Defoliating Ficus Bonsai

Defoliating ficus bonsai can be tedious as there are literally thousands of leaves to remove. For a shohin, this could be easily done in half an hour or less but for a large tree, it would take several hours depending on how big and how ramified the tree is. When I prepared the Ficus microcarpa (19′ H x 36″ W) for last year’s 5th US Nationals , it took me 6 hours, spread over two days. But there are short cuts.

This microcarpa measures about 54″ across and is a large tree. I have been working on it for at least 15 years from an imported raw material, basically a cut-down bare-rooted tree with stubby trunks. I have been concentrating on developing branches with good taper. The tree has developed reasonably good secondary and tertiary branch ramifications, and now is the time for finer ramifications to fill out gaps between those branches.


Since it had been growing freely from last defoliation about a year ago, there were a lot of new growths and it looked bushy. I am not going to start cutting off each leaf from such a large tree, it would take me several days! As I am familiar with the tree’s branch structures from previous works, I just treated it like an overgrown bonsai and simply cut off all the branches back to the tree’s silhouette, a quick hatchet job.


This is how it looked after cutting back the excessive growths. Now defoliation looks much more manageable, I then selectively cut the branches where I want to develop finer ramifications. Below is an example of where to cut, indicated by the red lines:


Branches, labeled A, were older growths. They were defoliated perhaps a couple of years ago, from which new buds popped up and grew into smaller twigs, B. Branches A have now served their purposes, they can either be cut off completely to get a Y-branching like the one on the left; or as in the case of the right branches, shortened to encourage back buddings; by removing the strong upper growth, it allows the small branch B to grow and thicken.

This process is repeated for the whole tree. This is how it looks after cutting back branches A and B.


C is the newly formed syconia, ficus’s fruits which should also be removed to direct growth energies to the new buds.

Nearly all the leaves were removed except for a few small inner branches, leaves were left untouched for them to thicken further.


July 26, 2017, after defoliation and cut back.

I left the defoliated tree under full sun. My wife and I then happily vacationed for the next two weeks. It thrived and budded very well when we returned. These are the new growths photographed on August 15.


August 15, 2017.


There were profusions of back buddings and new growths. Generally, back buddings and growths occur near the cut tips and along the branches up to about 5″ away from the cuts. By removing the auxin-rich branch tips, back buddings are encouraged but there is a limit as to how far back buds could grow. It is rare to see buds pop up all the way down to the main trunk in a large and mature tree like this.

The following two photos show back buddings in two of larger branches. Buds formed as far down 8-12″ from the cut ends. These buds are good for developing inner branches. My observation is stronger branch tend to bud back further down. There might perhaps be a relationship between the strength of the branch and how much cytokinin is activated for lateral back budding.


August 15, 2017.


Some branches buds later than the others. The right branch in the following photo has three new growths while the left branch is still barren. Upon close examination, there were some tiny green specks indicating some buds will pop up soon, they are somehow suppressed more than the others.


With back budding in full swing, it is time to select which one to keep and which one to remove. This is a photo of the branch I worked on. It is growing almost vertically upwards.


To see which new growths to remove, tilt the branch in the direction where you would wire in the future. It is easier to see which new growths to remove. Keep the new side growths and remove those pointing upwards, downwards or too close to each other. The red lines indicate where the unwanted growths were cut off.

IMG_0455-001 with cut lines

This is after removing the unwanted growths, and energies will be directed to growing and thickening only those branches we want to keep.


Should I Remove the Fertilizer or Not After Defoliation?

That depends on the purpose of the defoliation. If it is to prepare the tree with more uniform and smaller leaves for an upcoming show, then remove the fertilizer and apply light fertilization with fish emulsions when the new leaves have hardened off. If the tree is still under development, I do not remove the fertilizer tea bags. Leaf size may be uneven but growth of the new twigs are benefited by the readily available fertilizer, and with good unobstructed sunlight for photosynthesis after defoliation, they are fed as soon as they emerged. I did not find the young leaves to suffer fertilizer burn even the pot is piled with organic tea bag fertilizer.

