by Terry Erasmus June 03, 2016 9 Comments

A customer recently brought me an acacia bonsai tree which had sustained some damage and had also been somewhat neglected. I was asked to restyle the tree and also to repot it. I am not a massive fan of the species but I saw it as a nice challenge and at the same time a bit of a change from my more favored pines and Chinese maples.

Image caption. The tree as it was given to me to work on.

  • The first task at hand, when faced with a project like this is to study the tree. Try to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the tree and of course when you style or restyle it the goal would be to emphasize the strong and hide or minimize the weak.
  • Its also a good idea to have a time horizon in mind. What I mean by this is that considering this is a customer's tree I cannot very well hack it and then explain to them that in 20 years it will be a great tree. As whatever styling decisions you make will have a certain time frame associated to them you might want to adjust your expectations if you only wish to spend a short period of time working towards that goal.
  • Turn the tree around and around. Tilt it back and forth, with the pot of course. Think about what angle displays the tree at its best.
  • Consider also the health of the tree as you do not want to use heavy handed techniques on a weak or sickly tree.
  • Once you have found the "front" which best suits the tree, you might need to prop up the pot and tree with wooden blocks in order to change the planting angle; such as was needed in this case. The extreme leaning angle of the trunk did not make much sense to me as the iconic image I have of an acacia tree in my mind is one of a vertical tree standing erect and alone in the African savannah. This is not to say that you cannot have an acacia bonsai in any other style than an upright one, but I think it is just easier to capture the imagination of the viewer if you don't expect too much in the way of imagination from them.

    The wild growth, the result of neglect would need to be reduced and of course the branches would need wiring and shaping. I started by removing all the dead growth and the growth which was clearly problematic, such as 3 branches growing from the same point and other such faults.

    Image caption. The tree after working on it.

    One always begins wiring and styling from the bottom branch. This tree was no exception. I had to use some wire stays also to change the angles of some of the more mature branches; this is a far less aggressive technique than using very thick wire which would also have damaged the bark. A branch jack makes it possible to gently and in a controlled manner open or close branch angles, once in the angle which is pleasing to you it can be frozen like that by wire.

    Concave branch cutters come in very handy in eliminating unwanted branches cleanly, leaving a slight concave surface which, together with Kiyonal sealer will heal over quickly and invisibly. I only used aluminium wire on this Acacia, aside from the stays which were done with copper as its considerably stronger in thinner gauges.

    You will notice that there is yet movement in the tree, from right to left. I like trees with movement, but one must be cautious not to maintain balance or the tree appears to fall but creates a sense of uneasiness in the viewer. The visual mass of foliage, or branches at the moment, balances out the movement and the tree feels stable in the container.

    I used several 4mm wires to securely anchor the tree into the pot, after I repotted it at the new angle. I used the Professional mix to replace the fine, sandy mix which it was growing in. This should produce good root development and ramification, which will be echoed in the canopy above ground also.

    After treatment like this, it is best not to fertilize the tree until it shows clear signs of recovery.

    It would also be wise to keep it out of wind if possible as instability in the pot could damage the young and tender new roots when they emerge. Morning sun or all day dappled shade would be good for the tree also.

    The customer was happy and so as a result, I was happy.





    Terry Erasmus
    Terry Erasmus

    Author


    9 Responses

    Terry
    Terry

    June 07, 2016

    Thanks for the comment Graeme. I would agree with your assumption that this is a galpini. I do not have enough experience with the species to claim that I understand its growing characteristics that well but on the pierneef styled one which I have grown for many years I do not see this habit. However what I would say that when the branch gets to a certain age it tends to visually gain tremendous girth, rapidly. As I don’t know the history of this tree I would be guessing in saying that it is quite possible that the thick branches which you see were the original ones and the thinner branches are younger and the bark has not had as much time to thicken. In general I would imagine that if you want to counteract the thickening the only way would be to pinch those branches and allow the others to develop unhindered and in so doing balance the energy the way you want it to be. Please also bear in mind that were this my tree I might have changed it more radically and taken a longer term view, but when you are working with a customers trees you are not always at liberty to make such drastic decisions without asking and even if given permission the owner may still be upset with you afterwards, and never return in a worst case! :)

    Graeme
    Graeme

    June 06, 2016

    The changes to the Acacia are clearly an improvement. Once the leaves have formed a canopy it will have a clear and improved outline compared to the original. Although not mentioned, the tree appears to be an Acacia Galpini. It does display characteristics common to the Acacia species in that the second branch on the LHS as well as the uppermost branch on the RHS are noticeably thicker than the branches lower down. Do you have any practical advice on how to manage this situation?

    Terry
    Terry

    June 06, 2016

    Hi Tom, you can send me a photo or two of the tree you refer to and I will give my opinion for what its worth as soon as I have a chance. Meryl, you and me both! ha ha ha. I think it will look great when its got leaves on again, as at the moment the basic framework of the branches are there but the ramification needs to be increased so its pretty sparse right now but with a little imagination I think you appreciate what it could look like :)

    Terry
    Terry

    June 06, 2016

    Penny thanks for your questions. In my little experience with Acacia I have found them to have very weak root systems so I am not sure how readily they will root using the techniques you mentioned. Sometimes branches will be stressed when wired and the tree will rather abandon them in favor of pushing more energy into healthy branches. This is the reason why if you wire a tree it is usually better to wire the whole tree if possible so everything is evenly stressed. Repotting and simply replacing the old growing medium without pruning the roots, in the hands of an experienced person is not a problem. Root pruning can also be done but it will weaken the tree. I did not cut any roots and was very gentle with handling them, so the tree should be fine. Good question though.

    Meryl George
    Meryl George

    June 06, 2016

    Great improvement! Would love to see it in couple of years!

    Tom Trollip
    Tom Trollip

    June 04, 2016

    hi there,
    wow thanks for this article
    if I send you phots of my acacia trees could you yes fine or no must change
    Kind regards,
    tom

    Penny Pistorius
    Penny Pistorius

    June 03, 2016

    A great improvement.
    I have questions, since a friend left a black monkey thorn with me to “improve” in summer, and I seem to have made some mistakes. I was aiming for a Pierneef style. It has a good trunk, but needed to be repotted at a new angle, which I did, drilling some hormone-dusted holes in the base and adding a collar in the hopes of more even nebari.
    The thick lower branches I trimmed and wired have died off. The tree is redeemable, but I feel very bad. Why did they die? (I know this may be an impossible question, but any opinion would be appreciated)
    Did you do this now?
    Surely it’s a risky time to be repotting and trimming?

    Jon
    Jon

    June 03, 2016

    Great improvement to the tree. Thanks for sharing.

    dorian
    dorian

    June 03, 2016

    Hi Terry.

    Another great article. Thanks so much.

    I love my acacia’s and actually have quite a few. Whilst they can be quite not the nicest trees to work with (especially the ones with thorns) they are very rewarding trees if taken care of correctly.

    The change you made on this tree is definitely a massive improvement and I hope the client can take it to the next level.

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