Clump style willow-leaf fig from a sawn off root ball

I’m in the weeds…..

 Literally. Let me finish up here and I’ll show you the tree.

 What is that?   A balloon. A yellow balloon. That reminds me of a poem I wrote as a lad: 

 
A balloon, a balloon,  

 
Yellow in hue, 

It floats through the noon, 

The bright yellow noon.

 

Forget the balloon, 

It’s gone now, it’s flew

Remember it’s color. 

It was yellow, not blue.

 

Hey, I didn’t say it was a good poem.

Anyway, here’s the tree.  Let me explain it’s history. It is an alumn of the BSF exhibit at the Epcot Flower and Garden show. At that time, it was a lot taller than it is now.

After the show, it was cut back hard, and soon after that, I came into possession of it.  I decided to let it grow out. Here is lesson one: sometimes, cutting a tree back hard and letting it grow out without training just doesn’t work.

I know that many bonsai teachers will tell you, almost by rote, that your tree needs to be chopped back and regrown. And it’s probably true in most cases. In this case, it was. But I should have been watching it and guiding its growth, not just letting it grow out.

Why, with this tree, should I have been more vigilant?  Well, for one, it’s in a bonsai pot. That means bonsai soil. Which means more ramified growth, generally. Secondly, it’s a willow leaf ficus, which means that when you chop it, you don’t get just one new shoot at the top but 20, 30, maybe more. You really need to manage the growth. Which is is where I failed the test.

Sometimes, you’ll have nature manage the growth for you. In the summer, a salicaria almost always gets a fungus (here in Florida) that causes defoliation and dieback of the excess, weaker growth. It’s caused by the combination of the thick growth habit, afternoon thunderstorms, warm evenings and the natural occurrance of the “fungus among us”. You can do three things: 1) thin it out in July 2) apply a fungicide prophylacticaly, or 3) just let it happen. A salicaria can and does bounce back from the fungus easily.

I must have hit this clump accidentally with one of my preventative fungicidal sprays, it never thinned itself out naturally.  

To bastardize a Willie Nelson song “….it was the time of the scissor….” 

I need to get it out of the pot first, I’m sure I’m going to alter the front and I need to fix the roots.

  

The roots need some work: Delving back in time before the tree was purchased from the original grower (that would be Jim Smith), this clump was a part of (probably) a large, single trunked specimen.  

The way we deal with the roots on big ficus in growing pots (sometimes they are all roots with little soil left) is to break out the saw.  

Then we cut the root ball to fit. How much? Enough to go into a bonsai pot (at this point, the trees trunk should be developed to the size you want. Don’t put a stick in a pot, that needs to grow, into a bonsai pot).  

Then, after potting your specimen, instead of throwing away the bottom half of your rootball, stick it back into the old, 15 gallon nursery can.  

For those who are metrically predisposed, 15 gallons would be…. 

Then you wait for it to grow.  It could take a while for new shoots to appear, it could happen in a week. Let it be. This is one of those times when you want nature to do your pruning for you.

The original advice the discoverer of this technique gave was to withhold water. I find that it doesn’t matter because, you know, rain.

The originator I keep referring to is Jim Van Landingham who, at the time, was working at Durostone Nursery (that would be Jim Smith’s). Jim V noticed that the stumps they were throwing on the burn pile were sprouting. Being a child of the depression (don’t waste anything) and a pretty clever guy, Jim V said,

“AHA!

Or something like that, and the clump-style salicaria sawn-off root ball technique was born.  Thankee sir!

So it’s entirely possible that this clump could have been the bottom of one of those world class trees on display at the Jim Smith Collection at Heathcote Gardens down in Ft. Pierce, Fl.

Entirely possible. Probable? Nah.

And that’s why the roots are as tangled as they are.

  

Time to turn up the music and get to work.

This song seems should rouse the spirit:

Gets the blood going, right? To work!  

That’s an oddly configured root.  

Getting there.   

Yeah, I think that’s as good as it gets.   

In the pot.   

And a little fertilizer.   No, that’s not too much. It won’t burn, the analysis is 5-2-1.2 with 4% iron. I use a fertilizer called Milorganite. It is organically derived. Of course I don’t leave it piled on top like that, I chopstick it in. (There have been people of late who have been putting their organic fertilizers into teabags and placing them on the top of the soil. Besides controlling the growth with lower nitrogen levels, the main point of organic fertilizers is to build the soil up with all the beneficial micro-organisms, like mychorizae, that are essential for healthy, growth. If you don’t put that fertilizer in the soil, there’s no place for those organisms to live, especially in our mostly inorganic soil mixes. Food for thought…).

 Now….. for the haircut. 

Looks like me after about six months after my bi-annual shearing.    

