Happy Soil Happy Tree

We all know that getting the right soil mix for our bonsai is important, and the idea of encouraging mycorrhiza is our pots has been around for a while. I found an old Bonsai Mart Catalogue the other day from over 20 years ago with many products relating to soil health. Have a look below.

However in recent years a more targeted approach has been sought as our knowledge of soil science has increased. The relationship between roots, soil, mycorrhiza and bacteria has been studied and now is being applied into agriculture and horticulture with exciting results and gives us the ability to reduce the use of chemicals for fertilisation and pest and disease control.

However, transferring this knowledge over to bonsai isn’t as easy as you’d think with our soil mixes being very different from that of open ground and also the containerisation of out trees adding an extra element to deal with. Research has been carried out on many fronts with the most notable being Bonsai Mirai with Ryan striving to push the limits of what we can do with bonsai soil to make our trees healthier. The ‘Compost Tea Experiment ‘ would appear to have its issues with a shotgun approach of giving the trees a myriad of bacteria to chose from but some proving to be detrimental to certain species. In the last Mirai podcast on the subject here was talk of a more targeted approach.

So this leads me to my latest adventure which started in 2019. It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that I have a close friendship with Peter Warren of Saruyama Bonsai. I have also been working with Michael Guerin and Ray Egan from Counties Limerick and Clare in Ireland and we all have a similar approach to bonsai. Like attracts like in bonsai and we have a good friendship built on trust and trees. Michael has the highest quality bonsai collection in Ireland, and that’s no coincidence. He strives to gain every percentage point he can in making his trees better and I’m delighted to have played a small part in that. Bearing that in mind, he met Dr Karen O’Hanlon a few years ago at a horticultural event in Ireland and after discussing Bonsai and soil health with her, he applied one of her Probio Carbon soil health products to his trees with very positive results. Jump forward to this year and after further discussion between the 5 of us, Dr Karen produced a three strain live bacteria inoculation specifically aimed at improving the soil health of bonsai and increasing resistance to pests and diseases. All this without producing unwanted strong growth. In fact shorter inter-nodal length and production of back buds seem to be one of the outcomes of this three strain product.

If you have read this far, well done. I now want to add a reality check. This is not a miracle product claiming to be the answer to our bonsai dreams. (yes I dream about bonsai 😂 ) We’ve all seen Superthrive type products come and go. Most have been shotgun approaches with a little of everything thrown in hoping something sticks. This product however in intended to be used as a sniper rifle specifically targeting the desired outcomes.

So what’s the product? It’s been named Danú after the Irish Goddess of nature. In Dr Karen’s own words,

probio Danu Bonsai is a new product developed in 2020 specifically for the Bonsai community. This is a 3 strain mix containing live bacteria chosen for their anti-fungal, induced systemic resistance, siderophore production and plant signalling characteristics. This mix will encourage the trees to build natural plant immunity and will not induce a massive increase in yield.”

If you want to know more details about the product and Karen’s approach to soil health then please watch the two Youtube videos below. Peter Warren interviews Karen live on a stream about the product and indeed speaks to anther bonsai enthusiast who has been working towards improving soil health in bonsai. In the second video, Peter goes a little deeper into how to apply Danù to the trees and discusses its impact on trees live on stream with Michael Guerin.

Still reading? Ok, I’ll outline my personal experiences so far. I treated most of my trees with Danú back in February/March. I applied it via sprayer initially, especially the bigger trees, but followed up by dunking some trees in a strong solution to speed up the population of the rhizosphere with the bacteria. This I feel allows the bacteria to establish a foothold in the pot faster and is a far more economical way to apply.

My trees are in the whole already healthy so when looking for change following application, I wasn’t expecting to see any major swing. Between March and June I saw some positives in the collection and, more importantly, zero negative impact. My Escallonia, normally a slow grow being a very old tree, was looking lush in colour, extending well and even flowered for the first time in 4 years. My 3 Taxus produced tighter foliage than in any previous year under my care with no other variable. A Japanese White Pine on it’s own root stock produced its best flush of growth yet under my care. There was flowering but I think everyone experienced that this year. Satsuki, Hawthorn and Japanese Maples all looked more vibrant.

A larch that was repotted this Spring into Akadama/pumice/lava and was treated with Danú has shown evidence of a massive increase in Mycorrhizal activity with the fungal bloom at the soil surface as seen below and excellent growth. There is extension growth but as the tree is in development this was encouraged with fertiliser and was desirable.

Another positive for me was one of my problematic trees, a Japanese Flowering Apricot. I have street trees outside my home that are Prunus and I always seem to have trouble with fungal issues with all my prunus in the garden as a result. Dr Karen heard about this and suggested a fungal treatment with a spray and dunk of a three strain product she is trialing. This is not identical to Danù but does contain Basillus subtilis a crossover over between the products with anti fungal properties. So much so that Bayer have a product listed as a fungicide containing this bacteria. There were other variables in the treatment with the application of a lime sulphur wash after removal of infected leaves and application of sulphate of iron. Both these had been used previously on this tree.

The tree back in May

After removal of infected leaves

Video showing dunking of tree into Probio Carbon Fungal treatment solution.

Spraying of fungal treatment onto foliage were its left to dry.

Tree now six weeks on from defoliation.

Leaves looking in great condition.

Even back budding onto old wood on trunk!

It’s also worth pointing out that Dr Karen’s strains are all Irish in origin and have been carefully selected from the environment for their strength and robustness. From what I understand this makes them rather unique. More on this product to come in the future I would think.

Lastly, you’ll be glad to hear, is another product from Probio Carbon that I will be using mostly at repotting season. Her Olive Stone bioichar that has been enriched with Bacillus subtillus is a perfect size for added into your potting mixes allowing the bacteria to populate quickly and giving other desirable bacteria a perfect place to attach when introduced via Danú.

To finish I just want to add that I have ‘no dog in the hunt’ regarding this product other than to try and advance the benefits of soil science for bonsai. I do not profit from any sales. My hope is to be able to offer this to those working with me at retail price as per Probio Carbon website without them having to pay postage. All orders outside of that should be done via Dr Karen’s website. Ordering biochar and Danú together also makes financial sense with regards to delivery. Those who give it ago are encouraged to document their finding and share it with us. We are looking at doing a scientific trial to nail down the specifics of what the product is doing in Bonsai soil media but this will take time.

Any queries can be directed to Dr Karen O’Hanlon directly or via Saruyama Bonsai who will shortly have a FAQ page on his website regarding Danú. Please watch the videos first though as this will answer a lot of your questions.

Over to you, time to ‘Book your Danú. 😁



100 Days in Lockdown

For those who follow me on Instagram you’ll know that back on day 1 of lockdown in Northern Ireland I decided that it might be fun to do a daily post there and, thanks to Facebook global domination, share it their as well.

Here we are 100 days later and I’ve decided it’s a nice round number to stop at. I’ve enjoyed doing the posts but time to resume my more chaotic posting system. As you can plainly see I’m also trying to breath life into this blog. As usual I’ll get carried away and no doubt I’ll slow it down to a drip 💧

As I posted precious little here during lockdown I thought I’d add a gallery as well of some of the trees etc that I posted over the last 100 days.

Scots Pine Next Step

This Scots Pine, recently arrived into Northern Ireland, hade been featured in Peter Warren’s book, ‘Bonsai’ published by DK. This showed its first styling by Peter.

When it arrived here it was obvious that in the interim it had undergone further changes and refinement.

The tree was ready for the next step and the new owner asked if I would do a little work on it. I was going to wait a little longer to allow the new foliage time to harden but it was surprisingly resistant to a tug on new needles. So with a soft touch I set about following the framework already set in place before. I discussed the tree with Adam the new owner and we agreed on a front but knew the tree had been set up for either side to look the part. My reason for the left lean being the front was the added depth the foliage created and the better base to the tree.

This is the back but styled to give the tree a great look all around.

There’s a few little bits of deadwood that might be distracting but I’m leaving them to see how the tree matures, they can be removed later by the owner if he feels the need.

Gyoten Satsuki

New addition to the benches, a rather funky Satsuki Azalea variety Gyoten. Large pink frilly flowers of different shades of pink and some stripes here and there.

The tree came in from Japan this year from Akiyama San with the help of Peter Warren.

Needs a pot which will be tricky to source I think.

Two Eejits Chatting

I think I should probably share this here. I’ve been poor at blogging of late, Instagram has sucked me in for ease of use and I have neglected my oldest child as a result. I must do better.

Anyway here is a link to last nights live stream with Peter Warren where we take a walk around my garden on a freak windy day and then shoot the breeze over a beer. We even talk about my lack of blogging. Gripping stuff



Kimura Masterclass Course

Once again I’m honoured to get a chance to preview and review the latest online Course from Bonsai Empire.  Oscar has done well to keep this one quiet for so long. Back in November he filmed two long format case studies with Master Kimura in Japan, and from today you are able to access this content on Bonsai Empire.

The beauty of the Covid lockdown, if you can find any beauty in it, is the spare time many of us have to soak up more bonsai knowledge from online sources. I should really add the ‘trusted’ to that as we know that there is a lot of poor content online as well. The thing about Bonsai Empire’s content is you know what you are going to get for your money. Namely, lifetime access to top quality, well edited, factual video content. The Kimura Masterclass is no different.

I sat down to watch all four hours of the content last week. Normally time is tight and I skim over the content to get a feel of what the course is like for review, but this time I put the feet up and sat back.

What you first see from scanning the lectures column is that you are getting two demonstrations by Mr Kimura, something that I think will rarely be seen these days. As he says himself in the course, his students do all the world travelling now so he doesn’t have too. Therefore this is a great opportunity for those new to bonsai to sit and learn from a master who in all likelihood you have heard of but most likely will never have the change to seen in action.

The first demo is a yamadori Japanese White Pine that Mr Kimura transforms into a windswept image in his own style. It’s an educational process and gives some insight into his design process as he progresses with the tree. Techniques are discussed and used throughout.

The second demonstration is the creation of a rock planting using six Itiogawa junipers. These have become one of Mr Kimura’s mainstays with many being seen in Europe at exhibitions. We get to see a rock he created by carving being transformed into a really stunning image that many now try and emulate. Lots to learn from his step by step process starting with how to prepare and attach trees, their placement to give depth, the mossing and then styling of the trees to give us the finished image.

Foe me one of the most interesting elements was watching how his apprentices worked for him trying to anticipate his every move and be one step a head.

Bonus video content takes you on a walk around his public and private gardens and we get to hear him speaking about some of his most famous trees featured in his books.

In all you get 4 hours of content to watch again whenever you want. The open demo format gives this course a different feel to the previous Bonsai Empire courses, perhaps not as concise and loaded with carefully thought out dialogue from the like s of Michael Hagedorn or Bjorn Bjorholm, but I don’t think anyone buying this corse would have expected that same format. We get to watch Mr Kimura preform and we can follow along with clear subtitles and enjoy seeing his decision making.

The course is available from today for $79.99 for lifetime access.

Here is a short trailer to give you a feel of the content.

Well done Oscar, I look forward to seeing where Bonsai Empire can take us after this 🙂



Shine Bright Like A Diamond

In an attempt to get into a routine of posting on the blog again I thought I’d share this Rhododendron Blue Diamond here.

This years peak bloom.

You’ll notice the one branch at the front without flowers. It’s a weak branch which gets weaker every year. There is a very thin live vein on it and I had removed the flowers from it for the last few years to try and strengthen it with no joy. Enough was enough. It had its chance so time to remove and redesign.

And then past peak with dead flowers showing.

The ideal time to remove the flowers and more importantly the little seed pods at their centre.

I’m sure we missed some late openers.
After deflowering before pruning.
Structural pruning
After pruning and set for the post flowering flush. You’d hardly notice the front branch at the main apex gone. A few bits wired to fill the gap.

Below is how the tree came to me in 2002.

Tale of Two Malus

Exactly a year ago a was wandering around a garden centre in Dublin. A great wee place called Murphy and Woods. All the plants were a little different than you usually see and staff could be seen everywhere taking the time to chat properly with customers. Remember those days when you could just pop into a garden centre 🙄

Anyway, I walked past a open gate marked staff only and about 10 metres inside the gate I could see a lump of malus trunk with a few weak branches and a small cluster of flowers. What can I say, when your eyes in it’s in 👀. As it was staff only I walked on but soon came across some other malus in 10 litre pots up at the back. These weren’t bonsai just small ornamental apple trees. I hoped they were crab apple and spotted one that might make a reasonable tree in time. At 50€ it was worth a punt.

I asked about the 50€ tree in the shop and was told it wasn’t a crab apple but the fruit wasn’t too big. They had been bought as crab apple but turned out not to be. On the off chance I asked about the one I could barely see in the staff area. I was told it belonged to the owner of the centre and had been a bonsai that he displayed in his own Japanese garden at home. However it was diseased and had gone down hill over the last few years. I was taken over to see it and it was a sorry sight lying bare rooted with a lot of dead areas on the tree. The mix it had been in looked way to moisture retentive for a bonsai pot.

A short time later I got to chat with the owner and asked if he’d part with the old bonsai malus. He told me to make him an offer. I asked how much would you pay for a nearly dead tree and that I was actually just trying to save it. We had a laugh about it and he then gave me the tree to try and save. As a good will gesture I then bought the 50€ tree as well as a few plants.

When I got the sick tree home it went into a free draining mix and into a Polytunnel under a misting system. It got sprayed with some big hitting fungicide and insecticide.

The 50€ tree got a little pruning to shape and was stuck in a corner. I watched it produce apples over the year and in the Autumn I sampled one and feck me they were delicious and super sweet 😀

The sick tree took a month or two to settle in and then started to sent our extension growth, even from part of the tree I assumed to be dead. The tree will need to have some deadwood features but with a few more years I hope to prove that it was worth the time and effort.

Anyway, here’s the sick tree now.

And here’s the 50€ special.

I’ll be keeping both trees, one for the challenge and one for the tasty apples 😂

Isolation Trees

I’ve been neglecting my blog. I appear to get sucked down the Instagram vortex on a daily basis and poor old WordPress takes a back seat. I must do better. This blog is a great way of tracking the progression of my own trees and if I don’t post them, what goods that !?

So, here’s some photos taken during covid19 isolation. Also available on Instagram 🙄🙈

Bonsai Empire – Coniferous Bonsai Course

When Oscar over at Bonsai Empire offered me the chance to review the latest online course, ‘Developing Coniferous Bonsai’ I was intrigued to see how it would match up with the previous course on deciduous bonsai.

The same line up of artists are back, Mauro Stemberger, Walter Pall, Jan Culek and Harry Harrington.  A wide range of knowledge and all with their own unique ways of creating bonsai. There is a lot of knowledge shared and for beginners signing up to the course, you will benefit from their own past endeavours and lessons learned the hard way. Walter as usual was a great listen and his approach and honesty is always entertaining.

The course is set up to show a range of material being worked much of it very affordable and perfect for beginners. The species covered are Pinus, Juniper and Spruce, the most popular coniferous species used and the most readily available. Although the artists are all European based, Is Harry still European? 🙂 , the knowledge given works worldwide, indeed Walter even covers some American species in his sections.

I haven’t managed to watch all the content, there’s a lot! However I’ve sampled every lesson to get a feel of the course. After 27 years of playing with wee trees a lot of content wasn’t new to me but I still enjoyed watching and seeing each artists approach to teaching. Not easy to stand in front of a camera and talk especially when English isn’t your first language. Mauro’s wiring lessons were well thought out and I enjoyed the pot selection for the Sabina. I’d have used the John Pitt pot though 🙂

Jan’s Rock Planting lesson was excellent and his approach differs from my own experience and I look forward to trying a few of his ideas out in the future.

Both Mauro and Walter cover substrates and have a slight different approach but for beginners this is an import lesson to watch and learn from. So many enthusiasts just don’t get substrate right and it has a massive impact on the health of your trees.

Comparing this course to the previous Deciduous Bonsai Course is hard, apples and oranges springs to mind, but on the whole I feel this one is even better than the last. For enthusiasts studying bonsai in remote areas without clubs or nearby professionals, this course will save you a lot of heartache and mistakes. For a one time fee and lifetime access it should be an easy decision.

Sign up HERE if you are interested in 10 hours of content and learning.