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?

Newbie Bonsai Help.

It is very common to see a photo of a seedling or small nursery stock on social media with the following comment: “I am new to Bonsai, please help with advice”. Where to start? What the follows is a number of people writing one liners or a bit more with a genuine interest to help.

I have been demonstrating and teaching Bonsai now for many years and am following what I think is a logical series of steps to enable the new Bonsai enthusiast to work towards a specific goal. It is almost paint by numbers, but in the absence of knowledge and skills, it is the best way to get the basics across in a short period of time. Here are the steps:

  • Unearth the topsoil to look at surface roots.
  • Determine the front of the tree.
  • Decide on a natural flow of the trunk dependent on the style envisaged.
  • Decide which branches / side shoots to keep.
  • Remove excess branches and foliage.
  • Some of these can be selected for deadwood (jin).
  • Create Jin.
  • Wire main trunk if required.
  • Bend trunk to desired shape.
  • Wire branches into position.
  • Clean hanging foliage up.

Each of these steps require a lot of knowledge to get to the end result. This is part of the conversation as the design unfolds. Small nursery material can take up to three hours to style with a new enthusiast in a workshop situation. The hands-on work takes only about thirty minutes to complete, but the explanations and answering of questions, in my mind the most important part, takes up a lot of time.

This Juniper is nursery stock and is 20cm high from the top of the soil. It has been standing around here for a year or so and received very little attention.

The first step is to scrape some of the soil away to see if there are any prominent, larger roots that can help to make a decision about the front / viewing side of the tree. In this case it only contained a whole lot of fine fibrous roots.

It is therefore now up to the trunk line to give an indication of what could be a possible front. For newcomers, we usually look for good movement and flow.

Once the best angle is determined to show things like flow and movement as well as taper or interesting features, it is marked and excess branches and foliage can be removed to reveal the trunk line. The conversation at this stage will include things like removing branches growing from the same height, branches on inside curves and crossing branches.

Some of the branches are identified as possible deadwood branches and these are kept a bit longer. Bark is then removed.

All of these steps have cleared the path for the trunk to be wired. Just the basic of wiring is explained and demonstrated at this stage as this skill is seen as a bit more advanced for a newbie. I think it is important to allow the person to start on their wiring pathway as it is an integral part of Bonsai design. As said, we stick to the basics at this point. It is more important to talk about design and flow at this point.

The branches can now be wired.

The next step is to place the branches in position while a conversation about safe bending takes place. Overall tree health is emphasized at all times. Once the placement is done, excess foliage, especially those growing downwards or upwards is removed. The concept of foliage pads is also touched upon. I find it is important to at this stage point things out like depth (back branches) and negative space. These are all explored ta more advanced workshops.

The last part of the workshop is focused on future growth, the role on foliage in feeding the plant (photosynthesis) and then the very important aftercare of the tree. Protection of small buds and the removal of older foliage as the tree buds over the next few months is discussed as well as feeding requirements and protection over the next month or so.

Potting, root management, carving, severe bending and more advanced wiring techniques are all part of more advanced techniques to be covered at advanced workshops.

Nebari – The Root of the Matter

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These roots have grown over time, dropping of the side of a cliff.

No, we are not talking about the Nebari fictional alien race from the planet Farscape, but the Japanese term generally used to indicate the roots and specifically the root flare at the bottom of the trunk where the root region starts. It also indicates the visible surface roots.

Wikipedia refers to it as: “Also known as “buttressing”, nebari is the visible spread of roots above the growing medium at the base of a bonsai. Nebari help a bonsai seem grounded and well-anchored and make it look mature, akin to a full-sized tree.”

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My idea is to write three or so Blogs focusing on Nebari and the development of roots. There is no doubt in any Bonsai artist’s mind that the roots of a plant is where it all starts. Healthy roots = healthy plant (generally). A plant absorbs most of its water and nutrients from the soil through the roots. We therefore have to know something about soil and its water retention and draining properties. Not all soils are created equally. We also need to know something about the physiology and anatomy of roots. This knowledge will help us to understand many of the concepts around root pruning. This will come in later Blogs.

Autumn bonsai images 2014 (17)

A tree growing in a woodland area. These roots definitely add to the character of the tree and indicate that it has been there for a while.

Getting back to the Nebari, the main aim of establishing a root flair at the base of a tree is to indicate age. A wider base caused by a flaring just above the roots, helps to establish the taper of a tree. One way to develop taper is to increase the circumference of the tree at the base and to keep the top of the tree relatively thin. Young trees do not have a huge flair at the base, but older trees show this without fail. In saying that, there are trees that are used for Bonsai that do not show a big root flare. Junipers come to mind here.

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The roots are spread over a flat surface and tied to this surface.

There are multiple methods to improve the Nebari of a Bonsai tree. The first one is the continuous root pruning of downwards growing roots. For the health of the tree it is advised that this is done over time to enable the tree to grow new roots in the place of the removed roots. A second method is done through air layering. This is simply done through preparing the bottom of the trunk as one would for air layering and heaping up the soil or packing sphagnum moss around this area. Roots will over time establish themselves in that area. I have read about a method where a wire is bound tightly around the trunk just above the roots. The flow of nutrients will be impeded and that will cause new roots to grow from above the wire. I have not tried this method myself before and cannot comment on how successful it is. Other methods include drilling holes through flat tiles and tying the roots of the tree in a horizontal direction to the tile with wire through the drilled holes. It could also be done through grafting.

In the end, the Nebari plays a vital role in the aesthetics of the tree. It is crucial thfotolia_2553306_XSat some sort of Nebari be established as it indicates age, shows that the tree is balanced and sturdy and has been there for a long time.

The next Blog will address the science behind root development.