This was the Brazilian Raintree studyguide for my trip to the Cincy Bonsai club, sorry guys….

was writing this post in anticipation of my impending trip to the Bonsai Society of Greater Cincinnati in, um, Cincinnati. And, since my workshop was on a BRT, and since I had just worked on one and took photos, well, you know, I had photos that now needed words to make sense of them, I guess, and something for the Cincy students to look at before I got there. And, before I confuse you more, I think we should begin with the post…… 

 I did all the work a few weeks ago now, and had planned on publishing before June 17th but I just couldn’t manage it. I got sick again. I didn’t really know how sick. Here I am arriving at the hospital (Orlando Regional Medical Center). I had been sitting on my couch for a week previously.       Exciting. My home-away-from-home. 

I like trees better.   Brazilian Raintrees are in the legume family, which means that the fruiting body tends to be in the form of a bean of some kind. It also means that the leaves are compound. Those little dealies that look like leaves are called leaflettes. This whole structure is the leaf.    Before I repot a BRT (as it shall now be abbreviate henceforth), I will usually defoliate the whole tree. This time I will try to keep all the leaves attached in a misguided attempt at making a pretty tree for the after shot. Let’s see how that works out. 

I’ll be throwing out advice and technique as I go, just like I’m giving a demo, so pay attention now or you’ll have to pay for it later. 

There are generally only two types of BRT’s out there for purchase. Those grown from seed (which tend to have larger leaves, larger thorns, longer internodes and less of that muscled bark/trunk characteristic that has come to identify the original American grown BRT’s. And they flower/fruit, obviously. I believe that the one I’m working on is this kind.    The main clues I see are the round trunk, and the surface roots are ugly, like they grew from seed. Let me also point out that the tree is desperately in need of repotting. You can see the roots filling up the spaces. 

The second type of BRT is a direct clone from the original American BRT, which was grown from seed by American/Floridian bonsai originator, Jim Moody. 

The trunks have more character, movement, and muscling we tend to think of with BRT’s.     Little to no flowers/seed, not as evil of thorns, smaller leaflets and internodes. They’ve been propagated through cuttings or airlayers exclusively. 

Need to get to work on this post. My surgery is in less than 8 hours. 

The tree is currently in a Sarah Raynor pot.   I’m still searching for the best pot for it but I think I’ll go with this one.   I’d like something like this ultimately.    But this one is just too coarse and thick. 

Time for some root work and learnin’     

BRT’s are legumes. Most legumes will enter into a symbiotic relationship with soil living bacteria; the legume gives the bacteria water and sugar and the bacteria gives the legume atmospheric nitrogen.  Each legume has a specific bacteria and a modified root called a “nitrogen fixing nodule” is how you know if your bonsai soil is fertile enough for the bacteria to live.   

Can you see them?  DO NOT confuse these nodules with root knot nematode damage. 

The node is along-side, attached but not a part of the root. 

Root knot nematode damage is a structural piece of the root. 

Whenever I repot a BRT, I will save some of the old soil and add it to the new mix.   Just so I can infect the new soil with that beneficial bacteria.   Now for a few wires and some pruning….which reminds me. When pruning, you need to leave a stub: 

 The BRT has a want or need (which means that I don’t know why) to die back to the next node (area where a bud is present). If I were to prune this nub flush, the branch will die back to the next branch. That’s just the way it goes. If one wants a flush cut, one prunes like above, waits for the dieback, and then go back and cut it flush.     Silly, deciding to wire a tropical tree like this without defoliating. Here’s how it looks, kinda sulky.   One reason this tree is called a “Raintree” is that, when it rains, it gets pouty, like the above pic. Basically, those leaflets close up during rain (or drought, or wiring/repotting etc. some type of stress) and makes the tree look sad. I’m not sure who I was kidding by leaving those branches in leaf and doing the pruning/wiring. It looks like crap. 

And you can’t see the branch structure.  Where are my scissors?!   Now it’s time for bed. I have surgery in less than 7 hours, now. 

The next post should be something special I think. It will be, if all goes well in 6 and 1/2 hours, the three hundredth post on the blog. Three hundred?!! I know, I talk a lot. 

Wish me luck in the morning!

Posted in Horticulture and growing, tips and tricks, wiring | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The 2015 Bonsai Societies of Florida Annual convention

As I might have mentioned several times now, I was a recent attendee (and Bsf officer and vendor) at the Bsf convention. This is a blog answering why. Why go, why participate, why volunteer, etc. 

Here’s a good reason, right off the bat:   Dinner with Guy Guidry at the Boston Lobster Feast. That’s all I’ll let you know about that. What happens in the BLF stays in the BLF. 

Let’s start at the beginning. The convention took place on May 22-25 at The Florida Hotel inside the Florida Mall, Orlando. It was held there last year and will be there next year as well. 

This year, the club spearheading the convention was the Bonsai Society of Brevard, one of the biggest in the state, and the convention was chaired by my friend, Ronn Miller. My position as the 2nd vp of Bsf officially makes me the liaison with the host club (in those years when the convention isn’t hosted by Bsf, that is) but my recent illness left me out of the loop (and loopy, at times) for most of the planning. My tender condition also made everyone treat me like I couldn’t do anything. I have a suspicion that my wife sent out emails to everyone involved warning them that they would have to deal with her undying wrath, if any calamity befell me. Anyway, don’t tell her I said that.  

I didn’t really have to do much anyway, the Brevard club had everything handled. They are pros. 

I was a vendor in the sales are (or the bazaar, as they still call it. Remember, Florida is populated by many Northern immigrants, and that’s what they called a sales room, in my youth, in Massachusetts. I always found it bizarre….). But I won’t show you any pics because I didn’t take any. I will say that, as a dealer for American Bonsai Tools, we had a good showing again. I sold some good trees too. Or I should say that my ever suffering wife sold a lot of trees and tools. I played. 

I had a tree in the exhibit, unfortunately, I can only show my display. This year they had a restriction on photos of other than your own tree in exhibit.

 I finally got my ficus sap stained hands on some decent moss. There was a back corridor exchange from a source (who will remain anonymous) of the best moss in the world.   It’s not a specific variety, in case you were wondering. It’s the unique and, let’s say unusual cultural conditions that makes it so great. 

Do you wanna know what those conditions are? Ok……the moss must be CULTIVATED UPON THE BODIES OF THE DEAD…..yeah, that’s right, this person or persons who supplied the moss, stole it from a graveyard. I can only imagine the scene……

“It was a foggy night, the full moon peeking in and out from behind the wispy clouds, the wind blowing the squealing graveyard gate open and closed. That cold wind meanders through the ancient live oak trees, their twisted branches almost touching the faded gravestones. The wind caresses the grey, wispy Spanish moss, giving an artificial life to the gnarled branches. Two genteel and respected bonsai practitioners, fit and fashionable in branded polos, short pants, mid-ankle tube socks and New Balance tennis shoes (the snazzy ones, not just the grey ones) creeped soundlessly into the murky barrows. Armed with their trusty Joshua Roth ™ combo spatula/tweezer set, they brazenly robbed the tombs…..of their moss.” 

Now, I’m not sayin’ that’s how the heist went down. It coulda happened in broad daylight. But I’m a romantic. Anyway, my display.    An ilex vomitoria “schillings” on a stand I made. The accent is a tilandsia recurvata that we call “ball moss”.   

The stand is made of reclaimed pallet oak that I made look older and the feet are old railroad pieces called rail anchors.   I wrote a post on it awhile ago. 

I caught my friend Rick trying to remove some water stains from his exhibit tree’s pot.    

This is the vendor area before everyone was set up.   Or, I should say half of it. The other half was behind me. 

On Friday I was asked to perform a duelling demo with Stacy Allen Muse, last year’s winner of the Bsf Scholarship styling contest.       If you notice, he’s all over his tree and I’m just sitting and staring at mine. His was a procumbens nana juniper, mine was a retusa ficus.   It was interesting sharing the stage with him, he would be talking to himself and the volume of his voice would slowly rise and then he’d be talking to the audience. It was exciting. I couldn’t take my ears off it. Here’s his tree:  He did an outstanding job with difficult material. 

And my tree:  One person said it looked like Minis Morgul, the fallen city of the Witch Kings from Lord of the Rings, and quite a few started using the name. 

On Saturday I participated in that same styling contest that Stacy won last year. Here’re some pics.       Take note of the Jin above. You’re seeing the back of the tree. Here’s my finished entry.   Here’s a good example of how important seeing a tree in person is when learning how to style trees.   The movement just doesn’t translate. And you’ll notice the burn marks; I used a torch and brute force to bend that branch.  


A slightly different view of the front.   I would like to humbly announce that I was the winner. 

I would show the other contestants trees but there is one who, I am sure, wouldn’t give approval to do so. And I didn’t want to manufacture a scandal by not showing this person’s tree so I’m afraid that, in this case, I am bowing to the “Less Drama is Best” camp (and taking the advice of a few friends) and, therefore, you can’t see my competitor’s trees and truly compare them to be able to judge if I won on merit or just on my name alone. 

I should point out that the judging was anonymous. 

I think I’ve said enough. 

Some weird things happened at the convention: impromptu chiropractory.   

Bone gnawing on a rib eye.   

A botched panorama of my table mates at the banquet.    

A random pic of, ahhhhhh, people.  

 That’s actually Dave leaning out of the shot on the left, Rick in the far back, my wife, her cheek, nose, eye, and boob on the right. 

Here’s a shot of all the exhibitors, I’m almost hidden.  


There I am, I’m the short one in front,  in this zoomed shot (with the shit eating grin on his face)  The two ladies in front of me are, left to right, Mary Madison and Lunetta Knowlton. 

I must say that it was an interesting convention without the haze of the alcohol induced insight I usually have (I was trying to not dehydrate myself, I don’t want another hospital visit before my surgery on July 15th, wish me luck). I might just give up the sauce for good (naaaaaaaaah, prolly not). 

Needless to say, with my sales, my triumphant win in the styling contest, and the overall relaxed atmosphere, I’d say that this was my best Bsf convention yet. I purchased some pottery from my favorite Florida pot dealers.


Taiko Earth:  

And introducing Martha Goff (author of Tropical Green Sheets 1&2): 


I picked up a few trees for blog purposes (the last post was one) and, guess what? I won the demo tree, at auction, that Stacy worked on in our duel.   And I think Martha’s pot is just right for it.  

It was an awesome convention, sorry I didn’t (or couldn’t) get more pics for you but I was busy, man, playing, while my wife worked (she loves me. I love her). 

The one disappointment was not seeing more Floridians,  who are serious in the art, show up. Here’s the “Philisophical Rant” part of the article. You may skip it if you wish. I wouldn’t. 

I am a traveling bonsai artist and teacher. Wherever I go, I look at trees in nature. Believe it or not, they grow differently in different parts of the country (and the State of Florida, I should add).  If you believe me or not, the natural shape of a tree in nature affects how the shape of your bonsai turns out (it doesn’t matter if you don’t, because it’s true). Here’s an example, those beginners in suburban areas tend to make their trees look like landscape trees. You know, the lollipop look. What I’m saying is that  the “ideal” tree image in the mind changes from place to place and person to person. And that image, in the bonsai artists mind, matures the more they learn bonsai. In some people it tends to stagnate at the “bonsai” tree look, unfortunately. 

In the great artist, that image has matured to include all looks, be it “bonsai”, “natural”, “western”, “Penjing” etc. and he/she can adapt according to what the tree is telling them. There aren’t many of those kind of artists. And, no, peanut gallery, I don’t claim to be one. My trees look like my trees. There are some looks and shapes that my brain can’t be forced to make. 

What all this is leading to, readers, to make that long story short: you need to visit local shows to see how other artists solve problems, bend a branch, wire, prune. You need to see the trees in person; a picture, even the best, is flat. And you need the influence of others to improve your art. All art is theft, sorry, but it’s true. Every artist I’ve read about and studied has said so. 

If you skipped to the end of the rant, take note of my parting words: go to a close (or not so close) convention to see and be seen, participate in a planned activity, volunteer,  and, look at the trees

Posted in goings, philosophical rant | 2 Comments

Buy the trunk, not the branches

Uhhhhhh…..what da’ hell?  As I may have mentioned, I had plans to attend the 2015 Bsf convention over this past Memorial Day weekend. I took some pictures and did some interesting things while there and I promise I’ll be writing that blog soon. But I wanted to cover this tree in a quick post before I write that one, which might prove to be a marathon session. 

This tree was one of my acquisitions from the vendor area, from Mike Cartrett actually, it’s a ficus microcarpa. He got it from a man selling off his excess trees, which is something he does a lot of.   The tree is the microcarpa species and not one of the many varieties, which you can tell by the white dots on the leaf.   Ficus Benjamina has the same dots too, but it’s easy to tell them apart; the f. microcarpa leaf is about twice as thick, generally. This poor tree has been neglected and abused something fierce. Look at the calcium buildup on the pot:  and it’s all over the trunk too. And when we say “root bound”, the photo in the dictionary should be this one.  

It’s a tough tree, remember that this could be an epiphytic plant for many years before its roots hit the ground, it needs to be able to live in inhospitable areas. Speaking of which: combing out the roots… There’s so much calcium and lime, I’m surprised that the tree isn’t way more yellow than it is. That might be because of the excess iron in the previous owner’s water too. Probably well water.  How do I know about the iron? Rusty branches. The leaves are not as green as they could be, but they’re not severely chlorotic either. There are many formulas and secret ways of removing this water scale and rust  from the trunk. But, since I don’t have any muriatic acid on hand and I’m not willing to sacrifice a rooster (the full moon is a week away anyway) I’m just going to use…..  A toothbrush (if you have a significant other, using their toothbrush is best)   And water. Let’s see how well it works (Hah! Get it? I’m using water to remove well water stains and I’m asking how well that works….ok, sorry. I’ll be quiet now)  Not bad. There was a lot of gunk that came off. Now, a little root work… 

Bend this to the right to give it a better flare.   

Shave this part down a bit.   

And remove this one entirely. It’s pointing up.  

I’m putting it in this six inch grow pot.   And I’ll use bonsai soil. This should increase the root mass dramatically. And, as the roots grow, so do the branches.  

Fertilizer   Now for the branches and leaves. It might be prudent to leave every leave on (leave every leave? No? C’mon this is a tough audience) which, logically, should increase the vigor. But this is a ficus and I know ficus. Which means that I know how to manipulate the growth processes. Attend! First: all this should be done in the summer, and outside, with adequate water, and the tree should be growing.  

Here’s proof, this one has new growth.  

There are several old leaves that I will remove.   The reason is, they are rust stained and some have damage. These leaves, in the presence of those new leaves, are energy users as opposed to energy makers (first rant: plants make their own food, or energy, through photosynthesis. Which is why I never say “feed your trees” when talking about fertilizing. Ferts are more like vitamins and minerals. Those who say “feed your trees” are just ignorant or lazy linguists. Definitely not the cunning linguist I am, if you don’t believe me, just ask my wife). What I mean by that is, being so dirty and damaged, not much photosynthesis can occur and the leaves will use more energy than they make. Especially in the presence of new growth. It’s best to remove them and maximize energy production.  

I don’t like the way this branch is emerging out of the crotch, So we remove it.  

I haven’t decided which will be the leader yet, so I’ll leave the other two branches alone. I have time to decide, though. So no worries.  Which just leaves us with the explanation of the title to this post. 

I’ve heard often that it’s important to make sure the pre-bonsai you buy has adequate low branches. This advice is true, with certain, specific trees, mostly conifers. If you are buying a deciduous tree like an elm or maple, or a tropical like this ficus or such, you need to look at the trunk and the base first (the japanophiles use the word nebari when talking about the base. Mostly it makes them feel learned. The actual English term is “buttress” or “buttress roots”). With a good trunk (remember this concept, it’s important) you can always grow the branches. 

Otherwise you are left with growing the trunk…. 

Like on this cutting.  And that’s not doing bonsai at all. Let someone else waste their time doing that. This little stick in a pot will take 5-10 years before its interesting enough to even consider starting in bonsai. And, before that smartass in the peanut gallery asks me why I have cuttings, it’s because I have a nursery and I can. I also have more bonsai than he does, too, and I don’t waste my time worrying about this (and the other hundred or so) little microcarpa cuttings that just need watering. And in ten years I’ll “discover” it again and wonder where a great tree like it came from. Or… my wife will be throwing it on the burn pile because, as the most famous traveling bonsai artist Rockstar in the USA, I’ve missed our wedding anniversary again (June 15th btw) and she’s just done. Over it. Through with me. She’s already smashed my guitars and tore up my books and is starting on the trees now.  

I have a too vivid imagination sometimes. 

So, if you don’t want that to happen to you, the smashing and the burning and all that, don’t worry about the branches so much.   (I’m not, obviously). Focus on a well developed, interesting trunk.   And grow the tree. See the future.   

 And now, I’m off to apologize to my wife for something that may happen a decade hence. Wish me luck my friends. 




Posted in rare finds | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Sometimes you need to neglect your bonsai

And all along you all though that caring for a bonsai tree took up all your time, sitting in the garden, babying and doting over it, drinking green tea and eating sushi. It’s not really like that. Mostly you’re just watering. To be honest, the second most common reason a tree declines and dies (behind watering mistakes) is babying it, subjecting your tree to too much work and over-pruning. Sometimes it’s best just to let it grow and ignore the tree for a while. And drink beer instead of green tea. 

Now, I’m not saying to forget to water it or something boneheaded like that, especially in the summer, but letting a bonsai grow and letting it get out of shape gives the tree a chance to gain energy. And it makes for a spectacular “before and after” when one writes a bonsai blog, that’s what all the professionals do. 

Here’s a neglected ilex for you (a dwarf yaupon holly, or ilex vomitoria “schillings” for those so inclined)   It’s been in the blog before so this is kinda an update I guess. I can’t find the first post, sorry. Whoever finds it first I’ll figure out a prize for them. 

Since you’ve seen it last, though, I’ve removed the initial wiring and done a few trimmings. But I haven’t touched it for at least three seasons (fall-spring). It is now just about summer (damn it’s hot already, here in Orlando, I was seeing on Facebook that they just had 38 degree Fahrenheit weather up in the Ohio area, weird).

Your eyes are not deceiving you, the trunk is totally hollow.    

I can just about fit my whole fist up inside.  But in some states, it’s against the law to show those type of images, and since I am a traveling bonsai teacher and I don’t wish to spend any time in jail on one of my tours, I won’t. 

Now, it’s a given that I’m going to cut back the bush…    ….but I’m also going to show you how to address the soil if you might have forgotten to have repotted this year (you say “Hey! Soil, are you ready…..” Sorry, I stole that one from Bill, who you might remember, gave us the theme for the last post). Or you weren’t able to repot because maybe you were in the hospital, or in jail or something. 

Speaking of jail, the Bonsai Police will be after me for the first branch:  The list of crimes-

 1) it’s too low

 2) it’s too thin to be a number one branch. 

But we must remember, even though this is Art, it’s also Horticulture; if I remove it, I could lose the whole side of the tree, and we don’t want that to happen. And so it stays.

 So there! Catch me if you can Bonsai Police. 

A little off the top, close on the sides….   That’s a joke but, in all actuality, cutting the side branches back harder than the top, with some trees, is how you should prune them. Not the yaupon per se but let’s propose we have an azalea. Some trees are apically dominant, like a spruce or a pine, or a deciduous tree. That means that the tree wants to push all its growth to the apex, picture a Christmas tree: all pointy on top. With an azalea (and most bushes) the plant’s growth is more horizontal, it wants to create many side stems as opposed to that single, strong leader. This makes it tough to grow as a bonsai. So when pruning, you cut the sides back harder than the top. But that’s another post on another blog.

Time for some wire.  Let’s conduct a few polls: with aluminum wire, do you prefer the classic brown anodization or the new black? And, would you entertain wire with the natural aluminum color (greyish)?  For copper, do you prefer the shiny new copper look (which means an electrical current was run through it to heat it up in order to anneal or soften it) or do you prefer the kiln fired annealing process, which gives it a mottled and almost purple appearance? Let me know. Myself, I’m leaning towards a nice pink on the aluminum. It’d be purty. 

While your thinking of that, let me finish the wiring.    

The tree didn’t get repotted this year (it’s too late to do it now) and summer is coming. In Florida that means 90f degree plus temps but with rainstorms that could dump more than 3 inches of rain at one time. The ilex puts out copious fine feeder roots that clog the potting mix and that makes it a priority to repot often.   Combine that with the leftover organic fertilizer (I don’t use cakes or pellets or tea bags. I apply it right on the soil. My practice and my prerogative) and it means that this tree will stay too wet at times but will dry up fast if we have a dry day. Oh, woe is me, what’s a bonsai person to do?!

Address the soil (or, more precisely, redress the soil). 

Using a chopstick, or some similar pointy thingy, rough up the top half inch or so of soil (this won’t hurt the roots much, think of all the damage done to the roots on the soil surface in the wild by falling branches, small woodland creatures, smurfs,  and the ever growing cast of survival show people, compared to that, a little chopsticking is minor)  Then dump all that crap out. (Literally in this case, the fertilizer I use is derived from what the scientists call “poo”).   Then, returning to the chopstick, poke some holes in the soil all the way down to the pot’s bottom. Maybe one hole every inch or so. Put some fresh fertilizer down.   An backfill the top with new soil.   And mix the whole mess in well. 

Ah, look! Some charcoal.   Horticultural charcoal to be precise. 

Let’s see how much trouble I can get into dissecting the characteristics and usage of charcoal in a soil mix. 

Charcoal is usually made of wood, combusted in a limited atmosphere. It could also be bone or other animal/vegetable matter. Do not confuse charcoal with charcoal briquettes, those chopped and formed stars of backyard barbecues all over the country. They have bonding agents and most have lighter fluid impregnated in them to make them easier to light on fire. It’s safe to say, we do not use charcoal briquettes in horticultural applications. 

There’s also this stuff called agrichar and many people use charcoal and agrichar synonymously. And they are close in makeup and use, but the agrichar group distinguishes the two harshly (Aha! There’s the rub. You see, agrichar is a politically charged subject. When you research it, therefore, everything you read about it must be read with a grain of salt). The biggest difference is that agrichar must be sourced from strictly vegetable matter, must be from waste products, and must be sustainable. Which is funny, because it evolved from this thing called terra preta, an Amazonian type of soil that has clay pottery shards and charcoal amendments that itself, evolved from the much derided slash and burn method of nourishing the poor Amazon soil that is partly being blamed for the deforestation of the South American Rainforest. I won’t go into detail about either agrichar or terra preta but I suggest you look into it further, it’s an interesting read. Just remember that grain of salt. There are agendas being pushed. Speaking of which……

There are agendas (and reputations, commercial interests, and even entrenched traditions) in the use of charcoal in bonsai soil. Therefore, the research I did was purposefully not done in the bonsai world. Why? This is a bonsai blog, ain’t it? Well, for some reason, most “evidence” presented in the bonsai world is anecdotal. Which means that _________, who’s been doing bonsai for thirty years, has great success using _________and he must be right but then that new Japanese apprentice dude from_____just said that using __________is wrong because he just finished his Japanese apprenticeship and his Master says that we should never use _________. 

Let’s go to the science, shall we? 

Basically, charcoal is an organic additive to the mix that serves the same purpose of, say pine bark or fir bark. But it doesn’t break down as fast. That purpose is  to provide a high C.E.C. component that holds nutrients and releases them to your tree when it needs it and provide an environment for the various microorganisms necessary for a healthy soil. Charcoal’s structure is better than bark because the hard chunkiness of it won’t compact like bark could. It’s drawback is that it will change the ph to a more alkaline state, so acid loving plants (most flowering/fruiting varieties) may not appreciate an addition of charcoal. 

It does not purify the water you apply to your trees, unless you are using nothing but charcoal and it’s an “activated” form (I won’t get into that, other than to say that horticultural charcoal is not activated). 

It does not filter out excess synthetic fertilizer salts, no charcoal does. Period. 

Some people say it deodorizes soil. It could but I don’t think there’s enough in the mix. 

It does “sweeten” the soil, which means to make it more alkaline, which I covered already. 

It makes your trees smell like a good, slow smokin’ barbecue joint. Always a plus. Hmmmmmm….

It is a good amendment to bonsai soil, but not for the reasons usually stated. And with that, I’m thinking I’m done talking about charcoal. If you are foaming at the mouth at this point, feel free to criticize, please don’t cite anecdotal evidence when trying to eviscerate me though. Thanks, I appreciate it. 

Anyway, back to the tree….. since I’ve finished it while I’ve been boring you with all my scientifical declaratory sentences.

The before: 

And the after:    I really need a different pot but the tree is looking good. Let’s crop the pot out.    You know, I’m not really sure what type of pot the tree would look best in. 

Oh well, that’s a puzzle to be worked out next potting season. With that, when eating your charcoal for that detoxifying effect that they talk about on Facebook, make sure you chew it thoroughly and drink lots of water. And brush your teeth, black is not your color. 

Posted in rare finds, updates, wiring | Tagged , , , , , | 18 Comments

After the Trunk Chop: Fifty Shades of Green

This was a comment by my friend Bill Butler on a Facebook picture I posted:

“And now, a passage from “Fifty Shades of Green” by Adam Lavigne:

I found her sitting on the bench.  She was soaking up the sun without a care in the world.  “You’re a mess,” I said. “What have I told you about keeping up appearances?”  

She said nothing.  The breeze sighed across her limbs, caressing them with a lover’s touch.  Was she ignoring me? I walked around the bench and placed her in my shadow.
“The neighbors will talk,” I said with a smile.  “I don’t care.  You need discipline.  Here.  Now.”
And so I undressed her there in the dappled sunlight … one leaf at a time.”

Damn I wish I had written that, brilliant. That is officially the first occurrence of fan fiction for the blog.  I bet you the Valavanis blog has never gotten anything like that. It was in response to this pic:  Which was captioned: “About to apply some scissor discipline upon a recalcitrant ficus.” 

We are (we being me, that is. When you see people use we instead of I, it’s called the “royal we”, not to be confused with the “Royal Wee”, of which its best to dodge, it still being wee. When speaking in a position of authority, like, say, a king or an emperor or a blog author, it is sometimes more correct to say “we” instead of “I”) working on a willow leaf ficus (f. salicaria) today. Or actually yesterday (or if you’re reading this on a day other than a Monday it’s safe to say “earlier this week/month/year), it’s usually a few days after I work on a tree before I write the post. Sorry if I ruined the illusion for you. Anyhow, it’s this tree:    Though it looks like a bush at the moment. It was the recipient (or victim) of the infamous Trunk Chop. Which is here, in case you were interested:  I know, it looks very intimidating trying to find a starting point with all this growth…… ……and trying to figure out where to prune, but it’s really just going back to basic principles.   No ups or downs or crossing branches or……..etc. 

And that brings us back to this pic and the whole concept of “Scissor Discipline”   And, as reality is often lacking in the romantic depiction we find in fiction, Bob’s your uncle.    Was it good for you? I’m exhausted, I could use a nap.   “She looks at me incredulously, she says 

“Is that it?” With a slight rise in her voice on the last syllable. 

I suppose I should finish her off. Although in this light she’s beginning to look somewhat like Bob, my uncle.   Except that Bob, my uncle, has a mustache and goatee…….”

I have to decide on the top branch.  

This one, the obvious choice. 

Or this one in the back.  It’s not one most people would choose. I’m going to use it because it will give a forward/back bit of movement (that kind of movement is never apparent in a photo unless really professional lighting techniques are used. Most bonsai in photos appear flat and two dimensional, which is why, and this is important to the development of your art, so write it down, you must see bonsai in person to truly learn how to create one. Go to a show, join a club, visit a nursery, find a mentor).   

Next, since some of the branches need thickening, I’m going to strip (take it all off baby!) all the leaves except the terminal buds on those (this causes the branch to elongate faster and, therefore, get thicker).  They will be allowed to grow uninhibited for the summer. 

   On those that are at a thickness that is advanced enough, at this stage, I’m going to cut for movement and taper.  


Higher in the tree, we have (Oh no! The Royal Wee, look out!) branches that are the same thickness as the lower branches. Logically thinking, the higher the branch, the younger it is (and, inversely, the lower, the older). To slow them down from thickening anymore, I’ll trim them back.   

But our top branch I’ll leave alone (mostly, I did remove some leaves).  To let it and the secondary branching get thicker, faster.  And that is Scissor Discipline. Cutting or not cutting certain branches so that they grow faster or in the direction you want or to slow them down to allow other branches to catch up. With a ficus or a deciduous tree this is just as important as wiring. 

 And now I need to address the soil.   That black gunk is spent organic fertilizer. I need to remove it (which is just removing the top layer of soil)   

Add some new fertilizer.   Put a new layer of soil over it and then mix it in with a chopstick.   And I’m done. Well….

“I know she wants the wire. To be bound and trained like she deserves. But she’s not ready yet. Whatever contortions I twist her into she’ll just bounce back and show the recalcitrance that I know is her nature. Naughty girl. She needs a year. Some more maturity. Then the bondage….the fun part. That’s when I will truly enjoy our time spent together….”

Sorry, that’s enough of that. 

So, yeah….no wire today. Like I said above, it won’t hold. These branches are way too young to train yet. They’ll just bounce back and frustrate me.   I have time. We will let it grow. 

Later in the summer I might repot, if I do, I think the new front will be here:  This angle gives the tree more movement. And makes her look just a little less like my Uncle Bob. 

Next post: an ilex!!!!

Posted in maintenance, progression, refine, updates | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

 Plastic bonsai? What? 

Sometimes I just like to stir the puddin’, and I think this post will do just that. It’ll annoy a few, make a few think but hopefully entertain you all. Let us introduce you to our cast of rogues for today’s drama; some willow leaf ficus (ficus salicaria to be precise. If you see anyone call it differently I give you permission to brutally put that ignorant individual in their place. Become that cyber bully you so much want to be, go ahead, you’ll feel empowered enough that you might just might think you can fly. Fly right off a bridge.)  

        Four trees, all the same species but all different looks and forms (here’s the first shot across the bow, we should not be calling the different “styles” of trees “styles”. I believe it’s a misunderstanding of the essence of Japanese to use the word “style”. In karate, the way the martial artist holds his/her body when practicing is called a pose or stance or form. Those are more accurate words than the word “style” when describing how a tree has been pruned.  I propose we begin using the word “form” when describing the basic, classical shapes when training bonsai trees (you know- cascade,informal upright, windswept etc.). It’s a bit more precise and makes one sound like one understands how the English language is used well to convey specific ideas. I mean, my artist friends laugh at me when I use the word style. They say things like,

“Are we painting a landscape “style” painting today ?”  Style is reserved for how a group of artists or an individual use technique to convey their art. Like the Cubists or like the Impressionists. Or like Walter Paul or Suthin Sukosolvisit.  Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that.) 

Where was I? Oh yeah, the same species but different forms and looks. How is this interesting? Well, Ficus salicaria is a plastic tree. Uhhhh, say what?! Plastic: adjective: (of substances or materials or bonsai trees) easily shaped or molded. 

Ok, I added the bonsai tree part, but when I say that a willow leaf ficus is plastic, I mean that it doesn’t have to conform to its “natural” full-grown growth habit when we prune it to a shape but can, like a juniper or a Chinese elm, be pruned in any form that best suits that individual trees unique habit (as opposed to the way a Japanese maple is almost always best when grown as a deciduous tree form). Let’s start with this one: 

 As you can see, I’ve already defoliated it. I’ve had it about a year (I got it at the auction last year at the Bonsai Societies of Florida convention for too much money. It was for charity though, so it was worth it) and all the branches are new; when I got it it was just the fat bottom trunk and the skinny top.  

I think this was the original front.  But I like the other side better.   One reason is this root.   And I just like the trunk character better. First step is shortening here:  As you build a tree you, should break it into threes. The bottom third should be three times as long as the top third. Or something like that. I’m not getting my ruler out today.  

   Looks better already. Now for some wire.   You may have noticed I’m not in my usual workspace, The Nook. I’m actually at Epcot. I’m manning the Central Florida Bonsai Club’s table at the Flower and Garden show’s Festival Center. The club answers questions Friday through Sunday in the Center and today was my turn with my bud Rick.  I really enjoy my Epcot days with Rick, he talks so much to the guests that I get to work on trees all day. Good times. Thank you sir!

The next day, it’s time for a pot.  

 There might be one in there somewhere. 

I need to see what kind of roots I have below the soil.  

 Ah……Not much I see. Methinks I need a wider pot.  



This’ll work. As I put the tree in the pot, I’m not trimming any roots. This is to encourage them to grow more. The pot is Taiko Earth by my friend Rob Addonizio. I like it.  

It looks pretty cool but it’s still about two years before those branches are thick enough to be in scale. 

So we go from a sumo form to an informal upright look.  

 Kinda shaggy at the moment. This was a tree originally styled by the inimitable Mike Lane at a CFBC meeting last year. I’ve done nothing to it except let it grow. Let’s defoliate to see the structure.    

It looked like this at the end of his demo.   Not much was left, and only had two wires applied. I think it needs few little changes.  A slight turn for movement.  This branch is too low and skinny.   How’s this?  So this form is called informal upright. It’s at a very early stage right now but we need to give it a few years as well. The next tree is technically the same form but I like to add on that it’s also a pine tree form too.   It doesn’t need anything done to it at the moment, just fertilize and let it grow.  

The next tree will really prove my point. It’s a bunjin or literati form tree.   I got it from Mike at Emblem Bonsai and Exotics. I believe it’s a root cutting. I’ll be styling it and repotting it. I love my work.  

   It has nice movement and loads of potential (when I was in the third grade I was a break-dancer. No, really, I even had a roll of linoleum I would throw on the street and do my routine. This was way back in the Eighties. I could do a backspin, the windmill, a knee spin, and even do a head spin. They said I had good movement and loads of potential too. Nowadays I’m lucky if I can walk a straight line, nevermind breakdance. It’s probably a good thing I do bonsai, huh? I’d starve as a dancer today). 

This is the pot I’m using.   It’s made of glass. There is an up and coming bonsai glass artist named Emrys Berkower who’s experiments with glass containers for bonsai are revolutionary (I don’t think he has a website yet, look him up on Facebook).   This is one of his creations.    Sweet, now for some styling.     Some wiring.  

And it’s this tree that really shows the plasticity of salicaria as a bonsai subject. Ed Trout, THE bonsai master from Miami, says that if the willow leaf isn’t the best species for bonsai, he doesn’t know what tree is. It’s able to be grown and pruned in every classic form and not look forced like some trees do. You gotta get you one, you need it. 

So, you’ve had your word of the day (plastic), I’ve a annoyed the bonsai conservatives out there by suggesting that they’ve been using the word “style” incorrectly for more than fifty years, and I suggested that one can prune a tree contrary to its natural mature growth habit (which, to some, is an irreparable sin, close to a mortal sin even). What else can I do or say to ostracize myself? How about..junipers bore me, Japanese black pine is becoming over saturated, once you’ve seen one maple deciduous form, it seems you’ve seen them all (is there any art in continually copying those who have come before?)…….ummm, I can’t stand cilantro, it’s evil, I think that public schools should be abolished, cake is a lie……..

Next up on the blog, I think I’ll make soup. That should be safe. 


Posted in branch placement, philosophical rant, rare finds, redesign, wiring | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Building a display stand for a bonsai

The Bonsai Societies of Florida 2015 convention is coming up later in the month (Memorial Day weekend to be precise) and I had a tree accepted for the exhibit.  

This ilex vomitoria “schillings”.  The problem is, I don’t have a stand for it. Looks like an awesome opportunity for a blog post with me building one, right?  This will be my first attempt with an unknown outcome. I’m so excited. 

Let’s start with some wood.  


 It’s reclaimed oak  from a shipping pallet. Nice and rough. The look I’m going for is an old, distressed piece. I’m using the oak because my tree is in a live oak style. I want some meaning. 

In the distressed look I’m going for I need to preserve as many rough edges I can, like this edge here:  The problem is, I need to join three pieces of board together and to do that there needs to be at least one perfect edge on the two outside boards and two perfect edges on the middle one. But on the two boards I need the good edge on, I can’t get it because that rough edge isn’t square, so when I run it through the table saw, I get a curved cut. 

What to do? I don’t have a big plug in electric edge planer but I do have a hand plane.   It’s a little rusty. 

Here’s the offending boards.  

 And one of the gaps I need to fix.  First I have to do some sharpening of the blade or knife on my hand plane. It’s a duller than a politician.  The green scrubby removes some surface rust. The blade’s not too bad compared to the body of the plane. 

Basically, when sharpening, only one side is sharpened.  

   Just like a chisel, there’s the flat side (on the right, above) and the beveled side (on the left, above). 

I’m using a diamond sharpener (I’d consider it the medium grit for a diamond sharpener, which is still finer than a stone. If you’re familiar with them, it’s the yellow one)  

 It’s a water slurry system. I hate oil when sharpening blades.  

When sharpening the bevel, you want to match that beveled angle…. 

   ….which I am not doing in this pic. After getting the angle and the edge sharp,  you then remove the burr on the flat side (which happens whenever you sharpen, with a double sided edge, you’re trying to keep that burr centered, otherwise your knife will be sharper using it one way, say left handed, than the other).  


Ok, that looks good.    But I want it to be like butta, so I go to my fine diamond card.  This is the red card. There’s one more, called extra fine (green), but I shouldn’t need to go that fine. I’m not shaving my beard or anything. At least, not yet. 

Reassemble the tool (I probably should have paid attention to how I took it apart)   And now, into the dungeon to where the bench vise is.  

 I really need to clean out this shed. You know, I have a small kiln. I could be making bonsai pots too, if I could get my ass in gear and stay healthy at the same time. 

Anyway, all nice and square, some glue and it’s just a matter of overnight….    Oh, I need to start the stain I’ll be using. 

Rusty nails, some vinegar and water.     I should let this sit for a few weeks but it has a good color already…….annnnnnnd……this is where the last post occurs, chronologically in my life. The world must really have wanted this stain to sit for the correct time, because I got sick, had a $10,000 vacation in the hospital, etc (read the last post). 

Sooooooo…….THREE weeks later, I finally return to the project. 

The fully joined boards.   Now for the magic. A wire brush on my flex-shaft carving tool.   This is the bit I use to blend new carved jins and shari into the old deadwood. A word of warning, you need a variable speed pedal to use this attachment, for safety reasons. It can’t handle full speed or it comes apart. 

Here’s some of the results: 

A stark, table saw ripped edge.   Ahh, much better.  The other end.  

Before, you can see the joint.   And after. Can’t even tell where it is, hardly.  The whole board after carving.   Now, for my homemade stain. Let’s see what happens.     Wow. It’s still wet but that is amazing. I’ll go water the trees and we’ll come back to it in a few hours when dry…….water, sprinkle, soak………………done! Ready? 

 The board on top is a raw oak plank to give you an idea the original color. I’m liking it. Now for a lacquer (semi gloss) finish.     It’s still a little too glossy so, in between coats I’ll use the old wire brush to dull it down.   That’s better.   Three coats later…. 

Oh yeah, I’m liking it!  Here’s the raw board again for contrast. Just what I was looking for. Now here’s the cool part: my friend Paul and my bro-in-law Steve were over a few days ago and we got to talking about my stand. I was going to just make oak feet and recess them into the bottom. We got to talking about the idea of this stand and Steve said “Do you still have that bucket of railroad parts?” 

The railroad parts are perfect; the tree being a Florida native and in a live oak style, goes with the story perfectly. The railroad is a major player in Florida history. In fact, without it, Florida would be a drastically different place than it is. 

I still had the parts, I dug some out and we looked at different options. Then, just a day ago, my son Andrew wanders out to The Nook and starts to look at the parts (railroad spikes and the hooks that hold the rail to the plate). We discuss drilling holes and welding washers to them to attach whatever I was going to use (I hadn’t figured it out yet) and then he picks up the hook and puts it on the board. 

It was like a flash of genius. Here’s what he figured out.  

The hook.  And the placement.   Brilliant, my son is a chip off the ol’ block. I just need to hammer it in place to attach it.  Now the question is, to lacquer or not?  Not bad looking. Let’s compare.  I think that works. I’ll dull them down with the brush like I did with the wood. 

Four coats later and I’m ready to hammer them on. And believe me, they need hammering.     Of course I need to touch up the finish.  And now, I can’t believe how well it turned out. Here it is! 

       All I can say is “Wow!”

Here it is with the tree:  Now I just need to figure out a companion plant or something to complete the story. A grass planting or native flowering weed. Maybe I can whittle a cow…… You’ll have to wait to see what I come up with.  


Posted in carving, refine | Tagged , , , , , , | 16 Comments