This will be a new category of content for this blog.
I have been obsessed with bonsai since first seeing the 1984 film “The Karate Kid”.
Alas, I didn’t have any direct experience with them until my good friend from college, RB1 Leader [real name withheld for security reasons], had a small deciduous specimen which I believe came from the local shopping mall. Alas and alack, that tree died, as I recall, because we didn’t understand the correct way to water it.
When I returned from my year in the intentional community on Chicago’s north side and was living in the big house on Spy Rock Hill Road in Manchester-by-the-Sea, I began to acquire specimen of my own both through Bonsai West (Littleton, MA), and by finding stock in the wilds of The North Shore. My passion at that time was fueled by one particular wind swept juniper growing at the top of the bluff on the northern end of Singing Beach. It stood no more than 3 feet tall, but it had a root that ran at least 40 feet down the cliff, questing out tiny pockets of sand and soil in the crags. The tree was strong, and old, and had weathered many storms. I could swear (now, looking back) that God wanted me to see my potential if only I’d trust in him to get me through my own future storms.
I think all the trees I had at that time died of over-pruning or sloppy wiring injuries.
Once I was living in Providence I found myself frequently walking past the florist shop which at least used to be at the top of the section of Thayer St. which Brown Univ. students at least used to call The Strip. This florist often sold bonsai, and at one point they got a very large ficus. It sat in the window for nearly a year, I believe. The price started at something well over $300 — a pipe dream for me in those days. I wasn’t spending $300 a month on groceries at that time, let alone all at once on a tree. But, as it sat, and didn’t sell, and didn’t sell, the price slowly fell, and eventually I could risk the wait no more and I went over and, using probably an entire fiscal quarter’s mad money, purchased the tree for roughly a third of the original price. That was sometime in the year 2000 or 2001.
Being an older, well established tree, I did very little with it. No attempts at wiring, no aggressive pruning (except when new growth shot or ran too far), nothing that would risk long term injury or illness. I watered very, very carefully. I struggled through drafty, lightless apartments, long, gray winters, and even two interstate moves — one to Chicago and then the second here to Houston. Perhaps rather ironically, I thought the tree’s trials were finally over, and I was right (although, that wasn’t a good thing in this case). Houston’s climate should have been much better suited for the ficus and so I thought that I could finally get the tree back to a properly proportional leaf size (that is to say, very small) by keeping it out on the back patio, which faced south and held a great deal of light and warmth with trees and fences to keep wind to a minimum. I knew that if Houston saw any truly exceptional weather that winter I’d have to bring it indoors, but locals assured me that anything below 40 degrees, even over night, was rare. No one could remember the last time it had dropped below freezing or snowed.
Of course, being the walking statistical anomaly that I am, that very first winter, we got a snap freeze and a flurry. The first in something like 20 years. I brought the tree indoors in the evening, the temperature had only been dropping for a couple of hours. But apparently, even this was too much and I’d acted too late. By mid-spring the next year, it was obvious that there was to be no new growth, and the tree was quite dead. I felt quite sick. I genuinely mourned.
And so, I have spent the past handful of years without any trees to care for. My lawn and landscaping have occupied a lot of my time, and while I missed this often thankless hobby, I simply wasn’t quite ready to risk killing yet more baby trees.
My four years in Houston have given me another obsession — crape myrtles. Smooth barked, often gnarled clusters, sometimes elegant nymphs, and a violent riot of garish blooms every May — except this year when, presumably because of April’s hail storm, they didn’t bloom until July 4th and somehow are still all going strong despite this summer’s heat and lack of rain. Crape myrtle seem to be the Silly Putty[tm] of trees and since we first moved here I’ve had this itch to find out how well they could become bonsai. But as I said, the disaster with the ficus put that all on hold.
I’ve been shopping quite a bit at the farmer’s market, and there’s a fellow who comes and sells small bonsai along with some flower arrangements he makes. Seeing his trees each Saturday morning has put the bee back into my bonnet and so when I was at Home Depot over the weekend and noticed that they had some surprisingly small crape myrtle stock for something like $15 a pot, I decided it was about time I dove in — never mind that August in Houston couldn’t possibly be a worse time to begin a project like this.
I forgot to take a photo of the tree “as is” from point of purchase. I didn’t think to docu-journal the project until after I’d cut off the blooms. But aside from that, I’ve done nothing else to the plant at this point, so it is a reasonably good “step 0” at any rate. Sadly, the stock at Home Depot did not include the seemingly very rare deep purple blossoms, and all the white were already far too tall, so I had to settle for dark pink. The reality is, I probably won’t be able to allow the thing to flower much for years and years anyway. Here she is for you:
Blossoms strain the plant to support, so the first thing I did was cut off the half dozen or so clusters this plant arrived with. You can see the wonderful movement the trunk already has, which is why I chose this plant, and I intend to work with that, not change it. The long term goal will be a slant, rather than wind-swept style. The blue pot is the one in which my ficus had lived, and the goal is to get this tree into that pot, in due time. Right now, I’m letting it get used to the climate of the back patio before doing anything traumatic to it. In what is perhaps cruel irony or just the universe playing silly buggers with me, I have already learned that glazed tray are used for flowering trees, as this one is, and that you want a strong contrasting color, such as this blue, for pink blossoms. So, this pot may actually better suit this project than it did the original ficus which was in it for all those years.
As a fun side project, I discovered after I got it home that what I had thought was a weed in the side of the pot, was in fact, a crape myrtle starter, clinging to a piece of mulch. So, that’s already in the bonsai pot I use to for cascade style trees and, perhaps it may really only be two or three years behind big sister.
I’ll keep the two trunks, and let one cascade while the other acts as visual counter-weight.
Updates to this project are likely to be infrequent, and will get less frequent after the first six months. Once I have the big plant in the pot, and it gets the initial winter heavy pruning, there will probably be very little to do with either more than a few times per year. Crape myrtle have a highly seasonal growing cycle and because they can be so easily shaped simply by pruning, there will probably be very little wiring that goes on.
But, I do need to have the big plant into that small pot and comfortably living there before that first pruning takes place, so expect at least one more big update when that happens (I have to go get mesh, heavy root wire, bonsai soil mix and a new pair of heavy snips before I can do that) and then one for the pruning, and then probably nothing until next spring.