Social media bonsai hag

If you’ve been following the various social media platforms I subscribe to, I’ve posted a few pics of a celtis lævigata I collected a few years ago. My original intent was to chronicle the progression only on those sites by posting a photo every once in a while. Like this:  on March 7th, 2016 on Instagram. 

I had just potted it into bonsai soil and a training pot and added wire/pruned it.

Here it was ten days later.  

 Working on the tree just the other day, doing all the wiring and defoliating, and pruning, I realized that my audience really wouldn’t learn anything from simple progression pics spaced out with weeks between them. I made a commitment when I started the blog that I was not going to just show before and after pics of near finished trees. If I did that, it wouldn’t differentiate me from most of the Professional’s blogs out there. People appreciate the step-by-step pics with the “why” explained. It’s gratifying to receive all the comments and emails thanking me for that. 

Sooooo….let me continue, a month or so into the process, here’s our celtis now.  

 At this point in the spring, the leaves have hardened off (mostly) and it’s not likely to grow much more, for at least a month, when the summer rains begin (the old adage about April showers bringing May flowers…..doesn’t apply to Florida. Spring is warm and dry, it’s really a tough month for bonsai. I know, I know, as I write this, mid-April, there are places where the leaves haven’t even broken bud. I was up in Tallahassee the other day and some of the winged elms were just popping. This brings the most important point up, namely, bonsai horticulture is mainly timing. When to repot, when to trim pine candles, when to prune junipers, when, when, when? Timing mainly has to do with where you live. The main idea of this long, rambling aside is that what I’m doing now is correct for the Orlando Florida version of zone 9 a/b. It might not be for the New Orleans version of zone 9. And that’s a fact, Jack. Seek out local bonsai people for the correct timing. Books and..ahem, blogs, are generalized and not much use.) 

Way back on March 7th, I had wired up some branches. 

When people ask me how long the wire should stay on, I always answer: “Well, it needs to stay on as long as it needs to”.  That’s not me being sarcastic, that’s being dead serious. Example, it’s been a month with this wire on and it needs to be removed. If I put it on in November of last year, it would need to come off now. One month compared with 5 months.  The growth rate is what determines the time frame. Anyway, it needs to come off now.  

It also looks like I need to do some bug killing. 

 I have anothe southern hackberry that needs to be perfect in about month and a half for the Bsf convention.  

 You’ve seen it before in this post. And just like today’s tree, it had humble beginnings.  

 And I treated it just like I’ll be treating our current victim.  

 First step, remove the wire and defoliate the inner leaves.  You’ll notice the wire scars, don’t worry, this tree will grow them out.  

Clip clip clip.

 I normally wouldn’t do a total defoliation at this time because the tree just used a lot of sugar reserves (energy) growing all the new foliage and branches. By performing a partial defoliation and keeping some leaves and growing tips intact, I’ll be able to jumpstart a second growth spurt. I’ll also be fertilizing and watching the watering too. Disclaimer! Don’t do this on a sick or weak tree, a steak dinner and heavy exercise is not good advice for a sick man, or a tree for that matter. Fertilizer forces the tree to use energy it might not have, to grow, and cutting off all the leaves or branches (how plants make food) make for a serious one/two punch that could kill your tree. 

This isn’t a weak tree.  Now…..where’s my bucket of wire? Not here…….damn, it’s in the wife’s car. 

 I drove it up to Tallahassee for a workshop and I’ve been lazy and haven’t cleaned it out for her. 

No worries, I keep extra wire under my work table. In case you were wondering what’s under there, here’s a peek. That’s where I keep my best scotch too.  


Wire. It seems I have every color aluminum except pink.



 Purple, black, orange. 

I really need the pink wire…..

What matters is that I have 1mm, 1.5mm, 2mm, and 2.5mm. Who cares what color it is. No ones gonna see it. Well, except for the several thousands who’ll read the blog I guess. 

My one dilemma is whether or not I should keep this branch.   It’s coming right off the front of the tree, which is a no-no in the bonsai circles I frequent. 

You know what? I’m keeping it. They don’t call me an iconoclast for nothing.   “Hey, there goes Adam, smashing religious images and being generally iconoclastic and stuff…”

On the top branching, where the wire was cutting in, if you wrap the wire the opposite way it was going……  ……and you let it cut in again, you’ll get two results. The bark will get chunky faster (healing causes faster growth in that area) and the spiral scar will be less conspicuous and blend in. 

Before branch placement- 

And after-  

Side views-   

  Many people say that this styling technique prematurely places branches before the primary branches are thick enough. What I say is, “This is a tree that we have to look at, why can’t it have a canopy that looks like a tree? You do know that it will still develop the thickness it needs in time anyway, why are you so worried that I’m not doing it your way?”  The truth is that any growth thickens a branch, not just using sacrifice or escape branch techniques. People get into bonsai to have a tree to look at.  


