Bougainvillea: From climber to Bonsai, first steps.

A friend of mine is going to make alterations to his house which includes demolishing the garage. As my luck would have it, a relatively old Bougainvillea climber is growing on the side of the building and it was going to end up at the dump when building starts. I kindly offered to remove the plant for him. So today was the day, overcast with the odd light rain falling. Perfect conditions for the operation.

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The first part of the job was to take the plant down to stump level. This took about an hour as this Bougainvillea had a lot of quite large thorns. Once that was done, the stump was wiggled and I found that it had two large roots going to either side of the plant. One of the surprises was that the wood is quite soft and this extended to the roots. The spade went right through a two-inch thick root with one go at it.

One of the roots grew underneath the building and as it was quite close to the building, I decided to pull the stump over to the front. On the one hand this was a mistake as the large root tore in two which left it with quite a large wound (was going to have one anyway due to the cut), but on the other hand, it left me with a smaller plant now separated from the larger stump. Not bad, two plants for the price of one dig.

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I quickly cleared the area up and did not wrap the roots as I would normally do as it was a ten-minute drive to get home. At home, the two plants were placed in a bucket with water in which I dissolved some aspirin. Aspirin has the same active ingredient that is found in willow bark and this is said to be supporting root growth stimulation, just like hormone rooting powder.

From here I prepared two pots by adding drainage material (stones) at the bottom and then filled the rest with 1 part compost and two parts pumice. I also shortened the larger stump. More rooting hormone powder was applied, planted, watered and placed in a good, protected spot. The good old human attribute of patience will be applied while we await the outcome.

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Simplicity is the goal in every art.

I do believe that there are concepts in any art form that are universal. With that believe, I also explore other art forms for inspiration, ideas and motivation as well as skills and knowledge. I have recently embarked on trying to improve my photography skills as I am notoriously bad at it. In the process of reading up on this topic, I stumbled upon this statement:

“Ultimately, simplicity is the goal in every art, and achieving simplicity is one of the hardest things to do. Yet it is easily the most essential.”

What does this mean for Bonsai? Bonsai in its simplest form is a tree in a pot that resembles an old tree in nature. That then probably takes us back to the original design concepts as proposed by Chinese and Japanese scholars and masters from the beginning to today. My own opinion is that the strictness of the original, especially Japanese rules, have been watered down over the years as Bonsai art started to spread to other parts of the world since World War II. Western ideas of what art looks like and what it should be as the individual philosophies of artists as well as the type of Bonsai material that they can work on has shaped this over time.

Simplicity can also refer to the horticultural side of keeping trees alive. It comes down to water, nutrients, climate, inclusive of light requirements. Yes, it is that simple, but take any one of these for granted and you end up with a deteriorating or dead tree.

From a design perspective it is important to know something about the different styles or forms of Bonsai and by then adhering to the style “rules” in its purist form, simplicity in design will be shown. Part of this is to follow the basic shape and growth pattern of the original tree if it comes from nature or has been in a pot for a long time. Radically changing the shape or form of a tree away from its natural flow, can not only stress the tree, but also lead to a quite complicated design that might need constant maintenance or interference to keep it in that shape. This means that the tree is kept under stress for a longer period of time.

A tree that does not show these characteristics or one that can be shaped from seedling or cutting stage will be easier to shape and still adhere to the concept of simplicity. What does this look like?

  • Establish a flared, radial root system growing from a wider buttress and is exposed at soil level.
  • From here a gradually tapering trunk will grow depending on the style.
  • The first branches will start about a third of the trunk height from the soil and will alternatively grow on two sides of the trunk with every third one to wards the back.
  • These branches will gradually become shorter and thinner as you move towards the top or apex of the tree.
  • The apex could be in-line with the nebari or base of the trunk.
  • Finer branches are grouped to allow the leaves or needles to form “foliage clouds”.
  • Empty spaces or the spaces between the branches will balance the tree to form a whole or one unit to look at.

That is bonsai design at its simplest or most basic. We do know that it is never that simple. Branches do not necessarily grow in that pattern and nature sometimes play cruel tricks on plants (this could be great for Bonsai) to alter growth patterns and directions. This is where the artist comes in and it leads to a second quote from a photography resource:

“Photography is not looking, it is feeling. If you cannot feel what you are looking at, then you are never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

I am not too concerned about what other people think of my trees. I need to be moved or have an emotional reaction to a tree for it to make impact. I also do believe that it is this, the fact that a Bonsai tree can invoke a feeling, an emotional reaction, that makes it art. I also do believe that it is usually the simplicity in a design or form that triggers the higher emotion. Less is more. Wabi-sabi. Literati. The emotion of a trees that looks old, feels old, shows character, fits its pot and as a whole make you stand still and study it, is a piece of art.

A lot of very complicated designs, excruciating bending, very heavy wire and at times heavy machinery (not really, just power tools), are used to get a tree to look like a Bonsai tree. Is this part of our instant generation? It has its place under the right conditions. I just wonder whether going back to the original simplistic view of Bonsai, the pure meaning behind the art form and taking a longer view or approach to the development of the tree, might not stir a stronger emotional reaction and make more people fall in love (also known as addiction) with this pure, simple and very rich art form.

