Midnight Rider

It’s after midnight, and I’m going to let it all hang out (and mix my song references). 

Because I’m not sleepy, or maybe I have a guilty conscience (or not, depends on who you listen to, I could, as evidenced from the way I chop down bonsai trees, be a total sociopath… ) or maybe because I’m behind in my work, with all the traveling I’ve been doing, and I’m going to take advantage of the relatively cool summer nights (come to Florida, they said, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…) and do some big or neglected projects. 
The tree we have here tonight is a ficus salicaria (yes, a willow leaf ficus, but no, not ficus nerifolia. You see, there’s this other tree called ficus nerifolia that, though the shape of the leaf is similar, the size isn’t, check out this page). It was grown from a cutting by Judy, a good friend from Ft. Myers. She told me to develop it and sell it, and we’d split the money. It’s been too long sitting in my nursery, so it’s time I got to work. The root base is about 21 inches wide. It has a beautiful canopy but…….yeah, it has no taper. I could slap some wire on it and try to hide it but I don’t want to be known for that type of work. See, I do have a nursery, and all the licenses and all that to sell trees, but, I don’t really sell many. I’m more of an artist and then a teacher. I make my money giving demos, conducting workshops, working in private sessions, either teaching or refining clients trees. And I write a blog and do the occasional YouTube video. Which I don’t make a dime on either, but I should really try to figure out how that’s done. But this tree will be different. It’s for sale. But I gotta develop it first. 

The base (or, to use a horticulture term, the buttress, which they call the nebari in Japanese) is fantastic. It needs some work but not much. There’s even a rock imbedded in there. It’s in the trunk that needs some help. 

See right there? Where the knot hole is? I think I will airlayer it there. I know, I know, I once said that it’s a waste of time to airlayer a ficus. This time though, since it’s not my tree, I’ll be a little cautious. Besides, I’m willing to try other people’s techniques, I’m not closed minded. Air layering works. 

The cut……(if you want an in depth, step by step guide, just put in “air layering” into the search bar. Here’s a good post to start with). 

The foil….(I just read a study published in 1968 that talked about why using foil over the sphagnum is better than using plastic wrap, here’s the link to the study). 

The cut back…..My modus operandi is to cut back the top portion, above the layer site, so that the new top growth will stimulate root growth  quicker. The way I perform an air layer has science behind it. Some people use plastic wrap and never cut the top back. Guess what? Their layers still work. Haha! Here’s where I get in trouble. 

To the real theme of this post. With any given bonsai goal, there are often two, maybe three ways to achieve it. Do you want well tapered, ramified branches with natural movement? Well then, grow your branch out, when you have achieved the thickness you want, cut it back, grow it the next level, cut it back, etc….or, grow it out to the length you want, wire it for movement, unwire, cut tips, develop secondary branching, tertiary, continue wiring, unwiring, etc.

Both methods work. Does one work better than the other? Maybe…..or maybe one works better on one kind of tree and the other on another kind of tree. Here’s an axiom for you to ponder: Horticulture is a science, but the practice of horticulture is an Art. 

Or, how about this? This poor kid got this question wrong. But, you are saying that the answer to 5×3 is 15, right? Why? Because the kid didn’t write out the “formative” the way the teacher wanted him to. He wrote “5+5+5” instead of “3+3+3+3+3”. Both of those are correct ways to figure out 5×3, but the teacher, or should I call him the “pedant” …….wanted it written his way. And he was the teacher and it gave him the power to use and abuse the poor student. 

At this point your asking me “Why are you writing all this at 2:56am? I mean, who really cares? Go to bed, you fool!”  Well, the reason is because I am seeing an increasingly toxic atmosphere developing in the bonsai community. A culture where dogmatism and authority are replacing openness and common sense when it comes to teaching, be it to beginners or those that just want to continue their learning and enjoy their trees at whatever level they want them to be and just have a question. It literally drives people away. My “Big Question”? Does every bonsai practitioner need to have the level of horticultural knowledge and technical expertise as a professional like Ryan Neal, who is arguable the best in the business at the moment? Do they need the patience of David Easterbrook, from Canada with a 4 month growing season, or the artistic mastery of Suthin, who can take a straight telephone pole of a tree and make it look ancient? Of course they don’t. And to hold someone to that level when they offer up another Mallsai, or a juniper cutting, a ginseng ficus, or whatever, on a forum, or Facebook Page, is just perpetuating the elitism, the conceitedness, the pomposity, and the hazing, that bonsai is becoming known for. To paraphrase another song “Why you gotta be so rude, don’t you know they’re humans too?” 

