Bonsai Branch selection 101

Have you noticed how most answers to Bonsai related questions starts with “It depends”. The main reason for this is that we are working with a living organism and it is very rare for generalisations to be applied across all trees. The list below are guidelines to use, especially when styling a new or starter Bonsai tree and applies very much to the more classical Bonsai styles. There will always be exceptions, but here goes.

Branches within the lower one third of the tree. These branches should generally be removed as it helps to show the trunk line. It will expose the nebari and allow a clear view of the bottom part of the trunk where hopefully is some great interest. This can be either well-developed bark, interesting roots or some type of movement lower down in the trunk. There is an exception (I told you so!) and that is when you deliberately wants to leave these branches as sacrifice branches to help with thickening the lower trunk.

Branches pointing directly at you. The main reason here again is to allow the main trunk line to be visible. The exception is in the top third of the trunk / tree, especially if these branches are part of the apex of the tree.

How about this Jin? Should it be removed? Maybe just a slight turn at the next repot and it is not pointing at you anymore.

Bar branches. These branches are ones that originate at the same level as other branches. If they are directly opposite each other, it is known as bar branches. Another issue with too many branches originating at more or less the same point is that a lot of sap will floe through that area which leads to an unsightly thickening in that area and could also be the reason for reverse taper. This is a thickening at that point with a narrower trunk below that point. Remove as many of these as you can, especially found in pines where the branches for a whorl, preferably leaving one as part of an alternately opposite branch scheme. Select the one that fits the rest of your design more naturally.

Look at the bottom two branches. Not on the same branch, but still opposite each other, forming a bar branch.

Parallel branches, usually originating close to each other, but directly above each other. This is more for aesthetics than growth patterns. The classical design of a branch to one side, then the next one up on the other side and then maybe a back branch and to be repeated as you move up the trunk, is the ideal and not always possible, but at least a good guideline to keep in mind.

Two parallel branches. What to do?

Branches growing from almost the same point. This relates very much to the last two guidelines, but in this case refers to branches not necessarily growing parallel above each other or from the sight height, but just close enough for it to be unsightly. There is always the possibility that this will also lead to a situation where that area can thicken disproportionately compared to where other branches grow from to the increased sap flow.

Quite a few growing from the same point or level.

Unusually vigorously growing branches. These branches take energy away from other branches and can cast a shadow across other branches due to its faster growth. It is also possible for these branches to thicken disproportionally to other branches and interfere with normal taper or the notion that branches lower down the trunk should be thicker than branches higher up the trunk. These branches should be shortened or removed.

Secondary branches growing from primary branches where the growth is in the wrong direction. This could be branches growing straight up or straight down, branches growing outside of the main design contours or even in the opposite direction of the flow of the tree or just that part of the tree or branch.

The leader. Older trees show a more rounded apex and this can be achieved by removing the leader, substituting it with a new leader or wiring it in such a way that it shows a more rounded form. This also helps with reducing apical dominance in trees and redistribute the energy in a tree.

As mentioned earlier, very few trees allow the opportunity to apply all of these guidelines, but it is still a good idea to keep these in mind as you work through the tree, selecting which branches to keep and which to remove. This is a video of the branch selection of a Camelia clump lifted from a garden. https://youtu.be/MeCBk-_ofEw

Please like, comment and / or subscribe to this blog. Your support is greatly appreciated.

We are also on Facebook and Instagram.

Bonsai as Sculpture: An Art Form

Sculpture is defined as Three-dimensional art made by one of four basic processes: carving, modelling, casting, constructing, by http://www.tate.org.uk. A good friend and fellow Bonsai Artist, Greg Tuthill (http://gregtuthill.com/), is a sculpture artist who uses metal as his preferred material and, as mentioned, a very good Bonsai artist as well. That made me think about Bonsai not only as an art form, but specifically as Sculpture.

One of Greg’s sculptures.

Let’s unpack the four basic processes as listed in the definition above.

Constructing – Modelling – Carving – Casting

Constructing: For me constructing is producing or making something out of raw material. Here we can argue that the raw material is represented by the starter Bonsai plant, the cutting, the Yamadori or nursery material. From this point you have to make decisions about direction, flow, what to keep and what to discard. You cut, you wire, you shape and you bend what you have in front of you into a design or shape that resembles your idea and vision of what a Bonsai tree should look like. At all times the material that you are working with will dictate how far you can go and what is possible, You construct and therefore Bonsai ticks the box for this element of sculpture.

From Pinterest

Modelling: Modelling is shaping something based on a model and in Bonsai we have plenty of examples of this. The basic Bonsai forms of formal upright, informal upright, cascade, slanting and a whole lot more provides the models that we work from. This is used as background knowledge and applied to the material that you have in front of you to create something that might show elements of the model, but is unique in its own character. The act of wiring is also part of modelling.

Informal upright style model and a real tree.

Carving: This we see in Bonsai when we sculpt deadwood, Jin, Uro and Shari. For this we use various techniques and equipment just as a Sculptor would do.

Casting: I am not aware of a lot of casting going on in direct relation to the tree, but no Bonsai is complete without its frame which is represented by the pot. Various methods are used to produce or create Bonsai pots and casting is definitely one of these techniques. It is necessary to have a suitable container or pot to complete the full picture of what a Bonsai represents.

There is one major difference and that Sculpture is normally seen as something done with wood, clay, stone or other non-living materials. Bonsai is definitely done with living trees and can therefore by seen as a living art form. Is Bonsai a form of sculpture? In my opinion, yes, it is.


Yes, we are Sculptors as well as Bonsai Artists.

Literati Juniper First Foliage Pad work.

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.

The music is in the background, not embedded in the video and stops at some stage. No talking, just working.

Bonsai Art – What does Banksy have to say?

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

A Banksy Art piece.

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?

A calm workshop 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.

At the Hamilton Bonsai show.

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.

My Bonsai Test

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.

Weeping Bonsai Trees – NZBA Convention Demonstration and Talk

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.

The interesting thing is that many people spoke to me afterwards to tell me about their weeping Bonsai trees and even about going to have another look at taking cuttings from Willow trees, probably the easiest of trees for this style.

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.

Show them off – Preparing a tree for a show

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

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.

Soil

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.

Pot

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.

Display

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!

Creating a Windswept Style Bonsai

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.

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.

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.

Chaemocyperus progression and Bonsai 016

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

Chaemocyperus progression and Bonsai 018

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chaemocyperus progression and Bonsai 017

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

Chaemocyperus progression and Bonsai 019

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chaemocyperus progression and Bonsai 020

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

Chaemocyperus progression and Bonsai 021

At a slight slant to the right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chaemocyperus progression and Bonsai 023

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.

Chaemocyperus progression and Bonsai 024

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chaemocyperus progression and Bonsai 025

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

Chaemocyperus progression and Bonsai 027

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