What do you think?

Wiring in three phases.

I prefer to wire and shape trees in three stages. The first stage involves the trunk and larger branches. The second phase incorporates the secondary branches and the third is the fine wiring and placement of tertiary and finely developed, ramified branches / twigs with leaves or needles. Each phase lasts a minimum of a year and includes at least one growing season. This video shows some intermediate wiring.

Why? I do find that this way produces a better, more refined product and it gives the tree more time to adjust and recover from harsh bends. My gut instinct tells me that it might also be better for sap flow in especially Junipers compared to trees that undergo a full wiring, bending, cutting and sometimes even a full repot in one session. I do hope that this last scenario is not a common thing.

I might have to change this as I now live in a warmer climate with a longer growing season. Time and attention to growth patterns will tell.

Newbie Bonsai Help.

It is very common to see a photo of a seedling or small nursery stock on social media with the following comment: “I am new to Bonsai, please help with advice”. Where to start? What the follows is a number of people writing one liners or a bit more with a genuine interest to help.

I have been demonstrating and teaching Bonsai now for many years and am following what I think is a logical series of steps to enable the new Bonsai enthusiast to work towards a specific goal. It is almost paint by numbers, but in the absence of knowledge and skills, it is the best way to get the basics across in a short period of time. Here are the steps:

  • Unearth the topsoil to look at surface roots.
  • Determine the front of the tree.
  • Decide on a natural flow of the trunk dependent on the style envisaged.
  • Decide which branches / side shoots to keep.
  • Remove excess branches and foliage.
  • Some of these can be selected for deadwood (jin).
  • Create Jin.
  • Wire main trunk if required.
  • Bend trunk to desired shape.
  • Wire branches into position.
  • Clean hanging foliage up.

Each of these steps require a lot of knowledge to get to the end result. This is part of the conversation as the design unfolds. Small nursery material can take up to three hours to style with a new enthusiast in a workshop situation. The hands-on work takes only about thirty minutes to complete, but the explanations and answering of questions, in my mind the most important part, takes up a lot of time.

This Juniper is nursery stock and is 20cm high from the top of the soil. It has been standing around here for a year or so and received very little attention.

The first step is to scrape some of the soil away to see if there are any prominent, larger roots that can help to make a decision about the front / viewing side of the tree. In this case it only contained a whole lot of fine fibrous roots.

It is therefore now up to the trunk line to give an indication of what could be a possible front. For newcomers, we usually look for good movement and flow.

Once the best angle is determined to show things like flow and movement as well as taper or interesting features, it is marked and excess branches and foliage can be removed to reveal the trunk line. The conversation at this stage will include things like removing branches growing from the same height, branches on inside curves and crossing branches.

Some of the branches are identified as possible deadwood branches and these are kept a bit longer. Bark is then removed.

All of these steps have cleared the path for the trunk to be wired. Just the basic of wiring is explained and demonstrated at this stage as this skill is seen as a bit more advanced for a newbie. I think it is important to allow the person to start on their wiring pathway as it is an integral part of Bonsai design. As said, we stick to the basics at this point. It is more important to talk about design and flow at this point.

The branches can now be wired.

The next step is to place the branches in position while a conversation about safe bending takes place. Overall tree health is emphasized at all times. Once the placement is done, excess foliage, especially those growing downwards or upwards is removed. The concept of foliage pads is also touched upon. I find it is important to at this stage point things out like depth (back branches) and negative space. These are all explored ta more advanced workshops.

The last part of the workshop is focused on future growth, the role on foliage in feeding the plant (photosynthesis) and then the very important aftercare of the tree. Protection of small buds and the removal of older foliage as the tree buds over the next few months is discussed as well as feeding requirements and protection over the next month or so.

Potting, root management, carving, severe bending and more advanced wiring techniques are all part of more advanced techniques to be covered at advanced workshops.

Juniper Progress.

This Juniper was lifted in June 2015 and planted in a plastic container. It came from a garden and was planted in a very sandy soil which came away during the lifting process. It was basically bare-rooted at the time which in my mind was not ideal at the time. I did bring some of the soil with me to add to the new mix with the hope that it contained some michoriza. At this stage I also removed some of the long, whippy branches with very little foliage on it to try and balance the foliage to root ratio.

From this point on it was watered and fertilised and received plenty of sun. A few branches died over the next twelve months, but plenty of new growth showed as well. All of this was of the needle type and then reverted to adult growth. The tree was also planted into a Bonsai pot at which time the roots were reduced a bit.

I had to move my trees three in the last six months. First from a colder, wetter part of New Zealand to an almost subtropical climate. The first place was a temporary place while we were shifting our household, then to a rental until we shifted into our own house three months later. Eighteen months after the lifting (January 2018) it was time for its first styling. Deadwood was created on the cut branches and then the wiring started. This took about six hours with not more than two hours done per day. I find it is best to start at the bottom of the tree and then work towards the apex of the tree. I have just used aluminium wire and varies from 1mm thickness to 4mm thickness. Quite a few guy wires were used to pull larger branches down. I use plastic tubing to protect the branches. Due to a few harsh bends, light cracks appeared and these were sealed with cut paste.

Now it is time to let it rest. Water and fertilise, keep an eye on the wire to prevent it from cutting in give it plenty of sun. It could be show ready in about three years. The foliage pads must mature and I have left a bit of new growth on the main branch from where another branch or two can be formed to fill some gaps.

Some of the Jin are too long, but I will leave it as it is for now. It is better to shorten them later. It is not that simple to make deadwood longer later. Lime Sulphur will also be applied later after some carving, burning and light sanding.

I like to study my trees from the top as I used to style very flat trees in the past. Probably because I look at too many trees in photos. A top view shows you the depth of the tree.

I like to look at my trees from the top as I used to style very flat trees. Probably because I look at too many trees in photographs and this made my designs look very two dimensional and flat. From the top, it is easy to see the depth. You can do the same by looking at the tree from the side, but from the top you can also look for branches and foliage pads shadowing the ones below them.

Healing Powers of Bonsai

It took me a while to write this blog post as it is a personal account of a part of my life that is quite personal. People that know me will know that this is not normally something that I will do, but I do think that the time is now ripe to do so. 

I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic melanoma during 2016 (lower case letters are deliberate) and was very lucky to come through on the other side relatively unscathed. This blog post is not about cancer and how to fight it, it is more an account of my interaction with Bonsai trees during the healing time. Much is said and is written about meditation and its positive effects on the body and mind. There are also writings and accounts of the meditative encounters that people have while interacting with nature. 

Although I do not specifically work on Bonsai trees for the sake of a meditative experience, I do believe that while working on a tree, and when totally focussed on the task at hand, it is very easy to find yourself “in the zone”. Whether this is a form of meditation, I am not sure, but it sure feels like it. Whether I am working on a smaller or a large tree, the effect is the same. I am more relaxed during and after the experience. In my mind this is due to the fact that I engage in a state of mindfulness. This is necessary as I need to respect the tree and am not in a position to make mistakes. Creative pursuits tend to ask for total mindfulness and a state of relaxed alertness to do justice to what nature has given you to work on. Without this mindfulness and focussed state, mistakes will be made and if in a hurry, wrong design decisions will be made. In Bonsai, these will take years to be corrected and can even lead to the death of a tree.

Wound drain bottle was carried around. Just making sure that the scissors and plastic tube did not meet.


During my healing after surgery and especially during the radiation phase, I regularly interacted with my trees, and as it was during Spring and Early Summer, there was a lot to do. I did miss the repotting opportunity during that time as I did not think it was wise to work too much with soil-filled bacteria and other creepy crawlies around. Most of the work was around pruning trees, styling, inclusive of wiring and also removing wire. These are repetitive actions and on a large tree can take up to three hours. Due to the radiation effects, I had to break lengthy jobs up into shorter stints to not over burden myself. Smaller trees I could move myself, but my wife had to help with the larger ones. I had a wound drain hanging out of my side and this could become tricky with the plastic drain tube and very sharp pruning scissors snipping away.

 For me, the time that I spent working on the trees, sometimes just studying the trees for future jobs and appreciating the beauty and form of trees, did impact positively on the healing process. It led to me being calmer, taking my thoughts away from the current situation and afterwards feeling satisfied with a job well done. It also forced me to be outside in fresh air. This led to a positive frame of mind which definitely helped to get me on my feet and looking forward to what the future holds.

On top of my interaction with Bonsai trees, the support of my wife, Susanna, was immense to help me through some pretty dark times and I will forever be in her debt for her support. So there you go, if something is wrong, work on your trees and make sure that you have great support around you, and you to will be up and running in no time.

Radiation time with Susanna in support. I wonder if the radiation had an effect on the trees?

Master, Apprentice, Enthusiast – Bonsai Education.

It is generally accepted and published on various websites that an apprenticeship can take capbetween 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 mh-bookhas 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?

Chamaecyparis progression

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.

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This is what I thought the front of the tree should be based on the Nebari.

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This is the view from the other side after a quick clean-up of the lower branches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Nebari shows more prominent growth on the left hand side. This means that the tree could slant towards the right.

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With that in mind the leaves are removed from the smaller branch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The rest of the tree is cleaned-up by thinning out some of the foliage.

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At a slight slant to the right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This looks like a nice little tree already with the bark stripped off the smaller branch (Jinned) as well as a back branch and some other smaller branches.

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I could have stopped with the previous photo’s style, but wanted to style this in a Windswept style. Slightly more pronounced slant, more thinning and wired.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The final product, all potted up and kept in a sheltered place.

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The size is 16 cm by 10 cm by 10 cm. Now it will be fertilized and watered regularly.