Soil pH and Bonsai

Ask a room full of Bonsai artists about soil and you will probably get different perspectives from each and every one of them. Soil for Bonsai cultivation is widely discussed and opinions are easy to find. From those who can afford to import Akadama and other Japanese sourced mediums through to Cat litter soils and organic mixes, all serve a purpose. In the end it is probably better to talk about the “Growing Medium” rather than soil as some Bonsai trees grow in mixes that can hardly be classified as Soil when one goes with the “normal” definition of what soil is. Here in New Zealand we just refer to it as “dirt”, but that is probably not good English for what we use to grow our Bonsai in. One thing that is not very well considered when it comes to soil and soil types, is the pH of the soil for Bonsai.

Ph is a measure of the acidity and alkalinity of the soil and is expressed on a scale that goes from 0 to 14. ) is very acidic, 7 is neutral and 14 is very alkaline. Soil pH is largely determined by the type of rock or parent material that the soil originates from. Limestone for instance will produce soil that is more alkaline. Soils with a higher content of decomposing organic material normally lies on the acidic side.

The pH of the soil is important as it affects the control of the solubility of different minerals. Different minerals are available to plant roots at different pH levels. What is available and can dissolve at a low pH, will not be available at a high pH as the solubility of the mineral is effected. Soil pH also has an effect on soil structure and the activity of soil organisms.

Some plants do not have a big issue with pH levels, but others are very specific. In the satsuki-azalea-bonsaiBonsai world, Azaleas and Camellias could be a good example. These plants prefer a slightly acidic soil. Fruit trees also produce more fruit  in slightly acidic soil. This is not a major consideration for Bonsai artists as Fruiting Bonsai are not necessarily grown for its fruit. As a whole, pH is something to be kept in mind for Bonsai artists, especially for those pH specific trees, but our larger concern should be for the drainage capacity of the soil. Here-in lies another challenge. Due to the free-draining characteristics of most Bonsai soils, it is very easy for minerals to dissolve in the water and be washed out of the soil. It is therefore important to fertilize the trees and to ensure that a good mineral supply is available.

What do you water your trees with? Water you say. Yes, but not all water is created equally. Your water supply could contain different types of chemicals that can in turn be deposited in your Bonsai soil and over time, alter the pH of the soil. Areas where the air is highly polluted can acidify the rain water and this in turn can change the chemical composition of your soil. So, what to do?

Common sense and logic, although sometimes scarce, should prevail. Water your plants with what you have available. If it is rain water from an unpolluted source, you are winning Lotto. If it is town sourced, it could contain all sorts of things like fluoride. The main thing is to be aware of your water source and to act accordingly. Also know that regular watering will wash nutrients out, therefore fertilize and use mineral supplements. If you are worried or just inquisitive about the soil pH, get a digital tester or a testing kit and determine the pH. If there is a problem, it can be rectified by either a preventative strategy (like only use unpolluted rain water or do not use organic material in your growing medium) or use supplements that will get your soil to the ideal pH for the specific tree. My experience is that to not let pH become something that makes you lie awake at night, but to use the opportunity to get to know more about your tree, find out about its specific pH preferences and then adjust by either supplying minerals or changing your growing medium when needed.

soil_ph_chart

Images are open source and the last one is from http://www.exoplexity.org.

Inspiration – where to get it from.

It is said that a creative spirit needs inspiration. As Bonsai design is a creative activity, it is IMG_0265therefore 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.

IMG_0269Exposure 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 IMG_0271to 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.

IMG_0257Other 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 IMG_3432-0good 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.

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Plant Kingdom Table – Conifers

In a previous blog, I had an attempt at giving a basic description of the different conifer type classifications. This led to a few questions and I realised that I could have given an overall view of the classification as well. Here is a table setting out where the different types of conifers fit in. In no way does this contain every conifer type that is out there.

Click on the link for the PDF document.

Plant Kingdom Conifers

 

Basic Identification of Conifers

Conifers make up a large percentage of most Bonsai collections across the world. To me, one of the difficult things with conifers, is to identify the tree to the correct species level. The reason for this could be that my early Bonsai education was on broadleaves and not so much on conifers. Conifers as a large group are identified by the fact that they do not flower, but in the place of this, they produce cones that contain the seeds. This makes them part of the Gymnosperm taxa, along with ginkgo and cycads. These are some of the oldest known plants in nature.

It is not that difficult to identify conifers to genus level, as this can be done mainly on leaf type and shape. Here follows my take on what this looks like (An arrow points to the next table for that category).

Conifers

Cupressaceae

Have scale-like or awl-like shaped leaves.

Pinaceae

Have needle-like leaves

 

Taxus

Have leaves that are flat and feather-like in arrangement and shape.

Junipers and Thuja Pines, Spruce, Fir and Douglas fir

Yews

 

Cupressaceae family

Leaves are scale-like or awl-like.

Fruit is a berry-like cone with scales fused together

Leaves are scale-like or awl-shaped. The foliage is arranged around the branch, rather than flattened and cones are berry-like with scales pressed together.

Juniper (Juniperus)

The leaves are small, scale-like and pressed to the stem. The foliage is flattened and plate-like in appearance. The cones are berry-like with thick scales.

Thuja (Arborvitae)

 

Pinaceae family

Leaves are needle-like

Single needles.

 

Needles sheathed at the base in bundles of two to five. Cones have thick scales and are woody with swollen tips.

Pine (Pinus)

Short needles in tufts of ten or more and could be deciduous.

 

Larch (Larix)

Needles are flat in cross-section and quite flexible.

The needles are square in cross-section and quite stiff.

Spruce (Picea)

Norway_Spruce_foliage,_Fågelmara,_Sweden

Spruce

The needles leave an oval leaf scar and the bud tips are pointed. The cones have a three-pronged lobed tongue-like bract that extend out beyond the scales.

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

The needles leave a round leave-scar and the bud tips are roundish. The cones grow upright on the branch and usually breaks apart before falling off completely.

Fir (Abies)

 

 

From here the classification can be further refined to identify the specific conifer to species level. This will come in a future blog.

 

 

 

 

Sacrifice Branches

I currently have a few trees that do not look very refined. As a matter of fact, they look like shrubs and in some cases like Bonsai trees with one or two branches that were missed at the previous pruning. This is all done deliberately for very specific reasons. The sacrifice branch is a necessity in Bonsai growing.Sacrifice branches 008

Why do we need to do this? The main reason is to enhance growth in a specific area. The theory is that the branch that is allowed to just grow and increase in length will have more sap flowing through it, therefore more nutrients and in turn you get a much faster growth rate compared to regularly pruned branches. One specific case would be to thicken the main trunk. This could be either during the early years after a seed has germinated or a cutting has struck. The more side branches you have that can grow, the thicker the trunk will become. The leader is of importance here. Let this grow until you get to the desired thickness and then cut.

Another reason is to improve taper. If a branch or two are left on the trunk to grow out, the area below the branches will thicken more than the area above it. This leads to a thicker bottom half if the branches were left halfway up the trunk, compared to the top half of the tree.

Another reason for letting a sacrifice branch grow is to get a side branch to thicken in proportion to other branches. An example of this could be that a branch is needed lower down on a trunk and the branches above are all thicker than the lower one. The lower one is then left to grow until the desired thickness is attained and then it is cut back.

There are a few things to keep in mind when sacrifice branches are used. The first one is to remember that the sacrifice branch will create more shade than other branches and this could impact negatively on the growth patterns underneath this branch. A second point to remember is that sacrifice branches that are cut back, can leave quite large scars that will have to heal over time. For trunk thickening it could be best to use a branch at the back or in a place where the design of the tree will hide the scar. A third point to mention is that side branches will start to grow upwards. This growth needs to be controlled if the branch is suppose to be horizontal or even growing slightly downwards.

In the examples below, sacrifice branches were mainly used to thicken side branches to either fill a gap, create a new branch or to correct parallel branches.

Top left: There are two vertical branches parallel to each other growing from the main trunk as well as two bar-branches at the bottom.

Right: the one parallel vertical branch was removed and a new branch allowed to grow out at an angle, removing the parallel effect.

Bottom left: The sacrifice branch and the vertical branch in close up to compare the thickness. This is one season’s growth for this maple.

 

 

Pine Seedlings as Cuttings – Early work to get a killer Nebari.

In an earlier post (https://wordpress.com/post/bonsaiplace.net/515), I have written about imagethe germination of Pine seedlings. These seeds (planted on 26 January 2016) germinated very fast and are now large enough to change into cuttings. The reason why I do this is that it gets rid of the tap root early on and forces the seedling to grow new roots and the hope is that the new roots will develop radially for a really great nebari. That is theory.

I started off by making sure that I have all the tools needed to start the process. This included containers with seedling mix, a surgical blade, hormone rooting liquid as well as my trusty Rhizotonic.

IMG_0292

The first step is to wet the seedling mix in the container with the Rhizotonic solution. Rhizotonic is a dynamic, organic root stimulator and stress reliever (wonder whether it works for humans?). I use it for everything that is re-potted, yamadori that are planted and especially for plants where a lot of roots have to be cut.

IMG_0297

The next step is to very gently remove the seedlings from the original container. This phase needs to be accurate and quick as the seedlings cannot dry out during this time. The seedlings are placed on a cutting board and the tap roots are removed by cutting through the seedling where the stem and taproot meets. It is important that a very sharp blade is used as the stem cannot be bruised or crushed at this stage.

The seedlings are then handled by the leaves to further prevent bruising to the stem and it is placed in the rooting hormone. From here the seedlings are quickly planted in the seed raising soil. The seedlings are now watered in with the Rhizotonic solution and placed in a shady, but warm location. From here the seedlings will be sprayed with the Rhizotonic solution twice a day and if necessary even three times a day. Now the wait begins. The date today is 20 March 2016.

Creativity, Bonsai, Learning and Art: My Thoughts

 

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, IMG_0269crawled 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”.

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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.

IMG_0275You 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.

Applications:

  • Read profusely.IMG_0268
  • 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.

References

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.

Tanuki – Cheating or Design Technique?

Wikipedia defines Tanuki Bonsai as a technique where a living tree is joined to an
interesting piece of deadwood to create a composite in the

picture_13

From: artofbonsai.org

driftwood style. It goes further to state that the deadwood usually has the form of a weathered tree trunk. The tree is attached to the deadwood by making use of screws, clamps or wire. Over time, the tree will grow into the channels created  and in so doing will disguise the fact that it is a separate entity.

In Japanese folklore, Tanuki, the Japanese raccoon-dog. are shape-changing tricksters. It is also known as Phoenix-grafts in the West. Personally, I think it is a good artistic technique to either enhance a piece of deadwood or a tree. There is no difference in attaching a tree to a rock compared to attaching a tree to a piece of deadwood. I had to try my hand at this. My experience is written up below.

A0B7514F-C852-4AA4-9296-EDDF2C729AC2I first had to find the right tree. I decided on a young Juniper with a lot of flexibility. The next project was to find a suitable, characterful piece of deadwood. I managed to get a piece on the beach. A note of warning is needed here. If driftwood from a beach is used, it is important to get rid of all salt on and in the wood. I submersed the wood for three weeks in fresh water and regularly changed the water as well as used a high pressure stream of water and scrubbing on it. It was then left in the sun for another week. The third component was a pot selected from my pot collection.

The first job on the pot was to get enough tie wires in place asA47DF033-8C01-4C66-9DDC-E2A8D839DB39 the deadwood and tree must be secured very firmly. It is wise to get a hardener on the deadwood. I treated it with lime sulphur as the bottom part will be in the wet soil. I have read that the end could also be placed on a solid object like a tile to minimise the part in contact with the soil. My first challenge was to drill extra holes in the pot. For the first time in my life, I had a pot which is so hard, that the drill bit did not even make an indentation on the pot. The tie wires therefore had to be attached through the drainage holes.

The next phase was to ensure a flat structure at the bottom of the deadwood to make it stand more solidly in the pot. This was done by simply determining the angle, marking the wood and using a handsaw to make the cut. Next I had to drill holes into the deadwood for the tie wires. Advice found was to use a router to create channels in the deadwood. This was not necessary on this piece as it had natural channels that could be used for the tree to be placed in snugly.

The tree was now prepared by  preparing the roots and cleaning up the trunk. It was put in place starting at the bottom and fixing it to the deadwood with non-reacting (copper) thin screws. I pre-drilled the tiny holes as the tree is very thin in places and did not want it to split. Branches which came in the way of this process were removed. I decided to leave the growth at the top as is as I did not want to stunt the growth too much at this stage. The whole idea is that the trunk fattens up to secure itself into the channels and adhere to the deadwood. Branches were wired and now the maintenance work of feeding and watering begins. No pruning will take place until the two entities become one (hopefully).

Cheating or a legitimate technique? You decide! I found a reference on bonsainut.com that mentioned that Masahiko Kimura designed Tanuki and it also mentioned that John Naka once threw one out of a display and told the owner to go and get a real Bonsai. I will update this post as the Tanuki showed here progresses.

56CAD154-AF41-414A-BE22-59B7653ED1EF

Seed Germination

During a conversation with Noel Plowman at the National Bonsai Convention and Show in New Zealand towards the end of 2015, Noel made the statement that it is hard to get good Pine genetic material in New Zealand. Most of the seedlings propagated for the forestry industry is genetically engineered to grow straight trunks with no bark. Both of these factors are not really what Bonsai growers want. We then talked about the thousands of very old Pine trees all over New Zealand, mostly growing on farmland. The photo below shows such a scene, complete with good old New Zealand dairy cows.

IMG_0173

This made me look at these trees in a different light and it did not take me long to go and scavenge on a farm (with the farmers permission) to find these original genetic material in seeds for propagation purposes. This I did knowing full well that I am germinating these seeds for the next generation and not myself. The main idea was to collect the cones from trees that show thick bark.

Cones collected, the next job was to get the seeds out of the cones. This basically ended up being a good solid shake of the cone and the seeds fell out. Quite a few seeds were harvested from each cone. The wings were removed from the seeds.

The next step was to find the viable seed. This is done by placing the seeds in a container with water. The seeds that sink are more viable and the ones that float, are discarded.

I left the seeds overnight and planted the viable seeds the following day. The seeds do have a pointy end and the seed is planted with this pointy end facing downwards. Now the long wait begins as it is known that these seeds can take a long time to germinate and that they do so in a haphazard way. I will update this post as the process unfolds.

IMG_0175

Planted and labelled. The long waiting game now starts.

 

The waiting is over. This was quick. Only three weeks from planting to germination.

image

Water movement through a Bonsai Tree

The title of this Blog could just be me trying to get as many search terms in the title as possible as the water movement is the same through all plants, large and small. Crafty Blogging! The only difference could be that some plants do adapt to either get rid of excess water and others adapt to try and hold on to as much water as possible. Examples of these in the Bonsai world could be conifers that have needles and scaly leaves instead of large, flat leaves. This is in part to stop water loss, but also for snow to easily glide of the leaves and branches in nature. The smaller surface area means less stomata through which water can be lost.

Stomata

Stomata on a leaf surface. Water escapes through here and gasses also move through here. These are open.

pine needle

Smaller surface area for transpiration.

Plants with larger leaves (not really appreciated in Bonsai) do have a larger surface area and more stomata through which water can escape. Escaping water creates a cooling effect as these plants could grow in warmer climates like the tropics where humidity is high as well. Plants actually have to find a fine balance when it comes to the opening and closing of

large leaf

Larger surface area for transpiration.

stomata. These little structures have a dual function. Not only is it there for water to escape from the plant, a process called transpiration, but they are also in place for respiration to take place. That is the exchange of gasses in (Carbon dioxide) and out (Oxygen) of plants. Both of these processes are crucial for the survival of plants.

For water to move through a plant, there are two main processes taking place. The one has already been mentioned. This is transpiration and it is a pulling force. As water is lost through the leaves, more water is pulled up through the fibres (Xylem). The other process is root pressure. This is a process through which water enters the epidermal cells of the roots, move root pressurethrough the cells and into the endodermis layer. These layers of cells work like a “water pump”. From here the water is pushed into the Xylem. This action takes place against the force of gravity. It is helped by a process called capillarity. This is where water rises up a thin tube due to the adhesion and cohesion forces between water particles. This process can be seen when you place a thin straw in a glass of water. The water level inside the straw will be higher than that of the water in the glass.

It is important to know about these processes when applied to Bonsai. We do a few things to Bonsai that can interrupt these processes and disturb the flow of water through a plant. Also remember that the water also contains minerals and nutrients for the plant. Nutrition will also be interrupted if these processes cannot take place normally.

The first thing we do is root pruning. Not only does this reduce the surface area for water uptake, but it also reduces the root pressure to provide the initial push of water into the plant. This can also interrupt the flow of water and nutrients to a whole branch. The second thing we do is normal branch pruning. This has the effect of cutting off the water flow. Not

transpiration_experiment

A bag around a twig catches water lost through transpiration.

necessarily a problem if the whole branch is removed, but it can restrict water flow to parts further up the water channel. The third thing we do is to leaf prune or defoliate. See an earlier Blog on Defoliation. This obviously interferes greatly with the process of transpirational pull. It weakens the plant and should only be done with healthy plants.

These are things (pruning) that must be done if you want to cultivate healthy, good looking Bonsai. I make the call here to think before we do. Questions that must be asked is whether the tree is healthy, is it the right season, am I doing it for the right reasons, what am I trying to achieve and is it the right thing to do for the specific species? If you can answer these questions positively, then go ahead and cut. To maximise success however, ensure that the tree is placed in the shade afterwards and that watering is increased. Just be careful with the watering when you have partially or fully defoliated the tree. It means that there are fewer leaves to get rid of the excess water. Misting is always an option as well.

Let’s bring Science and Creativity together to create even better Bonsai with a great chance of survival.

2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,700 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Defoliation

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It is a well-known fact that defoliating a Bonsai tree will enhance the growth of smaller leaves. I have also read that it allows more enhanced ramification as well. I have never tried this technique before, but am also in the process of designing and babying a small Zelkova Zelkova leavesinto something resembling a Shohin Bonsai. This tree was carved and repeatedly pruned until where it is today. A lot of time and work still lies ahead. One of the things that must be done now is to reduce the size of the leaves.

 

MatchesOut comes the researcher in me and I start to do what researchers do. First step is to Google the term “defoliation”. An interesting phenomenon is that a lot of information is available on the defoliation of Cannabis plants. I have not tried to “Bonsai” one of those, but it makes sense that people who do grow these plants, do. I have also found information on the defoliation of other “forage” plants. This is done to stimulate the growth of more leaves as it is used to either feed animals or people or in the first mentioned case, smoke it (maybe it is for medicinal purposes). It is also mentioned that it stimulates overall growth of the plant.

Back to Bonsai. As said, the main purpose of defoliation is to decrease the size of the new leaves. The definition is self explanatory. It is the stripping of leaves from the plant. As leaves are the main centre for photosynthesis (producing food for the plant), one must be careful that it is done at the right time of the year as well as on some deciduous trees only. Please take note, not all deciduous trees can be defoliated safely. The best time to carry this process out is after the new spring growth has hardened off. Mid-summer is good for this. This allows the plant enough time before autumn and winter to grow the new smaller leaves. One theory of why the  new leaves are smaller, is that due to the lack of food (less photosynthesis), less energy is available for the new growth. Another theory is that plant hormones (auxins) come into play and inhibit the growth rate of the new leaves. What better example do we have than some plants that can be grown from leaf cuttings for the actions of auxins in leaves and leaf stalks in evidence.

It is also mentioned that it is better to leave as much of the leaf stalk as you can when defoliating a tree. This also has to do with the action of auxins, but to me a more pressing reason would be that the bud at the base of the stalk is protected if the stalk is still in place. I found it easier to lift the leaf up and to cut it from underneath as the stalk is more visible from that angle on especially deeply indented leaves at the base.

It is also mentioned that defoliating a tree will lead to more intense autumn colours of the leaves. This is probably due to the fact that a much smaller space of time is left to produce food for the plant and that an accumulation of sugars in the leaves lead to these more intense colour changes.

Another positive addition could be that this process will also lead to good budding closer to the trunk as these areas will now also be exposed to more sunlight.

I have now done the deed. By the way, make sure that you have a lot of time available as this is a very time consuming task. This small tree took about an hour and a half to defoliate. Other Bonsai Blogs also have more information on this process. My intention with this blog is to start a photograph trail of the process. I will post new pictures as soon as the new leaves emerge until we get to Autumn.

Deadwood inspiration from Driftwood

In a recent Blog post by Harry Harrington (Bonsai4me), I was amazed by this artist’s technique in creating deadwood. His carvings are superb. On the same day, I happened to be at a beach on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand (Paraparaumu). The beach was filled with driftwood and I could not resist studying them to find inspiration to style dead wood when I get back home. Fortunately I had my iPhone with me and took the following photos. There is nothing like nature (and Harry Harrington) to create the ultimate natural deadwood designs. In studying these photos I did get a few ideas and now have to get the practice in to recreate this on trees.

Pohutukawa as Bonsai

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Root over rock as Bonsai

Metrosidorus excelsa, also known as the New Zealand Christmas tree and in Maori, Pohutukawa, is an interesting tree to style as Bonsai.

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This looks like two smaller trees, simulating a clump style Bonsai.


   
I have recently had the opportunity to photograph a few very old Pohutukawa trees in Mt Maunganui in New Zealand. I have no idea how old they are, but their form is quite distinctive when you study the trees in nature. From this I came to the conclusion that they are best suited for informal upright, clump style or root over rock style. They naturally grow aerial roots and form good bark on exposed roots. The red coloured flowers add to the spectacle. The three Bonsai photos are mainly from the http://www.nzbonsai.co.nz website and the http://www.bonsaiforbeginners.com site.

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Masses of aerial roots makes it perfect for a root over rock style.

The photos following from there are the photos of the trees growing in Mt Maunganui, New Zealand. The first group is typical of the clump style growth that a lot of these trees show.

The next group of trees shows why I think the Pohutukawa is excellent material for root over rock style.

Some of these trees are also seen in nature as examples of an informal upright style.

I have also noticed some branches hanging very low, almost to the point of being a cascade or a semi-cascade.

I have been growing cuttings of another form of Meterosidorus, namely the Metrosideros kermadecensis. This tree has smaller leaves than the excelsa which is great for Bonsai. All these varieties are frost sensitive and needs protection in cold climates.

 

 

 

Promoting Bonsai in the Tararua District, New Zealand.

Trestle table, table cover, stands, Bonsai trees, tools, wire, water, brochures – all packed in the trusty Bonsai wagon and off to Kildrummie nusery I go. Quickly set the display table up. Walk through the nursery to see what is available just in case somebody asks about using nursery stock to get a Bonsai going. 

One of the local club guys arrive and set a table up for the demonstrations. He brought a few starter trees for us to work on while we entertain the public. It is a small, independent nursery and I was quite surprised to see quite a number of customers visiting the nursery in what is a small town. Being in a rural area means that everybody knows everybody else and soon a few conversations start up. One person accused us of murdering the trees, but the majority was quite interested in what we do and asked very good questions. Three trees were styled during the time there. We will have to do this again as it was a great day out and more people now know a little bit more about Bonsai compared to what they knew when they woke up this morning.

Thank you Roger, Kildrummie Nursery in Dannevirke, for allowing us to take over your nursery. At least you sold a Bonsai pot!

   
    
     
  

Boon Manaktivipart visits New Zealand

The guest artist at the recently held New Zealand National Bonsai Convention in Christchurch was Boon Manaktivipart. Boon is one of those professionals who shares his very wide and in-depth knowledge freely. Some of the seasoned veterans of Bonsai in New Zealand were glued to his words over the just more than two days in Christchurch.

New Zealand National Bonsai Convention and Show (1)

The New Zealand National Convention and National Show recently took place in Christchurch, the city which was badly shaken by large earthquakes a few years ago. It was wonderful to see the convention hosted there and to me personally, a great occasion, as it was the first time I have been there after the earthquakes. The rebuild is in full swing, but the devastation is still clearly visible.

The Friday saw the New Talent competition with five competitors and later that night a wonderful performance by Chinese performers preceded the official opening. Boon Manakitivipart was also introduced to the crowd. The following two days were filled with demonstrations by Boon and other local artists with the prizegiving ceremony and dinner on the Saturday night. Below are a few of the trees on display at the convention. New Zealand trees have come a long way and is progressing rapidly. For a very young Bonsai country and no real Bonsai market to speak of, we can be proud of what was on display here and especially the great organisation behind this convention. Next year we will meet in Auckland with Peter Warren our headliner.

Another blog post will have more photos and also the demonstration trees that Boon worked on.

Fibonacci and Bonsai

golden1In my previous blog, which focused on the seven Da Vinci principles, I started to think a bit more about Da Vinci’s use of mathematical proportions in Art and especially Bonsai.

Leonardo Da Vinci has long been associated with the goldleonardo_fibonaccien
ratio. Da Vinci created the illustrations for the book, The Divine Proportion, by Luca Pacioli. It was written in about 1497 and first published in 1509. Pacioli was a contemporary of Da Vinci’s. In the book, Pacioli writes of mathematical and artistic proportion, especially the mathematics of the golden ratio and its application in art and architecture. The golden ratio and the Fibonacci numbers or series, comes from the work of Leonardo Bonacci, also known as Fibonacci, an Italian mathematician. Many writings exist about Fibonacci, Da Vinci and the applications of the mathematical ratios and numbers in art, nature and a few other areas as well. I will focus a bit more on Bonsai design and am hoping to bring some of this “divine proportions” to Bonsai design. First a bit more about the Mathematics involved.

As said, much has been written about the Fibonacci numbers and its appearance in various patterns of spirals in especially leaves and seeds. The Fibonacci series is a series of numbers formed by adding the previous two numbers together to get the next number.

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, etc.

In Bonsai, the theory is that when you cut a stem, tfib01he stem puts
out two growing shoots during one growth period. This could be more (pines or where whorls are formed), but the theory is that we keep two stems. If you keep on cutting these shoots as per the illustration, you will increase the number of smaller shoots over time. This is called increasing the ramification of your Bonsai tree. The theory is that if it is done according to the numbers as found in the Fibonacci series, that you will have a visually more pleasing appearance.

Further to this, the ratio of two successive numbers in the Fibonacci series can be calculated by dividing each number by the number before it. The ratio seems to be settling down to a particular value, which is called the golden ratio or the golden number. The value of this ratio is approximately 1.618034. This is often represented by the Greek letter Phi.

The arrangement of stems around the trunk could also be of interest here. When the golden ratio is used in a mathematical equation in relation to circles, it is found that stems / branches could be in a visually ideal position if they are 137.5 degrees or 222.5 degrees (make up 360 degrees in a circle) apart from each other.

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For completeness sake, I will also try to explain the Fibonacci rectangles and spirals here. If we start with two small squares of size 1 next to each other and we then place on top of these two squares a square of size 2 (1 + 1) and then carry on like that as illustrated in the diagram, rectangles of various sizes can be drawn. These are the Fibonacci rectangles.

golden-rectangle

A spiral can also be drawn in the squares, a quarter of a circle in each square. These spirals are seen in the shape of shells and also in the arrangement of seeds in flowering plants. The spiral in the squares makes a line from the centre of the spiral increase by a factor of the golden number in each square. Points in the spiral are 1.618 times as far from the centre after a quarter turn. In a whole turn the points on a radius out from the centre are 1.6184 (6.854) times further out than when the curve last crossed the same radial line.

Am I the only one seeing spirals in these examples of deadwood?

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Where does this all fit in? That depends on you and how far you want to take this. For me it is just interesting and something that can be kept in the back of the mind while styling Bonsai trees. I will be looking a bit closer at the shape of curves / spirals in future and I will also be looking at where I place especially the first two branches. Maybe that 137.5 degrees angle is not so silly after all?

Leonardo Da Vinci and Bonsai

Yesda-vinci-profile, you are correct. Da Vinci never designed Bonsai, as a
matter of fact, there is no evidence to indicate that he even saw a Bonsai. What is this article about then, you may ask. In my quest to understand more about the creative process and trying to better myself as a creative person, I explore a lot of different theories and principles and try to open my mind to as many influences as possible to find my own rightful place within the creative space. My chosen field is that of Bonsai creation. We all know that the roots of Bonsai are firmly established in Chinese and Japanese culture. We also know that Bonsai as a creative activity has now spread to all corners of the world and it is clear that other influences are being incorporated into the creative concepts serving as foundations for Bonsai. The recent Artisans Cup in the USA is an example of this, but there are many others spread throughout Europe. A very distinctive style is emerging out of Africa as well. Why not look at the seven Da Vincian principles as a source of inspiration or direction in relation to Bonsai design?

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There are seven Da Vincian principles that can be used to give direction to a person’s life in exploring creativity. These are:

  • Curiosity – An insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.
    • This principle can directly be implemented in the life of any Bonsai artist. Being curious about life in general and then also the creative process surrounding Bonsai cultivation, is very important in establishing the next steps for growth. Asking questions, exploring concepts, trying new designs on the creative side, but also being curious about the horticultural process underlying Bonsai are all part and parcel of the Bonsai artist’s grounding. I encourage artists to make notes, read often, watch videos, talk to other Bonsai artists, attend conferences and to never stop asking questions. Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks amount to over 7000 pages.
  • Demonstration / Independent Thinking – A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence and willingness to learn from mistakes.
    • As Bonsai artists we are involved in a practical application of centuries of knowledge and techniques. The last few decades saw an explosion of information and it is our job as artists to make sense of all of this and to apply what suits your own philosophy and style to your own designs. Yes, you can copy other people, but I am convinced that real satisfaction and personal growth comes when you use all of your knowledge and skill and create something new. This can be applied in a very practical way in Bonsai as each plant is unique.
  • Sensation – The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enhance experience.
    • According to Da Vinci, experience is delivered through the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Bonsai creation is all about using your senses, especially sight, touch and smell. The more sense you can incorporate into your interaction with your trees, the more fulfilling the experience. You learn and experience through your senses. One of the problems that I experience is that modern day living is too noisy and very visual. So much so that it leads to sensory overload. Something that I need to work on more is to refine my sensory experiences by deliberately focussing on those sensory stimuli that matters during the creative process and to block or filter the “noise” out.
  • Smoke (Sfumato) / Embrace uncertainty – Becoming open to the unknown. A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.
    • In her blog, Andrea Balt mentions that we cannot “make use of our full creative potential without the ability to embrace uncertainty. An open, always questioning mind is our creativity’s best ally.” In Bonsai there are many uncertainties, especially when it comes to severe styling processes. Will a tree flourish after severe root pruning, how will it react to wiring, did I cut too much, etc.? There are many different thoughts and ideas around when things should and should not be done when it comes to repotting, lifting yamadori, using chemicals, etc. Embrace the unknown.
  • Art and Science – Whole-brain thinking. The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination.
    • Your brain operates as a whole organ. Society has been telling us for a long time that one half is more dominant than the other. As an artist you are using both halves. You are programmed to be creative, it is just a case of exploring and finding your creative roots. The capacity is already there. This principle can also relate to the two parts of Bonsai creation. There is the creative / art side and then there is the science / horticulture side. Both are equally important. Embrace both. It could be that one of these attracted you more to Bonsai than the other. It is your task as a creative Bonsai artist to get yourself up to speed with both aspects. A beautifully created dead Bonsai is as unappealing as an ugly, living Bonsai. Study the art of science and study the science of art. Da Vinci was ambidextrous, something you can try to help with the development of the motor functions of both halves of your brain.
  • The body (mind-body care) – The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness and poise. Balancing the body and mind.
    • This one is self-explanatory. A healthy body is needed to dig trees, cultivate the trees, carry them around, etc. There is more to it than just being fit enough to do what you have to do around your trees. There is also the healthy body – healthy mind concept that is so important in the creative process. This principle was taken very seriously by Da Vinci in his day-t-day life. Mild exercise and good nutrition with ample rest serve as foundations for what is needed.
  • Connection – A recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. Systems thinking.
    • Da Vinci said: “Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” The growing medium that you plant your Bonsai in, the aesthetic effect of pot and tree, the light that all leaves get, the link between water and nutrition, your interaction with the tree, everything is connected. You are connected to the tree and everything the tree is connected to.

For you to be a better Bonsai artist and based on the Da Vinci principles, in summary: Be curious and never stop learning. Test yourself and be independent in a practical way. Use all of your senses when interaction with your creativity. Embrace the unknown and explore. Use your logical and creative powers. Look after yourself and realise that everything in life is connected.

References

Gelb, Michael. J. 2014. Creativity on Demand. How to ignite and sustain the fire of genius. Colorado: Sounds True

www.davinci.ac.za/

www.andreabalt.com/7-ways-to-think-like-leonardo-da-vinci/