Bonsai

Overview

I have a number of horticulture-related projects, but this one is probably my most ambitious. I always had an interest in bonsai for a number of reasons:

I'm someone who rarely plans for the future. I find it difficult to even imagine the future, beyond being drafted into the Climate Wars. I opt out of pension schemes, don't have any ISAs, index fund investments, or generally bet on the future. I live in the present, always.

There are certain actions that slowly add up over time however. I believe in setting good habits and routines in the present, and enjoying the journey rather than focusing on a future outcome. Bonsai is a great example of this, and a challenge I would like to take on.

Bonsai plants that have been properly taken care of can be quite an expensive item, but I don't think they're worth the effort I would put into them (at best, they would only be worth it at scale). I want to exercise pursuing a meticulous craft over a long period of time, learning about an area I'm interested in, and being the kind of person who would own bonsai plants I suppose.

Knowing about my interest in bonsai, Veronica's mum got me a pretty extensive starter kit for my birthday (2022). I told myself that I'd give it a go once I had seen some success with my tomatoes, but the reality was that I was just procrastinating out of intimidation. A year and a month later (2023), I decided to finally start. The long journey commences!

Amar Memoranda > Bonsai

Log

Ficus in a glass egg

I was recently offered condolences when someone found out about the unfortunate fate that befell my Bonsai plant. There's a small update!

A little over a month ago, Veronica and I went to a terrarium workshop and put together a little home for a little ficus. They're very hardy.

I picked everything out down to the colours of the sand layers and we carefully placed and aligned everything. It's not just pretty, but everything has a function. For example, the moss tells you when when it's time to add (distilled!) water, the large rocks can provide a surface for that water to evaporate (rather than get absorbed by the moss). We also added two dinosaurs, one patting the head of the other one.

As hardy as the ficus is, unfortunately the fittonia in the back was a lot more temperamental. I thought it maybe couldn't handle the humidity (the guides said you shouldn't let too much condensation build up on the glass) or it needed more light. It unfortunately started getting these strands of mould and eventually became a gloop.

I called the workshop instructor and he said there may be a number of reasons for this, asked for photos to troubleshoot, and he offered to replace it if I came by, but Shoreditch is kind of a trek from here. He said I should take it out so that it doesn't damage the ficus. In the meantime, I also got some grow lights so I can have a bit more control over the environment, rather than be at the mercy of UK winter weather!

Dec 10, 2023 • #projects #life

Disaster has struck

Towards the end of August, I went to visit my mum in Germany. Veronica would take care of my bonsai plant in my absence. One day she woke up to a gruesome murder scene (warning, graphic images to follow).

Veronica thought it got too top-heavy and broke, but Black Pine saplings don't just explode like that. I knew it was our cat Jinn. In a bunch of further images, I noticed what look like nibble marks too. I know she likes to nibble on grass too. I insisted that she immediately tell the cat off and show her what she did wrong. Cats are not that smart and won't be able to connect consequences to their actions unless they're tightly associated. In my opinion, Veronica is consistently too soft on the cat.

Veronica felt bad about the death of bonsai buddy (although she insists it can still be saved) but it seemed to me a 10 year journey was cut prematurely short. There's not much that can be done in my opinion except starting over. Since I've been back, I've been seeing if it can be saved, with not much success yet. This is what it looks like today:

When I came back, Jinn was very misbehaved for a bit. She knows she's not allowed to jump on my desk -- twice I caught her doing so and sniffing the bonsai corpse while she thought I was asleep. She knows that certain other areas are out of bounds for her, and she was pushing those boundaries. It took her a week or two of me being back for her to go back to normal and for us to be friends again.

R.I.P. bonsai buddy

Sep 14, 2023 • #projects #life

IndieWeb Carnival August 2023: Gardening

The topic of August's IndieWeb Carnival, hosted by Mark, is "Gardening". This is the third one after "Cooking" and "Moments of Joy", but the first that I already write about regularly! Like the past months, I thought I'd continue with stream-of-thought/freewriting.

Much like a lot of other members of the IndieWeb community, I could write a lot about gardens of the digital variety. In fact, Mark prompted this in his announcement post! Similarly, given my recent exploration of Gemini, I could write about Astrobotany. I decided that I would rather interpret the prompt explicitly though, write about physical gardening, and leave the other topics for another time, as I have a lot to say about those!

I sometimes write about horticulture. Most recently, I've been documenting progress with my bonsai trees. If you've read any of these, you might be wondering why I haven't written anything about them in three months. I thought I'd take this opportunity to write an update!

May came around and none of my seeds were sprouting. The stratification process was only meant to take around 2 weeks. I waited and waited and nothing was happening. It's important that the soil isn't too moist, but I varied the moisture across the five pots just to be sure. As time went on, mold started to grow along the peat and especially along the label sticks before any of the seedlings.

Eventually I figured they'd been stratifying for enough time. Maybe I planted them too deep? I took them out and put them on my kitchen windowsill where they sat for a while. As the days turned to months, I was losing hope that anything would grow.

In my previous flat, we had a garden. It was a small and miserable thing, but it was still a luxury in that part of London (Fulham) for what we were paying. In London, gardens add 20% to the price of a property on average. It might be better described as an "outside area". You could sit out in the sun at high noon and fire up a barbecue. We had no grass -- half was concrete tiles and the other half were small rocks over a shredded fabric over dirt. The garden was L-shaped; in the photo below there's a wooden garden table with four chairs around the corner. You can also see one of my chain of LED birds that I can light up from the inside. A fox eventually tore up the wires.

Because of Veronica's allergies, maintaining the garden was my job. This mainly came down to keeping the weeds at bay, mechanically and chemically. Sometimes, this weird cabbage plant would randomly grow. I didn't enjoy spending time in the garden, as eventually insects would crawl all over me, and the walls made everything quite cramped and suffocating, such that it was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. We'd sometimes get visits from cats and foxes, and once a fox left us a vertebra as a gift. Bizarre.

We had vines come down from the roof of the part of our flat that extends outside the upstairs neighbours into the garden. These vines shrouded the windows and created a nice atmosphere. Unfortunately, they also disrupted some rain drainage piping on the roof, which caused water damage to the ceiling. We told the agency about this, and they eventually sent someone over with a chainsaw who removed that old vine plant at the root.

He pulled it off of the wall where it climbed up to the roof and threw the rest of it from the roof into the garden, to be disposed of. All that was left were traces on the wall from where it had attached itself. His colleague and him took the bits and pieces and trekked them through the flat and out to the front. All that was left behind was a mess in the flat, and a gap in my perception from where I used to see the vines swaying outside my window out of the corner of my eye. I felt much more exposed since.

That garden did serve one important purpose though: it allowed us to adopt Jinn from Battersea Cats & Dogs shelter. She's the one on the ground in the photo above, spooked by Baggage, the neighbourhood stray, that decided to perch on our fence. The cat adoption process from them is quite difficult and authoritarian. For all cats, they require that you have a garden, and will make you record a video measuring fence height, as well as check on Google Maps what your situation is like. A few times they approved us for older cats with expensive medical conditions that we were not equipped to home.

We realised that, despite being in the rare position of having a private garden in London, we would need to be faster and more proactive to reserve, let alone adopt, a younger healthy cat. So I wrote a script that watches their cats and sends Veronica and I an email with all the details the moment they list a new cat, so we can call them right away.

Not long after, we adopted Jinn. Turns out, Jinn also has certain allergies, and is very much an indoor cat. She would only sometimes go outside, but otherwise tended to prefer looking out the window. The garden was wasted on her!

We now live in a top-floor flat of a house with three floors, sharing the building with two other households. We don't have a garden, but the family on the ground floor does. Jinn is quite happy here and likes to run up and down the stairs too.

London rent prices are absolutely soaring. We were nearing the end of our tenancy agreement, with renewal on the horizon. Last year, our real estate agency made up a story about how they had lowered the rent because of covid and want to increase it back to where it's "meant" to be.

Unfortunately for them, I kept in touch with the previous tenants and found out that none of that is true. This is hardly the first conflict I've had with landlords/agencies in this country, and frankly I have some strong opinions on housing policy, but I digress.

Anyway, I eventually skipped the agency and negotiated with the landlord directly, and the rent stayed the same for another year. I knew I wouldn't be as lucky this year, with the economy in shambles and the government making it worse.

Long story short, we did have a pretty meaty rent hike this year, but overall came out on top, especially compared to the rest of London. Frankly, with how things are going now, renters have absolutely no negotiating power whatsoever, so we were quite lucky that we could leverage the good relationship with out landlord and neighbours (who have the same landlord). I had made some stipulations to counteract the energy bill, in exchange for part of the rent increase.

