My first blog by club chairman Ian Butland – Project Oak

My interest in Japan, China and the far east started many years ago, way back in the 70’s. Like a lot of young lads at that time, the martial arts and films of such were our first introduction to the ways of the east. Bonsai in the UK was very much in it’s infancy back then and as a young lad in his early years I didn’t have any great interest in anything to do with gardening, predominately because neither of my parents were interested in gardening other than to make it look nice. They didn’t have any specific horticultural ability or knowledge, and if a plant died in the garden they simply accepted it and went and bought another to fill the gap!

Fast forward to the early 90’s, when I was on holiday in Cornwall with my soon to be wife, we came across an Acer bonsai nursery and went for a look around. We only lived in a flat at this time so had nowhere to keep any sort of tree so had no intention of buying one. We were simply curious. After chatting with the owner for a good amount of time he asked if we would like to see his Japanese garden that was currently in development but he was hoping to open to the public within a year or two. Needless to say when we went through the gate what met our eyes was something else. My love for all things bonsai was borne that day and I have never looked back.

Fast forward a few years and we finally had our first house and we set about creating our own little Japanese style garden complete with my first selection of small bonsai.  Looking back I didn’t have anything of any great value or show worthy but they were mine and I was happy in my little bonsai world.  Working full time in management for a well known supermarket, up to 80 hours per week some weeks, took up a large amount of our lives back then so the time that I had to spend with my trees was still very limited.  As such there wasn’t many years that went by when one or two didn’t die from unintended neglect!  I do still have two from those days that manage to hang on! A small box, which because it has lived all its life in a small pot is still pencil thin and a typical garden centre Chinese Elm that my late mother bought for me and so I couldn’t part with it for all the tea in China.

Fast forward a few more years and we decided to move to the place of my wife’s birth and childhood years, Grimsby. After moving we had both stepped down from the management side of the business and I found myself having more time on my hands to spend in the garden and to learn about bonsai. I enjoyed studying horticultural information (the internet is a wonderful place) and a lot of the stuff I had forgotten from school came flooding back.

I joined the North East Lincolnshire Bonsai Society in 2015 and haven’t looked back since.  Apart from the obvious nice thing of meeting new people that share the same interest, belonging to a bonsai society really does help to improve your knowledge of trees and how to do things.  I still maintain the best piece of advise anyone can give to anybody wishing to practice bonsai culture, is join your local club or society!  My knowledge has come along in leaps and bounds in the last 4 years.  It’s a shame the our trees don’t grow at the same speed as our learning of horticulture and all things trees.  As they say though, practicing bonsai is a marathon not a sprint!


Anyway on to the subject of this blog……..

The English Oak is a great tree to use as bonsai material providing you have either a decent sized piece to start with or 40 to 50 years to grow one from an acorn!  I had neither! 

I did however come across this purpose grown piece (field grown) that was supplied originally from Danny Use in Belgium to John Hanby’s nursery here in the UK.  I had gone to John’s end of season sale in December of 2016 and decided to buy this, purely because I wanted an Oak to add to my ever expanding collection.  In hind site, it wasn’t a particularly good piece of material but it wasn’t overly expensive and I thought it might work out okay because of the price.  I thought if it didn’t develop as I had hoped I could always chop the trunk at the first bend and let it grow as a very short tree!

I brought it home and sat it on my bench and was very pleased with myself for getting the Oak I so thought I needed!!

I let it sit and grow for all of 2017 as I really didn’t know at this stage what to do or even where to go with it. (I still had a lot to learn at this time,  and still do!)

Then in early 2018 I bumped into Rob Atkinson from the Aka Matsu Bonsai Society in the North East at the spring boot sale in Doncaster and we got chatting, as you do.  Anyway, I mentioned this Oak and explained that it had a long bare trunk and just a blob of branches and foliage on the top and I wasn’t quite sure how to get it to bud back.  He suggested to me that if I were to cut out the big bud at the tip of each branch I should get the tree to push out growth somewhere else.

I carried out this exercise that same spring and I was astonished at the result!  The tree pushed buds all over, lots of them, and some that grew REALLY well.  Two buds at the first bend of the trunk grew so well they started to make new branches lower down the trunk line. (The extension of buds to branches you can see at the lower half of the trunk all grew in one season).  Now I appreciate that it will take a good few years to get these branches to thicken up and be in balance with the growth at the top of the tree, but it will still be a lot less years than planting that acorn and waiting for it to grow! 

As you can just make out from this image to the right there are two new branches coming from almost the same point on the left side of the trunk.  Now when I saw this, I thought, I wonder if I can make use of this.  Having read an article on thread grafting during 2018, I could use the top extension for a thread graft.  This will allow me to achieve a branch on the outside of the trunk at the apex of the next bend.   So that is what I did.  After all the leaves had dropped, I selected the point on the trunk where I wanted my thread graft to emerge, made sure it wasn’t over an existing pruning scar and drilled my hole angled slightly downwards so that any moisture that found its way in, wouldn’t sit and potentially ruin my efforts.  The hole needed to be slightly wider than the widest point of the branch, including buds, to be threaded or you will damage the new buds as it is pushed and pulled gently through the hole.  This procedure was done in the early part of 2019 along with it’s first styling and using plenty of raffia, heavy wire and turnbuckles I created the image on the right.

I fertilised it heavily during the growing season of 2019 and by the late autumn, to my delight, it would appear that the my first ever thread graft had been successful!  As you can see from the picture there is a nice ring of callus tissue surrounding the emerging thread.  Most of the literature that I have read suggests that once this ring of tissue has formed it is okay to severe the graft from the feeding branch on the opposite side of the trunk.  I, however, intend to leave it for a full season more of growth before separation to ensure that it is fully grafted and so minimise the risk of failure.

Now on to what’s next for this tree which has, by default, become a bit of a longer term project.  Once the buds have pushed in the spring, but before the cuticle has hardened on the new leaves, I intend to re-pot it into a much larger training pot.  Read Harry Harrington’s useful article on re-potting Oaks after leaf burst on the Bonsai4me website.  I will also at this time introduce a number of approach/thread grafts to improve the nebari .  There isn’t a great deal of root flare at the base so by introducing a number of 3-4 year old seedlings around the base where it is lacking good spread I hope to improve it over the coming years.

To be continued………….