Tag Archives: bonsai

Projects: the bounty of summer

Bhut Jolokia peppers

The good news about having a greenhouse full of Bhut Jolokia, Trinidad Scorpion, and Moraga pepper plants being trained for bonsai: with the beginning of July comes lots and lots of fruit. The seemingly sad news: since the plants themselves are being deliberately dwarfed for that bonsai, the peppers aren’t anywhere near as big as they’d be if they were fertilized on a constant basis. The excellent news, at least for those with a taste for the dangerously spicy: stressing the plants in this way pretty much guarantees that the peppers will peel the enamel off your teeth in big floppy strips. Now I need to figure out a way to get these to my little brother the chilihead, because he pretty much eats these fresh off the bush.

Advertisements

Capsicum bonsai: starting out

A long while back, when faced with a local surplus of overgrown pepper plants at the local home improvement center, I discussed the bare basics for converting pepper plants into bonsai. A few years of experimentation went by since then. Capsicum peppers adapt rather well to bonsai training, and while they grow into a good form rather rapidly compared to most plants, they also have specific needs and considerations that most bonsai enthusiasts rarely encounter otherwise. It’s not often that one starts out with good examples of what to watch for in one plant, but a particularly aggressive Bhut Jolokia pepper raised as a container plant needed trimming back anyway, and this guy had some promise as a bonsai.

Starting out

Looking from above

Unbeknownst to most people content to raise hot and/or sweet peppers in the garden, Capsicum plants last more than one season if protected from freezing. This isn’t negotiable: peppers can’t handle even an hour of subfreezing weather. If you want to start with new seeds right now, understand that you’ll need to get this plant into a container fairly early, and you have to bring it into a space that gets lots of sun through the winter. For best results, don’t let the temperatures drop below 50 degrees F (10 degrees C), and try to keep the container off surfaces that conduct or trap cold, such as bare concrete.

This example here was the end-result of an experiment courtesy of the Chile Pepper Institute, back when the Institute was the one main source for Bhut Jolokia pepper seeds. Naturally, said experiment started right at the height of the new Texas Drought of Record, when relative humidity dropped to as low as 7 percent on most summer days, so only a few Bhut Jolokias survived the summer of 2011. One, though, not only survived but bore fruit, so it came inside for the winter and went into a one-gallon landscaping pot. One more summer outside, and now it’s ready for an initial assessment and shaping.

Essential tools

Before starting, make sure that you have tools and supplies on hand, and in a space where they’re readily accessible. Besides the standard tweezers and secateurs, I’ve become appreciative of microfiber polishing cloths for mopping up various fluids, and of a watch knife for shaping branches. Go with whatever works the best for you, but note that with peppers, you’ll probably do the vast majority of work with maybe one pair of scissors and a pair of chopsticks.

More tools

Another aspect to consider with peppers for bonsai is that these are NOT trees, and don’t stop reminding yourself of this. Pepper branches tend to be much more flexible than those of the tree species generally used for bonsai, but they’re also more prone to damage. Bend one too far, too quickly, and you stand a good chance of crimping the branch and thus permanently damaging it. Because of this, when wiring, I tend to go with very low-gauge, very soft wire. Standard copper bonsai wire can be too strong and inflexible for peppers, so I stick with aluminum, and the skinnier, the better. In the photo above, the smaller loops are aluminum jewelry wire, picked up at deep discount at the local Michael’s store, and the annealed wire is perfect for wiring up the ends of pepper plant branches without damaging them.

As with all bonsai projects, this one is an ongoing work, but it’s still going to take a while to clean it up. If you’re one of those who needs background noise while working, I recommend setting up an indoor work area and dropping something into the DVD player. I recommend something that combines hope for the success of the final work with a bit of mystery, and so I had the perfect film running while doing the initial evaluation and cleanup.

Dave Bowman looks on in horror

Yeah, Dave, I know how you feel.

The base is a mess

Before going any further, let’s start with cleaning up the winter residue. Since our Bhut Jolokia was outdoors all autumn long, the pot desperately needs removal of the various chunks of dead leaf, spent twig, and occasional cigarette butt within. (Do NOT ask me how the cigarette butt got in there. I can’t smoke, so it wasn’t mine.)

