Carving is usually done to create or enhance jin, uro (holes), shari (stripped bark) or getting rid of areas where large branches were removed. In this case a large branch, about one inch thickness, had to be removed and it was decided to leave a 15cm piece of it and sculpt a jin (deadwood) out of it.
I use a die grinder with a carving bit to remove material fast and to roughly shape the dead straight branch by making grooves in curves and alternating the depth of the grooves. Once this is done I burn the jin to get rid of wood fibres and then repeat the process with the trusted Dremel and a smaller carving bit.
As mentioned, burning the jin with a butane torch gets rid of the loose fibres, but it also helps to get rid of sharp edges and tool marks. After a heavy torching, the jin is brushed with a copper brush and then with a nylon brush. Sand paper can be used to smooth areas that needs it, but I find that the brushing works well on its own.
To preserve the newly carved jin, I wash the whole tree off and then let it dry and rest for a few days. Lime sulphur or a wood hardener can then be applied. For a darker finish, mix some ash (burnt paper) in water and paint on. Some of the grooves can also be painted by making use of black ink. All fluids should be diluted. Lime sulphur is usually diluted with water 50/50%.
Wear safety glasses during the carving phase.
Use gloves when using the power tools.
When using the torch, protect the rest of the tree from the flame by using aluminium foil or a wet cloth around foliage and nearby parts.
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We have already looked at Photosynthesis https://bonsaiplace.net/2021/07/17/horticultural-processes-and-bonsai-photosynthesis/ and Transpiration https://bonsaiplace.net/2021/07/18/horticultural-processes-for-bonsai-transpiration/ as two processes that are very important for plants and your Bonsai to stay alive. There is a third such process which is as important as the other two, but because the structures responsible for this one are not that visible, it is not that well known. Respiration is something that is done by all living organisms. It basically comes down to the exchange of gasses that is needed to survive, just like in a human being. We breathe in and out to get Oxygen in and to release Carbon dioxide. Well, plants need to do the same thing as Oxygen is needed for plant cells to survive and they also release Carbon dioxide as a waste product.
Intuitively one would then wonder how Photosynthesis and Respiration is balanced so as to make sure that the plant produces more Oxygen than what it will use itself. Respiration can be classified as either Aerobic Respiration (enough Oxygen around) or Anaerobic Respiration (not enough or no Oxygen present). The latter one is a problem for plants and something the Bonsai grower needs to be very aware of. The best example of this is in Yeasts through the process of Fermentation.
Looking at the diagram below, we can see how the two processes interact. The one’s products become the other process’s raw material (input) and vice versa.
Important points for Bonsai growers:
Water logged soil do not allow a good flow of air through the soil which means that there is very little to no Oxygen available for root cells to take this gas in. Due to myriads of bacteria living in soil, and some of these can live anaerobically (in the absence of Oxygen), the chances that these bacteria can cause rot and other damage is large. Best to avoid water logged soil.
Drainage: This aspect is linked to the point above, but important enough to elaborate. Good drainage will promote good airflow through the soil. It is almost like a suction effect in the sense that as water runs through the soil, air will follow and in this way increase the air flow (ventilation) through the soil and the end result is that you have happy roots and happy roots equals happy Bonsai.
Pots: Bonsai pots can be very small in relation to the root mass of the tree planted in it. That means less soil compared to a plant in a garden and this can also lead to less air in the pot. Training pots especially are important. At Bonsaiplace when we use timber boxes or even plastic containers as training pots, we always drill extra holes, not just underneath for drainage purposes, but also from the sides to increase air flow for respiration.
Hothouses and covering Bonsai plants or cuttings with plastic. The main reason why we do this is to increase the humidity around the plant. That helps to prevent water loss through transpiration and increases the heat to promote growth. Just keep in mind that through photosynthesis the plant will produce Oxygen that in turn will be taken up for respiration purposes and Carbon dioxide will be produced for Photosynthesis to take place through Respiration. Where the problem comes in is when you do not have leaves on the plant, i.e., cuttings or a deciduous tree. That means no Photosynthesis and although Respiration needs are low, it still takes place. Just allow fresh air to get into the plastic covering at times and this problem will be sorted.
The next blog will look at Secondary Thickening. This is the process through which plants produce wood and bark. Exactly what we want for our Bonsai trees. To make sure that you do not miss this one, please subscribe to our website and like this post. It is all free.
