Murder or Negligent Tree-ocide?

So…my only styled tree has gone to the compost pile in the sky and i’m trying to determine the cause of death. It was a simple shimpaku juniper styled in an intro course of 10/2016. For 2017 i mostly left it alone other than basic watering and rare fertilization and it responded minimally. 2018 I realized that the inorganic bonsai mix required more fertilization, and so i got better growth. I noticed that the media was draining and drying more slowly and it probably should be repotted. I opted to wait until spring, thinking i would do a minimally invasive repot and some more wiring/styling. Spring 2019 had a very nice flush of growth, mostly in the apex, so i felt confident that i could do some work in April as things warmed up. I removed old wire, did basic cleaning/pruning of sprouts etc. The major change was to Jin the apex and reduce some of the more vigorous upper branches hoping to force energy lower on the tree. I’d say that about 30% of the foliage mass was removed with the remainder distributed fairly evenly on the remaining branches. I opted not to repot at the same time.

Within 2 weeks i noticed the lowest branch was browning. This progressed in a matter of 3-4 weeks until the entire tree was toast (brown and crispy).

So, did removing the so much growth (at the wrong time?) kill the tree?

Or is it possible that the roots froze during the winter with the media holding more moisture? I maintained the same overwintering process and it was not a particularly hard winter. But i was more conscious during warm spells to water…which was also a change.

In one stream i know Ryan talks about how a conifer can die during the winter, then flush in spring via the root-stored energy, then collapse.




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The most common cause of death in my experience is over watering. If the roots are kept too moist they get no oxygen and bacteria and fungus can take their toll causing root rot. Often the roots appear black and may have a funky odor if you inspect them. The solution is PREVENTION to allow the soil to become almost dry before watering, to allow gas to replace the water in the media. Then a miracle takes place when you water and the gas is flushed out by thorough watering. As the water drains the media is infused by fresh oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere.

I killed my first bonsai gifted to me by my mother. I thought I needed to water daily on a schedule as the little card said in the gift box. I learned from my mistakes. Plural because I have repeated the poor care for some time before I started waiting for feedback from the plant and container.

Having a surface treatment to keep moisture from the surface to the bottom of the pot and using soil color change and a stick of bamboo to check moisture level before watering seems to keep the plants healthy and growing strong.
I have learned not to water just the surface, but to water with gusto to ensure the soil is flushed and the roots have adequate moisture. But then the difficult part, wait until the tree tells me that I need to water again.

Junipers need their foliage to survive, and removing too much, or pinching the foliage are mistakes I have made as well. When a tree dies, I review what I may have done to weaken it or to starve or drown it. Junipers are pretty hardy, but they cannot live in a saturated pot.
I have to take time and do a post-mortem to see what the roots and soil look like. Junipers often can be green when the roots are no longer working. The first sign is often a discoloration of the foliage. A professional looked at the juniper I brought to a workshop and shook their head. The tree was brown and dropping needles in a month.
Do not be discouraged!
We learn from our mistakes, and we can learn from others mistakes. The loss of a tree you have spent time and work and emotions on is difficult. Learn what works, listen to the individuals that have trees that thrive. Placing a tree into a confined container is a difficult task to be done well. The important part of that sentence is to do it well. Have a few trees that you spend the time required to keep them health and happy.
Most important, have fun, share your successes and pass you knowledge on.


Sorry about your Juniper :cry:
Being that Junipers strength and energy is stored in their foliage, not in their roots like a pine, and you removed what was the only vigorous growth, the tree exhausted its resources and opted to stop supplying those resources to parts of the tree. The die off begins :frowning:
When coming into spring with new growth showing only in the apex was a sure sign of a root problem. Could have the winter or over watering.
All part of the art of Bonsai, and we learn from our mistakes :metal:t2::evergreen_tree:


Thanks for all the valuable input and information. I did misinterpret the lack of growth on the lower tree since i thought the flush implied the roots were okay. Then i went ahead and trimmed off the only source of nourishment that ‘might’ have helped it survive. Well played on my part! Fail big or stay home…right?

The REAL irony was that i wasn’t particularly proud of the work i did in the initial workshop. But after my misguided second work session, i was very pleased with the appearance and the future design plan. HA!

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Hi @Bonsai_bob, great post. What are some of the things to look out for to interpret that the tree is telling you that it needs water again?

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The sign a plant needs water is it is as dry as it will tolerate to allow oxygen into the soil. No nutrient absorption occurs at the root zone unless oxygen is present. At a molecular level oxygen is required to transmit nutrients across the cell wall and into the roots . At a molecular level oxygen is required to transmit nutrients across the cell wall and into the roots . Each species has level of dryness that you should not exceed. Knowing that lowest level should help you avoid the plant dying from too little water. It is better to water a little too soon than a little too late.
Color of soil substrate, pumice and akadama turn lighter when dry. The surface treatment is dry and not cool to the touch, if the moss is dry, the plant is probably dry. And, placing a bamboo stake into the soil half way from the trunk to the rim of the pot, remove and check for moisture. These are most of the ways I test before I water. If the tree is not too large, when I lift it to turn it or move it, the weight tells me if the soil is dry. If I have too many trees to give good care and feeding, the nursery is self limiting by killing off the trees I have neglected or killed with kindness. :face_with_thermometer: So treat the trees you have well, and know them well enough to understand what they need to thrive. Mirai has raised my standards to have thriving trees, not just surviving trees!!
Good luck, have fun, share what you learn.