The Taskmaster – November

The Taskmaster (aka Chris Ross) explains what to do, how to do it and why for bonsaists in the San Francisco Bay Area.




Seems like every time you turn around, it’s another set of jobs, another set of rules to follow, another set of conditions to be anticipated and prepared for. It’s no illusion. That’s the way it is out here in the bonsai world, the garden of earthly delights is only delightful if you learn the rules, plan well, anticipate the changes, and work at it some.

The changes is what we’re up to now. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area microclimates, what passes for autumn is taking center stage. Planning well consists of finding out which trees can be worked on and to what extent. The rules this time of year are dictated by the change of season and the need to plan for what passes for Winter around here.

november-tree-640x480Usually what passes for Winter is a longish stretch of rainy days mixed with chilly mornings and mild cool afternoons,and a bunch of coldish nights with only an occasional brief frost or light freeze. Then a little stretch or two of fair, warm afternoons. Ha! Take THAT, all you Northern places. We got it good. But Winter still brings that hammer down, and it’s no joke. Clean up on, around and under the benches and stands or bugs, moss, mold and mildew will thrive in the wet and cold. Get some wedges ready so you can prop up the pots, first one end and then, later, the other, if the rains are very heavy or last too long. Dormant spraying is done at the end of November, December, and January. You can use a dilution of lime sulfur if you can still find it, or the Winter-strength dilution of horticultural oil. Just be sure to get pure oil, 98% or higher, and be sure to do it. This step alone can save you a lot of work later and can save buds for flowers, fruits and leaves that might otherwise be lost to blight in Spring and Summer. cover the soil before you spray, and do it in the evening or early morning so that the sun won’t burn anything.

The leaves can be removed from deciduous trees whenever about half of them have fallen or have lost their green. Once the chlorophyll is gone, they don’t feed the tree anymore anyway, and removing them lets you clearly see the form of the tree and its ramification. If wiring is to be done, now’s the time to do it, because the trees will turn brittle within a week or two after the last of the leaves would have fallen. Just remember that everything (probably even you) fattens up a bit over Winter, so use a soft, loose approach so that the wire can stay on until Spring growth begins without tightening up and damaging the bark. You can trim a bit for shape during this period, but don’t cut any thick branches or create any sizable wounds because they probably won’t heal fast enough, and they will become a portal for disease and persistent scarring. Please note that cutting on the trees after this period may cause them to bleed out a significant amount of the sap they’ve stored up for Spring. We have to let them sleep.

This is a good time to work on black pines. Take off older needles and maybe wire some things for shape, or even just to get them out of the way so sun and air can get to the interior of the tree. Bud selection needs to be done, and decisions made about how to treat the tree next Spring and Summer. Bring the pines to a November club meeting and get some advice. Order the book, Pines, from Stone lantern press, and read the archives of the Bonsai Tonight blog by Jonas Dupuich. But don’t do nothing. Pines need to be tended a bit to prevent wasting time later on, and they grow fast and get out of hand before you know it.

When a really cold day or night or so of frost or some sneaky little freeze comes, the trees can be put under the eaves of the house or under their benches or even in the garage until the danger passes. It’s never very long, or very bad. Then for the rest of the time they all like to stay out in the full sun most of the time. Usually that doesn’t happen in November, but it couldn’t hurt to keep up with the weather reports.

The evergreens and conifers and Junipers get slower, but they keep on growing right on through. You can wire them, and trim them some, and clean them and feed them as usual. While some growers opt for 0-10-10 fertilizers for Winter, others in our area just use low NPK numbers (below 10, like the GroPower 5-3-1 that I’ve seen used) all year long on all the trees with good results. Just be consistent.

Winter is a good time to take pictures of some of your trees and try to imagine a new angle, a new pot, a new style or shape. Now, in November, before everything changes, take some photos and then take the same ones after Christmas or New Year’s for a revealing comparison. You’ll enjoy this.

Move all the trees out into full sun. Get everything ready for cold, for rain, for wind, for sleep. Pull your friends in close, find some love wherever you can, watch the stars and the phases of the moon as they track across the Autumn sky. You never know just how much you may need the gold and red and warmth and love of Autumn in your heart as Winter drags into town for an extended visit like an unwelcome relative that you can’t get rid of.

– The Taskmaster