This Juniper came to me as a very neglected tree about a year ago. After a solid nutrition program and tender loving care it is now ready to get some work done on it. The major job will come in Spring (seven months away) when the first big repot with fresh soil will take place. For now, let’s get the pads placed in a better position and also do some thinning of the vigorous growth.
Adding guy wires is a method used to lower branches in Bonsai. This video shows how to do it. Tools and goods needed:
- Screw Driver
- Plastic Tubing
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“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
The quote above is attributed to Banksy and it sits quite comfortably with me. How can this be applied to Bonsai as an Art? My own personal experience is that an hour’s work on a Bonsai tree is equal to the same amount of time meditating. One can therefore say that it comforts the disturbed and at the least calms the mind down.
It is quite interesting to watch people at a Bonsai exhibition. There is the initial excitement and almost “cannot believe my eyes” moments, but as they move through the exhibition, a calmness sets in, almost as if you are in a library. I have even seen people talking softly when in the presence of these miniature giants of the floral kingdom. Except for the cultural links, could that be why it is not uncommon to see a Bonsai tree or three near or part of a Zen garden or space?
Not so sure about the disturbing the comfortable part. Maybe that is the bit where you see non-Bonsai people just wanting to get into the art after they have seen Bonsai trees in real life. A real inquisitiveness sets in and it rocks their world. Or is this the bit that forms the basis of Bonsai activities leading to an addiction?
I must say that even seasoned Bonsai people do get disturbed when in the presence of an especially spectacular tree or composition. This disturbance is evident in the slightly angled heads, dead silence even with a few people around the tree and then followed by a lot of pointing and increase in volume as the tree is discussed. You can almost see how mental notes are being made and mental photos being taken to go and copy some of what they are seeing the moment they get home.
I am picking up six raw material trees this weekend and I can feel the excitement building up, a disturbance of my normally very calm inner self. Can’t wait to work on the trees. I do know that when I start the work, the deepest state of calmness will set in. The opposite of the excited, disturbed state is counteracted by the meditative state.
Maybe that is what is in Banksy’s quote, the yin and the yang, the stillness and the turbulence, the Bonsai tree and the Bonsai artist. It is one, it is the whole, it is the two sides of the same coin.
Share your thoughts on this in the comments.
Using cuttings as Bonsai starters is a good way of getting early shape to what could be an excellent Bonsai tree in future. The video in this blog takes you through the process.
I love watching Bonsai demonstrations, whether it be live or on You Tube. The quick transformations, the inspiration, the magnificent material that these artists work with, it is pure drama, pure theatre.
I do that as well. Pluck the odd tree out of a field or hunt for suitable nursery material to test my skills and knowledge and then compare my design outcomes with the artists who I follow or are exposed to. This is very satisfying and keeps on inspiring me and as said, tests my abilities.
This however is not my real test, my real challenge. My real Everest is the daily grind. The seasonal grind. Yes, those tasks that must be performed to keep your trees healthy and thriving. The weeding, the feeding, the watering, the wire on and the wire off. Especially the latter. Maintaining pots, tools, irrigation system and weather protection. Being able to do all of this is the real challenge, the real test.
It is therefor important to see it all as one. The not so nice work as well as the inspirational stuff. Hey, is that not life. The good days and the bad days. Look at the big picture, that is the reality.
I was asked to demonstrate at the recent 2019 New Zealand Bonsai Association National Show and Convention. I decided to talk about Weeping or Pendulant trees as these trees are quite scarce in New Zealand at show level. There was only one weeping style tree in the National Show, a native Kowhai tree.
Below is a video of the presentation that I used. I started off by talking about the biochemistry and the role of geotropism (movement or growth caused by gravity) and the effect of that on auxins in the tree to allow branches to grow downwards. Next was a few slides of weeping trees in nature to show the most important principle of building an upwards growing structure first before you look at the weeping parts of the tree. This was followed by slides of relatively well-developed weeping style Bonsai trees.
I also showed a Willow tree from a cutting, a nursery sourced weeping Beech tree and another nursery sourced weeping Bottlebrush. I talked about wiring the main structure and then also the use of guy wires and objects to hang off the branches to pull the branches downwards. It also included examples of fishing line with weights attached and even the humble clothing peg to act as weight to help gravity do its thing.
To prepare a tree for a show starts a long time out from the show. It actually starts with your general maintenance regime, your design philosophy and daily dedication to your overall collection. The normal sequence for getting a tree in a show is to decide on which tree will be entered and then an acceptance from the organisers to have that tree in the show. This could at times be problematic as the time between the acceptance and the show could be very short. My advice is to start the show preparation before the tree is entered as it should be of a more than passible quality when entered.