Those familiar with summer decandling of Japanese Black Pine to get short needles, the advise is not to fertilize for the first month to keep the needles short. However, ficus is quite a different beast, it has so many latent buds, branches can be severely cut back and they bud back readily. It would be better to continue fertilizing, thicken new growths as fast as possible during developmental stage; when it is time uniform small leaves and fine twigs are needed, one or two more controlled defoliations would do the job.


Let Your Ficus Grow Before Repotting and Defoliation

Summer is a busy time for people who love and grow a lot of sub-tropical and tropical bonsai. I live in Southeast Texas, and start to repot, defoliate and wire my ficus in June. By this time the Texas heat is intense, daily temperature is in the 90s with heat index over 100ºF; it is very hot working outside even under the shade. I repot my ficus later than what most people living in Zone 9 would do because I want my trees to take advantage of spring growth spurt before doing any major maintenance work. You may have read advises such as repot tropical trees when the night temperature is above 60ºF. That is correct for safety reason but it does not mean you have to plunge right into it when the weather warms up. Just take it easy and let your tree grow, let them become healthy and strong before repotting and defoliation.

Our last frost date is around third week of March. In early April I moved my ficus out of the greenhouse and let them sit under full sun in open air. Ficus grows virtually year round for us, when over wintering in greenhouse they just slowed down their growth, hardly noticeable but definitely continue to grow. That’s why I do not remove my fertilizer in winter. Once outside, with plenty of sunshine, fertilizer and water, there is a sudden surge in new growths. I let them have about 2 months of growth to gain vigors before starting any work.


The ficus are in open space on the south east side of the yard. Full sun till around 2 p.m. when the oak tree which is about 40 feet away begins to block the afternoon sun and casts some shadows.

I put my fertilizer in tea bags and placed them on top of the soil surface. A lot of new roots grow underneath the tea bags, and some may even grow into it. I move the tea bags around every few weeks.


Fine root mass formed underneath the tea bags.

How much is two months of spring growth?

These two Tiger Bark photos were taken around mid-June. The lighter, larger green leaves are the new growths, the dark green smaller leaves are from last year.



This large Ficus microcarpa (Tiger Bark) put out a lot of new growths from April to mid-June. The round pot is 24″, and the tree width is probably 4-ft. across. Just went out to measure, the width is 54″!

Both trees are now ready for defoliation. For curiosity, I measured how much growth they put out in spring months.

Weaker shoots put out about 2″ growth.


Stronger shoots put out about 4″ new growth.


Some shoots grow very strong like they are on steroid, more correctly high on auxin trip. Keep them if you want the branch to thicken, if not, just cut them back.

Leaves are food factory for trees. Ficus loves sun, water and fertilizer. The more leaves they have, the more rigorous the growth. When they begin to shade out the inner branches, it is time to cut back and defoliate. Just be aware that overgrown shoots will eventually shade out the inner and weaker branches, and cause die-back. Exercise controls as needed.

Penjing in Hong Kong (Part 2) – Unconventional Penjing in a Daoist Monastery

The next penjing garden we visited was in a Daoist monastry, Qingsong Guan (青松观) or Ching Chung Koon in Cantonese dialect used in Hong Kong. It is located a little out-of-the-way in Tuen Mun (新界屯门) in the New Territory area. The late abbot, Mr. Hou Baoyuan (候宝垣 1914-1999) was one of the early pioneers of Lingnan penjing. As a Daoist monk, his penjing were steeped into his philosophical thoughts and believes, they are unpretentious and follow the Daoist Way of harmonizing with nature. His penjing also tell stories and have distinct personalities. Their compositions are not from the typical old school teaching.

Instead of showing photos of penjing after penjing, I am going to select a few and describe my impressions the way I saw them.

A Twin-Trunk that Broke the Rules


Twin-trunk Chinese Hackberry

When we make a twin-trunk bonsai or penjing, we are taught to place the two trees, one large and one small, close to each other like a mother and child. Who would have ever thought of planting two large trees at opposite ends of a pot? Oh no, that would be breaking the rules! Yes, Abbot Hou did just that and he did it very well.



This bushy fierce looking Shiwan figurine is Zhong Kui (钟馗) with his sword, an evil slayer in Chinese mythology.

