Soil pH and Bonsai

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

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

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

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

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

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

soil_ph_chart

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

Inspiration – where to get it from.

It is said that a creative spirit needs inspiration. As Bonsai design is a creative activity, it is IMG_0265therefore important to be in touch with the sources of our inspiration. I have recently returned from a conference relating to Education where I was exposed to a variety of speakers. I was very aware that during and immediately after the conference, I was definitely more motivated to work on certain things in my main job. This came from listening to these powerful speakers and becoming aware of the latest trends in my vocation. This is the same for my Bonsai activities.

IMG_0269Exposure to other Bonsai people will lead to higher levels of inspiration and motivation. I live in an area in New Zealand where there are not that many other Bonsai enthusiasts and you sometimes do feel isolated. To overcome this, I have to make an effort to meet up with other Bonsai people. The local club, although very small, serves as a source of inspiration. I am the teacher here and other people rely on me for the advancement of their skills and knowledge. This places me in a position where I have to stay on top of my game. Through this I have also realised that I only know about the tip of the iceberg and that I need to learn as well. Again it comes back to people, as I can only get this knowledge and skills from others who are more advanced than me, or have produced resources that I can learn from. So, first of all people.

It is important that as a Bonsai artist, you realise that there will always be something new IMG_0271to learn or practice. I like the way that a lot of martial arts movements are set up. There is a clear line to follow from beginner level through to a very advanced level. I am not saying that we have to start different colour belts to show our proficiency in Bonsai, but the levels of training can be copied. A sensei at one dojo always learns from a more advanced practitioner somewhere else. This means you either have to go places or you have to get the masters to your place. This is already happening in Bonsai throughout the world and this has opened up many more opportunities for Bonsai professionals. As a side note, I do use the term Bonsai professional in a different context to Bonsai master. Not all professionals are masters and not all masters are professionals. More on this in later blogs. Back to the main thread of this blog. Where do we get inspiration from to excell in Bonsai activities? I have already established that it is mainly through the exposure to other people and preferably to more advanced practitioners. That means that you have to be a regular club member, be active in this club and teach at that level. The next step is to align yourself to an organisation or club where more advanced teaching takes place. From there it is important to attend shows, regional and national and even international teaching opportunities. Displaying your own trees is a big part of this. Immense growth takes place when you receive feedback from visiting judges once you get over the fact that you might get some negative input as well. Good teachers will make sure that this feedback is constructive and you can learn much from that. Just leave your ego at the door when you go into this type of situation, after-all, there is no ego in Bonsai as an art form.

IMG_0257Other forms of inspiration comes from man made resources. I find a lot of inspiration in my very large Bonsai library (wonder what the total cost of this is), which consists of books and many magazines. I currently hold a subscription to two international magazines and also receive our national production on a regular basis. Books come through online bookshops and I am now also in the fortunate position that I receive books from publishers and authors to review. Magazines keep me up to date with what is happening in the Bonsai world and brings the latest shows into my living room.

My next source of inspiration comes through good blogs. I follow about 25 blogs and find them informative and a major part of my everyday learning. My own education has increased immensely once I started my own blog (this one) up. I have to research every topic as there are always people out there who will catch you out if you talk nonsense. Try it, not the catching out bit or the talking nonsense bit, but the blogging bit. I also regularly visit websites dedicated to Bonsai activities and other related topics (suiseki and general horticulture).

Then there is You Tube. What a great learning tool. Here I am subscribed to at least thirty IMG_3432-0good quality channels and people who regularly post new material and from which I learn heaps. Just type Bonsai in the search area and you will find a great resources at your fingertips. While I am on internet based things, Facebook is exploding around Bonsai matters (probably lots of other things as well). One needs to be disciplined when you venture into this mosh pit of activity. Not everyone who has a presence here are noteworthy, but most of the “big” names in Bonsai are represented here.

I am very sure that there are many more sources of inspiration for Bonsai activities and I also know that what works for one person, does not necessarily work for everyone. The bottom line is that you cannot venture on this Bonsai journey on your own. You need other dedicated people around you and always be aware of the one-up principle, you need to learn and be inspired by people or a person who knows more than what you do.

Then there are my own trees. The moment I start to spend time with my trees (and the trees of other people), my motivation levels rise and there is no substitute for it. Yes, it can lead to frustration if you do not get it right, but overall it is invigorating and inspiring when you work with trees and realise the progress. Surrounding you with good people, good resources and good trees will always expose you to enough resources to keep going and to keep going at a high level.

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Basic Identification of Conifers

Conifers make up a large percentage of most Bonsai collections across the world. To me, one of the difficult things with conifers, is to identify the tree to the correct species level. The reason for this could be that my early Bonsai education was on broadleaves and not so much on conifers. Conifers as a large group are identified by the fact that they do not flower, but in the place of this, they produce cones that contain the seeds. This makes them part of the Gymnosperm taxa, along with ginkgo and cycads. These are some of the oldest known plants in nature.

It is not that difficult to identify conifers to genus level, as this can be done mainly on leaf type and shape. Here follows my take on what this looks like (An arrow points to the next table for that category).

Conifers

Cupressaceae

Have scale-like or awl-like shaped leaves.

Pinaceae

Have needle-like leaves

 

Taxus

Have leaves that are flat and feather-like in arrangement and shape.

Junipers and Thuja Pines, Spruce, Fir and Douglas fir

Yews

 

Cupressaceae family

Leaves are scale-like or awl-like.

Fruit is a berry-like cone with scales fused together

Leaves are scale-like or awl-shaped. The foliage is arranged around the branch, rather than flattened and cones are berry-like with scales pressed together.

Juniper (Juniperus)

The leaves are small, scale-like and pressed to the stem. The foliage is flattened and plate-like in appearance. The cones are berry-like with thick scales.

Thuja (Arborvitae)

 

Pinaceae family

Leaves are needle-like

Single needles.

 

Needles sheathed at the base in bundles of two to five. Cones have thick scales and are woody with swollen tips.

Pine (Pinus)

Short needles in tufts of ten or more and could be deciduous.

 

Larch (Larix)

Needles are flat in cross-section and quite flexible.

The needles are square in cross-section and quite stiff.

Spruce (Picea)

Norway_Spruce_foliage,_Fågelmara,_Sweden

Spruce

The needles leave an oval leaf scar and the bud tips are pointed. The cones have a three-pronged lobed tongue-like bract that extend out beyond the scales.

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

The needles leave a round leave-scar and the bud tips are roundish. The cones grow upright on the branch and usually breaks apart before falling off completely.

Fir (Abies)

 

 

From here the classification can be further refined to identify the specific conifer to species level. This will come in a future blog.

 

 

 

 

Sacrifice Branches

I currently have a few trees that do not look very refined. As a matter of fact, they look like shrubs and in some cases like Bonsai trees with one or two branches that were missed at the previous pruning. This is all done deliberately for very specific reasons. The sacrifice branch is a necessity in Bonsai growing.Sacrifice branches 008

Why do we need to do this? The main reason is to enhance growth in a specific area. The theory is that the branch that is allowed to just grow and increase in length will have more sap flowing through it, therefore more nutrients and in turn you get a much faster growth rate compared to regularly pruned branches. One specific case would be to thicken the main trunk. This could be either during the early years after a seed has germinated or a cutting has struck. The more side branches you have that can grow, the thicker the trunk will become. The leader is of importance here. Let this grow until you get to the desired thickness and then cut.

Another reason is to improve taper. If a branch or two are left on the trunk to grow out, the area below the branches will thicken more than the area above it. This leads to a thicker bottom half if the branches were left halfway up the trunk, compared to the top half of the tree.

Another reason for letting a sacrifice branch grow is to get a side branch to thicken in proportion to other branches. An example of this could be that a branch is needed lower down on a trunk and the branches above are all thicker than the lower one. The lower one is then left to grow until the desired thickness is attained and then it is cut back.

There are a few things to keep in mind when sacrifice branches are used. The first one is to remember that the sacrifice branch will create more shade than other branches and this could impact negatively on the growth patterns underneath this branch. A second point to remember is that sacrifice branches that are cut back, can leave quite large scars that will have to heal over time. For trunk thickening it could be best to use a branch at the back or in a place where the design of the tree will hide the scar. A third point to mention is that side branches will start to grow upwards. This growth needs to be controlled if the branch is suppose to be horizontal or even growing slightly downwards.

In the examples below, sacrifice branches were mainly used to thicken side branches to either fill a gap, create a new branch or to correct parallel branches.

Top left: There are two vertical branches parallel to each other growing from the main trunk as well as two bar-branches at the bottom.

Right: the one parallel vertical branch was removed and a new branch allowed to grow out at an angle, removing the parallel effect.

Bottom left: The sacrifice branch and the vertical branch in close up to compare the thickness. This is one season’s growth for this maple.

 

 

Creativity, Bonsai, Learning and Art: My Thoughts

 

I truly believe that creativity and to create is not just a mental need that all people need in their lives, but it is also a physical need. To create takes one out of your comfort zone and puts you in places where you have not been before. My choice of Art that I use to feed my creative spirit is Bonsai creation. I will be the first to admit that I probably spend a lot more time on the husbandry, maintenance and redesign of Bonsai than what I do creating Bonsai, but that is part and parcel of what we do as Bonsai artists. One of the main reasons why I am involved in this Art form is that it is never complete. You are constantly searching, asking questions and probing for your creation to become a master piece. Does that ever happen? I have not seen it in my own work yet, but have so in others and I am driven to get my own artwork to that level.

To explore Creativity as a study area, means that I read a lot and get trapped into conversations about what creativity is, how we can develop our own creativity and the creativity in others (that is the educationist in me). I spend a lot of time with creative people and I also do believe that it rubs off on other people mainly due to the passion that is shared when creative get in contact with each other. It can be a very solitary pursuit and aloneness and mindfulness is important in the pursuit of higher levels of creativity, but I also do believe that it is a social activity. It needs to be shared and shown.

A good definition that I have encountered on this path of creativity that I have walked, IMG_0269crawled and sprinted on, comes from Doreen Marcial Paraba in her book “Unlocking your Creativity” (2015) where she states that “Creativity is initiating, activating, and complementing ideas that are original, unusual, useful, or innovative. The ideas may advance an existing concept or seemingly spring forth from nowhere”.

IMG_0274

From this one can deduct that the end product should be useful and be put into action (a concept that the above mentioned author agrees with). Can that be applied to Bonsai? Most definitely it can! We start a tree from either a seedling, a cutting or raw material. We therefore activate the idea that we have and apply it to the tree. Real creativity is when we are original. In Bonsai there are “rules”, first started off by Chinese Bonsai practitioners and then taken further by Japanese artists. Out of these eras came many rules and conventions that should be applied to Bonsai for it to be Bonsai in its art form.  Do these rules restrict us in our thinking? No, it does not. It serves merely as a guideline, a foundation to work from. These “rules” did come from a deeply ingrained sense of Art applied to plants and therefore is legitimate (based on history) in the world of Art and Creativity. Most art forms do have a history and a foundation level of skills and knowledge. We see the same in Bonsai, making it a legitimate art form.

Can we be innovative? The above mentioned definition emphasises originality and uses the words, unusual and innovative. This is not restricted to the Literati style of Bonsai. Every tree has different growing conditions, trunk shapes, branch structures and foliage patterns. Even trees within the same species show different characteristics. Just as one artist can paint many different paintings, Bonsai artists can design and create many different forms of trees either within one species or across many different species.

A lot of people that I encounter, do not think that they are particularly talented when it

comes to creativity. When asked whether they have explored it, the answer is usually negative, followed by a whole lot of different reasons of why it is not happening for them. It is interesting that out of these conversations a large proportion of people identify that they cannot remember them ever being creative and except for early drawings and fooling around with paint, this aspect of their lives were just never explored or developed. Many literature sources that I have encountered ask the question “Is Creativity Learnable or Teachable?”. The answers range from “it is in our nature to be creative” to “we use our imaginations all the time” to “”creativity skills are learnable with training”.

This training can take many different forms. I learnt first through exposure to watching my father work with his Bonsai, to helping him with some tasks, to starting my own Bonsai and later reading profusely and learning from other more advanced artists. We know that Bonsai professionals usually undergo a long apprenticeship period, but these days learning can take place wherever, whenever and at the pace of the learner. Advances in technology have made this possible and it is possible that one can advance to a very high level of understanding and expertise without having to go through a lengthy apprenticeship. I still do believe that some form of exposure to good technique, skill and understanding is important for one to advance your own level of artistry and creativity.

IMG_0275You will probably not develop a very high skill level by just reading or just watching other people engaged in the practice of Bonsai. Learning is an active process. You need practice, you need to do and you need to get feedback to enable you to learn. Another great way of learning is when you start to share your knowledge and skill with others. In other words, teaching. Learning is a very interesting area of science. It is all about establishing neural pathways within your nervous system. The more you do something or interact with it, the easier data flows along these pathways and it can become an automatic response. Can you imagine how hard it will be if you have practiced the wrong technique over and over again and then have to unlearn it to enable you to learn the correct one. This is another reason why we do need exposure to others to establish these neural networks. Learning is also a social practice.

In summary then. We are all creative, we all need an outlet for our creative spirit, Bonsai can provide that outlet and we can all learn to become more creative and to express this in Bonsai as an art form.

Applications:

  • Read profusely.IMG_0268
  • Watch many videos.
  • Get to know the foundations and rules of Bonsai (only to bend them later).
  • Join a club.
  • Visit and talk to other Bonsai artists.
  • Create and maintain your own Bonsai.

References

Poreba, D.M. (2015) Unlocking your Creativity. New York: Penquin Random House (Alpha Books). 318p.

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2013) Better learning through structured teaching. Vancouver (USA): ASCD Press. 158p.

Deadwood inspiration from Driftwood

In a recent Blog post by Harry Harrington (Bonsai4me), I was amazed by this artist’s technique in creating deadwood. His carvings are superb. On the same day, I happened to be at a beach on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand (Paraparaumu). The beach was filled with driftwood and I could not resist studying them to find inspiration to style dead wood when I get back home. Fortunately I had my iPhone with me and took the following photos. There is nothing like nature (and Harry Harrington) to create the ultimate natural deadwood designs. In studying these photos I did get a few ideas and now have to get the practice in to recreate this on trees.

Pohutukawa as Bonsai

pohut

Root over rock as Bonsai

Metrosidorus excelsa, also known as the New Zealand Christmas tree and in Maori, Pohutukawa, is an interesting tree to style as Bonsai.

Pohut1

This looks like two smaller trees, simulating a clump style Bonsai.


   
I have recently had the opportunity to photograph a few very old Pohutukawa trees in Mt Maunganui in New Zealand. I have no idea how old they are, but their form is quite distinctive when you study the trees in nature. From this I came to the conclusion that they are best suited for informal upright, clump style or root over rock style. They naturally grow aerial roots and form good bark on exposed roots. The red coloured flowers add to the spectacle. The three Bonsai photos are mainly from the http://www.nzbonsai.co.nz website and the http://www.bonsaiforbeginners.com site.

pohutukawaclump1

Masses of aerial roots makes it perfect for a root over rock style.

The photos following from there are the photos of the trees growing in Mt Maunganui, New Zealand. The first group is typical of the clump style growth that a lot of these trees show.

The next group of trees shows why I think the Pohutukawa is excellent material for root over rock style.

Some of these trees are also seen in nature as examples of an informal upright style.

I have also noticed some branches hanging very low, almost to the point of being a cascade or a semi-cascade.

I have been growing cuttings of another form of Meterosidorus, namely the Metrosideros kermadecensis. This tree has smaller leaves than the excelsa which is great for Bonsai. All these varieties are frost sensitive and needs protection in cold climates.

 

 

 

Newby

I have been following quite a lot of Blogs from well known and not so well known people within the Bonsai world. I am at that stage where I think I also have something to contribute. The best way for me is to do it through a Blog. My hope is to add some value to other Bonsai enthusiasts who are on this journey that never ends. I also contribute regularly to Bonsai Times, the New Zealand Bonsai Association’s official publication. My intention is to post those articles here as well.

My quest for knowledge has led me to Blogging. New Zealand has very strict laws in place to prevent the spreading of plant based pathogens. This means that we cannot import Bonsai and everything we have in our collections must come from within. The Bonsai community here is also relatively small and we are reliant on International exposure. This is mainly done through reading whatever we can get our hands on and by attending conventions and displays. The NZBA and host clubs do bring high caliber artists and demonstrators in and the knowledge that they spread is soaked up. The internet is also a huge help with Facebook putting many Bonsai enthusiasts in contact with each other.

My interests are focussed on the Philosophy, Art as well as the practical horticulture that provides the foundation for Bonsai. In exploring all of this, I have also recently started Vlogging. These videos are posted on You Tube and this Blog now gives me the opportunity to post those videos here as well.

So here goes …….