Healing Powers of Bonsai

It took me a while to write this blog post as it is a personal account of a part of my life that is quite personal. People that know me will know that this is not normally something that I will do, but I do think that the time is now ripe to do so. 

I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic melanoma during 2016 (lower case letters are deliberate) and was very lucky to come through on the other side relatively unscathed. This blog post is not about cancer and how to fight it, it is more an account of my interaction with Bonsai trees during the healing time. Much is said and is written about meditation and its positive effects on the body and mind. There are also writings and accounts of the meditative encounters that people have while interacting with nature. 

Although I do not specifically work on Bonsai trees for the sake of a meditative experience, I do believe that while working on a tree, and when totally focussed on the task at hand, it is very easy to find yourself “in the zone”. Whether this is a form of meditation, I am not sure, but it sure feels like it. Whether I am working on a smaller or a large tree, the effect is the same. I am more relaxed during and after the experience. In my mind this is due to the fact that I engage in a state of mindfulness. This is necessary as I need to respect the tree and am not in a position to make mistakes. Creative pursuits tend to ask for total mindfulness and a state of relaxed alertness to do justice to what nature has given you to work on. Without this mindfulness and focussed state, mistakes will be made and if in a hurry, wrong design decisions will be made. In Bonsai, these will take years to be corrected and can even lead to the death of a tree.

Wound drain bottle was carried around. Just making sure that the scissors and plastic tube did not meet.

During my healing after surgery and especially during the radiation phase, I regularly interacted with my trees, and as it was during Spring and Early Summer, there was a lot to do. I did miss the repotting opportunity during that time as I did not think it was wise to work too much with soil-filled bacteria and other creepy crawlies around. Most of the work was around pruning trees, styling, inclusive of wiring and also removing wire. These are repetitive actions and on a large tree can take up to three hours. Due to the radiation effects, I had to break lengthy jobs up into shorter stints to not over burden myself. Smaller trees I could move myself, but my wife had to help with the larger ones. I had a wound drain hanging out of my side and this could become tricky with the plastic drain tube and very sharp pruning scissors snipping away.

 For me, the time that I spent working on the trees, sometimes just studying the trees for future jobs and appreciating the beauty and form of trees, did impact positively on the healing process. It led to me being calmer, taking my thoughts away from the current situation and afterwards feeling satisfied with a job well done. It also forced me to be outside in fresh air. This led to a positive frame of mind which definitely helped to get me on my feet and looking forward to what the future holds.

On top of my interaction with Bonsai trees, the support of my wife, Susanna, was immense to help me through some pretty dark times and I will forever be in her debt for her support. So there you go, if something is wrong, work on your trees and make sure that you have great support around you, and you to will be up and running in no time.

Radiation time with Susanna in support. I wonder if the radiation had an effect on the trees?

Master, Apprentice, Enthusiast – Bonsai Education.

It is generally accepted and published on various websites that an apprenticeship can take capbetween 2,000 and 12,000 hours to complete. The same websites mention that it will take between two and four years to complete an apprenticeship. It is also common knowledge that Bonsai cultivation apprenticeships can take many more years to complete than an apprenticeship for an electrician or a plumber. In my field of work, it takes four years to be trained as a teacher. This normally includes a three year degree programme as well as a one year professional Diploma in Education.

What do we get for all of this? You normally walk away with a piece of paper that announces that you are a qualified professional, a person that can do a good job to a good standard in your chosen area of studies. You also earn a salary. I have read somewhere that a Bonsai apprenticeship could involve 10,000 hours of work and study, mainly hands-on work under the supervision of a master. We usually find that apprentices in other fields of work also work under the supervision of a specialist or a master, at least a qualified person with ample experience. Let us break 10,000 hours down to get some perspective on the time factor.

I have found all over the internet that an apprentice should not work for more than 40 hours per week. We also anecdotally know that Bonsai apprentices work for much longer hours, especially those who complete their apprenticeships in Japan. Michael Hagedorn mh-bookhas written about this in his book which discusses his experiences as an apprentice in Japan. If we take a normal working week as a 40 hour work week, 10,000 hours will equate to 250 weeks and if we work for 50 weeks per year, this equates to 5 years. This is hard, physical work and one wonders why it takes so much longer than other apprenticeships. The only thing that I can think of is that it is so much more than just the technical aspects of Horticulture that must be mastered. The artistic and cultural side of things probably takes a lot longer to master than the mere application of wire, watering, pruning, fertilizing and a whole host of other things that are needed to keep a tree alive.

I assume that it takes many years of cultivating Bonsai before one can be considered to be a Master Bonsai Practitioner. How many years? I have no idea. Must you go through an official apprenticeship to work towards Master status? Anecdotally, yes, but again, I do not know, but can guess that it is not necessary. In Japan these things are controlled by the Nippon Society and I can understand why. There is nothing like that in other areas of the World. Does an apprenticeship in Europe or the USA, under a practitioner who knows his business and has a proven track record, carry the same status as an apprenticeship done in Japan? A Bachelors or Masters degree from a well recognized university anywhere in the world do carry the same status. Most countries now have a Qualifications Authority which assess these things and recognize similar qualifications across the globe. Is it time that the same happens for Bonsai studies? In the mean time, where does this leave an enthusiast who just engages in his Bonsai as a hobby? Does it matter? No, I do not think so as these people (I am one of them with a little business on the side) cultivate Bonsai for reasons that have nothing to do with the commercialization of Bonsai. And that brings me to my summary.

Does the proliferation of Bonsai “courses”, both in residence as well as online, show us that Bonsai and the educational opportunities that do arise from the wider commercialization of Bonsai across the world is maturing into a world-wide commercial empire? If this is the case, then the management or control of what these courses look like, minimum requirements as well as qualifications achieved, will need a good look at and probably needs to be standardized. Out of these educational encounters, titles come to the fore. Who then is a Master, an Apprentice, a Technologist or a Hobbyist / Enthusiast?

Chamaecyparis progression

What to do on a wintry day with the wind howling outside, rain bucketing down and more to come judging by the Ruahine Ranges covered in dark, ominous looking clouds? One idea is to cuddle up and get a good book out, another to get a hearty soup on the go, but the one that I gravitated towards, was to work on a nursery stock, small Chamaecyparis obtusa standing on my Bonsai bench. It has been there for more than a year now, just waiting for a day like today.

The Chamaecyparis, also known as the Hinoki False Cypress, is native to Japan. It is a very slow growing tree and the nursery label on this little one states that it will grow to 60 cm high by 50 cm wide in 10 years. It has whorled branches of lovely dark green foliage and an upright habit with character and charm. Obviously not for long.

Before I start, here is some more information on the Hinoki Cypress. The foliage consists of evergreen, fine scale-like leaves, dark and shiny green above (adaxial) with glaucous margins between scales which form a distinct “x” shaped pattern beneath (abaxial). This species is monocious with small male reddish brown cones and slightly larger female flowers which are round and yellow-green in color. It bears fruit in late summer, but these are quite small. The bark is gray and scaly with long furrows of reddish brown inner bark which peels in long, narrow strips.

With this wind howling outside, I am going to let it influence my thinking and create a windswept (Fukinagashi) style shohin. I am sure that other styles will come to mind as I progress with this little tree.

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This is what I thought the front of the tree should be based on the Nebari.

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This is the view from the other side after a quick clean-up of the lower branches.










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The Nebari shows more prominent growth on the left hand side. This means that the tree could slant towards the right.

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With that in mind the leaves are removed from the smaller branch.









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The rest of the tree is cleaned-up by thinning out some of the foliage.

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At a slight slant to the right.










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This looks like a nice little tree already with the bark stripped off the smaller branch (Jinned) as well as a back branch and some other smaller branches.

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I could have stopped with the previous photo’s style, but wanted to style this in a Windswept style. Slightly more pronounced slant, more thinning and wired.










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The final product, all potted up and kept in a sheltered place.

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The size is 16 cm by 10 cm by 10 cm. Now it will be fertilized and watered regularly.

Soil pH and Bonsai

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

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

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

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

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

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


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