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 , , , , , , , , | 4 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 , , , , , , | 5 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 , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

An unknown ficus, to me

Well, I’ve exhausted my research and I can’t find the name. It’s the subject of today’s post. Some of Florida’s best and brightest can’t find out the species so I think I’ll call it ficus “jim smithii” 

Since I can’t find the answers on the interwebd, let me find some more profound answers by working on the tree instead. Its ficus from the late, great Jim Smith, the quiet giant of Florida bonsai, who never spoke ill of anyone, followed his own path, stayed true to himself, and accepted others for their strengths and weaknesses. He was generous to a fault and had no jealousy. He wasn’t a saint, by any chance. He had enemies and rivalries, of course. But what he did, his actions, his generosity, the time he gave to others, that’s what people remember. 

And, of course, his bonsai are legendary. Not just the quality but the trees he introduced and made popular. There’s the portulacaria, the many ficus species, the propagation techniques and the styling. I’m probably laying it on thick but, well, he is still a big influence in Florida and tropical bonsai. Heck, there’s even a plaque in a museum in China commemorating his achievements in bonsai. 

What does all that have to do with this ficus?

 Well, it’s a species he brought into the bonsai scene in the USA and yet, he didn’t have an exact ID on it. He called it “ficus exotica”. Of course, we all know that the name “exotica” is already being used for a variety of Benjamina. This is clearly not a benjamina. Though it has dieback like one. But so does the salicaria. And, though it’s a similar leaf, it’s not a one or the “89” variety of the salicaria (willow leaf).  

The bark has the texture of a salicaria but the color of a microcarpa. Hmmmm….NFS? That means, Not For Sale. I got the tree from a friend and I tend to not sell those. 

The first work I need to do is to clean up all the crossing roots. Theyre pretty bad too. It was a cutting, I’m sure, and has probably been in a pot like this for 20 years. 

Let’s take it out of the pot and…….whoops!

Ants!Fire ants, specifically. Let me just get the hose and evict them. If there were more ants I might use an insecticidal soap but this is just a minor infestation.  There we go. 

Now, for some handy dandy tools, my trusty, homemade wire hook……

Some concaves

I’m not sure if they take as root cuttings but I’m sure going to try. Regular stem cuttings too, gotta keep the legacy going. 

Let’s get to the root of the problem….. WAIT! What’s that? Aha! A borer larvae, the bastard. It’s a juicy one too. 

Look at those teeth! 

Good and fat! You know what that means? Right, it’s gonna be dinner. 

No, not mine silly……watch! 

Borers are a big problem more south of me and on the coasts, but this winter was kinda warm and a lot of bugs that should have been killed by the cold, weren’t killed by the cold. So I’m seeing more aphids, thrips, and now, I guess, borers. Gotta be vigilant. 

Enough blood sport, back to work……
That’s the best I can do for the roots. It, like many ficus, doesn’t have many roots to work with. It’ll survive but it’s going to take a few years to really develop a nebari. And ficus do that best in a bonsai pot. 
Some soil….

And we are ready for pruning. 

This first one has to go. It’s coming straight out at you, way too low. 

Here are a few on the inside of a curve. 
Anyway, you know the drill…..gone


Too skinny too low. 

Here’s the tree after pruning. One thing (or two, if you’re counting it that way) I’m leaving is the double branch on the bottom left. It’s generally taught to beginners to have only one branch coming from one spot. But I need some visual weight there. It is the first branch and should usually be the heaviest. So sometimes two is better than one. 

So I’m keeping both, I’m going to wire them and let’s see what happens. Double the wire….

…..a little bending. 

Moving on up the tree…..

Some leaf and tip pruning. 

And finished, just about. 

From the side….

And the front. 

The tree, for being a lumpy chunk of wood, has pretty good taper. And the character! Damn that looks old. 
Let me make a few adjustments and……

TA DAA!!Not bad. I think the tree has a good start and a pretty good future. It has flaws, don’t we all, and scars…..and some history. And a tale that needs to be told over some beers. I’ll buy the first round……..see you at the bar. 

