Collecting Privet/Ligustrum for Bonsai

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Ligustrum ovalifolium or Common Privet is very frequently found growing in suburban gardens around the UK as a hedging plant. A very fast growing, robust tree, Privet forms a strong and very densely-leaved hedge in almost any soil or light condition.

As bonsai they make excellent material being extremely robust, very receptive to most bonsai techniques and almost impossible to kill! (For a full species guide at Bonsai4me.com, please visit here )

If there is one problem with Privet as a species is that it is very slow to put on new wood and as with some other fast-growing tree species, specimens purchased as nursery material can take many years to produce a thick trunk. Fortunately, as Privet are so common as hedging plants and so easy to collect, there are often opportunities to obtain older material with thick trunks from old hedges.

privet hedge

The 40 year old Privet hedge

The subject of this particular article is a 40 year old Privet hedge growing in Surrey, England. The owner wanted to remove the hedge from the boundary of his garden and offered me the opportunity to dig it up so I could use the material for bonsai.

As can be seen in the image above, despite its age, the hedge consisted of a number relatively thin (5cm-10cm diameter) trunks that had been maintained for many years at a height of around 2metres in height.

Whilst in themselves these trunks were not particularly -inspiring, the best part of the material would be found just under the surface of the soil. Where each privet had issued a number of trunks (or shoots) above ground over the years, these multiple-trunks would have created one large, connected trunk base.

collecting privet bonsai

The author collecting a large root-connected privet that can be seen in depth, later in this article

With the help of fellow enthusiast Francis Consunji-Chan, we began to dig the hedge. This was a particularly easy dig; the ground soil consisted of peat and garden compost and was only around 30cm deep, in a garden bed created on top of what appeared to be a layer of asphalt. In turn, the shallow soil meant that each Privet was also very shallow-rooted.

Digging up a Privet simply required cutting a circle into the soil around each tree with a spade, severing any roots that grew much more than a 30-50cm outside the circumference of the stump. With these anchoring roots removed, each stump could be lifted out of the ground, one-by-one.

privet for bonsai

Smaller Privet trunks we had collected, each with trunkbases of around 10cm-15cm in diameter

As we dug up the trees, we removed all growth that would not be used for bonsai (adhering to the general rule that the height of the trees as bonsai would not be more than around 6-8 times that of the trunk diameter. A trunk with a 10cm diameter could therefore be safely reduced to around 60cm in height without consideration of the final design of the tree as a bonsai). Reducing the height of each stump immediately made transporting the Privet home considerably easier.

large privet for bonsai

Two large privet, ideal for 'raft' or clump-style bonsai

We were very lucky to collect two very large (50+cm wide) trunkbases, each consisting of many smaller trunks. Unfortunately, many of the other trees had rotted at their bases over the years and came apart as we lifted them but in total we collected nearly 25 stumps and trunks in just under 90 minutes.

As has already been described, Privet are an extremely robust species and the amount of care required to collect them successfully is minimal. And so, these trees were bagged up in plastic to keep the roots relatively moist and intact during their journey home and then loaded into our cars.

Please note that this article illustrates the methods used to successfully collect Privet/Ligustrum specifically and not the majority of tree species that require a much higher level of care in order to survive the trauma of collection.

privet for bonsai

The Privet hedge, having been dug up, chopped down in height and bagged up for its journey home

Once home, the bagged-up trees were unloaded and it was then necessary to leave the roots to soak in water until they could be potted up.

privet

The roots of each tree had been left in ground-soil prior to bagging-up to keep the roots from drying out while in transit

soaking privet roots

The smaller Privets soaking in tubs of water

Potting up so many trees would take many hours of work; each tree would need to be bare-rooted to remove all of the ground-soil and then the roots reduced prior to being planted into a pot.

To stop the roots drying out and to help remove the ground-soil, the trees were placed in tubs of water where they could be left to soak for anything up to a week. I have found that in fact soaking newly collected Privet in water for at least 24 hours is hugely beneficial to their recovery.

Large raft privet bonsai

Unwrapping the large Privet raft

However, the large root-connected raft Privet was too large for me to soak in water and required potting up immediately. Above, the root ball of the tree can be seen after I have started to remove the ground soil with a chopstick.

Privet have a tendency to issue a number of thick 'tap-roots' into the ground as well as much finer root growth up to the level of surface of the ground-soil. As Privet are capable of surviving with barely any roots after collection, I prefer to remove any thick roots immediately after collection, leaving the tree to survive on the fine feeders roots surrounding the trunk base.

Removal of these thick roots allows the trees to be planted into much smaller containers and avoids the difficulties of removing very thick roots when the tree has been styled and is ready for planting into a bonsai pot.

potting up a collected privet bonsai

The Privet raft being potted up

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