April 2016 – Eric Schrader

What a wonderful Spring we are having! As if the new growth and flowers on our trees aren’t delightful enough, the periodic rain is a heaven-sent relief from our watering regimes. With ideal conditions come ideal growth, but also an increased need for vigilance, so be sure to keep an eye on your trees’ pruning needs, and check your wires! The Taskmaster frequently reminds us of this, but it cannot be emphasized enough. There was a beautiful tiger-bark ficus in the April workshop with deeply biting wires that had been placed on the tree just a few months before. The ficus will be fine eventually, those trees build character through scarring, but seeing those deep wire grooves was a vivid reminder. I’m taking some wire off a wisteria as soon as I finish writing this.

With our trees growing so rapidly, and pruning season well under way, the demonstration we received from Eric Schrader in April gave us a lot to think about with regard to the development of our deciduous and flowering trees. He began with a quiz of sorts for the audience, something Eric called a structure analysis and branch pruning exercise. Given a simple drawing of a leafless tree with a number of running, or “escape” branches (he captured my troubled trident maple so well!), we were instructed to mark where we would prune this tree to make it a better bonsai. Although he pointed out that there were no perfect “right” answers, there were definitely some theoretical pruning cuts that were more desirable than others. Questions and details regarding those cuts brought Eric’s discussion around to the topics of trunk development, pruning distribution, and the use of timing and species knowledge to determine the changes most appropriate for a tree.

After our pruning quiz, Eric showed us a collection of very young trees, mostly trident maples, the trunks of which he had wired into all sorts of crazy contortions. He said he grows a lot of trees from seed and has found it critically important to establish trunk shape early in the life of a tree. As he put it, if you’re not willing to put time and effort into developing a good trunk, you’d better be prepared to pay for one. His points resonated with similar lessons we’ve learned from the likes of Peter Tea, Jonas Dupuich, and even our own more knowledgeable club members. For instance, I’ve heard it said time and again that you really need to exaggerate young tree trunk movement because years down the line, as that trunk fattens, much of the sharpness of that movement will be softened or may even disappear.

Throughout his talk, and the outline on the handout he provided, Eric mentioned the value of experimentation, another passion he shares with Peter Tea and Jonas Dupuich, not to mention Jim Gremel, who, as many of us know, does rather detailed experiments with large batches of young trees. Our own John Doig, though he says he’s not doing it anymore, has learned volumes of knowledge through the countless cuttings he has propagated. With regard to trunk development, Eric encouraged us to try all sorts of crazy things on many young trees in order to break away from the slanted and informal upright trees that are almost all you’re likely to find for sale if you’re shopping for mature trees.

Eric also seemed quite passionate about the various uses for escape branches. Their effects on trunks are rather straightforward and well known: they can help beef up the trunk, with the rapid closing of large cuts or wounds being a side benefit of the fattening trunk. How a strong escape branch can affect the rest of your tree is less well known and slightly more involved. According to Eric, if you have a particularly strong escape branch that you leave alone, the tree sends hormones to the rest of the branches that inhibits their growth in favor of the strong, typically higher branch top. Not only do the other branches grow more slowly, but when they do grow, their leaf nodes develop more closely together. Even better, in some species such as trident maple, if you cut back the escape branch in stages or only partially, the other branches are encouraged to grow more strongly again, but apparently their internodal distances will remain short.

I hope nobody minds that I’ve written so much on Eric’s talk. He threw a lot of information at us that at times sounded like stuff we’ve heard before, but with so many hidden nuggets of new information that went well with what we’ve already learned. I just want to make sure everybody is getting as much of this valuable information as possible.

Eric made a point about defoliation that I found particularly interesting because there have been some strong opinions on both sides of the issue, and many of our club members are very interested in the topic. There are those, including Peter Tea, who have said that defoliation has little or no effect on branch ramification, and that it should only be used as a final refinement to give show-ready trees smaller leaves. Jay McDonald, on the other hand, has repeatedly attributed much of the superior ramification in his trees to the defoliation process, and I have read more than a couple articles and book chapters by Japanese masters who concur. According to Eric Schrader, the process of defoliating a tree distributes the tree’s branching reaction throughout the tree, compared to pinching or cutting, which tend to only trigger branching directly below the point of the cut. Defoliating will give you more back-budding and buds lower on the branch, if you’re only partially defoliating, or the whole tree if you defoliate everything.

And those weren’t even all of Eric’s excellent points. On top of which, at about the halfway point, he started working on an interesting plum tree, which was raffled off at the end of the night. If you feel like you’re missing all the good stuff, come on down to our meetings! Remember they’re taking place the first Tuesday of every month now, unless there is an announcement to the contrary. Our next meeting is another installment with our long-term mentor, Peter Tea, on May 3rd. He will also be talking about deciduous trees. Much like he did a couple presentations ago, he will bring in several trees at various stages of development, allow us to look at them closely to see what’s been done so far, and then he will do some work on them. We forgot last time Peter joined us, but the club will be asking for a $5 donation from all attendees to support the high level of education Peter provides.

Come again in June when Jay McDonald will be doing a demonstration for us. Jay also gives us a high level of education, of course. He just has our club’s interests more at heart and provides his demos for free. His program is not set in stone yet, but he’s leaning toward demonstrating carving techniques on a bougainvilla, which will then be raffled to the audience members.

Don’t miss a thing!

– David Eichhorn

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