Cleaning tools and refining a privet

Damn humidity and Florida rain.
I need to get my tools in shape for my Louisiana tour.
It’s always a battle with rust on carbon steel tools (the “black” bonsai tools you see for sale).
Now don’t get me wrong, you still need to clean and oil your stainless steel tools too.
For one thing, if you have carbon steel that’s making contact with stainless, the rust from the carbon will transfer over to the stainless. I think it has to do with negative and positive charges.
And often the sap from whatever you worked on last is acidic and could etch the metal.
On to it then.
Unfortunately for you all, this won’t be a sharpening tutorial but just a cleaning and oiling lesson.
Sharpening is a full post in itself.
First, I use a plastic bristled brush (like a toothbrush) to remove all the dirt and dust etc.
Then I break out the synthetic steel wool.
Synthetic steel wool has the abrasiveness of regular steel wool (which is very little) but it won’t rust. It’s like one of those green scotchbrite pads, but better.
For the really dirty areas, I use a sanding block that has abrasive material throughout the whole body of the block. Which means that, as you use it, the abrasiveness doesn’t wear out.
On the stainless tools only, and with dried ficus juice especially, I’ll use Magic Erasers. It’s like magic.
After cleaning, I’ll usually sharpen, but you don’t get to see that part yet, so now it’s oil.
I’ve researched the question of oil quite a bit.
What most bonsai people recommend (and sell) is this magical sounding stuff called “camellia oil”.
This is what I use.
What is camellia oil? It is an organic oil pressed from the camellia plant (the same plant we get tea from) and the reason it’s used is its ultra-fine viscosity and (because of the viscosity) its ability to bond with steel molecules and prevent rust.
It is also the traditional oil used for samurai swords.
As such, you would guess correctly that it is pricey (unless you buy it by the gallon).
Here’s the rub. You know the stuff I use? Because camellia oil is plant based, it has a tendency to spoil, to turn rancid and smelly, as it were. Modern day camellia oil is a mixture of the highly refined 3-in-1 oil and camellia oil, just enough to call it camellia oil and still keep it from spoiling.
They mix it, you see, because 3-in-1 oil is also ideal for bonding with steel.
Just like camellia oil.
Done with the tools.
The last bit of maintenance is on my tool roll.
I made it (with my wife’s help) out of canvas.
I prefer canvas to vinyl or leather because I can spray oil on it and not ruin it…..too much.
The reason I spray oil on my tool roll is to keep water out.
It’s kinda an old timey way of protecting tools, but I like it.
With my tools cleaned and all slippery….
….I’m going to turn my attention to a Florida privet I’m carrying along as a visual aid for my stop at The Lake Charles club.
I’ve already applied lime sulphur to the carved portion and done a topiary trim.
Now I’m looking at it and just not liking what I see.
The reason I’m taking the tree on the Louisiana Tour is for the Lake Charles club to see what carving can do in making a somewhat average tree look a little better.
At the moment though, it still looks rather average.
There’s something that’s just not right.
Maybe I need to clean it out more?
No….still something not right
This is a good example of using the camera to spot flaws.
Can you see what I see?
How about now?
Of course you can’t see it now, I doodled it out.
This branch, which has been my nemesis the whole time I’ve been styling the tree, has to go.
A little tweak of the branching and….
Damn Florida sun, you can’t see it very well right now, let’s hope that the sun goes behind a cloud.
In the meantime, the light is good for some dramatic shots.
Imagine you are a hawk and you’re just about to land on the dead treetop.
Or this….

Now that I think of it, the way we look at these trees if just the way a bird would see one.
Or Superman.
Ah, the sun is behind a cloud!
Take the pic quick.
Now I’m ready to for my trip, except the hundred other things I have to get ready.
It’s Thursday night and I’m leaving at 6 am Friday morning; it’s not a bad journey, only 650 miles or so to my first stop, New Orleans . Yup, at this time tomorrow, I’ll be giving a demo for the New Orleans Bonsai Society.

Posted in refine, tips and tricks, updates, yamadori | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Sea grape; Tidying up the loose ends

Well, as you may have read in the last post (where I blamed the problem on WordPress) and might have guessed from the original posting A new aesthetic for a sea grape, I lost the second half of that post and I need to recreate the ending.
The last thing you all saw was this pic:
With me patting myself on the back for a job well done in bending the branch with fire.
I’ll blame it on Hubris.
Here are the after pics.

The wood on the sea grape is pretty dense, which caused some of the burning with the carving, but it was also newly stripped of bark and, therefore, very wet. Wet wood won’t hold much detail and is terribly fibrous, hence the need for the torch to burn and dry out the wood.
And the rest of the pics.


I wish I could remember what I said in the post. I’m sure it was my best writing to date. The photos were stored in the blog’s media files, which means that I wrote it and I’m not insane…yet. At least I was able to find them. I had, literally and actually and truly, just erased them off of my phone about 15 minutes before I realized that the blog had eaten the second half of the post.
This was how the tree looked when I began, so hopefully and purposefully.
And after all the carving a few weeks ago.
Bobby….you remember Bobby, right?
Bobby took the tree home and it was his job to apply lime sulphur to the carved wood. If you’ve ever smelled lime sulphur you know why I let him do it. Phewee!
He also used my carving as a guide and did a really good job carving a second sea grape.
Here they are, then, white as bones.




And the tree Bobby did.



Not bad at all my friend.
Pretty good even.
He said that it took about ten coats of lime sulphur to cover up all the black burn marks.
And that’s all on that subject until we find some larger specimens with some wood to carve.
I’ll try to get one more post written today, (no promises though) to clear my phone of extra pics and make room for a photo record of my Louisiana Tour.
I leave tomorrow. Look out New Orleans, here I come!

Posted in carving, refine, sculpture, updates | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A big change coming, hold your breath!

Well guys and gals, it seems like I’ve filled up the storage space on this WordPress blog and I have some decisions to make.
#1 I could end the blog and make many of the higher-ups in the bonsai world happy by ridding the Internet of my questioning, irreverent, de-edifying ,and just plain annoying presence.
#2 I could start a whole new blog about cooking soup
Or, #3 I could pony up the money and pay for more storage.
What do you all think?
I’m gonna go with #3.
Since I’m going to be busy this weekend, you won’t see another post (probably) until Wednesday as I’m going to make the even bigger jump of turning the blog into a self hosted one.
Currently the URL is Early next week it will be just
If you have me bookmarked you’ll have to change the address or, just follow the blog and you’ll get an email update when I post a new article.
I am planning on having all the “mapping” done by WordPress so hopefully it’s not messed up,but, you know how things in the interwebs work; if you don’t make the correct offerings of Redbull and chocolate covered donuts to the Internet imps in charge you might end up on the wrong side of an afghan quilting site, explaining why it’s “knit one, pearl two” to Aunty May.
Speaking of articles, I’m not sure what happened but it seems as though half of the last seagrape post ( click here) is missing.
I’m not sure if it has to do with the storage issue or not but I’ll try to recreate what is missing, along with an update showing the the newly lime sulphured deadwood features.
I also have, in the pipeline, a severe trunk chop on a tigerbark ficus for you to learn from.
So, until I have some breathing room (I’ll get it done before my Louisiana trip, promise), see ya’ in the funny papers!

Posted in philosophical rant, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Development tips for neea bonsai

I’m writing this post as a reference for the New Orleans club, and I’ll try to link all my neea buxifolia posts at appropriate (or just random) points throughout the body of the article.
The three trees I’m working on are, these two:
And this little guy.
I’ve updated this one earlier in the year.
But it’s story began here.
I’m not going to work on it today, even though it needs it. I’m using it as a visual aide in my upcoming demonstration for the Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society on October 17th.
I think the title of the talk will be “Neea buxifolia: You wanna hate ‘em, but you gotta love ‘em!”
Hate them?
Here’s an example: see this branch?
It was wired down for a good half a year.
And it popped right back up.
It’ll probably go, I have plenty of other branches to work with. That’s the love part. They like to grow.
The next tree you’ve seen, even if it doesn’t look familiar.
It has……grown.
It’s as tall as The Nook’s roof.
It was my Epcot tree for the 2014 Flower and Garden show.
You last saw it like this.
I let it grow this summer to recover after getting the top hacked back by an over-zealous Trim Team participant.
I think it’s filled back in.
Here’s a technique I shall call the “ponytail topiary trim”:
Grab the foliage as though your putting up some hair in a ponytail.
Scissors below your hand.
The remaining foliage will fall in a perfectly trimmed dome shape.
Unfortunately, with a neea, this technique doesn’t work because the strongest shoots….
….tend to come from the worst places.

Which adds to my argument that the tree responds to dappled shade better than full sun for back budding purposes.
Trimming these trees are therefore a meticulous process.

You first saw this neea in this post.
Here, I would normally rub out the crotches of the excess growth.
But not tonight dear, I have a headache.
Let’s talk moss.
There’s a love/hate relationship there.
On the one hand, it’s awfully purty.
On the other, you don’t want to mess it up with fertilizer on top of it.
I need to remove it to fertilize since it hasn’t been done since March.
I knew I’d find a use for this tool!
It’s the perfect moss spatula…
And soil rake.
Psssssst! Don’t tell anyone but I’ve only used it as a backscratcher up until now, which works brilliantly by the way. The spatula end works well as a shoehorn too.
One of the benefits of moss is that it allows the tree to utilize the whole soil volume….
….by preventing the very top layer from drying out. But you get all kinds of fine dirt (that stuff on which moss grows best) on that same top layer.
The backscratcher is ideal in removing the top layer of soil so you can put fresh soil back on.
First some fertilizer.
And some aeration by poking holes into the soil.
What to do with the moss?
Should I put some back on?
I think so.
Normally, it’s recommended to start at the lip and work inward.

I prefer to start at the trunk and go outward.
Wait, maybe the official way is inward out?
Whatever the official way is, I do it the other way, because I’m a rebel and an iconoclast and I like to be contrary, so there!
Anyway, there’s only enough good moss to cover half of the soil surface. What to do!?
If your taking a picture, only cover the front.
And it will look like this.
If it’s going back on the bench, do this.
Being closer to the trunk will keep the moss alive and hopefully it will spread.
I guess it doesn’t look too bad in a photo like that.
The last tree is one of my favorites.
It desperately needs a repot.
Speaking of which, isn’t that a neat pot?
I’m not sure who made it but, if it’s you, please stand up!

Here’s a post about this little tree.
It’s also one of the favorites in the social media universe.
Definitely in need of repotting.
I usually do this in June or July, I’m a little late I guess. I’ve been traveling a lot of late (coming to a city near you!) so I have an excuse.
I usually clean the dead wood at this time as it’s less stress on the roots. I can hold the trunk and scrub.
Ahhhh, much better.
People who should know better keep telling me that the trunk will rot out and deadwood features just don’t last on a neea. I don’t listen anymore, or even argue. This wood hasn’t changed much at all in the ten years I’ve had it. IMG_8071.JPG
A trim and some root raking.
And new soil, fertilizer and the old moss back on top.
Wait, that’s not dramatic enough, add the mood lighting…
I didn’t put all the neea links (like this one) because you need to work at least a little, but I put the pertinent ones with most of the pruning, carving and growing tips I know. Happy browsing, New Orleans, I’ll see you in about a week and a half, God help us all….

Posted in Horticulture and growing, progression, refine, yamadori | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A new aesthetic for a sea grape?

Why am I going to Palm Bay, of all the beautiful places there are in Florida to go?
I guess it might have something to do with bonsai. It is a bonsai blog, unless I’m doing a chicken noodle soup recipe, that is.
You see, I was challenged (in the way he has of challenging, which differs from most people whom merely say “I challenge you!”) by my friend Bobby….
….to help him develop a new way of looking at sea grape bonsai and to come up with an aesthetic (one could say a new, fresh aesthetic even) and even a new tropical bonsai style to use when developing sea grape stock.
Bobby was recently in Mexico and had seen sea grapes growing off the cliffs much in the same way a juniper does in the mountains; all twisty and gnarly with deadwood and small, dense foliage. Whenever I see sea grapes by the seashore in sunny Flor’duh, they just look like big bushes (like 80’s porn) or, for those who wish to bring bonsai into the aesthetic, like the way chojubai are styled. With that in mind, I propose that chojubai clump style be called “Florida sea grape style” from now on.
I accepted Bobby’s challenge, else this would be a chicken soup recipe post.
Oh, btw, this is more in character for Bobby.
I set him to cutting back the branches and stripping off the bark of out test subject.
While he’s doing that….
….,I’m going to wander around and look at Reggie’s collection.
That’s why I was in Palm Bay, by the way, for the Brevard study group meeting hosted by Dr. Reggie Purdue.
He has a beautiful collection and I could do a post on nothing but it.
Big ilex vomitoria “schillings”
A sweet cypress swamp-adori.
Another Florida native, wild tamarind (Lysiloma latisiliquum).
And this big ficus.
One could even call it a ginseng ficus, if one wanted to.
Let’s check on Bobby’s status.
Good, he’s done.
He had gotten a couple of similar trees from Dragontree Nursery down in Palm City.
Here’s the before, our baseline pic.
And a few more.


Now, there isn’t much “meat on the bone”, as Dan Robinson would say, but I think I can make it work.

I prefer hollows and holes to sharp sticks, I like to make the wood look like it’s worn down naturally.
The black char is from my mini-torch.
Unfortunately, I can’t carve and take pics at the same time (I promised my wife I would come home with all my digits) so you’ll have to be content with before and after shots.
After the first pass.

I think we need some bending.
Hee hee hee!
With the application of some heat, and lateral pressure.
We can create a bend in the wood.
Cool, right?
I wasn’t sure we could do it with a sea grape, but it worked!

Posted in carving, goings, sculpture, yamadori | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

This ficus “too-little” was too much I guess

If you’ve been reading my blog of late
you’ll know that I recently attended an auction that I have been calling “The Auction” (I know, that title is very creative).
This was the first time I brought trees for auctioning purposes and, of the four I offered (and of which I had put all my hopes on selling to pay my mortgage next month) I only sold two. Looks like it’s ramen noodles and peanut butter for a while.
This is one of the trees that didn’t sell.
It was one I was sure would sell and, in fact, even the auctioneer, Reggie thought it was one of the better trees; he even saved it as one of the last four to be bid on.
Not that I’m really complaining, I actually didn’t want it to go. Maybe I was projecting a negative psychic vibe that everyone picked up on and it scared them away.
You see, I have this problem with letting my trees go. I fall in love with them and don’t want to sell them.
You can understand that, right?
Or maybe it was the plastic pot?
Or the big hole in the front or the fact it’s a ficus benjamina “too little”?
I like it myself even if I’ve neglected it in the last year; I put it into the plastic pot last summer and only just trimmed the top the day before the auction.
I think I’m going to put it into that really shallow unglazed pot sitting, precipitously, in the front there.
I should give it a proper pruning too.
What? Yeah, I know…I can tell by how the electrons are twitching beneath my fingers that you just don’t believe I can fit the tree into that shallow of a pot.
Watch, and learn.
First, the pot.
I’m not sure where I got it but it sure has great patina. Or dirt, rust and lime scale
It seems old and it’s made of fine, dense clay, but what do I know.
I sent some pics to a friend of mine, Ryan.
He’s a crazy pot guy.
He agrees that it’s odd that there aren’t any feet.
Or markings/chops on it either.
His best guess, and I quote,

Best guess, inexpensive press molded pot, Likely Japanese, 30-50 years old. Nice patina! Definitely usable.

That’ll work for me. His blog is really easy to find:
Pot discovered.
Well then, get to work Adam, this ain’t your break!
We have tree. The front is around here somewhere.
Even though there’s a big wound in front, I still prefer this side.
For one, the other side is uglier.
And two, I like the wound.
It gives the tree (any tree really) some easily accomplished age and character.
What do you think?
Let me prepare the pot and put some tie down wires in.
And now I’m going to mix some soil (you’re gonna like this next bit).
I got, in the mail and totally unsolicited, a package from
He had read something I said on Facebook and sent me some of his offerings.
I figured, Hell, I write a blog, I need to test it.
He sent a quart of sifted pine bark.
Which I sifted (by hand) again to see if there was any waste.
There was a negligible amount.
I could sift a batch for an hour and then go resift again a day later and I’d still get some to fall through the mesh.
He sent a quart of black lava (sorry, the pic I took was overexposed, just imagine lava but, well, black).
A gallon of pumice.
Which was washed and sifted.
And a gallon of this stuff he’s calling “Bonsai Block”. The BonsaiJack website describes it as being a high fired clay product (fired at a higher temp than regular calcined clay, like Turface).
It’s almost rock hard and has a nice look to it. What surprised me is that some particles floated.
Anyway, I mixed these ingredients (the bags and amounts seemed to be in good ratios that seemed like a “mix” soooo…I mixed them).
I added a bit more pine bark for C.E.C. purposes.
Here’s the mix-
Not bad looking, I can live with the white I guess. It’s “En Vogue” to use pumice right now anyhow.
The fact that it’s usable out of the bag could make a big difference to the average hobbyist. Many of the products and aggregate you find outside of the bonsai industry has to be sifted and washed and you lose a good percentage in the process.
Here’s an example: pine bark from a new bag.
Before sifting.
After sifting.
That’s about a third I lost, but sometimes you lose almost half after sifting when using the raw, bagged product.
It may cost more to buy a pre-sifted and washed product but, as they say, time is money.
The website is
Pot done, soil made….I think I’ll prune next.
There was a statement that these benjaminas don’t backbud.
How’s this?

There’s so much back budding it’s annoying. All that (except one shoot) goes.
There was talk that the “too-little”, which is a dwarf variety of f. benjamina (the weeping fig) will revert back to the big leaves of its lineage.
On the left is an average leaf on a benjamina, on the right is the biggest leaf on the “too-little”.
Anyway, here’s the tree, trimmed.
Most of the movement in the branching was accomplished using “clip n’ grow” techniques.
I will have to agree that trying to make the tree into the traditional pine tree shape just doesn’t work.
Live oak style, deciduous style, upright styles; that’s how to shape these trees.
Are you ready to see how I can shoehorn this….
…into that inch-deep pot?
Ok…first, out comes…Da’ Hook!
I comb out the roots and sit it into the pot.
I knew the roots would fit. I had put it into the deeper plastic pot from a shallow one (a little deeper) like this last year and I’d already cut back the roots then.
A secret about my trees, if they’re in bonsai soil, even if it’s in a deep nursery can, the big roots are almost always cut back so the tree can fit into a finish pot.
So, yeah, I tricked you.
But now, are you ready for the hardest decision?
Left or right?

It’s a tough question.
It looks good on either side.
On the left, I would grow the tree almost like a shade tree over the patch of soil on the right. And it becomes a big tropical style tree to eat mangoes under.
But if it’s on the right, the focal point becomes the big scar and it becomes a tortured, haunted tree to run and hide from because it gives you and your chihuahua nightmares…
I need to contemplate.
Actually, I need and a snack and drink.
Crackerjacks. When was the last time you had those?
And a tall gin and tonic.
Gin and tonic, I recently learnt, is the drink of the true Bonsai Artist (or, dare I say, even Bonsai Professionals? I’ll get in trouble one day for that. Maybe even tomorrow).
As soon as I learn the secret handshake and I’m initiated into the Brotherhood I’m lobbying for absinthe. That’s a Real Artist’s drink.
Or Jaegermeister.
A peanut!
It seems to me that there were more peanuts in a box of Crackerjacks when I was a boy. I see maybe three in this whole batch.
Maybe it’s because I didn’t like them as a boy, so I thought there were too many, but as an adult, I look for them because they are tasty, and there aren’t enough.
I just don’t know.
So, what side of the pot did my, now, gin-soaked brain choose?
Why, the spooky choice of course!
I will have to grow the left side out slightly longer but that’s easy, it’s a ficus.
I’m happy I didn’t sell it.
Since we are talking ficus benjamina “too-littles” here’s an update on the one I worked a few weeks ago (from this post).
Here is how you last saw it.
A slight prune.
Looking good.
Maybe I should have brought this one to The Auction.
Nahhhh, it’s too pretty now too.

Posted in refine, roots, updates | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Willow-leaf ficus, one of my winnings from the Auction

Here’s a tree I practically stole at the Multiclub Auction the other day.
It amazes me the price it went for, similar trees on some of the sales tables up in New York were priced at $150, 200, $250.
Granted, this one isn’t styled yet but, give me a minute, the tree is in there.
One flaw that most beginners wouldn’t understand as a flaw is this root.
It’s true that the root widens the tree’s base but, as should be above-so should be below; there’s no taper.
Taper is one of the most important design tricks in shohin trees.
Do you wanna see how to fix it?
Ok, let it begin then.
First, pry it out of the pot.
I was worried that it was repotted recently,but no, I got lucky.
It’s going into this pot.
It’s a handmade pot and this looks like it says “Eve” to me.
There’s a joke there…..I’m putting my tree into Eve’s pot.
I gently wash the old soil off (mostly calcined clay looks like) and trim the bottom roots.
The root my thumb is under is bent out a bit so that it’s more horizontal and radiating. It was growing down and under the trunk.
There were some square-cut roots that I shave so the transition to the soil is more even; sloping, so to speak.

And now, the Technique.
We have the root presenting itself, looking like a squid.
Oh yes, I am doing that.
Where there was one, now we have two.
To round it over a little, I shave off the top edges of the split.
Which is hard to see, so I shall make for you a diagram.
The split root, in cross section.
And after the shaving of the edges.
One could say I even beveled.
To keep the two halves spread, I take a chopstick and wedge it in.
Then trim the chopstick down.
In the meantime, my apprentice prepared the pot for me, cleaned it, secured the drain holes, placed the tie-down wires and filled it with soil.
I wish.
After I did all that, I put the tree in the pot and tied it in all by my lonesome.
I think it looks good in that pot.
I purchased it at the last Bsf convention for $15. It, too, was a steal.
There are some astute readers out there who are now wondering about the different looking soil mix I’m using.
You all will have to wait until the next post for that mystery to be revealed.
This tree was growing strong.
The top is pulling all the energy and weakening the bottom branches.
Which is typical, often you’ll see the bottom branches die back on a neglected salicaria.
I’ll have to nip it in the bud…I know, I know….groan.
I go through the first branch on the viewers left and trim back so there’s only two branches at every junction.
The first branch on the right I will remove.
It’s too low and, since I have the big double root on that side, it will literally and figuratively overshadow it.
Now I have to decide where to cut the top back to.
Nah, too low.
Up here…..somewhere, Hmmmnnn
Right here!
Some more trimming and defoliation.
My last step is to wire.
Before that, I want to point out that what I did with the roots in this post is generally done only with ficus (and strongly growing ones at that). Although I have seen it done on trident maples before.
You need a tree that can handle severe root pruning, like a ficus, and that will callous over the cut ends.
Ready for the finished tree?
Here you go.
Side view.
Not bad for a $20 tree, right?
That’s right, I won the bid at $20.
Those who didn’t bid on this tree at the auction….
…couldn’t see that, with just a little pruning….
……and a little wire, you could get this tree as the end product.
I’m happy.
The next post will be on a tree I took to the auction that no one bid on.

Posted in branch placement, rare finds, roots, tips and tricks | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments