Ryan Nichols presentation image

Ryan Nichols, our guest for October, gave us a way to think about bonsai techniques that helps clear confusion. Principles, he said, are unchanging. They apply universally. Practice, on the other hand, must be ever-changing to achieve or apply principles. Think about fertilizer. It is a principle that trees need fertilizing for optimum health. However, bonsai practitioners will debate all day long about which fertilizer when. This is practice. And Ryan emphasized that we can make sense of the conflicting advice given in bonsai by first trying to understand the principles underlying our actions and then think about the appropriate practice.

One principle that Ryan described was the vascular cambium layer and its production of xylem and phloem cells. Your tree is using its phloem cells to move the sugar and energy created by photosynthesis around the tree to where it is needed. Energy is needed by all parts of the tree, including the roots. Your tree uses xylem cells to move water and nutrients around the tree. The cambium layer’s production of these cells is responsible for all growth of a tree, both upwards and outwards. When we graft a scion onto the trunk of another tree, we are causing their cambium layers to come in contact with each other and fuse so that the scion “takes” and begins growing.

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The discussion of water was very interesting to me. Ryan described the properties of water in the tree and soil. Water both adheres to things and is attracted to itself. The property of adhesion causes water molecules to attach to something other than itself, for example to a dry bit of soil or to a part of the tree that is less wet. Then the property of attraction causes more water molecules to follow the first; thus “moving” the water throughout the soil or throughout the tree. This is how water that enters through the roots can move up a tree to its leaves, and if you have ever watched drooping leaves recover from a bit of water you know it can move pretty quickly.

Water and nutrients can enter the tree through its foliage as well as the roots. A member asked about the benefits of foliar feeding and cited material that says it is a myth. Ryan believes in foliar feeding, and practices it with his own trees. In fact, he described a tree in his own collection that suffered from spider mites. One branch in particular seemed resistant to treatment, and that branch suffered more than the rest. Once Ryan was able to rid his tree of the mites, he applied foliar feeding to the one branch that was most affected to help this branch recover and catch-up to the rest of the tree. I am pretty sure we must bring Ryan back again to discuss the principles behind foliar feeding in more detail before the skeptics will be won over.

I think it is a fair reflection of the evening when I say that Ryan’s lecture intended to give us a better and more scientific understanding of bonsai principles. He would be hard pressed to give us satisfactory answers to many questions of practice, especially here in San Francisco which we all recognize is an ecosystem unto itself. But the merits of understanding bonsai principles cannot be denied. Many myths persist in the advice we get about bonsai care, even about the basic principles. Science can clear this confusion making us all more successful with our trees.

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Ryan has just recently moved his “Back To The Roots Nursery” from Southern California to the Bay Area. In addition to maintaining the nursery, he travels throughout California giving seminars on horticultural aspects of the art of bonsai; doing tree-styling demonstrations, and teaching species-specific classes for bonsai cultivation. You can expect to see more from Ryan in the BSSF program calendar in the months to come and maybe even a trip to his nursery and collection.