The Seven States of Bonsai – Part One

If you are reading this you want to learn something about bonsai… sometimes we don’t even know what we are searching for… just something, anything really, which will help us be more successful in keeping our trees alive. Originally this was going to be one huge post, and then my husband rightly pointed out that I was literally (without accounting for the photos at all) posting a ten page paper as a blog post, which is of course laughable in the blogging world.

So here’s what we’re going to do… We’re breaking up the essay into more digestible chunks, but please know that it was intended to be a single presentation on how to become more aware of your trees in a way not often talked about. Every couple of days a new part will be posted.

Eric has his various soap boxes, and horticulture is mine. If you serious about being successful in bonsai, the first thing you need to do is pay attention to your trees while armed with enough knowledge to know what they are trying to tell you. So here we go… I hope you enjoy the journey of this kind of long-winded but useful digest of a year in the life of a bonsai tree.

The Seven States of Bonsai – Part One

The following is a series of observations based on real world experience and study under the guidance of our teacher (Daniel Robinson) and others. Consider it, in a fashion, as an Intro to Bonsai Horticulture 101/102. This will not reveal anything earth shattering to those long in the art… but to those who do not have easy access to advanced practitioners or still find it all a bit mysterious, it may be the beginnings of an understanding that will grow with your own experience.

In fact… though we are advanced students, we make no claim to having all the answers, and acknowledge that none of these concepts we are about to put forward are all encompassing to all bonsai. So we invite exploration and conversation about any and all of it… even disagreement… as it will lead to clarity all the way around. I may not explain something well… and will even venture to say there are likely important omissions – the specific needs of bonsai are as varied as the species we grow. But when we engage in the exchange of ideas and experience, we all tend to be better for it. Our hope is to encourage all of our growth by thinking of how our trees grow in a way that is more holistic… and how the things which we do (both intentional or not) effect the whole tree.

Please also note… this essay was written from the perspective of our experience, which is focused on outdoor species. It should be read through that understanding.

(Ponderosa Pine collected and styled by Dan Robinson)

Sometimes we can get caught up in all the esoteric and lofty bits of bonsai… the art at the soul of it. We see images of trees in pots that take us to faraway places, or show us expressions of incredible age and perseverance, and we are captivated. It’s often easy to connect with these trees… they are a deeply visceral experience for those who become devotees – but it can sometimes be difficult to understand how to recognize the needs of our own humble efforts, or how to provide for them, especially for one new to the practice.

(Kingsville Boxwood)

It is in those times, when you hold a tree in your hands with the nervous itch of a parent with a new born babe, that it can be very good to keep in mind what can be thought of as the seven states of bonsai. By states I mean their physical condition/activity in any given time: Active growth, Reproduction, Stasis, Stress, Recovery, Dormancy, and Dead.

It is important to know that more than one state can be in play at any given time. It might even seem ridiculous to some to think of bonsai in such simplified terms – but knowing where you are at, can lead you down the path to know what to do, or better… what questions to ask. You might have even thought it was amusing to read the last state of dead… except that if you understood the consequences and interplay of all the rest, you can make great headway in staving off the last. They don’t even run in any particular order – excepting the last. They are, through the consistent practice of the art, the ever changing dance you will experience over the seasons and years with each and every tree you take into your care.

Active Growth: Of them all, active growth is generally the easiest to recognize. A majority of the tree exhibits new and hopefully vigorous growth. When in active growth many different things are occurring simultaneously. Leaves and branches are extending, roots are also extending and multiplying, and in the case of deciduous trees wood is being added over the whole structure of the tree equal to the mass of the extensions of growth. So the more growth added on, the more size the trunk and branches gain. Conifers will tend to add that extra wood at the end of their active growth period, though they can actually add wood in the early stages of growth on particularly strong trees pushing a lot of growth.

(American Larch, originally collected by Nick Lenz, developed by Dan Robinson.)

For most regions early spring to fall is when you can expect this activity to be going on; unless you are talking about tropical species, which can have several active growth periods during a given year. Forcing trees to go outside of that normal period is possible with experience and the ability to provide the right environment, but there can be serious risk of stressing the tree and it should not be attempted without serious consideration and preparation. (For example, it’s not unusual for masters to force a tree to bloom earlier or later than normal in order to have blossoms on the tree timed for a particular show.)

It is also during active growth that most of the “fun” occurs for many people, as that’s when you get to watch the tree change noticeably and there tends to be a lot of opportunities to interact with the tree in terms of pruning/wiring it.
(Same tree later the same day after I gave it a haircut and adjusted the crown.)

For a tree young in its development, a good season of active growth is very important as it creates the structural development needed to form the image you are attempting. Active growth can also be a downright nuisance though when working with a more mature tree. Too much active growth can reverse years of careful attention to the structure of a tree as easily as it can build it in another. Hence controlled growth on a mature tree is a must, where on a young tree radical growth is encouraged to speed up the development of trunk and main branches by unrestricted root growth (planting a tree out in a grow bed or oversized pot)and/or a vigorous feeding program. Note that the development of ramification (both in the sub-branches and roots) is a task completed only with time, and controlled growth. To create a “final” image utilizing juvenile active growth will mean there is little to no taper in the length of the branch, and in creating a refined image, taper is everything.

