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 , , , , , | 9 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 , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Bonsai will be the death of me 

I know it’s been a while, sorry. I’ve been ill, in the hospital again and out and had to recover from all that. And the nature of my illness makes me not want to do anything. 

As prelude to that opening paragraph (which I should have started with first, I guess) let me explain, using clinical And sanitized terms created to not gross you out, my health situation. Back in December 2014,  due to a swelling in my sigmoid colon, I had to have emergency surgery in which a loop ileostomy was created to allow rest to the sigmoid. An ostomy is basically a process where a part of the intestine has been brought through the stomach wall so that the waste one’s body produces is exited through that new opening, called a stoma. My ostomy occurs close to the end of the small intestine, called the ileum. Hence, an ile-ostomy. 

This is all leading up to some bonsai, promise. 

And since I still have all my colon, but am not using it at the moment for its main purpose of waste storage, it makes its presence known by producing, basically, a mucus that builds up and must be expelled (a normal colon does this all the time, you just don’t notice it as there is other stuff mixed in. Think of it as lubricant) 

A few weeks ago I was having excessive output from my large intestine, I was feeling ok other than that. I had scheduled a visit to my friend, Seth Nelson, on a Thursday, to work on some trees. 

This is that day, minus the bathroom visits. Seth lives in Palm Bay, about an hour south and east of Orlando.  

 He was watering. Great, now I have to work on wet trees. 

 This was my first challenge. A ficus salicaria.  My second challenge: sub standard working conditions.  I’m such a Prima Donna, I know.    A tree trunk to sit on or a cinder block….hmmmmm…..  Well, I guess I grumbled enough, Seth took the night table from his bedroom and found a chair and a fan. That’ll work.  

 Poor table. Ah well, time to punch the clock.  Here’s a look at the trunk.   It’s an old SOB, I’m honored to work on it. It looks like it was cut back to the trunk and allowed to grow out recently, maybe last year.  

 There’s a profusion of shoots to play with. I think this tree deserves at least 30 seconds of contemplation before I chop it. Hey! Look, it’s Seth himself!   He’s so serious…..did you know that, in the Old Testament in the Christian  Bible, Seth is one of Adam’s sons? 

Ok, enough contemplation, time for some branch selection and root work.  

         That’s better, we can see the tree now. But first, this is the part of the day where I picked on Seth for being so slow working on his tree and this is where karma begins to get back at me for being such a piss ant. 

Remember this pic?   Look in the left corner.   Gatorade. At this point in my adventure I should have consumed this whole bottle and started on a second one. Doh!

My having the bionic body modification in the ileostomy (remember, it bypasses my large intestine, which not only is a waste collection organ but also the main way the body absorbs water), causes me to be constantly on the verge of dehydration. When I drink a liquid it needs to have sugar or salt in it in order for it to slow in the stomach and allow me to absorb it there. Hence the Gatorade (for you normal people’s out there, it is faster and better for you to rehydrate with plain water). 

So what is happening to me physically at this point in the day? I’m feeling fine but I’m draining my water through the excessive mucus exiting my body and also from the sweat on my brow. Sometimes I’m a little thick, especially when I’m involved in bonsai; the world disappears and I focus on the tree. Speaking of which, let’s get back to it.  

It has good roots on the front.   But not so much on the back.   They’ll fill in. Especially in the bonsai soil I’ll be using. Which is going to be Seth’s mix. 

 First, this knob has to go.   

 There we go. Now for some soil…. 

 As you can see in the background, Seth is still defoliating his tree.   His is an old tree too, good ramification and branching. Let’s watch him for a bit.  

   No, we aren’t using kitty litter, that’s just a repurposed storage container. We are using a lava rock/calcined clay mix. 

Getting back to my tree…a little wire.

 There’s at least three years needed on those branches. They need to catch up with the trunk. That’s the downside to cutting a tree to a trunk line, you may have an old, fat trunk but you’ll have young branches for too many years. I honestly think that it’s overused here in Florida, we should learn more to use existing branches. Not only will the tree be more natural looking (when regrowing new branches it’s almost always done using the old “number one, number two, back branch..” formula) but you’ll have a bonsai, in scale, faster. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes a trunk line cut back is needed. Or even the trunk chop. Bringing us to my next tree.  

 And my treatment….. 

 I think we went to lunch at this point. We had steak, and I drank a lot of Coke. A high protein meal and a caffeine laden drink……hmmmmmnnm.  When we got back I had time for one more tree.   A beautiful ficus microcarpa.  

 I just need to wire it. I was feeling a little tired at this point and I had to go home to take care of the children so I thanked Seth and took my leave (and the microcarpa too!) 

The next day (Friday) I was feverish. I layed in bed (as opposed to lying in bed. If I were doing that I would have to telling an untruth, say like ” Women love my bonsai so much I have a flock of groupies to choose from to lay in bed with”) until the Sunday when my 103.5 degree fever began to scare me (and my wife, my sister the nurse, and my colorectal surgeon, whom I recommend keeping on speed-dial, it eases the mind). So I went to the ER and was admitted early Monday morning. 

They pumped me full of antibiotics and I discovered some interesting opiates (by this point the mucus flow had stopped and I was having some serious pain from being blocked up- very similar to my original hospital stay) but try as they might, with every test you can imagine, my fever had no medically verifiable cause. 

I had some interesting meals. This was my liquid diet. Broth, jello, Italian ice.   Then I graduated to a standard diet.   And maybe because I didn’t eat the peas, the next morning was this: this is no lie; the top bit of mush is puréed pancakes (yes, pancakes) and the other pile is puréed sausage……there is something wrong with the concept. 
So, I left on the Thursday. No pomp or conditions to fulfill. They said “we are letting you go home” 

It was a stunner because the last time I was there, it took three days to satisfy their conditions. By this point I had cancelled two demos at Jason Schley’s spring festival.  

 And a beginners class I had scheduled for the Hukyu bonsai club (Tampa) on the Saturday. 

It was good that I did. I needed to recover from that pancake breakfast. And all the drugs. What I didn’t cancel was the NoNáMé Studygroup meeting on Sunday. The scheduled guest was…..tadaaa! Seth Nelson.  

Seth is the curator of the James J. Smith collection at Heathcote Gardens in Ft. Pierce. Which means taking care of big trees. So it was with a little bit of selfishness that I didn’t cancel his visit because I had a big tree that needed some maintenance. 

This is, from left to right, Smitty, Jorge and Seth.  They’re defoliating a big green mound ficus prior to repotting it.  

I’m donating the oval pot it was in to the Collection at Heathcote.   Seth doing his specialty.   Jorge making sure all the old leaves are removed.   And the finished repot.  Most Florida people still call this ficus microcarpa a “green island” ficus but there are two distinct growth habits. First, the leaves are different. A green mound has definite pointy leaves. A green island leaf is round. And the green island will have a singular trunk whereas the green mound usually has, like the example above, a twisted clumpy aerial root mass of a trunk. How do you like the blue pot?

After the session we went to lunch at a gastro-pub I like to frequent called The Gnarly Barley. Again, stupidly, after not drinking enough during the meeting and then having a high protein lunch with a copious amounts of a caffeinated beverage, I got myself sick again for a few more days (more of a week I guess, the Studygroup met on the 26 of April and it’s now May the 3rd). I’m just starting to feel right again (not in the head though, I’ll never be right in the head….)  maybe after I finish writing this I’ll go wire that ficus microcarpa…….    I don’t know what’s next but I’m sure I’ll let you know soon. I hope you learned the lessons that I can’t seem to: A man’s got to know his limitations and, drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated. And don’t be too much of a Prima Donna. Or asshole, as we used to call them (and as many people, I’m sure, have called me many times). 

See ya’ 

Posted in goings, redesign, styling bonsai | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Working on the Dust Mann’s ficus retusa

This Saturday I had the privilege of working on a huge tiger-bark ficus at my new client’s (Dustin) house.  


No, it didn’t fall out of the pot, we took it out to make it easier to work on. Sorry about the washed out look of some of the pics, I had to play with them so you could even see them at all. Here’s the original of the above pic: 

 If you didn’t know, I use an iPhone for all of my pics (this one is the 5s, I’m waiting on the 6s to upgrade) and the photo editing app I use is called Snapseed. With it I can take this pic: 

 And turn it into this: 

 Or this 

 And turn it into this: 

 Pretty neat, right? Like it says on my Instagram page, it’s all iPhone digital trickery. I think of it like this: my eye sees the 2nd image but the camera records the first image. I just have to correct the camera’s image to show my view with post production digital effects. 

Anyway, I have a tree to work on, I’m slacking.  

 This tree (a ficus microcarpa “retusa” or “tiger bark”) has a secondary trunk growing off the right side (as all good banyans should, really)   The idea is to emphasize it and treat it almost as a semi-cascade or slanting trunk. Here are the side, back, and side views.       

First step, defoliate.     I also selected branches (the basics: anything growing up/down, in the inside of curves, etc..). Now for a big cut, see up here? It’s a little too heavy for being the top of the tree (the thinking is that the top branches are younger than the bottom branches and should, therefore, be smaller. It’s part of the concept of taper). 

So, like, CHOP, man….  That’s a little tree on its own. 

That’s better:  Now for a little wire….. 

 While I’m wiring I’ll let you wander around and take a look at some of his trees.  

     And Dustin is the..uh…owner of a dairy, so he didn’t really steal all those milk crates. No, ummmm, really. 

He has some impressive trees. Many of them were grown while he was living in Michigan, believe it or not. He’s good friends with Jerry Meislik, ficus afficianado extraordinaire. Dustin moved down to Florida (in the middle of nowhere I might add, his address does not exist in the digital world yet) a few years ago. 

The trees prefer it, I’m sure. Anyway, two hours later….  That’s Dustin getting out of the frame. 

Here’s a little better pic:  

What I mean about treating that first branch as a separate tree is like this.   I left that vertical element to build the “tree”… We put the tree back into the pot because we figured it might, well, you know, find it easier to stay alive that way.   

It looks better that way too. This is art, really. It should look good. When I get back up to Dustin’s again (soon, I hope, I would like to get my hands on some more of his trees) I’ll post an update for you. 



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Ok, here’s the semi-cascade ficus from the last post. And cloning, because cloning is cool. 

I suppose you are all waiting on this tree: And it’s ultimate disposition too? 

Ok, but you’re gonna learn a bit about metallurgy, cloning, and whatever else my twisted imagination may come up with. Ready? Here’s a look at the trunk:  Notice the bulbous quality. I’ll get to that a bit later. Cloning and all. 

First step is a bit of clean-up.   This is a ficus salicaria (a willow-leaf ficus, often called nerifolia or salicifolia). It’s a prolifically budding ficus that needs serious pruning in the growing season. 

A little off the top:  

Some defoliation.   

I believe this is the front. Mainly because this is definitely the back.   

Now, if you remember the premise of this post (which I described in the last post), I was challenged to create a semi-cascade out of a willow leaf ficus. This was a challenge set out by none other than Heart Throb Seth Nelson (biggest troll in the bonsai world, excepting Ryan Neil that is). Friend request him on Facebook and say “Hi!”, he loves new friends. Seth (or, as we call him, Mr. Melon) is the youngest and hottest curator of a public bonsai collection in the U.S. (The James J. Smith collection at Heathcote Gardens in Ft. Pierce FL. Which is what makes him the hottest btw, Ft. Pierce is one of the most sun blasted, melt your testicles to your leg hot and, blazing places in Florida. When it was a military base, Ft. Pierce was where they sent those soldiers who couldn’t peel potatoes). And he’s never seen a semi-cascade salicaria before. I think the sun has befuddled him. 

The challenge with this tree is the branch that will be the cascade is growing up.   

And at quite the angle too. Let’s see if I can bend it.   

I’m thinking I might need two wraps of the wire to get it to bend. Here’s something funny to contemplate: I’ve heard that if you use too big of a wire on a branch, that you’re apt to break said branch. And I’ve also heard the opposite too, too small a wire will cause you to force the branch too much, thereby cracking it. Additionally, it’s usually recommended that you use just one wire, that is the correct size, to bend a branch. 

This is my practice: mostly I will use two smaller wires to execute a big bend in a big branch. The reason is, the more contact you have on the outside of your bend, the less likely that bend will crack. Simple physics. On smaller branches you’ll often see me use bigger wire than indicated. For the same reason. Call me a rebel, call me what you will, it works.  

 This wire happens to be about twenty years old (it might be older than Seth). Here’s some metallurgy for you: this is aluminum, the older it gets (with exposure to the heat/cold cycle) the stiffer it gets (much like an old man’s joints but not much like his, well, you know). If you are using copper, this problem is even worse. Copper must be heated to make it soft and usable for bonsai. It too gets stiffer with age but, even worse, the more you bang it, move it, drop it etc, the more hard spots you’ll get. So be gentle, don’t go tossing your wire on your bench. 

So, contrary to what I usually do, let’s see if this old wire is stiff enough to hold the bends.  Hmmmmmnn.    Interesting.   Yessss!   Amazing.  

That works, now I’ll do a little potting.  I need to see the tree in the pot to continue with the correct angles. 

Of course, that’s easier said than done.  

   It’s a little like putting a size ten ass into a size six pair of jeans. Need some plastic surgery.  

 There we go. It’s this operation that leads me to ask the question: why does this tree have such a big ass, uh, I mean, base?

It’s because of cloning. Or, as they say, tissue culture propagation and micropropagation. 

There are several techniques that are used by micropropagators (there’s a joke there. I’ll let you figure it out). 

One method is a familiar one, but just done on a much smaller (but bigger) scale. The technician uses meristematic tissue, or the cells that occur at the growing tips, dormant buds, and at the roots, which is how standard propagation is accomplished. I say it’s smaller because they use minute amounts of material to produce a plant. I say bigger because, using only that minute amount, they can produce many more plants per tissue specimen. That’s one reason it’s economical. 

The second method is organogenesis, which is a way to produce specific parts of plants (hence the “organ” part). It’s used in research (how do these things grow etc.) but also in the biopharmaceutical industry in creating medical drugs (yes, I’m sure they can grow what is colloquially known as “Bud”. Now stop giggling). 

The third method is the creation of artificial seeds, called non-zygotic (or somatic) embryogenesis. This method is cool because not only does it mean you can get seed from a plant that doesn’t really produce viable seed (like a banana) but you can create hybrids that may not happen naturally, like an orange/lime or, even crazier, how about a pumpkin shaped watermelon?  

With our ficus salicaria I can only guess as to the method used (the first I’d say), but I do know it was produced by micropropagation. I actually have about 15 trees grown this way.  

     And they all exhibit that bulbous base, which is great for bonsai. 

I’m hoping you read that voluminous lesson above. If not, then poo on you. Time to wire.  


Some establishing shots. Notice I twisted the thicker part of the top back and down. 

From the top:  

A detail shot:  

The before:  

And the after:  

It really surprized me how much I was able to bend that branch. It’s a relatively young branch, not even a year, so that must be why. 

For the next post I will work on  a clients tree, a big tiger bark ficus. Wait ’till you see it. 

And to Seth, he who challenged me, and made me write about tissue culture, I say, print this post, fold it up until it’s all corners, and shove it up your rear.  

Posted in branch placement, rare finds, tips and tricks, wiring | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Following through on two ficus bonsai I teased you with….

Two trees on my bench, which to work first….. 


The left hand one is the tree I teased at the end of the Clump style willow leaf fig from a sawn off root ball post. The right hand one was a tree I teased about on Facebook. I was challenged by Seth Nelson (Mr. Melon, as he’s taken to call himself. I call him Spanky, it’s Bohemian for “he who whacks off his trunk”) because he has never seen a semi-cascade willow leaf ficus. 

Let’s go left to right.   Look at that base! I can’t wait to see what’s underneath the soil, the anticipation is terrible, I hope it lasts. You can’t really see much with all those leaves though.   I know, the solution to every problem, let’s get naked!   Awesome! Very interesting trunk, right? Difficult even. Before you begin any branch selection you should find the base of the tree and decide what your front is. We are looking for the widest face with the best rootage (radially emerging from the trunk) and the best trunk line. But the base is usually the dominant indicator of the front view.  

There’s a good question: why must a bonsai have a front? The answer is easy. You can only look at one side at a time. Seriously though, even though a bonsai should look natural from all sides, the aim of bonsai and the art used in accomplishing this involves the best view of the trunk, the base, the movement, the first few branches. The best front should do this. There’s always those who think they are being revolutionary by claiming their tree is a 360 degree tree. I’m sorry, but they usually look like bushes or lollipops. Or both at the same time. 

Here’s a good front for this one.  Well now, that’s a nice development. It turns our tree from a sumo style (short and fat) into a more upright style. 

I told you it was interesting. Since we’ve found the front it’s time to remove some branches.  

 You’ll notice the dieback. Even though it’s a ficus, it will have dieback on smaller branches because it’s a ficus microcarpa (a retusa or tiger bark). That’s just what they do.  I’ll be removing most of these bigger branches because they are just about unbendable.  

 I have plently to work with. This tree probably started out as a larger s-curve that was dramatically reduced and allowed to grow out again. Something I might do but I got the plant from D&L Nursery in Ocala. One of my go-to places for quality trees. Their website is  Dave (the “D” in the operation) has a tree at Epcot this year, a serissa, believe it or not.  I just learned today that this is his second favorite serissa at his nursery. 

Getting back to our ficus, I’ve chopped off those branches which offended my eye.   They shall be cast off, as all offal should. Hence the name “offal”…..get it cast off…..offal? It might be because offal is awful, as opposed to awefull, which means full of awe. Although we all are full of offal, maybe this all comes down to some guy who had a good recipe for asshole soup that filled him with awe. Geez, etymology is hard, harder than entomology, which is like bee stings and beetle carapaces. 

Sorry, got distracted. Back to the tree.  Trimmed on top: 

Trimmed on bottom, installed in pot.  

Now for some fun. Power tools!  

This chunk has to go:  It’s in the front and it’s contributing to some obverse taper. 

The tool is a German made mini-angle grinder that is distributed in the U.S. by King Arthur Tools. The wheel I’m using is the thinnest carving wheel on the market (made by an Australian company called Arbortech).  

   The shape and configuration of the cutting teeth are very much like chainsaw’s chain.   And it is- 

 Arbortech is about safety. This part of the wheel….. ….is designed to keep the tool (and you) from taking too much of a bite at a time. This makes it safe by decreasing kickback (that chattering and bouncing you may have seen on some carving videos or experienced for yourself) and giving you more control (and therefore a neater carving line) and confidence when you have this electric tool rotating at 15000-20000 rpm’s. 

The combo of the mini-grinder and the carving wheel is fantastic.  

 And messy! 

You’ll notice that on the bottom of the carved portion I brought the cut to a point.   I’ve talked about this before, by shaping the cut like this, it facilitates the healing process and speeds the callus formation. This technique was discovered by the master bonsai growers in Taiwan. 

So where are we now? I think I’m ready to wire.  

Man, that was fast. Hardly satisfying at all.   

On to the next tree, I had fun with this one.  Wait ’til you see the end product.  My challenge was to make this into a semi-cascade. A little background on the tree. You’ll notice the, almost, caudex like growth on the base.  

 This tree was propagated by a process of growing called plant tissue culture or micropropagation. This type of propagation allows the propagator to create exact copies (yes, it is cloning, and yes, cool) and produce disease free plants and…….you know what? I’m going to keep you in suspense and keep this whole technique and the tree for the next post.

I’m such a stinker, I know.  But I think it deserves its own post and not just a brief write up on the second half of a post.  In apology, here’s a quick styling of a tree I grew from a pencil thin cutting. I believe it’s been ten years growing.      I hope that helps. 

Don’t worry, I’ll write up the next post soon. Until then, your homework is to study tissue culture and see if I get anything wrong. It’s highly probable I might, and then there are those who believe that everything I write is wrong…….

See ya’ real soon!

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