I am always on the lookout for new material and prefer to work with material that has accumulated some age and character through being garden plants or from nature during the first phase of their lives. Sometimes they come for free and sometimes you have to pay. These two Azalea plants were advertised for free and just needed to be dug out. That took two minutes as these are shallow rooted plants.
Freshly dug Azaleas and the first step is to remove all dead branches and then also to remove most of the garden soil. It is better to remove all old soil, but in some cases it is ok to leave some of the garden soil depending on the season. You do not always have a choice when the plants become available and then you have to make informed decisions about how far you can go, especially when it comes to root work.
These two were potted up and we also managed to get seven smaller plants off the larger clump. Needless to say, these two are clump style and will be grown and refined over the next few years as such.
Aftercare is the most important aspect when it comes to doing work on plants out of the optimum season. Watering is a big part of this and after I have watered the plants in, I always water with a nutrient rich tonic and fertiliser and prefer liquid ones. My go to preference is Swift Grow due to the fact that it is organic, contains all needed nutrients and very important for me, the right probiotics to get the roots off to a great start.
With no national shows in Spring and very little club activity due to Covid-related restrictions this year, it gave the opportunity to allow trees to just grow, recover and gain some vigour. Or is it just laziness or procrastination that allowed for some of my trees to get out of hand, especially in the weed growing department. With a bit more time on my hands due to the summer break, it is time to get some control back.
My normal way of working is to start at the bottom and this case was no different. I ignored the weeds for now and first took all the dead little twigs out. In the process of doing this, I discovered a solo paper wasp nest and had to remove the culprit and the start of the nest first.
Next job was to take all unwanted growth out. This included spent flowers, crossing branches, branches going against the flow, branches and twigs growing up or down. This created a more natural pad shape and with the trunk now more open, it was decided to turn the tree very slightly to the right. That means repotting and in the middle of summer, not such a great idea. This tree species is treated as a weed in New Zealand due to its indestructible nature, spread all over the place and pushing native species out. In other words, it is quite hardy.
The tree was taken out of the pot, some old soil was raked out, but no roots were cut. This took care of the weed problem as well. Back in the pot with some fresh soil and also the slight twist. It is now well-watered and in the shade for a few days before it goes back on the bench.
Weeds: As Bonsai grow in relatively small pots and the soil medium is quite porous, you do not want weeds in your soil competing for the same food source. It is better to keep an eye on this and remove weeds as soon as they appear. Not only will you have more nutrients available for the tree, but by removing weeds while small, you also do not disturb the tree roots when you have to remove larger weeds.
In summary for summer maintenance:
Remove all dead and sick leaves, twigs and branches.
Seal all big cuts.
Clip to shape and where necessary apply light wiring.
Remove all weeds from the soil and pot.
Only work on the root ball if it is not invasive work and you have the ability to provide exemplary aftercare. Do not cut roots at this time of year.
Water and keep in a sheltered position.
Apply liquid fertiliser or tonic and then follow up with a slow release granular fertiliser. I use Seasol and then a well-balanced fertiliser as Summer progresses into Autumn. I also use Rhizotonic when available.
Fro Northern hemisphere readers, please take note that these trees live in the Southern Hemisphere (New Zealand).
Let’s drop the cat in the middle of the pigeons by saying that most art forms have specific styles or movements that are easily recognisable through look, technique or application. This article is just one of many having a good go at describing different painting styles (https://indonesiadesign.com/story/major-art-painting-styles). These include styles like Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism and many others. The artist themselves can in a lot of cases be identified by just looking at their work. Bonsai does not have that and there the cat goes.
How does this relate to Bonsai? Most Bonsai artists will be able to explain the difference between Bonsai and Penjing (see Zhao Qingquan’s work) and then there is also the nuggets of wisdom wanting to explain Niwaki as an art form, and we will rather stay away from saying too much about Topiary (just joking). Then there is also Kenji Kobayashi describing Keshiki Bonsai and many other attempts at identifying styles.
A book of great value is that of Charles Ceronio, Bonsai styles of the world (2015) in which he describes the structural styles of Bonsai design. What I am getting to here is to see if we can identify styles like it is done with paintings as mentioned in the first paragraph. There are attempts made by some artists to add to this knowledge and an example of this could be Walter Pall talking about the Naturalistic style. Is that even a thing? Taking a hedge trimmer to a Bonsai and giving it a name is probably not the best of attempts to give a style a name.
It is quite clear that there are many easily recognisable trees or even collections of trees that can be attributed to specific Bonsai artists. Goshin would be a good example of this. I can also think of some of Masahiko Kimura’s trees as easily identifiable. Is that true for many of the current big or trendy names that we currently have in Bonsai? Can you pick a Bjorholm, a Noelanders, a Neil, a Pall out of a line up of trees?
Then there is also a debate going around on specific regional styles. Is their a European style or an American style? What we do see is that artists use native trees from specific areas and do a wonderful job with those trees, but at the end of the day, these trees still relate back to the basic design styles of Bonsai and not necessarily an artist or a region or a philosophical style. The one exception will be that of Literati. Is that the only design style that can be linked to a time period or a movement?
Where to with this argument? Probably nowhere and does it really matter. We have the basic design styles in Bonsai and many derivatives from that, we have individual expression in each tree and if that is recognisable as the work from a specific artist, great. Do we need to link it to the “isms” that we find in other art forms? So far it has been restricted for Bonsai or maybe it is just case of it not being necessary for the Bonsai world. Or is it? Is this the missing bit for Bonsai to be recognised as a true art form? Maybe we can just enjoy Bonsai for what it is and not overcomplicate matters by trying to find its place in mainstream art forms. It could be that it is so far removed from other art forms that the vocabulary needed to describe it is very different. Maybe the vocabulary must still be worked out?
Whatever it is, it is art, a living art. It is an art form that humans use to express themselves within what nature provides to do so. It could be that it is too free to put in a box and put “ism” at the end of the name of the box.
Carving is usually done to create or enhance jin, uro (holes), shari (stripped bark) or getting rid of areas where large branches were removed. In this case a large branch, about one inch thickness, had to be removed and it was decided to leave a 15cm piece of it and sculpt a jin (deadwood) out of it.
I use a die grinder with a carving bit to remove material fast and to roughly shape the dead straight branch by making grooves in curves and alternating the depth of the grooves. Once this is done I burn the jin to get rid of wood fibres and then repeat the process with the trusted Dremel and a smaller carving bit.
As mentioned, burning the jin with a butane torch gets rid of the loose fibres, but it also helps to get rid of sharp edges and tool marks. After a heavy torching, the jin is brushed with a copper brush and then with a nylon brush. Sand paper can be used to smooth areas that needs it, but I find that the brushing works well on its own.
To preserve the newly carved jin, I wash the whole tree off and then let it dry and rest for a few days. Lime sulphur or a wood hardener can then be applied. For a darker finish, mix some ash (burnt paper) in water and paint on. Some of the grooves can also be painted by making use of black ink. All fluids should be diluted. Lime sulphur is usually diluted with water 50/50%.
Wear safety glasses during the carving phase.
Use gloves when using the power tools.
When using the torch, protect the rest of the tree from the flame by using aluminium foil or a wet cloth around foliage and nearby parts.
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In November 2015, the very early days of this blog site, I wrote about Metrosideros excelsa or Pohutukawa as Bonsai and included a few photos of these magnificent trees in nature. This tree is also known as the New Zealand Christmas tree. The link to that blog post is here.
For this blog post I will style a Pohutukawa as a Bonsai. As can be seen from the photos in the linked post, these trees very naturally present as multi trunks with great root structures and the very prominent aerial roots. it is this root structure and especially the aerial roots that make these trees ideal for root over rock designs. This tree will not be a full root over rock, but a rock will be placed next to it with roots growing over the rock.
This plant was grown from a cutting for a few years and these photos clearly show that these trees are basal dominant. It basically means that it will keep on growing new shoots from the base compared to tree which are apical dominant where the new growth is at the top of the tree.
As can be seen from the photos above, the first step is to search for roots and in this case roots in the soil and not the aerial roots. I find it better to remove the top edge of the plastic bag and sometimes remove the bag or pot completely. The presence and position of roots, especially radial roots will help to determine the orientation of the tree. In other words, the front of the tree and the first ideas of what the design could look like. In this case quite prominent roots were found and spread around the tree which means we can now look at the above ground structure as the placement of the roots allow us to look at multiple design options.
The next step is to remove all unwanted growth. To stay more or less true to the natural growth pattern Pohutukawa, the decision was made to design a multi trunk tree with three trunks. Really only two, but the thickest trunk has a fork which visually looks like two trunks. All three trunks have different diameters which makes it visibly more pleasing. All inward growing branches are removed and decisions are made about the three trunks. This includes things like direction, placement and length. As the three main trunks did not grow naturally in the directions needed and the centre trunk needed to be compacted, wire was applied.
The final product with a rock added to add visual weight on the right hand side and also allow a backdrop or prop for some of the aerial roots to grow over.
It is important that Bonsai trees are three dimensional. The best way to check that is to view the tree from above. Visual depth adds to the aesthetics and overall view of the tree.
As for all trees, the aftercare is now of the utmost importance. As the pot is not that shallow, not many roots were removed, but the tree will still be kept in a protected spot, out of the wind and cold temperatures. Watering is now also important as well as sun exposure. Just damp, not wet and limited afternoon sun is what is now needed for the further development of this tree.
We have already looked at Photosynthesis https://bonsaiplace.net/2021/07/17/horticultural-processes-and-bonsai-photosynthesis/ and Transpiration https://bonsaiplace.net/2021/07/18/horticultural-processes-for-bonsai-transpiration/ as two processes that are very important for plants and your Bonsai to stay alive. There is a third such process which is as important as the other two, but because the structures responsible for this one are not that visible, it is not that well known. Respiration is something that is done by all living organisms. It basically comes down to the exchange of gasses that is needed to survive, just like in a human being. We breathe in and out to get Oxygen in and to release Carbon dioxide. Well, plants need to do the same thing as Oxygen is needed for plant cells to survive and they also release Carbon dioxide as a waste product.
Intuitively one would then wonder how Photosynthesis and Respiration is balanced so as to make sure that the plant produces more Oxygen than what it will use itself. Respiration can be classified as either Aerobic Respiration (enough Oxygen around) or Anaerobic Respiration (not enough or no Oxygen present). The latter one is a problem for plants and something the Bonsai grower needs to be very aware of. The best example of this is in Yeasts through the process of Fermentation.
Looking at the diagram below, we can see how the two processes interact. The one’s products become the other process’s raw material (input) and vice versa.
Important points for Bonsai growers:
Water logged soil do not allow a good flow of air through the soil which means that there is very little to no Oxygen available for root cells to take this gas in. Due to myriads of bacteria living in soil, and some of these can live anaerobically (in the absence of Oxygen), the chances that these bacteria can cause rot and other damage is large. Best to avoid water logged soil.
Drainage: This aspect is linked to the point above, but important enough to elaborate. Good drainage will promote good airflow through the soil. It is almost like a suction effect in the sense that as water runs through the soil, air will follow and in this way increase the air flow (ventilation) through the soil and the end result is that you have happy roots and happy roots equals happy Bonsai.
Pots: Bonsai pots can be very small in relation to the root mass of the tree planted in it. That means less soil compared to a plant in a garden and this can also lead to less air in the pot. Training pots especially are important. At Bonsaiplace when we use timber boxes or even plastic containers as training pots, we always drill extra holes, not just underneath for drainage purposes, but also from the sides to increase air flow for respiration.
Hothouses and covering Bonsai plants or cuttings with plastic. The main reason why we do this is to increase the humidity around the plant. That helps to prevent water loss through transpiration and increases the heat to promote growth. Just keep in mind that through photosynthesis the plant will produce Oxygen that in turn will be taken up for respiration purposes and Carbon dioxide will be produced for Photosynthesis to take place through Respiration. Where the problem comes in is when you do not have leaves on the plant, i.e., cuttings or a deciduous tree. That means no Photosynthesis and although Respiration needs are low, it still takes place. Just allow fresh air to get into the plastic covering at times and this problem will be sorted.
The next blog will look at Secondary Thickening. This is the process through which plants produce wood and bark. Exactly what we want for our Bonsai trees. To make sure that you do not miss this one, please subscribe to our website and like this post. It is all free.
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Have you ever wondered how water travels from the soil into the roots and then up the stem to the leaves? Well, here we go. The process is called transpiration and starts in the roots through a process called osmosis. This is the movement of water across a membrane from an area of higher pressure to an area of lower pressure.
Now I am going to confuse you completely. I already said that it starts in the roots, but the condition for the process to happen actually starts in the leaves. As the water accumulates in the leaves, the internal volume of the leaves now have a higher pressure internally compared to the atmospheric air. That means that the water leaves the leaves through a structure called a stoma. There are hundreds of these on the leaves and they can open and close depending on the plant’s water needs and the climate on the outside. Almost like little valves.
Now we have the picture on both ends of the tree. The water flows in through the roots due to water pressure in the soil, it moves up a bit in the tubes (xylem) as these are very thin and act like thin straws. Have you ever noticed how when you place a straw in water how the water level in the thinner straw is higher than the level in the water. That is called capillary pressure.
What now happens is all of these work together. The water is pushed into the roots, the narrowness of the tubes give it a bit of a head start and then the pull from the leaves draws it further up the stem or trunk and the flow happens. This can happen as fast or as slow as the conditions dictate. If everything is perfect, a continuous flow will happen, but as soon as something changes, the tree will adapt. Let’s say there is not enough water in the soil for the osmosis to take place. In other words the pressure is not high enough for the water to enter the roots through the different membranes, well, water will not be taken up and the tree will dry out.
At the other end things can go horribly wrong as well. Let’s say it is a very hot day and a dry warm wind is blowing. That means the pressure on the outside of the leaf is very low and if there is any water inside the leaf, this steep difference will cause water to evaporate or transpire through the stomata and if this happens rapidly and the cells lose their turgidity (pressure), it will wilt and lose structure. If this happens for too long, it is possible that the plant will dry out and leave this earth for Bonsai tree heaven.
Before we get to the practical things to do and look out for, it is important to remember that water travelling through a plant will contain minerals and other chemicals that it absorbs from the soil. It therefore plays a very important role in the distribution of these minerals throughout the tree.
The practical things:
Watering is a very important part of keeping Bonsai and comes down to a balancing act to ensure that optimal conditions exist for the processes as described above to take place.
Make sure that your trees are placed in an environment that suits the watering needs of the tree. Plants with thin leaves that can dry out easily i.e., Maples and should be kept out of harsh sun and dry windy conditions.
Trees with smaller leaves or even needles (Pines) can withstand this a bit more as they have less stomata and a thick waxy cuticle that covers the leaf or needle to minimise the area exposed to sun and wind and therefore slow transpiration down.
Get to know the water requirements of your trees and if possible group trees with similar water requirements together.
Check the drainage of your trees regularly. This starts with ensuring that the potting medium / soil is correct for the type of plant. Plants that thrive in drier conditions will have to be planted in a coarser and free draining medium.
When watering, water from the top over the whole tree as it washes dirt off the leaves to enhance transpiration as well as photosynthesis. It also cools the plant down so not to lose too much water.
If the soil is too wet, root rot can occur. This is not necessarily due to something going wrong with transpiration, but more a case of the roots not being able to breathe. Yes, they have to breathe as roots consists of living cells and through the process of respiration, need to take in oxygen. More on this in the next article in this series. It is also a perfect living condition for fungus that causes root rot.
Other techniques to ensure the soil does not get too wet is to tilt the pot during long periods of rain for water to run off. You can also push a rod through the drainage holes through to the top to create a channel for water to run through. These are drastic measures only to be used in circumstances where you need to get rid of water quickly.
Soil can dry out very quickly in a small Bonsai pot. When you get to a situation where the soil is so dry that water on top just runs off the surface, break the surface up a bit and dunk the whole pot in a container of water. Wait until all air bubbles disappear and place it back on the bench.
Another thing to look out for is when the roots grow so fast that it basically replaces the soil in the pot and all you have in the pot is a ball of roots. It is difficult for the plant to absorb water under these circumstances. Prevention is better than the cure. Repot with fresh soil when necessary and treat your trees as if they are pets.
When pruning, cover the cuts with cut paste or something similar as you create a wound and in the context of this article, a leak. Plug the plumbing to support the flow of water through the tree.
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It is a well known fact that horticultural knowledge and skills should be on par with the creative side of Bonsai cultivation as a horticulturally neglected tree will never reach its full potential as a Bonsai. It is therefore important that some basic horticultural knowledge and skills are mastered early on the journey towards Bonsai mastery.
This series of articles has it as goal to highlight a few processes in horticultural science and linking this knowledge to Bonsai creation and maintenance. We will start off with the most important one and that is Photosynthesis. Others will follow in subsequent articles.
A bit of knowledge relating to cell science will help here. In plant cells, usually where there is a green colour, you will find cell organelles called chloroplasts. Inside these there is chlorophyll, a colour pigment, and this one is attributed to the green colour in plants. This is where photosynthesis takes place. Photosynthesis is the process through which plants use raw material to produce food. The raw materials are carbon dioxide and water and with the aid of energy from the sun, food is produced and oxygen is made as a by-product of this process.
What does this mean for Bonsai? The most important part here is the exposure to light. Without this natural light source not enough energy will be available for this process. The second part is that there should be enough chloroplasts available for this process to take place. The significance of this comes in at pruning time. It needs to be at the right time as there should be enough energy / food stored to carry the tree through the period with either no leaves or very few leaves, as at this time food production will be limited. This is crucial for evergreens as the food storage or energy storage side of these plants are not as well developed as what it is for deciduous plants. See the process of transpiration in another article as it plays a role with this as well.
Your tree should have adequate light for food production.
Your tree should have adequate water for food production. Water plays a role in other processes as well which makes watering a crucial task for healthy Bonsai growing. See transpiration as an example.
Adequate ventilation is necessary to allow atmospheric carbon dioxide to get to your tree. This is usually not a problem in the outdoors, but something to think about when you cover trees with plastic to increase heat and humidity for growth purposes or other climatic defensive reasons.
Pruning and defoliating. Time this right. Never defoliate an evergreen completely unless it is just a branch or two for the purpose of creating deadwood / Jin.
When positioning branches and foliage pads, make sure that top branches do not cover lower branches too much.
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Subscribing will help as you will get the updates for the other processes covered in this series. That includes transpiration, respiration, growth, secondary thickening, tropisms and the importance of hormones in all of this.
One thing that is for certain when it comes to Bonsai as an art form is that it is never static due to horticultural and climatic influences. Then we have to throw pests, disease and the odd mishap into the equation as well. This little Thuja did meet up with a bug or two one night and the Thuja came of second best. Yes, whatever it was, ringbarked one of the branches and the first sign was that one branch changed colour. Obviously unhappy and on its way to Bonsai afterlife. What to do?
Change direction and from an informal upright change character to start the next phase of its life as a wannabe literati tree. The on its way to death branch comes off and becomes a jin.
Next step is to wire the trunk to the top, give it a bit of a change of direction and reduce the foliage as with the potting comes a reduction in root mass.
The tree is healthy otherwise and with good aftercare will grow into its new life and again stand tall as a proud Bonsai somewhere in the future.
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Let’s get one thing out of the way first. The term Yamadori refers to a tree lifted from the wild where it has spent many years, showing good age with features that will make a great Bonsai. When a tree is lifted from a garden or from any other place for that matter it is not a Yamadori, not even an Urban Yamadori as some people refer to it. Yamadori in my mind is for one thing and one thing only.
I have recently seen a photo of a very nice Magnolia Bonsai tree and wanted to try my hand at one. As luck would have it, a garden tree that was to be removed was advertised in my area and I jumped at the opportunity.
What we have here is a garden plant that has been grown as an ornamental plant in a garden bed. It is a Michelia figo or a Port wine Magnolia. It had to be removed as the owners were in the process of remodelling this garden area.
Great was my surprise when I parted some of the branches and discovered that it is actually three trees. It is important to make sure that there are no irrigation or other hidden water or electricity services going close to or underneath the digging area. The first job is to reduce the branches and foliage to get closer to the trunk and this will also help with survival as the branch and leaf mass needs to balance the root mass. Through the digging process and also the potting process, the root mass will also be reduced. And then the digging starts.
This was an easy dig as there are no tap roots and especially the two in the back were in quite dry loamy soil and they came out with just a spade length pushed into the soil about thirty centimetres from the trunk and circled around each plant.
It is important to leave the site in a tidy state and in this case I also removed the green waste for the owners. Each tree received a good spray of medicine water. Medicine water for me is just a weak solution of a marine-based or algae-based tonic across all parts of the tree. Now it is homeward bound.
The best advice is to have the planting containers ready before you go, but probably not so practical as you never know how big the root ball will be. in this case I used plastic planting pots, deeper than what a Bonsai pot will be, but this is to allow space for finer root development.
The first thing I do is to work through the roots. Remove all of the old garden soil and in this case some fat earthworks as well. Next is to remove very thick roots and reducing the depth of the root ball. Leave enough finer roots to feed the tree. I also apply rooting hormone powder to the cut roots and sprinkle a bit over all roots. Depending on the species, but more importantly, the state of the roots, I also apply sphagnum moss to the cut roots at this stage. In this case I did not as there were enough roots and they were healthy.
Next up is to find a possible front of the tree by finding the widest part of the nebari and lining this up with the best flow that the branch structure allows. This is also the time to now reduce or shorten the branches to fit this vision of what the future tree could like like in five to seven years. At this stage I do not remove all branches to limit the tree to just one or two styles or designs. In all three cases it is possible to highly likely that the main trunks will be shortened over time. as the pots are round there is no need to worry too much at this stage about the front of the tree for planting purposes. Just focus on what might be needed for future development.
Now for the planting. Good drainage is essential. The soil that I use for this type of planting is a 1:1 ratio of pumice and compost. These are broadleaf trees and will grow relatively unchecked over the next year or two. They will all be heavily fertilised as soon as new growth comes out. The compost base helps with this and the pumice provides the necessary drainage.
The soil is heaped up in a dome shape inside the containers, the tree is pushed down and wiggled into the soil, tied in with wire and then filled up to the top level. I use my fingers and then a rounded dowel to work the soil in-between the roots. All that is left now is to water the trees and to let them rest until spring when the feeding will start.
Updates will follow as these trees develop. I usually tend to keep one if I have multiples from the same type and sell the others. That just means that updates at times is on just one or two of the trees as the others might be making someone else very happy.
Have you noticed how most answers to Bonsai related questions starts with “It depends”. The main reason for this is that we are working with a living organism and it is very rare for generalisations to be applied across all trees. The list below are guidelines to use, especially when styling a new or starter Bonsai tree and applies very much to the more classical Bonsai styles. There will always be exceptions, but here goes.
Branches within the lower one third of the tree. These branches should generally be removed as it helps to show the trunk line. It will expose the nebari and allow a clear view of the bottom part of the trunk where hopefully is some great interest. This can be either well-developed bark, interesting roots or some type of movement lower down in the trunk. There is an exception (I told you so!) and that is when you deliberately wants to leave these branches as sacrifice branches to help with thickening the lower trunk.
Branches pointing directly at you. The main reason here again is to allow the main trunk line to be visible. The exception is in the top third of the trunk / tree, especially if these branches are part of the apex of the tree.
Bar branches. These branches are ones that originate at the same level as other branches. If they are directly opposite each other, it is known as bar branches. Another issue with too many branches originating at more or less the same point is that a lot of sap will floe through that area which leads to an unsightly thickening in that area and could also be the reason for reverse taper. This is a thickening at that point with a narrower trunk below that point. Remove as many of these as you can, especially found in pines where the branches for a whorl, preferably leaving one as part of an alternately opposite branch scheme. Select the one that fits the rest of your design more naturally.
Parallel branches, usually originating close to each other, but directly above each other. This is more for aesthetics than growth patterns. The classical design of a branch to one side, then the next one up on the other side and then maybe a back branch and to be repeated as you move up the trunk, is the ideal and not always possible, but at least a good guideline to keep in mind.
Branches growing from almost the same point. This relates very much to the last two guidelines, but in this case refers to branches not necessarily growing parallel above each other or from the sight height, but just close enough for it to be unsightly. There is always the possibility that this will also lead to a situation where that area can thicken disproportionately compared to where other branches grow from to the increased sap flow.
Unusually vigorously growing branches. These branches take energy away from other branches and can cast a shadow across other branches due to its faster growth. It is also possible for these branches to thicken disproportionally to other branches and interfere with normal taper or the notion that branches lower down the trunk should be thicker than branches higher up the trunk. These branches should be shortened or removed.
Secondary branches growing from primary branches where the growth is in the wrong direction. This could be branches growing straight up or straight down, branches growing outside of the main design contours or even in the opposite direction of the flow of the tree or just that part of the tree or branch.
The leader. Older trees show a more rounded apex and this can be achieved by removing the leader, substituting it with a new leader or wiring it in such a way that it shows a more rounded form. This also helps with reducing apical dominance in trees and redistribute the energy in a tree.
As mentioned earlier, very few trees allow the opportunity to apply all of these guidelines, but it is still a good idea to keep these in mind as you work through the tree, selecting which branches to keep and which to remove. This is a video of the branch selection of a Camelia clump lifted from a garden. https://youtu.be/MeCBk-_ofEw
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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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In Robert Steven’s book, Mission of Transformation (2009), he mentions in the Foreword that Critique has become a favorite tool of his as an effective way of teaching and learning. It is my experience that most clubs or Bonsai gatherings will include some or other Critique session, especially at large scale exhibitions or shows. It is customary for the head Judge or a visiting Demonstrator to undertake this task.
I have been witness to many of these and have also done my fair share of these Critique sessions. One of the most important aspects of these sessions is exactly what Robert points out in his book and that it should be an opportunity to learn. It is therefore very important that it is done in a constructive way to enable not only the owner of the tree, but all the spectators to walk away with more than just the negative aspects of the tree under discussion.
I like to start these sessions by asking the owner to tell the story of the tree. This gives you a good understanding of the history of the tree and by asking questions, dive into the aspects that really matter. Once this part is done, I like to first point out all the positives. Find something, even if there is very little to go with. There will always be a positive. As the focus is for this to be a teaching and a learning experience, lead the discussion by questioning. Use open-ended questions and allow as many people in the group as possible to answer and become part of the conversation. It becomes very boring if it is only the Commentator delivering the commentary. There is a danger here in that you at times have a very vocal participant who gets so excited that they tend to dominate the conversation. As you are leading the Critique, be aware of this possibility and gently bring the conversation back to focus on the tree and the whole group.
A good place to start is the overall picture or story that the tree on display tells. Look at the whole scene. After that, I prefer to start at the bottom and work my way up. Lead a discussion on the pot, then the surface soil and covering. After this it is the turn of the Nebari and then the trunk. From here, discuss the style and the appropriateness of that for the specific tree. The next part will be the branches and the foliage before the critique almost reaches its end with the apex. Once all aspects have been discussed, it is really important to summarise and come full circle to the positives and then end off with one or two actions for future development of the tree.
It is a time consuming exercise and in the case of a display with many trees, I prefer to only go with the three top trees and then also one or two Shohin displays. This way each discussion is more in depth and the value add is much more than just a walk through the exhibition and barely spending a minute or two with each tree. What I would like to see is that when it comes to multi-day shows, that the Critique is extended and broken up over more sessions across all days. This can be thematic i.e. each session focusses on only one style of tree (design) or split the trees in Evergreens and Deciduous trees or as mentioned above, do the Shohin separately. The main things is that there must be something new to learn for every participant and the owner needs to walk away with a feeling of accomplishment and also a few pointers on next steps for the tree.
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.
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.