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Have you ever wondered how water travels from the soil into the roots and then up the stem to the leaves? Well, here we go. The process is called transpiration and starts in the roots through a process called osmosis. This is the movement of water across a membrane from an area of higher pressure to an area of lower pressure.
Now I am going to confuse you completely. I already said that it starts in the roots, but the condition for the process to happen actually starts in the leaves. As the water accumulates in the leaves, the internal volume of the leaves now have a higher pressure internally compared to the atmospheric air. That means that the water leaves the leaves through a structure called a stoma. There are hundreds of these on the leaves and they can open and close depending on the plant’s water needs and the climate on the outside. Almost like little valves.
Now we have the picture on both ends of the tree. The water flows in through the roots due to water pressure in the soil, it moves up a bit in the tubes (xylem) as these are very thin and act like thin straws. Have you ever noticed how when you place a straw in water how the water level in the thinner straw is higher than the level in the water. That is called capillary pressure.
What now happens is all of these work together. The water is pushed into the roots, the narrowness of the tubes give it a bit of a head start and then the pull from the leaves draws it further up the stem or trunk and the flow happens. This can happen as fast or as slow as the conditions dictate. If everything is perfect, a continuous flow will happen, but as soon as something changes, the tree will adapt. Let’s say there is not enough water in the soil for the osmosis to take place. In other words the pressure is not high enough for the water to enter the roots through the different membranes, well, water will not be taken up and the tree will dry out.
At the other end things can go horribly wrong as well. Let’s say it is a very hot day and a dry warm wind is blowing. That means the pressure on the outside of the leaf is very low and if there is any water inside the leaf, this steep difference will cause water to evaporate or transpire through the stomata and if this happens rapidly and the cells lose their turgidity (pressure), it will wilt and lose structure. If this happens for too long, it is possible that the plant will dry out and leave this earth for Bonsai tree heaven.
Before we get to the practical things to do and look out for, it is important to remember that water travelling through a plant will contain minerals and other chemicals that it absorbs from the soil. It therefore plays a very important role in the distribution of these minerals throughout the tree.
The practical things:
Watering is a very important part of keeping Bonsai and comes down to a balancing act to ensure that optimal conditions exist for the processes as described above to take place.
Make sure that your trees are placed in an environment that suits the watering needs of the tree. Plants with thin leaves that can dry out easily i.e., Maples and should be kept out of harsh sun and dry windy conditions.
Trees with smaller leaves or even needles (Pines) can withstand this a bit more as they have less stomata and a thick waxy cuticle that covers the leaf or needle to minimise the area exposed to sun and wind and therefore slow transpiration down.
Get to know the water requirements of your trees and if possible group trees with similar water requirements together.
Check the drainage of your trees regularly. This starts with ensuring that the potting medium / soil is correct for the type of plant. Plants that thrive in drier conditions will have to be planted in a coarser and free draining medium.
When watering, water from the top over the whole tree as it washes dirt off the leaves to enhance transpiration as well as photosynthesis. It also cools the plant down so not to lose too much water.
If the soil is too wet, root rot can occur. This is not necessarily due to something going wrong with transpiration, but more a case of the roots not being able to breathe. Yes, they have to breathe as roots consists of living cells and through the process of respiration, need to take in oxygen. More on this in the next article in this series. It is also a perfect living condition for fungus that causes root rot.
Other techniques to ensure the soil does not get too wet is to tilt the pot during long periods of rain for water to run off. You can also push a rod through the drainage holes through to the top to create a channel for water to run through. These are drastic measures only to be used in circumstances where you need to get rid of water quickly.
Soil can dry out very quickly in a small Bonsai pot. When you get to a situation where the soil is so dry that water on top just runs off the surface, break the surface up a bit and dunk the whole pot in a container of water. Wait until all air bubbles disappear and place it back on the bench.
Another thing to look out for is when the roots grow so fast that it basically replaces the soil in the pot and all you have in the pot is a ball of roots. It is difficult for the plant to absorb water under these circumstances. Prevention is better than the cure. Repot with fresh soil when necessary and treat your trees as if they are pets.
When pruning, cover the cuts with cut paste or something similar as you create a wound and in the context of this article, a leak. Plug the plumbing to support the flow of water through the tree.
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It is a well known fact that horticultural knowledge and skills should be on par with the creative side of Bonsai cultivation as a horticulturally neglected tree will never reach its full potential as a Bonsai. It is therefore important that some basic horticultural knowledge and skills are mastered early on the journey towards Bonsai mastery.
This series of articles has it as goal to highlight a few processes in horticultural science and linking this knowledge to Bonsai creation and maintenance. We will start off with the most important one and that is Photosynthesis. Others will follow in subsequent articles.
A bit of knowledge relating to cell science will help here. In plant cells, usually where there is a green colour, you will find cell organelles called chloroplasts. Inside these there is chlorophyll, a colour pigment, and this one is attributed to the green colour in plants. This is where photosynthesis takes place. Photosynthesis is the process through which plants use raw material to produce food. The raw materials are carbon dioxide and water and with the aid of energy from the sun, food is produced and oxygen is made as a by-product of this process.
What does this mean for Bonsai? The most important part here is the exposure to light. Without this natural light source not enough energy will be available for this process. The second part is that there should be enough chloroplasts available for this process to take place. The significance of this comes in at pruning time. It needs to be at the right time as there should be enough energy / food stored to carry the tree through the period with either no leaves or very few leaves, as at this time food production will be limited. This is crucial for evergreens as the food storage or energy storage side of these plants are not as well developed as what it is for deciduous plants. See the process of transpiration in another article as it plays a role with this as well.
Your tree should have adequate light for food production.
Your tree should have adequate water for food production. Water plays a role in other processes as well which makes watering a crucial task for healthy Bonsai growing. See transpiration as an example.
Adequate ventilation is necessary to allow atmospheric carbon dioxide to get to your tree. This is usually not a problem in the outdoors, but something to think about when you cover trees with plastic to increase heat and humidity for growth purposes or other climatic defensive reasons.
Pruning and defoliating. Time this right. Never defoliate an evergreen completely unless it is just a branch or two for the purpose of creating deadwood / Jin.
When positioning branches and foliage pads, make sure that top branches do not cover lower branches too much.
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Subscribing will help as you will get the updates for the other processes covered in this series. That includes transpiration, respiration, growth, secondary thickening, tropisms and the importance of hormones in all of this.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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.
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.
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.
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.
In Robert Steven’s book, Mission of Transformation (2009), he mentions in the Foreword that Critique has become a favorite tool of his as an effective way of teaching and learning. It is my experience that most clubs or Bonsai gatherings will include some or other Critique session, especially at large scale exhibitions or shows. It is customary for the head Judge or a visiting Demonstrator to undertake this task.
I have been witness to many of these and have also done my fair share of these Critique sessions. One of the most important aspects of these sessions is exactly what Robert points out in his book and that it should be an opportunity to learn. It is therefore very important that it is done in a constructive way to enable not only the owner of the tree, but all the spectators to walk away with more than just the negative aspects of the tree under discussion.
I like to start these sessions by asking the owner to tell the story of the tree. This gives you a good understanding of the history of the tree and by asking questions, dive into the aspects that really matter. Once this part is done, I like to first point out all the positives. Find something, even if there is very little to go with. There will always be a positive. As the focus is for this to be a teaching and a learning experience, lead the discussion by questioning. Use open-ended questions and allow as many people in the group as possible to answer and become part of the conversation. It becomes very boring if it is only the Commentator delivering the commentary. There is a danger here in that you at times have a very vocal participant who gets so excited that they tend to dominate the conversation. As you are leading the Critique, be aware of this possibility and gently bring the conversation back to focus on the tree and the whole group.
A good place to start is the overall picture or story that the tree on display tells. Look at the whole scene. After that, I prefer to start at the bottom and work my way up. Lead a discussion on the pot, then the surface soil and covering. After this it is the turn of the Nebari and then the trunk. From here, discuss the style and the appropriateness of that for the specific tree. The next part will be the branches and the foliage before the critique almost reaches its end with the apex. Once all aspects have been discussed, it is really important to summarise and come full circle to the positives and then end off with one or two actions for future development of the tree.
It is a time consuming exercise and in the case of a display with many trees, I prefer to only go with the three top trees and then also one or two Shohin displays. This way each discussion is more in depth and the value add is much more than just a walk through the exhibition and barely spending a minute or two with each tree. What I would like to see is that when it comes to multi-day shows, that the Critique is extended and broken up over more sessions across all days. This can be thematic i.e. each session focusses on only one style of tree (design) or split the trees in Evergreens and Deciduous trees or as mentioned above, do the Shohin separately. The main things is that there must be something new to learn for every participant and the owner needs to walk away with a feeling of accomplishment and also a few pointers on next steps for the tree.