It is generally accepted and published on various websites that an apprenticeship can take between 2,000 and 12,000 hours to complete. The same websites mention that it will take between two and four years to complete an apprenticeship. It is also common knowledge that Bonsai cultivation apprenticeships can take many more years to complete than an apprenticeship for an electrician or a plumber. In my field of work, it takes four years to be trained as a teacher. This normally includes a three year degree programme as well as a one year professional Diploma in Education.
What do we get for all of this? You normally walk away with a piece of paper that announces that you are a qualified professional, a person that can do a good job to a good standard in your chosen area of studies. You also earn a salary. I have read somewhere that a Bonsai apprenticeship could involve 10,000 hours of work and study, mainly hands-on work under the supervision of a master. We usually find that apprentices in other fields of work also work under the supervision of a specialist or a master, at least a qualified person with ample experience. Let us break 10,000 hours down to get some perspective on the time factor.
I have found all over the internet that an apprentice should not work for more than 40 hours per week. We also anecdotally know that Bonsai apprentices work for much longer hours, especially those who complete their apprenticeships in Japan. Michael Hagedorn has written about this in his book which discusses his experiences as an apprentice in Japan. If we take a normal working week as a 40 hour work week, 10,000 hours will equate to 250 weeks and if we work for 50 weeks per year, this equates to 5 years. This is hard, physical work and one wonders why it takes so much longer than other apprenticeships. The only thing that I can think of is that it is so much more than just the technical aspects of Horticulture that must be mastered. The artistic and cultural side of things probably takes a lot longer to master than the mere application of wire, watering, pruning, fertilizing and a whole host of other things that are needed to keep a tree alive.
I assume that it takes many years of cultivating Bonsai before one can be considered to be a Master Bonsai Practitioner. How many years? I have no idea. Must you go through an official apprenticeship to work towards Master status? Anecdotally, yes, but again, I do not know, but can guess that it is not necessary. In Japan these things are controlled by the Nippon Society and I can understand why. There is nothing like that in other areas of the World. Does an apprenticeship in Europe or the USA, under a practitioner who knows his business and has a proven track record, carry the same status as an apprenticeship done in Japan? A Bachelors or Masters degree from a well recognized university anywhere in the world do carry the same status. Most countries now have a Qualifications Authority which assess these things and recognize similar qualifications across the globe. Is it time that the same happens for Bonsai studies? In the mean time, where does this leave an enthusiast who just engages in his Bonsai as a hobby? Does it matter? No, I do not think so as these people (I am one of them with a little business on the side) cultivate Bonsai for reasons that have nothing to do with the commercialization of Bonsai. And that brings me to my summary.
Does the proliferation of Bonsai “courses”, both in residence as well as online, show us that Bonsai and the educational opportunities that do arise from the wider commercialization of Bonsai across the world is maturing into a world-wide commercial empire? If this is the case, then the management or control of what these courses look like, minimum requirements as well as qualifications achieved, will need a good look at and probably needs to be standardized. Out of these educational encounters, titles come to the fore. Who then is a Master, an Apprentice, a Technologist or a Hobbyist / Enthusiast?
I have decided to plant some trees in the ground over the next few years to aid their development. Here is the start of the project captured on video.
What to do on a wintry day with the wind howling outside, rain bucketing down and more to come judging by the Ruahine Ranges covered in dark, ominous looking clouds? One idea is to cuddle up and get a good book out, another to get a hearty soup on the go, but the one that I gravitated towards, was to work on a nursery stock, small Chamaecyparis obtusa standing on my Bonsai bench. It has been there for more than a year now, just waiting for a day like today.
The Chamaecyparis, also known as the Hinoki False Cypress, is native to Japan. It is a very slow growing tree and the nursery label on this little one states that it will grow to 60 cm high by 50 cm wide in 10 years. It has whorled branches of lovely dark green foliage and an upright habit with character and charm. Obviously not for long.