 That flip is called “the Puerto Rican top”. You take the top, apical branch, and bend it down as a side branch and leave a bud on the top of the curve.  

 And then continue building the top from there.   

The birds eye view really shows the placement of the branches and which ones I left long to help aid them in grow faster.    

Now it just needs about a month and I’ll  update again. Here’s a vision of what I think it might look like.   Something like that. That might be a little too pine tree-ish. That’s okay though. I’m not a stickler for species style purity like some of our other bonsai brothers are. Some of those guys are almost totalitarian in their pronouncements that trees must be styled the way they grow in nature. If we followed that rule, seriously, a black pine would look like a bush. So would a juniper, unless you were using a Juniperus virginiana, the red cedar, which is one of the only tree type junipers out there. 

Perspective, my friends, take a step back and think; art is not absolute. If it were, we’d all still be painting animals on cave walls by firelight, eating worms and wearing mangy animal pelts. 

Speaking of mangy, my pal Seth posted a virtual on Facebook of a willowleaf he’s been working on.  Here’s the tree.  

Here’s his virt.   

Me, being the show off I am, posted this pic.   I, of course, picked on him and offered my artistic services, for a fee. That got us talking about art and I called him the ultimate put down, a “Permanent Intermediate”. To clarify, it is those same  P.I.’s that denied the Impressionists entrance into the Salon and caused them to create the Salon des Refusés of 1863. 

So, to annoy him further, let’s take a poll (that’s what she said): who likes my virtual better than Seth’s? Remember, I have the power to delete all comments I don’t agree with. So I expect to win. Sorry Seth. Doesn’t look good for you. 

One last look at the hackberry (or Sugarberry or southern hackberry, celtis lævigata).  

 It’s called hackberry because a mature tree will develop wart-like growths on the bark, like on an old hag. Which now explains the title of the blog. 

Look for updates soon! 


Posted in branch placement, styling bonsai, wiring, yamadori | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Ficus, me matey!

 Uh oh, I’m doing it again. Look what I’ve done gone and found: 


Before we begin, click here for the soundtrack. No, really, you’ll be amused. I need to make more YouTube videos, you can actually make money on those.  

 Anyway, we have a not-so-average “ginseng ficus” from one of the big box stores, I’m sure you can figure out which one by the color. This one doesn’t have that obnoxious root system most examples have. 

 It’s a perfect candidate for what we westerners call the “sumo” style. With some mods of course but, then, I’ll get to that in a bit. That’s kinda what the post is about.   

The two ugliest roots are here.   

This one happens to be a grafted foliage version.   But It seems as if they just grafted the same leaf as the rootstock. 

Here’s the grafted foliage.  Which looks like retusa to me. 

And here’s some original foliage.   It looks identical to me. We shall see in a few months, after it’s  grown out some. I may have to do grafting of my own if not, because I’m using the grafted foliage this time. Usually I remove it because trunk development goes better with the rootstocks original foliage. I’d put the tree in the ground or a big pot and let it mature for a few years. But this trunk is just about the way I want it. I don’t even want aerial roots. 

Let’s test the theory that glued rocks don’t let water penetrate into the soil.  

Seems to go right through.  Busted! Damn, that’s one I would use all the time. 

 But let me show you this. If you buy one of these (and don’t do any of the harsh and mean things your about to see) you at least need to fix this problem. There’s not only one pot,   nor two,   

but three pots here. And the last one isn’t really a pot. 

Hey, lookie here, a care card. Let’s read it and have a laugh.  

 Aha! That’s what I’ve been doing all wrong. It’s a houseplant! u/small_trunks over in Reddit is fist-pumping right now, drinking his Belgian beer in Amsterdam, saying “Told you so, you wanker!” 

What does the other side say?  There’s one of those QR code thingies. I don’t understand the point of those. Let’s put some vital info about the tree you might need to keep it alive and require you to have an electronical device to decode it. It’s probably just an advert anyway- buy more crappy ficus from us!Let’s see: Water well, but let dry? Not with a ficus. It should read: Keep uniformly moist. 

Fertilize when growing…..makes sense there. 

Don’t set on fire….good advice. Keep between 50 and 85f, those temps are outdoor temps because no one keeps their house below 50f or above 85f. Except my wife’s grandmother.  Useless info. 

Getting back to the pot situation, the decorative one doesn’t have a drainage hole. 

Which makes it useless for our purposes today. 

 Ok, yeah, I paid $19.98 for it. I know, I know, I could get this wholesale from China for about .50¢ (if I buy a thousand or so) or I could get them from an importer for about $5 each (minimum order of $500) or from a wholesale bonsai nursery for about $12 ($250 minimum), but then I’d have a whole bunch of ugly “ginseng” ficus I didn’t get to choose. 

And I wouldn’t get this neat beverage holder as a bonus.   

Now that I have some ice cold libations to lubricate the process, let’s get to work, it’s Hammer Time! Someone once asked how to remove the rocks. I replied: a hammer. I wasn’t lyin’  

Damn that’s terrible soil.  It’s so fine I could snort it. I might actually have. I’m not telling. 

In a container, even if it’s not a bonsai container, the soil needs to be a more coarse with more air pockets. Soil this fine doesn’t allow for proper oxygen exchange to the roots. No wonder these “bonsai” die so much. Add that to a pot with no holes. Poor trees.  Let’s wash off that nasty dirt. 


Damn that’s one big root.  It’s like the John Holmes of ficus.   I’m almost uncomfortable touching it. Ok, sorry for that image. Here’s a worse one, especially if you’re a male reader. Time for some “root” pruning.  

It’s almost like cutting a sweet potato.  

 Don’t worry about the lack of fine roots.   At this point in its life, a ficus is more of a caudiciform, instead of a tree-iss-a-form. It can survive with little to no soil. Often they are even epiphytic, germinating in trees (the seeds having passed through the digestive tract of various animals) and becoming “strangler figs”, throwing long aerial roots down in reach of the earth.

We want radially dispersed roots though, so, by making a small cut or two,  

  We can encourage them to emerge from those cuts.  You’ll notice I cut the end of the root off as well. Roots are much like branches, if you prune them, they will “backbud”. Roots aren’t really buds but the concept is the same. 

Before I pot it…. 

It will be easier to clean up that clumsy graft if I can hold it in my hand.  

Using a fine saw and a sharp knife….   ….I cut out the dead material in the wedge that was left after the clefts were cut for the scion insertion (that would be a cool band name, The Scion Insertions)  


Now I’m ready for the pot.   

And the real fun begins.   I don’t really have all the branches I need for a good representational styling, but I’ll make do. 

Again, like in the last post, I’ll be doing a partial defoliation.  On the side branches I cut the terminal bud. 

On the apical shoot, I’m leaving the terminal bud. I want the energy to channel into growing the top trunk thicker.  I’ll let it grow several feet. It’s called, variously, a sacrifice, an escape, or a running branch.  

Some wire.    

And that’s the first shaping.  I left that first branch on the right a bit long, same principle as the escape branch. 

It’ll be shortened here eventually.  

In fact, let me just doodle a bit and show you how I would like it to grow. This is a good structure.   

Add some foliage.   

A blue pot, oval.  Some moss too, because people like moss.  

Maybe a little more foliage on the left, with the roots flattened out with age.  

Yeah, now that will be a respectable tree. I expect it’ll take about five years to mature, especially the trunk. The branching will be there by the end of the summer I suspect (it’s April now). I’ll update as it develops.

So, like I’ve said in previous posts about the “ginseng” ficus (I put the word ginseng in quotes because there isn’t a real species or variety called ginseng. Almost all figs will form these tuber like root structures when they are grown from seed), in order to find a good one, you have to pick one out that has a real trunk-like quality to it. 

 Next up is a sweet ficus I got from Old Florida Bonsai a few years ago and am finally doing the initial styling. 

If you are anywhere near Tallahassee on Sunday, April 10th (2016)  I’ll be at the Tallahassee club leading a workshop. And on April 17th I’ll be in Deland at Schley’s Bonsai for Jason’s annual spring open house. I’ll be doing a shohin willowleaf ficus workshop in the morning a demo in the afternoon. Did I mention free beer? Check out his website for details. See you there!


Posted in branch placement, rare finds, styling bonsai, wiring | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Time of the ficus

 I’m taking a break from the broad leaf and starting with some tropical bliss, which could be read a few different ways. But what it means is, are you ready for some ficus? How’s this for growth? 

 Talk about huggie-branches, that one on the right was scratching my back. The one on the left is pretty long too.  
 Reach out and touch someone (that used to be a telephone company’s slogan. Sounds kinda creepy nowadays). The tree is a ficus microcarpa.   The leaf is about full size here. With proper cultivation, we can get the leaf size down to about the thickness of one of my fingers, or maybe a little more.  I got the tree from my bud Ronn at a convention about three years ago (Blog post here)

It has a nice trunk and that’s why I bought it.  Almost a classical banyan.  

One problem, though, is this excessive bit of negative space.  I’ll have to do a “comb over” to fill it in. 

The tree has pushed new growth in all the right places, maybe too much in some.  

First order of business is to remove all those unwanted branches and then perform a partial defoliation (gasp! Oh the horror!).  

Damn, I have a knick in these scissors. What did I cut?    Oh well, I’ll have to sharpen that out. Not now though. Too much work. 

Here’s the tree trimmed.  

Next, defoliation.   I understand that this method of development is suddenly being scrutinized by some of the young (or not so young) Bonsai Professional’s out there. This is what I have to say about it. 

The horticulture supports both the idea of defoliating a tree to stimulate growth and by keeping the leaves on a tree to preserve strength and, therefore, stimulate growth. Let me explain. 

The new thesis is that, by defoliating a tree, the tree then has to use energy to replace those leaves. (Think of a tree as an organic, solar energy collection unit).  The tree only needs so many square inches of leaf surface to collect the solar output.  If you suddenly remove all the leaves, the plant must replace those leaves as fast as it can because it cannot make new energy until it has new leaf surface to collect the Sun’s rays. If you only knew this about trees, one can extrapolate that removing leaves is a bad idea. It slows growth and stunts development.  Right? 

The antithesis is the idea that defoliation spurs new growth and develops a tree faster. At the base of the petiole (the branch’s stem) there is a dormant bud.    But, by removing that leaf, the new leaf will begin growing. This is the result of hormones that are doing nothing except waiting for some kind of vegetative change. Like trimming or, ah, defoliation. The trick to defoliating is you have to do it at the right time. With the ficus we are working on, defoliation is performed in the growing season. I’m doing it now (April first), but on last year’s leaves. The tree will respond with new, more efficient leaves very quickly. I’ll repeat that, last year’s leaves are not as efficient as new leaves might be. The reason is that they may have suffered damage (mechanical, cold, insect) or they are at the beginning the molting process anyway, meaning that the bond between the branch and the petiole is beginning to sever. Deciduous trees drop their leaves in the autumn and grow new ones in the spring. And then will drop them in the summer months (not all at once like in autumn but gradually depending on the available water and if the temperature causes heat dormancy)  On broadleaf trees they will drop old leaves at the beginning of spring and, like the deciduous trees, again during heat dormancy. Hmmmmmn. Seems like these are the best times to defoliate too, according to the pro defoliation camp.  

Other good times to defoliate? How about when repotting broadleaf evergreens? We do it then to reduce transpiration (how a plant moves water from bottom to top). Basically: there are holes in leaves (stomata) that water is expressed through and evaporates. When you cut roots (those organs which collect water) transpiration still happens. The tree will dry out faster without roots and, guess what, those leaves will fall off anyway. If you cut the leaves off as you repot, the tree doesn’t waste energy or water. There are exceptions to this like boxwood or dwarf jade, etc. but the general principle applies. 

I could go on but to say that defoliation is a no-no is right and wrong. 

I’m getting back to the tree.  

When pruning our microcarpa, be a little more studious with your cuts. 

The cut above is plain sloppy.  You’ll end up with a dead twig. 

This is better.  

With all the talk of defoliating, I’m leaving a leaf (I crack myself up whenever I say that, sorry) on the terminal bud of each branch.  This will act like a siphon, pulling the energy up our branch and developing it quicker (it’s a hybrid methodology, which I do all the time, and if you don’t believe me, read back in the blog, you’ll see). 

Now, wire. 

 Here’s a quick course on anchoring multiple branches. 

This branch could be wired with one big wire. But, as we all should realize, a branch with multiple wire on it both is easier to bend and gives more support when bending, reducing the possibility of breakage. It’s not pretty, but it’s effective. And I have three more branches that need wire and, therefore, anchoring. So there’s three on this, the thickest branch. It’s the anchor branch. 

I go from it to this branch. 

And then, again, from it:  

To this one:  

And, thirdly, from it:  
To this one here:  

And to reinforce the concept, I wired from this branch:  

To this one: 

The one thing you need to learn is how many wires it takes to hold a branch after bending. That knowledge comes, ultimately, from experience and tactile manipulation of the branch. There are general rules of thumb but each tree, even each limb on the same tree, is different. 

So, I figured out that the first branch needed at least three #3 wires to hold. It is an older branch and more stiff than the other branches, which only needed one wire, albeit they are maybe half the size. Ya’ dig? You need to get your hands on trees and start wiring and bending. 

Speaking of which, the tree.  

Ultimately, it will go in a shallower, wider pot.  

And we are assuming that it will live, so, leaves.  

 Maybe not a green pot.  

 That might work. 

The next tree on the chopping block is another ficus, exciting, ain’t it? And I’ll deal with those knocked scissors too. 

Before I end the post, I have a few questions. 