Posted in Art, branch placement, Horticulture and growing, philosophical rant, rare finds, wiring | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Some recent projects

If you’ve been following my social media exploits, you’ll recognize some of these trees. If not, why not? I’m twice as clever over on the Instabooks and the Face-a-gram,  not to mention I’m a big Twit when I tweet. 

Let’s introduce today’s cast of trees. 

Green island ficus on the left, winged elm on the right 

Ficus salicaria root cutting

Tiger bark ficus

And a ficus microcarpa (that looks like it’s being molested by Jose) 

Where to begin? Let’s start with the tiger bark…. It’s in an exceptionally shallow pot. The problem with that is it hasn’t grown in the two years I’ve had it (you can read about its beginnings in this post: Bonsai will be the death of me) after reading that you can see how little it’s developed. There were some branches that died back, and it put on new leaves and all, but not much in the way of serious growth. 

The solution:  a more reasonable pot depth. Although it’s obvious a ficus can survive in a pot like this (they can be epyphitic after all, most ficus are strangler figs) it’s not ideal for developing a bonsai. 

So, with that, pot #1  A blue glazed oval or, pot #2….

an older Japanese, unglazed green clay oval. Tough choice, right? 

Let’s look at the rootsNot bad, some fibrous. The soil mass was just about a half inch thick. 

The mix looks like a fine, unsifted mess 

See all the red sludge? That’s why you need to wash your scoria, it’s usually full of dust. Needless to say, I didn’t have to root prune much. But you’ll have to wait until the end to see which pot I chose. 

Next we have a winged elm (wanged elm, if you would) 

Kinda cool trunk, it’s actually a root cutting, 

Spread out the roots. 

One thing I’d like to mention, you don’t have to bareroot a tree the first time it goes into a bonsai pot. In fact, I’m with Boon, maybe remove only half of the old soil. My strategy is to begin with the old soil under the trunk base. That’s the critical area in the root zone of either being too wet or too dry. If you get a good mix in there first, it’s easy to replace the periphery. 

I love this pot, made by a Southwest Florida hobbyist, Lyn Baker. He’s very precise when calling himself a hobbyist too. Sometimes, the best art is created by those not interested in making a living at their art. There’s no compromise that way. When you start doing art for sale, you begin to tell yourself, this is the customers want it, it’ll sell, instead of doing what’s right for the piece. 

Looks good in it. Now for wire and……you guessed it, you’ll have to wait until the end. 

Next, a green island ficus. 

My usual technique, defoliate for growth and wiring ease. 

I leave the petiole intact of course. 

It has good branching already. Its new pot, a Japanese production pot. 

Some wire. 

On some places, I wire for better coverage of the wire, to decrease the possibility of breakage when bending. 

Some places I do it the “pretty” way, just to show I can. Bonsai critics are so mean, you know. Sniff…..

Wired about half way. 

Oh, before I wired, I dressed this chop mark….

The before…….basically, you take a sharp razor and score the edges of the wound. And you remove any decayed wood. 

Then, on this type of tree, with this large of a wound, I decided to cover it with that, oh-so-trendy material all the cool kids are using nowadays, duct caulk (or plumbers caulk, or electricians caulk. It’s easy to find, just go into the Home Depot and ask one of the workers, “hey, I’m looking to get my hands on some plumbers caulk. If you don’t have that, I’ve heard that electricians caulk is just as good for filling holes……..”) And…….of course you get to wait until the end for the finished tree. No scrolling down, I have a program installed that lets me know if you do, and I’ll ban you quick. 

For those curious, my new mix, as of today, is: red and black lava rock (scoria), calcined clay, expanded slate, pumice, and sifted, composted pine bark. The ratio is still 2:1:1:1:1 (the lava I count as one component). I call it the Red, White, and Blue SuperMix®. Look for it soon! 

Here’s the f. salicaria root cutting. In a pot. 

Now for the ficus microcarpa. The choices are,  this pot:

Or this one:

Here’s a look at its development from last year. 

I chose the unglazed rectangle. 

Jose wanted the blue glazed rectangle. Sorry pendejo. Ha hah! 

Now, for the reveals! 

Tiger bark ficus:I went with the deeper glazed oval. It needs the room to grow. No wiring yet, maybe in a month or so. 

Winged elm:I know, kinda odd, but wait until it fills in. 

Ficus salicaria root cutting:It’s going to stay just like that for a while. When I posted it on those social media sites, it was like the bonsai people turned into bonsai styling fascists. They insisted I cut it back to one or two branches, fit it into a mold, use a cookie cutter to make it look like they thought it should. So, in the spirit of discomfort and annoyance, I shall keep it as thus, for a while. 

Next, last, the cascade green island ficus:

I like this one best, it’s so unusual and the structure is complex, more than just a single cascading “tail”. The exposed roots, the angle of the potting and the front. Even the contrast between the refined pot and the wildness of the tree. 

I like it! 

I think the next post might hit on some more trident maple grafting. What do you think?

Posted in Horticulture and growing, maintenance, pictures, progression | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

But, but, but….are these bonsai? 

In all my trips across the Florida Panhandle, on I 10 in and around the Tallahassee area, I kept seeing this sign. Me, being the itinerant bonsai guy I am, had always driven by in order to get to the next club or client. But, with my last Gulf Coast tour, I had a little time, so I decided to stop on my way home. It’s in a little town called Cottondale. I made my way from the highway, it wasn’t too far. When I got there I was greeted by this-A “Wall of Bonsai”, one could call it. If you can’t see, they’re little junipers in plastic pots for $20. I posted the pic on the social media webs. Wow! All I can say is that it caused a bit of a stir. There were quite a few comments for and against. That’s what this post is about. 

Now, Bonsai by Dori is the name of the place. Dori is the owner, a lady, actually (all you gender and race assumers out there who thought it was an Asian gentleman, shame on you!) I asked permission to take pics, which was in February, 2017, explaining why some of the trees are not in full leaf or are looking sad. 

Legend has it that Dori used to travel around the South, stopping here and there to sell her wares, much like a missionary, but spreading the word of bonsai instead of Christ. Depending on who you talk to, her vehicle was an old station wagon, or a pick up truck with a camper in the bed, or even an old class C motor home.       An exposed root azalea….

Whatever vehicle she drove, it is said that she sold thousands of trees like this, setting up on the roadside, in the dust and heat of a Southern highway, proselytizing bonsai (and making a living too). Trident maple….

One could even call her a modern day Johnny Appleseed, but with junipers (Dori Junipertree?). There are probably many bonsai artists and practitioners who were inspired by this lady, and won’t admit it. There are probably countless others who’s interest died out when their tree died, much the same way that a man’s faith might have died out when those traveling, fire and brimstone preachers in olden times took down their tent and left a village for the next town over the hill. Bald cypress……

Well, one day, as is their want, and as the legend says, her vehicle broke down in, you guessed it, the sleepy community of Cottondale Florida. 

Exposed root azalea…..

Being the shrewd business woman she is, she decided to settle down and make Cottondale her home. Or maybe she was tired of the heat, the 7-11 hotdog lunches, the hot smell of asphalt wafting off the highway. Whatever it was that made her choose to settle, it’s gained her fame and infamy. And, like I said, a decent living. She probably makes more in bonsai than about 80% of the bonsai professionals out there. A mixed planting of juniper and elm and azalea…..

Her fame came from being the feature in Southern Living Magazine and various PBS programs and news stories. Schefflera….

Her infamy comes from that Wall of Bonsai and people in the know proclaiming that, no, Virginia, those aren’t really bonsai. 

But….in case my prose has been so scintillating and dazzling, and you’ve been just scanning over the pictures, you’ll see that she does have some “real” bonsai for sale. Ficus microcarpa….….with pretty cool trunk and roots. 

Now, I realize that many people will criticize her styling, or lack of, but I won’t. I prefer not to do that unless asked by the owner. I think that too many people believe that, because they have a platform, they have the right to voice their opinion. 

My main problem is in her pricing. Portulacaria…..notice the price. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t care how much she charges, the price of any article is whatever a person is willing to pay. I believe in the Free Market. And her customer base is different than mine. I cater to informed bonsai people who understand the time, work, and materials that go into building a bonsai (I’ve been criticized for my prices being too low and too high, go figure…). I might have a shohin willow leaf or elm that’s taken 10 years to get to where I want it and the price will be 2,3, or 4 hundred dollars for an inch trunk and less than six inches tall (there’s a joke there, I’ll leave it to you to figure it out) 


And I’ll have, right next to it, in a training pot, the same species of tree with double the trunk size for  $50. 

Bonsai trees are not inherently valuable. If we were to have a sudden Ice Age, they would be the first to go onto the fire because they require little work to chop them down for warmth (just a little axe and a mini lumberjack mud man yelling “timber”). 

And I don’t know what Dori’s overhead costs are either. She may only rent the land she’s on, she might be leveraged to the point of bankruptcy, she might have six kids (to my four) and they might be all boys, eating her out of house and home. Chinese elm…..wait! Thanks to Peter Bone, and upon some zooming in, I think this is a Chinese privet

But let’s look at the next tree, a trident maple-$225. Not a very impressive trunk, one chop almost 2/3rds up the trunk. Inexpensive pot, not bad ramification but not very much in the way of styling. It could be she paid $80-100 for the tree, then her price is kinda justified. But if she did, I think I might need to interview with her to be her purchaser, I could seriously cut her tree costs. 

It could be she’s had the tree for ten years and she’s adjusted the price accordingly. But, if she’s trying to sell trees, and I think she is, then having that one for ten years is a long time. Or, she could be pricing things so they don’t sell. I do that often. I’ll quote an outrageous price so the person looking at it just puts the tree down gently and goes to the next one. But I don’t think that’s the case, as there were several trees that weren’t for sale. Japanese black pine…..definitely for sale at $1195. Not a bad price really. Another mixed planting…I think she likes them as they tended to be more developed. It’s price is not bad either, $3800, for what it is and the quality of the trees. 

But….$395 for this S shaped Chinese elm? My criticism isn’t for how much the trees are, but for the inconsistency in the pricing. 

Case in point, a boxwood. You read that right-$950. And this juniper, with pretty well defined pads, a good three inch trunk, and adult foliage (procumbens nana, btw) at $210? I almost bought it. But I have three hungry boys to feed. 

Another boxwood…and another. Granted, they could have come from the hedge around her dear beloved Aunt May’s home that burnt down back in ‘o3, the familial homestead where generations of her kinfolk were born and died and all that, but,  by valuing these boxwood at these prices, which I (and any Floridian) can find in retail nurseries for $10-12 each (retail, not wholesale mind you) makes people wonder if those other trees, like the pines and azaleas, that are legitimately expensive, should really be that costly. Remember, bonsai have no real value. They are pretty and may provide some autoerotic inspirations to some bonsai guys out there (you know who you are!) but, like I said, come first snowfall….”Timmmmmber!” 

Let me finish by saying this: Bonsai by Dori is not a bad place. There are good trees there. There are bad trees there too. But, there are bad trees at every nursery, collection, and exhibit that I go to (some even win awards…..).  Bonsai by Dori has introduced bonsai to a good many people. Granted, mostly through these trees…….but, who really cares. She can sell things for whatever she likes, and if people buy them, it’s their money. And she even offers classes to help them care for them; most don’t bother to learn how, they think that they know how already, but that’s not Dori’s fault, she has healthy trees and knows how to keep them that way. 

Bonsai by Dori is good for bonsai. And it’s bad for bonsai. But so is Bonsai Mirai or, for that matter, Adam’s Art and Bonsai. Both of us give out a lot of info on bonsai but, Ryan Neal and I tend to be a bit more exclusive in our choice of customers. We have to be, we work hard building trees to a certain level of quality, we aren’t going to sell one for a boyfriend to give as a gift to his girl because he stayed out too late with the boys last Saturday night and may, or may not, have had a lap dance (even though there was glitter all over his pants…). The trees mean a lot to guys like Ryan and me. So when you call me up to visit my nursery, don’t be offended when I start pre-qualifying you before I invite you over. 

With that, wherever your talent and interest lie in bonsai, if you’re in the area, I suggest you stop by Dori’s place, you’ll learn something. Promise. 

Bonsai by Dori: 3089 Main St, Cottondale, FL 32431, not too far off I 10 

Posted in goings, philosophical rant, pictures, rare finds | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments