Ain’t got a leg to stand on

I was picking up some tools from American Bonsai Tools in their warehouse a month or so ago and I came across this cool…..thing.Cullen, the owner, likes antique things that are made well. Stools, lamps, metal shelves and such. I would guess my find is a sorting bin of some, ah…sort. It’s old and a little beat up. Like I am becoming. A little rusty. But still strong and useable. In today’s world, something like this would be replaced with plastic or even cardboard. I like it. He said I could have it. Now to figure out how to turn it into a bonsai display stand. 

Ah. I know, I have some old wood in my shed.  Old pine planks from broken down pallets I collected before it was cool to make things out of pallets. I was a hipster before it was hip. The ultimate hipster. Don’t judge me. I hoard building materials. 

And the texture of the wood matches the bins character. To Work!

The planks arent wide enough so I need to join some together for a large enough top. That means I get to play with the table saw! Too bad you can’t hear this. It sounds like what being a man sounds like. Eat your heart out Sean Smith. What I’m doing with the saw is to make some flat edges to glue together, to “join”, as they say. It would be better if I had an edge planer but this’ll do. Now some glue….…..and the clamps. Wasn’t that a punk rock group? First, measure the pot to make sure the top is the right size. Looks good. Measure once, cut twice, that’s the motto my father in law lives by!Cool. Not just my Chuck Taylors but the board size too. Now the glue and then the clamp….Awesome….the clamp has succumbed to the humidity that is Florida. Rusted shut like the mind of the Perpetual Intermediate that will hate this stand. Yeah, I’m taking about you! What do you do with a clamp that doesn’t clamp? No worries, we don’t need no stinking clamps, we have bonsai wire! A couple of lengths. It is aluminum, alas, but it’ll work. It always does. 

Twist em’ tight. Bondage….

The clamps are just to keep the boards even. And they look good, in case people are only looking at the pics. 

Now, time to alter the metal contraption. For this I turn to my trusty angle grinder with a metal cut off wheel ….and, I can’t plagiarize this any more, but, the most important part about shop safety are these………safety glasses! 

The next pic is courtesy of Ben. Now you’ve done it, you broke it! Split it in twain!Now we put it back together. I found these pieces of angle iron when I was digging the post holes for my new fence. Good book btw! 

A little cutting to fit. And I have Guaracha to weld them. He actually wouldn’t let me do it, even though I know how. He’s greedy. 

I told him to make the welds dirty and mean looking. You know, to fit in to the overall look. 

Now, the fun part! Trying to figure out the finish on the wood. 

Let’s see, I tried burning. Wire brushing. Wire cup wheeling. Did I mention that there are active termites inside this wood?A scotchbrite pad. Some of my rusty vinegar stain. I’d like to get the wood dark, to contrast the pot, which is  a cream color. Something’s not right. I know, I’m  not showing enough of the metal. Metal is important, Metal is life, Metal rules. That’s kinda the Main Idea of this stand. 

Like this. But I still need that wood aspect. How about this? That’s perfect. So much for all that clever joinery with glue and the bonsai wire…..I’ll use it somewhere else, I’m sure. But the board is too thick, I’ll need to plane it down about a quarter inch. This, my friends, is the tool to have if you use recycled wood. ​

There’s the noise! The smell! The machinery! The shavings!   It either makes you feel manly or like you want a hamster, which is definitely not manly. I’m a little confused on how I’m feeling right now. 

There we go, it’s level now. 

Back to some more experiments with the finish. 

Wax!……hmmmmnnn…..……interesting……………..scented candles….. I think I know what to use. 

The color though, it’s still not right. So I went to my neighbor, Bob, and asked him what he thought. He said, “I have just the thing..” and dug around and got me some stain…..……aha…..I think that’s it. 

And I have the sequence of application, for those who wish to steal my techniques. I can put it all together now. 


A wire cup wheel on the angle grinder. The idea is to accentuated the grain. 

The top. On the bottom I burned it first then wire wheeled it.  

I burnt the top too, a little, just to boil the pine resin, darken it a bit.  Then the stain. 

And then, while the stain was still wet, I set it on fire. 

Oh yeah, fire. 

Then the wax. I chose the green because I liked the smell, like Christmas trees. 

Some polishing and…..viola! You can see the difference between the top board….…..and the “finished” one. 

Drill a few holes.  

And some lacquer for the steel, to stop the rust.  

And Bob’s your uncle (my neighbor, in this case, thanks man!). 

Looks good to me, about the look I had in mind. 

Old but still strong. Aged but noble, showing the materials it’s made of. It’s working for me. 

I know it’s not many people’s cup of tea. They want that traditional, regular, boring stand. And that’s fine. I can make those. Anyone can really, that’s all just equipment, wood. Some technique. Easy. Or buy one made already. That’s even easier. Just need cash. 

From where I stand, I want something interesting, something unique. Something that screams, “Hey, Adam made this!” 
I think I accomplished that. 

