Collecting from open ground

by Noel Gessler


The first question which comes to mind when tackling this subject is .. why do we collect material/why would we want to collect material from open ground?" Is it that hope of finding that one special tree which is unique from all trees of which one becomes the proud owner or is it the sense of adventure or is it the hunt which makes that tree special? I think that it is very different for all of us and we experience a certain satisfaction in different ways. In my case, it sets the adrenalin pumping and this remains until I have returned and potted my prize specimen. I hope that the rest of this article will make you want you to experience the feeling for those that have not tried it and for those that have. write in and tell us about it.


To try and answer some of the questions above. let us first examine some of the pro's and con's of collection versus other forms of propagation. Collection brings the grower the immediate sense of owning a tree of tremendous age. The collected trees normally have a very powerful base which creates the feeling of power and stability worn through the ages of time. For those of us who enjoy working with jins and shari, the collected specimens have an abundance to create and form to the character which will further enhance the age simulation of the particular tree. Once the collected trees have begun to sprout, they afford the grower the opportunity to install in that particular tree the design of his choice in order to accentuate the character which the tree has already acquired. These features are not easy to install into nursery stock as in many cases the designer is forced to work with branches already well set or face the decision to remove them all and start from scratch.

Propagating from cuttings or seedlings will eventually achieve the same effect but over a very long period of time.

Once collected specimens have taken root, I have found them to exhibit stronger characteristics in both growth and branch development than many of my nursery trees. The one disadvantage of collected trees. is to obtain the permission in order to collect the trees. whether it be from a neighbour's garden or out on a farm. However this can be surmounted by getting to know the owner and educating him/her in the reasons for wanting to obtain these specimens. In many instances. trees are actually saved from being destroyed as the ground is due for construction development or reploughing, etc. Often a rare specimen will be saved for further propagation and from becoming extinct. ALWAYS REMEMBER, PLEASE OBTAIN PERMISSION BEFORE UNDERTAKING A VENTURE SUCH AS THIS.


A good recommendation before embarking on a collecting expedition of any kind is to do what I call pre-collection planning. This entails studying your collection to determine what styles and species you already have. In conjunction with this it is always a good idea to consult some literature/books on the different types of styles so that when you arrive at your collecting spot. one already has some ideas in mind of what you will be looking for.

I always remember my first collecting trip. It started early one Saturday morning and when we finally reached our destination there I was. being a novice. surrounded by literally hundreds of different styles and shapes. I did not know where to begin.


The trees should preferably have a good taper and an interesting if not out of the ordinary trunk shape. Look for the root spread just below the ground to see jf the roots are well spread around the trunk base. This enhances the tree's stability and creates that very anchored appearance later in the Japanese pot in which it is to be planted.

Another very important aspect to be aware of is the tree's future development. It helps if one can visualise what the tree style and design will look like after many years. This however requires some imagination based on the growing habits of that particular species and this must be cultivated within the grower over some years. So. if in doubt. ask one of the more experienced growers.

One will also find that the style of trees one collects on a particular day is subject to the mood you are in on that particular day e.g. if you are looking for cascades then you will be influenced in this style direction. So be aware of this.


One of the most infuriating things when on a collecting expedition, is to find that one does not have the right tools to unearth your prize specimen and hence it takes you 10 hours of work rarher than 2 hours. So here is a list which I find useful on my trips and maybe this will stimulate other ideas:

  • BOW SAW - useful for thick branches and trunk reduction.
  • SMALL HAND SAW - useful for getting in below the trunk base to get at those awkward roots.
  • AXE - useful for those very large roots where there is very little working space. Please remember to sharpen before going out to dig.
  • ICE PICK - this is one of my own special tools and comes in very handy in clearing rocks and loose stones away from below the trunk base. It also comes in handy when scaling rocky and sometimes slippery outcrops of rock.
  • SPADE - useful for clearing a wide area around the tree in which to work. PRUNING SHEARS - useful for small branches and fibrous roots.
  • PLASTIC BAGS/BABIES NAPPIES - useful for enclosing the root ball after collecting to retain moisture.
  • COLD CHISEL - this comes in handy when having to break up rock around the prize specimen.


When first arriving at the digging site. select your particular tree and then survey the area around the tree. This is of particular importance so as to determine where the larger roots begin and enter the earth and to ascertain what fibrous roots are close to the surface. Begin by pacing out a circle of approximately 0.5m in radius from the trunk using the tree's trunk as the center point. This will produce a circle of 1 m in diameter around the tree from which to begin working inwards. (This is especially necessary for large material).

With a spade begin digging carefully inwards towards the tree trunk until one has dug down to approximately 0.5m. (This will vary depending on the size of the tree). Once the larger roots have been exposed. proceed to saw through these roots remembering the angle of the cut so that the tree base will still look natural in your growing pot. Having cut the large roots. carefully lift the tree ensuring that one retains as much of the fibrous roots and place on wet cloth. Enclose the base of the tree in plastic bag and tie at the neck ready for transportation. If one is still going to collect other trees, place those trees already collected in a nearby river or pond to keep moist while one is away looking for further specimens.


In my experience of collecting, this is the most critical time for the tree and should be performed immediately on returning home in order to provide at least a 50:50 chance of survival.

When arriving home, immediately select the container for the tree and then proceed to prune the root base by sawing if required so that a flat stable base is established. The theory behind this is that the tree is already in a state of shock so that further pruning cannot worsen the situation.

Then proceed to plant the tree in either bonsai soil or a 50:50 mix of compost and river sand depending on the type of growth one is looking for. Thereafter water the tree with vitamin B1 solution or spray with WILTPRUF or even try BACH FLOWER RESCUE REMEDY. The tree should then be watered and monitored closely for the next three weeks.

Wishing you HAPPY HUNTING!

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Random Bonsai Tip

To thicken thin branches make a cut just below the branch or a bud on the branch. The sugars produced in the leaves of the tree move down to the roots through the phloem, this flow of sap is interrupted by the cut and the accumulation of sugars above the cut increases the vigour as it is used by the bud, forcing it into action. As soon as the wound heals the normal sap flow resumes.