(Collected Korean Hornbeam acquired from Brussel’s Bonsai, developed by Dan Robinson.)

Feeding trees in active growth is a very important part of the season. As fertilizers and regimens vary by species, its best to research the specific needs of your plant keeping in mind its stage of overall development.

(In the next segment… It’s all about sex and meditation… well not really, but it sounds kinda catchy doesn’t it???)

Arrival of a Larix

Today our good friend John Conn delivered a tree to us that we had recently purchased. It happened by chance that he would be at the nursery where the tree was and he was kind enough to offer to bring it with him upon his return. Just today the tree was dropped off and we got our first chance to see it in person. A delightful tree with great potential!

A small cell phone picture taken of the tree by me. Vic took some much better images with the big guns but I wanted to share this early image with you all. No work as of yet, but soon.

Sunshine – It’s elemental my dear Watson…

To make a visually pleasing bonsai is a matter of balance in all things. The pot to the tree, the base to the trunk, the trunk to the main branches, and the main branches to the tertiary branches. To make a great bonsai, to our mind, requires the tree to also tell you a dramatic story of survival against the most hostile elements.  Even when in our care, those elements still come into play… how to use those elements to support your work is something I will take time to write about as we go along. Today I want to write about sunlight… maybe because it’s February and we actually had two full days of it. Crazy!!

We all know that as a general rule sunlight is vital to the health and growth of your trees… but it is also plays an important role in reducing leaf size and promoting ramification of branches on your trees. If you keep your trees in a lot of shade, you’ll find that the leaf size is much larger than trees getting the same care would have in the sun. Think of the role of leaves as solar collectors, when they get lots of light, there isn’t need for the tree to expend energy on making the leaves bigger to have larger collectors. You’ll also notice that leaves in full sun tend to have a waxy feel over the leaves of  trees which are in the shade. This coating helps protect the leaves from burning when being exposed to so much UV light. If you have a tree which has been kept in the shade for a long time, be sure to transition it slowly to full light so that it can build up that protection. Sudden radical exposures to sun can crisp up your foliage in as little as a day, especially if not watered properly for conditions.

What you should know about our yard… it’s primarily a full southern exposure at the top of a hill with very little tree cover. I should grow hay… not trees… seriously, it’s that bright. But even with this much sun, we’ve worked out how to use the shade cast from the garage to make a good space for shohin sized bonsai and recently potted trees which need protection from prolonged exposure to the sun. Make a note of how sunlight moves across your space… and unless you live on the equator… through the seasons. It’ll help you a lot in managing exposure for your trees.

Last year, Eric and I bought a truckload (literally) of azaleas from the estate of a local bonsai gentleman… his backyard was the most shaded out enviornment I’ve ever seen – as in jungle darkness in broad daylight… and consequently the trees he grew tended to be leggy and sparse with very tender leaves. So they spent all of last summer and this winter in the relative complete shade of the front of our garage, and will be moved into a brighter area this spring before being moved in with the rest of our trees in the backyard. With thin barked species like azalea, another thing you have to be mindful of is to not sun scald the trunks. A sun scald is where the bark of the tree has died due to a previously shaded area of the tree’s trunk suddendly getting too much sun. Think of it as a 3rd degree burn. The trunk of the Alaskan Yellow Cedar that Eric showed in a previous post was a case of sun scald that happened post collecting. But what could have been a disaster was turned into part of the story of surviving hostile enviornments.

There isn’t any doubt that full sunlight can create a harsh enviornment, but when approached with thought and care, it will make your trees healthier and help get that smaller foliage we all love and admire.



Wire Wire Every Where

(This is a re-post of an article from Dec, 2011. I brought it here for you to enjoy.)

Recently I worked on a large Korean Hornbeam of Daniel Robinson’s (my teacher) at Elandan Gardens, this is the story of that tree, through a few images. For those of you familiar with Elandan you will have doubtlessly seen this tree in the collection where it has lived for a great many years. I fell in love with this tree (actually all the hornbeams) from the minute I set foot in the garden. They are such a spectacular species and this tree is certainly no exception. Much of the deadwood had weathered and changed over the years and excavating what was left behind was a wonderful distraction between hours of focusing intently on little tiny branches.

This tree took me about 16+ hours to wire over the course of about 3 days. I gave it a break for a few days during the work week and finished it just before heading to bed on Monday.

This was a tremendous amount of fun as always. I never tire from the transformations, of a twig, a branch then a tree. It makes me fall in love with bonsai all over again. I hope this helps show how important it is to do detailed wiring. This is the only way to get those amazing ancient crowns.

I hope you enjoy … please feel free to comment as always  …

With the last bit of fall color:

After removing the leaves:

After many tedious hours of fine wiring:

I am currently working another large hornbeam from the collection and hope to have it completed soon. I will post a more detailed progression of it’s change in the coming weeks.