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For many bonsai tree species, early spring is the best time for repotting.

As the days get longer and the temperatures slowly increase, the roots of a bonsai gradually become active. During this time, the energy of the tree that was stored in the roots over the winter begins to move back up into the tree branches. As this happens, the dormant buds begin to swell. This swelling is the first sign that the tree is beginning to break dormancy. Over the next few weeks, the amount of energy from the roots to the branches increases, and the buds go through a transformation from dormant nub to a fully-opened leaf.

PHOTO: Dormant bud on bonsai.

Dormant bud

PHOTO: Swelling bud on bonsai.

Swelling bud

PHOTO: Extending bud on bonsai.

Extending bud

PHOTO: Opening bud on bonsai.

Opening bud

The best time to repot is generally in the middle of this process, when the roots are active, and the buds are in the swelling and extending stage. All repotting should be done by the time the trees are in the opening stage.

The tree set to be repotted today is this wonderful crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica). The first step is removing the tree from the pot.

PHOTO: Bonsai ready to be repotted.

Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)

Using the root hook and saw, we slowly and carefully create a gap between the root ball and the sides of the pot. Creating this space will allow us to safely remove the tree from the pot.

PHOTO: Loosening a bonsai from its pot with a root hook before repotting.

Use the root hook to carefully loosen the plant from the pot.

PHOTO: Use a root saw to carefully remove the bonsai from its pot.

Once a furrow has been created with the root hook, use the saw to free the bonsai from the pot.

This tree was certainly in need of being repotted! You can see the abundance of roots on the sides and the bottom of the root ball (below). You can even see where the roots started to grow down through the drainage holes in the pot. These “root plugs” prevent proper drainage, which is very important for tree health.

PHOTO: Root plugs—where the roots started to grow down through the drainage holes in the pot—prevent proper drainage.

Root plugs—where the roots started to grow down through the drainage holes in the pot—prevent proper drainage.

PHOTO: Bonsai drainage screen covered by root mat.

Drainage screen covered by root mat

The frequency of repotting is determined by a number of factors, including species, stage of development, and pot size. Vigorous root growers like maples need to be repotted and root pruned more frequently than pine trees of the same developmental stage (which grow roots more slowly). Though root pruning is important to bonsai health, it can be stressful to a tree if the roots are disturbed too frequently. Knowing the tree species you have and how it grows is important in making the decision of when to repot and root prune. 

PHOTO: Bonsai volunteer Ester Bannier assists in root trimming.

Volunteer Ester Bannier assists in root trimming.

PHOTO: Root hook working bonsai roots free.

Use a root hook to work roots free.

Using root hooks, scissors, and chopsticks, the roots are teased out and pruned as needed. Cutting the roots back removes large woody roots, allowing more space for fine feeder roots to grow. The woody roots act only as transporters of energy. Woody roots do not absorb water, food, or oxygen; only the fine feeder roots do that. Having primarily fine feeder roots in our pots is what allows us to keep bonsai in such shallow containers. If the woody roots take up too much space, then the tree cannot absorb enough water, food, and oxygen to support the large amounts of foliage they have, and the trees’ health will suffer.

PHOTO: The bonsai, carefully removed from its pot.

The bonsai, pre-trimming

PHOTO: The bonsai rootball after pruning.

The bonsai root ball after pruning

While the tree work is going on, the soil and pot are being prepared for its return.

Bonsai soil is one of the most important aspects of growing bonsai trees. There are many different soil mixes and combinations that can be used based upon your tree species, the region in which you live, the amount of time you have to water, and many other factors. No matter what mix you choose, a good bonsai soil should support vigorous root growth, a healthy microbe balance, and have good drainage. Here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, we use a variety of mixes based on tree species and stage of development. For this tree, we will be using our base mix of akadama (a clay-like material mined in Japan), pumice, and lava rock. Our soil mix is sifted to remove any small particles and dust that could clog up the drainage holes, decreasing drainage.

PHOTO: Soil mix of akadama, pumice and lava rock is used on this tree.

A soil mix of akadama, pumice, and lava rock is used on this tree.

PHOTO: Volunteer Dick Anderson sifts soil for repotting the bonsai collection.

Volunteer Dick Anderson sifts soil for repotting the bonsai collection.

Once the pot has been cleaned, screens have been secured over drainage holes, and tie-down wires have been added, a layer of lava rock is placed to aid with drainage. After the drainage layer is placed, a small amount of soil is added to bring the tree up to grade and help position it in place.

PHOTO: Bonsai pot prepped and ready for drainage.

Fresh mesh and tie-downs have been placed over drainage holes in the pot.

PHOTO: Bonsai pot with drainage layer.

Drainage has been added in a single layer.

 Once the tree is in place and secured, soil is added and chopsticks are used to push the soil into all the open spaces in and around the root system. Any open gaps left in the pot will result in dead space where roots will not grow. The soil should be firmly in place but not packed too tightly; otherwise, the drainage will be affected, and it will be difficult for roots to grow.

PHOTO: Adding soil to repotted bonsai.

Adding soil to repotted bonsai

PHOTO: Chopsticks are used to push soil into open spaces around roots.

Chopsticks are used to push soil into open spaces around roots.

When the soil is set, the tree is soaked in a tub of water and a liquid product called K-L-N, which promotes root growth and reduces stress from the repotting process.

After a good soaking, the tree is removed and allowed to drain, then returned to its bench in the greenhouse. It will remain there until it is warm enough to go outside on the benches. Not all trees are moved to the greenhouse after repotting; most will return to the over-wintering storage. However, this tree was stressed at the end of the growing season, and I wanted to give it a jump-start on the year and give it more time to recover and gain back some of its vigor.

PHOTO: Soaking the repotted bonsai in water and K-L-N.

Soaking the repotted bonsai in water and K-L-N

PHOTO: Bonsai "benched" in the greenhouse until spring.

Bonsai “benched” in the greenhouse until spring

In just a couple of weeks, the tree is fully leafed out, and has had a slight pruning to help balance the new growth throughout all the branches.

This tree is just the beginning of a busy repotting season here at the Bonsai Collection. We will most likely be repotting nearly 100 trees this year—nearly half the collection! Thanks for reading, and be sure to look out for more bonsai blogs to come in the months ahead.

PHOTO: A leafed-out bonsai, ready to display for the season.

A leafed-out bonsai, ready to display for the season

Upcoming bonsai events:

Tropical bonsai are installed in the Subtropical Greenhouse: Tuesday, March 31.

Trees return to the Regenstein Center’s two courtyards for the season: Tuesday, April 22.

Join us May 9 for World Bonsai Day demonstrations, and a tour of the courtyards.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Our Scientist Takes on Thomas Jefferson

...his vanilla ice cream recipe, that is.

Karen Z. —  March 13, 2015 — Leave a comment

Hear “vanilla” and what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Ice cream, right?

While we were researching vanilla for this year’s Orchid Show (now in its final weekend), we kept discovering new scoops on vanilla ice cream.

PHOTO: Plain vanilla ice cream cone.First we learned that one-third of all the ice cream that Americans eat is vanilla.

Next, we learned about vanilla beans’ different flavors—at a tour of the Nielsen-Massey Vanillas facility in nearby Waukegan. (Who knew that vanilla extract was produced right here in Chicago?)

And then we came across Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream at the Library of Congress—such a beautiful document that we included a copy of it in the Orchid Show. (The knowledgeable staff at the Library of Congress pointed out that there’s a second recipe on the back of Thomas Jefferson’s vanilla ice cream notes—for the Savoy cookies to accompany it.)

All those moments dovetailed nicely when our own orchid expert, Pati Vitt, Ph.D., got inspired to make her own homemade vanilla ice cream. Naturally, as a scientist, she set herself a bigger challenge: to tackle Jefferson’s thorough (albeit old-fashioned) recipe, using three different types of vanilla beans kindly provided by Nielsen-Massey.

We had to document Dr. Vitt’s ice cream-making adventure: see how she interpreted Jefferson’s recipe—and what three guest chefs/tasters had to say about the flavor—in our video (view on YouTube).

PHOTO: Jefferson's vanilla ice cream recipe: Holograph, 1780s. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Holograph recipe, 1780s. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress Bookmark this item

Thomas Jefferson’s Ice Cream

(Jefferson’s lovely script can be hard to decipher, so here’s the recipe’s text in full.)

2 bottles of good cream
6 yolks of eggs
½ pound sugar

  • mix the yolks & sugar
  • put the cream on a fire in a casserole, first putting in a stick of vanilla.
  • when near boiling take it off & pour it gently into the mixture of eggs & sugar.
  • stir it well.
  • put it on the fire again stirring it thoroughly with a spoon to prevent it’s [sic] sticking to the casserole.
  • when near boiling take it off and strain it thro’ a towel.
  • put it in the sabottiere*
  • then set it in ice an hour before it is to be served. put into the ice a handful of salt.
  • put salt on the coverlid of the Sabottiere & cover the whole with ice.
  • leave it still half a quarter of an hour.
  • then turn the Sabottiere in the ice 10 minutes
  • open it to loosen with a spatula the ice from the inner sides of the Sabottiere.
  • shut it & replace it in the ice
  • open it from time to time to detach the ice from the sides
  • when well taken (prise) stir it well with the Spatula.
  • put it in moulds, justling it well down on the knee.
  • then put the mould into the same bucket of ice.
  • leave it there to the moment of serving it.
  • to withdraw it, immerse the mould in warm water, turning it well till it will come out & turn it into a plate.

*Footnote from the Library of Congress: A “sabottiere” is an ice cream mold (“sorbetière” in modern French).

Vitt’s notes:

  • You can use the recipe without modification, just cooling the mixture in an ice bath and then in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.
  • One tablespoon of vanilla extract may substitute for the vanilla bean.
  • The recipe makes about 4 pints (2 quarts, or one ½ gallon).

BONUS RECIPE!

Ice cream wasn’t the only vanilla treat on Vitt’s mind: she also canned a batch of vanilla spice apple butter (we shared it in a meeting—delicious!) and made her own vanilla sugar. Vitt agreed to share her recipe—and presented it all so charmingly, with handcrafted labels, trims, and tags, that we had to include a photo, too. 

Vanilla Spice Apple Butter

PHOTO: Pati Vitt's vanilla apple butter.

Vitt not only agreed to share her recipe for vanilla apple butter with us—but presented it all so charmingly, with handcrafted labels, trims, and tags.

Wash, core, and slice 8 to 12 apples (Granny Smiths, or a mix of varieties) to fill a 6-quart crockpot to about 1½ inches from the top; add ½ cup of apple cider. Cook until completely soft—about the consistency of apple sauce.

Using a food processor, sieve, or Foley mill, puree the sauce. Put the mixture back into the crockpot, along with half of a fresh vanilla bean. Cook several hours on the “low” setting of your crockpot until the extra liquid cooks off and the mixture begins to thicken. (Place the lid of your crockpot slightly off kilter to allow steam to escape. This will speed up the evaporation and thickening of the mixture.)

After the apple butter begins to thicken, add ½ cup sugar and the juice of one lemon. Cook an additional 30 minutes. Stir in cinnamon to taste, plus a pinch each of ground cardamom and cloves. 

Pour into hot, sterilized jars and place in a canning bath according to your canner’s recommendations for applesauce—usually about 10 minutes.

For more ideas—sweet and savory—for cooking with vanilla, check out our February issue of the Smart Gardener.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Photographing Orchids

Carol Freeman —  February 18, 2015 — 2 Comments

Compared to photographing flowers outside, photographing in the Greenhouses will be much more challenging and darker than you think.

Photograph the Orchid Show through March 15.
 
Tripods and monopods are allowed in the Orchid Show on Wednesdays during public exhibition hours. Enter your photos in our digital photo contest here.

It may be bright outside, but the light in the greenhouses is being filtered through glass and other plant material; be aware that it will be even darker on overcast days. Most people will be hand-holding cameras, so getting shots that are sharp will take some adjustments. Here are a few things you can try:

Use a shorter lens.

This will be a bit of a compromise, as many of the orchids are up high or hard to reach. It would be nice to use a longer lens to get photographic access to more of the flowers in the Greenhouses. However, a shorter lens—100mm or less—is easier to hand-hold, and has a better chance of capturing sharp images at a slower shutter speed. (Typically, you want to have at least 1/400th of a second for a 400mm lens, or 1/100th of a second for a 100mm lens, etc., so the shorter lens will gain you two stops in this example—a significant benefit when taking hand-held shots.)

PHOTO: Orchid.

With a limited depth of field, I chose to focus on the “face” I saw in this orchid. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Watch for what is in the background.

It is easy to be distracted by the beauty of the orchids and then get home and realize there are many unwanted elements in your photos. One easy option is to move in closer. When you get closer to the flower, you will get less background around the flower. Find flowers that are near the edge of an aisle—you will then be able to move your camera slightly up or down, or left to right, to get a pleasing background. Sometimes just an inch of movement can make all the difference.

PHOTO: Orchid.

Note the distracting window in the background. Photo ©Carol Freeman

PHOTO: Orchid.

By moving just a few inches to my left, I was able to get a more pleasing background for this orchid. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Increase your ISO.

Many of the newer cameras have improved sensors that let you increase the ISO and still get clean images with little noise. I like to do an ISO test before going out to shoot to see just how far I can push the ISO and still get images I find pleasing. It’s best to do this before you are on site so you will be able to review the images on a large screen and know what will be acceptable to you on the day of your visit. Every camera is different, and what may work for me may be too grainy for you. Most cameras will provide nice images in the 400 to 800 ISO range, and some can go much higher.

PHOTO: Orchids.

I was able to get a nice shot of these orchids—in a dark area—by upping my ISO to 1000. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Use your flash.

I much prefer natural lighting, but in the Greenhouses on a cloudy day, there may be no other option for getting that shot of “the most beautiful orchid you have ever seen” that is hiding in the shadows.

PHOTO: Orchids.

When using my flash, I can add some extra depth of field. Here I was able to get most of the flower sharp. Photo ©Carol Freeman

PHOTO: Orchids.

Sometimes using a flash is the only way to get a shot. Here I found orchids that were away from other elements, limiting the distracting effects of the flash. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Increase your depth of field.

Orchids are tricky to photograph, even in ideal conditions. Many of them are deep flowers and require a large depth of field to get a pleasing amount of the flower in focus. Increasing the depth of field, however, comes with a price, as the increased depth will often allow much of the background to be in focus as well. And in the Greenhouses, you may not want what is in the background to be in focus, especially windows, people, or other parts of the building. Hand-in-hand with depth of field is plane of focus. Many orchids have very interesting centers, almost like faces. Be sure to get those features in focus to make the whole photo look sharper.

PHOTO: Orchids.

By moving closer, you can eliminate the distracting elements from your shot. Photo ©Carol Freeman

PHOTO: Orchids.

Here I moved in even closer. I love capturing the intricate details of the orchids. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Have fun, experiment with different apertures, and get creative with composition! There is no right or wrong way to photograph these amazing flowers. They are here for your enjoyment and all that is needed is your appreciation.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It’s a sneak peek behind the scenes of our second annual Orchid Show, which opens at the Chicago Botanic Garden this weekend! (Purchase tickets here.)

And the winner is?
Could be you!
 
Finally got that gorgeous shot? Enter it in our Digital Photography Contest! Send the best of what you’ve photographed at the Orchid Show. Click here for details.

All hands are on deck as the last orchid shipments have been delivered, the ladders are lowered, the final moss gets tucked in, the lights get positioned, and the delicate task of watering and caring for 10,000 orchids begins.

Behind the scenes, it’s been quite a production, and staff have been documenting it all. Their “befores” and “afters” give you an idea of the complex and wildly creative infrastructure that supports all those gorgeous orchids. 

Looking forward to seeing you there—and don’t forget your camera!

PHOTO: Boxes of orchids lined up for unpacking.

Organized orchids: as boxes and boxes of orchids from warm-weather nurseries arrived, they were staged in Joutras Gallery…

PHOTO: Unpacked orchids await final placement on rows of tables in Nichols Hall.

Unpacked orchids line tables as they await placement in the exhibition.

PHOTO: Horticulturist Liz Rex unravels Vanda roots.

Patience and a horticulturist’s touch: root-bound Vanda orchids had to be teased out of not one, but two pots each, root by root.

PHOTO: Vanda orchids in the greenhouse.

Each Vanda is then tucked into the displays in the Tropical Greenhouse.

PHOTO: Horticulturist Heather Sherwood creating orchid chain.

Upcycling at its best: horticulturist Heather Sherwood trimmed ten years of wisteria vine growth from the English Walled Garden…

PHOTO: Finished orchid chain.

…then hung it inside the skylight as a backdrop for these “waterfall” chains of mini Phalaenopses.

PHOTO: Notched bamboo supports await orchid plantings.

What a difference a week makes! Last Friday, bamboo supports in the Bridge Gallery looked like this.

PHOTO: Dendrobium orchids fill bamboo supports.

This week, Dendrobium orchids are being layered in, transforming the entrance to the Orchid Show.

PHOTO: Staff plant up the bamboo trees and wire baskets to create orchid trees.

Building orchid nests: the size of a small tree, each orchid “nest” holds 175 to 200 brightly colored orchids.

PHOTO: A blooming Phalaenopsis orchid tree in the exhibition.

Finished “trees” in both bud and bloom ensure peak blooms throughout the show.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The most frequently asked question at our Orchid Show last year: “How do I repot my orchid?” The answer is with tender loving care, of course…and these easy-to-follow tips found on our website.

PHOTO: Repotting an orchid.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org