He approached this creation by envisioning the viewer is inside a forest, facing two large trees at close range. Don’t we often encounter such a familiar setting when we take a walk in a mature woods or an old forest? To reach for light, trees in old growths grow straight up to the top, the canopies do not overlap but just away from each other. That type of canopy does not allow much light into the interior, competitive smaller trees eventually die off. So the tall trees tend to be a little apart from each other, and without much penetrating light they do not have low branches Continue reading

Penjing and Viewing Stones in Hong Kong (Part 1) – Nan Lian Garden

In 2010, my wife and I took a month-long trip touring South China on our own. We started in Hong Kong and ended in Shanghai. We saw a lot of penjing and viewing stones, and I will share their photos in a series of travel blogs, starting with the Nan Lian Garden (南莲园池) in Hong Kong.


Nan Lian Garden is a gem where one can still enjoy tranquility in this bustling city. It is a public park, built in the style of a Tang dynasty garden and modeled after a 1,300 years old garden, Jiang Shouju Yuan (绛守居园池) , in Shanxi, China. It occupies 3.5 hectares, and is landscaped with hills, rocks, lakes, plants and Tang style Chinese timber architecture. There are several exhibits in the garden. I will highlight their Lingnan penjing collection, the Dahua Viewing Stone Museum, and take you through a walk in the garden which has very impressive Pordacarpus trees.

It is a very beautiful place and we spent our time there leisurely. There are a lot of photos to show in this blog.


The best time to visit the Garden is early morning before the tourists arrive. The place is very quiet with few people.

Dahua Stone Museum

This museum has some of the most beautiful and very large Dahua stones (大化石) I have ever seen. Dahua stones were first discovered in 1997 from the river bed of the Red River (红河) of Dahua County, Guangxi Province, China. Since the completion of a hydroelectric dam in Red River, Dahua stones could only be found in a 6 km stretch of the river down stream from the dam. These stones are silicaeous and jade-like, and have a hardness of 5-7 on the Moh scale. They are sedimentary rocks with high iron and  manganese contents, which give them reddish- to golden-brown colors. They were formed about 250-300 million years ago during the Permian period, and are naturally polished by the fast flowing river.

Two cascading Fukien Tea penjing graced the entrance as if they are welcoming the visitors to the museum


Orange Jasmine (Murraya paniculata) foundation plantings surrounding the museum. Every one of them are worthy of becoming a beautiful bonsai if planted in pots.

There are two very large Dahua stone group arrangements on sand beds.The sand was raked with circular wave patterns to portray the stones as islands. Although these stones are very  impressive with various shades of ocher, and with layers upon layers of folds smoothed by the force of water, I wished they could be placed outdoors and set further apart such that the viewers could take in a more panoramic view of these massive stones at a distance. However, it is understandable land is a precious commodity in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, their groupings follow examples illustrated in the”Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Paintings“. Continue reading

Updates of the Two Shohin Chinese Elms Air-Layered from a Mallsai

It has been three years since I wrote my first blog on air-layering a Chinese Elm mallsai into two shohin. It turned out to be one of my more popular blogs with over 2,600 views and had been reblogged twice by others. I think it is time to update how these two shohin look after three more years of care.

This is the original S-shaped Chinese Elm mallsai in 2009:


Air-Layered Top Section

August 4, 2009, after sawing off the rooted air-layered top section and potting:


I repotted it into a high-end Chinese olive-green crackle glazed bag-shape oval pot made by Jiang Xiaoling (江小林). This is the fall color in January 21, 2016:


This is how it looked about 10 days ago with spring leaves:


This shohin was trained as a Lingnan penjing using the clip-and-grow method. At first glance, it looks like an informal upright bonsai, but it is not. The main trunk, instead of moving to the left or right as in a typical informal upright, leans backward to the northwest corner of the pot before it bends back slightly to the right and forward with the apex falling within the trunk base. Since photography flattens the tree into a two dimensional image, perhaps one can better envisage the backward movement with the aid of the below side photo.


When I attended Pedro Morales’ Tropical Bonsai School’, he emphasized in the Japanese informal upright moyogi style, the first movement of the trunk is either to the left or to the right; it is a no-no for the first bend to go backward, otherwise the tree would have a Jay-Lo’s butt! Well, in Lingnan penjing, that is OK.

The late Lingnan master Mr. Liu Zhongming (刘仲明) said in his book, “Lingnan Penjing”, since South China has a hot weather, people tend to be easy-going and lackadaisical; and such traits show up as one of the characteristics of Lingnan penjing. So Lingnan penjing has a “reclining” (卧式) style tree, sort of like someone taking a siesta. In this shohin, the trunk movements resemble a person leaning on the far end of a sofa, a couch potato. I jokingly told friends this tree reflects me when I watch TV.

The Bottom Section

This is how the bottom section looks after cutting off the air-layered top:


And this is how it looks seven years later from a stump:


This one is a sumo style informal upright with a fat trunk and sharp taper, and trained with wiring; what a big contrast to the air-layered top section. I potted it into an oval blue glazed Chinese pot by Zhu Shuiming (朱水明 阳明交趾) to soften up the tree.

I have a lot of fun transforming this mallsai into two very different looking trees: a Lingnan penjing with an easy-going trunk movement and somewhat more natural looking branches ramifications, while its younger “brother” grows up as a serious looking squat-like informal upright bonsai.

A Landscape Kusamono on Lace Rock

This is my wife, Soon’s landscape kusamono. It was shown in the 2014 Houston Chinese Bonsai Society show. Our friend, Shaulin Hon, an architect turned professional photographer, took these photos.


Soon likes to create a mixed planting of herbaceous plants and weeds, the end result is a kusamono that looks like a natural meadow juxtaposed with plants of different colors and textures. I am not surprised there are more than ten species of plants on this lace rock.

She named this landscape planting: A World Beyond the Cave  (别有洞天).

This landscape kusamono is an allegory to a Chinese fable, the Peach Blossom Spring (桃花源记), written by Tao Yuanming (陶渊明) in 421 about a fisherman who came upon a grove of blossoming peach trees growing along the river banks. He was captured by the beautiful peach blossoms and kept rowing until the river ended at a spring. There was a cave on the hill side of the spring, he ventured into it and after passing through a narrow opening he emerged and saw a scenic village with cultivated fields and fine houses. The villagers were living happily and in harmony with each other. They produced everything they needed. The villagers told him their ancestors settled in this secluded place after escaping ravages of war during the Qin dynasty (around 200 BCE). For hundreds of years they lived in peace without outside contacts. After spending several days there, the fisherman left and marked his route so he could find his way back, however, the villagers erased all traces of the markings and the fisherman could not find this Shangri la again.

Don’t we all wish we could find our Peach Blossom Spring village on the other side of the tunnel?


The fisherman found a cave.


Coming out the other end of the cave and finding an Utopian village.


Photo taken November, 2016. An overgrown Ilysanthes floribunda nearly covers up the cave entrance.

The 5th US National Bonsai Exhibition’s Finest Creative Display and Hokusai, the Iconic Japanese Print Artist

You might not have heard of the artist, Hokusai (1740-1849), but you might recognize the image of his most famous woodblock print, “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa”, which is perhaps one of the best recognized icons of Japanese art work.


Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagaw”

What does a Hokusai print have in common with bonsai? Apparently none! Bonsai was called hachinoki at his time, so he probably had never even heard of the word, bonsai. Yet, when I saw two bonsai displays, one in last year’s Artisans Cup, and the other in the recent 5th US National Bonsai Exhibition, Hokusai popped up in my mind.

This is Creighton Bostrom’s Finest Creative Award display at the 5th US National show. The semi-cascade Juniperus procumbens nana, planted in a “kurama” pot, is positioned precariously within a giant laminated wooden wave.


Michael Levin of Bonsai West looking at the “Wave” or the forest?


‘The Wave”, cropped from the above photo. You can find better image of this display in Bonsai Empire’s video of the exhibition.

Some people saw a bonsai tree, some saw a giant woodwork. What I saw reminded me of Hokusai’s Great Wave. I do not know what Creighton Bostrom tried to convey in this display. May be it’s a tribute to Hokusai because artist often pays homage to old masters by creating similar piece in his/her own medium, in this case, using bonsai display as a medium. May be he was inspired by the 2011 devastating tsunami in Japan? Many of us know, Isao Omachi, one of the young Japanese bonsai masters, lost all of his bonsai in the tsunami, literally they were swept away by the Great Wave. May be, and most likely, none of the above. Continue reading