Collecting Native California Junipers

We've pulled together local resources and
member experiences in order to increase
your success rate in the collection
and after-care that's so important.

It seems everyone has their own method, sometimes secret, of doing things, and taking care of a California Juniper when you come back from a dig is probably no different. This is one way to treat your trees when you bring them home. No method is fool proof, and these methods are the result of some successes and failures. As time goes on, it is hoped, however, there will be more of the former and fewer of the later.

When the California Junipers are returned home, if they aren’t potted immediately, they are soaked for a few hours to a day or two in a tub of water, often with Superthrive© and vitamin B1. The trees are then potted in washed agricultural pumice. Washing the pumice through a sieve cleans the dust, and gets rid of the fine-textured pumice that may retain excess moisture. Adding crushed granite, such as poultry grit that has been washed, is a source of trace nutrients. Avoid decomposed granite (DG). The DG breaks down to clays, both mineralogical and textural clays, and retains too much moisture. Washing the DG will remove much of the clay-sized soil, but the mineral grains will continue to break down eventually, to form fine-grained soil.

The roots on the collected tree are often long, similar to the trunk or branches in size and shape. Finding a training container large enough to hold the roots often means building a wooden box, and this may delay the potting. An alternative is to use Rubbermaid® plastic containers. They come in a variety of sizes, and by cutting several 1-inch “V’s” in the bottom and folding back the tab, you have drainage. They seem to be fairly resistant to ultra-violet degradation and have handles.

After the tree is potted in a container, allow the tree to rest in a shady area for several months. If successful, new growth will start popping out after a few months. Some folks wait a year before styling to be sure the tree is healthy.

The California Juniper roots are very sensitive, and once they are in a container, it’s best to leave them undisturbed until new growth starts popping out or is being pushed from the ends of the foliage. Watering consists of enough moisture to keep the pumice damp and misting the tree foliage daily minimizes drying out. If you’re uncertain whether or not there is enough moisture in the pumice, take your fingers and move it around. The dry particles will be essentially white, and the moist particles tend to a gray color.

Over-watering or leaving original soil on the roots may lead to root rot. The native soil is often very fine-textured and clayey. The fine-textured soil retains moisture and, in the desert where the trees grow, allows the tree to survive in the arid environment. When the tree is being cared for at home, the fine-textured soil never dries out, and in some instances, when watered frequently, even pumice remains too wet. This excess moisture can lead to root rot that has been known to kill California Junipers. So a precaution is to remove the field soil and check the moisture in the pot, especially during rainy weather. Covering the pot with plastic to keep the heavy rains off the roots is worth considering.During the summer, partial shade and regular, misting throughout the day have been successful.

The California Juniper is one of the premier trees in the United States. It is now grown, however, without dedication. Learning from the successes as well as the losses, it is hoped will increase the tree’s longevity. (JM/GS)

Looking for your Masterpiece

The desert wind and harsh weather conditions create the best trees on or near ridges or on the slopes facing into the wind. Trees with good movement in branches are seldom found on the shady slopes; they're usually spread along a ridge and down the sunny side. Some believe the female tree, with small cones seedpods are strongest and most likely to survive. Look for trunk caliper and movement of the branches. Are the branches straight and uninteresting, or are there bends or curves that create interest in the tree? Is the foliage near the trunk, or far out on the end of the branches? If the branches are too long, it may be difficult to create a good style. Use your partner to get another opinion, and move on until you select one that you can style and create into your own masterpiece.

Shake the tree to see if it's loose in the ground. If it moves around, it may have poor root structure, and probably should be left alone. When you have made your selection, take the loppers and cut off the lower branches that won't be used in the final design. This will give you room to start digging. Scratch a circle out about a foot or so from the trunk, and dig a trench around the tree, cutting the roots as you go. The trench will probably be a foot or more deep, creating a ball of soil around the trunk of the tree.

If the tree is small, cutting under the soil and collecting the whole ball and tree is the best approach. That requires cutting beneath the ball, finding the taproot, and cutting it with the saw, pruners, or loppers. Work the plastic or cloth beneath the tree and wrap the ball, if possible, before you lift it out.

With real skill you will have the entire root ball and most roots undamaged. What usually happens to small tree and essentially the entire larger tree is the ball breaks up, exposing the roots. Brush off the pieces of dirt, exposing the rest of the roots; it will get rid of the excess soil, and make the tree lighter to lift and carry. Use the pruners to make clean cuts on the end of the exposed roots.

Lift the tree out of the hole. Take particular care of any white fine, soft roots. These are the active roots that are feeding the tree and should be protected. Spray them and wrap them immediately. Wrap the white fine roots with the sphagnum moss being careful not to break or damage them and wrap the moss with Mylar plastic wrap or cloth; secure it with some electrical tape. Spray all the unwrapped roots periodically with water to keep them from drying out.

Continue wrapping the roots until all are protected. When the tree is out and all the roots wrapped, set the tree in the shade and spray with water. JM

Look at the tree and cut back excess foliage. Think about the trees you have seen in a show and remember that there aren't a lot of branches. For the freshly dug tree, it will take a while for the roots to develop and support the foliage, and the roots won't be able to feed all the foliage that is now on the tree.

If necessary find a more experienced member and they will help trim back your prize. Before you leave, backfill the hole with soil and the cut branches. Now you can break out the rope or bungee cords and tie the tree to the frame of the backpack. JM

Leave the tree in the shade; don't put it in the car. It will likely be too hot and start drying it out. Spray periodically through the day to keep the foliage damp. When you're ready to go put it in the car or truck; if you're driving a pick-up, the tree will need to be protected from the wind on the drive home. Driving at 70 mph on the freeway with your tree in the exposed bed of a pick-up will turn your masterpiece into firewood real quick. If it's too late to pot your tree when you get home, soak it in a tub of water with some Superthrive® until the next day. JM

Bringing the tree home

Begin preparing it for potting by first soaking it in a bucket of water enriched with Vitamin B-1 and Superthrive. This will help the juniper recover a little more quickly after it is potted. After allowing the juniper to soak for about 30 minutes, pot it in a large wooden growing box, using a soil mix of 90% red lava and 10% organic material. Since the juniper most likely will not have a substantial root ball it will be necessary to secure it with rope so it does not move and damage new feeder roots.

After moving it to a protected area in your yard, the final task is to mist the remaining foliage. Misting the foliage on the recovering juniper is something that will need to be repeated 2-3 times a day for a long time to come. If possible it’s recommended that upwards of 8 – 10 times a day is preferable.

After the tree soaked overnight in a tub of water and Superthrive® it's now time to get it into a pot. If you washed the agricultural pumice before you left, the work is pretty straightforward. If not, now is the time to get out the sieve, tub and hose, and wash the fine dust out of the pumice. The fine dust has a tendency to retain too much water and occasionally clump up into clods, with the potential to prevent air from circulating around the roots.

Once the pumice is washed, find a plastic pot or wooden box large enough to hold the tree easily. Often a 15-gallon nursery container is used, and it can be cut in half for smaller trees. Put some sphagnum or screen over the drain holes and pour in the pumice about half way; then carefully take the wrap off the roots and put the tree in, holding it upright, while pouring in additional pumice.

Try to put some poultry grit or turkey grit around the roots. This is fresh crushed granite, often similar to the rock found where the trees grow, and it will provide nutrients to the roots. Continue to add pumice and poultry grit to the top. Tap the side of the pot or container to settle the soil and try to move the tree to see it the tree is stable. If it wobbles, use some wire to tie it in until the roots develop.

Move the tree to a shady location, away from hot afternoon sun and out of wind. Water it until water comes out the drain holes and then let it rest. The tree and pot should be able to remain there until new growth starts to push and the tree has recovered. JM

The tree leaves or needles open at night and absorb moisture. Try to water the foliage late in the evening, or with a timer that will water during the night. Heavy watering should be limited. The turkey grit and pumice both will retain some moisture, probably enough to satisfy the tree for a day or two, providing the leaves are healthy.

Fertilize after the tree starts pushing new growth, (this may take up to a year) and then very lightly, perhaps using diluted Miracle Grow® or other weak low-nitrogen fertilizer to start with. When the foliage pads are healthy and new shoots are popping out along the branches, you can start thinking about repotting and some styling. JM

It will take several months to a year for the tree to become established enough to consider putting it in a clay pot and doing any styling. If the tree fails, don't be discouraged; survival rate is often 50% and frequently less than 10%. Be patient. JM

If new growth emerges be very aggressive in fertilizing. The next year is critical in root and branch development. Do not repot your tree for a minimum of two years or longer if you can wait. DP

After two years your tree should have long top growth and roots growing out the bottom of the container; good color and adult foliage should have returned. The stock is now ready for preliminary “bonsai” training.

Make a progress plan for your tree’s development. Plans may extend from 3 to 25 years or more. The areas of focus on collected material would include root ramification, refining the trunk taper above field cuts, discard branch strategies and major bending or creation of primary branching, and lastly, apex refinement and branch ramification. DP

Some additional suggestions

  1. Collect after a strong rain
  2. To prevent dehydration, prior to digging out a tree spray the foliage with anti-evaporation spray. NOTE: To my knowledge there is no proof that this helps or hurts.
  3. Get biggest root ball possible
  4. Reduce unneeded foliage to balance root ball and foliage. (Not too much though). This is a practice that has caused much debate with collectors as some are of the opinion that very little if none of the foliage should be removed while others believe that the foliage must be cut back drastically to balance out the tree. The California juniper has two means of absorbing water, through the foliage and through the roots. Whenever we collect a tree it doesn't matter how big the root ball is we can never get more than 20% to 30% of its original root ball as the root ball spread is generous. With that being the case the fact that we have drastically weakened the tree by cutting one of its water sources you must now preserve its second source of water in-take which is the foliage pad.
  5. Soil; There are many substrates and the mix that always gives great results in creating new roots as well as keeping the tree hydrated is Pumice mixed with red lava rock and decomposed granite (DG) 40/40/20 respectively. Another substrate or soil that works in a pinch is cactus mix.
  6. Watering is probably the most crucial part in bringing a California juniper back to its vibrant health. You mist your trees numerous times a day and rarely water the soil.
  7. There seems to be a trend in Junipers that suggests that the terminal ends of branches should remain on the tree. The best indication of your juniper’s survival will be in the maintained color and new growth of the terminal branch ends. It will usually be evident in about one year if your juniper is going to survive or not. DP
  8. All root ends cut when collecting should be re-cut using clean sharp tools. Do not leave any ragged ends on any roots. You might want to apply rooting hormones to the ends of cut roots. DP
  9. Acknowledgements:

    Parts of the above article written by Doug Philips (DP) has been reprinted from the May/June 1997 issue of Golden Statements.

    Parts of the above article written by Jerry McNey (JM) has been reprinted from Kofu Bonsai Kai’s website. Kofu Review California Juniper Dig Parts 1, 2 & 3.

    Parts of the above article written by Jerry McNey (JM/GS) has been reprinted from the September/October 1998 issue of Golden Statements.