If I were to offer Skype-style training sessions, is there any interest? How about virtual stylings à la the above pic? Or even hand drawn sketches? 

The reason I ask is that not everyone can afford to bring me in to their hometown for a private session (though I am still available for those) but would like some time with me. Skype, or FaceTime or something like that might just be the solution. Let me know what y’all think either in the comment section or send an email to Thanks!



Posted in Advanced basics, branch placement, Horticulture and growing, progression, updates, wiring | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Picking a pot

I posted this pic on social media a few days ago with the question-“Which pot?”

 Oh-boy oh-boy did everyone have an opinion. I already had a pot picked out for it but I thought I’d have some fun reading the responses.  

 The pot it’s in is obviously wrong for it. You first saw this tree in This post two years ago and I explained why I was using it. Here’s how it looked then. 


Here’s was my virtual scribble.   

When I potted the tree two years ago, I did say it needed a smaller and shallower pot. Now is the time. 

First pot, a contemporary (but probably ten year old) Chinese pot, in a glaze they (they being the potheads of the bonsai world…..and regular potters too, or ceramists to be more precise, because those who play with clay make things other than pots, you know,like coffe mugs and tea cups and plates and stuff) call: namako. 

 I’m thinking, actually, that all three pots are namako (these links are blogposts from Peter Tea and Ryan Bell respectively, Here and Here, that explain what “namako” is, way better than I can, and makes me think so).  Namako has brown, blue, and white in various stages of dominance depending on the clay body and the application of glaze. 
They all seem to have it.   

The first pot, the dark oval, is actually my favorite namako manifestation.  

 To me, it looks like the night sky, like one is gazing into the infinite measure of space (namako actually means “sea cucumber-ish” amazingly. Maybe the old Japanese potters didn’t look up into the depths of night much, being busy playing with mud and all). 

I would love this pot for this tree except for two reasons. It’s too shallow and the drain holes are too small.  I’m still thinking on it though. I do tend to use a very coarse soil mix…….


The next pot, the bright blue one, has good drain holes. Not the best but they are better placed. 

 It’s even a Japanese pot, I think: it has the higher quality clay I associate with Japanese production pots, and it has a chop too.  


There’s even a bit of patina with this pot. I’ve used it before.  

Patina? What’s that. Well, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines patina as:

“a : a usually green film formed naturally on copper and bronze by long exposure or artificially (as by acids) and often valued aesthetically for its color”

And, since we aren’t dealing with bronze or copper, we go with definition “b”

“b : a surface appearance of something grown beautiful especially with age or use” 

“Grown beautiful….with age or use” basically means: dirt and grime buildup from being used (for a long time) as a bonsai pot. (Here’s something funny to ponder: the word “patina” comes from Latin meaning “a shallow tray or dish”. Ironic, since I’m talking about patina on a bonsai pot, which is a shallow tray or dish. And to tie it all together, the antique Chinese bronze incense burners (remember definition “a” above) were some of the first shallow bonsai containers. It’s almost like the whole history of the bonsai pot is interconnected, or some mystical thing like that. Which illustrates the concept of Synchronicity, just for Seth.).  Anyway, we try to make our trees look old. With our pots, it’s also a desirable thing for them to be old, or appear to be old. Age and provenance are things that are revered in Asian cultures. But our second pot, to me, might be too bright and clean for this tree.  


Let’s look at the third pot.  

 Yeah, it is chipped. But look at that color!  It looks like a retreating wave, a cleansing wash, the descending firmament. And, yes, it has patina.  

 Not like a ninety year old pot (or my hand up there in the corner)  but nice. And it has the biggest drain holes yet.    Very important for our ilex. Before I choose the pot, let’s get the tree ready and then look at it in sitting in the pots.  

From bush-


To trim- 

 Hmmmmnnn……lookie here:  I was pretty close! Let’s look at the roots.   


Looking good.  


Not pot bound yet so I’ll be gentle.   

Ok, let’s look at the tree in each pot.  

Bright blue rectangle:

 I could use this one, it’s not bad. 

Dark night sky oval: 

 It also could work. Maybe not. 

Next up. 

 Yes. I like it. The blue is muted, the chips on the rim are in the right spot and add to the overall composition (I’ll get hell for them anyway, too bad). Some people were saying the tree needed an oval pot but I think the tree is very masculine, so a rectangle works.  


Some tie downs, some soil, a stand to make it pretty. 

I don’t have any moss but you can use your imagination for that. 

Feel free to give your opinions, you can call me stupid, or blind, or delusional, or crazy….they will all be published (well, all except political, religious, and bonsai soil opinions. Nobody ever agrees on those subjects.). I’m liking my choice and it’s my tree and my blog, so there. You do have to admit that the tree looks good though. I think it’s ready for show. 

Posted in Art, philosophical rant, refine | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Some more ilex? Why not?

So, my friends, you are wondering what’s going to happen to that stumpy ilex I left you with in the last post.  


I gave you a not-so-precise idea in a virtual scribble and a possible future for the tree.   

 Which could happen, I can see a very tight, sumo style tree there. Else I wouldn’t have drawn it that way.

 But the knowledge of how it could grow has come from the experience I have working with this species. You can say that I have a certain obsession with the Schillings holly. Let me share with you some of the growing secrets I’ve learned, which, amazingly, are applicable to other trees as well as the ilex vomitoria. 

Here’s an ilex that’s ready for its initial potting that I can teach on. 


It has a fat base and excellent taper.  

 It was a tree that grew in a hedge at Rollins College here in the Orlando area. The groundskeepers were removing them and a CFBC club member, Alan (who is the greenhouse manager there) rescued several of the bigger ones. This being one of them.  

 He potted them up and, after a few years,offered them to the club for demo purposes. That’s where I come in.  

 The CFBC then had me do a demo on two of them. My friend Juan won the tree in a raffle and was so happy…. 

 ….he did a little dance. 

Here’s the sad part, Juan passed away very suddenly a few years ago and his widow, Barbara thought I should take the tree. I have several of Juan’s trees and I am developing them to the best of my abilities.

 I am glad to. They will never be for sale either. 

Back to our subject, the ilex demo went almost identical to the “masterful styling” I did on the ilex from the last post. I didn’t lie, they grow back with serious intent.  

 I’ve had the tree those two years and I think I’ve trimmed it, majorly, about 10 times. It almost seems like the tree is set on overdrive if you prune it often. 

The ilex vomitoria “schillings” variety is a sport of the male I. Vomitoria. Which means that one branch, on one tree, so long ago that no one has put the story on the internet yet, started growing in an accelerated but dwarfed habit. Imagine a 15 foot tree with a tuft of schillings bush growing off the side. They sometimes call that a witches broom. Something, maybe a bacteria or a virus, caused the DNA to shut off some genes or activate others and create the bushy dwarf tree I so enjoy for bonsai. 

 You can see the original chop marks from the CFBC demo, in red.  

 One thing I’ve learned working with these trees is that the best way to get branches where you need them is to leave stumps (or knobs, as John from Facebook wanted them to be called. I think he just wanted me to say I was playing with big knobs) when you prune off big branches. Let me explain. 

Here’s a typical tree (this technique I’m illustrating will work for many, if not most trees)  

 My crudely sharpened pencil point is indicating what is called the “branch collar”. When pruning a bonsai with concave cutters, we tend to remove the branch collar because we think we need a flat or slightly indented cut.  

 And sometimes that is exactly what we want. But….BUT…if you want a new branch to grow, leave a stub. Like so:

 What will happen is you’ll get a new bud (and  therefore a branch) close to that spot (usually under it). The reason one cuts off heavy branches like this on an ilex is easy to explain: the branches, once grown to a certain thickness, just won’t bend or, are so brittle, they’ll just snap if you try to bend them. 

And here’s proof from our tree today that leaving an intact branch collar causes new buds to form around it.   

  The branch collar is actually the node (from whence new buds form). 

Like I said, I’ve had to remove a lot of branches, so what you’re seeing is the result of choosing the strongest of all those shoots. But now it’s time to pick a front.  
 I like this one. I hope it works. I haven’t seen what’s under that soil.  

 Or dirt, really.  

 The roots aren’t bad. I’ve seen better though. Good roots come from good, granular soil. 

Gently, gently, I tease out the old soil.  



 I don’t like this. There’s a huge root mass under the surface roots. 

 Not good for putting the tree into a shallow pot now, is it?

  I guess there’s a reason I have these heavy duty root pruners. 

Let’s get to work.  Chop, chunk, gouge, chunk…….

30 minutes later……


That’s about as good as I can do at this time. 

 It should be good for now. It’s only going into a training pot.  


And, technically, it is shallow enough to fit into a properly proportioned pot.  


Which means the pot should be as deep as the trunk’s thickness. I think I have something that will work.  

 I think I’m cookin’ with gas now. Some soil.  

 I mentioned earlier that the branches tend to be brittle on an ilex. That is very true, unless you let the new branches grow without trimming. Once you begin trimming the ends, instead of pushing length, the tree starts to lignify that branch, making it more brittle as a result. 

So the whole lesson here is to cut the big branches and make sure you wire the new ones before they get too brittle. 

Which means that, here, today, in this place, in The Nook, it is time to wire.  

Ok, after I trim back the knobs with my spherical knob cutter. 

Better. Now it’s time to wire.  

 It’s a little weak on the right but it will fill in fast. Watch social media for progress and I’ll update here in a few months. 

Posted in branch placement, rare finds, refine, roots, styling bonsai, wiring | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Holly, times three

  I ain’t never seen a bush so full that needed trimming like this one. That’s an epic bush. A biblical bush. Like out of the 70’s/early 80’s. Wowser! 

How’s this one?  

 This one is sparse but still full. Def in need of some grooming too. 

 And then this one: 

 it’s all spiky and weird. Modern, with an amateur feel to it. 

Joking aside, today you’ll be seeing three different holly trees, for your amusement and peruse-ment. Let’s begin with the first one, an ilex crenata “soft touch”.  

 The foliage is very much like my favorite holly, the dwarf yaupon (which is tree number two above) but it’s leaf is more of a chromium oxide green than the Hooker’s green of the yaupon. And the leaf has more of that curved quality most most hollies have.  

It’s a slow grower too. It took me years to find a trunk like this in a nursery. 

And I actually found three with decent shohin sized trunks with good taper. 

It is considered a Japanese holly but not the usual deciduos one we see all the time with those awesome red berries (which is ilex serrata).  

 This cultivar, “soft touch”, grows like an i. Vomitoria “schillings” though. Look at those branches! Day-um. And this was at a wholesale liner nursery! Hard to believe. 

I’m not really sure how well this variety will respond to bonsai techniques but, using reasoning and logic (I know, I know, where has that gotten me in the past? Remember when I said it was foolish to use copper on ficus because you’d be removing it in a month? Yeah, that bit of logic got me in big time trouble…..) it is safe to say that this tree will respond to pruning, else it wouldn’t be sold as a hedge plant. Sooooooo……just a little pruning…..but first, I’m hoping the roots can handle some cutting too. And if I kill it, I have those  two more left .  

Let’s see the root ball…

 Not bad. Lots of good feeder roots. This is a good start.  

The “nebari”, such as it is, needs some cleaning up. 


That’s better.   Not really but it’s as good as it’s going to get. I’ll pot it up here I think.  
 That should help it. 

Turning to the top, I think I’ll reduce it a bit to make it easier to move around.  

 I’m thinking a little off the top.  


Good. Getting there.  

 Now, many people would stop there. Not me. You know me. If you are plant butchery averse, divert your eyes and scroll down quickly.  


And more.  

Uh oh….  


 I know it seems brutal but it’s necessary. And I’ve discovered some more trunk it seems. 

And it does have to fit in a bonsai pot after all. This is a bonsai blog. 

  A little wire, some soil and…. Ready for my close up Mr. DeVille!
I’m hoping this survives the treatment. Really. I’m pretty sure it can handle the top pruning; that whole hedge thing. It’s the root pruning in worried about. I’ve handled several types of hollies but not a crenata yet. We shall see. 

To sooth those traumatised by that last tree, let’s work with the ilex cornuta next, a Chinese holly.  

 This is an interesting (to me and a few I’m sure) specimen for this type of tree. It, too, is a very common hedge plant (usually planted where you wish to keep people out of, like under windows and such), so the trunks tend to be, well…trunk like. This looks to me like it could possibly be a root cutting even. Don’t ask about the pot, I was traded this plus a few other trees for some more finished bonsai. I think the pot came from a thrift store. With the right tree it could be a masterpiece work of ceramic. 

I do have experience with this variety of ilex. I won’t defoliate fully and I’ll keep green tips. It likes to shed branches and I don’t have many to lose.  

 They call it’s Chinese holly, and the binomial name (ilex cornuta) means horned holly.  

 These leaves above, with their vicious spiky thorns on the margins, are the origin of that name. Merciless. If you compare the last two pics you’ll notice that the tree can display two types of leaves. If you let it grow the less mean-looking leaves will present. If you’re trimming often you get the evil ones. It might be a defensive response, but I’m not sure. They will reduce in size by about a half if you keep up the trimming and increase ramification enough.  

This is why I think it’s a root structure in working with. 

 The normal habit is a thick, mostly straight trunk.   

 I like this, it’s very twisty and skeletal. 

As much as I like the pot it’s in, I’ll need to change it.  


I don’t have the pot I want so I’ll use a terra cotta pot for training purposes.  

 You’ll notice the extra drain hole on the side, this is called an azalea pot, which need good drainage. The holly will benefit from this as well, they are water-wise plants. 

It has good roots, very fibrous, and it’s in good bonsai soil too. 

It needs an angle change.  
 Oh yeah. Let’s get it moved. 




Pruning and wire  Pretty neat. 

Next: the big boy.  This one is full of fire ants. I hate fire ants.    All those red/orange specks are ants.  They had a veritable colony in the roots of this tree. Some liberal spraying of napalm and a lit match later…….actually, just insecticidal soap is all I used to kill them.  They may seem like super-ants, being able to build living bridges and floating ant islands and all, but, individually, they are just as fragile as you and I. If an ant colony goes to war, it’s only strategy is attrition. When they run out of the poor workers, the queen loses. There’s a lesson there. Anyway, die fire ants, die!

This tree looks like it’s been worked on before.   

As verified by the wire still on it.   

The base is over eight inches wide.   

It, too, was part of that trade.   

I think I might have come out on top. It just needs a little trim….. 


Some root work.   

I’m thinking a deep-ish training pot.   

Maybe a little more rootwork.   

And that’s it.   Well, fertilizer, water and sun and all that. 

So now you are wondering “Uhhhh…..What the hell?” Right? 

Well. The second holly will be the quickest to look like a bonsai. It’s easy to see where it’s going.  

 Semi cascade. Crescent pot. Easy to see. 

The ilex “soft touch” has a rudimentary structure.   Here’s a somewhat accurate idea of what I think it will turn out like-with proper branches and all that.   

And lastly, but not least-ly, the chunky beast. 

This next virtual future is totally fictional. The extrapolation is really only based on where I left the stubs.  
The pot will be smaller, of course.  

 But it’s a few years from that. 
The new branches will explode from many varied places all over this ilex. It’ll look like a bush again in no time. 

And just to show that I know what I am talking about with ilex, here’s a pretty one I just cut back for the spring.  

It’s a shohin, only about 7″ tall. The pot is a Taiko Earth by Rob Addonizio. 

I’ll provide updates for y’all as the trees grow. Or die. See you later. 

Posted in Horticulture and growing, rare finds, redesign, roots, yamadori | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Carving a root stand

Again, going back to January (before my latest surgery), I had the pleasure and privilege of taking a root stand carving workshop with Sean Smith. Sean is probably the pre-eminent Japanese woodcraft artist active in the bonsai community in the U.S. today.  You know, I once knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith. I never asked him the name of his other leg. But I bet it was Sean who carved the wooden one. 

Sean has thought long and hard as to how a class like this is taught. He prepares blanks for the students to make it easier. 

 The above pic is off his Facebook feed. The wood we used was mahogany. It’s a good carving wood in that it holds detail well but it is also brittle along the grain so you have to be careful making too skinny details horizontally (the grain is running up and down on these blanks). 

Here’s my virgin wood.  

 It’s about six inches. 

The class was well attended.  
 I believe we had 10 or 11 people. Sean covered the carving process in steps and helped those who needed it.  

 He first demonstrated what he wanted us to do.  


This is an example of one of Sean’s  own root stands.   

 And the term “root stand” is a misnomer really, obviously it’s not a root we are carving but the whole process and technique is called “root stand”. I’m sure that there are some that are actually roots but most you see are carved in a similar process. 

Now, a little about Sean: he doesn’t just do root stands. He is a classically trained diaza carver.  

 That’s the base a suiseki sits on (a suiseki is a stone that tends to look mountain like or such. It’s a whole ‘nother art that requires a book to explain. Look it up). The stone above was featured in the 3rd annual Nippon Suiseki Exhibit at the Metroplitan Museum of Art in Tokyo. One of the only westerners to have that honor. 

Sean also builds bonsai stands-

 And most anything else that is Japanese woodcraft. 

He is also an excellent bonsai artist.  

 He styles in a beautifully naturalistic (and classical) style that most modern bonsai artists have abandoned. He also likes to pose with his trees. If I worked on the trees he gets to work on, I would too.  

Getting back to the class, here I am during it.  

 This is becoming my look. The masked carver. 

And after it was over. The group. 

My stand at the end of the session. 

  It wasn’t finished there. I took it home and fiddled around with it some more. 
Here is another participants stand, actually “finished”  

 It was carved by Phil, who’s the tall guy in the back, on the left, in the group pic above.  

 He used a mahogany stain (ironically) on his, with a gloss finish.  

 I think it came out spectacularly. 

My stand, still not finished, very much in a state of abandonment.  

I’ll post some pics on social media when I do finally finish it. 

Thank you for the class Sean, I learned a lot. I wish I had gotten to spend some more time with you after the class, see you soon. 

If your club or convention is looking for a good hands on class, I recommend contacting Sean Smith. He has Diana carving classes, stand building classes, miniature tokanoma building classes (which is as cool as it sounds). You will not be disappointed. 

Posted in Advanced basics, Art, carving, sculpture | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments