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Can an oversized cutting survive

A lucky strike – The development of a yamadori spruce

During a hike, Hugo Berther came across a spruce growing on top of a rock. He discovered its beauty hidden under a thick bed of foliage. It was the beginning of an exciting, but challenging journey. Hugo was already passionate about bonsai in the early seventies when working as a gardener. Later in 1995, because of back problems he had to change profession and became a bus driver. Alongside his family, bonsai consumes his whole life.

It was in 1996 I came across an amazing spruce on a yamadori tour in Val Poschiavo, in the canton of Graubünden. We had the wrong tools with us to dig out the boulder immediately and so we postponed the digging until the following year.

So on a sunny day in June 1997, the time had come. My long-time bonsai friend, the late Bruno Gamper supported me in the digging. The challenge was that we first had to move a rock of about 1 m3 to get to the root. We succeeded with the help of a jack. To cut the roots, we pruned them with a saw we had brought with us. The roots that were still on the tree — there were only a few of them — were packed in dried moss, which we then moistened lightly with water. In order to keep the tree in balance, we removed a large part of its branches and then attached it to a stretcher so we could carry the yamadori to the car. We chose a different route back to avoid gawkers.

It was as if I had planted an oversized cutting

Hugo Berther

Therefore, our passage led us about 500 metres through a creek bed, which was full of undergrowth. After 1½ hours of hard work we arrived at the car drenched in sweat. The drive home went well, but the impressions of the digging were with me the whole time. The big question on my mind was, can I keep this tree alive? My doubts changed into pure motivation. I will do my very best so that my new foundling, lying in the boot, could survive.

The day after, I potted my new spruce yamadori. Collected trees need suitable containers, so I had to build a box in which it would fit. I made it out of slats and wooden boards. Then I prepared the substrate in which I planted it. I mixed together akadama, kiriu, lava soil and some of the original soil. The tools for planting were ready and so I could plant my tree in its first container.

First I inspected the root ball and looked for the right planting position. With a construction of stones and wires, I braced the tree in the box and filled it with the previously prepared soil mixture. Since it had no roots to anchor it with, I placed screws into the trunk below the surface of the soil and used them to fix it in the box. The tree had hardly any fibrous roots and so it was as if I had planted an oversized and over-aged cutting. Once potted, I moved my spruce to its new location.

How lucky was I? The branches remained alive

Hugo Berther

It was shaded and protected from the wind in its new home, where I watered it thoroughly and covered it with wet cloth. This was to relieve my ‘oversized cutting’ of evaporation stress. During the first year, I moistened the cloths several times a day, depending on the weather, and always looked under them anxiously. The hope that the needles would be green and not fall off accompanied me during this phase. Luck was with me. The branches stayed alive.

2001: First styling

In the 3rd year I started positioning the branches. Millimetre by millimetre I bent and pulled the branches into the right position. What normally happens in a few minutes during demonstrations by great bonsai artists took me months to do with my spruce. At the same time, I also started fertilising. I fed the tree small regular portions of organic fertiliser on the surface of the soil. But I also foliar fed by spraying the foliage. The result of this fertiliser was the formation of buds on the branches.

As soon as I saw these small buds, I cut back the branch. It was a tightrope walk between life and death, but the reduction of the branch lengths was absolutely necessary from a design point of view. Since hardly anyone knew my spruce, I was able to go through this period without a ‘social burden’ with my yamadori. I used the third year to position and shorten the branches. During this time, I decided much on the basis of my gut feeling.

2002: Strong growth

In the spring of the fourth year, the tree looked vigorous and strong enough, I repotted it back into the same wooden box, where it continued to thrive. When I lifted the tree out of the wooden box, it was clear that another major pruning was needed so that it would one day fit into a proper bonsai pot. So I cut away another large piece of the root. By doing so, I again put it into a critical health situation. However, the experience of the last three years made me confident that it would also make it through this time.

  1. When I counted the year rings, I came up with 250 rings. However, the wood in the core was already rotten and so the tree was certainly older than 250 years.
  2. 2002, the side that I thought was the front, but had too many faults.

It was a tightrope walk between life and death

Hugo Berther

After repotting I discovered that what I thought would be the front was actually the side, which showed many faults. The nebari was not very well developed. The jin sections would all be on the back and thus in the wrong place. The upper part of the trunk also ran backwards and thus also in the wrong direction away from the viewer. And the branches would all be straight in the wrong position as well. I found the new front by turning the tree 180 degrees. Now the base of the trunk is much more interesting and according to John Naka, my spruce showed itself to me.

2005: First real pot.

In 2005, it was planted in its first ceramic pot. The branches were cut to a good length, were strong and ready for being shaped. The deadwood elements in the form of jin needed to be defined.

  1. In 2005, it received its first pot. The branches were cut as well. The deadwood features still need some work.
  2. In 2007, the spruce in my garden growing in its new pot.

2007: A round drum pot

The main branches were in the right place due to years of work. Secondary branches were now wired and placed in position. I usually wire my trees in the autumn so that the branches can harden in the right position until summer. This way I avoid the problem of the shoots biting into the wire when I wire them in spring. The same time as the wiring, I pinch the shoots. After wiring/pinching, I pay extra close attention to a possible infestation of spider mites, since I had experienced this several times in the past.

In 2015, I potted the tree in a simple pot as a kind of an experiment. The effect was obvious, tree and pot did not form a unit and did not stimulate one another. With the sinker (see arrow) I defined the right position in all directions for the future repottings.

Wiring in 2019 also had to be combined with guy wires so that the desired positions could be achieved. The beautiful curves of the branches, inside the crown can be seen beautifully from this angle. The maturity of the tree is not only shown by the beautiful crown, but also by the trunk line, the bark combined with the lichens adds even more character.

2023: An oval pot!

The latest highlight was my tree at Giardina 2023 fair, where it presented our hobby at its best to a large audience and also delighted our assistants. Before I put the tree in the exhibition I watered it thoroughly. During the 6 days it was at the exhibition, I only moistened the moss. And when it was back home on Sunday, I watered it thoroughly again. In general, spruces don’t like to have wet feet.

The stand at the Giardina, showing the spruce (Photo: Toni Maegli)

Then shortly after that I started pinching the new shoots. If you stand under a spruce in the wild during a sudden rain, it takes a long time before you get wet. The reason is the dense coniferous structure, which directs water outwards, precisely where the fibrous roots are. Spruces like an open, light soil mixture and tolerate no watering for 1-2 days. With the oval pot I have chosen, the tree no longer falls out of the pot, as had been the case with the round one.

I can lead the viewer to a moderate, quiet location in the Swiss plateau.

Hugo Berther

With this new combination I can lead the viewer to a moderate, quiet location in the Swiss plateau (Schweizer Mittelland). In the round pot of 2010 I showed the tree as located in a rough pre-alpine zone. The somewhat lighter brown of the current pot takes up the colours of the bark both optimally and harmoniously. To conclude, just a gentle reminder to all you yamadori hunters out there, do seek permission before digging for material.

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