Not sure why, but this video of my shohin Buxus is attracting a lot of views.
“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
The quote above is attributed to Banksy and it sits quite comfortably with me. How can this be applied to Bonsai as an Art? My own personal experience is that an hour’s work on a Bonsai tree is equal to the same amount of time meditating. One can therefore say that it comforts the disturbed and at the least calms the mind down.
It is quite interesting to watch people at a Bonsai exhibition. There is the initial excitement and almost “cannot believe my eyes” moments, but as they move through the exhibition, a calmness sets in, almost as if you are in a library. I have even seen people talking softly when in the presence of these miniature giants of the floral kingdom. Except for the cultural links, could that be why it is not uncommon to see a Bonsai tree or three near or part of a Zen garden or space?
Not so sure about the disturbing the comfortable part. Maybe that is the bit where you see non-Bonsai people just wanting to get into the art after they have seen Bonsai trees in real life. A real inquisitiveness sets in and it rocks their world. Or is this the bit that forms the basis of Bonsai activities leading to an addiction?
I must say that even seasoned Bonsai people do get disturbed when in the presence of an especially spectacular tree or composition. This disturbance is evident in the slightly angled heads, dead silence even with a few people around the tree and then followed by a lot of pointing and increase in volume as the tree is discussed. You can almost see how mental notes are being made and mental photos being taken to go and copy some of what they are seeing the moment they get home.
I am picking up six raw material trees this weekend and I can feel the excitement building up, a disturbance of my normally very calm inner self. Can’t wait to work on the trees. I do know that when I start the work, the deepest state of calmness will set in. The opposite of the excited, disturbed state is counteracted by the meditative state.
Maybe that is what is in Banksy’s quote, the yin and the yang, the stillness and the turbulence, the Bonsai tree and the Bonsai artist. It is one, it is the whole, it is the two sides of the same coin.
Share your thoughts on this in the comments.
Photosyntheses — the process through which plants use energy from the sun, water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the air, to produce food for itself and then also oxygen. From this, we see that it is really important to get the light requirements of your Bonsai trees right.
Phototropism – the phenomenon where plants grow towards light. This is mainly caused by hormone stimulation that forces plants to grow towards the light source.
Too little light can cause issues and then you also have the other side of this continuum, the heat caused by direct sunlight, that can also cause harm.
Let’s look at situations where the tree is in the shade too much. This could cause a deficiency in energy production, unless it is a plant adapted to grow in shade. Shady conditions can also cause leaves to grow larger and then also for branches and especially new growth to become spindly with very long internodes. Both of these growth patterns are not very good things for Bonsai where you need smaller leaf sizes and also more compact growth.
Another light consideration is where you place your Bonsai trees in relation to the light source, i.e. the sun. Plants tend to grow towards the sun and if placed against a wall, it could be that the tree will grow away from the wall. It is also possible that you will have very little growth on the shady or wall side of the tree. The solution to this problem is to turn your trees often. Some of my trees, that are on stands / monkey posts with no wall near them, quickly show me that they need to be turned as well. It could be slight yellowing of the leaves or needles on the southern side (I am in the Southern Hemisphere) or denser growth on the sunnier side than the shadier side.
What is the most important here is to know more about the natural habitat of your trees. If it is a natural shade lover, you could get the opposite to what is described in the previous paragraph. Also look out for burn or scorching of these shade lovers on the sunny side.
Think about the placement of your trees. Study the different microclimates that can be caused by high walls or fences as well as trees and other plants. The construction of your display stands and where these are placed in your garden are all very important aspects of your Bonsai cultivation. When it comes to the regular turning of trees, I have a fixed day twice per month and I turn the tree through ninety degrees, always in the same direction (for me that is clock-wise). Sometimes I will keep it longer in a specific position due to the fact that there could be an undeveloped branch that needs the light source for longer to get its development up to speed.
You also need to think about the light requirements when it comes to specific maintenance tasks. After root pruning or repotting it is also best to keep your tree away from direct sunlight for a few days to a couple of weeks. The opposite when you get into the different grades of defoliation.
One of the reasons for defoliation, whether it is fully or partial, is to stimulate back budding and for this, more light is needed.
If you are heavily invested in Maples as Bonsai, it will be worth your efforts if you look at different light requirements of Maples as it can influence stunning Autumn colours and even new colours in Spring. That is a topic for another day.
It is not complex, but certainly something to think about when you position your trees and every time when maintenance tasks are undertaken.
You are now bitten by the bug and you are well on your way to addiction and now you want to design, bend, shape, cut, wire and do all the other things to expand your growing collection. Yes, there is a lot of art to it, but you can get far by following a few basic steps. I call it my Bonsai Beginner’s Curriculum and have done many workshops based on these basic seven steps. It works well on nursery material as well as field lifted trees which have been planted and allowed to rest for at least a year. Here we go with the seven steps.
Step 1: Find the front of the tree. This includes looking at the trunk flare / root zone (nebari). You want the widest and most interesting part to face the front. The second part to this step is to find the best front showing the flow or movement of the main trunk line. Hopefully the best nebari view and trunk line is the same side, if not, make a decision based on the best of the two elements.
Step 2: Clean the main trunk. This includes getting rid of all unwanted growth. It could be removing one or more branches reducing the bar branch effect. Also remove branches pointing to the front in especially the bottom third of the trunk and branches crossing the trunk. At this stage remove all growth in the crotches of the main trunk and primary branches.
Step 3: Set the main trunk. If you are lucky, the movement of the trunk will be great and you have nothing to do. This is rarely the case. Use wire to set the shape. There are other more advanced strategies and methods that can be used. If you are using guy wires, it is best to wire the branches first as the wires sometimes get in the way of further work.
Step 4: Select the main branches. You have already looked at this during step 2. What you now need to do is to look at the positioning of branches. The historical pattern is to have one to the one side, then to the other side and then one growing backwards. Repeat as you move up the trunk line. Nature and practicality does not always give this to you on a platter and this is where the artistic side of Bonsai kicks in. Also make sure that you do not have branches growing from the inside curve of a bend.
Step 5: Clean the rest of the tree by removing all growth from the axils / crotches of all branches. Remove the rest of the unwanted growth and especially spindly growth. At this point it is important to note that once you remove all leaves / needles from coniferous plants, it is highly likely that the bare branch will die. Perfect for Jin (more advanced technique).
Step 6: Set the main branches. Use wire on the branch or guy wires. Wiring technique is also slightly more advanced and will follow in a future blog or video. Ensure that there is movement in the branches (left, right, up and down). This is an easy way to bring leaves / growth closer to the main trunk on spindly growth.
Step 7: Create the apex. The apex is the top of the tree and plays a major role in determining the flow of a tree. Older trees show a more rounded apex form and this is what you want to recreate by either pruning or wiring the branches into that position.
By now you should have a design roughly resembling a pre-Bonsai tree. After-care is the next important step. My advice is to not pot the tree into a Bonsai pot at this stage. If you have removed a lot of growth, the tree will be stressed and the last thing it needs now is to have its roots interfered with. Rather just place it in a sheltered position with no harsh afternoon sun. Water regularly and fertilise the tree to encourage health and good growth. Potting can be done in Spring or for certain species, Autumn could be suitable as well.
Keep an eye out for further articles in the Beginner’s series. If you subscribe to this blog, you will not miss any of those.
I am not sure where the word Guy wire comes from, but a wild guess is that it is from the word Guide. It is defined as a wire or cable used to stabilise something, like a mast and seeing that dictionaries and Wikipedia will not relate this to Bonsai, here is my version of it: A Guy wire is used to pull branches down and is used instead of normal Bonsai wiring due to various reasons.
My common use for it is on plants with very soft bark and more often, on older trees when I want to preserve the bark and also in cases when I do not want to cover the bark with raffia or cloth. I usually only use it to pull branches down, but it can also be used to get some shape in a branch by using more than one guy wire, pulling in different directions.
As I use aluminium wire for this task and usually a thin wire, it is important to protect the branch and the bark at the pressure point on the branch. Aquarium tubing is perfect for this task. Short lengths are used and the wire is pulled through it and then it is placed in position. The other end is then securely fastened at an anchor point.
An anchor point can be many things. If the tree is in a plastic pot, a hole through the rim of the pot is an easy way to do it. In a timber box, a screw can be used to anchor the wire. As in the example that I show here, the tree is in a ceramic Bonsai pot and a thicker wire is used around the pot through which the guy wire is then threaded and fastened securely.
Once the wire is fastened, I use a short length of wire through the two wires around a branch to wind the two wires together. This does not only has a neater appearance, it can be used to fine tune the positioning of a branch as the branch can be further pulled down by winding the wires up more.
This method definitely exerts less pressure and therefore less stress on the tree. As you use a thinner wire, it is less expensive. It is also easier to remove and once removed, the wire can still be used for other purposes, especially if it was not wound tightly.
Some useless, but interesting statistics:
An internet search for Bonsai art presented 3.5 million results.
Another search for Bonsai horticulture yielded 493 thousand results.
My deduction from that is that Bonsai is seen as an art form, but when that vast amount of results are further analysed, very few of those relate to Bonsai as a mainstream art form. We are getting there, but there is still a lot of work to do.
Please share your thoughts on this in the comment section on this page.
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.
To prepare a tree for a show starts a long time out from the show. It actually starts with your general maintenance regime, your design philosophy and daily dedication to your overall collection. The normal sequence for getting a tree in a show is to decide on which tree will be entered and then an acceptance from the organisers to have that tree in the show. This could at times be problematic as the time between the acceptance and the show could be very short. My advice is to start the show preparation before the tree is entered as it should be of a more than passible quality when entered.
The tree must be in excellent health and show the characteristics of the species. Al dead and not so healthy looking leaves and needles must be removed and all excessive and not needed wiring should be taken off as well. It is OK to have some wiring, but this must be discrete and only used to refine minor things. Wiring must be applied correctly as it can detract from the overall scoring if not done so. Also ensure that all leaves and needles growing downwards (species and style specific) are removed and that foliage clouds are distinct and neat.
Ensure that the main trunk line is clear and clean (the whole tree must be clean). Look out for insects and spiders and remove these. A smooth trunked tree can be cleaned by spraying a little bit of vegetable oil on it and rubbing gently with a paper towel.
The nebari and roots must be checked as well. All of the above apply to this area also.
Deadwood (Jin) should be clean. This can be done by brushing it with a toothbrush and using tweezers to get small pieces of debris out of narrow and hard to reach places. Lime sulphur should be applied a few weeks out from the show to allow it to settle. If needed give it a brush for the colour to settle in with the rest of the tree.
All weeds and fine protruding roots must be removed. Take weeds out and the finer roots can be covered with moss if it cannot be removed. Moss should be in pristine condition. This is one of the tasks that cannot be left to the last minute. If you do not have moss ready, you can grate old moss and apply this to the soil surface, even better if it is on a layer of fine sphagnum moss. Pay as much attention to this aspect as you would a prize-winning lawn.
The To prepare a tree for a show starts a long time out from the show. It actually starts with your general maintenance regime, your design philosophy and daily dedication to your overall collection. The normal sequence for getting a tree in a show is to decide on which tree will be entered and then an acceptance from the organisers to have that tree in the show. This could at times be problematic as the time between the acceptance and the show could be very short. My advice is to start the show preparation before the tree is entered as it should be of a more than passible quality when entered.
All components making up the display must be clean and in good condition. The so-called three-point display technique will compliment your tree. This usually consists of the tree on a stand, an accent tree or plant and a scroll. One of the two non-tree elements could be a Suiseki. The dimensions and placing of the three elements are crucial to get a view of one, but to still emphasise the tree as the main focal point. My best advice with this is to have a few stands, scrolls, accent plants and even Suiseki at the ready and to try different combinations.
One of the best things you can do is to study as many displays that you can get your hands / eyes on. This is not difficult with the internet at our fingertips. All the top shows across the world are represented in thousands of photos on the internet. Happy showing!
While I am enjoying the Autumn colours on my Bonsai trees, my friends in the Northern hemisphere, post photos of the Spring growth on their trees. The cycle of life right there, and on and on it goes.
Lime Sulphur is usually used in the Horticulture industry to control scale insects, moss, lichen and fungal diseases on plants. It can be used for all of these issues when it comes to Bonsai. A use that is not listed on the container is to whiten deadwood / Jin.
As always, safety comes first when you use any chemical. In this case, it is not just the smell (rotten eggs comes to mind), but also the fact that this chemical is corrosive. It is a good idea to wear gloves and to protect your eyes. Wash your hands very well afterwards and keep your hands away from your face.
Follow the instructions on the container for all uses. As said, the whitening of deadwood is not listed as a normal use of lime sulphur. One thing to keep in mind is to also protect the soil surface from lime sulphur dripping or being spilt on the surface. Remember, this chemical is also used to kill moss! You do not want to kill of your lush green carpet covering the soil surface. I usually use plastic wrap for this purpose.
I dilute the lime sulphur 50/50 with water and I do this in a plastic or paper cup as it is easier to just throw it away afterwards than trying to clean it and getting rid of the smell. I also use a 12mm brush for most applications, but can go smaller or larger depending on the size of the job.
I also find it easier to apply if I slightly wet the surface of the deadwood. The Juniper that I worked on here had a bit of rot at the bottom where the tree meets the soil surface. This was cleaned well and the lime sulphur was liberally applied here. The chemical protects the wood against rot by acting as a preservative.
After application, clean the brushes well and get rid of the container. Wash your hands and allow the lime sulphur to dry and work its magic on the tree.
These two redwoods featured in an earlier post: https://bonsaiplace.net/2015/08/
They now received a light summer prune. I also do think that they can both do with a slight orientation change at the next repot.
This could be the new orientation or they can both be turned a bit further to increase the depth perception.
I do believe that there are concepts in any art form that are universal. With that believe, I also explore other art forms for inspiration, ideas and motivation as well as skills and knowledge. I have recently embarked on trying to improve my photography skills as I am notoriously bad at it. In the process of reading up on this topic, I stumbled upon this statement:
“Ultimately, simplicity is the goal in every art, and achieving simplicity is one of the hardest things to do. Yet it is easily the most essential.”
What does this mean for Bonsai? Bonsai in its simplest form is a tree in a pot that resembles an old tree in nature. That then probably takes us back to the original design concepts as proposed by Chinese and Japanese scholars and masters from the beginning to today. My own opinion is that the strictness of the original, especially Japanese rules, have been watered down over the years as Bonsai art started to spread to other parts of the world since World War II. Western ideas of what art looks like and what it should be as the individual philosophies of artists as well as the type of Bonsai material that they can work on has shaped this over time.
Simplicity can also refer to the horticultural side of keeping trees alive. It comes down to water, nutrients, climate, inclusive of light requirements. Yes, it is that simple, but take any one of these for granted and you end up with a deteriorating or dead tree.
From a design perspective it is important to know something about the different styles or forms of Bonsai and by then adhering to the style “rules” in its purist form, simplicity in design will be shown. Part of this is to follow the basic shape and growth pattern of the original tree if it comes from nature or has been in a pot for a long time. Radically changing the shape or form of a tree away from its natural flow, can not only stress the tree, but also lead to a quite complicated design that might need constant maintenance or interference to keep it in that shape. This means that the tree is kept under stress for a longer period of time.
A tree that does not show these characteristics or one that can be shaped from seedling or cutting stage will be easier to shape and still adhere to the concept of simplicity. What does this look like?
- Establish a flared, radial root system growing from a wider buttress and is exposed at soil level.
- From here a gradually tapering trunk will grow depending on the style.
- The first branches will start about a third of the trunk height from the soil and will alternatively grow on two sides of the trunk with every third one to wards the back.
- These branches will gradually become shorter and thinner as you move towards the top or apex of the tree.
- The apex could be in-line with the nebari or base of the trunk.
- Finer branches are grouped to allow the leaves or needles to form “foliage clouds”.
- Empty spaces or the spaces between the branches will balance the tree to form a whole or one unit to look at.
That is bonsai design at its simplest or most basic. We do know that it is never that simple. Branches do not necessarily grow in that pattern and nature sometimes play cruel tricks on plants (this could be great for Bonsai) to alter growth patterns and directions. This is where the artist comes in and it leads to a second quote from a photography resource:
“Photography is not looking, it is feeling. If you cannot feel what you are looking at, then you are never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”
I am not too concerned about what other people think of my trees. I need to be moved or have an emotional reaction to a tree for it to make impact. I also do believe that it is this, the fact that a Bonsai tree can invoke a feeling, an emotional reaction, that makes it art. I also do believe that it is usually the simplicity in a design or form that triggers the higher emotion. Less is more. Wabi-sabi. Literati. The emotion of a trees that looks old, feels old, shows character, fits its pot and as a whole make you stand still and study it, is a piece of art.
A lot of very complicated designs, excruciating bending, very heavy wire and at times heavy machinery (not really, just power tools), are used to get a tree to look like a Bonsai tree. Is this part of our instant generation? It has its place under the right conditions. I just wonder whether going back to the original simplistic view of Bonsai, the pure meaning behind the art form and taking a longer view or approach to the development of the tree, might not stir a stronger emotional reaction and make more people fall in love (also known as addiction) with this pure, simple and very rich art form.
What do you think?
Quick Sunday afternoon styling job (small one). 15 cm from top of soil. Wiring, styling, jin work. 90 minutes. Apex will get more work done with potting to follow in Spring.
This Juniper was lifted in June 2015 and planted in a plastic container. It came from a garden and was planted in a very sandy soil which came away during the lifting process. It was basically bare-rooted at the time which in my mind was not ideal at the time. I did bring some of the soil with me to add to the new mix with the hope that it contained some michoriza. At this stage I also removed some of the long, whippy branches with very little foliage on it to try and balance the foliage to root ratio.
From this point on it was watered and fertilised and received plenty of sun. A few branches died over the next twelve months, but plenty of new growth showed as well. All of this was of the needle type and then reverted to adult growth. The tree was also planted into a Bonsai pot at which time the roots were reduced a bit.
I had to move my trees three in the last six months. First from a colder, wetter part of New Zealand to an almost subtropical climate. The first place was a temporary place while we were shifting our household, then to a rental until we shifted into our own house three months later. Eighteen months after the lifting (January 2018) it was time for its first styling. Deadwood was created on the cut branches and then the wiring started. This took about six hours with not more than two hours done per day. I find it is best to start at the bottom of the tree and then work towards the apex of the tree. I have just used aluminium wire and varies from 1mm thickness to 4mm thickness. Quite a few guy wires were used to pull larger branches down. I use plastic tubing to protect the branches. Due to a few harsh bends, light cracks appeared and these were sealed with cut paste.
Now it is time to let it rest. Water and fertilise, keep an eye on the wire to prevent it from cutting in give it plenty of sun. It could be show ready in about three years. The foliage pads must mature and I have left a bit of new growth on the main branch from where another branch or two can be formed to fill some gaps.
Some of the Jin are too long, but I will leave it as it is for now. It is better to shorten them later. It is not that simple to make deadwood longer later. Lime Sulphur will also be applied later after some carving, burning and light sanding.
I like to look at my trees from the top as I used to style very flat trees. Probably because I look at too many trees in photographs and this made my designs look very two dimensional and flat. From the top, it is easy to see the depth. You can do the same by looking at the tree from the side, but from the top you can also look for branches and foliage pads shadowing the ones below them.
In the Bonsai Focus of September / October 2015 (136), Louis Bourdeau in an article titled “Silent communication”, mentions that the essence of Art is the use of raw material and the modification of it with the proper techniques to create an aesthetic creation. This is one of the better definitions or descriptions that I have come across thus far. My journey continues, but it will take take a lot to improve on Louis’ definition of the essence of srt.
As Bonsai artists, our raw material will always be the plant material that we work with. This is very different to any other art form where the raw material is not necessarily a living organism. Maybe body painting falls into this category as well. Other aspects of our raw material include the soil medium that is used as well as the pot. All of these aspects have their own dimensions and issues that must be thought about to bring about the desired aesthetic creation.
The next part of the definition is the reference to the proper techniques. This is where things become interesting. In all my years of teaching students the art of Bonsai, it is this part that for most, is the most intriguing. Maybe it is the use of tools or just the problem solving aspect, but I have yet to meet the student who does not want to learn more about the different techniques. These include things like wiring, potting or re-potting, bending branches, creating foliage pads, etc. Usually these are categorised as beginner techniques through to that of advanced or master techniques. It is interesting that it is done in this way as it probably fits the structure of apprenticeship quite well.
I would like to argue that all techniques are equally important. It depends on the material that is in front of the artist. If bending of thicker branches are called for, then the artist will need to have mastered the correct technique for this. If we want to place techniques in a system of hierarchies from beginner to advanced levels, we will have to classify raw material as beginner to advanced as well. Seems a bit unfair on the beginner artist as he or she might be in posession of advanced material and will have no clue to proceed. How do we deal with this? This is probably where clubs come in.
The next question then is whether we need a recognised curriculum to take club members through all the techniques, starting with the basics and going through to the advanced techniques. What happens when a club member joins three quarters through the curriculum and missed the early parts of the curriculum. Although this sounds like me just rambling along, I do think some thought needs to go into how we structure our teachings. Most Bonsai schools run different levels of classes to cater for the different expertise levels. These are run by professionals with the aim of making a living. This normally does not happen at club level.
In education there is a concept known as Differentiated Instruction. Roughly defined it means teaching towards meeting the needs of individual students. It means that you could have many different levels of expertise in your class, all with different needs, and you have to cater for that. What does this look like in a Bonsai Club or even a Bonsai School? The Japanese apprenticeship system is great, but it mostly relies on verbal communication or demonstrations to teach techniques. As said, nothing wrong with that and probably the best way to do it. Modern education do ask for structure and do ask for solid planning and execution during the teaching and learning process. This means curriculum. What would a Bonsai Curriculum look like? Food for thought.
Back to Louis’ description – the end result is the creation of something that is aesthetically pleasing. What is needed to get to this point? That journey from starting with raw material to the end product, inclusive of all the techniques necessary to get there, is the Bonsai Curriculum. Techniques are not that difficult to describe, demonstarte and teach. What will have to be included in the Curriculum to teach the aesthetic part of our Art form? Much has been written about the aesthetics of Bonsai, but how is this taught and incorporated in a Curriculum?