Demonstration by Kevin Fletcher

Demonstration by Kevin Fletcher at Sussex Bonsai Group’s meeting – 25th July 2018


We were delighted to welcome Kevin Fletcher to the group to present on tree refinement and working towards long term goals, in terms of what is desired for a tree.  Kevin is currently a head gardener at a private estate and previously worked as a tree surgeon.  He has a clear passion for trees and particularly bonsai.  Having taken up the hobby over 30 years ago, he still has his first ever bonsai tree.

Kevin’s philosophy is ‘no big drama, no harsh pruning’.  He reiterated his golden rule several times throughout the demonstration which is “think twice, cut once”.

Over the course of the demonstration, Kevin was very happy to share his views about what works and what doesn’t work, in terms of bonsai care.

Kevin’s first tip was in relation to olives.  He believes that there should be no organic matter in the growing medium, being a strong believer generally in very free draining substrate, advocating liberal quantities of pumice and kiryu.  He also states that paying more money for better substrate is a long term investment in your trees. He particularly advises to sift akadama to separate the granules from dust, so using hard akadama only.

Kevin is a clear opponent of using cat litter type substrates, believing that they are too dense for proper aeration.  He recounted a situation whereby he had removed some substrate from a section of one of his trees and replaced it with cat litter.  When he repotted the tree several years later, he noted that whilst there was root development throughout most of the pot, there were no roots present in the cat litter portion.  His case was proven!

Kevin is a great proponent of organic feeding and believes in plenty of feed and plenty of water.  Miracle-Gro organic is his food of choice.  He also promoted the use of Green Dream’ organics feed, but warned that it sometimes causes a residue on small trees.

Kevin is very passionate about the tree/pot dyad of bonsai.  He is very motivated to find the right pot for the right tree and obviously has detailed knowledge of potters who specialise in bonsai pots, both far and near.  There were several intervals from pruning and tree care discussion to talk specifically about pots during his presentation.

Kevin demonstrated using four trees – A yamadori olive from Croatia; an English Elm yamadori; a Japanese larch and a yamadori olive from Majorca.

With regards to the Croatian olive, Kevin stated that the leaf size is less refined than Majorcan olives, but stated that this was his new ‘favourite’ tree.  It was collected in 2015 as raw material.  The tree had two distinct areas of foliage which Kevin ultimately wanted to unite.  The main focus of working on the tree was to cut off the top leaders to distribute energy to the lower branches.  Noting the angular growth habits of olives, Kevin very much uses pruning for direction with olive trees with not much wiring.  Kevin recommends that olives should have two prunes yearly, one in June and the other in November.  All suckers, which olives put out readily, were removed from the base of the tree.

Kevin was very keen to promote the idea that, whilst many people have ideas or rules which they use to decide if a tree is meeting a particular standard, the only person you should be trying to please with your trees is yourself.  He cited the fact that many would consider this particular olive tree as badly shaped because it has three dead spikes more or less on the same plane.  In his opinion, this isn’t a fault, as he likes the look of the tree.  Kevin contends that ‘rules are for breaking’!

The tree had had some carving done by Kevin himself, but it had also been worked on by Will Baddeley, who Kevin couldn’t praise enough in terms of his carving skills.

There was a discussion when working on this tree, about the risk currently being posed by Xylellafastidiosa to olive trees, amongst other species, on the continent. Infection of UK trees by Xylella is currently unknown but the threat of this happening is very high given how close it is.

Overwintering olives was debated with Kevin, proposing that temperatures as low as minus 8 or 10 shouldn’t pose any problems for these trees.  The main concern with overwintering olives is them being too wet, not too cold.

The English Elm used in Kevin’s demonstration was an air layered tree taken from a yamadori.  Kevin is keen to promote the idea that deciduous trees should be hard- pruned and wired in winter, wire being removed just before bud swell in spring. Kevin advocates the use of aluminium wire for deciduous trees.  This tree is very much a work in progress and although it looked a bit wild and untamed, needing some careful pruning to shape it, Kevin argued that it needed minimal work at this time.  He removed a couple of unwanted branches which were growing in the wrong direction and trimmed off one or two more.  Everything else was left untouched as his current desire is to build the strength of the tree.  Kevin was keen to promote an upward growing tree, so wiring would be used to achieve this in the future, rather than succumbing to the Japanese style of wiring branches in a downward direction. When taking off branches in elms, Kevin recommends using nibblers to make a small natural hollow in the trunk which will mature with time.

There was some discussion about Dutch Elm disease and it was felt that bonsai elms should not be vulnerable to this, as they are less than 15 feet tall.  Kevin also advised that elms have a habit of suddenly dropping branches which is why they should not be grown near buildings.

Kevin’s Japanese larch presented as an informal upright but had started out as a semi-cascade with a long dominant side branch.  This branch was eventually removed leaving a large hollow in the side of the tree.  What Kevin has been left with is a tree with a weak top, as the emphasis had previously been on the side branch.  His purpose now is to strengthen the top of the tree by letting it grow unchecked, whilst maintaining some control of the lower branches.  It is estimated that although the tree has a thick main trunk and looks quite aged, it is actually only about 20 years old.

Kevin’s final demonstration tree was the Majorcan olive.  This is a better variety for bonsai having smaller leaves but this species is hard to get now.  This tree has a more overreaching canopy and is ‘close to finish’.  Kevin doesn’t feel however, that it is show standard yet.  Although this tree is well defined, Kevin is concerned that, whilst is has an obvious ‘front, it doesn’t have a ‘back’.  His plan is to promote some foliage growth at the back of the tree.  This tree is the only one of Kevin’s to have a name – Susan, called after his wife.

Kevin has a theory that weeds growing in bonsai pots are useful for attracting Mycorrhizas so isn’t too worried about having the odd weed in his pots.

Part of this demonstration involved discussion about the use of lime sulphur and how it might be used to bleach dead wood.  There was also debate about using Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate, lime and water) as a winter fungicide.

Overall Kevin provided a very informative and entertaining evening, demonstrating clear bonsai refinement skills, peppered with his own views and anecdotes and giving lots of food for thought.


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