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Monday - September 21, 2009

From: Athol, MA
Region: Northeast
Topic: Container Gardens
Title: Keeping bonsai plants alive in Athol MA
Answered by: Barbara Medford


For the past 12 years I have raised bonsai plants in AL and FL, but recently moved back to central MA. My collections consists of Japanese maples, ginkos, bald cypress and ficus benjamina. I have a 4ft. tall literati styled cypress in a shallow pot and four small survivors in training pots. Most of the young trees I brought back died off in the late spring we had. I am trying to keep the remaining trees safe this winter and need your advice. We do get winter temps down to -10 F. and I have an unheated shed in which I kept my trees this past winter. I put the trees in large plastic tubs and filled them up with loose leaves: not the best insulation. What would you suggest to help the cypress to survive? They did well in FL and AL by sitting in water fut of course up north here, they would freeze solid. I thought of using a couple of bags of decorative wood chips instead of leaves, after packing the basis in wet sphagnum moss. They would then have some moisture but not be frozen in a pool of water. Any suggestions, other than building a greenhouse in the yard, or moving back to FL??!!?


This is a pretty complex question, so let's take it in small segments. To begin with, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is dedicated to the use, care and propagation of plants native not only to North America but to the area in which the plants are being grown. Of your list, Japanese maples are native to China, Japan and Korea; gingkos are considered a "fossil tree" having first emerged in the Permian age, then disappearing everywhere except a small area in Central China; Ficus benjamina is native to south and southeast China and to Australia. Only the Taxodium distichum (bald cypress) is native to North America and is definitely not cold hardy to Massachusetts. Three of your plants are out of our area of expertise and the fourth is out of its own area.

Because Mr. Smarty Plants does not know everything, we wanted to find out what a literati styled cypress was, and found the information and a picture on Bonsaitalk Literati style bonsai. Since the bald cypress will ordinarily reach a height of 50 to 75 feet, and can go as high as 138 feet, with a trunk 10 to 12 ft. in diameter, this is pretty extreme.

The remaining question, keeping the trees alive in pots, is not an unusual question for us. Lots of gardeners would like to keep plants native to warmer climates alive over winter in cold climates. Consider this, when you have a root in any kind of pot, regardless of what protection you give those roots, it has only a few inches of potting soil or whatever you are using and a thin covering of the pot material between it and freezing weather. If the root dies, the plant dies, because the plants depend on the roots to circulate nutrients and water to the rest of the plant. If the plant is in the ground, it has the whole Earth insulating it. Even at that, a plant acclimated to tropical or subtropical areas would probably not survive in the ground, if the ground freezes. 

To us, the whole process of  bonsai sounds like stressing the plants into unaccustomed growth habits. A plant under stress can usually not tolerate any further stress, like freezing feet. It sounds to us as though your hobby is going to have to move indoors, into a heated area. Construction of a greenhouse, of course, is a possibility, but space, building codes and expense might make that difficult. 



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