Peter Tea’s May Write-Up

Peter Tea Bonsai

May 2014

Deciduous Time!

Now that we’re into May, it’s time to work on many of our deciduous/fruiting and flowering trees. The Spring growth will have hardened of by now which is a great time to start wiring, cutting and maybe defoliating the tree.

Throughout the late Spring, Summer and early Fall is when the majority of deciduous trees are worked on. Unlike confers where we work on them for a day and sit them on a bench for several months, deciduous trees require much more of our attention (because they grow faster). The working time tends to be shorter but the interval of work is much closer.  Example: We defoliate, cut and wire a Trident Maple this month.  Within a month, the wire will have to be removed and the tree possibly defoliated and cut again.

Defoliation and some Misconceptions:

First off, not every deciduous tree needs to be defoliated.  There are also species out there that will not take kindly to defoliation at all (e.g. hornbeam beech, Japanese Maple), especially if the defoliation is complete.  Defoliation isn’t only done on deciduous trees either.  There are other broad leaf evergreens that can take defoliation (Oaks, Silverberry and ficus are a few examples).

So what is Defoliation and what does it do for us?

1. slows the tree down

2. allows light into the tree

3. new leaves will come out smaller

4. allows for ease of wiring

Those are the 4 main reason why we choose to defoliate. If your current goals don’t match up with any of the 4 reasons, then don’t defoliate.

Example: We want a branches to grow out and get stronger. We don’t defoliate that branch because it will slow the growth down.

Misconceptions: Cutting back vs. Defoliation

The biggest misconception to defoliation is that it will give you back budding.  Back budding is not caused by defoliation, but by the cutting back of branches.  We can cut the tree back without defoliating and back budding will occur.  Keep defoliation and cutting back into two separate categories to help ease the understanding of defoliation.


If you plan on wiring your trees this month, be sure to bring the proper wire size ranges.  Aluminum wire should be used for deciduous and broadleaf evergreens, whereas copper should be used for conifers.


For those that missed the early Spring Air-layering window, this month or next month is a good time to do it.

If you plan to air layer, you will need the following items:

Grafting knife

Sphagnum moss

Root cutter or Knob cutter

Aluminum Wire

Plastic growing pot (to put around the air layer)

Bonsai soil

Black marker

What to work on:

During this month, we can work on deciduous and broad leaf evergreens. We can also worked on Junipers as well.  Work includes, wiring, cutting and styling.  Certain trees may be ready for defoliation.

I would not recommend working on any types of pines or needle based trees this month because the new grow is very sensitive and can easily break off.

For High mountain pines such as Japanese White Pine, Ponderosa, lodgepole, etc, wait till the new needles have hardened off before working on them. For most of us, that time will be about September.

For other needles based trees such as spruce and cedar, wait till those needles have hardened off before working on them.  For most of us, that is closer to the end of May or in June.

Notice I use the term, “hardened off,” many times?  That’s an important term because it is a good indication when we can work on many different trees. It’s also much more precise and safe then following a month base schedule.

For Japanese Red and Black Pine, the schedule is very different because of de-candling and does not apply to the concept stated above.  De-candling is based on time of the year versus anything, “hardening off.”  Assuming the Red/Black pine needs de- candling, we can do that either in June or July depending on your weather.  I will go deeper into the concept next month.


As always, be aware of how wet or how dry your trees are and water accordingly.

Recognize which trees like water (deciduous) and which trees don’t like water (high mountain pines).  Training your eyes and recognizing your tree’s water consumption rate will also help you see if there are any problems as well.  You may notice that a tree that normally takes a lot of water isn’t taking as much any more.  Is there a problem developing or is it because the tree was recently cut back?

There is a lot of information in your yard that you can learn from. It’s just a matter of recognizing that the information is there and your willingness to see it and process it.

Saving Water

A study group member a few weeks ago asked me if there were some tips that I can give about saving water because of our current drought conditions.  Many cities are implementing water rationing and restrictions so for some of us, there isn’t much choice in the matter. Working together to save water is important and it will help us all get through the drought and perhaps get us to recognize where the waste are.

So here are some suggestions to saving some water in reference to your bonsai.

1. Don’t water the tree till you see water running out of the drain holes.  All that water coming out is the excess and is wasted. Just water the top of the tree and move on to the next tree.  Water does eventually make its way to the bottom.  You can get a feel for this process by watering the trees a little less, wait about 5 minutes and then checking the trees to see how much water is coming out the bottom of the pot.  If there is a lot of water coming out, then cut back the watering.  If there is no water coming and you can see that the soil at the bottom is dry, then water more.  If only a few drops of water is coming out then you are just about there.  Perfect would be if no water came out of the drain holes but you can see that the soil at the bottom is damp.

2. Control how much water your nozzle releases.  Some nozzles spray a very high volume of water.  Normal operating nurseries will use nozzles like that because of the volume of trees they have.  It’s fast and really drenches everything. Unfortunately, it also consumes a lot of water.  For your bonsai, try using nozzles that output less water to reduce the waste. The down side is that it may take you much long to water your trees.

3. Tree reduction. Of course, nobody wants to just throw away a tree. But for many of us, there are bonsai in our yards that we don’t do anything with.  Some things may have been sitting there for 10 years getting watered with no bonsai future in sight.  Though sensitive to the heart, perhaps this is the time to go through your collection and reduce the trees that don’t have much of a future in bonsai and taking up space.  I think we all have those trees that may have died a long time ago and we still end up watering them every day just because we didn’t take the time to throw them away.

4. Of course, for those of us that have large grass lawns, just reducing the watering schedule there could save enough water so that we don’t have to worry too much about water consumption in our bonsai.  Up to 50 percent of water used for outside irrigation is lost due to wind, evaporation and runoff.

See you all soon!

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