The Addiction Strikes – Collecting Bonsai Trees from Nature

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.

Winter Bonsai – It All Depends.

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:

  • Watering
  • Protection
  • Light needs
  • Hygiene

Watering

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.

Protection

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.

Light Needs

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.

Hygiene

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.

Positives

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.

The Balance between Life and Death – Preventing Bonsai trees from dying.

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.

Basic Horticulture

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.

Frost and cold damage.

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.

Overworking

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.

Many places for creepy crawlies to hide.

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.

Seal wounds.

Summary

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.

Let there be Light – Bonsai light requirements.

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.

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.

If you need one on one tuition, have a look at the subscriptions page on this website.

Guiding branches with Guy Wires

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.

Not a good idea to place wire directly on old bark.

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.

Using aquarium tubing to protect the bark.

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.

Winding wires up.

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.

This tree has fourteen guy wires to pull branches in place.

Bonsai knowledge and skills resources – How do we learn?

Read as much as you can.

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.

Join a club or two or three.

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.

My Bonsai Test

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.

Show them off – Preparing a tree for a show

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

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.

Soil

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.

Pot

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.

Display

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!

Lime Sulphur and Bonsai – multitasking chemical

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.

Creating a Windswept Style Bonsai

This Juniper was dug from a friend’s garden two years ago and it struggled to get to grips with life in a pot. The main reason could be that there is quite a bit of rot at the base of the tree and the live vein is quite narrow at that point. The main focus was to strengthen the roots through Proper soil maintenance, fertilising and having a disciplined approach to watering.

After a previous blog post I was inspired to design a Fukinagashi or windswept Bonsai tree. https://bonsaiplace.net/2019/04/21/fukinagashi-windswept-bonsai-style/

As most of the branches were leaning towards the left, it was an easy decision to let the flow all go to that side. A few more weak branches were cut and jinned. This job took about two hours with the help of a knife and a Dremel. The tree was left overnight and lime sulphur applied the following day.

Wiring was applied on the right hand side to enable those branches to be twisted to the left. The tree will now rest and be planted in a very shallow slab, tapering to the left as well. The base will be planted to the far right of the pot. Until then, fertiliser will be applied and the tree will be placed in full sun to maximise growth. Fine wiring will come later during winter. I do believe in little bits more often, rather than doing a lot of work in one go and risking the health of the tree.

Simplicity is the goal in every art.

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?

Juniper Progress.

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 study my trees from the top as I used to style very flat trees in the past. Probably because I look at too many trees in photos. A top view shows you the depth of the tree.

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.

The Bonsai Curriculum.

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?