I began removing the wire again. Luckily this time the trunks set and held their position. I think I can stop wiring them. The branches however, have not all set. Some have set and maintained nice movement created by wiring. Many other younger branches and shoots are trying to grow upwards, spoiling the weeping design. I decided I wouldn’t wire as much anymore and I would tie some weights to the ends of branches. Let’s keep this simple right?

Some deep scaring that will clear up quickly at the rate these grow. Also prime hiding spot for caterpillars! Watch out!

After removing the wire from the trunk and looking at the tree, I wanted to get the silhouette back. I had intended on some fishing sinkers as weights. What a great excuse to indulge my fishing hobby and go to the tackle shop. Call it ingenuity, call it impatience or maybe both, instead, I decided to create some make shift weights using the aluminum wire that I had just removed. I cut several lengths a few inches long and with my pliers, roughly twisted two coils into each piece. I then threaded the ends of the branch inside of the two coils and carefully pinched the wire closed. I pinched part of the middle on the main loop as well as the loose ends. This allowed for it to stay on the branch but without putting any direct pressure on the branch stem itself, allowing free movement.

In time we shall see if this impromptu method proves to be worthwhile. Here are my bullet point thoughts on the technique thus far:


  • Very quick and efficient to make and apply to many branches.
  • Insignificant wire bite to monitor. No unwiring, no rewiring, no scars.
  • The aesthetic is not very invasive and possibly preferable compared to weights on string that extend the visual impression of a branch.
  • Weight can be adjusted easily by changing wire gauges, adding more twists in the piece or simply placing additional pieces on the same branch.
  • Seemingly an effective way to weigh down young branches before and as they lignify.
  • In the wind they sometimes hit benches or each other and make a nice jingle noise. Silly but fun. Hah.


  • Will have to watch the branch tips to ensure wire weights are removed before the branch tips become too thick and are compressed by the wire. In a bad case I can anticipate some agressive bulging and die back or worse branch loss. I anticipate much slower than normal wire bite.
  • Can not put movement into branches like with standard wiring. The branches will be drawn down in a natural weeping design therefore limited.

Ultimately, I was quickly able to get the tree back into a weeping design with the wire coils. Moving forwards, I will probably bounce between wiring in some movement and using wire weights on a case by case basis to avoid excessive need for wiring maintenance on this tree.

PBC Monthly Meeting & Nursery Stock Styling Day

Finally another post ! I’ve been quite busy with work and family lately. This post is a sort of journal entry covering our group meeting and a few new trees.

Last fall, local Bonsai enthusiasts including myself founded a study group called the Progressive Bonsai Collective or the PBC. We share and discuss online and in person, organize group buys’ on materials, inspire and help each other out in our practices. With each of us coming from different work and Bonsai backgrounds, our study group has committed to meet regularly, bring our forces together and push our practices further.

We recently had a nursery stock styling day. It was Rafi’s awesome initiative, we chose a date and set some loose guidelines: The material had to be originally from a nursery, coniferous and unstyled.

I decided to start fresh and grab a nursery tree that morning. We went to a nursery near Rafael’s home called Jack Vincelli’s. A little nostalgic for me as, I haven’t been there in about 10 years since we moved to the east end of town. Vincelli’s has been open for over 100 years and is the oldest nursery in Montréal. A cool place with lots of material and character. We looked at a lot of potential Bonsai, but three trees particularly struck me. Étienne also bought some material and we were excited to dive in!

Carting our haul back to Rafi’s place.

I picked up a hemlock, a false cypress and an Alberta spruce I couldn’t say no to (I know , I know..)

The Jeddeloh hemlock
The Alberta spruce. I’d just love to enjoy this tree in a nice pot as is ! I’ll clean it up and maybe move a couple branches for now.

Chamaecyparis pisifera, sungold false cypress. The tree I styled for our jam.

The old bark is a nice feature

Once we all got settled in, we took some time to evaluate our respective trees and form a concept for the design. As a group, we put the trees up one by one and discussed the design possibilities. Sometimes we agreed, sometime someone would offer an alternative front or drastic change in design. It really helped to expand my artistic toolset and gain more experience through discussion. Here are some photos taken during the analysis and discussion.

Taking a look at Patrick’s larch
Miguel is really talented with styling these small conifers. Here we are discussing the direction of this juniper.
Étienne’s gnarly juniper beast
Rafael’s awesome cascading juniper
Wilson had a wicked cool thuja heading for a natural clump look

After the discussion period we all had clear direction and set out to work on our trees. Often walking around, sharing technique and styling knowledge and just being a cool supportive setting to create new trees. Only briefly stopping to enjoy some of Rafi’s solid BBQ porc shoulder sandwiches. Yum!

I had a direction in mind for the false cypress and the end point was clear to me. The question now was, how do I get there. When at the nursery Wilson and I were talking about how this tree would lend well to an elegant weeping design with its light and lacy foliage. While some drastic work could be done to chose an alternate front. I decided to go with my gut and style the tree the way I originally saw it. Time to clean and start selecting branches.

Here it is after the better part of the afternoon. Made some branch choices and wired out most of the primary and a few secondaries. It was admittedly hard to fight the instinct of positioning branches like the classic pine bonsai. I am happy with the end result. The problems/issues that catch my eye are the jinned bottom right branch, creating a four way intersection and the straight portion in the middle of the upper trunk. Both issues can be fixed of course and will be a step in the future of this trees development. Probably not however, until I get it into a training pot and begin adapting to Bonsai soil. Either way it is already an enjoyable tree to look at in the garden , the trunk becomes almost second to the weeping canope that has since begun to fill in to the design.

It was a great day and I learned a ton. Being different than what I am used to and have in my garden, this tree and design were a new challenge for me. I don’t think I’d have come out with as nice of a tree without the support and collaboration of the PBC. I was so jazzed from the day, I cleaned the Alberta spruce when I was back at home. Here it is after a first cleaning.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for my next post !

Technique: Tool maintenance & repair

We invest a lot in good quality bonsai tools. Well maintained, quality tools can last a lifetime. A little regular maintenance goes a long way. With a few skills and TLC we can prolong the life and maintain good, quality function from our tools.

Disclaimer: when inexperienced, cutting tool maintenance can be dangerous and isn’t for everyone. Not only can you injure yourself but you may also flat out ruin a tool. You have to be very careful and have clear intention in your movements. I have developed skills pertaining to this kind of work over many years. In maintaining my katana (I practice martial arts) as well as a long time appreciation for artistry in all forms of cutlery, I learned about blade maintenance and repair and have successfully applied it to my bonsai tools. Tool repair and maintenance is a service that I am starting to offer to others. I’ve spent a lot of time repairing, sharpening and honing my tools. Not many folks have developed these skills and I am happy to help out. It is very accessible if you want to take the time to learn. There is a very special thing that comes from careful attention and tool care that is later reflected in our work. With a bit of common sense you should be all good to maintain your own tools !

My katana being honoured by an Amur maple.

Below, I will denote the tools and steps I take to maintain my bonsai cutting tools. We can then apply elements to our other tools such as wire cutters, pliers etc.

First the maintenance tools. This array of tools makes for a rounded maintenance kit:

  • Clean soft cloth
  • Uchiko tamper/Uchi ball
  • Choji Oil
  • Dual grit stone
  • Leather strop
  • Green leather sharpening compound
  • Japanese anti-rust cleaning block

I will expand on each individually and their respective techniques, in the order they should be used.

Soft cloth

First, start with a good wipe with the cloth. The cloth you use should be clean and non abrasive. An old cotton t-shirt cut into rags or any soft rag should do. I use baby diaper cloth prefolds or soft non abrasive microfibre. Keep the cloth handy as you will need to wipe off debris throughout cleaning.

Uchiko Tamping Ball

This tool is simply a handle with porous fabric wrap containing Uchiko powder. A powder that has just the right abrasiveness to remove oil, grease and dirt build up without damaging the blades.

Hold the tool with one hand and, with the other, gently tap the blades with the ball to disperse some powder evenly.

Then, wipe the powder off the blades to remove debris. Firmly place the cloth around the base of one side with the opening of your fingers towards the sharp edge (making sure they are clear of the blade.) Once you have applied good pressure and have a good position, slowly and firmly wipe towards the tip while maintaining pressure on the cloth to ensure good cleaning. Repeat for the other side.

Caution! Void of protective oil, the metal is now completely exposed to corrosion. Avoid touching the cleaned area with fingers for now.

The Uchiko balls can be purchased along with the choji oil in basic katana maintenance kits. These kits can be found for quite cheap however keep in mind that the powder used in cheap Uchi balls is usually substituted for talcum powder and the result will not be the same.

Dual grit sanding stone

I use these stones for repairing physical damage such as chips or bends or extremely bad edge rolls. For normal maintenance they won’t be needed. Mine is a 400/800 grit and I mainly use the 800 side. When using a stone, always respect the angle of the original edge. Make sure to hold the blade securely at that same angle as you pull across the stone. You may want to practice this on something less important like a pocket knife or cheaper bonsai scissors as this takes some skill and can ruin a blade if not done correctly.

Above, the tip of these scissors is bent, preventing it from closing properly and making a clean cut. Probably due to being dropped or banged against something.

After a little work with the stone, the bend is gone and I am starting to regain the original shape.

Japanese anti-rust cleaning block

If you are going to buy only one thing for cleaning your tools, this is it. Sold by most bonsai suppliers or Japanese knife stores, this thing is a must if you have bonsai tools.

This is a very fine grit sanding block with anti rust properties that will instantly remove all that black resin build up from cutting our trees.

To use it place the tool on a flat surface and hold with one hand.

Using the other hand place the block completely flat on the blade and rub. Make sure you go in the direction of the metal’s grain and keep the block flat to not roll the edge of the blade. Wipe off any debris with the cloth.

Compare this picture to the ones above! They don’t call it the magic block for nothin’!

Leather strop & green compound

Now that we’ve we’ve repaired physical and function issues, cleaned off dirt, debris & residue, it’s time to make our blade edge nice and sharp. A good quality blade will never need actual sharpening (on a stone) unless damaged. Honing however is what we do with the leather strop to bring back a dulled or rolled edge.

Rub the waxy green polishing compound onto the leather to coat it entirely.

Place the strop flat and hone the edge by pulling the blade across the leather at the correct angle. You need to use the blade’s edge itself as a guide to find the angle. The more dull the blade has become, the more agressive an angle may be needed. It’s a skill that involves feeling and watching the edge as it changes. Occasionally feeling the edge with your fingers for sharpness.

Work both sides of the blade back and forth to ensure you aren’t pushing the metal to one side entirely. Sometimes it’s easier to hold the scissors in place and work the strop freely but requires more skill. After honing, wipe off the wax debris with the cloth.

You can make a strop by gluing an old leather belt to some wood. As long as it is real leather. The green compound can be found online easily by searching “green wax polishing compound” you can also use “jewellers rouge” however the green is a finer grit. There is of course an ongoing debate about which is better for which metals blah blah. I use the green on my bonsai tools, sword, Japanese kitchen knives, leatherman’s etc.

Choji Oil

Choji is Japanese clove oil. It keeps the tools lubricated and protects them from oxidization. It also smells incredible.

Finally we coat the blades and moving joints with oil. First ensuring the metal is clean of any debris. Dab some oil onto the cloth and apply from the base of the blade to the tip. Using the same technique as when removing the Uchiko powder. Rub oil into the moving joint and open and close the tool to ensure full coverage. Leave the oil to sit for a minute or two and then gently wipe off ensuring to leave a thin layer.

Choji from Japan is quite expensive in Canada so I make it myself using light mineral oil and cloves.

That’s it! Now our tools will operate at their peak ability and last a long time. As for regular maintenance, a quick clean with the magic block and application of Choji oil is all that’s usually needed. Once in a while hone the edge with the strop and when something gets damaged, re-form with the lower grit stone. I’ve not yet had the need to try and hone wire cutters but they get wiped down and oiled, as with the pliers.

I hope this was helpful to your practice!

Guerrilla Bonsai: Bringing Bonsai to the People!

Rafael Najmanovich and Patrick Blandeau of our group, the Progressive Bonsai Collective,  took bonsai to the streets during a Japanese street festival. Check out Rafael’s video below and subscribe to his channel. If the people don’t go to bonsai, bonsai goes to the people!

Weeds weeds weeds! Some are good, some are bad!

Like insects, grasses, sprouted tree seeds, wildflowers, moss, lichens and other intruders will grow in our pots. It’s inevitable. Weeds are something we don’t talk about enough and totally wish I knew more about all the scandalous weeds to avoid! I will try to hash out some thoughts and guidelines as well as point out a couple of bad ones I’ve encountered.

Moss as top dressing is a great thing. It’s aesthetically pleasing and it adds many technical functions. It can be equally pretty when a variety of little plants start to pop up and add to a more natural looking, wild landscape. It can also get quite bushy and start to hurt the aesthetic of the tree. When my teacher was an apprentice she had a tree with a lot of wild growth in the pot that she enjoyed. Her teacher commented “It’s time to cut the salad!”

Many of these weeds however are not good for our trees. How do we know what is good salad and what is bad salad ? With so much variety even from garden to garden it will take some time to learn what can stay in the pot.

Firstly, if it is a tree seedling I will remove it straight away, maybe even put it in a little pot. As for “weeds”, the deciding factors come down to a very simple question:

  • Will the weed take valuable resources and compete with the tree?

Weeds can suck up precious nutrients , they can move a ton of water and they can grow physically large roots that compete for space, water and nutrients. They can even smother and kill some of the roots of the tree.

The weed pictured above looks innocent enough from afar.

When pulled, we discover it’s taproot is extremely thick and long. Imagine if left unattended! It would not only occupy valuable physical real estate in the pot , it would be taking water and resources at a rapid rate based on its size and rate of growth.

This root was a dandelion left unattended too long. Remove all dandelion!

This is liverwort and one that was a little less obvious to me. The root system is not large at all. At first I thought it was cool looking and added variety to the ground cover. I learned quickly by speaking to my teacher that this is very bad. A huge resource hog, invasive and it can weaken trees if unattended. It’s to be pulled and removed from the garden area entirely.

Lichens, as seen on this trunk do not hurt the trees. Like moss, they can grow on the soil surface as well as the bark of trees. In fact they add a nice impression of old age. Lichens are very hard to get to grow in the pots or on trees and it is a treat when they pop up.

Obligatory Semi-redundant recap

  • Remove tree seedlings
  • Remove weeds with large root structures
  • Pull weeds from as low down their base as possible to remove all of the root system.
  • Learn the weeds growing in your garden by gently pulling up the roots and determining what is too physically invasive.
  • Bring photos or samples to your teacher, local nurseries or horticulture centres and online to research more thoroughly.
  • Always a safe bet to simply remove all unexpected growth
  • Liverwort growth is a sign of overwatering (Thanks Rafael Najmanovich from the PBC for this tip!)

We need an ongoing discussion of which weeds are good and bad. Comment / share with your experiences and knowledge of your salads!

Tree Profile: Larch Yamadori

A recent addition to my collection is this twin-trunk larch. I purchased it it from Louis at Art and Culture Bonsai in Shawinigan, a major contributor to Quebec bonsai culture and trees, supplies and resources. The tree is estimated to be somewhere around 80 – 100 years old and has been in training for several years. It’s primary branches are placed wonderfully. The bark showing more noticeable age than the other larches in my collection. I foresee a repot this winter or the next for sure. What do you think, bonsai pot or rock slab ?

Tree Profile: David’s Tree

I bought this Sawara Cypress from David Easterbrook. For those who don’t know David (if that’s even possible), he has over 40 years in bonsai. Curator of the Montreal Botanical Garden’s bonsai collection from 1982-2011, David is respected world wide as a top level bonsai practitioner, sensei, teacher, judge, appraiser, author and more.

David Easterbrooke translating a seminar with Koji Hiramatsu

If I remember correctly the tree was a cutting that David cultivated and then it went to one of his students. They had it for many years before it came back to David and now to me. Below is a photo journal of the tree over the short period time I have owned it.

When I first bought the tree last winter.

Cleaning up. Kinda like when you buy a used car…

Lots of algae and moss

Using my teacher’s pressure cleaner. How do people do this without one?!

Ok that’s as far as we will go with the cleaning!

In the above image, you may notice that the soil surface is lower in the front middle. This is because it has become compacted. It was even more evidenced when watering the tree. Water would pool up in that location but drain freely everywhere else in the pot. The loss of percolation can be solved without repotting. Mirai has a great video on Ryan’s vacuum removal of compacted soil technique as well as improving percolation. This was needed and much less invasive than a redundant repot. I performed the technique slowly and the result was flawless. Using a chopstick and shop vac, I gently removed all compacted organic material and stopped disturbing as soon as I started to see fine roots and friable soil. Roots cant grow in the compacted soil so we have to dig down until we get good friable soil. I then replaced with new soil mix. Now when watering , the percolation is fixed and even across the pot. The soil surface being even was also more pleasing to the eye.

Below is a time lapse video (no sound) of my first pruning on the Easterbrook Juniper. It was more a matter of getting to know the tree and balancing energy before the spring push.

As you can see in the progression of photos / video, the tree has started to regain balance and is showing good response to the late winter pruning. The few weaker branch sections are elongating and gaining strength while the rest of the tree has grown and filled out evenly.

In terms of the future and wiring of the tree, I think the overall vision is explanatory and I’ve made a few minor tweaks of my own to expand on that. I will definitely bring the tree to David soon for a chat. I plan to selectively wire the tree since lots of tertiary branching and would like to avoid excessive wiring.

In the time being I will keep my eyes peeled for its next pot!

Stay tuned for better photos !

Love for Forests & Tree Profile: Canadian Larch Forest

I have always been enamoured with forest plantings, penjing, landscape scenes etc. A huge part of what draws me to bonsai is to get immersed and lost in the illusion of these portraits or scenes, moments in time. The perspective, depth and scale of these compositions moves me. If only I had more space for a lot of them!

Larch in rural Quebec landscape. Photo by Jean-Francois Hamelin

For more inspiration, soak in this composition by Mariusz Folda. The forest was grown from rooted cuttings and trained over 20 years.

Larch forest by Mariusz Folda

Larch forest by Mariusz Folda

I had made some mediocre efforts at forests but did not yet have the experience, or skills to achieve what I really wanted. I showed my Sensei an attempt I had made with some young Alberta spruce. Alberta are generally undesirable for bonsai as they have very agressive upward growth.

My rather underwhelming Alberta spruce planting.

She said something along the lines of , don’t worry, we will make you a real forest. Interest amongst the other students was high so we set up a workshop open to any of her students and friends to come and make a proper larch forest. What a cool thing ! She is such an incredible force when it comes to opening and demystifying the world of bonsai. Linda taught us the traditional rules of forests and how they help with the aesthetic, depth, proportion etc. How the number of trees have suggested placement based on their heights and thickness.

Examples of placement vs tree thickness and height in Saburo Kari’s book.

Earlier in the winter Linda had asked me to bring a bunch of larches into the greenhouse to be ready for our workshop. I was first to remove all the dead leaves , snow and ice. These had been growing in bonsai substrate for many years in rootmaker pots to boot!

Larches coming out of early winter and into the greenhouse

Arriving on an early winter morning to get ready for the workshop.

In Mid-February I came in early in the morning to help get set up. We set up turntables and prepared workspaces, sorted the trees into bunches so people could chose and got a bunch of slabs ready. The workshop was phenomenal. Making a forest is a serious undertaking when done properly. It takes solid repotting techniques and experience as well as new skills specific to forests and slab planting.

Sensei teaching forest planting 101

I wanted to create something tall, natural looking and evoke a feeling of a Canadian forest scene. I went with material that was very tall and decided to leave a fair amount of that height in my design. I chose a slab that was large enough to accommodate the size of the planting and boy was it a cool one.

My trees and slab ready.

Ok the trees are roughly wired and cleaned up, slab prepped with soil mix and anchoring wires for each tree, roots prepped! Time to get them into their new home. It’s tricky to place the trees exactly where you want with these various established root systems. It took some fanagaling but I got them pretty close to the original sketch.

The master of the forest goes in first.

Just about in place! Time to tie down the wires!

Ready for some moss !

The forest responded well to the work however had a rough battle with aphids in early spring. I believe we are now beyond that battle after 3 treatments and implementation of predator attracting plants around the benches.

Regaining strength.

Killing aphids by hand daily in addition to insecticide.

While the aphids seem to be gone for now, some of the trees in the forest are slower to recover than others and are still regaining strength. I performed a very selective pinching after the shoots elongated in efforts only to manage energy and maintain balance and vigour. I decorated my forest scene with some classic Canadian wildlife 🙂 The little animals add a lot in terms of the scene and scale. This composition brings me so much joy every day.

Stay tuned, I will bring more updates regarding the Canadian Larch Forest!

Techniques: Defoliation

Bonsai Technique – Skill level: Beginner/Intermediate

Maples are a must have species in any bonsai collection. A major part of our landscape and culture in Canada, they have beautifully shaped leaves , and can be enjoyed any time of the year with their lush green canopies, fall colours and winter silhouettes. A technique not exclusive to but associated with maples is defoliation. Essentially, the process of skillfully removing leaves at the correct time. A technique that can be taken for granted. Remove some or all leaves to force a smaller more abundant flush of foliage during the growing season. Easy right ? Ok let’s go pluck all of our leaves ! No Matt, stop.

One of the key base teachings Ryan gives us is to always ask ourselves “What do we want to accomplish?” Smaller, more refined branching, smaller leaves and rich fall colours of course! That is an aesthetic goal and while yes, bonsai is in large an aesthetic art form, we have to always remember: horticulture first. These are living creatures. If the tree is weak then we want to build strength, we don’t defoliate. If the tree was just repotted, we want recovery, we don’t fully defoliate or perhaps not at all. If the spring flush of growth hasn’t hardened off, we don’t defoliate. Yes we want smaller and more dense foliage. Yes, the act of removing leaves does indeed help towards ramification of branches and leaf size, but it’s important to understand the nuances in timing, technique and aftercare. Here are some key points, basic or advanced that I have learned:

  • Defoliate maples in late spring to early summer. (Mid-May to late June).
  • Different maples will have nuances about defoliation. Generally partial defoliation is safe. Best to check for each.
  • Other deciduous species like elms for example are pruned at the same seasonal timing leaving a certain amount of leaves or nodes. The goal and process is similar to defoliation.
  • Generally you don’t defoliate trees from which you want fruiting or flowering.
  • Defoliate after the first major spring flush has hardened off. This is the indicator it’s good to go.
  • Cut no more that halfway down the petiole to protect the new buds, leave the petiole to fall off on its own.
  • The petiole will continue to “feed” the tree and protect the new buds until it’s taken all it needs from it.
  • Cut the larger leaves first leaving some of the smaller leaves , if possible keep a few at branch tips.
  • A fine technique to develop is grabbing multiple leaves at one time and severing the petioles with one cut.
  • Move slowly , develop the eye and physical technique. Speed will come in time on its own.
  • To safely defoliate a tree, don’t remove beyond 5-10 percent of the foliage, depending on the vigour of the tree.
  • Use this time to trim back advantageous new branch growth , suckers etc , bringing back the intended structure of the tree.
  • Also check for wires biting in and remove if necessary.
  • After defoliating , be aware the change in water consumption. It will not need as much water but still crucial to maintain the balance.
  • Semi-shade / dappled sun is a good place during recovery from defoliation.
  • When the new buds start to emerge, water needs will increase accordingly
  • Defoliation actually makes the tree “age” twice in a growing season and will promote more intense fall colours as well as smaller leaves and more branching.
  • It is advised by some to stop fertilizing until the new flush starts to grow. This year I have not stopped or changed any regiment. They are fed as all other growing trees are.

To show an example of how much is removed as well as resulting progress here are two trees very precious to me. I got them from my sensei Linda. What’s even cooler is she made both of these incredible pots. I am a big fan of her bonsai pottery.. These two trees are Amur Maple, acer ginalla, they are often scoffed at for bonsai but frankly they are tough as nails compared to Japanese maples in the Quebec climate and the leaves do get quite small if you can stay on top of the advantageous shoots ;).

Close up of remaining petioles and a little foliage after defoliating.

Acer Ginnala – Amur Maple #2 May ‘19 pre-defoliation.

Acer Ginnala – Amur Maple #2 defoliated June ‘19

Here is another one of my Amur maples that was defoliated a couple weeks earlier and is responding nicely. You can see the cut sites from defoliation and pruning now resulting in new more abundant small shoots. This will look really special with their fall colours and these pots.

Acer Ginalla – Amur Maple #3 June ‘19 after defoliation

New growth and cut sites after defoliating. Most of the petioles have already fallen off in the wind.

While the trees may look ugly without their leaves for a couple of weeks, the payoff is tremendous. If timing is done just right , you get tons of smaller new branch options , a fresh, clean healthy flush of smaller leaves and even back budding! With the addition of more intense fall colours , this is a technique that’s worth having on point.