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.
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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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.
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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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 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.
I find myself these days starting answers to Bonsai related questions mostly with “it depends”. This topic will be the same. Your local climate and setup will largely determine what you do with your Bonsai trees during Winter. As most of the Blog readers will rightfully ask about the purpose of this topic this time of the year, the simple answer is that most of the readers are in the USA and I am in New Zealand / Aotearoa. It is Winter here now.
This could be a good example of how local climate can differ. Parts of the South Island and inland North Island, will have snow on the mountains with below freezing temperatures at times. The same will be true for Northern Hemisphere countries during that Winter. It all depends!
Here is a video from a few years back of some of my Bonsai just as it started to snow.
The main things to look out for are:
As most trees will go dormant or at least slow down with the onset of Winter, it is important to make sure that you adjust to the water requirements that comes with this. The main problem is being too wet. This can lead to root rot. The best way to tackle this is to be pro-active by ensuring that all your trees have a well draining soil mixture and that the pot drainage holes are open. I have found many a spider’s nest and snails blocking the hole partially from the outside. Another technique is to place the pot at an angle for water to run off during periods of heavy or consistent rain. Needless to say is that when you are in a high rainfall area is to switch automatic watering systems off during this time. It is as important to check trees regularly / daily for water requirements. Be especially on the lookout for trees that might be partially protected by trees, fences or roof overhangs. The front row of trees might be wet, but those in a “rain shadow” might be very dry.
Frost is the biggest enemy here. It is reported that for some species snow is not a problem as it could insulate the tree from harsher elements like wind. Wind for me is a major problem. Not only does it dry leaves out, but in Winter it causes a wind chill, sometimes far below areas out of the wind. Trees not accustomed to these very low temperatures must be protected. This will include over-wintering in a basement, garage, shed or at least a conservatory of some sorts. I personally do not have many trees with this requirement, but do have a few sub-tropicals, inclusive of Bougainvillea that needs protection. This is done in the form of just placing it under a bench when frosts are expected or using a cold frame. Trees that you work on during Winter, even if it is just wiring, should be kept in a better climatic area for a few days after the work was done.
It is mentioned in the paragraph above that trees can be over-wintered indoors. As deciduous trees will be without leaves, light requirements do not matter too much, but it is important to take note that plants rely heavily on day and night length differences to keep seasonal cycles going. For this reason, indoor trees are usually placed under lights on timers, mimicking the gradual increase in day length hours as Winter passes towards Spring. When it comes to light requirements, the answer of “it depends” is highlighted. Study your plants, increase your knowledge about specific species requirements and adjust accordingly. Winter is a great time to read, study and watch You Tube videos to increase knowledge. That includes reading this blog and visiting http://www.bonsaiplace.net regularly for updates. Best still, subscribe and you will never miss an article.
Clean, clean and then clean some more. Get rid of leaves and everything else that all sorts of bugs can hide under, lay eggs, overwinter themselves and then come out in Summer and create havoc. This is also the time when you can spray to kill all sorts of fungal spores. A weak solution of lime sulphur does the trick. Just, as always, be careful when it comes to Pines when spraying for fungus as it can kill the beneficial micorhiza off in the soil.
In very cold climates most bugs and spores will be killed due to the very cold temperatures and for me the best is the architectural forms displayed by especially deciduous trees without their leaves. En joy this season, it is crucial in the development and normal growth of trees and also learn from your trees. We all need a break at least once a year.
“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
The quote above is attributed to Banksy and it sits quite comfortably with me. How can this be applied to Bonsai as an Art? My own personal experience is that an hour’s work on a Bonsai tree is equal to the same amount of time meditating. One can therefore say that it comforts the disturbed and at the least calms the mind down.
It is quite interesting to watch people at a Bonsai exhibition. There is the initial excitement and almost “cannot believe my eyes” moments, but as they move through the exhibition, a calmness sets in, almost as if you are in a library. I have even seen people talking softly when in the presence of these miniature giants of the floral kingdom. Except for the cultural links, could that be why it is not uncommon to see a Bonsai tree or three near or part of a Zen garden or space?
Not so sure about the disturbing the comfortable part. Maybe that is the bit where you see non-Bonsai people just wanting to get into the art after they have seen Bonsai trees in real life. A real inquisitiveness sets in and it rocks their world. Or is this the bit that forms the basis of Bonsai activities leading to an addiction?
I must say that even seasoned Bonsai people do get disturbed when in the presence of an especially spectacular tree or composition. This disturbance is evident in the slightly angled heads, dead silence even with a few people around the tree and then followed by a lot of pointing and increase in volume as the tree is discussed. You can almost see how mental notes are being made and mental photos being taken to go and copy some of what they are seeing the moment they get home.
I am picking up six raw material trees this weekend and I can feel the excitement building up, a disturbance of my normally very calm inner self. Can’t wait to work on the trees. I do know that when I start the work, the deepest state of calmness will set in. The opposite of the excited, disturbed state is counteracted by the meditative state.
Maybe that is what is in Banksy’s quote, the yin and the yang, the stillness and the turbulence, the Bonsai tree and the Bonsai artist. It is one, it is the whole, it is the two sides of the same coin.
It is a given. You will have a few trees die on your watch. Nobody wants it, but it happens and it is part of the life-death cycle that underpins all living things. We do not kill our trees deliberately and it therefore is important to take note of the things that do increase the chances of this unfortunate event.
This relates to keeping the tree healthy through everyday practices, inclusive of hygiene, watering, light and nutrition requirements.
In my experience watering requirements is the most important of these aspects. Get that wrong and your tree will deteriorate and then just die. This relates to both overwatering as well as too dry conditions. Every tree will have different requirements based on species, soil medium, size and exposure to sun. Study this for each specie, make notes, learn and apply. Overwatering is the dangerous one as it generally leads to root rot and by the time you become aware of this it is too late. Be aware of irrigation systems. A power outage, a flat battery or a broken pipe, all lead to disaster. The best way to water is by hand and by studying each tree and adjust the amount of water to the daily requirements. It is labour intensive, but a safe way to keep your trees alive.
When repotting, pay special attention to the roots. Some species do not handle complete removal of soil well. Check for tangled roots, check for bugs, caterpillars and ants nests in the soil at this time.
Seasonal and Climate requirements
At the time of writing this, it is winter in New Zealand and after quite a dry period, it has now been raining for three days solidly and the temperature has dropped into single digits in places. Irrigation systems are now turned off and the focus now shifts from preventing trees from drying out to ensure they do not drown. Half of my trees now have pots at an angle to allow water to run off, rather than sit in the pot. Back to basic horticulture as your soil medium and its drainage ability now plays a big role in keeping trees healthy and alive.
I have mentioned temperature and the accompanying conditions now come into play as well. Snow can actually insulate trees, but frost is just nasty. Your local climate and specific species will dictate if a tree needs to be under cover or not. Frost has killed many a tree. Very harsh high temperatures, accompanied with little to now sun protection and not enough water will kill trees. Take note of your pot and soil temperatures. The pot construction, size and colour can have an effect on the temperature inside the pot. Two pots next to each other can have very different temperatures.
Be careful when bringing plants inside, especially non-dormant trees. I have seen and heard of many trees that just did not like artificial heating systems, wood fire burners and even being cooked on a window sill, resulting in the tree ending up on the compost heap.
Light requirement of a tree is a big one. Suitable species for sunny areas are Celtis, Junipers, Chinese Elms, Cotoneaster, most Pine species, Holly, pyracantha and others. For a more shady aspect look at Azalea, Maples, Beech, Zelkova and others. Acclimatisation plays a big role here. You can gently and over time get some species to tolerate a wider range of light and temperatures if your care is spot on. Generally, if you get this wrong, a tree will deteriorate over time and if not corrected will say goodbye.
This is not just a beginners issue. Many a tree has succumbed to being overworked. The safe mantra here is do little bits of work more often, rather than massive root work at the same time as huge pruning and styling jobs. This goes with seasonal changes as well. Certain things, like defoliation, should take place at a specific time of year. Same for root work and repotting. It could be different for different species. Study, learn and apply.
Diseases and Pests
That is self-explanatory. The best is to use preventative methods to stop disease and pests from getting to your trees. This could include preventative sprays, either organic or not. That depends on your philosophy, but either way, keep an eye out for tell tale signs. Things like ants can point to aphids, sooty mould and other issues. Yellowing and spots on leaves, droppings of bugs and caterpillars, chew marks on leaves, sudden leave drop, are all signs of things going wrong. Keep an eye out and this can easily be combined with your daily watering routine. A big part of prevention is basic hygiene around your trees. Get rid of fallen leaves, clean underneath your benches and check the undersides of pots. Many an issue can be prevented by just cleaning often.
Seal wounds, tie trees down in pots when repotting, check old wounds, look for new holes in the trunk, marks like ring barking and especially underneath the leaves.
This is just a snapshot of things that can go wrong and is not intended to scare or put Bonsai enthusiasts off, just a reminder that a Bonsai tree is like having a pet. The tree has basic requirements and if these are not taken care of, it will deteriorate and can then die as a result of neglect or just not being bale to pick up on adverse things early enough. The solution is to arm yourself with knowledge, practice the skills involved in keeping a tree alive and constantly take great care of your trees.
You are now bitten by the bug and you are well on your way to addiction and now you want to design, bend, shape, cut, wire and do all the other things to expand your growing collection. Yes, there is a lot of art to it, but you can get far by following a few basic steps. I call it my Bonsai Beginner’s Curriculum and have done many workshops based on these basic seven steps. It works well on nursery material as well as field lifted trees which have been planted and allowed to rest for at least a year. Here we go with the seven steps.
Step 1: Find the front of the tree. This includes looking at the trunk flare / root zone (nebari). You want the widest and most interesting part to face the front. The second part to this step is to find the best front showing the flow or movement of the main trunk line. Hopefully the best nebari view and trunk line is the same side, if not, make a decision based on the best of the two elements.
Step 2: Clean the main trunk. This includes getting rid of all unwanted growth. It could be removing one or more branches reducing the bar branch effect. Also remove branches pointing to the front in especially the bottom third of the trunk and branches crossing the trunk. At this stage remove all growth in the crotches of the main trunk and primary branches.
Step 3: Set the main trunk. If you are lucky, the movement of the trunk will be great and you have nothing to do. This is rarely the case. Use wire to set the shape. There are other more advanced strategies and methods that can be used. If you are using guy wires, it is best to wire the branches first as the wires sometimes get in the way of further work.
Step 4: Select the main branches. You have already looked at this during step 2. What you now need to do is to look at the positioning of branches. The historical pattern is to have one to the one side, then to the other side and then one growing backwards. Repeat as you move up the trunk line. Nature and practicality does not always give this to you on a platter and this is where the artistic side of Bonsai kicks in. Also make sure that you do not have branches growing from the inside curve of a bend.
Step 5: Clean the rest of the tree by removing all growth from the axils / crotches of all branches. Remove the rest of the unwanted growth and especially spindly growth. At this point it is important to note that once you remove all leaves / needles from coniferous plants, it is highly likely that the bare branch will die. Perfect for Jin (more advanced technique).
Step 6: Set the main branches. Use wire on the branch or guy wires. Wiring technique is also slightly more advanced and will follow in a future blog or video. Ensure that there is movement in the branches (left, right, up and down). This is an easy way to bring leaves / growth closer to the main trunk on spindly growth.
Step 7: Create the apex. The apex is the top of the tree and plays a major role in determining the flow of a tree. Older trees show a more rounded apex form and this is what you want to recreate by either pruning or wiring the branches into that position.
By now you should have a design roughly resembling a pre-Bonsai tree. After-care is the next important step. My advice is to not pot the tree into a Bonsai pot at this stage. If you have removed a lot of growth, the tree will be stressed and the last thing it needs now is to have its roots interfered with. Rather just place it in a sheltered position with no harsh afternoon sun. Water regularly and fertilise the tree to encourage health and good growth. Potting can be done in Spring or for certain species, Autumn could be suitable as well.
Keep an eye out for further articles in the Beginner’s series. If you subscribe to this blog, you will not miss any of those.
I am not sure where the word Guy wire comes from, but a wild guess is that it is from the word Guide. It is defined as a wire or cable used to stabilise something, like a mast and seeing that dictionaries and Wikipedia will not relate this to Bonsai, here is my version of it: A Guy wire is used to pull branches down and is used instead of normal Bonsai wiring due to various reasons.
My common use for it is on plants with very soft bark and more often, on older trees when I want to preserve the bark and also in cases when I do not want to cover the bark with raffia or cloth. I usually only use it to pull branches down, but it can also be used to get some shape in a branch by using more than one guy wire, pulling in different directions.
As I use aluminium wire for this task and usually a thin wire, it is important to protect the branch and the bark at the pressure point on the branch. Aquarium tubing is perfect for this task. Short lengths are used and the wire is pulled through it and then it is placed in position. The other end is then securely fastened at an anchor point.
An anchor point can be many things. If the tree is in a plastic pot, a hole through the rim of the pot is an easy way to do it. In a timber box, a screw can be used to anchor the wire. As in the example that I show here, the tree is in a ceramic Bonsai pot and a thicker wire is used around the pot through which the guy wire is then threaded and fastened securely.
Once the wire is fastened, I use a short length of wire through the two wires around a branch to wind the two wires together. This does not only has a neater appearance, it can be used to fine tune the positioning of a branch as the branch can be further pulled down by winding the wires up more.
This method definitely exerts less pressure and therefore less stress on the tree. As you use a thinner wire, it is less expensive. It is also easier to remove and once removed, the wire can still be used for other purposes, especially if it was not wound tightly.
I recently saw a few posts on social media where people new to Bonsai asked for advice and also for good sources of reliable information. The “reliable information” made me think even more. Most of this happens in the internet and as mentioned, on social media. In a lot of cases the credentials of the people answering these questions cannot be easily established and one of the things that really get to me is that people give advice without establishing where the person asking the question is from. I have recently moved 500km north on the North Island of New Zealand and now know that even a relatively short distance like that makes for a very different climate and a complete rethink of when to do what with my trees.
So, where and what are the best places and people to go to. My personal philosophy on this is that you should use as many resources as possible. One of the answers amongst a whole host of really good ones out of a discussion of which club to join (think this was in Australia), was that one must be weary of clubs as there is usually a dominant teacher there with set ideas and that one should actually just watch You Tube videos. Nothing wrong with the videos, but the person went further to mention one specific series of videos, again with one dominant teacher. No change then.
By all means, join a club. It is a very good thing to do. As a matter of fact, join more than one. Supplement this with watching a variety of videos, there are millions on line. The emphasis here is on the variety. Out of this, always relate it back to what you already know, where your knowledge and skills come from and how that relates to your trees, your philosophy and your climate. This reflection part is to me the most important phase of learning. Digest all of the information that you have and take what suits your situation. Books, whether in digital format or printed (still my favourite) should be part of this learning. Attend conventions, workshops and demonstrations. This is probably where you will learn most.
Many online videos exist.
This learning journey never stops and if you are exposed to a “sensei” who does not learn anymore him- or herself, run as far away and as fast as you can. Bonsai is the ultimate lifelong learning exercise.
I am seeing more Bonsai being exhibited as part of other art forms in what is generally referred to as an art gallery or a general art exhibition. This, in my mind is great, but we need to do more of it. One of the things we probably need to do as Bonsai artists is to promote it better as an art form. Where we see this happening, the results are normally outstanding. Without this general exposure to the general art public, the acceptance of Bonsai art in mainstream art circles, just will not happen.
In my search for links between art and Bonsai to help with this infiltration into the general art world, I started by looking at definitions of what art is. See below.
Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
It will be so easy to slip the word Bonsai in there along with painting or sculpture. It is the second part of this definition that really speaks to me. For me Bonsai is appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. That speaks for itself. Bonsai does exactly that. The debate is over and all we now need to do is to get our Bonsai into mainstream art galleries. As mentioned, this happens, but I would like to see it happen more often and in a way where there is no debate and just a general acceptance of Bonsai as a legitimate art form that can hold its own in any art exhibition and not just for horticultural shows or Bonsai on their own.
Some useless, but interesting statistics:
An internet search for Bonsai art presented 3.5 million results.
Another search for Bonsai horticulture yielded 493 thousand results.
My deduction from that is that Bonsai is seen as an art form, but when that vast amount of results are further analysed, very few of those relate to Bonsai as a mainstream art form. We are getting there, but there is still a lot of work to do.
Please share your thoughts on this in the comment section on this page.
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