Analyzing Unfortunate Deaths

Posted by on Sep 27, 2017 in Articles And Stories, Eric's Blog
Analyzing Unfortunate Deaths

It’s an emotional blow to lose a bonsai. Seasoned growers may claim that they have never had a tree die on them, but the reality is that everyone loses trees. This past year has been a tough one for me; but I plan to learn from the trees that have escaped me so that I can hopefully keep the rest for longer.

Whenever I lose a tree I try to analyze the cause, so that I can attempt to not repeat the conditions that lead to the untimely demise.

I listened to a Malcolm Gladwell book in which he discussed the circumstances that normally surround airplane accidents. The author summarized from numerous investigations into accidents that in almost all cases there was no single factor that lead to the accident. Instead it was a series of mis-steps, each unto themselves relatively harmless, that when combined lead to airplanes hitting runways and plunging into oceans.

I think this is a good analogy for situations with bonsai death. While it’s possible that you can go on vacation and your tree dies because your neighbor forgot to water it, it’s also possible that your tree can die after a series of decisions to either do something or do nothing in an attempt to help the tree.

If you think about it there are numerous factors that can lead to the death of a tree, it’s normally a combination of factors. Watering, fertilizer, pest control, and sun protection are among the things that we must keep an eye on for all trees, and that if not executed properly will lead to problems.

A Douglas Fir – lesson learned: don’t do work before a tree has shown you it is ready. This collected tree should have been left alone for another couple years before work.

In one of my most painful series of tree deaths I have surmised that the following series of steps, events and mis-steps have lead to the trees demise:

  1. Summer application of a strong dilution of chemical fertilizer caused some damage to the root structure and needles. This was apparent on the foliage where some browned tips showed. (definitely a mistake!)
  2. During repotting the trees appeared to be weak, so light repotting was done to refresh the soil and allow for new room for growth (seems like the right step…but maybe not, maybe would have been better to leave them alone!)
  3. Trees bud out weakly – perhaps due to repotting or due to burn in prior summer or both. (cautious optimism…)
  4. Light fertilizer and careful watering to try to nurse the trees back to health . (continued optimism…)
  5. Heat wave in September – no protection provided for the all-time record temperature in San Francisco. (Uh oh.)
  6. Tree is unable to cope in weakened condition and browns a few weeks later. (Nuts. That sucks.)

Would you have done something differently? Is it only in hindsight that we can analyze these mistakes? Gladwell states that the detailed analysis of Airplane accidents is like a national ritual of mourning and a simultaneous assurance that the same mistake will not be repeated. Here’s best wishes for the health of your trees in the rest of 2017 and onward.