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In search of roots

by Arn Schaefer

This is an article purely for beginners and novices though if some of you more experienced members feel like a belly laugh, read on. It concerns my search for roots and some of the experiences I have had while doing so.

Every once in a while I see a large tree in some container or standing in a place where I might have some chance of relieving its owner of the burden of looking after such a dilapidated specimen. I usually proceed to do so with alacrity especially if it seems to have any Bonsai potential whatsoever. Usually I don't even bother to look at good surface rootage, mainly because I am not in a tearing hurry, and roots can be grown if necessary.

Having got my prize home I usually spend a few hours gloating and drooling over it frequently discovering that many more imperfections exist than I had seen in the first flush of discovery. Not to worry, in a few years time it can still be a beautiful tree.

Now to work.

The tree has obviously been standing in the same container for the past ten year-s so it is completely root-bound or worse. What that worse can mean I shall come to later on. So the first step is to rid the tree of all unwanted branches and foliage to minimise the shock to its system. Then the container is cut away and the delicate archaeological process of excavation starts. The top of the soil is delicately scraped away usually exposing masses of hair roots which can be clipped away since they make further excavation almost impossible like fighting your way through a bramble bush. Sooner or later the larger roots should appear if you should be so lucky!

If you are not one of the world's natural born winners, you could land up with a fantastically proportioned tree with one huge tap-root and very little else in which case you lop off as much as you deem safe and replant the thing while encouraging top root growth for the next five years, repeating the pruning operation repeatedly.

Now suppose that we are lucky.Some large roots have made their appearance and we land up with a tree which has a fine tapering base and some majestic roots to give it stature and stability. No more need be said. Leave a little of the old soil in place, plant the tree lovingly into a new pot with new soil surrounding all the hungry new root ends which have been bared and you should be A-for-Away.

Now to come to the more dire possibilities of root archaeology. The next possibility has not yet occurred with any trees I have tackled personally but one of my respected mentors has told me it can happen. He removed the container, sawed through the root-ball about halfway up and then proceeded to turn his attention to the top part of the root ball. On shaking the tree, all the roots dropped of and he was left with a bare stump. What had happened was that the roots had penetrated to the bottom of the container, found there was nowhere else to go and had made a U-turn and returned to the top. On sawing through the root ball half way up, the whole tree was deprived of rootage. Exit one tree!

My own last experience which culminated rather tragically recently, unless some miracle occurs in the next few months, went rather differently. The said majestic cedar had obviously been standing in its container for twenty years or so. The container had been sunk into a large container and when I got it, a few thickish roots were peeping over the edges for all the world looking like prisoners with their hands over the wall trying to escape. Off they came and for good measure the tree was trimmed back to a few branches which I felt it needed instead of the thicket it looked like when I got it.

My root excavation started from the top.

The soil was so worked out that it consisted mainly of dead roots and the excavation proceeded at a snail's pace. Every now and then large roots would appear and these would be followed round and round the pot and then they would disappear without really getting thicker The pot was peeled down in size until it was only about 25cm high. Still no good roots had been found and I rested for a week or two from my labours. The tree started to look a little dry so I thought I had better transplant it though the season was not right.

Much to my horror when removing the container entirely, I found the whole of the bottom filled with dead roots, not a sign of anything living to be seen with the exception of where I had worked from the top. Obviously with this particular tree all the bottom roots had died off because of crowding and lack of nutrient Higher up in the container some aeration and nutrition was still available so a matted network of roots grew to try and supply the needs of the tree.

All that could be done was to plant the tree into coarse sand and hope that a miracle would occur.

Another chapter in my education to become a Bonsai grower has had a few lines added to it. I hope writing about it has dragged a few people along with me on my voyage of discovery.

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Right at my feet -

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snail? ~ Issa

Random Bonsai Tip

Straightening training wire - For those who don't know and for those who have forgotten - to straighten training wire that has been removed from a tree, grasp each end of the wire with a pair of pliers and jerk apart. Alternatively, grasping one end of the wire in a vice, and the other with pliers is much more effective as then it is possible to rub the shaft of a screwdriver up and down the wire getting rid of the small bumps.