What does any of this have to do with gardening? Well, one of those stipulations were that he replace all the windows in the flat. Our ground floor neighbour Safet is a builder, and was overseeing the work. Unfortunately, at one point when Safet came to measure the windows, he accidentally knocked over my bonsai pots off the window sill. Soil everywhere.

He was apologetic, but I didn't mind. The plants were not sprouting. I must have either done something wrong, or the seeds were duds. I told him as much so that he doesn't feel guilty about it.

I had cleaned up and put the pots to one side, to dispose of the soil later. Like my tomato plants, I was ready to write this attempt off as a failure and maybe try again in a different way. Days or weeks went by and the pots were in the back of the kitchen. I think I went overseas two or three times in the meantime for a bit too. I wasn't quite ready to restart.

One day, I notice something very strange. The Black Pine seed had sprouted. Not only had it sprouted, but it was almost to the top of the container. The sole survivor and meant to be one of the trickier species. I couldn't believe it!

I carefully removed it from the pot, and transplanted it to a bigger one. There was a single taproot that had basically reached the bottom of the inner container, where the water comes in through the fabric strip. I might have tried adding a bit of water to the outer container at one point, rather than rely on existing soil moisture as the instructions had said.

My one bonsai plant now lived on windowsill, right next to my desk where I spend most of my time, and I can monitor it all day. I water it from the same bottle that I water myself with throughout the day.

Growing up, we moved a lot, but most of the places I've lived when I was younger had gardens. When I was around 5, I think we even had a gardener that would come and mow the lawn and pull weeds. When somebody says "green thumb", I think of that man (or the warped, exaggerated image I have of him in my memory) with his thick, mud-stained thumbs.

Later in life, I'd be the one to mow the lawn. I always liked garden sheds. Ours had an abandoned wasp nest in it I remember. I remember later climbing a cherry tree to pick the cherries at a certain time of year. There were so many of them from that one tree that we would freeze the vast majority, and they would take up so much space.

I remember picking strawberries too. I remember mint and other plants. Gardens first seemed like a lot of extra weight -- you now have yet another thing you need to maintain, sometimes by law. Over time, I've come to see that they can have a place in my life. I can grow food, I can benefit my physical health through exercise, and I can benefit my mental health by being out in the sun and fresh air, away from people and screens.

I can also automate the parts of the garden that I don't benefit from working on, for example through timed soaker hoses. I can turn to hydroponics where needed, and I can work with nature to have a permaculture garden maintain itself, rather than fight nature to create something manicured.

I have come to equate gardens, or a slice of nature more generally, with freedom. When I was younger, I would look outside the window into the garden and see a bird going about its day. I would feel envious of this bird; its life was simple. Anxiety and homework meant nothing to it. I was stuck and it could fly free.

It lives out its life with the animals and insects, while the trees remain eternal. Methuselah watches our petty history unfold as if in a time-lapse. We've forgotten the names of kings of old, but it never needed to remember those names in the first place.

Fast-forward to now. The windows have been replaced. The new windows make it difficult to put anything on the windowsill, so I build a little attachment out of an old cardboard box, to raise the pot up and give it more purchase.

My bonsai slowly grows next to me. It's such a delicate thing. A few times I thought I might have made a mistake. A few times I needed to adjust the watering, add more (different) soil, or help it stand upright. It helps that it's almost always in my field of vision, as I can watch it all the time.

Over time, it's getting more and more little "hairs". They kind of freak me out a little. Sometimes my arm accidentally grazes them. But I won't judge my bonsai's appearance; it doesn't judge mine! I hope it enjoys the carbon dioxide I exhale and it gives me a little oxygen in return.[1]

It makes you really consider the hardiness of plants. They existed long before us and don't need us to survive. When cities are abandoned, plants reclaim the terrain. I moved my tomato pots outside the living room window, where there's a mini ledge (more on that another time), when I thought they weren't getting enough light. A random storm really did a number on them. They never really thrived, let alone grew tomatoes. I had all but given up on them.

However, I looked at them today, and I still see green leaves against all odds. Could the tomato plants make a comeback too? Maybe they don't even need me as much as I thought they might?


