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I bought this European Beech in April 2001 from a bonsai nursery; its price had been reduced because, I was told, it was a 'little weak'.
Apparently the tree had been part of a large group planting that had been taken apart the previous Winter and this was the main tree(s).
I was very impressed with the movement in the main trunk and there seemed to be a good possibility of using all three trunks for a clump-form bonsai. Unfortunately, I was also seduced by the ramification of the branches, as it was to turn out, all of the ramification was unusable for a tree with a single trunk.
Little work was carried out on the tree during 2001; the tree was obviously weak and needed the year to recover. After a bad case of white-fly infestation during the Summer that is typical of an unhealthy Beech, the tree seemed to settle down.
I wasn't happy with the water-retentive peat-based soil the tree had been planted in by the bonsai nursery, so in early 2002, I took the opportunity to bare-root the tree. This was also an opportunity to discover how the three trunks of the tree were connected and to establish the 'front' of the tree as a future bonsai.
As can be seen above, after bare-rooting the roots, what there were of them, were not a pretty sight! There were many, many dead and rotted roots; one of the trunks was entirely separate from the other two and was discarded. Worst of all, the two main trunks were joined a few inches above the nebari leaving an ugly section of reverse taper.
I potted up the tree using good quality bonsai soil into a much smaller mica training pot that would stop the soil from staying wet all the time.
It was then time to start pruning the tree into shape. It was at this point that I realised that while the tree had great ramification; the majority of the twigs (and therefore the foliage during the Summer) were at the tips of the branches. Where the tree had been incorrectly pruned for many years, the primary (main) branches were bare except at their very tips.
As can be seen in the image above, by the time I had shortened back the branches to a respectable length, there was little ramification left!
By this stage I had decided that the second trunk was unsuitable for use and had to be removed. This could have been done during dormancy but its complete removal was left until midsummer when the resulting wound would heal much more quickly.
Around this time I happened to speak to Ken Shalilker of Pinewood Bonsai who was aware of this Beech tree and its history. To my amazement, he explained that it had quite a chequered past and some pedigree.
It was originally collected as one of a series of young trees, and assembled together as a group planting, in the late 70's by Craig Coussins and Peter Adams (both renowned UK Bonsai Masters and authors). Craig later told me that at the time he and Peter made many Beech group plantings of which this was only one.
The group planting had been around for years being bought and then sold on by a number of bonsai enthusiasts. Finally, it had been doused with paraquat weedkiller by its last owners' angry wife (!) and the majority of the trees had died; this, the main tree, had survived and had been separated away from the dead trees into a pot. Which is why I found it growing cheaply at the back of a bonsai nursery! No wonder the thing had so few roots and was so weak.
Beech are awkward trees to develop. Though a Beech tree will produce new buds further back along a branch (backbud) if pruned very hard, unlike the majority of deciduous trees, if a branch is pruned back leaving no viable leaf-buds, the entire branch can often dieback. This left me with the problem of trying to shorten bare branches without any inner buds to cut back to.
The tree is pictured above in September 2003. By this time the thick secondary trunk had been removed. However, there was still no inner growth and as I was having great difficulty getting the tree to backbud so I could shorten those horrible, ugly branches!
It was at this point that I ran across an old translated Japanese article on Beech pruning techniques. It explained that by pinching out new shoots in the Spring and partially defoliating the tree in late Spring, Beech can be forced to backbud and ramification is easy to achieve. (These techniques are described here in detail)
A year later, at the end of 2004, I had been able to shorten back all of the primary branches to new inner buds. It was now possible to start filling out those new shorter branches.
By this time the tree had completely recovered its vigour and had become rootbound so it had been slipped into a larger bonsai pot by Erin Bonsai.
June 2006. After two and half years of using these newly-learnt techniques, the tree can be seen following its annual partial defoliation (removal of the spring leaves) and the increased ramification of the tree can be seen.
Though there is still much room for improvement, the nebari (surface roots) had developed well. In future years I would hope to introduce some taper and division in the long straight root on the left hand side.
July 2006. A few weeks later and the tree has leafed out again and is really beginning to look presentable again after just over 5 years of development.
Height of bonsai; 22"/55cm
November 2007 . The rust brown autumn leaves that would normally cling to the branches until the Spring have been removed and the tree is pruned back once again.
January 2009: Following the annual removal of the leaves and rewiring of the previous years new growth.
As can be seen in these images, increasing the ramification of Beech/Fagus is simple if the correct techniques are followed. (These techniques are described here in detail)
Current height of bonsai; 22"/55cm