Bizarre Weather and Bonsai
Wacky weather makes bonsai grumpy too. We’ve had, in the middle of the United States and in Europe, some of the oddest weather in years: Very cold springs in both places. These unusual weather patterns can result in seriously bummed out bonsai.
Even if you’ve only a few seasons of bonsai under your belt, it’s probably obvious that a bonsai is a very vulnerable plant. Because it lives in a pot, strange weather is a stronger version of strange to the tree. We might need to wait longer to bring our trees out of winter storage, which can result in tree weakness if they’ve been growing there for a while already. Pests and diseases can latch onto trees they normally would not have a chance with. Or, we can simply have hotter summers than normal which create other problems.
I remember very well my first year as an apprentice in Japan—it was 2004 and the summer was so hot it was is if the sun had snuggled in close for a festive few months. Well, the bonsai and the bonsai apprentices who tried to keep things moist didn’t care much for that. Nagano Prefecture simply baked in a record-breaking heat wave that lasted months. When a young carpenter fell off a roof dead of heat exhaustion, Suzuki came into work the next morning with a no-joke look on his face and handed out white shirts and wide brim hats. ‘Don’t die!’ he admonished us, as if we were planning differently.
The result of that hot summer in Japan was that many bonsai got weak. The year after we had branch loss here and there, and some rarely seen disease was present on some of the heat-stressed trees. To strengthen them, they were simply taken out of their pots and put into wooden boxes with pumice tucked around their root balls, and left that way for a few years. Some were famous trees. We hadn’t done anything wrong, but there was only so much we could control. And one thing that has come back to me again and again since then is that older, more refined bonsai will be hit hardest during weird weather years, and younger trees less so.
It’s so easy to wonder what we did, or did not do, to cause this or that problem. We seem culpable for everything—after all, a bonsai is in our care, isn’t it? Easy to take the blame, assuming we’re the only piece on the board that’s moving. But the weird year will make its own moves, and take its own casualties. And during those times we should expect some loss, hopefully not of whole trees, but perhaps an important branch will die. Do those things you can—Reposition trees. Put up that shade cloth you’ve been thinking of for hot spells. Plan in a third or fourth watering/misting on blazing days (preceded by retirement from work, naturally). Diagnose your diseases. Monitor cold periods carefully and don’t go by the calendar to bring them out of cold storage. And then, don’t wonder or beat ourselves up for what we’re doing wrong (which might be nothing) when our trees act weird during weird weather years.