Sculpture is defined as Three-dimensional art made by one of four basic processes: carving, modelling, casting, constructing, by http://www.tate.org.uk. A good friend and fellow Bonsai Artist, Greg Tuthill (http://gregtuthill.com/), is a sculpture artist who uses metal as his preferred material and, as mentioned, a very good Bonsai artist as well. That made me think about Bonsai not only as an art form, but specifically as Sculpture.
Let’s unpack the four basic processes as listed in the definition above.
Constructing – Modelling – Carving – Casting
Constructing: For me constructing is producing or making something out of raw material. Here we can argue that the raw material is represented by the starter Bonsai plant, the cutting, the Yamadori or nursery material. From this point you have to make decisions about direction, flow, what to keep and what to discard. You cut, you wire, you shape and you bend what you have in front of you into a design or shape that resembles your idea and vision of what a Bonsai tree should look like. At all times the material that you are working with will dictate how far you can go and what is possible, You construct and therefore Bonsai ticks the box for this element of sculpture.
Modelling: Modelling is shaping something based on a model and in Bonsai we have plenty of examples of this. The basic Bonsai forms of formal upright, informal upright, cascade, slanting and a whole lot more provides the models that we work from. This is used as background knowledge and applied to the material that you have in front of you to create something that might show elements of the model, but is unique in its own character. The act of wiring is also part of modelling.
Carving: This we see in Bonsai when we sculpt deadwood, Jin, Uro and Shari. For this we use various techniques and equipment just as a Sculptor would do.
Casting: I am not aware of a lot of casting going on in direct relation to the tree, but no Bonsai is complete without its frame which is represented by the pot. Various methods are used to produce or create Bonsai pots and casting is definitely one of these techniques. It is necessary to have a suitable container or pot to complete the full picture of what a Bonsai represents.
There is one major difference and that Sculpture is normally seen as something done with wood, clay, stone or other non-living materials. Bonsai is definitely done with living trees and can therefore by seen as a living art form. Is Bonsai a form of sculpture? In my opinion, yes, it is.
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.
And here is the tree after the pads were set.
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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.
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.
Below are three Maple root cuttings in development.
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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.
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.
This Redwood will now rest until Spring, be fed profusely in a sheltered spot.
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.
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.
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.
Watch this space to see the updates, further development and potting) and also follow us on Bonsaiplace on Facebook as well as Instagram.
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.
For us in the Southern hemisphere it is that time of year when Bonsai enthusiasts pack their bags, collect their tools and load up on enough supplies to go Yamadori hunting. Yes, we go crazy to get our hands on raw material that we can grow on to become aesthetically pleasing Bonsai.
The big questions related to this activity is based on safety and ethics. How do I do it safely and how do I do it ethically?
Safety always comes first. It starts with weather conditions, through to the equipment needed to keep you safe and also having a plan. If you go on your own, make sure you tell people what your plans are, where you will be and what time you will be back. If you are visiting a remote area and there is no cell coverage, then you will need a personal locator beacon.
Always make sure that you have enough food, shelter and clothing to last for three times longer than what you expect to be out. A safe way to do this is to write a list of what you will need and then use it to pack your stuff. On your return, revisit the list and update it for next time.
I see many people on a Bonsai hunt with very little eye, hand or feet protection when things like spades, saws and power tools like chainsaws are pulled out. Do not forget your ears when the latter starts up.
A big issue that we need to have a lot more conversations about is the ethical removal of trees from nature. It starts with permission to do so and really comes down to the survivability of the tree once lifted. There is a skill to this as well as the transport and after care of the tree. You need to know the species. Is it something you can lift and transport bare rooted or is it something that you start the preparation a year ahead of the actual removal of the tree?
My general rule is that if I am not one hundred percent sure that the tree will survive or that I do not have the skills to care for that specific specie of tree, then I leave it where it is. Not a fifty percent chance, a one hundred percent chance.
There are many You Tube videos and a lot of information available on the technical aspects of how to do this. I have always wondered about what some of these collected trees look like after a few years. Responsible collectors follow their videos and photos up with progress videos and photos. Probably because they have live trees to show for their efforts. Those are the ones that you want to look at or follow. If you never see these trees again, stay away from these people.
In conclusion, think, plan and over organise your trip. Have all the correct equipment needed and only take what you have permission for and what you can keep alive.
I find myself these days starting answers to Bonsai related questions mostly with “it depends”. This topic will be the same. Your local climate and setup will largely determine what you do with your Bonsai trees during Winter. As most of the Blog readers will rightfully ask about the purpose of this topic this time of the year, the simple answer is that most of the readers are in the USA and I am in New Zealand / Aotearoa. It is Winter here now.
This could be a good example of how local climate can differ. Parts of the South Island and inland North Island, will have snow on the mountains with below freezing temperatures at times. The same will be true for Northern Hemisphere countries during that Winter. It all depends!
Here is a video from a few years back of some of my Bonsai just as it started to snow.
The main things to look out for are:
As most trees will go dormant or at least slow down with the onset of Winter, it is important to make sure that you adjust to the water requirements that comes with this. The main problem is being too wet. This can lead to root rot. The best way to tackle this is to be pro-active by ensuring that all your trees have a well draining soil mixture and that the pot drainage holes are open. I have found many a spider’s nest and snails blocking the hole partially from the outside. Another technique is to place the pot at an angle for water to run off during periods of heavy or consistent rain. Needless to say is that when you are in a high rainfall area is to switch automatic watering systems off during this time. It is as important to check trees regularly / daily for water requirements. Be especially on the lookout for trees that might be partially protected by trees, fences or roof overhangs. The front row of trees might be wet, but those in a “rain shadow” might be very dry.
Frost is the biggest enemy here. It is reported that for some species snow is not a problem as it could insulate the tree from harsher elements like wind. Wind for me is a major problem. Not only does it dry leaves out, but in Winter it causes a wind chill, sometimes far below areas out of the wind. Trees not accustomed to these very low temperatures must be protected. This will include over-wintering in a basement, garage, shed or at least a conservatory of some sorts. I personally do not have many trees with this requirement, but do have a few sub-tropicals, inclusive of Bougainvillea that needs protection. This is done in the form of just placing it under a bench when frosts are expected or using a cold frame. Trees that you work on during Winter, even if it is just wiring, should be kept in a better climatic area for a few days after the work was done.
It is mentioned in the paragraph above that trees can be over-wintered indoors. As deciduous trees will be without leaves, light requirements do not matter too much, but it is important to take note that plants rely heavily on day and night length differences to keep seasonal cycles going. For this reason, indoor trees are usually placed under lights on timers, mimicking the gradual increase in day length hours as Winter passes towards Spring. When it comes to light requirements, the answer of “it depends” is highlighted. Study your plants, increase your knowledge about specific species requirements and adjust accordingly. Winter is a great time to read, study and watch You Tube videos to increase knowledge. That includes reading this blog and visiting http://www.bonsaiplace.net regularly for updates. Best still, subscribe and you will never miss an article.
Clean, clean and then clean some more. Get rid of leaves and everything else that all sorts of bugs can hide under, lay eggs, overwinter themselves and then come out in Summer and create havoc. This is also the time when you can spray to kill all sorts of fungal spores. A weak solution of lime sulphur does the trick. Just, as always, be careful when it comes to Pines when spraying for fungus as it can kill the beneficial micorhiza off in the soil.
In very cold climates most bugs and spores will be killed due to the very cold temperatures and for me the best is the architectural forms displayed by especially deciduous trees without their leaves. En joy this season, it is crucial in the development and normal growth of trees and also learn from your trees. We all need a break at least once a year.
“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.
It is a given. You will have a few trees die on your watch. Nobody wants it, but it happens and it is part of the life-death cycle that underpins all living things. We do not kill our trees deliberately and it therefore is important to take note of the things that do increase the chances of this unfortunate event.
This relates to keeping the tree healthy through everyday practices, inclusive of hygiene, watering, light and nutrition requirements.
In my experience watering requirements is the most important of these aspects. Get that wrong and your tree will deteriorate and then just die. This relates to both overwatering as well as too dry conditions. Every tree will have different requirements based on species, soil medium, size and exposure to sun. Study this for each specie, make notes, learn and apply. Overwatering is the dangerous one as it generally leads to root rot and by the time you become aware of this it is too late. Be aware of irrigation systems. A power outage, a flat battery or a broken pipe, all lead to disaster. The best way to water is by hand and by studying each tree and adjust the amount of water to the daily requirements. It is labour intensive, but a safe way to keep your trees alive.
When repotting, pay special attention to the roots. Some species do not handle complete removal of soil well. Check for tangled roots, check for bugs, caterpillars and ants nests in the soil at this time.
Seasonal and Climate requirements
At the time of writing this, it is winter in New Zealand and after quite a dry period, it has now been raining for three days solidly and the temperature has dropped into single digits in places. Irrigation systems are now turned off and the focus now shifts from preventing trees from drying out to ensure they do not drown. Half of my trees now have pots at an angle to allow water to run off, rather than sit in the pot. Back to basic horticulture as your soil medium and its drainage ability now plays a big role in keeping trees healthy and alive.
I have mentioned temperature and the accompanying conditions now come into play as well. Snow can actually insulate trees, but frost is just nasty. Your local climate and specific species will dictate if a tree needs to be under cover or not. Frost has killed many a tree. Very harsh high temperatures, accompanied with little to now sun protection and not enough water will kill trees. Take note of your pot and soil temperatures. The pot construction, size and colour can have an effect on the temperature inside the pot. Two pots next to each other can have very different temperatures.
Be careful when bringing plants inside, especially non-dormant trees. I have seen and heard of many trees that just did not like artificial heating systems, wood fire burners and even being cooked on a window sill, resulting in the tree ending up on the compost heap.
Light requirement of a tree is a big one. Suitable species for sunny areas are Celtis, Junipers, Chinese Elms, Cotoneaster, most Pine species, Holly, pyracantha and others. For a more shady aspect look at Azalea, Maples, Beech, Zelkova and others. Acclimatisation plays a big role here. You can gently and over time get some species to tolerate a wider range of light and temperatures if your care is spot on. Generally, if you get this wrong, a tree will deteriorate over time and if not corrected will say goodbye.
This is not just a beginners issue. Many a tree has succumbed to being overworked. The safe mantra here is do little bits of work more often, rather than massive root work at the same time as huge pruning and styling jobs. This goes with seasonal changes as well. Certain things, like defoliation, should take place at a specific time of year. Same for root work and repotting. It could be different for different species. Study, learn and apply.
Diseases and Pests
That is self-explanatory. The best is to use preventative methods to stop disease and pests from getting to your trees. This could include preventative sprays, either organic or not. That depends on your philosophy, but either way, keep an eye out for tell tale signs. Things like ants can point to aphids, sooty mould and other issues. Yellowing and spots on leaves, droppings of bugs and caterpillars, chew marks on leaves, sudden leave drop, are all signs of things going wrong. Keep an eye out and this can easily be combined with your daily watering routine. A big part of prevention is basic hygiene around your trees. Get rid of fallen leaves, clean underneath your benches and check the undersides of pots. Many an issue can be prevented by just cleaning often.
Seal wounds, tie trees down in pots when repotting, check old wounds, look for new holes in the trunk, marks like ring barking and especially underneath the leaves.
This is just a snapshot of things that can go wrong and is not intended to scare or put Bonsai enthusiasts off, just a reminder that a Bonsai tree is like having a pet. The tree has basic requirements and if these are not taken care of, it will deteriorate and can then die as a result of neglect or just not being bale to pick up on adverse things early enough. The solution is to arm yourself with knowledge, practice the skills involved in keeping a tree alive and constantly take great care of your trees.
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.
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.
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 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.
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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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.
I recently saw a few posts on social media where people new to Bonsai asked for advice and also for good sources of reliable information. The “reliable information” made me think even more. Most of this happens in the internet and as mentioned, on social media. In a lot of cases the credentials of the people answering these questions cannot be easily established and one of the things that really get to me is that people give advice without establishing where the person asking the question is from. I have recently moved 500km north on the North Island of New Zealand and now know that even a relatively short distance like that makes for a very different climate and a complete rethink of when to do what with my trees.
So, where and what are the best places and people to go to. My personal philosophy on this is that you should use as many resources as possible. One of the answers amongst a whole host of really good ones out of a discussion of which club to join (think this was in Australia), was that one must be weary of clubs as there is usually a dominant teacher there with set ideas and that one should actually just watch You Tube videos. Nothing wrong with the videos, but the person went further to mention one specific series of videos, again with one dominant teacher. No change then.
By all means, join a club. It is a very good thing to do. As a matter of fact, join more than one. Supplement this with watching a variety of videos, there are millions on line. The emphasis here is on the variety. Out of this, always relate it back to what you already know, where your knowledge and skills come from and how that relates to your trees, your philosophy and your climate. This reflection part is to me the most important phase of learning. Digest all of the information that you have and take what suits your situation. Books, whether in digital format or printed (still my favourite) should be part of this learning. Attend conventions, workshops and demonstrations. This is probably where you will learn most.
Many online videos exist.
This learning journey never stops and if you are exposed to a “sensei” who does not learn anymore him- or herself, run as far away and as fast as you can. Bonsai is the ultimate lifelong learning exercise.
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.
I have recently been privileged to get hold of a few older trees that has not had a lot of care and maintenance done on them. They came from an older person whose health is not that great and he cannot look after the trees that well anymore.
Just a plant in a pot. Some of the character is there, but growth is leggy and not well maintained.
While studying the trees I had this overwhelming feeling of responsibility that came to sit on me and I realised that I now have to look after these trees better than the trees that I have cultivated from scratch. Why this feeling? I have been part of many discussions and even said it to many people in audiences wherever I go, that Bonsai is something that we get to enjoy now, but that we also start something for the next generation. I now realise that when it lands on the next generation, it comes with a burden, but it is a positive one. We are just caretakers of the Bonsai trees coming through our hands right now. It is part of our journey just as we are part of the tree’s journey.
You are privileged to receive a tree from the previous generation and you inherit with it, a responsibility to support that tree for the next generation. And on the cycle goes. All privilege comes with responsibility and this is no different when it comes to Bonsai. Is it more than just looking after your own trees? Yes, I do think so. The tree comes with a history, a story, and you might not be aware of this as I certainly have no idea what this looks like for my new (old) trees. That does not matter as we are lucky in that some of this history is told by the tree itself.
The roots will tell you how it has been struggling to hold on to the ground and how it searched for water and food. The bark, the angle of the branches, the presence of jin and shari and what it looks like, are all parts of this story being told. It is now my job to ensure that this tree’s story can still be told and then when it goes off to the next generation that my contribution to the life story of the tree is visible and seamlessly integrates with the tree’s existing story. This is privilege and this is responsibility.
Accept this responsibility, carry it and enjoy it!