Here’s a thing:

 They’re just little trees. 

Well, sometimes, they’re kinda big trees, let’s get back to the willow leaf ficus that has been languishing on my bench whilst I pontificate. I’m done with the soapbox sermon, for now. 

That airlayered top is going to be a good tree. It, too, will be for sale. I should add. I might even consider shipping it…..It has all the branches in place already, …instant bonsai gonna get you..,.,

And the bottom, damn those roots are sexy. Both sides are full of potential, I can’t even choose a front yet. Keep an eye on the development of this ficus.  So here’s the timeline as I see it: I expect the top to be removed in about a month, then I’ll address the rootage and repot, and choose the front. Next year it’ll be a decent looking tree. In two years it’ll be ready for a small club show, in five, a regional show. And in ten? A national, East or West coast. 

Now, damn it, I am tired. In parting, I will, to remind me of simpler, happier times, quote a movie from my youth: “Be excellent to each other!”  

Posted in Advanced basics, Horticulture and growing, philosophical rant, redesign | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Book Review: Miniature Moss Gardens

I got a book in the mail. Sweet.

 I love doing book reviews!

 Especially well put together ones. That means I get to share it with y’all (even though I’ve been in the “South” longer than I was in the “North” I still find it hard to say y’all….). 

Let’s talk about the book. 

First, the photos are amazing. This is from a dude that takes photos (very badly and unprofessionally I must add) to tell stories. But the photos, and not the “arty” ones like these………really do the job they’re supposed to: show you what the words are telling.  

And, not surprisingly for a Tuttle imprint, it is informative. 

The book highlights moss; the different kinds, the growing conditions and culture, the where/how/ethics of moss collection from the wild, and, importantly, growing it yourself. 

It covers using moss on bonsai, or by itself. 

It tells a story of the growing popularity of using moss amongst the younger generation, in Japan and the world, and how it is introducing them to traditional bonsai practice (if you haven’t discovered them yet, I’d recommend seeking out The Bonsai Girls project. They’re very active on Instagram @bonsai.girls.project They also have a Facebook page about their activities where they really show the growth of the “Pop Bonsai” movement in Japan) 

Take this a kokedama: what’s that? Well, the English word just isn’t as euphonious as the Japanese term: moss balls. (Funny story, I mentioned the growing art of kokedama to a bonsai professional who had apprenticed in Japan and was newly returned from his studies. He didn’t know about it. Flash forward a half year and his girlfriend is selling them at a bonsai convention. That’s how quickly the moss movement and Pop Bonsai is spreading). 

The book shows you Kokedama construction as well as maintenance. And I promise you won’t see any floating magnetic gizmos. 

My favorite parts (I keep saying this, I know) are the are many tips……..and cultivation considerations of moss growing. The book also explores terrariums (a way to bring growing things into your apartment or dorm room? Mmmmm?) and even moss landscapes, like the squirrel and bunny ones here: Dawwwww….

Written by Megumi Oshima and Hideshi Kimura (I wonder if there’s a relationship with The Magician Himself?), published by Tuttle, I’m giving it a “Highly Recommended” for your bonsai bookshelf, if for no other reason than the horticultural info on moss (did I mention the very well written horticultural info on moss right?) 

Hardbound, good to the touch, well thought out, professionally photographed…..go get yourself a copy today. 

Posted in Art, Book reviews, rare finds | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Bonsai work

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it. ” 
~ John Ruskin 

Ok, for those of you who googled good ol’ John, he did have some odd ideas. But this one quote is pretty spot on. Just like me, and a broken clock, he can be right at least twice a day. Or, as one of my favorite sayings states, even a blind man can tell you that the sky is blue. So, though the quote above can be seen through the veil of an overlord cheering on the mindless toil of his slaves, it can also be seen through the eyes of a lone, struggling artist trying to find one’s place, and one’s life, in meaningful and artistic labor. 

Here’s a Brazilian raintree. I got it from Gail, less than a year ago (I wrote about it in This blogpost)  

This was how you saw it last, below. From the above pic, you see I’ve repotted it, defoliated and removed the wire. Now it’s time for some more work. 

I’m also going to work on this orange jasmine (or lake view jasmine or whatever they’re calling it, it’s a murraya paniculata, first seen Here September 2014) 

As it was, then:

It’s been grown out, cut back, wired, unwired and rewired since then.  At the end of the 2014 post I promised to get it ready for the 2016 National Show. Longtime readers will know that I got sick soon after the original 2014 post and many projects fell by the wayside. But I’m better know and I’m finally getting back into my old projects. 

