by Terry Davis
In the past, I had used chopsticks from a local Chinese restaurant to work the soil when I transplanted. I rounded the tips by rubbing them on the mortar of a brick wall or a cinder block, and tossed them after each job (dirty, uncleanable (Unclean, Unclean!)). I had seen around some steel chopsticks, and picked up a pair at a local knitting shop. These were a little more pointy than I liked, and I couldn’t round off the tips, as they were hollow. I found out this weekend that the steel chopsticks are available from oriental groceries. You want the round ones, not the ones with the square edges. The whole idea is to have nothing sharp or edgy that can damage roots. The pair I ended up with has fine grooves cut into the first few inches at the tips, so I sanded these down. What this ultimately means is that I now have new tools I am likely to lose, instead of a ready cache of disposable Chinese restaurant stuff. Maybe I should pick up a couple of pairs.
I see so many beginners (and no few not-so beginners) going at the chopsticking like they were staking a vampire, and stabbing the soil like crazy. This is not the idea. You want to work the soil in with minimal damage to the roots. You also want to work some coarse soil into any planting soil left, so there is no sharp demarcation between new and old and so the old soil drains better. You want to push the stick in and wiggle it to get the soi
l to drop into any pockets, and you want to wiggle it outward toward the edge of the pot to encourage roots to grow in that direction. The area needing the most help is right at the base of the trunk. Be gentle: honest to Pete, it is not going to rise up and bite you on the neck!
The tree should be secured by wire before you begin chopsticking. (Only in Bonsai do we make that a verb!) A few thumps on the sides of the container with the side of your hand also helps the soil get down to business and helps you deal with your frustrations. Sometimes I use my fingers to work the soil into any larger holes. Start at the base of the trunk and work outward. You can tell when you have done enough, as the tree will feel firm in the pot. Any wiggle tells you where you need to make more efforts. Then re- tighten the securing wires. In an earlier episode I suggested building in loops in the wires where they cross the bottom of the pot: This is a good place for the final snugging-up.
The other place I see people savaging their trees is in trying to find the level at which the actual larger surface-roots-to-be actually begin. This is really important to do, as you are likely cutting off the bottom 1/2 or so of the soil ball from the nursery pot. It is possible, (and I have actually done it) to cut off this chunk of soil and have the whole remaining soil donut slide off the plant and drop to the floor, because there were actually not any roots in the top half of the root ball. Such thing is most likely to happen in front of a roomful of people, when you are doing a demo (don’t tell me Mother Nature doesn’t have a sense of humor!). The neophytes (and most of the non-neophytes) stab away at the soil surface with a chopstick, and they do succeed so savaged that they are doomed.
This is why you never see me doing a potting demonstration: I prefer to do the root- searching at home, using a hose to gently wash off the soil until I find what I am looking for. I may use a root hook at the outer edge of the ball. You need to be careful, even with the hose, not to blast the bark off the roots.
I am trying a new tactic I learned at Brussels last year to reduce the soil on a bald cypress. I learned, from a demo on dawn redwoods, that trees that form buttresses often do so well down into the soil. If you saw off the bottom of the soil ball, you may lose the buttress, which is one of the most attractive features of these two species (one of the Buttress Sisters). So the approach is top down. The lecturer actually sawed off slabs of the soil surface. Works for dawn redwoods, not cypresses, as the roots are large and soft in the latter and won’t hold still for sawing. I found the buttress in the nursery root ball of my new cypress by sticking in a slender metal rod as a probe, then cut off the root ball well below this point. That was last year. This Spring, I started washing off the top of the root ball, and cut off any roots I found there, sealing the cuts on the trunk carefully. Once I have worked the soil mass down to what I figure is the final depth in the bonsai pot, I will leave it to grow for a season and move it to a bonsai pot the next Spring. I figure the soil reduction will take two years, but I am in no hurry, as I have cut the top of the tree back hard, and I need to wait for the new top to grow out, anyway. I also learned that cypresses grow better in water, so as soon as I can get the roots down to manageable size…