Before I start, here is some more information on the Hinoki Cypress. The foliage consists of evergreen, fine scale-like leaves, dark and shiny green above (adaxial) with glaucous margins between scales which form a distinct “x” shaped pattern beneath (abaxial). This species is monocious with small male reddish brown cones and slightly larger female flowers which are round and yellow-green in color. It bears fruit in late summer, but these are quite small. The bark is gray and scaly with long furrows of reddish brown inner bark which peels in long, narrow strips.
With this wind howling outside, I am going to let it influence my thinking and create a windswept (Fukinagashi) style shohin. I am sure that other styles will come to mind as I progress with this little tree.
Ask a room full of Bonsai artists about soil and you will probably get different perspectives from each and every one of them. Soil for Bonsai cultivation is widely discussed and opinions are easy to find. From those who can afford to import Akadama and other Japanese sourced mediums through to Cat litter soils and organic mixes, all serve a purpose. In the end it is probably better to talk about the “Growing Medium” rather than soil as some Bonsai trees grow in mixes that can hardly be classified as Soil when one goes with the “normal” definition of what soil is. Here in New Zealand we just refer to it as “dirt”, but that is probably not good English for what we use to grow our Bonsai in. One thing that is not very well considered when it comes to soil and soil types, is the pH of the soil for Bonsai.
Ph is a measure of the acidity and alkalinity of the soil and is expressed on a scale that goes from 0 to 14. ) is very acidic, 7 is neutral and 14 is very alkaline. Soil pH is largely determined by the type of rock or parent material that the soil originates from. Limestone for instance will produce soil that is more alkaline. Soils with a higher content of decomposing organic material normally lies on the acidic side.
The pH of the soil is important as it affects the control of the solubility of different minerals. Different minerals are available to plant roots at different pH levels. What is available and can dissolve at a low pH, will not be available at a high pH as the solubility of the mineral is effected. Soil pH also has an effect on soil structure and the activity of soil organisms.
Some plants do not have a big issue with pH levels, but others are very specific. In the Bonsai world, Azaleas and Camellias could be a good example. These plants prefer a slightly acidic soil. Fruit trees also produce more fruit in slightly acidic soil. This is not a major consideration for Bonsai artists as Fruiting Bonsai are not necessarily grown for its fruit. As a whole, pH is something to be kept in mind for Bonsai artists, especially for those pH specific trees, but our larger concern should be for the drainage capacity of the soil. Here-in lies another challenge. Due to the free-draining characteristics of most Bonsai soils, it is very easy for minerals to dissolve in the water and be washed out of the soil. It is therefore important to fertilize the trees and to ensure that a good mineral supply is available.
What do you water your trees with? Water you say. Yes, but not all water is created equally. Your water supply could contain different types of chemicals that can in turn be deposited in your Bonsai soil and over time, alter the pH of the soil. Areas where the air is highly polluted can acidify the rain water and this in turn can change the chemical composition of your soil. So, what to do?
Common sense and logic, although sometimes scarce, should prevail. Water your plants with what you have available. If it is rain water from an unpolluted source, you are winning Lotto. If it is town sourced, it could contain all sorts of things like fluoride. The main thing is to be aware of your water source and to act accordingly. Also know that regular watering will wash nutrients out, therefore fertilize and use mineral supplements. If you are worried or just inquisitive about the soil pH, get a digital tester or a testing kit and determine the pH. If there is a problem, it can be rectified by either a preventative strategy (like only use unpolluted rain water or do not use organic material in your growing medium) or use supplements that will get your soil to the ideal pH for the specific tree. My experience is that to not let pH become something that makes you lie awake at night, but to use the opportunity to get to know more about your tree, find out about its specific pH preferences and then adjust by either supplying minerals or changing your growing medium when needed.
Images are open source and the last one is from http://www.exoplexity.org.
It is said that a creative spirit needs inspiration. As Bonsai design is a creative activity, it is therefore important to be in touch with the sources of our inspiration. I have recently returned from a conference relating to Education where I was exposed to a variety of speakers. I was very aware that during and immediately after the conference, I was definitely more motivated to work on certain things in my main job. This came from listening to these powerful speakers and becoming aware of the latest trends in my vocation. This is the same for my Bonsai activities.
Exposure to other Bonsai people will lead to higher levels of inspiration and motivation. I live in an area in New Zealand where there are not that many other Bonsai enthusiasts and you sometimes do feel isolated. To overcome this, I have to make an effort to meet up with other Bonsai people. The local club, although very small, serves as a source of inspiration. I am the teacher here and other people rely on me for the advancement of their skills and knowledge. This places me in a position where I have to stay on top of my game. Through this I have also realised that I only know about the tip of the iceberg and that I need to learn as well. Again it comes back to people, as I can only get this knowledge and skills from others who are more advanced than me, or have produced resources that I can learn from. So, first of all people.
It is important that as a Bonsai artist, you realise that there will always be something new to learn or practice. I like the way that a lot of martial arts movements are set up. There is a clear line to follow from beginner level through to a very advanced level. I am not saying that we have to start different colour belts to show our proficiency in Bonsai, but the levels of training can be copied. A sensei at one dojo always learns from a more advanced practitioner somewhere else. This means you either have to go places or you have to get the masters to your place. This is already happening in Bonsai throughout the world and this has opened up many more opportunities for Bonsai professionals. As a side note, I do use the term Bonsai professional in a different context to Bonsai master. Not all professionals are masters and not all masters are professionals. More on this in later blogs. Back to the main thread of this blog. Where do we get inspiration from to excell in Bonsai activities? I have already established that it is mainly through the exposure to other people and preferably to more advanced practitioners. That means that you have to be a regular club member, be active in this club and teach at that level. The next step is to align yourself to an organisation or club where more advanced teaching takes place. From there it is important to attend shows, regional and national and even international teaching opportunities. Displaying your own trees is a big part of this. Immense growth takes place when you receive feedback from visiting judges once you get over the fact that you might get some negative input as well. Good teachers will make sure that this feedback is constructive and you can learn much from that. Just leave your ego at the door when you go into this type of situation, after-all, there is no ego in Bonsai as an art form.
Other forms of inspiration comes from man made resources. I find a lot of inspiration in my very large Bonsai library (wonder what the total cost of this is), which consists of books and many magazines. I currently hold a subscription to two international magazines and also receive our national production on a regular basis. Books come through online bookshops and I am now also in the fortunate position that I receive books from publishers and authors to review. Magazines keep me up to date with what is happening in the Bonsai world and brings the latest shows into my living room.
My next source of inspiration comes through good blogs. I follow about 25 blogs and find them informative and a major part of my everyday learning. My own education has increased immensely once I started my own blog (this one) up. I have to research every topic as there are always people out there who will catch you out if you talk nonsense. Try it, not the catching out bit or the talking nonsense bit, but the blogging bit. I also regularly visit websites dedicated to Bonsai activities and other related topics (suiseki and general horticulture).
Then there is You Tube. What a great learning tool. Here I am subscribed to at least thirty good quality channels and people who regularly post new material and from which I learn heaps. Just type Bonsai in the search area and you will find a great resources at your fingertips. While I am on internet based things, Facebook is exploding around Bonsai matters (probably lots of other things as well). One needs to be disciplined when you venture into this mosh pit of activity. Not everyone who has a presence here are noteworthy, but most of the “big” names in Bonsai are represented here.
I am very sure that there are many more sources of inspiration for Bonsai activities and I also know that what works for one person, does not necessarily work for everyone. The bottom line is that you cannot venture on this Bonsai journey on your own. You need other dedicated people around you and always be aware of the one-up principle, you need to learn and be inspired by people or a person who knows more than what you do.
Then there are my own trees. The moment I start to spend time with my trees (and the trees of other people), my motivation levels rise and there is no substitute for it. Yes, it can lead to frustration if you do not get it right, but overall it is invigorating and inspiring when you work with trees and realise the progress. Surrounding you with good people, good resources and good trees will always expose you to enough resources to keep going and to keep going at a high level.
In a previous blog, I had an attempt at giving a basic description of the different conifer type classifications. This led to a few questions and I realised that I could have given an overall view of the classification as well. Here is a table setting out where the different types of conifers fit in. In no way does this contain every conifer type that is out there.
Click on the link for the PDF document.
Conifers make up a large percentage of most Bonsai collections across the world. To me, one of the difficult things with conifers, is to identify the tree to the correct species level. The reason for this could be that my early Bonsai education was on broadleaves and not so much on conifers. Conifers as a large group are identified by the fact that they do not flower, but in the place of this, they produce cones that contain the seeds. This makes them part of the Gymnosperm taxa, along with ginkgo and cycads. These are some of the oldest known plants in nature.
It is not that difficult to identify conifers to genus level, as this can be done mainly on leaf type and shape. Here follows my take on what this looks like (An arrow points to the next table for that category).
Have scale-like or awl-like shaped leaves.
Have needle-like leaves
Have leaves that are flat and feather-like in arrangement and shape.
|Junipers and Thuja||Pines, Spruce, Fir and Douglas fir||
Leaves are scale-like or awl-like.
Fruit is a berry-like cone with scales fused together
|Leaves are scale-like or awl-shaped. The foliage is arranged around the branch, rather than flattened and cones are berry-like with scales pressed together.
|The leaves are small, scale-like and pressed to the stem. The foliage is flattened and plate-like in appearance. The cones are berry-like with thick scales.
Leaves are needle-like
|Needles sheathed at the base in bundles of two to five. Cones have thick scales and are woody with swollen tips.
|Short needles in tufts of ten or more and could be deciduous.
|Needles are flat in cross-section and quite flexible.
|The needles are square in cross-section and quite stiff.
|The needles leave an oval leaf scar and the bud tips are pointed. The cones have a three-pronged lobed tongue-like bract that extend out beyond the scales.
Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
|The needles leave a round leave-scar and the bud tips are roundish. The cones grow upright on the branch and usually breaks apart before falling off completely.
From here the classification can be further refined to identify the specific conifer to species level. This will come in a future blog.
I currently have a few trees that do not look very refined. As a matter of fact, they look like shrubs and in some cases like Bonsai trees with one or two branches that were missed at the previous pruning. This is all done deliberately for very specific reasons. The sacrifice branch is a necessity in Bonsai growing.
Why do we need to do this? The main reason is to enhance growth in a specific area. The theory is that the branch that is allowed to just grow and increase in length will have more sap flowing through it, therefore more nutrients and in turn you get a much faster growth rate compared to regularly pruned branches. One specific case would be to thicken the main trunk. This could be either during the early years after a seed has germinated or a cutting has struck. The more side branches you have that can grow, the thicker the trunk will become. The leader is of importance here. Let this grow until you get to the desired thickness and then cut.
Another reason is to improve taper. If a branch or two are left on the trunk to grow out, the area below the branches will thicken more than the area above it. This leads to a thicker bottom half if the branches were left halfway up the trunk, compared to the top half of the tree.
Another reason for letting a sacrifice branch grow is to get a side branch to thicken in proportion to other branches. An example of this could be that a branch is needed lower down on a trunk and the branches above are all thicker than the lower one. The lower one is then left to grow until the desired thickness is attained and then it is cut back.
There are a few things to keep in mind when sacrifice branches are used. The first one is to remember that the sacrifice branch will create more shade than other branches and this could impact negatively on the growth patterns underneath this branch. A second point to remember is that sacrifice branches that are cut back, can leave quite large scars that will have to heal over time. For trunk thickening it could be best to use a branch at the back or in a place where the design of the tree will hide the scar. A third point to mention is that side branches will start to grow upwards. This growth needs to be controlled if the branch is suppose to be horizontal or even growing slightly downwards.
In the examples below, sacrifice branches were mainly used to thicken side branches to either fill a gap, create a new branch or to correct parallel branches.
Top left: There are two vertical branches parallel to each other growing from the main trunk as well as two bar-branches at the bottom.
Right: the one parallel vertical branch was removed and a new branch allowed to grow out at an angle, removing the parallel effect.
Bottom left: The sacrifice branch and the vertical branch in close up to compare the thickness. This is one season’s growth for this maple.