I love this hole. In Japan they call it “uro”. To me, they bring back memories of my childhood and how I would draw a tree. I’d always put a hole in it for squirrels or raccoons to hide in or make homes. Ah, To my youth (My sweet roisn dubh)

Let’s get to work. Here’s a Hidden Mickey for you disneyphiled out there.  I am in Orlando, after all. 

Starting with the Brazilian raintree, my main goal with wiring a tree like this is to match the character of the branches to that of the trunk. 

Do you see the stump?  I lost a big branch there from dieback.  Brazilian raintrees have a pretty drastic response when it comes to die back. So when you prune it, it’s best to leave a stump to allow for the inevitable. Otherwise it’ll dieback into the branch or even the trunk. Which is how I lost the branch. 

Now, the orange jasmine needs defoliation and unwiring. The wire is just starting to cut in. 

To defoliate a murraya, first you have to realize that they, like the Brazilian raintrees, also have compound leaves. The whole structure in my hand is one leaf. The things that look like leaves are called, appropriately, leaflets. 

Here’s a tidbit for you. See this structure? That’s where a flower occurred. Many trees will flower on the end of branches, effectively stopping any elongation of that branch. If you allow a tree to flower you need to find the new growth tip to cut back to (try to do it before the fruit develops, you can see that I’m late on this, I have an excuse, I was in Louisiana on tour when this flowered) What’s better is to not let it flower, if you are trying to develop branches. The tree uses a lot of energy producing flowers and fruit. It’s better to direct that energy to branch development. Let it flower for a show. There are some azaleas that have been denied flowering for up to ten years and then, boom, nothing but blooms for the show. 

There we go. You can see the structure now. You can also see the blood. Damn, that hurt. It bled a lot too. Well, I guess it’s superglue time. 

Someone on Facebook  said that bonsai is all about “blood sweat and beers”. And it is, often. But, to paraphrase the old saying, “pain is temporary, wiring marks fade, bonsai keep growing, and chicks dig scars” 

All fixed up. Use the gel type, it doesn’t run down your hand. Back to the trees. 

What did I mean when I said that the branches should match the tree? Look at the structures of both bonsai. 

The Brazilian. 

The jasmine.  

The Brazilians trunk is twisted, muscular, it breaks many rules. I could cut it back and try to make a more traditional style. Follow the rules, so to say. I don’t think I need to. It looks like a tree. It works, even with those unconventional “bones”. The branches match the tree, twisty and curving back on themselves. 

The jasmine, a more traditional looking upright deciduous looking tree, still has some “flaws” as they say. There are some straight lines, the taper is more natural than what the modern interpretation calls for. But again, it looks like a tree. And the branching flows more like the trunk. Up and out. 

It was originally styled by one of the only living bonsai masters in the USA, Suthin Sukosolvisit. He was touring Florida (back when he did that still) and I took the tree to his BYOT workshop. It was in a 15 gallon container and was probably about 4 feet tall. I only knew Suthin (at that time) for his work on shohin trees, so I was expecting a heavy chop. Nope. He listened to the tree, let it show him the way. As he made the cuts, he explained the concept of taper, branching. He showed me a better way to look at trees. It’s not about imposing our will (or insisting on the absurd idea that a tree must be designed into a specific “style”, like windswept or semi cascade or whatever). I learned (both on that day, but also from constant questioning myself why I was doing what I was doing) that the tree knows what it wants to be, either by the way it is growing, or by the overall growth habit. That’s a hard lesson to swallow as an artist, of a person that should be able to take a blank canvas and throw pigment on it to express an idea (I hardly ever did that as a painter, I was a found object artist. I used to walk he streets and fields, wander the back alleys and forest trails, and pick up trash, magazines, old broken toys or smashed window panes, and make my art out of these things. Perhaps this is why bonsai as an art attracts me. Truly, with bonsai, you begin with a thing that already Is. You then help it become more of what it Is). But Bonsai is not a blank canvas type of art. It’s like trying to play a blues song. Or a flamenco song. There is a framework and a progression that follows. But the organic component controls the chord changes, the time signature; you can’t make a cascade bald cypress or a formal upright wisteria. You can try but it’s like singing a punk song about going to the Starbucks to get your venti skinny vanilla latte with extra foam and soy milk.

 Ya dig?

What else? How about I take another quote out of context to help prove my thesis: “Avoid Gurus. Follow plants.” Terrance McKenna. He’s another man with interesting ideas, about the nature of time, consciousness, reality and evolution. He also took a lot of drugs (hence the “plants” thing). But, like I said, taken out of context, his quote fits this narrative. Like I said, I find things and make them into my own story. 

What am I becoming? Whom do I follow? What have I learned from all the teachers I’ve studied with? Well…..that’s a tough one. I’ve learned a craft that helps me to feed my family. But I’ve also learned a few other things. 

I started this post off with a quote, perhaps I’ll end it with another one, this time from one of my favorite books, Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse “When someone is seeking,” said Siddartha, “It happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.” 

Posted in branch placement, goings, wiring | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

From the brink….

The back story……

Early February, 2017. Gulfport Mississippi, on a tour. I’m at Buck’s house, working on trees. A lot of trees. I did some carving on a podocarpus. 

Wired it up too. That was fun. 

Did some touch up carving and styling on a Campeche 

Flat top style. 

We drank a lot of beer. 

A ficus buxifolia or ficus lingua. 

In the evening I did a demo for the Gulfport Mississippi club. This is Adam. The cheesyness factor must come with the name. That’s my demo tree, a bougie, he won it in the raffle I think it survived my ministrations. 

Buck has been growing this big ficus microcarpa for a long time. We wired it and did some grafting. Zip ties work well. 

Here’s a Texas ebony that beat me up. But I won in the end, though I had thorns in my fingers for a month. 

But the one tree that I was worried about, that I wasn’t sure was going to live, is this Natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa). I know, it looks rough. It had dried out a little. Ok, a lot. My usual treatment is to trim the tips and leave it alone. But….

Like I said, I wasn’t sure it was going to live at all. What I did, I do not recommend, but, after examining the bark and the green underneath, lifting up the hood and checking the oil, so to speak, I figured it could handle it. There was some life in it.  But if you have a tree that looks half dead, do as I say, leave it be, and not as I did. 

First thing I did was to remove most of those orange and yellow leaves. Most of them. The ones that stayed were the ones that didn’t pull off easily. That resistance told me those leaves hadn’t been affected by  the “droughting” that had happened (when a plant  dries out, xylene gas it released and it triggers leaf drop and root growth. The leaf dropping limits water use through transpiration, and the root growth is to, well, find water) The leaves that were still “stuck” was a good sign. I cut it back as well, as you can tell from the first pic to the third. 

And, still contrary to what I would tell you to do should you ask, I then I wired the Carissa out. I had worked on a Natal plum last time I was in Ohio but I was still amazed me at how flexible the branches are. Especially in its dried out state (I don’t recommend drying a tree out on purpose but it does make branches easier to bend and less likely to break. I’ll illustrate by making you imagine a piece of celery. Yeah, celery. A nice fresh piece, full of water and juicy, is easily snapped if you bend it. Well, except for those annoying fibers. Don’t you hate those? Did you know that rich people and politicians have those fibers removed before they’re served them? Must be nice, right? Anyway, an old, dried out piece of celery is rubbery and you can tie it in knots. If you like that kind of thing…….the same principle holds true with plants, if they’re dry, they bend without snapping. Use this knowledge at your peril though. There’s dry and then there’s crispy).  

Wiring and branch placement was easy, the structure was there, I was hoping the tree pulled through. But still, I was breaking a Rule of Bonsai, don’t work on sick or stressed trees. We’re my observations correct? Did I kill it? Well……

 Fast forward to late June, 2017. 

It’s alive. 

Oh yeah, damn does it looks good. 

We trimmed the long shoots, some more than six inches long (and that’s not bragging). Looking at the roots, I think I’ve figured out why it was able to survive. There’s some mycorrhizae, but right near my thumb, I’m thinking I’m seeing some nitrogen fixing nodules. Now, I can’t find any scientific literature talking about nitrogen fixing bacteria for this species, but it’s not a stretch. I mean, podocarpus do it, and of course any plant in the legume family do it. I have read the research that’s just being expanded on recently about the symbiosis of soil microbes and plants, and how much there is of that symbiosis we just didn’t know about before. 

Anywho, seeing as how healthy the roots are now, I think we can reduce them. 

With a saw. Pretty impressive. Let’s see what we have here…….hmmmmnnnnn…..…..the big chunks are expanded shale (you know, that Haydite stuff), there’s a healthy amount of pine bark, some calcined clay (Turface don’t you know), red lava……I think I’ll leave that here and let you draw your own conclusions. The fact that the roots are amazingly well distributed throughout the root ball speaks for itself. Soil particle size has much to do with root growth. 

Here’s the before, in February. 

And, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes…..By cutting the growing tips and reducing the roots that will stimulate back budding. We kept most of the wire on, it’ll keep for a month or so. Now, close your eyes (well, after you read what I want you to imagine) and picture this tree in a red clay pot (oxblood, if you would) or maybe a rustic, dark colored clay body with cream glaze, spotty and heavily applied. Now imagine the tree covered in pure white flowers. Or better yet, red fruit. Ok, you can close your eyes and imagine it now. 

Like the title suggests, this tree was saved from the brink of going from that dry state to the crispy one. I’m glad we were able to bring it back. It’s also refreshing to work on a tree for a client during a private session and get to guide it a second time. I’m excited to see it again next time I’m through there.  I might be back again in January,  for my Louisiana/ Alabama/Mississippi readers to consider a private session. 

I will stress again, you need to baby sick plants. No fertilizer, just enough water, light trimming. I have experience with trees and lots of dead ones in my bonsai graveyard to prove it. This tree, as bad as it looked, still had life in it. Lots of life. And I felt that what I was doing wasn’t going to kill it. Here’s a story that might explain why I felt the way I did. 

Chickens are from china. There was a big chicken farm in the USA that needed to train some new workers in how to figure out the sex of baby chickens. So the boss called over to China and hired the best chicken sexers in the industry to train the new workers. How does one learn to sex a chick? Well, the master chicken sexer stands behind the new apprentice and, whenever the apprentice gets the sex of the chick wrong, they get a slap on the back of their head. They eventually learn how to tell boy chicks from girl chicks, even if they don’t know how they know. 

The moral? It takes working on trees to learn how to work on trees. And killing them is that slap on the back of the head. 

A big thank you to Buck, for letting me work on his trees, and to Alan, Lowell and everyone else who put up with me for the week. See you guys soon! 

Posted in branch placement, goings, progression, refine, roots, wiring | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Building Structure

There might be a tree here. Underneath the leaves, somewhere. Maybe. But I do believe it’s time for the scissor. Let’s see what’s underneath.

 Ah, I see a trunk. We might have a bonsai here, instead of a bush. Not that a bush is bad…..

There are even some branches. Yup. Uh huh. Movement too.

 Sometimes I feel like a sculptor with a hammer and chisel, chopping out the superfluous. Like here. Three branches from one spot.That’s the easy first step, cut out one. I love these challenges. I’m going to do the work as I usually do it, branch by branch. 

First, I get rid of these….….singularly, they’re called “syconium”, more than one are called “synconia”. Latin is weird sometimes. I was called out once about the plurality or singularity of the word. Bonsai people are funny.

This tree is a ficus microcarpa “green island”. A ficus is a fig, a fig is a ficus, so most people mistake these round, fruit-like thingies as figs. But they won’t be figs until they become pollinated, usually by a specific wasp. So now we will call it a synconium, which the official definition is: a fleshy hollow receptacle that develops into a multiple fruit, as in the fig.you could call it an inflorescence, a modified stem, some even think of it as a kind of bract. Hell, you can call it a potentiality followed by an actuality. Anyway you think of it, consider this a combined entomological, etymological, and botanalogical lesson for the day. You’re welcome. 

Continuing forward, I clear out the multiple branches and defoliate the old, damaged, and shaded out leaves. I keep the growing tips (stipules, if you would) and the last one or two leaves. Aha! Here’s a good example of multiple branching from one point. There are three. I haven’t figured which one I want to keep yet, give me a minute. This one above is a definite removal

And the one going back, and that’s it. 
I often will keep younger branches and get rid of older ones, for the vigor and flexibility the younger ones offer. But in this case, I don’t need it. 

Here’s a choice to be made. Do I keep this to wire over the top?

Or get rid of it?  I think it goes. The first level needs help. 

I think that’s good for the moment. Notice I didn’t cut any tips yet? I’ll get to that. Now we need a new angle of attack, I think. 

That looks good. 

Let’s look at the roots. It doesn’t need a repot per se, but I can adjust the angle a little. A change of view almost always changes your view……….now I’ll get rid of some branches that are hiding the trunk. And it’s time for the wire. Obviously there’s good movement that’s been achieved from clip and grow, but that process leaves definite straight lines. Nature abhors straight lines. Mostly. But in bonsai, straight lines often don’t look natural. Even conservative bonsai artists don’t like straight lines. That’s where the wire comes in. Back to the tips. Notice the leaf is now almost upside down after wiring? Those leaves will not, no matter how much you believe it to be true, give anything to the tree. It is better for the development, the health, and the structure of the tree to get rid of them. It’s a defoliation thing, ya’ dig? Only those leaves that are laying flat, and able to catch the sun, or can be wired into that position, are useful or even healthy to keep. That’s another reason I remove old, discolored, and damaged leaves. It takes less energy to replace them than it is for the plant to move them or fix them. And damaged leaves can’t be fixed anyway. The buds are already there, the energy is allocated to grow them. Let the tree replace the old leaves with new ones. It works. If there’s anything I’ve learned about life from my teenage kids, it’s better to work with those hormones than against them. 

When we think of plants, and how they grow, think of the hormones as computer programs that tell the plant how to grow. It’s hard to fight the programming of the hormones, the plant will do what the hormones tell it to do, even if it kills it. That’s why it’s important to learn what the hormones do, and when, and importantly, the right time of year to perform the techniques we use in bonsai. 

It is June in Florida, the ficus is growing, both in the root and crown sections of the tree. The tree is very healthy. The weather has started the summer schedule, finally, which means daily rains, evening heat, humidity, and lots of daytime sun. Now is the best time to do this. 

Now, I’m thinking this branch needs to go:It hides the trunk a little, but it can stay for now though. 

I still left many growing tips (stipules, remember?) intact because I need some elongation of some of the branches. Not to mention the tendency of this variety to abort branches. Regardless of this, what’s great about the species is the ability to reduce the size of the leaves to about the size of a dime (.705 inches and 17.91 mm). Great for bonsai. And that’s it. All the leaves are laying down, the branches are splayed out, it just needs a little more growth and then it’ll be ready for prime time. 

Posted in branch placement, Horticulture and growing, refine, wiring | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

It was a Monday

I’m walking through my collection on a Monday. Last Monday, or maybe two mondays ago, as I write this, but you may be reading this three years from now so I’ll just say, “It was a Monday”. I’m looking around at the trees, as I do, and I see an empty spot. Of course the first thought is “Uh oh, someone stole it!” But the second is to look around on the ground in the jungle of growth under my stands. And there it was. I’d like to blame the cats. But the stand needs to be repaired too (tip of the day, metal stands rust. They look cool but you gotta fix them after a while. Fertilizer really eats up steel). So here I am, oh, woe is me, a broken pot, a rusty stand, I’m in for a bad day. But, as is always the case, my problems are pale by comparison to the rest of the World’s. 

On the Tuesday, I learned of a friend’s passing. His name was Paul Katich, an American bonsai potter, bonsai artist. My Monday wasn’t so bad after all. His obituary, as they all do, leaves too many details about a man’s life, out. And I don’t know many of those details either. I only know what he did, which was excellent bonsai and bonsai containers, and the conversations and time I spent with him. And that’s what life is, spending moments and remembering those moments when, perhaps a shared joke, or a drink, or meal, make the loneliness that is the true reality of man, go away for a little while. And it’s those moments One should cherish. 

The last time I saw Paul and his beautiful wife Norine, who is always smiling, was at the 2017 Abs/Bsf convention in Orlando. But, because of a snafu that occurred with a scheduled teacher that didn’t make the seminar, I was suddenly occupied for the whole event, teaching four classes and giving a demo. The only words I spoke with him were the usual ones “Hey! How are you? How you been?”. I spoke with Norine a little more, she told me that Paul was just getting over a cold. She was always looking after him. Of course, I wish now I had spent more time with him at this convention, even just a short conversation over pots, but, as I thought, I was too busy. 

I remember a convention, this one was in Lake Mary Florida, several years ago. I was instrumental in finishing a bottle of Knob Creek Bourbon that Paul had brought along. We both got in trouble that night. That’s where I learned why it’s better to buy, and drink, good bourbon. 

I have a new student, his name is Evan. He is going to be a senior in high school next school year and he’s already thinking of college. What that means, if you are into bonsai trees, is that you can’t take them with you when you do go to college and stay in the dorm room. Bonsai don’t live very well in dorm rooms, as you may have known. Evan is so intelligent and has the forethought to understand this, a good two years away from his dorm room experience, that he reached out and asked, on the Bonsai sub on Reddit, for some suggestions as to what he should do. As usual, on any Internet forum, there were many a varied and convoluted bits of advice. Well, for my two cents, I volunteered to board his trees at my nursery in exchange for labor, like pulling weeds, carrying heavy things, etc. After some private messages, and asking his mothers permission, we came to an agreement. And now I have a student that comes once a week. He’s helped with unwiring and re-wiring, repotting, defoliating. And carrying heavy things too. 

How does that relate to Paul Katich? I let Evan choose a new pot for the ficus from above. Here’s some of the choices:  As I set Evan to work defoliating that ficus (it’s a ficus salicaria, btw, a willow leaf ficus)….. …let me show you the pots. 

First, these are all pots made by Paul. 

His building skills were near perfect….……just look at the lines of this round….……you could etch glass with it. His glazing skills were even better. 

Not only were the glazes interesting and unique, but if you liked a glaze on one pot but needed a larger or different shape, he could reproduce it. He took copious notes on the processes and recipes when he practiced pottery. He knew what worked and what didn’t. He made handbuilt, slab built, thrown, and pinch pots. Which is a rarity in today’s bonsai pottery scene. 

He used different clay bodies, washes, stains, and glazes in complementary and complex ways. 

And, most importantly, he shared what he knew without reserve. He wasn’t competitive. 

This was one of the first pots I got from him, I still love it and think it’s one of his most beautiful. It’s a wheel thrown round. One of his first. You can just see a few things off. The drain hole isn’t quit the perfect circle he achieved in his later works. The tiedown holes are a little small and not as numerous as on the later pots. And he just has a chop, he hadn’t started his signature FLA-USA with his catalogue number. The name, Bellota, came from Bellota Italy. He loved the area and loved the name. I believe the chop might be an acorn with leaves. It is the acorns in the region of Italy that are fed to pigs to produce a type of ham that rivals the Spanish or French cured hams. 

The number system on the bottom of the pots are how he kept notes. It allowed him to be able to look up the build and recipe specifics and be able to reproduce those effects on that specific pot. That’s the difference between a hack, like I would be, and a true master. And he was a master. This is him winning first prize for oval pots at the Third National Juried Bonsai Pot Exhibition at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, June 2015. He also won 2nd place for rectangles. 

The three pots that fit our poor ficus today are these:Evan didn’t know but I let him chooose which one we would use (well, I guided him a little). The funny thing is, his first choice was also his last choice. Here’s the tree in each pot. 

Those of you who follow me on all the socials, know which one we picked. The greenish blue one. 

I loved how many tiedown wire holes Paul began to put in his later pots. I’d like to think I influenced him in that way, we had a long discussion about it at one of the Joy of Bonsai shows one year. 

The reasons we chose this one were a few. The shape of the pot wall mirrored the trunk movement on the left. With this being an emergency repot, I wanted a deeper pot for the health of the tree. Lastly, the color complements the new, red growth of a willow leaf ficus. 

You chose well Evan. 

And now Paul. It’s hard to write this. I wish I had spent some more time with you. It’s always going to be that way. You were young, and your passing was and still is a surprise. I still have the dwarf acer rubrum you gave me. I’ll grow it out and cherish it. I have these too few pots to cherish. I have the memories, especially of the time right after I got out of the hospital the first time. I went to that years Joy of Bonsai, the one where they had the special benefit auction for me. The one where I got shocked looks from everyone because of how bad I looked. There were people who said I looked like I was dying. You didn’t treat me any differently. You just let me sit in your booth and we shared time. I can’t remember much of our conversation but it was a comfort. I remember that. Thank you for the time you gave me. I wish I had had some more time to give you. I won’t say Rest In Peace, because, even though you had had some challenges recently, you always seemed at peace, with a smile, a laugh, and a warm handshake. May your journey be one of delight, discovery, and creation. I truly feel for your wife and your family for the hole that your passing has left in their lives. I cannot imagine their pain. Thank you sir. 

In memorium:

Paul Katich, Bellota Pots: December 17, 1955-June 12, 2017

Posted in Art, goings, pictures | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Not your dad’s bonsai anymore

I wasn’t going to write a blogpost on this tree but, interestingly, when I posted it on the Socialmediaverse, I got a bunch of people asking me to do a write up. A ficus Benjamina.The weeping fig. It belongs to Cosette, who got it from her dad. My job is to style it so that Cosette likes it. At the moment she doesn’t.  As some of you may know, the ficus Benjamina is not a well liked tree in the bonsai scene in the West. Not talking about Japan, because there aren’t many Japanese nurseries that use any ficus (though Kimura has one) but in the East, it’s used extensively, especially the southeast Asian countries. 

In the West, I believe the contempt is two fold. Firstly, many people consider it an indoor houseplant. And once you describe a tree that can withstand being indoors,  there’s a knee jerk reaction against it (to explain what that means to the non Americans, knee jerk is referring to a reflexive response that has no thought, reasoning or even emotion behind it. It may have begun with those things but the response is now conditioned so that when one might say “hello” you reply “hi”). But there are many plants we use for bonsai that can be indoor plants. It’s usually the understory trees (meaning they grow under taller trees) that work best. A notable example: azaleas. Yup, the classically Japanese bonsai subject that usually ranks very high, if not at the top, in lists of the most beautiful bonsai in the world, can be grown indoors. 

The second reason people dislike Benjamina as bonsai is their propensity for dieback. This post will describe a technique for the proper pruning to minimize dieback. But to address the prejudice against Benjamina simply because of the dieback, let me give some examples of other, notable, bonsai subjects with significant dieback: maple species, bald cypress, pine, juniper, and several other species of ficus. Now, before you all get wrapped around the axle about me including pine and juniper in that list, I know what your arguemebt will be: one has to learn the proper pruning techniques when working with them. And I think I mentioned, about 60 words above, that there is a proper technique for pruning Benjamina. 

Amazingly, it’s very similar to how one deals with a juniper. 

First, growing tips are important. When doing a clean out before pruning, remove any interior branching and old or damaged leaves. But leave growing tips. On a ficus they’re called a stipule. Those are the pointy things at the base of the leaves on the above picture. 

These would be the interior leaves and branches to remove. They do nothing but take energy from the plant, being as they don’t get light, just like on a juniper. Get them outta there. 

There is an Achilles heel, much like spider mites on a juniper, that Benjamina have. They are the first to get a bug called a thrip. You’ll know it by the leaf folding in half. Prune off those leaves and treat with a systemic insecticide. 

Here’s the tree just about cleaned up except the top left. 

I can, for the sake of brevity of work, just cut out some of the branches I won’t use in the final design. The question now is, how does one do that to minimize dieback? 
Same as with a juniper. Cut to another branch with strong growing tips. 

Now to get rid of some larger branches. By leaving the strong growing tips, I’m not worried about any serious branch dieback. Time to do some chopping. 

Here’s where I get to brag a bit about the Benjamina. It heals wounds faster and better than most ficus. I’ll get to that in a minute. First though, a repot. 

That’s right, the good old reciprocating saw manuver. It’s one ficus I use it on when I need to reduce the root ball. 

If there’s one mark, one legacy I can impart on the bonsai world it is this:  Please untangle your ficus roots!On a Benjamina, which grows the best trunk and nebari without the need for grafting, it’s just a matter of straightening them, pushing the roots against the trunk, and tying then down. 

On the front of the tree you can see how well they fuse. It makes for a twisted and mature look on the trunk. 

I don’t like these crossing roots but I can’t do too much about them now. If I cut them out it would look terrible, they’ll flatten out in a shorter time than closing the wound from any editing I do. 


Tying down those roots. 

The systemic insecticide. 

Now, the fun part. Hee hee! 

To me, it looks like a scarecrow with those two heavy branches so close on each side of the tree. One has to go. Let’s chop of the left. 

 I’ll be using some duct seal on the wound, after some carving out of course. After the knob cutter. 

Get out the big gun. 

Smooth……ish. After the mini grinder and a sharp knife. The “eye” shape helps the sap flow better in order to heal the wound faster. 

Here’s are some other wounds I cleaned up as well. That grey putty is the duct caulk. 

How about some wire?

 This is the only big branch that needs moving. It’s in the back but it’s parallel to the trunk plane. Parallelism isn’t pretty. 

It needs to be more of a back branch. 

I’d say two of these will work. 6mm aluminium. 

Told ya’! My wife was skeptical. 

A couple more branches here or there….….only a couple…..

And we go from the scarecrow look….. Yes, that was the front. 

To a little more refined look. 

Structure instead of a bush. 

Look at the subtle trunk movement without that branch. 

Again, the before: 

And the after:

I’d like to see it in a more shallow, cream colored oval with a dark clay body. 

 I think I tamed the beast and, most importantly, Cosette, the owner, likes it now (sorry Cosette’s dad…). And, bonus, Cosette is a potter and is already thinking of a new pot for the tree. That is very gratifying. 

And with that, I think, my work is done. 

Posted in branch placement, progression, refine, roots, wiring | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments