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I must have ‘killed’ more than two dozen pine tree seedlings

How to handle their beautiful but delicate nature

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A CANDLE which is actually the new shoot that has to be pinched off if you don’t want the plant to become lanky.

Pine trees are lovely to look at, but are delicate to handle.

With the raging controversy over the balling of pine trees by SM in Baguio City, I could not help but put in my two cents worth.

Being a plant lover and one of the first to popularize bonsai culture in the country, I was against the action of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources allowing SM to ball the pine trees, even if regulations were followed.

I myself must have “killed” more than two dozen seedlings I bought in a Baguio City nursery when I started growing pine trees. Treating the pines like any other plant, like pruning the branches or trimming the roots, only resulted in their death a few months later. What more if these are balled, no matter how careful the handlers are?

In 1955 and 1956, I remember gathering some pine seedlings by the roadside. Although I carefully balled them and gave them the necessary care such as putting them under the proper shade, watering and even applying rooting hormone, they all died just the same.

Experimenting with a specimen I had just repotted with some of the roots pruned was also not successful since it also died after four months.

Bonsai growers in Baguio also told me they themselves were not successful in growing pines as bonsai.

I was, however, successful with one pine tree I repotted as bonsai, carefully breaking the pot and seeing to it that not a single root was damaged. I lined the large drainage holes of the second pot with pebbles and sand. I did not attempt to cut any branch, except to pinch off only any candle, or new shoot, that came out.

It grew, but eventually, it died after six years.

But why are pine bonsai popular in other countries like Japan, the US and some parts of Europe? Pine bonsai, especially the five needled pine and black pine, are some of the most beautiful bonsai in these areas. Is it because of the climate?

When I was invited by the Italian Bonsai Society to give a workshop on materials used for bonsai, the members in turn gave me tips on how to handle pine trees, warning me that these are very sensitive trees. In temperate countries, full-time gardeners do the potting and repotting, and pruning starts in the first week of spring, which is the second or third week of March. The pines are not disturbed, except when they need watering or fertilizer in the other months of the year.

From the Italians, I learned that pine trees don’t like too much water. With sufficient drainage holes, the potting medium should be very porous and the bottom of the pot should be lined with river sand to serve as strainer. A good potting medium should be composed of one-part garden soil, one-part river sand, one-part coco coir dust, one-part rice hull and one-part burnt rice hull.

As for SM’s expansion plans, may I suggest that the best way is to add commercial spaces upward, with the rooftops and walls utilized as garden space. Vertical landscaping is now the trend worldwide.

The author, a former public school teacher and “a gardener since childhood,” is a member of various garden clubs and a founder of the Philippine Bonsai Society and the Cactus and Succulent Society. He is a member of Ikebana International, honorary member of the Bonsai and Suiseki Alliance of the Philippines and  past president of the Ikenobo Ikebana Society of Manila.


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