Cleaning it up

A few photos earlier, you may have noticed a bottle of isopropyl alcohol in the collection of tools being used. That’s because while cleaning up, I make a point of regularly sterilizing all of my metal and plastic tools with IPA while proceeding. Those microfiber cloths hold quite a bit, so they’re used for wipedowns, but I also recommend keeping a shot glass full of IPA on hand for dipping tools as well. Considering that peppers are as susceptible to tobacco mosaic virus as tomatoes, coming across that spare cigarette butt during the cleanup made me especially glad I had a consistent disinfection program going on.

Starting out

With that out of the way, let’s look at what we have. After a good year of growth, peppers tend to have a good stout woody stem with a strong root system. That’s the good side. The bad is that they also sprout lots of buds, too, and all over the place. This means that within a year, the pepper’s basic structure includes a lot of crossing branches, half-dead stubs, and other flaws. Put your pepper on a turntable of some sort and give it a good look, from above and below. Swing it around a few times, and take note of structure that you want to preserve and structure that needs to go.

Closeups of buds

Since it’s still spring, prepare yourself for pulling and clipping a lot of fresh buds, particularly where the main trunk meets the lowest branches. The good news is that while other plants may need grafts to add desirable features lower onto a trunk, sometimes you can get whole new ideas just by leaving the pepper alone for a while. In this case, though, since all I really want to do is open up the interior, they’re all going to have to go.

Pepper jin

As an aside, remember how you need to keep remembering that peppers aren’t like other bonsai plants? That applies most to deadwood techniques. This branch helps demonstrate why establishing jin and shari on a pepper usually doesn’t work. When pepper branches die off, the resultant wood becomes extremely fragile, going powdery in most cases, with a noticeable pith instead of heartwood. Trying to manipulate it usually means watching it break everywhere but where you want it to break, and the fragments usually destroy any sense of scale intended to be established. One of these days, I’m going to experiment with various fixatives that might build up such delicate wood, but for right now, that puppy is going to have to go.

Likewise, scarring up a pepper trunk to give it an impression of age requires different techniques. While the trunk itself is strong, the bark is tender and thin enough that the standard burning and reaming techniques for woody bonsai aren’t necessary. Gentle scraping with a watch knife blade is usually enough to establish the appearance of deadwood, and wood stressed with regular flexing, such as in plants exposed to regular heavy wind, splits in impressive ways.

Pepper trunk

Another consideration is that pepper nebari aren’t quite the same as those on other plants, either. After a few years, pepper roots get thick and tough, but as with branches, they don’t remain that way once they die. Larger roots turn into punk wood like branches, and the smaller ones simply shriven and retain all of the strength and aesthetic value of a piece of cheap wire insulation. With some patience, it may be possible to train pepper roots down the sides of rocks and the like, but that’s an experiment for another time.

At about this point, it’s probably time for another movie. Considering the sudden and thorough violence into which you’re going to engage, find one with appropriate sensibilities. In my case, I picked one that I regularly use as metaphor, such as when I tell my friend Billy Goodnick that when we finally meet, he’ll see my smile and suddenly regret looking for the ship’s cat.

Billy Goodnick visits the Triffid Ranch

Paul smiles for the camera

Again, the idea behind this exercise is to thin things out, establish a form for the new bonsai, and get rid of watersprouts and other extraneous growth. Here’s where we start…

A look at the mess

…and here’s where we end.

Finale of base

Don’t forget to use that turntable, and get a good view of what you’re intending to do. This experiment involved removing the majority of the green watersprouts coming off the trunk, removing any crossing branches, and encouraging new growth from the tips of the remaining branches.

Swinging it around

From this side, the the jin remains, but for how long depends upon what the pepper does in the next few weeks. If the current cleaning starts new budding next to the dead wood, I’ll probably remove the jin and allow the dead wood to form a hole in the trunk. If not, it may be time to try preserving it.

Pepper nodes
The last thing to watch for? Peppers tend to produce distinctive branch knobs at the trunk. If you don’t mind that your bonsai looks like a crape murder victim, feel free to leave them on. Otherwise, cut them off flush with the trunk and let them scab over. Over the next few weeks, keep a close eye on them, and don’t be afraid to pinch off any new growth in the vicinity. You’re trying to encourage growth at the tips of the branches, remember?

This is the first part of the saga. With luck, in a few weeks, you’ll see it continue, and within a few years, this might be a show-quality bonsai. Equally likely, someone else will exceed any of my silly experiments and come up with all sorts of different ideas, and that works too. See you in a bit.

Review: Keshiki Bonsai by Kenji Kobayashi

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Keshiki Bonsai cover

Keshiki Bonsai: The Edgy, Modern Way to Create Miniature Landscapes by Kenji Koybayashi
ISBN-10: 1604693592
ISBN-13: 9781604693591
Published: Timber Press (OR), 10/01/2012
Pages: 176
Language: English

For anybody who went to school at any university specializing in fine arts, or for anyone like me who just hung out with a lot of burgeoning young artists, one book was the subject of conversation more than any other. It rarely made any appreciable impact upon non-artists, and a lot of artists scoffed when they saw the title in a student’s book-pile. However, for a certain percentage of fine arts students, this was a tome as essential for rumination and digestion as The Boys on the Bus was for journalism majors. That book was 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship by Salvador Dali.

In reality, 50 Secrets carried 51 secrets: it was deliberately obtuse. The first few chapters started with Dali alternating between kissing his own ass and tearing down any contemporary painter within his purview, and most readers give up after 30 pages or so of ridiculous self-aggrandizing. As I said, this was the last secret, hidden in plain sight. Slog and fight through the beginning and Dali’s ego, and you suddenly realize “Hey, I’m learning something.” That continues through the book, as you pick up ever-more-intriguing tips on what made Dali the painter he was, as well as learn that the other secrets weren’t about slavishly following his list. (For instance, it’s rather hard to follow the letter of the law when two of those secrets to being a great painter were “live in Spain” and “be named ‘Salvador Dali’.”) It’s only at the end of the book, literally within the last two paragraphs, that all of the discussion on making pigments and training spiders to make webs in hoops made of branches suddenly makes sense. At the absolute end, everything taught throughout the book finally comes together, in a way that leaves you breathless in its brevity and its force. Only at the end do you realize that there was a method within the madness: it’s one that only really worked for Dali, but one that allows you to follow his lessons and take them in your own directions.

As much as I hate the lazy analogy of making a direct comparison with one modifier, such as the classic “my family life was [fill in the blank] on acid,” Kenji Kobayashi managed to do something quite singular. He managed to write the 50 Secrets of Magic Craftmanship for the horticulture contingent.

Not that he planned to do so with Keshiki Bonsai. Kobayashi, the owner of the bonsai shop Sinajina, understandably became frustrated with bonsai design and bonsai guides, and the seemingly overwhelming material on the hows of bonsai design that neglect the why. Instead of dutifully showing how to wrap and pinch bonsai into forms that may not be final for fifty or a hundred years after he dies, he has much more of an interest in simple designs that can be constructed and maintained by those of us with limited time and even more limited resources. Many of his step-by-step projects aren’t intended as final compositions, such as with a Martha Stewart arrangement. Each of his projects is intended to teach one skill well enough, such as recreating the flow of moss up a hillside, that it’s possible to move on. He doesn’t teach by going one step at a time with one tree: he tries to get the reader to look at bonsai arrangements as installments toward improved skills, and with a final product ready for enjoyment and basic maintenance within a few days. The idea isn’t to reshape a tree into a presumed bonsai in a day, but to consider “exactly how do I convince a viewer that s/he’s looking at a grassy hilltop and not simply an accumulation of potting mix and various seedlings?” That last part is the important part.

For standard bonsai enthusiasts, a lot of the basics in Keshiki Bonsai won’t be anything they don’t already know, and many of Kobayashi’s accents and pots may be overly simplistic or even vulgar. However, for anyone working with miniature gardening, this book shouldn’t be kept on a shelf. It should be kept in a little box right next to your work area, pages full of bookmarks, on hand for when it’s needed. “When it’s needed” is best defined as “every five minutes.” And for terrarium construction advocates? Just be glad this book can’t be downloaded directly to your brain…yet.

