July 23, 2021

Roberta Walters' Azaleas 101 - A Guide to Seasonal Azalea Care

            Few species of bonsai can compete with the visual intrigue produced by an azalea in full bloom. For that reason, today I have to resist the flowery temptation to write a full on history of their use in bonsai and review manual for Azalea techniques (maybe someday...). Instead, I'll whet your appetite with a more manageable intro to azalea-specific information through long-lost excerpts from one of California's premier azalea expert, Roberta Walters. While the full playlist of Roberta's demonstration is available on the Puget Sound Bonsai Association's Youtube Channel, this article is intended to serve as a guide to how each clip of Roberta's discussions fits into seasonal work that can be done on your azalea bonsai.

 Sections


This old azalea by Dan Robinson (collected decades ago by his first student. Frank) is a prime example of their potential spring beauty. Although it is already covered with pink flowers, this tree is still a few days away from peak bloom. At that time it would be so covered in pink that you can't even see the leaves! It's no wonder this tree won the People's Choice Award at the 2017 PSBA Spring Show.

I. Roberta Walters in Bonsai History

            Roberta is a past president of both the Satsuki (Azalea) Bonsai Club (now known as Bay Area Satsuki Aikokai) in Sacramento and Golden State Bonsai Federation, as well as a founding member of the Chico Bonsai Society. Among her many decades in bonsai, Roberta intensely studied azaleas under Mr. Gondo and Mr Nakiyama who shared their expertise from working professionally on azalea bonsai in Japan. In April of 2001, Roberta came to share this knowledge as the visiting guest artist Puget Sound Bonsai Association. This went on to be only one small part of Roberta's career in bonsai education and she went on to be awarded the Circle of Sensei Award by the Golden State Bonsai Federation.

            Over the same years as Roberta's bonsai career bloomed, the Puget Sound Bonsai Association maintained a long tradition of recording our guest artist meetings to make available to club members through the club library in VHS and DVD format. The DVD copies however have languished mostly unused by members for many years now. As most people my age don't even have DVD players anymore, I've been working on and off with my former club to digitize their collection and post the older demonstrations on Youtube for all to enjoy. The highlights of Roberta's presentation are a continuation of this collaboration. Read below for the major topics Roberta discussed in her demonstration. 


II. Roberta's Azalea Advice

            Below are embeded highlights from Roberta's demonstration in the order of relevance to the current season (July, for future readers). Even though she performed her demonstration in April, much of what she discusses is relates to azalea care throughout all seasons.


A. Skip the Mallsai, Save Time, & Learn Bonsai Faster!

            The first clip I'll share contains truly timeless advice for any beginner in bonsai. Although it's a fine starting point for beginners to first acquire cheap material with thin trunks to practice watering and keeping trees in pots alive, many beginners will crave more. Roberta points though that it may be more valuable to get one $100 starting tree rather than ten $10 stick-in-pot trees due to time. There are ways to grow those young trees to look more mature, but many of those techniques to gain a more substantial tree will take at 5-10 years of waiting (depending on if you know what you're doing!). Similar to my advice on my article "Bonsai Seed Myths", for beginners who need to learn the basics of bonsai, it may be worth it to save a few years of waiting by buying bigger trees first (or at least simultaneously) so you can learn the most critical styling and wiring techniques rather than only spending time watering and waiting. This will not only build your confidence in bonsai and make you a better bonsai artist, but it will also make you more satisfied in your collection as you can have something more representative of a real bonsai earlier.



B. How to Safely Remove Large Branches on Azalea Bonsai

            The second clip I'll share contains urgent information for anyone considering a trunk chop or major branch removal on their azalea. Dan taught me that these types of major pruning are best done during active growth periods so the tree has time to compartmentalize, repair, and make new shoots again before winter, the northerly parts of the country may be approaching their limit for these types of operations in the next month. I haven't totally worked out the limits of the Ohio growing season yet but I would imagine now remains a prime time for these operations. At any rate, If you need to perform such an operation on an azalea bonsai, you must tread carefully. Although azaleas will budback prolifically in response to trunk chops, Roberta's experience indicates their roots and branches work similar to junipers by using "lifelines." A lifeline means that a single root will be connected to a track of branches up the tree and abrupt removal of that root or of one of those major branches could kill the other components on that water highway. Here Roberta shares the worst story of lifeline-associated azalea decline she has seen and explains the safe alternative to abrupt removal.



C. Nuances in Bonsai Fertilizer - Organic vs Inorganics & Seasonal Use

            Next, this clip is both timeless and timely as the debate over what type of fertilizer to use is one which will rage on eternally in the bonsai world, but whatever you use, right now is prime time to fertilize (summer) to help our growing plants. Here Roberta discusses her observations on the differences between organic and inorganic fertilizers with respect to the plant's responses as well as the science behind when to apply fertilizer throughout seasons and different temperatures.



D. Repotting Basics & Why Grow Moss for Your Azalea Bonsai

            Next, this is the first of two clips you'll want to bookmark to review in winter/spring. The meat of this video is focused on Roberta's advice and experience around repotting azaleas in several chapters. She discusses how she times repotting with major pruning and allowing the tree to flower, how to assess the need to change soil, how to properly repot and exchange soil for the unique rootmat of a mature azalea's, the beneficial purpose behind encouraging moss on the surface of your soil, and she reports the results of her teacher's experiment on reusing ceramic pots. It should be noted that planting moss can be done in any season! That piece of advice you can get a head start on now.

Got all that? No? It's okay, you'll understand better after watching - Roberta tells it better.



E. Azalea Flower Management: Space & Timing

            Lastly, this clip is suited for intermediate-advanced bonsai practitioners who are seeking to bring their azalea bonsai to the next level. If you want to get deep in the weeds (or shoots as the case may be) and entice your tree to optimize its flowers by synchronizing the opening of every flower and ensuring each flower has enough space to fully open and be appreciated, heed Roberta's advice below.



F. Full Roberta Walters Demonstration

            PS. If you've got time to kill, please enjoy Roberta's full 2 hour demonstration below. Though I made separate highlights for the most important sections, there are plenty more bonsai stories and tidbits inside!


Thanks to Roberta Walters for sharing her knowledge with PSBA. Thanks the Chico Bonsai Society who helped me secure permission to reproduce Roberta's demonstration for public viewing.

You can read more about Roberta's life and bonsai work here.


III. Blog Announcements

  1. My old email newsletter subscription service has been retired, so I have migrated to follow.it. This will allow my sporadic new posts on projects relating to the PSBA and CBS bonsai clubs, my own bonsai collection, Elandan Garden's collection, and useful bonsai inspiration to reach your inbox.This platform is fully customizable so you can receive updates at the frequency and in the format that you prefer most.
    1.  If you already were a subscriber to receive new posts via email, especially if this post reaches your inbox successfully. If you have issues subscribing, please let me know!
  2. As always, submit your trees for critique or advice here. I need new trees for the next Bonsai Buds episode! This will be my next project.
  3. Seeds and bonsai guide for sale! My Bonsai-From-Seed guide is freshly updated for 2021 - get your copy with one of the several new species of seeds that I am selling in bulk on Etsy
  4. If anyone wants/needs someone to talk about the vaccine, feel free to email me. I am a microbiologist working on vaccine development & I've had the vaccine for several months now as have many of my friends and family. Of course, I encourage you all to talk with your doctors about this but feel free to use me as a resource as well.
Stay safe and bonsai on!

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