"Club Tree Experience Survey"

by Robert J. Baran

Originally published in the BCI Bonsai Magazine, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, January/February 1996, pp. 69-70.
© 1996 Bonsai Clubs International, reprinted by permission

       A valuable way to share the learning gained by club members is with the use of a tree experience survey.  This is particularly useful for new members if your locale has special conditions not covered by the standard book recommendations.  The Phoenix Bonsai Society is a case in point.

       In the northern portion of the North American Sonoran Desert, Phoenix has five seasons annually.  The warm and dry growing season (March and April, with a total of about one inch of precipitation) is followed by two months of hot and dry (perhaps half an inch of rain).  A hot and wet growing season comes next.  This is the so-called Arizona monsoon when the winds shift and bring moisture up from the Gulf of Mexico.  With an average of over two and a half inches of rain, this period has had record extremes from about half an inch to over nine and a third inches.  A hot and dry autumn follows and might gather an average of an inch and a half of precipitation.  The mild and wet winter might see up to three inches of rain.

       The summers in the Phoenix area have mostly clear sunny days, long and hot (80 to 120+ days of 100°F+ temperatures between early May and mid-October) with warm evenings (cooling down to 20 to 25 degrees [from the day's high]).  In December and January the temperatures drop below 40°F on a handful of nights.  Sites in the outer lying areas of the metropolitan area might be 5 to 15 degrees warmer during the day or colder at nights.  All in all, this is one of the most challenging locations for our hobby.

       While our club has formally been around since 1962 and much trial and error has taken place, no official "documentation" seems to have been compiled as to which plants do well or poorly here as bonsai.  Learning is primarily by way of word of mouth, display observation, and individual trial and error, often requiring several years to accumulate.  The club's yearbook does have a copy of our sensei's monthly care recommendations, but an adjunct to this was needed.

       Just because a nursery plant is able to live in a one- to fifteen-gallon container in the area before being planted does not mean that it will be happy in a bonsai pot.  There are relatively few mamé [sic] grown here, and the traditional very shallow containers are usually only seen with indoor bonsai.

       Thus, for the 1990-91 year we surveyed our members as to their experiences with particular species of trees in containers.  An initial list was drawn up based on the trees seen at our shows and workshops.  The members were then asked to rate each species using the following somewhat arbitrary scale:

* Hardy/Easy to Grow
* Fairly Hardy
* Difficult at Times
* Very Challenging/Difficult to Grow
* Negligible Experience With.

       Room was provided for additional types, favorite varieties, special care instructions, and so forth.

       Each member then completed the survey over an allowed period of a few months and the results were compiled.  Surveys from our sensei and other long-term/experienced members were weighted to some degree to partially eliminate long lists of "Easy" trees.  Most of the species did show a fairly consistent range of results.

       The summary was then printed up on heavy paper and used at shows as a hand-out for people who bought sale trees or who otherwise expressed extra interest in the hobby.  All visitors to club meetings received a copy as well.  The following year the survey results became a permanent part of our yearbook.

       Additional species came on board with a supplementary survey compiled a couple of years later.  Specific care instructions mentioned during meetings and workshops or member collection viewings were also incorporated in each year's slight revision.

       The survey also serves as an idea or wish list to be looked at before or taken along to nursery visits, providing additional suggestions for one's own collection.

       The caveat is mentioned, however, that since trees can't read, occasionally some member will have better or worse luck with particular species than group experience would indicate.  This survey represents an average of experiences.  The more statistically-minded might even take into consideration length of time, number and age of plants each member's experience entails, type of soil mix, fertilization schedule, type of microclimate (proximity to buildings or landscaping, direction facing, nature of nearest ground cover, etcetera), and so on.  It probably won't improve your trees' literacy, though.

       And, lastly, the survey results can serve as a challenge to further our knowledge.

* Why exactly are some plants very difficult to grow here as bonsai?
* Why have some members found some of these easier to grow than other members have?
* What special requirements do these plants have that we have overlooked?

This was the last article in the last issue edited by Jean C. Smith, published as written, in "The Club Corner" section.

Two additional revisions by the club of the survey results took place in 2008 and 2015.

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