Posted onJuly 9, 2013|Comments Off on Projects: the bounty of summer
The good news about having a greenhouse full of Bhut Jolokia, Trinidad Scorpion, and Moraga pepper plants being trained for bonsai: with the beginning of July comes lots and lots of fruit. The seemingly sad news: since the plants themselves are being deliberately dwarfed for that bonsai, the peppers aren’t anywhere near as big as they’d be if they were fertilized on a constant basis. The excellent news, at least for those with a taste for the dangerously spicy: stressing the plants in this way pretty much guarantees that the peppers will peel the enamel off your teeth in big floppy strips. Now I need to figure out a way to get these to my little brother the chilihead, because he pretty much eats these fresh off the bush.
A long while back, when faced with a local surplus of overgrown pepper plants at the local home improvement center, I discussed the bare basics for converting pepper plants into bonsai. A few years of experimentation went by since then. Capsicum peppers adapt rather well to bonsai training, and while they grow into a good form rather rapidly compared to most plants, they also have specific needs and considerations that most bonsai enthusiasts rarely encounter otherwise. It’s not often that one starts out with good examples of what to watch for in one plant, but a particularly aggressive Bhut Jolokia pepper raised as a container plant needed trimming back anyway, and this guy had some promise as a bonsai.
Unbeknownst to most people content to raise hot and/or sweet peppers in the garden, Capsicum plants last more than one season if protected from freezing. This isn’t negotiable: peppers can’t handle even an hour of subfreezing weather. If you want to start with new seeds right now, understand that you’ll need to get this plant into a container fairly early, and you have to bring it into a space that gets lots of sun through the winter. For best results, don’t let the temperatures drop below 50 degrees F (10 degrees C), and try to keep the container off surfaces that conduct or trap cold, such as bare concrete.
This example here was the end-result of an experiment courtesy of the Chile Pepper Institute, back when the Institute was the one main source for Bhut Jolokia pepper seeds. Naturally, said experiment started right at the height of the new Texas Drought of Record, when relative humidity dropped to as low as 7 percent on most summer days, so only a few Bhut Jolokias survived the summer of 2011. One, though, not only survived but bore fruit, so it came inside for the winter and went into a one-gallon landscaping pot. One more summer outside, and now it’s ready for an initial assessment and shaping.
Before starting, make sure that you have tools and supplies on hand, and in a space where they’re readily accessible. Besides the standard tweezers and secateurs, I’ve become appreciative of microfiber polishing cloths for mopping up various fluids, and of a watch knife for shaping branches. Go with whatever works the best for you, but note that with peppers, you’ll probably do the vast majority of work with maybe one pair of scissors and a pair of chopsticks.
Another aspect to consider with peppers for bonsai is that these are NOT trees, and don’t stop reminding yourself of this. Pepper branches tend to be much more flexible than those of the tree species generally used for bonsai, but they’re also more prone to damage. Bend one too far, too quickly, and you stand a good chance of crimping the branch and thus permanently damaging it. Because of this, when wiring, I tend to go with very low-gauge, very soft wire. Standard copper bonsai wire can be too strong and inflexible for peppers, so I stick with aluminum, and the skinnier, the better. In the photo above, the smaller loops are aluminum jewelry wire, picked up at deep discount at the local Michael’s store, and the annealed wire is perfect for wiring up the ends of pepper plant branches without damaging them.
As with all bonsai projects, this one is an ongoing work, but it’s still going to take a while to clean it up. If you’re one of those who needs background noise while working, I recommend setting up an indoor work area and dropping something into the DVD player. I recommend something that combines hope for the success of the final work with a bit of mystery, and so I had the perfect film running while doing the initial evaluation and cleanup.
Yeah, Dave, I know how you feel.
Before going any further, let’s start with cleaning up the winter residue. Since our Bhut Jolokia was outdoors all autumn long, the pot desperately needs removal of the various chunks of dead leaf, spent twig, and occasional cigarette butt within. (Do NOT ask me how the cigarette butt got in there. I can’t smoke, so it wasn’t mine.)
A few photos earlier, you may have noticed a bottle of isopropyl alcohol in the collection of tools being used. That’s because while cleaning up, I make a point of regularly sterilizing all of my metal and plastic tools with IPA while proceeding. Those microfiber cloths hold quite a bit, so they’re used for wipedowns, but I also recommend keeping a shot glass full of IPA on hand for dipping tools as well. Considering that peppers are as susceptible to tobacco mosaic virus as tomatoes, coming across that spare cigarette butt during the cleanup made me especially glad I had a consistent disinfection program going on.
With that out of the way, let’s look at what we have. After a good year of growth, peppers tend to have a good stout woody stem with a strong root system. That’s the good side. The bad is that they also sprout lots of buds, too, and all over the place. This means that within a year, the pepper’s basic structure includes a lot of crossing branches, half-dead stubs, and other flaws. Put your pepper on a turntable of some sort and give it a good look, from above and below. Swing it around a few times, and take note of structure that you want to preserve and structure that needs to go.
Since it’s still spring, prepare yourself for pulling and clipping a lot of fresh buds, particularly where the main trunk meets the lowest branches. The good news is that while other plants may need grafts to add desirable features lower onto a trunk, sometimes you can get whole new ideas just by leaving the pepper alone for a while. In this case, though, since all I really want to do is open up the interior, they’re all going to have to go.
As an aside, remember how you need to keep remembering that peppers aren’t like other bonsai plants? That applies most to deadwood techniques. This branch helps demonstrate why establishing jin and shari on a pepper usually doesn’t work. When pepper branches die off, the resultant wood becomes extremely fragile, going powdery in most cases, with a noticeable pith instead of heartwood. Trying to manipulate it usually means watching it break everywhere but where you want it to break, and the fragments usually destroy any sense of scale intended to be established. One of these days, I’m going to experiment with various fixatives that might build up such delicate wood, but for right now, that puppy is going to have to go.
Likewise, scarring up a pepper trunk to give it an impression of age requires different techniques. While the trunk itself is strong, the bark is tender and thin enough that the standard burning and reaming techniques for woody bonsai aren’t necessary. Gentle scraping with a watch knife blade is usually enough to establish the appearance of deadwood, and wood stressed with regular flexing, such as in plants exposed to regular heavy wind, splits in impressive ways.
Another consideration is that pepper nebari aren’t quite the same as those on other plants, either. After a few years, pepper roots get thick and tough, but as with branches, they don’t remain that way once they die. Larger roots turn into punk wood like branches, and the smaller ones simply shriven and retain all of the strength and aesthetic value of a piece of cheap wire insulation. With some patience, it may be possible to train pepper roots down the sides of rocks and the like, but that’s an experiment for another time.
At about this point, it’s probably time for another movie. Considering the sudden and thorough violence into which you’re going to engage, find one with appropriate sensibilities. In my case, I picked one that I regularly use as metaphor, such as when I tell my friend Billy Goodnick that when we finally meet, he’ll see my smile and suddenly regret looking for the ship’s cat.
Again, the idea behind this exercise is to thin things out, establish a form for the new bonsai, and get rid of watersprouts and other extraneous growth. Here’s where we start…
…and here’s where we end.
Don’t forget to use that turntable, and get a good view of what you’re intending to do. This experiment involved removing the majority of the green watersprouts coming off the trunk, removing any crossing branches, and encouraging new growth from the tips of the remaining branches.
From this side, the the jin remains, but for how long depends upon what the pepper does in the next few weeks. If the current cleaning starts new budding next to the dead wood, I’ll probably remove the jin and allow the dead wood to form a hole in the trunk. If not, it may be time to try preserving it.
The last thing to watch for? Peppers tend to produce distinctive branch knobs at the trunk. If you don’t mind that your bonsai looks like a crape murder victim, feel free to leave them on. Otherwise, cut them off flush with the trunk and let them scab over. Over the next few weeks, keep a close eye on them, and don’t be afraid to pinch off any new growth in the vicinity. You’re trying to encourage growth at the tips of the branches, remember?
This is the first part of the saga. With luck, in a few weeks, you’ll see it continue, and within a few years, this might be a show-quality bonsai. Equally likely, someone else will exceed any of my silly experiments and come up with all sorts of different ideas, and that works too. See you in a bit.
Posted onNovember 15, 2012|Comments Off on The Aftermath: Funky Finds Holiday Shopping Experience – 2
Last year, I had to skip out on the autumn Funky Finds Holiday Shopping Experience show at Fort Worth’s Will Rogers Center because of the drought. Most of my plants survived the summer, but then September and October were so brutally hot and dry that the thought of doing a serious show in November was nearly impossible. I regretted it, and Jessica, the Funky Finds co-founder, regretted it, but we both figured that it was better to try again in 2012 than bring out a gaggle of stressed and heat-blasted plants to the 2012 show. Oh, how glad we both were that we held off for a year.
As usual, any excuse to come out to Fort Worth is a good one, and my last visit was long enough away that I didn’t realize how much the whole Fort Worth Stockyards area was changing. The new and improved Fort Worth Museum of Science & History is now fully operational, the National Cowgirl Museum just celebrated its tenth anniversary, and the Kimbell Art Museum appears to be halfway through an extensive expansion. Combine that with other events at the Will Rogers Center, which included a model train expo and a paint horse competition, and Texas Christian University’s big football game against Kansas State, and we had a LOT of people coming by. Not all of them stopped to look at carnivorous plants, but enough did…
Due to a combination of an abnormally warm winter and a marginally cooler but extremely dry summer, Funky Finds was the perfect place to show off a collection of happy and healthy hot peppers. In particular, when I pointed out that most Capsicum peppers make good container plants, and that I had Bhut Jolokia peppers that already had pepper buds on them, you can imagine how quickly these left with new families.
One of the aspects of doing Triffid Ranch shows that’s the most enjoyable is that I literally have no idea who’s coming through the doors at a given venue. At Funky Finds, this was more true than usual, because of the location of the Will Rogers Center. Teachers, grad students, musicians, rodeo stars…that’s half of the fun of a Funky Finds show. Think “Calgary Stampede“, with more cactus and fewer Mounties. And yes, I mean that as a compliment to both cities.
And that does it for 2012. I only have 360 days to get ready for the next one, so it’s going to be an absolute mindblower when everything’s done.
Comments Off on The Aftermath: Funky Finds Holiday Shopping Experience – 2
With that said, I’m actually more intrigued by the idea of some enterprising soul producing the solar system’s hottest peppers on Mars, either via hydroponics or with the use of suitably augmented Martian soil. Testing the effects of Martian gravity on pepper plants may be problematic, but it’s definitely possible to test the soil viability with Martian and lunar soil simulants in a greenhouse environment. This may be a very public experiment for this winter, when I’ll be starting up pepper and tomato seedlings anyway. Best of all, I could see the interest in Martian explorers taking such a Capsicum plant and shaping it into the first-ever Martian bonsai.
Want to drive a gardener insane? Drop the poor schlub off in North Texas this time of the year and watch the reaction. Oh, sure, it may SEEM that winter is over, with ridiculously warm temperatures and only the threat of rain and the occasional tornado. Combine that with the local garden centers being overloaded with fresh new herb and vegetable seedlings, and it’s as if the earth itself is screaming “Go ahead. Put in that row of tomatoes. Everything’s fine. I promise.”
Longtimers such as myself know better. As a general rule, it’s best to wait until at least St. Patrick’s Day before planting anything that’s frost-intolerant or moving citrus from shelter, but that’s not an absolute. Two years ago, the Czarina and I moved into our new house on March 10, just in time to catch our second big snowstorm of the year, and gardening junkies still talk about the bad freeze we had in Dallas at the beginning of April 1997. As a general rule, though, any plantings by March 17 are usually safe. In fact, in this town, I recommend staying home and gardening on St. Patrick’s Day, instead of dealing with the annual city display of vomit and other bodily fluids. It’s just a bit more rational, y’know?
That doesn’t stop the newbies, the thrill-seekers, and the apprentice village idiots. “The weather’s fine. I can put in those tomatoes, and they won’t frost off.” Some are so determined, you’d think they were auditioning for the part in a slasher film. “Oh, don’t worry. Michael/Jason/Freddy’s just a myth. Now let me plant these peppers, and we’ll go have sex in that abandoned Indian burial ground turned chemical waste dump during the full moon.”
This isn’t helped by the great tempters. Longtimers know that you should wait until the local redbuds are in full bloom before risking frost-averse plantings, but it’s so, so tempting when everything else is going mad. Due to our abnormally mild winter, the daffodils and paperwhites were beaten in the early blooming sweepstakes by flowering quince, followed by magnolia, dogwood, and crabapple. However, the real harbinger of false spring is the local weed below.
I’ve heard this described as “cilantro”, by people who know a lot more about local weeds than I, and it certainly superficially resembles that most beloved and detested of cooking herbs. In North Texas, our local cilantro is considered a pest because it takes over in most poor soils. Out here, the textbook illustration of “poor soil” is any photo of a lawn, so you can imagine how insane people can get about wiping it out. Me, I generally leave it alone, because it bolts, drops seed, and dies early in the year, much like most of our wildflowers, and it’s only a pain in spring.
Oh, but is it a pain. Those purple-red flowers are attractive, but the mass of the weed tends to grow quickly enough that the local city inspectors are handing out ordinance warnings two days after a fresh mowing. Mowing through a clump leaves the whole neighborhood smelling like a great Mexican restaurant (should you have wild garlic in the back yard to go with it, as many people in houses formerly frequented by big dogs, mowing makes you uncontrollably hungry for fresh pizza), but many of the individual stems stay out of range of the mower blade when the others give their lives. This means that two days later, the yard is once again scraggly and unkempt, and who has time to mow three times a week?
I should also mention another aspect that makes this weed a beautiful menace. It forms big pillowy bunches, true, but those tend to conceal road trash, bottles, chunks of wood, or anything else that couldn’t outrun its growth. Because of this, the first mowing of the season can be more exciting than mortal man can tolerate. There was that big patch, for instance, that was hiding a nearly full plastic bottle of battery acid back in 1987, and thankfully I saw a corner of said bottle before running it down. Insert your very own “Sounds like an ex of mine” joke here, because I was thinking it, too.
The real danger, though, comes from those blooms. Drive past the front yard, and see those rich flowers. Drive down the street, and watch them taking over everything. Head down the highway, and catch that scarlet flash at 70mph. After a while, it’s hard not to take it as a sign that the long winter is over and start with the weekend garden regimen. Then, when the last big freeze of the season hits, this fake cilantro, like the honey badger, doesn’t care. It’ll come back for another two months, while you whimper over the blasted black mess that used to be a sturdy heirloom tomato.
The good news to all of this? I have a mulching lawnmower. I will make fake cilantro pay for tempting me like this.
Posted onNovember 1, 2011|Comments Off on Peppers so hot, they’ll give you superpowers
Even with the abysmal summer, one of the experimental successes this year was with moving beyond carnivorous plants and into Capsicum peppers as container plants. Specifically, thanks to the wonderful folks at the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, I had a lot of experimental material. The heat and savage dryness managed to kill off some of the more promising plants early on, but you should see them exploding now that the heat has let off.
Posted onJuly 17, 2011|Comments Off on Projects: “Capsicum Peppers for Bonsai”
Interested bystanders considering moving into bonsai have multiple reasons to be dissuaded from giving the art a chance. Many, particularly Americans, are put off by the amount of time necessary with many tree species for initial training. Others don’t feel comfortable with risking a valuable scion or yamadori to a design that might kill the tree. Still others feel intimidated by the techniques themselves, and wish for easier starter plants for practice before risking a pomegranate or Wollemi pine to shaping and cutting. In recent years, herbal alternatives to standard trees, particularly using rosemary and other woody shrub herbs, have achieved a popularity of their own, and an intriguing alternative is the Capsicum group of peppers.
The advantages to using Capsicum peppers for bonsai experiments include a higher resistance to dehydration than most other bonsai candidates. Since hot peppers cannot tolerate temperatures below freezing, they must be kept as indoor plants in areas with such temperatures, and the peppers thrive as indoor plants in sunny locations. Many, such as the jalapeno (Capsicum annuum) and the habanero (Capsicum chinense), produce attractive flowers and fruit as bonsai. Best of all, not only are plants suitable for bonsai available at garden centers and nurseries, but no evidence yet exists for exactly how long they may survive with proper care. Anecdotal evidence of jalapenos and habaneros surviving for as much as thirty years in plants brought in over the winter, but since most plants stop producing peppers at about that time and are subsequently composted, a Capsicum bonsai may live considerably longer than this.
Another advantage to using Capsicum peppers is that as the pepper plant ages, it builds up a woody stem that is very easy to cut and shape with standard bonsai techniques. The following project involves the beginnings of training a pepper plant for bonsai, but be aware that as with most bonsai, the final effect will take years of shaping. Using Capsicum peppers for bonsai is much faster than using comparable-sized trees, but proper techniques still require patience.
And now the safety warning, to keep the lawyers happy…
WARNING: When using hot peppers for bonsai, ALWAYS wear protective clothing when working with ripe or green fruit. While the leaves and stems do not contain capsaicin, the active compound in hot peppers that produces the distinctive fire, the fruit will, no matter what stage of growth. Some individuals are particularly sensitive to capsaicin on the skin, and all must take precautions not to get any in the eyes , mucus membranes, or particularly sensitive skin. Especially when working with notedly hot peppers such as habaneros, eye protection is highly recommended, as mild bruising of fruit that otherwise leaves no trace may still leave enough capsaicin on skin to cause extreme burning if it gets into the eyes. ALWAYS wash your hands and tools after working with Capsicum fruit, whether it is green or ripe. Neither the Texas Triffid Ranch or any of the entities therein take responsibility for any injuries or discomfort caused by exposure to Capsicum fruit, and individuals overly sensitive to capsaicin should attempt the following project using a mild pepper, such as the TAM jalapeno or habanero developed by Texas A&M University.
Raw stock for pepper bonsai
To begin, suitable peppers may be grown from seed, or may be purchased as seedlings from the aforementioned garden centers. A suitable pepper should have a good rootstock and a stout stem. Always examine a candidate pepper for infestations of pests such as aphids and whitefly: an infestation at this early a stage suggests a weak plant, although this could also be a factor of poor growing conditions.
Upon finding a suitable candidate plant, the first concern is training it for future shaping. Capsicum peppers are particularly adapted to hot and dry conditions, and in fact have problems with root rot if kept overly wet. My preferred choice of training pot is a five-inch pot purchased at a garden shop sale, with a lip on the drainage saucer to allow inspection of the water level. Make sure that the crown of the plant, where the stem connects to the roots, is not buried in the repotting, as this may cause stem rot and may kill the pepper. Water the pepper sparingly and only when the soil is completely dry, and fertilize every six months. As the plant responds to conditions, it will produce small leaf pods, which may be shaped later.
Bonsai candidate after training
After six months to a year of growth, the bonsai candidate will have reached the limits of growth in its original pot. In this case, the plant shifted to the side and produced new growth along the leading edge. Several small offshoots have died back at the tip, and these may be used as deadwood or jin in the final design or removed later. The main stem now shows signs of becoming woody, and while whitefly or aphid infestations may cause localized leaf loss, new leaf clusters will appear from the trunk so long as the trunk itself is still green. In addition, while the plant was stressed, it still produced a full dozen fruit and as many flowers at the time this picture was taken, attesting to the strength of the plant. Both flowers and fruit may be removed at this time, taking care with the fruit, or they may be left intact when repotting.
Why peppers don't produce good nebari
Of particular note is the root system in the pot. Capsicum peppers do not seem to respond well to exposing the roots for long periods, so trying to develop a nebari may cripple or kill the pepper. However, this may be only a condition of a young pepper plant, and anyone wishing to research this on an older pepper should not be discouraged from doing so.
New bonsai pot with screen
At this stage, the root system has filled the entire pot, meaning that it already has a sufficient root pad for repotting in a traditional bonsai pot. Try to choose a bonsai pot as deep as the root pad, as the root pad will not respond as well to root combing as other bonsai candidate species. As with most others, place a piece of nylon screening over the drainage holes to prevent soil from escaping through the bottom.
Tumping out the plant from the training pot
At this point, the pepper is ready for repotting. The workspace used for repotting depends upon the individual, and I use a plastic container to minimize soil escape. Use this opportunity to examine the root pad for potential diseases, but try to keep disruptions to a minimum. Excess roots through a drainage hole may be trimmed, but try not to remove excess soil or comb roots for shaping.
Pepper in its new pot
Actually stabilizing the root pad may use several techniques, all of which depend upon the individual artist. Peppers respond well to tying with wire through the drainage holes, but in this case, the only support is the soil itself. Note in this picture that the pepper stem itself extends well beyond the confines of the pot: once it is adapted to its new pot, the trunk may be propped to a shankan form, or the excess trimmed to encourage the new growth within the pot for a penjing display. This, as always, depends upon the form of the pepper and the demands of the bonsai artist.
Props to the bonsai
As of this writing, the only addition to this planting is a broken pot used to assist the roots in keeping the pepper in its original leaning form. The pepper is watered when dry, which is usually once per week, and has been kept out of direct sun during that transition. The next stage involves improving upon the branch shape and encouraging a stronger root system, and the final results should be completed within the next six months. Since so little information is available on using peppers for bonsai, copious notes have already been taken on this bonsai’s development, and the techniques described herein will be applied to other habaneros to confirm that these work the best.
The use of Capsicum peppers for bonsai candidates may be unorthodox, but future experimentation should confirm that their use offers opportunities for expanding the art. Their quick growth rate, their unusual leaf and fruit structures, and their ability to thrive under dryer and hotter conditions than most bonsai candidates give them a decided advantage to beginners, and advanced bonsai artists may find much to work with from this particular genus. As always with bonsai, the important consideration is giving the plants time to show their best advantage.
Postscript: shortly after finishing this article, I discovered a Finnish chile enthusiast who does his own pepper bonsai. He’s at least five years ahead of me, and has already demonstrated that pepper nebari are both possible and impressive, which means that it’s time for me to get to work.
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