Now, just wait ’til you see the companion plant………

Posted in philosophical rant, rare finds, sculpture, woodcraft | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Developing The Tree

You might remember this tree, its was featured in the epic, groundbreaking and  confirmationally biased blogpost, ” I use some fancy words to justify my defoliation habit, go figure“.  It’s a ficus microcarpa, sometimes described as a “ginseng”, as though it’s a separate variety. P’shaw! They’re really just ficus grown from seed, hence the bulbous caudiciformogical root bulge, and called “ginseng” for marketing purposes by marketing porpoises. 

Now, I know what you’re saying, I’ve heard it before. You’re saying “You’ve gone and done it now Wonka!”“You’ve ruined your watershed!”…… I mean “You’ve let the wire dig into the branch, ruining it!”Nah! Think about this, that branch will be 2 to 3 times thicker than it is now in a few years. The wire marks will. E long gone before I show the tree in an exhibit.  All I’ve done is caused some gnarliness. Rest easy, keep the emails to a minimum. It’s not the end of the world.  It’ll be okay, my dear friends, it’s a ficus. 

The leaf color is something to look at though. There’s a bit of mottling, but I believe the worst looking ones are just last years leaves. Leaves get old and fall off. No worries there. Though there might be a bit of thrip damage. I have something for that later. Let’s get to the meat of the blog post, developing the tree. I’ve let the branches grow out since last you saw it:

So now it’s time to cut the tips and encourage back budding (don’t make me repeat myself about those hormones, you know, the auxins and the cytokinins and all that, it’s all in the above linked blogpost). As I prune, on this fig, the microcarpa, I like to leave at least one or two leaves. 

Like here: I’d prefer to prune back to where my middle finger is pointing (yeah, take that!) But it’s very likely to abort that branch altogether. Not sure why, most of the microcarpa varieties back bud amazingly, but the specie doesn’t.  

To the pruning, right? The above branch has been the strongest on the whole tree. In the previous blogpost, it was the only one I cut the growing tips on. 

It’s a process, grow, wire, grow, unwire, rewire, grow. In this case I’m not going to rewire again until maybe June. Which means it’s a good time for some synthetic fertilizer……I call this radioactive blue. Let’s do a short lesson on fertilizer, ok? 

There are two basic forms: granular and liquid. That’s pretty self explanatory. Granular goes on or in the soil and the idea is to provide nutrients every time you water and stays there for several months. 

Liquid is applied to the leaves and soil and is absorbed by the tree as you apply it. You might get some residual nutrients if your soil has a decent cation exchange capacity, such as a clay or organic based mix, but mostly it drains out of the bottom of the pot. 

Then there are two kinds, organic and synthetic. What’s the difference? It’s easy too, because nitrogen is nitrogen, potassium is potassium etc. The difference is in the action of delivery. 

Synthetic fertilizers have all the nutrients available immediately for the plant to use, in a form they can use. They work. Sometimes too well. If I have a tree in a bonsai pot with synthetics, and every branch is wired and I forget about it, I might have really ruined the branches because those wires could possibly be permanently embedded in them. I have some trees like that. 

Organic fertilizers have nitrogen and all that too, but it’s usually in a form that needs to be processed, usually by microorganisms like fungus or bacteria, and then the nutrients become available to the plant through some form of symbiosis. This means slower and, sometimes, healthier growth. 

All my trees with wire and in bonsai pots get organic fertilizers. I just can’t keep up with the growth when using synthetics. But there is a place for both. Say you need to get some winter growth on a ficus. Use a liquid synthetic foliar spray and you’ll be golden (er…green). Or if a plant is struggling in the summer, use an organic, cake style fertilizer like SumoCakes, with some microorganisms included in the cake itself, and the tree will respond slower but stronger. 

But enough on that for now, I’ll be writing a more in depth article on ferts soon, delving into ph, uptake, action and reaction etc. I can’t wait……’ll be as fun writing that as my first soil post.  

I’m also putting down a granular systemic imidacloprid treatment for that thrip control. I prefer granular because spraying is unhealthy for me and other things, like lady bugs or bees. The first time I used a spray I remember being all shaky and trembly, but not in a good way. Not a good time (it could be said that if one remembers a good time it really wasn’t a good time…..) 

I chopstick it all into the soil because, really,  who wants to look at all those radioactive blue granules? They look like Nerds candy. The chopsticking also helps to aerate the soil if it’s compacted at all. 

Tell me now, between the two of us, you gotta admit it. You like that fat bottom, don’t you. Makes you want to touch it……

And, that’s all. No wire, but lots of water, sun. 

I will update you in about a month, after I get back from Louisiana probably. I’ll be in Lake Charles for the Louisiana Day of Bonsai on June 24. Should be a blast, come out and see me, I’ll be the one dressed in black. I’m also doing private sessions for those who are between Orlando and Lake Charles Louisiana. 

Posted in maintenance, philosophical rant, progression, rare finds, refine | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Chop chop chop, is it technique or butchery? 

Uh oh! It doesn’t look good for this ficus. 

Like they say, the first cut is the deepest. Snikt!!Don’t worry, I might know what I’m doing…..maybe. 

Let’s continue with the insults, it gets worse. Poor tree. It gets worse. You see, I’m interested in these roots. They kinda go round and round like a bonsai Facebook page arguing about the best soil mix or whether or not it’s the correct technique to cut back hard to a node or develop a branch using wire. I like the second technique myself because I, after all, have to make pretty pics for my IG account. And stubs don’t get ❤️’s. Oh, look! Mycorrhizae!

Pine bark and mycorrhizae go together like peas and carrots. My aim today is to utilise this piece of stock ficus material to its fullest. I’ll be processing it for future bonsai development, of course (which many paid bonsai technicians just don’t care to do. I like to think that I cover all the steps in the development of a tree into a bonsai, from cutting to show. That’s just how I do things, because I believe in the expansion of the Art by bringing in new people, and I think the best way to do that is by showing the how’s and why’s, from begat to begone), but I’m not one to waste good or possibly good material for the future. The children are our future you know. And the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago. The second best is today. And one should never forget their roots (you see what I did there? Talk about a segway back into the subject at hand…). I could just saw the roots of here, the tree can take it. But I’m greedy. I want those root cuttings. Let’s see where they take us. Here’s one end, or beginning, depending on how you look at it.  

It goes into this bigger one. 

Which goes underneath. 

On top it’s fused a little. Gotta separate them. 

Under and over. Where’s my knife? Wow, don’t you wish you could do this to every tree? There are some perpetual intermediates out there shaking their heads and muttering that this plant isn’t a proper pre-bonsai, with the roots as they are. Who ever said it was? I, quite possibly, could’ve gotten it from a liner farm or landscape nursery. So there. And I’d rather find them like this, with crazy roots. Otherwise I wouldn’t get material like this:or this….which then turn into trees like this:or this….

To continue…The job is straighten out and add taper to the roots. Yes, taper is important in everything. That’s what provides the illusion of height. Now, get this correct, I am performing this surgery in the month of May in Florida. Should you want to do something like this, you may want to wait to do it when it’s growing, usually in the summer, depending on where you live. I’m getting there. 

Anything growing down gets flat cut. This will encourage roots to form radially from that cut………….and now is the time for a little root bending too. We do that with a wee piece of wire. 

Then the tree goes into a good, granular bonsai soil. My mix? Sure, it’s called the Red White and Blue Supermix®, available soon! 

Make sure you get the soil into all the nooks and crannies, using fingers, soil pics, chopsticks, No air pockets is the goal. 

Now I’m ready to “style” it. 

If I were thinking of a banyan style for this tree I’d keep this low branch. 

But, as they say it in the old west, “Eye-yaint” 

And I don’t believe we need this either. 

Now to the processing of the cuttings. On top we have stem cuttings, I have the best luck with those in early spring on this kind of ficus. I think it’s better if you take them before the summer rains come, the roots form faster. That’s contrary to all the books, but that’s my experience. 

For the root cuttings I just use my nursery mix, 1/2 pine bark, 1/2 perlite. The trick is to soak the pot and soil thouroughly but, when watering every day after that, just pass over it once, splashing the soil. It’s the same as with the stem cuttings, the soil should stay moiste but not wet. That really pushes root development. It’s my belief, from observation, that they tend to react like a succulent in many ways, I’ve seen them thrive on a slab without soil. 

In a month or so you end up with Some cool shapes like these. 

Getting back to the main trunk, I’m experimenting with a wound sealant on the trunk chop. I’ve had very good success with elm and trident maples, but I’ve just started trying it with ficus. It’s a product for A/C ducts called duct seal. I’ll let you know how it works. 

I’m a willow leaf fiend of late, in fact, there are two more I need to finish processing. There are some good trunks in there. 

One last trick before I close it up. I like to leave a little green on the willow leaf when I treat them harsh like this. The green helps to keep the trees sap moving. It acts like a siphon, both ways. It drops sugars down and pulls water up. 

That’s the way I do it. And that’s how you develop trees like this. Find a good root spread, good trunk. Cut it back, on top and on bottom. Let it grow. That’s the technique. It works. Just don’t try it on a juniper. 

Posted in Advanced basics, branch placement, Horticulture and growing, rare finds, roots | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The Knife, The Foil, and The Moss

I’m gonna cut you sucker! Yes, you!Just because you have a fancy name,  chloroluceun tortum, doesn’t mean you’re safe. Most just think of you as the Brazilian raintree. Let me tell you a story. I recently picked up some trees for my vendor table at the upcoming Bsf/Abs joint convention in Orlando (Click here for details). I was looking for trees that I could pot up for quick sale. Like this jade:

Or this other raintree:Look at that movement, dayum!

But you, the tree I have in front of me now is….ummm, just wrong. Well, actually, from here down…….you’re not bad. But this long section….……you have no taper, no interest and you’re just kinda flat. Soooooooo……since I am contractually obligated to make at least one airlayer post a year and, it’s the month of May in Florida, I think I know what to do…. 

We have the moss. We have the foil. And, of course, the knife…. 

The basic operation: make two cuts, parallel, and about the thickness of the branch or trunk apart. Then scrape or carve off the bark, cambium, et al, betwixt the two cuts. Like so:

Yes, it’s a vertical video. I did that to annoy someone. Maybe it’s you, yeah, you, you know who you are, you butthole. 

Be conscientious in the scraping of the outer layers of tissues. You don’t want to see any green. Or yellow. It should be the color of the wood, in this case white. 