 

Some minor thinning out….  

I dress the chop sites.   I’ll probably carve out the stumps at a later date. I haven’t decided if I want that look yet but, knowing myself, I’ll probably do it. 

  Now for some wire. 

I once had a “discussion” with one of those perpetual intermediates about the possibility of styling a tree to make it look young. Like a sapling.  

 She insisted that all bonsai needed to look old (I could’ve been catty and said, “oh, like you” but I didn’t.). She was truly offended.  I did manage to quiet her when I said that, in a forest planting,  there are, if you want it to look natural, trees that should look young. 

The same could be said for clumps.  After some wire.  

I trimmed most of the growing tips, except for the leader.   I’ll let that one grow as tall as I can to thicken it. 

And that, as they say, is that.  

…….

………….

………. 

…………………….OK…..

Dammit, that trunk on the left is bugging me terribly. 

It’s got to go! 

    

This isn’t even a good cutting.    I left a stub so I can get two or more shoots, and therefore, more trunks to work with later. And those straight, skinny twigs are bugging me too. I must (I must!) add just a little more wire and……. 

 ahhhhh….so much better. It just needs a few more years of growth. 

And in case anyone was counting (and I know there are many who are) there are 7 trunks in this clump now. Are you happy, you trunk counter-ers. 

I guess I should explain the unfortunate obsession some bonsai people have with counting the trees in a forest or clump planting. 

Odd numbers are preferable, except the number 9 (which, in Japanese, sounds like the word for suffering). 

I’ve heard many reasons for this predilection for odd numbers (I’ve actually heard some say that “even” numbers are considered unlucky. It’s actually the reverse in Asian cultures). The real reason is simple. The human brain has a preference for (visually that is) odd numbers. It’s more aesthetically pleasing. They use this in landscape design, graphic design etc. 

No one really knows why, but the theories abound. It probably has to do with the mind’s need to fixate on objects and separate them; and an odd number of things let’s you do this easier than an even number, which your eye (mind) tends to see as a whole unit. 

I once had a forest with one hundred and six trees on display. Some dude stood in front of them and counted them. It took him 45 minutes (he kept messing up and would have to start over. I eventually allowed him to mark each trunk with a piece of chalk). He really held up the line but, man, was he happy at the end. He did a jig and called me a ” gosh darned fraud” right in front of everyone, and God. 

That didn’t really happen to me, but I’m sure it has.  

I tell you, it’s a mania. An obsession. An illness. Please, stop counting trees my friends, if not for yourself, but for the children of the world. They are our future. 

Speaking of future, here’s another salicaria that I teased the social media crowd with last week. I called it a boring tree:  

I defoliated it, cut off a root, and repotted it.  Adjusted the front a little.  Trimmed it. And put all kinds of wire on it.   It’s still kinda boring but it’ll do. A solid, upright deciduous tree style. 

Now, that little microcarpa to the left. That’s an exciting tree right there…..

Posted in progression, redesign, roots, wiring | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

A unique willow leaf ficus bonsai 

On the way back from my Louisiana bonsai tour last year (great times, can’t wait to get back) I made a stop in Mobile Alabama and had a visit with Joe Day (he had actually offered to buy me lunch. And I’m not one to turn down a free lunch).  He’s pretty well known for his seed grown trident maples and his natural rock slabs. 

I took a tour of his garden…  

An old trident.  

A forest on one of his slabs.    

Something you don’t see often, a cascade podocarpus.   

And an old (old) boxwood.   The last tree is in a live oak style (and extremely natural and well done). Joe has taken a study of live oaks in the South and hopefully he’ll publish his observations on their growth habits and branch patterns. 

After pulling my jaw off the ground, (my poor photography does not do these trees justice, I have many more photos that are even worse than these) Joe took me to his friend’s house who also practices bonsai, Fred. 

Fred prefers tropical bonsai. 

Here is a schefflera he’s been building.   

A close up of the roots, that is a rock they’re growing on.  

And a ficus salicaria that he’s added deadwood to the center.   

This next one I really wanted but I felt I couldn’t afford what it was worth and I didn’t want to insult him by low balling him.   What an amazing nebari! He had many trees of this quality and it was astounding, considering how cold it gets in Mobile. A greenhouse makes a difference I guess. I noticed this year that those trees in my greenhouse, as opposed to those outside, were still growing through the winter.  

I did get one tree from Fred, one I thought I could afford. And a challenging one at that.  

 

It’s a ficus salicaria (nerifolia, salicifolia, a willow leaf ficus). It looks like a root cutting to me.  

       

Let’s see what I can do. I’m thinking maybe an angle change.  

 Hmmmmnn.. 

 ehhhh…. 

 Nah. 

Let me start at the roots.  

 

My handy dandy homemade root hook.   Let’s get to work!

What a tangled root system.   

 This aerial root is promising. I’m hoping I can move it.  

 Sweet! 

 A little more chopping, straightening and untangling.  

I’m ready for a pot now.   Uh oh. I’m gonna need a wider pot. 

 That’ll do. While I prep the pot, I’ll put up some nudes for you to admire. 

   

 Ok, enough of that. The pot is ready. 

  Put the tree in the pot and tie it down…. ooops, there’s nothing to tie too. 

 

I need a chopstick, methinks.  

   The chopstick will serve two purposes, one, I’ll have something to tie to and two, I can pin that big root in place. 

 

  

Success!  

Backfill with some soil.     Cool. Now, the easy part and the hard part. Chopping and choosing where to chop. Here’s the, not so blank, slate we shall begin with.  

 The tree is at a good stage of development. It’s been allowed to grow and thicken the leader and branching, now it’s time choose some branches and to induce some taper.  

     That wasn’t so hard. A little harsh but only a few cuts. 

Some wire.   It’s got a few years yet, it needs some filling in.  Like this.  But it’s a good start.     It’s got potential. I’m excited. 

Fred (last name Morales) has had some medical difficulties of late and is trying to sell some of his trees. I personally vouch for their quality. Look on the Facebook auction pages for his listings. 

Thanks you, Fred, my friend, for the opportunity to own this tree and work on it. 

Stay well. 

Posted in branch placement, rare finds, redesign, roots | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

First yaupon holly work of the year

Wow, look how sweet these flowers are….

And when they drop it’s like halcyon afternoons…,,

….and fairy gardens, and gnomes and smurfs and stuff like that. 

Good thing, I mean, too bad I’m cutting all the flowers off. 

You know, it’s funny, but most people don’t think that yaupon holly get flowers….or, come to think of it, most people don’t think trees get flowers either. Weird, how do you get acorns or seeds and more trees. It’s a modern disconnect with how nature works. You see it with chicken and beef at the grocery stores, people don’t want to know how a living animal is made into those hot wings you’re chomping on at Hooters, watching the……uh, game (of course, who wants to think about that stuff while enjoying the…..food at Hooters?)

Anyway, I digress. Again. 

Here’s today’s tree, an ilex vomitoria “schillings”. 



This link right here is the last time I updated the progress (I think. It was the second post in the series, not sure if there was a third, but you’ll have to click through to see the first post). I’m not going to go over all the hints, tricks, techniques and rigmarole I spouted, uh, wrote about in the two previous post, sorry. There’s a lot of stuff to learn in those two posts. One of those things is how good the photos are now compared to then. Jeez louise, it’s embarrassing. 

I love the naturalness and taper of the trunk. 

 And that first branch….. 

 There have been people who wanted me to remove it. That’s a mistake that those on an intermediate level make all the time. They want to bring things back to a basic state, sometimes even just to a trunk line. Don’t get me wrong, there are times to do that, but not here, and not with this incredibly mature branch. 

My work today, besides removing all those flowers, begins with removing some wire. 

  

And do some of that basic trimming I cover in the two previous posts. 

  

Ok, all done…. 

 ….just one more adjustment. When I put it into this pot I messed up and had the front wrong by a few degrees. It really should have been like this.   

The roots are looking  good.   If you recall from the previous posts, it’s been a battle with the brick like quality of the root ball on this ilex. 

Let’s talk about the pot.  

 

It is a pot that I acquired when I purchased a tree from a friend. The tree was in it. It has two chops on the bottom.   Which is exciting, right?  But from what I have learned from my pot reference go to guy (Ryan Bell, of the blog japanesebonsaipots.net) this is a contemporary chinese pot that was sold mostly in the U.S. South by a big bonsai nursery.  It’s a relatively inexpensive pot but it’s not a good pot for freezing temps; the pot looks like a slip cast build and it probably wasn’t fired at a high enough temp. If it were to freeze it would most likely crack. 

 Of course, I don’t care from whence it came (“From Whence It Came” sounds like a good adult film title, or a bad 1950’s sci-fi movie) or that it won’t survive in the frozen North (as I write this, it is now Spring and my sister in Massachusetts is “enjoying” a Springtime snowstorm) you see, I live in Florida.  I love the wabi sabi nature of those drips, it’s that one in a thousand pot that’s just a little bit different than its kiln mates.  

The pot is ready.   

The roots are ready.   

And, as the song goes, “….together at last….”  

 

Oh! Let me show you this if I haven’t shown you before.   I use this as a soil scoop. It’s a pencil/pen holder from the office supply section of a big box store. The mesh allows all the un-sifted dust from your mix to fall through (I don’t care from whom your potting mix comes from, there is always dust). And it’s magnetic, so you can stick it somewhere you can find it when not in use (like on your beer fridge).  

A few lengths of wire.  

And I even left some flowers, awwww.. And that’s that. 

It took about three years to get to this point, I think I’m ready to show it. It looks like a tree.   The 2015 BSF convention is coming up soon, look for it there. This year’s show will feature David DeGroot and Guy Guidry as the headliners. The convention link is here at Bonsai-Bsf.com for the full program details. It’s the premiere convention in the Southeast, forget about that Brussels Rendevous thing. Just kidding Mr. Martin, I’m available for next year……

With that, it’s time for lunch, and I have to feed my boys. If you have boys,  you know that one could lose fingers in that process. I swear they eat more than I do. 

Posted in progression, updates | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The trees of the 2015 Epcot International Flower and Garden show

I’m going to have to say that this year’s trees at Epcot are some of the best I’ve seen. And I don’t even have one in this year and yet my magnamity abounds and overflows. Even though one of my trees isn’t there, it’s still a great showing for the hardworking artists from the State of Florida. Seriously though, a big thank you to them all. It’s tough to lend your babies to a show that lasts not one day, or a weekend or a week but for three (that’s 3) months. 

How can any organization, or even Disney, handle keeping trees alive in the Florida sun for that long? They must grow and need water and fertilizer right? 

Well, firstly, the Disney horticulturalists take care of the watering, with some initial instructions from the BSF organizers. Then, once a week, a member of the maintenance team goes into the park and inspects, trims, pulls weeds and takes care of any special exhibitor requests (….can you put some of my homemade fertilizer brownies around my tree, make sure they aren’t touching the pot…but they must be 2.33 inches apart and 1.62 centimeters from the trunk….Okay, no one’s ever said that.. yet). I am on this highly exclusive and elite team and that’s how I was able to get such good pics….speaking of which, let’s get to them, too many words.  

          The above tree belongs to my friend Rick. A bougie basking in the Florida sun. 

Unfortunately, due to some construction occurring in the Japanese Pavilion, the amount of trees that the Bonsai Societies of Florida were able to show was reduced; the usual number is 21and there are only fifteen this year. 

                          Trees in the morning mist

Beginning with the trees in what is called the zen garden we have an amazing black pine. 

This tree was grown in zone 9. Most online bonsai guides say this is impossible. There you go. 

The next tree is a bucida spinosa (a dwarf black olive). 

This is an amazing specimen in that it has a substantial trunk, has movement  and, the most surprising thing, it was an air layer. It took two years to put roots out. 

Next we have an old and well developed neea buxifolia. 

Most neeas are collected from the mountains of Puerto Rico and this one is estimated to have been 50 years old when collected. 

Next tree is a serissa japonica (the name has been changed recently from serissa foetida to serissa japonica) and it is the best serissa I’ve ever seen. 

Not to mention that it’s still alive (most people kill serissa, it’s a tough tree to grow. The owner is a master at it though). 

Next tree is a juniperus chinensis (shimpaku juniper) 

I didn’t get a good pic (sorry Randy!) but it’s an great tree. It was recently restyled by a great new talent in Florida, David Cutchin. He came by the nursery during my convalescence to help me out and I thank him. 

Moving on to what is called The Meadow (located on the walkway up to the Japanese quick service restaraunt) we have the worst pictures of the post but still some great trees. 

I apologize to Mike for the terrible picture of his jaboticaba. The tree really deserves a better documentation. 



There is some debate as to the proper botanical name (some say myrciaria cauliflora and some say plinia cauliflora…..I think the latter is the accepted one in the scientific community but the former is the accepted one in the bonsai community. And we all know how hard it is to change the status quo here….). There’s also a difference in the spelling of the common name: jaboticaba and jabuticaba. The name is from Brazilian Portuguese and I’ve heard it pronounced the correct way…..I don’t think either of those spellings are correct. 

Anywho, no matter the name, the tree is a good bonsai. 

The next tree is a celtis laevigata (sugarberry or southern hackberry). 

It’s an American native tree that is underused in my opinion. Again, it’s a bad picture. 

Next we have a juniperus chinensis “parsonii” (parsons juniper) 

It’s a really well done juniper as this variety is hard to keep in scale growth. It’s a juniper that’s well adapted to Florida’s climate and is widely planted in the landscape. 

Now we move to the right side of the Tori gate and a massive conocarpus erectus (buttonwood) 

This is an old tree and has been a bonsai for a long time, Masterfully done. 

Then a Japanese black pine (pinus thunbergiana) by friend Rob. 

An, almost, formal upright. Very well done and, if I know Rob, he grew every one of those branches. 

Then we have a nice ulmus chinensis (chinese elm)   

Good, right? None better. 

Next is an awesome bald cypress from the BSF President and Mrs President 

What a fantastic trunk. 

How about we visit the tree in the koi pond? 

Commonly called horseflesh mahogany or wild tamarind the binomial name of this tree is lysiloma latislqua. It hasn’t woken up from winter yet but I will get pics when it does (you’ll have to watch my Facebook or Instagram feed to see them though). This is a big, impressive tree but, no matter how big the trees usually are, they always look small in the koi pond.  

Only two trees left, on the other side of the tori gate. 

An Australian pine (casuarina equestifolia) 

The deadwood on the front was all carved. 

And last but not least, a bougie from my bud Rick. 



It’s going to be the most showy tree here in just a few weeks, when it’s full of blossoms. It will outshine them all. 

And that’s all of them. 

The show lasts until May the 17th, make the trip, not only is it Disney (Disney!) but seeing  these trees are worth the price of admission alone. 

Posted in goings, rare finds, sculpture | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Why I “waste” my time on “bad” trees or, I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation 

Here I go again, stepping in the ant pile…..hopeful I don’t get bit this time….

Ya’ll remember this tree that I teased you with a few posts back?



Well, we will get back to it towards the end of the post, but I must say, it’s a “bad tree”. 

What do I mean by that, anyway? Let me put a scene, a situation, an act of a play, into your mind. 

Ok, close your eyes…..wait, that won’t work, how will you be able to read what I’m writing……ok, close your mind’s eye and read what I’m writin’.

You are at your first bonsai club meeting, you’ve brought your pride and joy, a ficus you got at IKEA, and you have been working your courage up to go to this meeting for two weeks. You are a little apprehensive because you’re just not sure if this whole “bonsai club” thingy isn’t really just a front for a swingers society. You half hope that it is, but not really. After the program, you finally get that last bit of nerve up and you introduce yourself to that distinguished looking gentleman (or worse, lady) and, after some genteel conversation about maybe religion or politics (a safe conversation in a bonsai club, don’t ever talk about soil….) you show your, you think, beautiful specimen of a tree. 

If you’ve been through this crucible, you know how it ends, 

“That will never be a good bonsai, don’t waste your time, you shouldn’t waste your money on that piece of crap

And this advice is always given in that “I know something you don’t know” tone. Very schoolyard. 

To define a “bad” tree: One that is either a shape, variety, age, style or origin that has been determined by “them” to be unacceptable. 

In the above situation, it was a ficus, probably a ginseng looking one, but it could have been an s-curve f. Microcarpa retusa.  So we have an undesirable tree for variety (f. Microcarpa, ‘cuz everyone knows that tropical trees aren’t real bonsai) , for style (s-curve or ginseng), and for its origin, IKEA  (Though I will be the first to admit that IKEA is the gateway to the expanse that the Catholics call Putgatory, but they do have some good stuff…if you dig hard. I mean, those tubes of crab are tasty…..)

But the tree could be a Fukien tea (many people can’t grow them and automatically think they are “bad”), a mallsai juniper, a serissa, an oak, a schefflera, a Formosan azalea as opposed to a satsuki, a red cedar (juniperus virginiana), a red maple……the list goes on and on. 

Let me give you some examples, starting with the much maligned “ginseng” ficus. Now, I apologize for shouting, but this must be said loudly- THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A GINSENG FICUS!

“But..”  you say  “I see them for sale all the time! You’re just wrong!”  

A ginseng ficus is nothing more than a ficus microcarpa var. microcarpa (the double name just means it’s the original) that was grown from seed. And just like an adenium (desert rose), an f. microcarpa will form a caudex (swollen root body). In fact, most ficus grown from seed will do this. But we don’t see many seed grown ficus because, for one, the wasps that fertilize ficus flowers are rare and, two, it’s so easy to propagate ficus from cuttings, why bother? So the “trunk” we see on a “ginseng” is really just the roots, raised above the soil line. 

Sometimes the growers graft a different f. microcarpa variety foliage onto the top of these roots. Usually it’s done badly and only in one spot. Why do they bother? Well,  It’s the real reason why f. microcarpa is a bad tree, not the ugly caudex. 

Here we have a tree I’ve been developing for some time. 



It’s a tad shaggy at the moment, needs a trim; I’ve let it grow over the winter. It’s currently in a topiary trimming stage, or what Walter Pall calls “hedge trim”. I’m trying to build ramification, a particularly hard thing to do on this variety. Here’s another example of f. microcarpa (it’s just out of the trunk building stage). 



Notice the difference between the leaves. 

It takes quite a bit of work to reduce the size. That, and the sparseness of the foliage, and it’s tendency to die back to the next node, is why it’s a “bad” tree. Yet I still grow them. And, of course, it comes in the very non-tree like style called ginseng, so often. Yes, I do agree with you (you know who you are) I would offer my opinion that 90% of ginseng-style ficus are bad. In all my years in bonsai I’ve only found two that could be called decent. 

This one: 

And this one:



Which I found last year. Look at that trunk!



Getting back to the trees on my bench, I might as well do some pruning while I have them here. 





A quick hack job on the above tree and then, just a little off the top on the bottom tree. 









The next tree we will look at is a variety of podocarpus that’s undesirable. 



This variety has an unfortunately long leaf. It also has a structural flaw. Two things against it. 



It takes a lot of work to get the leaf small, and it only stays small until the next years growth cycle. 



Here’s the structural defect:

This long straight bit towards the top. You can’t bend this like you can a pine or juniper of the same thickness so, you either cut it or, as I do here,  hide it. 

It’s a work in progress. 

Next tree is a neea buxifolia. 

It has three things “bad” with it. It’s tropical, it’s normal growth habit is one of very rapid growth that shoots straight and up. It’s really hard to control the growth, so most people who turn these into bonsai just kinda hedge clip them. All silhouette, no structure. We call that topiary, not bonsai (although I did mention a technique called topiary/hedge trimming which is useful when trying to build ramification. But we always go back and adjust the structure after a season of this. At least I do). 

Are you ready for the really bad part of this tree?  It’s like seeing the Wizard revealed

“PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN!”



It’s not so bad from the other side. 



This was the tree that was on display at Epcot’s International Flower and Garden Show in 2014. 

The next tree has a good reputation, it’s an American elm, and is usually considered to be desirable. 

I collected it about two years ago and it’s growing well. But I posted a pic online and a surly Brit told me it was shite (unsolicited abuse, which is just rude. And very telling too; giving your opinion on a posting without the poster asking for opinions reveals how little you may really know. Kinda like the old adage: “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and erase all doubt”.  To use some more cliches: “Opinions are like assholes, everyone has them”  and “Free advice is worth every penny you paid for it”.   And, my favorite (like I tell my 18 year old boy all the time) “If I want any shit out of you, I’ll squeeze your head”. This isn’t to say that your tree or my tree is above critique; it’s just polite and respectful to ask if the poster would like advice/critiques before you give them. The Internet (and the world) is a mean enough place, we don’t have to add to it). 

Here’s the elm. 



Wait, what? 

Yup. 

’Tis flat on the one side. 

Whilst in the act of collection, yon tree did split and I did exclaim,

“Bollocks!” (See, I can converse in English too, with expletives even). 



I really like this tree, even though it’s too tall, has no taper, has deadwood on a deciduous tree etc. 

I think this will be one of my best. 

The next tree is a laurel oak (quercus laurifolia). A deciduous oak native to Florida that most people confuse with a live oak. It has a lighter, less rough bark, longer and lighter in color leaves, and is considered short lived whereas a live oak can live hundreds of years. 

This tree might be a bit of a hybrid though (oaks are a bit slutty). 

Looks like a bit of turkey oak in it. 

Let’s see what I can do. 

First, a defoliation. 

Then some carving I think. 







First pass. 



Some hand tool work. 

Almost there. Needs fire!



And just to answer the question before you ask, I use the torch to get those pithy fibers off and to remove the obvious tool marks. That’s all. 

Brush brush brush 





I’ll apply lime sulfur in the summer. 

And now some wire. 

That’ll do. And that brings us to the end of the post too. 

Oh, wait! The hackberry? Why is it a “bad tree”? 

It looks ok, doesnt it? It has movement, taper, branches.  

There are some cuts that won’t heal (it being a hackberry and all) 



This particular specimen is not really suited for the classic deciduous tree style, and I know there are some real sticklers for styling a tree in the same way it grows naturally (not sure why people get so bent at this, this is an art you know). 

Aside from that, here’s the reason that the bonsai police won’t like this tree. 



It’s much like the neea from earlier. 

Why, in my madness, do I want to work on trees that might be difficult? I could quote John F. Kennedy,

We choose to (do these) things, not becawse they ahh easy, but becawse they ahh hahd.” 

And that could be a good enough reason. It certainly worked to put a man on the moon.

I am an artist who works with trees. I’m not really a collector. I could care less about the value or the prestige my trees might have. My goal is to take a small, relatively young plant and make it look like a big, old tree. Sometimes the vision is fantastical (like Walter Pall’s fairytale trees) or sometimes they are stylized. Sometimes I try for a strict, naturalistic look, sometimes a caricature. It’s really the tree that tells me what to do. But I am not slavish to perfection; if a tree is bizarre, or hard to grow, or unique, there’s that much more of a challenge in bringing out its “treeishness”. 

If I wanted easy, I’d just buy a tree. But, like I said, I’m not a collector. 

And if we all followed the crowd and chose “acceptable” material, we wouldn’t be using japanese black pine (once considered “bad” because of its large needles…..until someone figured out the way to reduce them) or shimpaku juniper (the foliage was too much like a poodles pom poms). 

For you just beginning in bonsai, it is a long, hard road to get a “bad” tree to become a good bonsai. That s-curve elm needs work, really. Your IKEA ginseng style ficus most probably needs about five years in a big pot or in the ground to mature that trunk. I’d advise you to cut off the grafted foliage and use the natural kind. That seedling (or worse, seed) you just bought on the Internet will take a long time to be a bonsai; it will be a long time before you even start real bonsai training on it, actually. 

I recommend more developed trees in most cases. For myself though, I am not a beginner (not a master, by far,  either, in fact, there are fewer masters in the bonsai world than you think. Even in Japan, most of them are specialist in a certain tree or trees. A true master can take a tree, regardless of its level of development, or its species, be it pine, ficus, maple, elm etc, and know what needs to be done to it, at that time, to further its way on its path to bonsai). 

That last statement will get me in trouble, I guarantee it. 

Anyway, that’s it for this post, sorry I teased you about the hackberry, again,  but it’s pushed out its new leaves already. I’ll need to let them harden off a bit before I work on it; you’ll have to wait just a bit longer to see it styled. 

Here’s another hackberry to tide you over. Many would consider it “bad” too. 




Posted in philosophical rant, rare finds, sculpture, styling bonsai | Tagged , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Fusing trident maple trunks

Here it is, the post you’ve been waiting your whole life for, how to make little trees into big trees!

Or something like that. 

Let me introduce the players:



The trees are acer buergerianum (trident maple). There are two different growing methods that have been employed here: one was to let them grow slow, so the nodes (the places where leaves and branches emerge from) were close together. The other method, which I’ve shown several times now, is the cd root improvement technique. 

What I’m about to do now is something I read in an old bonsai magazine years ago (I can’t find the article, all those mags are print only, I can’t imagine all the knowledge that is stuffed in a box in some closet in Peoria…. which is a shame. Not only is all that info hidden away, it makes people think that the the latest hotshot bonsai artist is a genius when he shows his “new” technique he found in an old mag).  The article was either written by Suthin Sukosolvisit or was just chronicling a technique he was using. Since its been so long since I read the article, and I can’t remember the details, I am improvising the technique (and doing a real ham-handed job of it too). But I do know one thing, trident maples will fuse trunks. I would even suggest they fuse and graft better than any other tree, even ficus. 

First things first into this hand dirtying exercise: rootwork-

This tree is one with a cd under it. I chose it because the roots didn’t develop on one side. 

This gives me a spot to shove the 2nd and 3rd trees into place.  

I remove the roots on the bottom of the cd. 

And now I’m ready for the other trees. 

The smaller trees were also chosen because they had weaker roots on one side. 

I also tried to match up the shapes of the trunks. I didn’t do so well with that.  It’s ok, as they grow larger, they’ll meld together. I scored the bark where the trunks are touching so they will grow together quicker. 

And the next step is to tape the trees together. There is such a thing as “grafting tape” but, since I’m doing this by the seat of my pants, I don’t have any. 

I do, however, have that roll of self-amalgamating tape from the juniper post I did last year (the one with all the crazy trunk bending where I used it instead of raffia). 



Self-amalgamating tape is an electrical tape that only sticks to itself. I think it would be perfect for this. 



Well, it would be if it still worked. 

I guess there’s an expiry on it. It won’t stick anymore. Dammit.

 I do have regular electrical tape, I’ll take any port in a storm, I guess. 



It’ll work. 

Basically the trees need to be kept in contact until they fuse. Grafting tape is designed to be rigid enough for the job (as is electrical tape, I hope) yet it will give and flex when the trees grow. 

Now, a little cut paste so those cuts don’t dry out. 

And it’s ready for a pot. 

Here’s a cool tip: you know how, when you cut down a regular nursery pot…..



……you end up with a floppy, hard to pick up pot because the lip (which is structurally important) is now gone? 

How’s do you like this?  

Take the lip, poke some holes and viola! 



(You know, I’m still waiting for someone to call me out on my use of the word “viola!”) 

Nifty, right? As with all good ideas, I stole it (maybe I got it, too, out of an old bonsai mag). 

Anyway, I’m using a mix of nursery soil (half perlite, half standard potting soil) and my bonsai mix. And I’m fertilizing heavily; I want the trees to get as tall and to grow as much as it it can. 



And, again, viola!

The yellow stuff, for those who are asking, is a pre-emergent weed preventer (much like Preen, but I use Oh2). It is a fantastic idea to stop weeds before you get them. 

I did one more (hopefully) fusion, this time with only two trees. 



I achieved better trunk contact with this one. We shall see what happens and I’ll update as needed.  

Oh…..to answer the question before it’s asked, why would anyone bother doing this instead of putting the tree in the ground and growing it out? In Florida, I could get the trunk just as fat in a year if I field grew them. I will, by the way, but the reason to do this is to give the trunks more character to begin with. If you grow it out you end up with a straight, smooth, telephone pole. This way there will be fissures and muscling in a shohin sized tree from the beginning of the styling process. 

And those roots!  There are lots of roots radially arranged around the trunk now. 



Posted in Horticulture and growing, roots, tips and tricks | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Chinese Elm Bonsai Reboot: I’m sorry Paul….

Here’s a real beastie to tame….



Probably should have done what I’m about to do when I first got it (I reallydid cut it back a lot then, but not just enough. You’ll see) but one is sometimes awed by the amount of work put into a tree that one doesn’t do what needs doing. 

Let’s show some flaws. 



The base is fantastic, great width and it emerges from the soil at a nice angle but that root….



Yeah, that one. It was described by a bonsai friend, Seth, as a penis root. I should let that one go but…..that’s a sorry looking penis Seth, if you’re comparing. 

But that gelding comes later on in our program. Let us continue. 



This is the back (which might become the front by ‘n by). Here’s why they call it a chinese lacebark elm. 



Exfoliating bark. Nothing to worry about. 

Reminds me of the scene in that Austin Powers movie where the guy ate his own crispy skin. I just about puked on that one. Crunch. 

Sooooooo, with that, let’s move on. 

Above, you can see the tree has just about healed over the trunk chop wound. Nice….

About three years ago I took this tree out of the bonsai pot it was in and put it into this training pot. The reason was here: 



Dieback on the main branches. I wasn’t sure why, so I figured it needed some rest and some elbow room. And I also wanted the leader to thicken. So I up-potted it and put it in the back to let it grow. (Here’s a tip, don’t put a tree in the back and ignore it.  You’ll see why in about two photos.)

Awww, it looks like a face!

Like some kind of goblin or Orc. I seem to see faces in this tree a lot. 

Look at the eyes, they’re even a bit evil shaped…..oops!

There’s a little rot, it seems. 

Well, a lot of rot. Looks like it was fire ants that decided to make a home in the trunk. 



That makes my plans actually easier yet less fun. Hold on, you’ll see. 

So that’s a big flaw, what else do I have to deal with? This branch is in the inside of a curve. 



There’s no taper in the main leader. 



Both of which are big problems. The leader is half the tree. 

I sit and contemplate for a bit and then it’s to work, no more foolin’ around. 





I’m not liking this rear branch anymore. Sayonara. 



What now? 

You guessed it. The saw. 

I could have airlayered it. 

That might’ve made a good tree. 

Ah well. 

I think we are getting close. 

I don’t like this. 

I think I can improve the overall taper by removing it. 

And I do need to deal with that rot. It goes deep. 

Before I finish that, I need to look at the roots. I have an idea that this goes all the way to the bottom. 

Remember this root?

It’s hollow too. 

This is where those evil fire ants have been entering the tree. 

Damn them to the fiery pits of hell, for they are devil spawn and that’s where they belong. 

Of course it makes this decision a little easier. 

Looks a lot better, eh? 



Ok, it looks like it’s screaming tree creature. It’s not, that’s just your over active imagination making the stump look like a one. 



This time I’m putting it into an even deeper pot. 

The mix is about 50% perlite and the rest is a mixture of used bonsai soil and regular potting soil. A nice, coarse mix that will hold water but still drain fast. A mix designed for fast growth. 

I also fertilized heavily. I want growth now. 

Here is the original front. 

Depending on what happens, it may not be the front in a year. It’s still pretty good though. 

The lesson: Do the work that needs doing, even if it’s painful, sooner, rather than later. I just added about five to ten years more in development  time to the tree.

 And I didn’t have have hardly any fun at all doing what I just did. I was hoping at least to get some carving in, but noooo, the fire ants did the work for me already. They’re always ruining my fun. There was this one time years ago when my soon-to-be wife and I were outside, under the stars and……suffice to say, fire ant bites in tender areas (the squishy places and the dangly bits, as it were) are not fun at all. It leaves one itchy, sore, and unfulfilled. And waiting forever, it seemed at the time,  for the bites to heal. 

Maybe I’ll work on this hackberry next. 



It has branches I can wire, at least. 

Posted in branch placement, carving, redesign | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments