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Tale of a survivor: a ficus bonsai and artist grow together

By: David McPeters, Current President RMBS

There is a saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The corollary for bonsai is ‘the mistakes you make that don’t kill the tree makes it stronger.’ This is the story of such a tree

Ficus microcarpa after structural wiring 2/5/2021. Below is the bonsai prior to work.

The work today was to do some structural wiring to get branches spread and a bit of thinning. This spring it will go outdoors and be allowed to grow all summer. Still a work in progress.

I have had this one for a long time. It is the Ficus I have had the longest. I bought this around 2005. So, you might ask, 15 years and only now doing structural wiring? This is a ficus I learned on. So, it has probably had all the techniques you read about applied to it. Unfortunately, since I didn’t always know what I was doing they were often done at the wrong time and/or not successful. If you get close to this one you will see the scars of my learning process.

There were several restarts on this tree. I made a lot of mistakes, but it keeps on going.

History: A process of growth

Below is a picture from November of 2008. The zip ties are holding cuttings to bond to the main trunk. They turn into the branches on the trunk. This is the ‘pine tree’ phase. I had let it grow tall and pruned back the original branches. End result? Tall, skinny, and sparse branching and foliage. First mistake.

2008: Ficus cuttings bonded with zip-tie technique. "Pine tree phase."

For the next 6 years work consisted of letting it grow and pruning it back. I traveled for work during this period so there was a bit of neglect involved.

Skipping ahead to August of 2014. The pictures below are before and after one of the restarts. August is not the best time to do such a massive chop, but it did survive. Long fiber sphagnum moss is visible in both pictures. I was trying to encourage roots off the base of the trunk by surrounding it with the moss. That works. However, in Colorado that requires watering a couple of times a day to keep the moss damp during the summer. Additionally, birds seem to be attracted to the moss and can pick it off in an afternoon. Once the roots have started and are growing, they become entwined with the moss. As a result, the moss remains in place for several years while the roots thicken. Eventually it can be removed by tediously pulling it apart.

2015: Sphagnum moss packing in place to develop root base.

The base at this point was still too skinny and there was inverse taper. I should have chopped it down even closer to the nebari to correct the taper. Further mistake.

2015: Following major cutback, but inverse taper areas remain. This should be remedied.

Vigorous growth resulted. Additional moss applied to stimulate additional root growth.

Time to bond some more cuttings to the lower trunk. I had four rooted cuttings taken probably 2 or 3 years earlier. They were bare rooted and three were tied to the trunk.

Bare rooted cuttings to be added via the zip-tie method.

I removed the sphagnum moss, attached the cuttings with zip ties, and then reapplied the moss. The zip ties will hold the pieces tightly until the bonds take. They will cut in eventually. If that happens before the bond takes, cut them off and apply again in different locations.

Zip-tie bonding method detail.

New moss applied with promote moisture retention to aid in bonding of cuttings.

And finally, a shot from December 2017. The main trunk has been shortened since the 2015 pictures. From 2017 to the present each year I let it grow in the spring and summer, hard prune and wire in mid to late summer or fall, and then repeat.

2017: Main trunk height reduction and result of cutting grafting.

After all these years and work it is still ugly, still not a finished bonsai, and it probably never will be. I did learn how to work ficus with this tree. In my collection I have 13 other ficus that are 2nd and 3rd generation started from cuttings of this original purchase. My ficus technique has improved. Sadly, my photography has not.

Ficus are easy to work with and to develop. It is critical to develop them with purpose and apply the appropriate techniques at the right time as it moves from pre-bonsai, to in progress, to finished. Follow the well-known mantra; build the trunk, develop the branching primary, secondary, tertiary, and finally develop the canopy.

--David McPeters

Feb 2021

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