Now, holding the foil in your mouth:(Ignore that odd electrical sensation one gets while doing so)..,… 

…..and holding the moss in one hand and the camera in the other…(……notice the glove, sorry, here’s a quick PSA, to save me from getting sued: when working with sphagnum moss, first, always say sphagnum like you are Daffy Duck. Second, use gloves. There is a nasty fungus one could get from sphagnum moss called, and I quote the CDC:

“Sporotrichosis (also known as “rose gardener’s disease”) is a rare infection caused by a fungus called Sporothrix. This fungus lives throughout the world in soil and on plant matter such as sphagnum moss, rose bushes, and hay. People get sporotrichosis by coming in contact with the fungal spores in the environment.” 

So wear gloves!!!!!! )

 ……..wrap the foil around the sphagnum, which has been wrapped around the cut on the tree. Man, that last sentence was laborious, with two or three pictures and a quotation in parenthesis and all. 

Now, before you all ask, no, I don’t use the so called “rooting hormone”. I find that it’s not really needed and, if you use too much, and who can really say how much is too much, it will just heal your cut and you have a failed air layer. You see, rooting hormone is a form of auxin called indolebutric acid. If you remember from my plant hormone post, auxins are responsible for elongation of stems, healing of wounds, and developing roots (ok, it does technically stimulate root growth, but all hormones seem to do that). But, if you read carefully, the amount of hormones in a plant are so small as to be almost immeasurable. High doses of auxins stimulate the formation of ethylene gas (yes, the gas responsible for making tomatoes red) which can cause leaf drop, stunted grows and even stem death. And, if you read even more carefully, when you take two other types of auxin and apply them as a foliar spray, you get Agent Orange. For those to whom the study of history holds no interest, Agent Orange was an herbicide used in the Vietnam conflict to destroy the jungle. It worked, and caused all sorts of health problems for those who were exposed to it. 

Therefore, auxins, in high doses, are toxins. 

As a caveat, some plants do need the rooting hormone. But our Raintree does not. I suggest your first attempt at an  airlayer be done on a BRT, it can be accomplished almost every day of the year. 

To continue, I wrap the foil shiny side out. I use foil for several reasons. First, it’s easier to mold around the moss than plastic. So putting it on the tree is easy, especially with a camera in one hand. Second, it reflects the sun, keeping the roots cooler in the summer sun. And third, unless you use black plastic, which could get hot, it keeps light out of the moss ball. One requirement for root formation is, strangely enough since roots happen under the dirt, darkness. 
I like to use wire to close off the two ends of the foil. It’s my bondage kink. But I will leave a slight opening at the top to allow water to enter my foil package. 

I also fertilize heavily:Growth on top equals roots on bottom. I like to use an organic with my raintrees, to help feed the bacteria in the nitrogen fixing nodules. I explain the nodules particularly well in the post Skinny Vanilla Latte Raintree. A masterful piece written in an inspired, neo-classical prose style, following a suspenseful and surprising plot arc. You’ll gasp at the ending after being on the edge of your seat, anxious and worried for the trees plight……

And, after all that abuse, my plain tree, you and I need but wait. It’s been fun propagating with you, even though I needed a knife to do it. I’ll check back in two weeks. Let’s see how fast those new roots grow. Or four weeks. Six at the most.  Soon we will have two of you! 

Posted in Advanced basics, Horticulture and growing, rare finds | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

A matter of taste or, the past is prologue

Time for a haircut. In more ways than one…….Yeah, lookin’ like a crazy man here recently. In fact, it’s getting easier and easier to lose oneself in the electric lime green foliage of this tree…..


Dumm dum duhmmmmmmm!

I’m a weirdo. But I’m feeling much better now……

Now, you’re saying “I’ve seen this tree just recently?!” Yup, just a little over a month ago, in this post, it looked like this when I left it to grow. 

And now…..Blamm!!! That’s Florida for you. 

After a little pruning and wire removal. I’m pretty happy with the additional branching that’s occurred. Let’s see what I can get going. 

No, I’m not too worried by those wire marks. Are you?The tree, as you can obviously see, grows fast, and the wire marks will grow out and make those branches even more gnarly and twisted. 

In the pruning, I cut back heavily, some branches to just one leaf. 

But on some of those new branches I left some length.  To fill in some spots, cross the trunk, you know, all the things you’re not supposed to do. . 

Here’s an instance where this hackberry is acting like a ficus. See how heavily scarred the branch is? I still needed to tie it down with a guy wire. 

Bondage like. 

And then I did a cute little hack. Instead of just a loop, I used the wire end to wrap the branch tip. I’ll be going to bonsai jail for that. Amongst other infractions too. Like the styling of this tree….

I’ll get a better shot in a bit. The sun is about as bright as the…..ah, the sun I guess. 
The next tree is a legacy bonsai that I’ve been developing from a piece of stock material given to me by my friend Juan’s widow. I can’t find the original bloghpost I did on it. I’ve been trying to close these scars. 

Which are coming along slowly. I had removed all the wire last night, and now it’s time for a little more non conformity. Here’s a pot by the talented Martha Goff, author of The Tropical Greensheets I and II, purveyor of a fantastic organic fertilizer called Tropical Green. And pot dealer extraordinaire. The style pot is variously referred to as a crescent….….scoop…….eggshell……..half moon….Whatever you call it, it’s pretty cool. She does an awesome job making them feel light and delicate. I think she’s on top of the field with the quality of this style. It’s also fired well, it rings like a bell when you flick it. 

Now, usually, a pot like this is used for trees to do something like this: But, you know me, Dottie, I’m a loner, a rebel, and I do things my way…..

Nice roots, for a ficus. Must be that turface I used. 

A little trimming. 

That should fit. 

I think I like it. 

Now I’m off to Epcot. Gotta work the CFBC Meet N’ Greet booth for the Flower and Garden Festival. I’ll wire it up there. 

Here’s a quick update on the ilex vomitoria known as The Snail, from this blogpost

I was manning the booth with Jose, whom you’ve met in various YouTube videos. ​

He worked on this dwarf African strangler fig.   Those four outside vertical lines that look like aerial roots are tiedown wires. He stole my idea and wired the tips as well. 

And now, the reveals! 

Willow leaf ficus: 

And the hackberry: if I worked this hard this year I think I could get it on display somewhere soon. 

Oh! And my own haircut: How do I look? Still crazy after all these years. 

What’ll it be next? What do I have to write about? Maybe how to make pickles, or maple grafting? How about building a display stand? Maybe another soil post to bug the snobs……Lots of things. I guess you’ll have to wait on this madman to show you his next trick. Buh-bye!

Posted in branch placement, philosophical rant, rare finds, refine, updates, wiring, yamadori | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Where do the rules get you? 

I’ve been thinking a lot recently. I know, it gets me into trouble a lot when I do that but I think I’ve finally figured out some things and it’s time to share. Let’s begin at the end, which seems fitting. 

Over this last weekend I had the honor to give a demo and lead a workshop at a new bonsai boutique down Ft Lauderdale way, The Bonsai

It’s run by a young couple, Jerome and Mariannjely. He is from Switzerland and she is from Venezuela. Stole that pic off their Facebook. 

The demo involved an interesting and difficult buttonwood. Now, I’ll tell you a secret that only a few people knew: I was sick as a dog, an intestinal thing. I, as you may know if you’re a longtime reader, have a cyborg attachment to my lower GI tract and when I get any type of stomach bug I run the risk of a visit to the Emergency department for I. V. fluids. I think the sickness came from some bad iced tea ( my Brit readers are saying “serves you roight, ya’ bloody Yank, abusing tea that way!”). What I learned from the experience, if the tea tastes like coffee, don’t drink it. 

Anyway, I tried my best with the tree, and I gave it a good start, I think. I added deadwood, wired a few branches, and there’s even a leaf or two left on it for identification purposes. My vision for the future:

But the tree above doesn’t really break rules, except that, as Mary Madison says, “it’s a buttonwood, it automatically breaks the rules”. Meaning that it’s a broadleaf tree with lasting deadwood. A big no no. But they do it naturally so you can’t really say anything. Ok, I guess you can but you’ll just make an ass of yourself with your ignorance. I’ll get in trouble with that last statement. They don’t call me “Troublemaker” for nothing, you know. 

So let’s get to the “rules”. I could list them but they are everywhere you want to look. If you put a tree on any of the Facebook Bonsai pages or on Bonsainut and all those forums you’ll be bombarded with them. I’ve never called them rules myself. Here’s my story to explain why: I’m an artist, a painter, sculptor, I can draw and all that. And I’m trained in it. I know about proportions, structure and vanishing point theories, color theories and use to show light and dark and foreground/background differences. I understand composition, positive/negative space, line shape and form. If you were trained in that properly or studied it then you understand what I’m talking about. Most bonsai people were not. When I first started, and I love this story, I was explaining negative space to an intermediate (at the time) and they’d never heard the term. 

But Art, ever since the invention of the camera, has been in flux, trying to find its way. All the concepts were formed as far as technique, a painter could paint a realistic depiction of whatever they wanted; a tree, a portrait, a bear, a girl, a bare nekkid girl. The techniques were formalized and repeatable. But they weren’t rules, even then, except in the case that, when you were an apprentice, you painted like your teacher because it was technically his work, so you followed his rukes, until you went on your own. No, really, apprentices had no intellectual rights to their own work. There are serious and heated debates about many Renaissance painters works and if it was painted by this or that apprentice or how much. This was because art was a business and a craft that people associated with a specific artist. This  practice is, technically, still legally binding, but not enforced much; if you’re in college, your professor could claim your work as his and you get screwed.

With the invention of the camera, which could reproduce anything and by anyone, art, or, Art, had to adapt. This gave birth to the idea of “Art for Arts sake”. Instead of being a craft that reproduced something, the artist had more freedom to express ideas, or concepts. This freedom is perfectly illustrated by the works of the Impressionists. There were scientific concepts that they used when painting that explained their works but they were not realistic in the same way as the past painters thought of realism. The colors weren’t mixed on a pallette and applied to the canvas next to each other and the viewers eyes “mixed” them. So you put a yellow blob next to a green blob and the eye or brain gave you green. That was the concept behind Impressionism, the painting of light (white light is made up of colors that objects then either absorb or reflect, which, then,  enters the eye and the brain sorts it all out). There was also a change in the narrative of paintings. Previously, paintings illustrated a story or biblical passages, or there were specific portraits of people commissioned for that purpose. In the new Art, the subject was secondary to the exploration of the new concept. A painter didn’t paint a portrait of a person to reproduce the image (which was done better by a photo) they painted a portrait to explore an idea or technique. These new works challenged the status quo so much that the painters, like Monet, Pissarro, Degas and all the rest, were refused entrance into the annual exhibit sponsored by the French government. Talk about rude, huh? 

So what’s this to do with bonsai? Let’s take one “rule”. It’s the concept of proportions: How tall should a bonsai be? The current proportions are 1:6. The one is the width of the trunk, the six is the height of the tree. So you have a tree with a one inch trunk, the height should be six inches tall. Easy, right? These proportions are supposed to help illustrate a more natural looking tree, even though in nature the proportion is closer to 1:10 or so, depending on the type, age etc of the tree. Don’t believe me? Go measure. I’ll wait……..

Told you so. So how is this a rule at 1:6 then if naturally it’s 1:10? Easy, the more a proportion is exaggerated, the more a thing might look bigger, more stout, taller, or more delicate. By shrinking the proportion to 1:6 or even 1:4 or, in an extreme case, 1:1, it makes the tree seem more huge and, more importantly, older. Just like us, as we get older we get fatter, but the height doesn’t change. So the more close that ratio is, the fatter a tree looks. (There’s also the concept of a close view or a far away view. Like looking at a tree on a mountain ridge might have the ratio of 1:12 or a tree that you are one foot away from seems like a ratio of 1:1, those are visual tricks we artists can play on the viewer). But is all this a rule? No, it’s called a principle. And it has to do with design and what you are trying to convey. A near or far view? An old tree or an ancient tree? A young tree? The things that the Bonsai police call rules are simply design principles to help us to create bonsai.  Here’s a cedar elm I worked on in New Orleans. It breaks the proportion rule. There’s little taper too. But it looks like a tree, even an old tree, because I made the branches twisted and old looking. It doesn’t look much like a bonsai unless you think bonsai should look like trees. I think they do. Remember, Bonsai is the Art of making young little trees look like big, old trees. 

Which brings us to a question that haunts the corners of clubs, the depths of forums and internet groups, simply put: Is Bonsai Art? Let me post some pics, those glazing over the text are getting bored. 

This greets you when you first walk into the Bonsai Supply. 

This is Jesus. His wife bought him the shirt. He’s on the phone with her saying “I’m on my way home honey, promise!” 

Me contemplating the tree that really catalyzed this blog post. Today’s subject: a portulacaria afra. All photos following, with me in them, are by Matt Cioffi. 

Ok, let’s set a scene, there I am, in a neat little bonsai shop, sick and delirious, contemplating this mass of a portulacaria with a hydra head of branches engulfing the trunk. I get to work, trying to make this little, relatively young tree look like an old, big tree (See what I did there? I just defined what a bonsai is……pay attention, I’m just going to throw those kinds of things into the narrative…). 

I raise my scissors and begin the hack job. 

I am intent on preserving those gnarly, twisted branches. They really begin to age a tree when they’re getting movement like that. In my younger days I may have chopped the tree back. Way back. Maybe here: or even way back here:Just so I could create the perfect trunk line and taper and get the branches to grow where they need to be. 

But in my delirium, I saw the tree as it could be. So I took my time, chiseling away like a headstone mason, not wanting to make an errant chip on a monument that is meant for eternity. When I was a younger man, I painted a portrait of a friend, named David Johnson. The canvas was huge, 60″x60″. He didn’t stay friends long, he was jealous of my long, flowing locks, my cunning linguist skills, my obvious artistic genius, and I might have stolen his girlfriend at prom. But one thing that cemented his hatred of me was my propensity to stick my tongue out when I worked. It’s a facial tic that helps my brain to focus. 

Or I just do it to annoy people. One of the two, I can’t tell sometimes. 

Anyway, the process, which was going on during the workshop and I was spending too much time on, and ignoring the other students as a result, was advancing slowly. But I was seeing the end, so to speak (to which those readers who’ve invested all this time reading a weird post, are wishing I would arrive at, already, an ending….)I am almost ready for wire. As you can see from an aerial view, I am saving a lot of branches that may not follow the rules. 

It’s wiring time!

That’s Matt’s hand btw. You can tell by how small and clean it is compared to mine. There were several more trees I worked on at the class. Here’s a Link to see some of them. 
So what is the realization I came to in my delirium? That one learns the rules not to break them but to use them. Not only using them in your trees and in making them look old but to learn when to ignore them when it furthers the goal, old trees. 

 And the status quo be damned. I’ve participated in many shows and exhibits but I don’t care if I win awards. I show my trees and displays as Art. But in the shows, it’s not innovation or new ideas that win, it’s a preservation of “What has come before”. And shit, it’s sometimes even a celebration of the mediocre. There are shows with multiple Judges where each judges choice for best tree is removed from the running and only the second best trees are then up for awards (I’ll get in trouble for that statement too. I realize that the idea behind it is to remove favoritism and politics but it doesn’t really work out that way. So you either have the best trees by score removed or the judges lie about their scores so their real best tree is their 2nd choice. Personally I’m against a judge using a numbers based scoring method, where a tree gets so many points for roots spread, movement, branching etc. I’m more of a feelings kind of guy. If I like the tree then that’s what I pick). 

I guess I’m just a rebel. Here I am at a protest I really believe in. See me in the back? Passed out in the gutter. 

But I’m a grateful rebel. Here’s a pic of the guys from the workshop. 

Thank you Mari, Jerome, Matt (especially Matt, for the jade, which he gave to me as a gift). Thanks to the audience for laughing at the bad jokes, the students who let me chop their trees up and thanks to Jose, for making sure I didn’t die (he’s the guy on the left with the pineapple on his shirt). 

Oh, the jade all potted up. I like it.


It might win an award in the future. Not today though. It does look old, right? I like to call it the Hanging tree style. 

Posted in Art, branch placement, Horticulture and growing, philosophical rant, rare finds | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

 The Bougainvillea Studies

Pablo does not approve. He’s sittin’ over there passing judgement on my weeding skills. Like he can do better, he’s just a disembodied, floating wooden face with a disagreeable temperament. 

I guess I need to do some weeding, forthwith. Or maybe he just doesn’t like the material I’m working on. 

Half rotten….

The leaves worm eaten and thin…..What is it? 

It’s a purple bougainvillea cutting I made maybe ten years ago. I’d better get to those weeds….I believe they are what’s called “Brazilian pusely”Or a whole bunch of common names like Mexican clover or Brazilian calla lily. There is a Florida pusley but there there are two differences, one, the fruit, and two, the roots. I don’t have a pic of the fruit at the moment but I can show you the roots. 

They’re reason I can identify this as the Brazilian pusley (richardia brasiliensis) and not Florida pusley (richardia scabra). The Florida versions don’t have these tuberous root bodies. Control of the weed is difficult because of that tuber; if you pull the weed and don’t get all the root…..

The damn thing will sprout back from what you left in the dirt. 

And glyphosate will kill the top but not the roots. I read through a full study on the control of this weed in orange groves in Florida and I learned some interesting facts. The Florida pusley was more prevalent in groves about 30 years ago and is considered an annual and was easily controlled with herbicides like glyphosate.  But the Brazilian pusley has taken over the niche in the orange groves because of its resistance to the herbicides. And because of the shalllow footage of citrus it is damaging to the roots to dig out the Brazilian pusley tubers. So they stay. I, fortunately, am skilled at the removal of these tubers, and the tortoises love them. 

There are some references to the pusley being a magnet or host for nematodes. I can’t find definitive citations for it so I’ll just leave that info their for future research. All I know is that there isn’t any nematode evidence on these bougie roots. Which is, I understand, a problem in Florida for a bougie, but I’ve never had it on one of mine….yet. 

Before I put it into a pot, let’s look at the trunk. 

It is half rotted away, I need to carve it and my carving tools of choice today are, a wire brush….

And my fingers. 
The fingers break off the most-decayed parts. Easy. 

The brush reveals the grain. Purty cool. 

I had to break out the old pocket knife to evict some ants. Do you see them? 

There they are!

So long my little collectivist friends….

The reason I addressed the wood cleaning first was to protect the roots from the damage that all that carving movement causes.  A bougie cutting takes a long time to make good rootage that’s thick enough to be considered a nebari (in English, that’s what the botanists call the buttress. Probably a better word as that brings to mind a swollen bottom portion of the tree, but we use Japanese often in bonsai) and I didn’t want brakage. 

See, not much to look at and terribly fragile (like me and my ego)  

As I brush this deadwood, especially on a bougie, it’s in my best interest to wear a mask. Scary! It is a fungus that causes the wood to rot, after all, and we don’t need fungus in the lungs. There we go. I will treat with lime sulfur in a few weeks, not for color but to kill that fungus. 

Now for the pot. I’ll go traditional I think. A nice square one, commissioned from the most non/traditional bonsai guy himself, Robert Stevens, for the 2009 BSF convention. 

Because the bougie is a cutting and has very few roots, I’ll need a rock to build this tree upon. 

Or at least to lean upon. 

That’ll do, that’ll do. This tree, as I said, is a cutting. About 7-8 years ago I collected a big trunked bougie and rooted a bunch of cuttings off of it. I was bored I guess. The main collected trunk I gave to my friend, Erik Wigert, at Wigert’s Bonsai, mainly because he is the best bougie bonsai artist in the USA. He’s no slouch with other trees, mind you, but his work with bougie has made other artists reconsider the possibility of the species for superior ramification, branching, structure and, most importantly, horticulture. Here’s the tree I gave him, pic from December 2015: 

He is on Instagram, go follow him. 
The tree again, this time defoliated, from August, 2015:He achieved that structure in 5-6 years. What would take 20-30 yrs on other trees. Amazing. 

Now, there are some who criticize his traditional pine tree styling of a broadleaf evergreen, but, you know what, first, bonsai is an art, and a bougie is one of those species that are, what I term, a plastic tree. Meaning, in the original definition of the word plastic, malleable. Some other trees I consider plastic are junipers, some elms, trident maples, most ficus, pines, etc. What I mean is that they can be styled in various tree forms (pine tree, deciduous, banyan, live oak, cascade) because the natural growth habits are not that strong and, therefore, not fighting you. Conversely, it’s tough to make a cascade swamp maple because the bottom branches want to die back. But you can make a cascade bougie. Or a live oak tree style juniper. Or a pine tree style elm. 

Secondly, they are his trees, and this is his “style”. How many bonsai artists are there in the world who can boast that their style is recognizable? Not many. 

Thirdly, I think it’s just jealousy. Erik has developed his own way of doing things and he does it well. Better than most everyone else who might criticize him. And I’ll leave it there (Although I might shorten the bougie a bit….myself……sorry Erik. Heeheehee!) 

Now, ladies and gentlemen, the main event! Time to wire! 

Some establishing shots:

I need to bend these lengths. I’d say the top is about 1/2″ thick and the next length is about 1/3″ thick 

The weakest part of the whole tree is where the dead trunk meets the upper living potion of the tree. That means I’ll need to wrap the wire around the deadwood. Not my first choice but you gotta make it work before you make it pretty. I think it’s 5mm aluminum. It makes a difference which way you wrap the wire as to which way you bend the branch. 

I’ll be going to the right and twisting the branch clockwise, so my wrap goes clockwise as well. The angle of the wire on the branch makes a difference too. Where the bend is going to be less severe, your angle should be more acute (if you layed a protractor with the flat side running along the branch, the angle might be 30-40 degrees). If your bend is going to be more severe, you angle it at 45 or more. This gives better coverage and less chance of breakage) 

Ready for the bend? Cross your fingers! What works, in the absence of a branch bender, is to use the wire and pliers to help with leverage.  

As I bend I make sure to listen and to keep an eye on the outside edge of the bark. Those cracks above on the bark are ok, you can even expose some of the green underneath. Just be careful of deeper cracks that appear beyond the cambium later. 

First bend. 

As you continue the bends further up the trunk, you can go back to increase the earlier bends. The stress on the bark lessens over time as you are working on the tree. Just don’t over do it. 



Down. And I just cut the height in half. Without a single cut. So you don’t have to scroll up, the before:…….it was touching the roof of The Nook, now it’s touching the bench. 

Some more wire. I should note that it’s a dangerous thing to work with bougies, this one has small thorns, but that makes them stealthy. I mean, damn, I’m bleeding all over! Sorry. 

Every branch…..
In the next pics you can see the various wire coil angles I was talking about…..…..some of the anchoring techniques I’ve discussed in previous posts……… well as the placement techniques. 

Are you ready for the whole tree?


 Too bad, let me talk about the aesthetic ideas I’m trying to express with a bougie like this. 

I’m taking my visual cues from the treatment of the Japanese ume (prunus mume) variously called the Japanese plum or apricot. I won’t steal any photos from the internet to show you the idea of a rotten or withered trunk on the ume, just look up “ume bonsai” on the google machine thingy (in today’s digital age, it’s easy to get sued for using a pic without permission, and I ain’t got the money to defend myself, sorry). I’ll wait until you get back (you can go to Bonsai Tonight and  this page in particular for some interesting ume)………

Are you back? You see now how the flowers and the rotten trunks are a sweet and sour contrast? I can’t grow ume in Florida, but I can grow bougies, so it’s been my goal to develop a style of bonsai using the old trunks I’ve been saving. Here’s one you might recognize:

Here’s one I just styled: 

This one is on the bench for tomorrow: 

And a future subject of a YouTube video.

Now, granted, the bougie doesn’t have the cultural, culinary, and even medicinal significance that the ume has in Japan (though it’s quite ubiquitous in the warmer parts of the world and has an ethos all its own) but the Art we practice is mainly visual, and the contrast between the ephemeral, and decayed nature of the withered trunk and the flaming beauty of the bougie bloom does make for a bold, but still subtle, statement about bonsai and the question of making Art out of living things.  

Are you ready for the reveal or have I made you click off the page with my talk of philosophy and Art? 

For those of you left…..or who scrolled past without reading….

The left-ish side……Being in a square pot is almost the same as being in a round pot. 

The right-ish side……It means the front is a larger arc than say the front of the tree in an oval or rectangle pot. 

And my current front. 

I think it turned out well. 

So, whether you think I’m crazy for working on material like this, which might die in the next windstorm (but, don’t they all have the possibility of dying?)  or crazy like a fox for trying to sell a piece of marginal material (I might note that the pot is a collectible and therefore the tree is not for sale) that’s been taking up space on the benches, you gotta admit it looks cool, don’t you?  Wait for it to bloom!

That’s all for today, I’ve got to go outside and work on some trees, I’ve been traveling way to much recently and the nursery is suffering from it……toodles!

Posted in Art, branch placement, carving, Horticulture and growing, rare finds, wiring | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments