Carving on Bonsai: Sculpture

A previous blog post addressed sculpture as an art form and how it relates to Bonsai (https://bonsaiplace.net/2021/03/28/bonsai-as-sculpture-an-art-form/). This blog post will take an more practical approach by making use of photos to describe the process.

The start.

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%.

Safety aspects:

  • 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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Pohutukawa as Bonsai

In November 2015, the very early days of this blog site, I wrote about Metrosideros excelsa or Pohutukawa as Bonsai and included a few photos of these magnificent trees in nature. This tree is also known as the New Zealand Christmas tree. The link to that blog post is here.

https://bonsaiplace.net/2015/11/29/pohutukawa-as-bonsai/

For this blog post I will style a Pohutukawa as a Bonsai. As can be seen from the photos in the linked post, these trees very naturally present as multi trunks with great root structures and the very prominent aerial roots. it is this root structure and especially the aerial roots that make these trees ideal for root over rock designs. This tree will not be a full root over rock, but a rock will be placed next to it with roots growing over the rock.

This plant was grown from a cutting for a few years and these photos clearly show that these trees are basal dominant. It basically means that it will keep on growing new shoots from the base compared to tree which are apical dominant where the new growth is at the top of the tree.

Close up of the multiple shoots growing from the base as well as visible aerial roots.

As can be seen from the photos above, the first step is to search for roots and in this case roots in the soil and not the aerial roots. I find it better to remove the top edge of the plastic bag and sometimes remove the bag or pot completely. The presence and position of roots, especially radial roots will help to determine the orientation of the tree. In other words, the front of the tree and the first ideas of what the design could look like. In this case quite prominent roots were found and spread around the tree which means we can now look at the above ground structure as the placement of the roots allow us to look at multiple design options.

The next step is to remove all unwanted growth. To stay more or less true to the natural growth pattern Pohutukawa, the decision was made to design a multi trunk tree with three trunks. Really only two, but the thickest trunk has a fork which visually looks like two trunks. All three trunks have different diameters which makes it visibly more pleasing. All inward growing branches are removed and decisions are made about the three trunks. This includes things like direction, placement and length. As the three main trunks did not grow naturally in the directions needed and the centre trunk needed to be compacted, wire was applied.

A lot of branches and foliage were removed. some of these will be propagated as cuttings.

Wire was applied to bend the branches and also change the direction of the branches.
The pot is prepared.

The final product with a rock added to add visual weight on the right hand side and also allow a backdrop or prop for some of the aerial roots to grow over.

It is important that Bonsai trees are three dimensional. The best way to check that is to view the tree from above. Visual depth adds to the aesthetics and overall view of the tree.

As for all trees, the aftercare is now of the utmost importance. As the pot is not that shallow, not many roots were removed, but the tree will still be kept in a protected spot, out of the wind and cold temperatures. Watering is now also important as well as sun exposure. Just damp, not wet and limited afternoon sun is what is now needed for the further development of this tree.

Horticultural Processes and Bonsai: Transpiration

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.

Transpiration

Osmosis

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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Bonsai – Good comes from bad.

One thing that is for certain when it comes to Bonsai as an art form is that it is never static due to horticultural and climatic influences. Then we have to throw pests, disease and the odd mishap into the equation as well. This little Thuja did meet up with a bug or two one night and the Thuja came of second best. Yes, whatever it was, ringbarked one of the branches and the first sign was that one branch changed colour. Obviously unhappy and on its way to Bonsai afterlife. What to do?

Change direction and from an informal upright change character to start the next phase of its life as a wannabe literati tree. The on its way to death branch comes off and becomes a jin.

Next step is to wire the trunk to the top, give it a bit of a change of direction and reduce the foliage as with the potting comes a reduction in root mass.

The tree is healthy otherwise and with good aftercare will grow into its new life and again stand tall as a proud Bonsai somewhere in the future.

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Garden trees to Bonsai

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. The term Yamadori refers to a tree lifted from the wild where it has spent many years, showing good age with features that will make a great Bonsai. When a tree is lifted from a garden or from any other place for that matter it is not a Yamadori, not even an Urban Yamadori as some people refer to it. Yamadori in my mind is for one thing and one thing only.

I have recently seen a photo of a very nice Magnolia Bonsai tree and wanted to try my hand at one. As luck would have it, a garden tree that was to be removed was advertised in my area and I jumped at the opportunity.

What we have here is a garden plant that has been grown as an ornamental plant in a garden bed. It is a Michelia figo or a Port wine Magnolia. It had to be removed as the owners were in the process of remodelling this garden area.

The original “plant”.

Great was my surprise when I parted some of the branches and discovered that it is actually three trees. It is important to make sure that there are no irrigation or other hidden water or electricity services going close to or underneath the digging area. The first job is to reduce the branches and foliage to get closer to the trunk and this will also help with survival as the branch and leaf mass needs to balance the root mass. Through the digging process and also the potting process, the root mass will also be reduced. And then the digging starts.

Branch and leaf mass reduced.

This was an easy dig as there are no tap roots and especially the two in the back were in quite dry loamy soil and they came out with just a spade length pushed into the soil about thirty centimetres from the trunk and circled around each plant.

The Three Musketeers.

It is important to leave the site in a tidy state and in this case I also removed the green waste for the owners. Each tree received a good spray of medicine water. Medicine water for me is just a weak solution of a marine-based or algae-based tonic across all parts of the tree. Now it is homeward bound.

The best advice is to have the planting containers ready before you go, but probably not so practical as you never know how big the root ball will be. in this case I used plastic planting pots, deeper than what a Bonsai pot will be, but this is to allow space for finer root development.

Good drainage is essential.

The first thing I do is to work through the roots. Remove all of the old garden soil and in this case some fat earthworks as well. Next is to remove very thick roots and reducing the depth of the root ball. Leave enough finer roots to feed the tree. I also apply rooting hormone powder to the cut roots and sprinkle a bit over all roots. Depending on the species, but more importantly, the state of the roots, I also apply sphagnum moss to the cut roots at this stage. In this case I did not as there were enough roots and they were healthy.

Next up is to find a possible front of the tree by finding the widest part of the nebari and lining this up with the best flow that the branch structure allows. This is also the time to now reduce or shorten the branches to fit this vision of what the future tree could like like in five to seven years. At this stage I do not remove all branches to limit the tree to just one or two styles or designs. In all three cases it is possible to highly likely that the main trunks will be shortened over time. as the pots are round there is no need to worry too much at this stage about the front of the tree for planting purposes. Just focus on what might be needed for future development.

Now for the planting. Good drainage is essential. The soil that I use for this type of planting is a 1:1 ratio of pumice and compost. These are broadleaf trees and will grow relatively unchecked over the next year or two. They will all be heavily fertilised as soon as new growth comes out. The compost base helps with this and the pumice provides the necessary drainage.

The soil is heaped up in a dome shape inside the containers, the tree is pushed down and wiggled into the soil, tied in with wire and then filled up to the top level. I use my fingers and then a rounded dowel to work the soil in-between the roots. All that is left now is to water the trees and to let them rest until spring when the feeding will start.

Updates will follow as these trees develop. I usually tend to keep one if I have multiples from the same type and sell the others. That just means that updates at times is on just one or two of the trees as the others might be making someone else very happy.

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Bonsai Branch selection 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two parallel branches. What to do?

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

Quite a few growing from the same point or level.

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

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

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

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

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Bonsai as Sculpture: An Art Form

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

One of Greg’s sculptures.

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

Constructing – Modelling – Carving – Casting

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

From Pinterest

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

Informal upright style model and a real tree.

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

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

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


Yes, we are Sculptors as well as Bonsai Artists.

Lockdown Bonsai work.

We were supposed to have aBonsai Society meeting today, which would have been the first one in a long time. Last night at 9pm, a change in alert levels was announced which means that where we live, social distancing is in place and as the venue is quite small, not the best for safety in the current Covid climate. That was called off.

I had this tree that I wanted to work on at the meeting. Basically just a clean up job and then lots of wiring to set the foliage pads. It is a Pine tree and in the twin-trunk style. Here is the before photo.

Before the wiring commenced.

And here is the tree after the pads were set.

Cleaning, Jin work, wiring and branches set. Pity some of the three-dimensionality disappears in these photos. Maybe I just need to get my photography sorted.

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Off the back of a truck.

I had to hide the introvert in my today when a small truck went past us and on the back there was a medium sized bush / tree clearly on its way to be dumped. The driver stopped and went into a shop while we waited outside. When the owner came out, I asked him if the tree is going to be dumped and when he confirmed that, I pulled out my Bonsaiplace business card and told him that I can create a Bonsai tree from the tree and he promptly agreed that I could have the tree.

Just a week ago we had a couple came to our private shop who had the idea that Bonsai are a specific type of tree and that you can grow them from Bonsai seed. I love these situations as it allows the educator in me to come out. This man (owner of the tree on the truck) said that it cannot become a Bonsai as it is not a Bonsai tree. Guess what? Out came the educator again.

Anyway, off we went with the tree in the back of the Bonsai mobile, speculating what type of tree it is. On arrival at home, I used a plant identifying app with no succes. In the process of cutting the branches off, I found a discoloured flower which looked very much like a withered Gardenia flower. I guess it is now wait and see and do more research to find its name. During this time it will have to be kept alive.

The tree and Snoopy, my Bonsai apprentice.

It does have some feeder roots and after I cut the branches, left it in a bucket of water to just chill a bit and hopefully get some sap flowing. As I do not like waste, I very cheekily took some of the roots with feeder roots intact and planted that up as well. These I will treat the same way as what I do with Maple root cuttings with which we have had great success.

All is now potted up, watered and in a sheltered position. Tonight I will start with the weekly tonic of seaweed extract to help stimulate more root growth.

On its way to Bonsai status.

The root cuttings with a thickish branch as cutting. That is me trying my luck. Let’s wait and see.

Below are three Maple root cuttings in development.

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Slanting Redwood Styling

This Redwood came to me just over a year ago and ended up on the bottom shelf as it was not a high priority to work on and a little bit ugly. Today was the day for this one to get attention and even if I have to say so myself, the ugly duckling is now well on its way to become a beautiful swan.

It has a very straight trunk and was chopped before it came to me. The taper is minimal, but can be enhanced with a bit of carving at the top. More interest can also be had by creating an interesting Jin out of the dead branch at the bottom. Most of the growth is at the top which normally lends itself to a Literati style tree, but in this case the trunk is nowhere near what one would like to see in a Literati style tree.

Lots of growth right at the top and spread radially around the trunk at this point.

Decision time and it is to slant the trunk and then for the branches to droop downwards at an angle following the trunk line. Normally with this style the branches on the open side, in this case to the right, are longer than those on the closed side, or left side in this case.

The growth is still relatively young with no real solid branches at the top, but it is important to spread the branches / leaves radially out to enable all green parts to receive maximum light.

All leaves should get light.

This Redwood will now rest until Spring, be fed profusely in a sheltered spot.

Literati Juniper First Foliage Pad work.

This Juniper came to me as a very neglected tree about a year ago. After a solid nutrition program and tender loving care it is now ready to get some work done on it. The major job will come in Spring (seven months away) when the first big repot with fresh soil will take place. For now, let’s get the pads placed in a better position and also do some thinning of the vigorous growth.

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

Nursery material to starter Bonsai

One of the fastest way to get a Bonsai collection going is to find material at your local nursery to develop over time into a stunning Bonsai. Yes, it takes time, but still beats starting from seeds or cuttings. Although My private collection mainly consist of mature trees, I regularly still work on anything from cuttings to nursery material. The main reason for this is to generate stock for my wife’s fledgling Bonsai shop.

Yesterday I bought this Juniper from our local Bunnings (hardware store for those outside of Australia and New Zealand). As luck would have it, I just recently saw a mature Juniper on Instagram with a slanting main branch and a smaller branch following the contour of the main branch. Another coincidence is that I recently went on a Dolphin watching trip on Guardian, the boat used by Dolphin Seafaris in Tauranga, New Zealand. Where does this fit, you may ask. Well, there were a lot of baby Dolphins with their mothers, swimming in close proximity of the mother and mimicking what they do. It might also have to do with the fact that they suckle on mommy dolphin twenty times per hour! Need to be close for that.

Nursery material Young Juniper.

The first task is to clean the tree up as selecting the front was a given with the shape I wanted it to have. The clean up consists of removing unnecessary branches, just one in this case, and then all the growth pointing to the bottom and on top of the branches. It also includes cleaning the crotches between the main branches and the lateral ones. It just makes it a lot easier to apply wire.

Then the wiring starts. The same gauge wire was used on both branches as the smaller one also needed to be twisted and bend around to follow the main branch line. You cannot just bend it over as the leaves will have their undersides on top then. It needs a twist as well.

The final product. The main slanting branch represents the mother Dolphin and the smaller one the baby Dolphin. There is my memory of the Dolphin watching trip now captured in a starter Bonsai. Now for it to rest, watered, fertilized and kept out of harsh climate conditions.

The finished product – for now.

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Literati Juniper work

This Literati style Juniper came into my collection as a very neglected, half of the branches dead and under nourished tree.

Today it was time to get some wiring done through to the growth points. The previous and first wiring from me was just on the main branches to set them. As can be seen, the branches that were dead or with no hope of recovery were all jinned and these branches will be refined with sanding paper and lime sulphur later on.

The living branches, only three of them have responded nicely with new growth and these are kept in tact at this stage to get as much energy as possible to the green and new growth. This tree only received liquid fertiliser in the form of a marine plant / kelp conditioner with one dose of a granular feed, balanced NPK.

Here are some of the before photos

This type of work is quite light and I only used two thicknesses of aluminium wire and a wire cutter for this job. The coffee is not really optional, but I did have the mandatory glass of wine just before this job with a meal.

These are the after photos:

This tree will now rest and carry on with its fortnightly application of liquid food. This is applied over the leaves as well as the soil.

Bonsai Art – What does Banksy have to say?

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

A Banksy Art piece.

The quote above is attributed to Banksy and it sits quite comfortably with me. How can this be applied to Bonsai as an Art? My own personal experience is that an hour’s work on a Bonsai tree is equal to the same amount of time meditating. One can therefore say that it comforts the disturbed and at the least calms the mind down.

It is quite interesting to watch people at a Bonsai exhibition. There is the initial excitement and almost “cannot believe my eyes” moments, but as they move through the exhibition, a calmness sets in, almost as if you are in a library. I have even seen people talking softly when in the presence of these miniature giants of the floral kingdom. Except for the cultural links, could that be why it is not uncommon to see a Bonsai tree or three near or part of a Zen garden or space?

A calm workshop space.

Not so sure about the disturbing the comfortable part. Maybe that is the bit where you see non-Bonsai people just wanting to get into the art after they have seen Bonsai trees in real life. A real inquisitiveness sets in and it rocks their world. Or is this the bit that forms the basis of Bonsai activities leading to an addiction?

I must say that even seasoned Bonsai people do get disturbed when in the presence of an especially spectacular tree or composition. This disturbance is evident in the slightly angled heads, dead silence even with a few people around the tree and then followed by a lot of pointing and increase in volume as the tree is discussed. You can almost see how mental notes are being made and mental photos being taken to go and copy some of what they are seeing the moment they get home.

At the Hamilton Bonsai show.

I am picking up six raw material trees this weekend and I can feel the excitement building up, a disturbance of my normally very calm inner self. Can’t wait to work on the trees. I do know that when I start the work, the deepest state of calmness will set in. The opposite of the excited, disturbed state is counteracted by the meditative state.

Maybe that is what is in Banksy’s quote, the yin and the yang, the stillness and the turbulence, the Bonsai tree and the Bonsai artist. It is one, it is the whole, it is the two sides of the same coin.

Share your thoughts on this in the comments.

Pruning Bonsai Maple Trees

Introduction

The aesthetic and monetary value of a Bonsai tree is determined by its health, shape, size, age and these days the celebrity status of the artist. All of these, accept for the last one, can be enhanced through proper care which includes shaping, pruning and pinching as developmental techniques.

Why Pruning

There are a few reasons why Maples should be pruned or trimmed. Developing structure is a big part of this and then culminates in developing good ramification and a pleasing shape. The different phases depends on whether you are working on a seedling, a well-established tree or a tree that was field grown and in its early stages of development.

The seedling or young plant is the easiest as it can still be bend in a suitable shape and very little cutting is needed until later. Use wire for this bending. At this young stage it is important to develop the basic structure and to leave as much growth as possible to feed the trunk.

The more advanced tree will have its main flow established and the emphasis is now on branch development according to the desired style and shape. The great thing about Maples is that you can cut a whole branch off and in a few years’ time you can grow a new branch in a more suitable place or with more movement in it. This is where patience comes in.

This is also the time to remove unwanted growth such as bar branches, crossing branches, branches that do not add to the aesthetics of the tree like branches growing upwards and downwards, interfering with layers above or below it.

Once the tree is established and with a desirable structure and flow, you start to refine the secondary and tertiary branches by either trimming back to a couple of leaves or by using the pinching method. This enhances ramification and forcing the internodes to be shorter. Defoliation is part of this strategy and this also helps to reduce the leave size.

I also do believe that deciduous trees, like conifers need to have the energy throughout the tree balanced. Apical dominance plays a big part here. Sometimes lower branches become weaker. This can be due to the top of the tree growing too vigorously or just because the lower branches are shaded out by the upper branches. By removing some of the upper leaves or just reducing them in size by removing about half of the leave, more light is let through.

The Timing of Pruning

The best time for structural pruning and shaping is early to late spring as the tree is getting out of dormancy and will be full of vigour to get growing again. Heavy pruning or shaping should not be done around repotting time when large quantities of roots are removed. A lot of the trees energy is stored in the roots and when this is removed, new growth will be jeopardised. If you are not going to remove a lot of roots during repotting, pruning can be done at least two weeks before repotting.

How to Prune

For structural pruning, use sharp cutters and seal the wound with sealing paste or something similar. You want the edges of the cut to be clean and not torn. Hollow the wood in the cut a little bit by using knob cutters (rounded blade) or even a Dremel tool. The cambium (thin green layer just under the bark) needs to be kept moist and healthy (that is what the paste is for as well) to allow it to grow and roll over the wound and after time, sealing the wound off for a natural appearance.

The main reason for pruning throughout the growing season is to keep the internodes short, the leaves small and the most important one, increasing ramification. It is also used to create layers or foliage clouds by removing upward and downward growth.

The main refining method is trimming, supplemented with pinching in more established trees. The general convention is that you will prune back to two or four pairs of leaves. This is done when the new branch has extended to three or more pairs of leaves. Sharp scissors are used to cut through the central shoot and leaving a short part of this shoot still intact. Maples do die back where a cut is made. By leaving a short stalk, the die back will not affect the buds from where new growth will sprout.

Pinching is used on well-established tree and is a refinement technique. The new leaves are removed just as they start to unfurl, as early as still in their embryonic stage. If there is a specific area where you want denser growth, remove the leading shoot as well as the two side shoots. The finer leaves will have finer twigs and this all adds to refinement and better ramification. This is what gives deciduous trees and especially Maples, the great silhouette during Winter time when the tree is without leaves.

Large leaves can be trimmed off at any time. As mentioned before, this will allow more light to penetrate through to the interior of the tree which in turn will cause more back budding to occur.

Defoliation

Defoliation can take place by mid-summer as long as you still have a decent length of growing season ahead. As mentioned, this will lead to smaller new leaves growing and will also help to allow more light to penetrate into the tree. This can be done by removing all leaves. Only do this when the tree is healthy and you have good weather conditions ahead. It will take up to three weeks for leaves to grow again. Defoliation can also be used to balance the energy and growth across a tree. If a specific branch is lagging behind, partial leave removal on that branch can help to invigorate the branch. This method is not as invasive as complete leaf removal and allows the branch to grow new shoots. I personally prefer to defoliate over two weeks. I do the lower branches first and then over the next two weeks move up the tree until done. This is less stressful and balances leave growth across the whole tree.

Conclusion

  • Think about and plan structural pruning as well as refinement pruning and pinching.
  • The health of the tree always comes first.
  • Use sharp and clean equipment for cutting and pruning.
  • Prepare and clean cutting wounds.
  • Always use cut paste on larger wounds.
  • Keep the big picture in mind.
  • Make cuttings of the prunings.

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Beginner’s Series: Make a start

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.

Nursery stock

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.

Thick wire can be used to bend this trunk.

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.

Crotches are clean and branches set by using guy wires.

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.

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