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The 7 Essentials of Bonsai Field Collecting

May 18, 2023Beginners, General

Person with shovel preparing to dig up, or field collect, an arborvitae tree.

Have you ever noticed a young tree that shows great potential for bonsai growing wild in a field, woods or even landscaping? Field collecting was the original way to obtain bonsai trees, and it remains a common practice among modern day hobbyists. This article is the first of a two-part series focused on collecting bonsai material growing in the ground.

Field collecting played a primary role in the development of the art of bonsai. Early practitioners of bonsai in Japan – and of its predecessor, punsai, in China – began by digging up interesting trees from the wild. They sought out naturally dwarfed specimens that exhibited unusual qualities such as gnarled and twisted trunks.

Today, the majority of bonsai in hobbyists’ collections originate in nurseries rather than on hillsides and mountaintops. Still, field collecting remains a viable and not uncommon method for acquiring trees. View a few magnificent examples of field-collected specimens by visiting the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum’s site. Scroll down to the North American collection and check out the coast live oak, northern white cedar and bald cypress.

Any plant with bonsai potential can be a candidate for field collection. This includes plants found growing wild in nature, landscape plants that are no longer wanted, and “volunteer” plants that spring up in backyards and planting beds.

Know someone planning to replace all their landscaping? Ask if you can look for salvageable specimens for bonsai. Is that little oak sprout you keep mowing over in your backyard still putting out leaves? Look a little closer. It might have been there for a couple of years and have a short, stout, interesting trunk. What about that Virginia creeper growing up the side of your maple tree? Instead of spraying it with weed killer, try digging it up. That species can make a lovely bonsai or accent plant!

Field Collecting’s 7 Essentials Checklist 

With a little practice, anyone can become adept at field collecting. Whether you plan to wander open fields and woodland areas in search of hidden bonsai gems, or simply dig a landscape plant from your backyard, the basic techniques are the same. The main differences come into play depending on the size of the plant being excavated and the time and effort involved in transporting it. 

1. Always ask permission.

If you are scouting for potential bonsai anywhere other than your own property, seek permission from the owner before heading into the field with a shovel. It’s likely that most landowners won’t mind if you remove a few scrubby little trees – unless you do it without asking.

2. Timing is key.

To give your tree the greatest chance of living through the rigors of field collecting, aim to remove it from the ground during dormancy. For most specimens, this means that you’ll be digging in early spring prior to the tree waking up from its long winter’s nap.

If you find a good bonsai candidate in the middle of summer, postpone digging if you have the option to return at a more suitable time to collect it. Maybe you happen upon a good prospect while hiking on land belonging to a friend or relative, so returning later won’t be a problem. Note the GPS location on your phone and try to mark the tree in some way such as making a pile of stones beside it so you can find it later. Better yet, take some lengths of brightly colored string or yarn along on the hike to tie on any desirable trees you might find.

However, if you have a one-time only opportunity to acquire a field-collected tree outside of the ideal season, take advantage of it. In this case, you’ll definitely want to give the tree extra care and attention to help it survive.

3. Grab the right gear.

The tools and supplies you’ll need for field collecting depend largely on the scope of your project. If you’re digging a small tree in your backyard that you’ll pot up immediately, a few tools will do. You can probably get by with just a shovel, work gloves and comfortable boots. 

For larger specimens, a smaller garden spade and hand trowel are good to have on hand for trenching. A pair of shears comes in handy for trimming branches. An axe or hand-saw might be needed if the plant is very large.

If you won’t be potting immediately, or if you need to transport your tree a distance, you’ll need to protect the roots. Take along burlap or plastic to wrap root balls and rope to secure the wrapping. A large canvas might be necessary for dragging bigger trees with large root balls too heavy to comfortably carry.

You’ll need a few more things if you are planning to hike long distances to search out plants and/or are collecting during the riskier warm months. Consider carrying sunscreen and insect spray for yourself, and an anti-transpirant spray such as Wilt-pruf to apply to the tree.

4. Reach for the shears before you reach for the shovel.

Before digging, judiciously remove or shorten branches you know won’t be needed in the tree’s future design. Trimming off excess branches and foliage prior to digging will lessen stress for both you and the tree. It makes the job of excavating easier for you, and, with less top growth for the root mass to support, it helps speed recovery for the tree.

5. Dig prudently.

If the plant is small and the ground soft and moist, digging should be simple. You can probably just push the shovel blade deep under the plant and lift. However, moderate and larger sized specimens will have extensive root systems that complicate digging. They require a more involved technique in order to free them from the ground with the least possible damage.

Here’s how to approach digging a larger tree:

  • First, dig a trench around the tree at a generous distance from the trunk.  You’ll be severing roots near and below the surface as you dig. Trench to a depth below the main bulk of the roots.
  • Once the trench is deep enough, proceed to dig under the root ball. Cut roots and dig until the tree has been freed.
  • Slip a burlap or plastic sheet under the tree by rocking it to one side, then another.
  • Tie the cover up tightly at the trunk and lift the tree out of the hole by the root ball.
  • Fill and level the hole.

It’s important to ensure the roots don’t dry out prior to getting the tree back into soil. Wetting down burlap wrap, spraying with an anti-transpirant, covering the tree with plastic, and keeping it out of the sun all help to retain moisture until the tree can be potted.

6. Plant promptly.

You’ll want to get the tree into a pot, planter box or the ground as soon as possible. Unless the collected plant is small, it should spend a year or longer in a larger container before going into a bonsai pot.

7. Exercise patience.

Collected trees in particular often need a good amount of time to transform long, wandering root systems into compact, shallow ones. Using bonsai soil in the interim container encourages the development of the fine roots needed to thrive in a smaller pot.

The top growth of collected plants also typically requires time and a great deal of trimming and shaping. It’s not unusual for experienced bonsai practitioners to reduce a collected tree to a mere stump, then train the new growth over the course of several years to yield an attractive bonsai.

Given that patience is a prerequisite for the practice of bonsai, field collecting can be a satisfying and inexpensive way for any hobbyist to acquire interesting trees.

Field collecting is a time-honored tradition within the hobby of bonsai. We’ve outlined seven practices that can help beginners be successful at field collecting interesting specimens to train as bonsai. The second article of the series will detail the process of field collecting and potting a small sweetgum tree.

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