  1. Please excuse the weird blurriness at the top of that photo. I took the photo on my desk, and rather than clean my desk physically, I cleaned it with AI image inpainting. ↩︎

Aug 7, 2023 • #life #writing #projects

Bonsai diversification

My Red Maple and Wisteria seeds haven't sprouted yet, but I was left with all this extra soil! So I decided that I ought to plant the other species too. The remaining seeds I have are for Black Pine, Cherry Blossom, and Japanese Cedar. This is what they look like respectively:

I only had three Cherry Blossom seeds, and unlike the Red Maple, I decided to only plant one seed in that pot. Besides that, I've largely only used half of the seeds I have of each species so far, and I'm thinking that even that is unnecessary, but let's see!

As I was soaking them for 48 hours, they kind of got mixed up a bit, and I had a bit of a challenge separating the Black Pine from the Cherry Blossom, but I think I got there in the end. To better keep track of everything, as I was really starting to forget which is which, I put in some little wooden sticks:

The soil had dried quite a bit, so I made it wetter, maybe even a little too wet, as it was soaking the cotton on the bottom and created some condensation on the plastic. I also used tap water, which I didn't do for the first two, as it's pretty hard / rich in calcium. For my tomato plant, the effects of this were soon obvious as calcium residue was visible on the top of the soil and edges of the soil where it meets the pot. I didn't want to have the same for these plants, but it should hopefully all be OK.

If you'd like to learn some more about each species, here are their sections in my little book:

So now we have 5 different pots stratifying -- let's see which sprout first!

Apr 25, 2023 • #life #projects

Bonsai sowing and stratification

My bonsai seeds have soaked for 48 hours and I'm ready to move on to the next step! The reveal: I picked Wisteria and Red Maple. They ticked all the right boxes for me as my first try.

The Wisteria seeds are the small ones and the Red Maple are the two big ones. I used half of the seeds that I had of each species.

I assembled the "Auto Irrigation Growing Pot" and tried to ignore the conflicting instructions. I think you're not meant to fill the reservoir with any water at all until after the Stratification step (which I'll explain in a sec), and it's ambiguous how deep the seeds should go beyond "same depth as the size" (the size of what, the seeds?), so I just used my best judgement.

It turns out that I actually have a lot of soil. I didn't even use up a full peat disc so far. I have three more pots, so I'm considering getting some more seedlings started in the meantime and increase the chances of success...

At any rate, I sowed the current seeds and sprinkled a tiny bit of water into the soil to keep it moist, as it had dried out a bit in the meantime. I don't think the instructions should have the soil bit as step 1 if you're then going to soak the seeds for 48 hours after that, it should really be the second step.

And now that they're sown, I put them in the fridge. In the fridge, the one on the left is the Red Maple (this is more of a note to myself -- I should label them really; there are little wooden sticks for that in the kit). Putting them in the fridge is the first part of the Stratification step, which is meant to simulate winter conditions, then spring, so that they can germinate as they would in nature.

I'll be checking on them every few days and keeping the soil damp. Hopefully in two or three weeks they will start sprouting and I can remove them from the fridge. I set some calendar events. So now we wait!

Apr 12, 2023 • #life #projects

Banzai, bonsai!

I finally decided to start on my bonsai project. To read more about what this is all about, check out the project page. I haven't written anything about the tomato project, or any of the other (failed) horticulture projects, but I will eventually, since documenting failures is important too! This is the first log of what is probably going to be rather perennial chronicles.

The kit that I'm using to get a start with bonsai is really quite neat. It comes with 5 different species of seeds: Japanese Wisteria, Cherry Blossom, Japanese Cedar, Red Maple Tree, and Black Pine Tree.

This is a great set of tools in such a small package and I'm quite excited! The instruction booklet goes into a decent amount of detail, though I already know a bunch from YouTube and other places as I had a general interest in bonsai before deciding to try myself.

It came with two peat pucks that you put in some water and watch as they slowly grow while they absorb the water.

I decided to do both of them, as I wanted to try multiple species at the same time, and they grow to about 3x their original size! It's actually quite a lot of soil.

I then decided on two species that I wanted to grow. The next step was to put some of the seeds in warm water for 48 hours, such that they can soften, which makes it easier for the seedling to break through the shell. The two that I picked had seeds that looked very distinct from each other!

If you would like to know what species I picked, check back in 48 hours when I document the sowing process! I'll give you a hint: I didn't pick the mainstream choice (Black Pine).

Apr 9, 2023 • #projects #life