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6 min read

Winter is generally a quiet time, unless you have a lot of conifers such as junipers and pines which you want to style in which case you may wish to join me at one of my workshops. However there are actually a lot of fun things you can do during the cold and rainy months. Here are a few which I can think of.

Activity #1 Plan a forest - but don't plant it yet

Bonsai forests are wonderful to look at. They have the ability to transport us to some faraway place in our imagination. Unlike individual bonsai trees which require a fairly advanced tree to be convincing or impressive, forests can be made up of relatively juvenile trees and in a fairly short period of time you can have something which will impress not only yourself but your friends that come to visit also.

Image caption. Hinoki forests at a grower in Saitama, Japan.

There are plenty of articles both on the web and in magazines as well as books on how to create a forest so I won't go into too much detail but I will make the following suggestions or tips if you like:

  1. Try to use trees which were started as cuttings from the same mother plant, this will ensure that all the trees behave exactly the same with respect to their growth habit.
  2. Have more trees available to you than you intend using in your forest, as you will no doubt eliminate a couple for some or other reason as you create your forest planting.
  3. Make sure you have trees of various sizes and thicknesses so that you can create maximum amount of visual interest and depth.
  4. Use a framework of some sorts onto which to anchor the trees, otherwise the trees might be dislodged by wind.

Image caption. Make a framework of sorts onto which to anchor the individual trees in your forest. Use something which will degrade after a while, like bamboo or chopsticks.

Activity #2 Look for rocks

Root over rock plantings are a lot of fun to do and are very suited to many of the species which we can easily grow here in South Africa - namely the figs.

Image caption. Few species are as suited for Root over Rock plantings as the Chinese Maple, such as this one I was growing for some time in the ground on a rock collected from the seashore.

Before the spring repotting season winter is often a good time to search for suitable rocks to use in root over rock plantings.

Once again here are a couple tips you might find useful when looking for rocks:

  1. Try to find rocks with lots of crevices - places in which to place the roots of the tree.
  2. Don't use pebbles; rounded stones which are smooth on the surface. A tree planted on such a rock looks weird - unnatural.
  3. Try to use a stone of a dark colour and not lightly coloured. For example sandstone which is a sort of grey-white is not really ideal, a dark grey to black or dark brown colour makes for a better combination.
  4. Don't use sandstone or other stones made from soft material. The roots of a tree exerts a lot of pressure onto any stone and can easily crack a soft stone in half or at least cause pieces of it to flake off.
  5. If you use stones gathered from the seashore, be sure to reduce the salt deposit on it. I normally leave mine for a winter in the rain. You could also soak it in a bucket of water for a couple weeks or months till use.

Image caption. When rock and roots blend into one form it can be spectacular. Chinese maples do this readily.

Activity #3 Cleaning your benches

Alright, this is probably the least "fun" activity of the bunch but it is nonetheless something I would strongly advise.

Mould and fungus begins to develop on your wooden benches due to the continuous dampness, assuming you are using wood as a frame. It is best to use a pressure sprayer or simply a scrubbing brush and clean this off or the wood will begin to rot. I know it might look nice to have moss growing on your benches but eventually you will have to replace the wood, so it's not advisable to let it grow.

A product which I would recommend you consider is Sporekill. It is a product which has been available to the professional nurseryman for many years and I was able to get the manufacturer to package some for me in a smaller quantity making it more appropriate for the home user. It is a very good product for disinfecting many different kinds of surfaces and unlike some products it is not carcinogenic neither does it leave a residue. You can also use it on a regular basis as a fungicide. You can order Sporekill here

Image caption. My benches are constructed from wood and every couple years it is necessary to clean them and even reapply wood preservative.

Activity #4 Styling evergreens

It is best to perform any major restyling of pines and junipers, during winter. Quite simply the reason for this is that when the trees are actively growing in spring and summer, and sap is flowing through the tree, it is very easy for the bark/cambium to separate from the hardwood beneath when you apply wire or make large bends. Sometimes if this separation is considerable you will lose a branch and if enough branches, then the entire tree.

Image caption. I would not have attempted this dramatic bend if this pine were actively growing, definitely not without raffia. However done in winter you can risk much more. 

For this reason major restyling of these species should be left for winter when there is no sap flow and there is no danger of separation. This does not mean to say that you cannot lightly wire and style conifers during the spring or summer months, I am referring to major bends.

A branch bender and branch jack are very useful tools for making large bends in more mature branches and trunks.

Activity #5 Study pictures of trees you like and those growing in nature

I don't believe someone just begins designing beautiful trees out of the blue. Its my opinion that what we design is a culmination of what our eyes have taken in from our surroundings, from books, other resources and our own creative style.

Before you have realized your own style, so to speak, it helps a lot to study pictures of bonsai trees and of course wild growing trees. I love looking at trees in winter because all their secrets are revealed to me without the leaves which cover them in the active growing period.

Image caption. One day when I grow up (he he!) I want to be able to style Celtis like this one from Taiwan.

One can study how branches emerge from the trunk, how they split or ramify, and how they taper. You can study the proportions of canopy and trunk. Much can be gained from such study if you can translate that to your bonsai (Something which I see too little of, lots of bonsai by numbers though). Such translation could be done in a very literal sense as is the case of "natural bonsai" or in a slightly idealized manner which is typical of the Japanese style of bonsai.

Another great book to have is Charles Ceronio's "Practical Bonsai Styles of the World." It is filled with many sketches of bonsai styles, tips and suggestions. Perhaps you will get an idea for that tree you have hidden away in the back corner of the garden that you simply have no idea of what to do with.

Well there you have it, a few things which could keep you busy all through the winter. Winter is also a good time to do some shopping; for instance to stock up on some repotting requisites so you have them at hand for when spring comes round.

3 Responses


May 26, 2016

Thats great Dorian! Its such a small detail, taking cuttings from the same tree, but it actually makes a big difference when maintaining the trees later on also. Just make sure to mark the individual pots or group the cuttings in such a way that you don’t lose track of which are which.

Bill Rayner
Bill Rayner

May 18, 2016

Thank you for the advice. It’s great to have you guiding us through the different stages.

dorian Fourie
dorian Fourie

May 16, 2016

Another great article Terry.

Strangely enough as per my email to you the other day, my cuttings have all been taken from the same plant exactly for the reason you mentioned in the blog. I have taken plenty so hopefully there is a forest (or 2) and a clump style awaiting me in the future.

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