The tree must be in excellent health and show the characteristics of the species. Al dead and not so healthy looking leaves and needles must be removed and all excessive and not needed wiring should be taken off as well. It is OK to have some wiring, but this must be discrete and only used to refine minor things. Wiring must be applied correctly as it can detract from the overall scoring if not done so. Also ensure that all leaves and needles growing downwards (species and style specific) are removed and that foliage clouds are distinct and neat.
Ensure that the main trunk line is clear and clean (the whole tree must be clean). Look out for insects and spiders and remove these. A smooth trunked tree can be cleaned by spraying a little bit of vegetable oil on it and rubbing gently with a paper towel.
The nebari and roots must be checked as well. All of the above apply to this area also.
Deadwood (Jin) should be clean. This can be done by brushing it with a toothbrush and using tweezers to get small pieces of debris out of narrow and hard to reach places. Lime sulphur should be applied a few weeks out from the show to allow it to settle. If needed give it a brush for the colour to settle in with the rest of the tree.
All weeds and fine protruding roots must be removed. Take weeds out and the finer roots can be covered with moss if it cannot be removed. Moss should be in pristine condition. This is one of the tasks that cannot be left to the last minute. If you do not have moss ready, you can grate old moss and apply this to the soil surface, even better if it is on a layer of fine sphagnum moss. Pay as much attention to this aspect as you would a prize-winning lawn.
The To prepare a tree for a show starts a long time out from the show. It actually starts with your general maintenance regime, your design philosophy and daily dedication to your overall collection. The normal sequence for getting a tree in a show is to decide on which tree will be entered and then an acceptance from the organisers to have that tree in the show. This could at times be problematic as the time between the acceptance and the show could be very short. My advice is to start the show preparation before the tree is entered as it should be of a more than passible quality when entered.
All components making up the display must be clean and in good condition. The so-called three-point display technique will compliment your tree. This usually consists of the tree on a stand, an accent tree or plant and a scroll. One of the two non-tree elements could be a Suiseki. The dimensions and placing of the three elements are crucial to get a view of one, but to still emphasise the tree as the main focal point. My best advice with this is to have a few stands, scrolls, accent plants and even Suiseki at the ready and to try different combinations.
One of the best things you can do is to study as many displays that you can get your hands / eyes on. This is not difficult with the internet at our fingertips. All the top shows across the world are represented in thousands of photos on the internet. Happy showing!
While I am enjoying the Autumn colours on my Bonsai trees, my friends in the Northern hemisphere, post photos of the Spring growth on their trees. The cycle of life right there, and on and on it goes.
This Juniper was dug from a friend’s garden two years ago and it struggled to get to grips with life in a pot. The main reason could be that there is quite a bit of rot at the base of the tree and the live vein is quite narrow at that point. The main focus was to strengthen the roots through Proper soil maintenance, fertilising and having a disciplined approach to watering.
After a previous blog post I was inspired to design a Fukinagashi or windswept Bonsai tree. https://bonsaiplace.net/2019/04/21/fukinagashi-windswept-bonsai-style/
As most of the branches were leaning towards the left, it was an easy decision to let the flow all go to that side. A few more weak branches were cut and jinned. This job took about two hours with the help of a knife and a Dremel. The tree was left overnight and lime sulphur applied the following day.
Wiring was applied on the right hand side to enable those branches to be twisted to the left. The tree will now rest and be planted in a very shallow slab, tapering to the left as well. The base will be planted to the far right of the pot. Until then, fertiliser will be applied and the tree will be placed in full sun to maximise growth. Fine wiring will come later during winter. I do believe in little bits more often, rather than doing a lot of work in one go and risking the health of the tree.
The windswept style of Bonsai tells a story of a tree exposed to strong prevailing winds, either in an open exposed environment or exposed on a cliff. Nothing tells the story better than trees in nature.
These two redwoods featured in an earlier post: https://bonsaiplace.net/2015/08/
They now received a light summer prune. I also do think that they can both do with a slight orientation change at the next repot.
This could be the new orientation or they can both be turned a bit further to increase the depth perception.
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?
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.
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.
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.
I truly believe that creativity and to create is not just a mental need that all people need in their lives, but it is also a physical need. To create takes one out of your comfort zone and puts you in places where you have not been before. My choice of Art that I use to feed my creative spirit is Bonsai creation. I will be the first to admit that I probably spend a lot more time on the husbandry, maintenance and redesign of Bonsai than what I do creating Bonsai, but that is part and parcel of what we do as Bonsai artists. One of the main reasons why I am involved in this Art form is that it is never complete. You are constantly searching, asking questions and probing for your creation to become a master piece. Does that ever happen? I have not seen it in my own work yet, but have so in others and I am driven to get my own artwork to that level.
To explore Creativity as a study area, means that I read a lot and get trapped into conversations about what creativity is, how we can develop our own creativity and the creativity in others (that is the educationist in me). I spend a lot of time with creative people and I also do believe that it rubs off on other people mainly due to the passion that is shared when creative get in contact with each other. It can be a very solitary pursuit and aloneness and mindfulness is important in the pursuit of higher levels of creativity, but I also do believe that it is a social activity. It needs to be shared and shown.
A good definition that I have encountered on this path of creativity that I have walked, crawled and sprinted on, comes from Doreen Marcial Paraba in her book “Unlocking your Creativity” (2015) where she states that “Creativity is initiating, activating, and complementing ideas that are original, unusual, useful, or innovative. The ideas may advance an existing concept or seemingly spring forth from nowhere”.
From this one can deduct that the end product should be useful and be put into action (a concept that the above mentioned author agrees with). Can that be applied to Bonsai? Most definitely it can! We start a tree from either a seedling, a cutting or raw material. We therefore activate the idea that we have and apply it to the tree. Real creativity is when we are original. In Bonsai there are “rules”, first started off by Chinese Bonsai practitioners and then taken further by Japanese artists. Out of these eras came many rules and conventions that should be applied to Bonsai for it to be Bonsai in its art form. Do these rules restrict us in our thinking? No, it does not. It serves merely as a guideline, a foundation to work from. These “rules” did come from a deeply ingrained sense of Art applied to plants and therefore is legitimate (based on history) in the world of Art and Creativity. Most art forms do have a history and a foundation level of skills and knowledge. We see the same in Bonsai, making it a legitimate art form.
Can we be innovative? The above mentioned definition emphasises originality and uses the words, unusual and innovative. This is not restricted to the Literati style of Bonsai. Every tree has different growing conditions, trunk shapes, branch structures and foliage patterns. Even trees within the same species show different characteristics. Just as one artist can paint many different paintings, Bonsai artists can design and create many different forms of trees either within one species or across many different species.
A lot of people that I encounter, do not think that they are particularly talented when it
comes to creativity. When asked whether they have explored it, the answer is usually negative, followed by a whole lot of different reasons of why it is not happening for them. It is interesting that out of these conversations a large proportion of people identify that they cannot remember them ever being creative and except for early drawings and fooling around with paint, this aspect of their lives were just never explored or developed. Many literature sources that I have encountered ask the question “Is Creativity Learnable or Teachable?”. The answers range from “it is in our nature to be creative” to “we use our imaginations all the time” to “”creativity skills are learnable with training”.
This training can take many different forms. I learnt first through exposure to watching my father work with his Bonsai, to helping him with some tasks, to starting my own Bonsai and later reading profusely and learning from other more advanced artists. We know that Bonsai professionals usually undergo a long apprenticeship period, but these days learning can take place wherever, whenever and at the pace of the learner. Advances in technology have made this possible and it is possible that one can advance to a very high level of understanding and expertise without having to go through a lengthy apprenticeship. I still do believe that some form of exposure to good technique, skill and understanding is important for one to advance your own level of artistry and creativity.
You will probably not develop a very high skill level by just reading or just watching other people engaged in the practice of Bonsai. Learning is an active process. You need practice, you need to do and you need to get feedback to enable you to learn. Another great way of learning is when you start to share your knowledge and skill with others. In other words, teaching. Learning is a very interesting area of science. It is all about establishing neural pathways within your nervous system. The more you do something or interact with it, the easier data flows along these pathways and it can become an automatic response. Can you imagine how hard it will be if you have practiced the wrong technique over and over again and then have to unlearn it to enable you to learn the correct one. This is another reason why we do need exposure to others to establish these neural networks. Learning is also a social practice.
In summary then. We are all creative, we all need an outlet for our creative spirit, Bonsai can provide that outlet and we can all learn to become more creative and to express this in Bonsai as an art form.
- Read profusely.
- Watch many videos.
- Get to know the foundations and rules of Bonsai (only to bend them later).
- Join a club.
- Visit and talk to other Bonsai artists.
- Create and maintain your own Bonsai.
Poreba, D.M. (2015) Unlocking your Creativity. New York: Penquin Random House (Alpha Books). 318p.
Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2013) Better learning through structured teaching. Vancouver (USA): ASCD Press. 158p.