Uncle Sam’s On Mars

Back at the end of the Nineties, my obsession with the European colonization of New Zealand, particularly with the Acclimatisation Societies, led to my putting together a discussion on the subject of importing fauna and flora to Mars for the late, lamented online magazine Event Horizon. In the intervening 13 years, I’ve continued to research the whys and wherefores of growing food items in space habitats, as well as the potential controls for previously innocuous organisms becoming major pests in lunar or Martian greenhouses. Naturally, you can understand why I’m thrilled to discover that NASA is also looking at the issue of feeding a 30-month Mars mission. Admittedly, I’m also fully expecting that the first serious exports from a permanent Mars installation probably won’t be hot peppers. And so it goes.

With that said, I’m actually more intrigued by the idea of some enterprising soul producing the solar system’s hottest peppers on Mars, either via hydroponics or with the use of suitably augmented Martian soil. Testing the effects of Martian gravity on pepper plants may be problematic, but it’s definitely possible to test the soil viability with Martian and lunar soil simulants in a greenhouse environment. This may be a very public experiment for this winter, when I’ll be starting up pepper and tomato seedlings anyway. Best of all, I could see the interest in Martian explorers taking such a Capsicum plant and shaping it into the first-ever Martian bonsai.

Something to make your day

For those who don’t read the exemplary blog Bonsai Bark, here’s a story that will make your eyes bleed. It concerns stolen bonsai, specifically four prize-winners stolen from New England Bonsai Gardens last weekend. The punchline, though, is this quote:

Unless they are recovered soon, odds are whoever ends up with them won’t be able to keep them healthy. Years ago a friend (and customer of New England Bonsai) had some prize bonsai stolen from his back yard. The good news was the police found the bonsai during a drug bust. The bad news was, they found them dead in a closet.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I feel the need to punch something. Like the individuals who stole these bonsai.

Projects: “Capsicum Peppers for Bonsai”

Interested bystanders considering moving into bonsai have multiple reasons to be dissuaded from giving the art a chance. Many, particularly Americans, are put off by the amount of time necessary with many tree species for initial training. Others don’t feel comfortable with risking a valuable scion or yamadori to a design that might kill the tree. Still others feel intimidated by the techniques themselves, and wish for easier starter plants for practice before risking a pomegranate or Wollemi pine to shaping and cutting. In recent years, herbal alternatives to standard trees, particularly using rosemary and other woody shrub herbs, have achieved a popularity of their own, and an intriguing alternative is the Capsicum group of peppers.

The advantages to using Capsicum peppers for bonsai experiments include a higher resistance to dehydration than most other bonsai candidates. Since hot peppers cannot tolerate temperatures below freezing, they must be kept as indoor plants in areas with such temperatures, and the peppers thrive as indoor plants in sunny locations. Many, such as the jalapeno (Capsicum annuum) and the habanero (Capsicum chinense), produce attractive flowers and fruit as bonsai. Best of all, not only are plants suitable for bonsai available at garden centers and nurseries, but no evidence yet exists for exactly how long they may survive with proper care. Anecdotal evidence of jalapenos and habaneros surviving for as much as thirty years in plants brought in over the winter, but since most plants stop producing peppers at about that time and are subsequently composted, a Capsicum bonsai may live considerably longer than this.

Another advantage to using Capsicum peppers is that as the pepper plant ages, it builds up a woody stem that is very easy to cut and shape with standard bonsai techniques. The following project involves the beginnings of training a pepper plant for bonsai, but be aware that as with most bonsai, the final effect will take years of shaping. Using Capsicum peppers for bonsai is much faster than using comparable-sized trees, but proper techniques still require patience.

And now the safety warning, to keep the lawyers happy…

WARNING: When using hot peppers for bonsai, ALWAYS wear protective clothing when working with ripe or green fruit. While the leaves and stems do not contain capsaicin, the active compound in hot peppers that produces the distinctive fire, the fruit will, no matter what stage of growth. Some individuals are particularly sensitive to capsaicin on the skin, and all must take precautions not to get any in the eyes , mucus membranes, or particularly sensitive skin. Especially when working with notedly hot peppers such as habaneros, eye protection is highly recommended, as mild bruising of fruit that otherwise leaves no trace may still leave enough capsaicin on skin to cause extreme burning if it gets into the eyes. ALWAYS wash your hands and tools after working with Capsicum fruit, whether it is green or ripe. Neither the Texas Triffid Ranch or any of the entities therein take responsibility for any injuries or discomfort caused by exposure to Capsicum fruit, and individuals overly sensitive to capsaicin should attempt the following project using a mild pepper, such as the TAM jalapeno or habanero developed by Texas A&M University.

Raw stock for pepper bonsai

Raw stock for pepper bonsai

To begin, suitable peppers may be grown from seed, or may be purchased as seedlings from the aforementioned garden centers. A suitable pepper should have a good rootstock and a stout stem. Always examine a candidate pepper for infestations of pests such as aphids and whitefly: an infestation at this early a stage suggests a weak plant, although this could also be a factor of poor growing conditions.

Upon finding a suitable candidate plant, the first concern is training it for future shaping. Capsicum peppers are particularly adapted to hot and dry conditions, and in fact have problems with root rot if kept overly wet. My preferred choice of training pot is a five-inch pot purchased at a garden shop sale, with a lip on the drainage saucer to allow inspection of the water level. Make sure that the crown of the plant, where the stem connects to the roots, is not buried in the repotting, as this may cause stem rot and may kill the pepper. Water the pepper sparingly and only when the soil is completely dry, and fertilize every six months. As the plant responds to conditions, it will produce small leaf pods, which may be shaped later.

Bonsai candidate after training

Bonsai candidate after training

After six months to a year of growth, the bonsai candidate will have reached the limits of growth in its original pot. In this case, the plant shifted to the side and produced new growth along the leading edge. Several small offshoots have died back at the tip, and these may be used as deadwood or jin in the final design or removed later. The main stem now shows signs of becoming woody, and while whitefly or aphid infestations may cause localized leaf loss, new leaf clusters will appear from the trunk so long as the trunk itself is still green. In addition, while the plant was stressed, it still produced a full dozen fruit and as many flowers at the time this picture was taken, attesting to the strength of the plant. Both flowers and fruit may be removed at this time, taking care with the fruit, or they may be left intact when repotting.

Why peppers don't produce good nebari

Why peppers don't produce good nebari

Of particular note is the root system in the pot. Capsicum peppers do not seem to respond well to exposing the roots for long periods, so trying to develop a nebari may cripple or kill the pepper. However, this may be only a condition of a young pepper plant, and anyone wishing to research this on an older pepper should not be discouraged from doing so.

New bonsai pot with screen

New bonsai pot with screen

At this stage, the root system has filled the entire pot, meaning that it already has a sufficient root pad for repotting in a traditional bonsai pot. Try to choose a bonsai pot as deep as the root pad, as the root pad will not respond as well to root combing as other bonsai candidate species. As with most others, place a piece of nylon screening over the drainage holes to prevent soil from escaping through the bottom.

Tumping out the plant from the training pot

Tumping out the plant from the training pot

At this point, the pepper is ready for repotting. The workspace used for repotting depends upon the individual, and I use a plastic container to minimize soil escape. Use this opportunity to examine the root pad for potential diseases, but try to keep disruptions to a minimum. Excess roots through a drainage hole may be trimmed, but try not to remove excess soil or comb roots for shaping.

Pepper in its new pot

Pepper in its new pot

Actually stabilizing the root pad may use several techniques, all of which depend upon the individual artist. Peppers respond well to tying with wire through the drainage holes, but in this case, the only support is the soil itself. Note in this picture that the pepper stem itself extends well beyond the confines of the pot: once it is adapted to its new pot, the trunk may be propped to a shankan form, or the excess trimmed to encourage the new growth within the pot for a penjing display. This, as always, depends upon the form of the pepper and the demands of the bonsai artist.

Props to the bonsai

Props to the bonsai

As of this writing, the only addition to this planting is a broken pot used to assist the roots in keeping the pepper in its original leaning form. The pepper is watered when dry, which is usually once per week, and has been kept out of direct sun during that transition. The next stage involves improving upon the branch shape and encouraging a stronger root system, and the final results should be completed within the next six months. Since so little information is available on using peppers for bonsai, copious notes have already been taken on this bonsai’s development, and the techniques described herein will be applied to other habaneros to confirm that these work the best.

The use of Capsicum peppers for bonsai candidates may be unorthodox, but future experimentation should confirm that their use offers opportunities for expanding the art. Their quick growth rate, their unusual leaf and fruit structures, and their ability to thrive under dryer and hotter conditions than most bonsai candidates give them a decided advantage to beginners, and advanced bonsai artists may find much to work with from this particular genus. As always with bonsai, the important consideration is giving the plants time to show their best advantage.

Postscript: shortly after finishing this article, I discovered a Finnish chile enthusiast who does his own pepper bonsai. He’s at least five years ahead of me, and has already demonstrated that pepper nebari are both possible and impressive, which means that it’s time for me to get to work.

July through October, in the heat

I know it doesn’t help, but I speak from experience. Earth hasn’t been launched into the sun, so things WILL cool off in the Northern Hemisphere. They’ll even cool off in Texas, as heretical the idea may seem. True, we won’t be down to temperatures conducive for carbon-based life for another three months, but it’s something. In the meantime, you can either complain about the heat, or you can sit down, take a nice deep breath of granite vapor, and think about something else.

Now, you could do something to distract yourself, such as watch a nice, tranquil art movie in an air-conditioned theater. Considering the source, though, you have plenty of options for gardening opportunities that don’t directly involve being withered into dust by the big yellow hurty thing in the sky. For instance:

Get in some reading. After you’ve come inside after a hard day at work, and slogged through the pools of molten concrete in front of the door, there’s a lot to be said about doing something that requires you to move nothing but your eyes. With that consideration, I could be self-serving and mention that Gothic Beauty magazine now offers digital subscriptions, and the print subscriptions are ridiculously cheap for the value. However, I’ll also point out that a lot of unorthodox publications tie directly to summer gardening, such as the article on natural vivarium substrates in the current issue of Reptiles magazine. And if your brain is frying in your skull, get into the shade and put in a few orders with Timber Press‘s extensive collection of horticulture books. That should cool you for a while.

Consider something smaller. One word: bonsai. A few more: penjing and Hon Non Bo. When you find yourself feeling like a character in Ray Bradbury’s story “Frost and Fire,” it may be time to reevaluate going outdoors to garden. In that case, consider talking to the folks at Dallas Bonsai Garden for tools and equipment, or peruse the Bonsai Bark blog for ideas. If you’re looking for something more encapsulated, there’s no reason why you can’t consider vivaria, either. (To friends in Massachusetts for various onerous reasons this coming weekend, I’d tell you to head out to Black Jungle Terrarium Supply in Turner Falls and stock up on vivarium goodies, but the whole Black Jungle crew will be at the New York Metro Reptile Expo in White Plains at that time. Do NOT let that stop you. I’ll be at the DFW Lone Star Reptile Expo in Arlington for the same reason.)

Get an early start on the fall season. While the summers are brutal, one of the best things about living in Texas is that the autumns go on forever. I’m only slightly exaggerating, as I’ve gleefully harvested tomatoes and Swiss chard out of my own garden for Christmas dinner, and most citrus, ranging from oranges to Cthulhufruit, isn’t ripe until the end of November. That’s why, when the heat threatens your sanity, start making plans for autumn and winter right now. Considering how well Capsicum peppers work as container plants brought indoors before the frosts start, take a look at the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University and run that Mastercard dry. (I currently have a back growing area loaded with NuMex Halloween peppers that are getting big enough to demand UN membership, and Arioch help me when the Bhut Jolokias start bearing fruit.

Combining all of the above. And what’s wrong with Capsicum pepper bonsai? Add in a suitable recipe for jalapeno poppers, and you won’t be worrying about the heat outdoors. Instead, you’ll wonder about what happened to the time when New Year’s Eve hits and you’re up to your armpits in fresh potting mix.