Return of the Larix

As you might remember from Arrival of a Larix we received this larch some time ago. I finally decided to set out to work on it this Saturday as it was a nice day out and this guy was just looking like he needed some attention.

A quick review of how the tree looked before work began.

The first order of business was to begin working on the deadwood that is on the tree. The current state of the deadwood was a little spiky and out of place. I began by reducing the height of the main deadwood section. As I began sculpting the deadwood I discovered that parts of it had become punky and moisture was beginning to eat away at the base. This is of course a major concern when there is deadwood that reaches to the soil surface. The punky wood was removed using the die grinder and the rest of the initial carving was completed. The wood will be preserved using lime sulfur that has been diluted and had ink added to it in an effort to reduce any stark contrast in color.

After the initial carving was complete I was able to begin working on changing the structure  of the tree. As you can see in the above image the initial image was that of a young tree with strong apical growth and the foliage pads were very linear and flat. These were two of the most important aspects that needed changing to help portray the look of an ancient conifer. The good news is that larches in particular are very flexible and forgiving offering the artist a great deal of latitude in the placement of the branches.

The tree was heavily thinned and compacted to help create a tighter more masculine image and to evoke more of the alpine shape that would be natural to this tree in many surroundings.

The image after styling. A different front was found that showed off the deadwood better and provided a much more interesting focal point.

With the initial styling complete the tree will be allowed to recover. The next steps are to create more definition and interest in the deadwood as well as to create more ramification in the branches. Refinement of the overall image will take probably the next 2 to 3 years.

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Eastern White Cedar – Getting a face lift

We thought it might be fun to show some of the trees that Daniel has been working on. He began working on this tree the other day and wanted to share it with everyone. Thuja Occidentalis (Eastern White Cedar) is a tree that doesn’t get too much play as a bonsai specimen however it has wonderful character and excellent foliage that lend themselves to  bonsai culture.

Here you can see the tree before Daniel started to work on it. It had gotten a little hairy in the last few years and was ripe for an evening of work and transformation.

Before work began on the tree (picture provided by diane Robinson)

Working on the tree in the evenings as Daniel often does he completed work on the tree in a few nights. It is important to note the amount of foliage that was removed as the tree is rather vigorous and controlling the planes of the foliage is very important. Also as the trunk of the tree is the main focal point here with its gnarled undulating deadwood the foliage needs to be subordinate to the trunk to carry out the intended image.

The tree after a few evenings of work. Notice how the foliage is subordinate to the trunk (focal point).

Some shots of the beautiful deadwood that is carefully sculpted and exposed. These are the parts of the tree that give it its feel of truly ancient age.

In the above photo you can see the heal marks that created callous and how how that has receded with the death of those areas. This is something we see often on very ancient trees, the receding of the live vein as it ages.

Here you can see the sculpted ancient hollows that show the skeleton of the tree.

We certainly hope you all enjoyed seeing the changes to the tree. Daniel always loves to share his work with others and inspire bonsai people to spend time working on their trees.

The Taming of the Hornbeam

How fitting that the last image in the previous post be of the tree in this one. We didn’t plan it that way… I promise! 

Creating that essence of age that we strive for in deciduous material is a combination of several tasks over the course of many years. In the early years it is important to impose interesting movement into trunks or sub-trunks and secondary branching with the use of several wiring techniques. I won’t cover those here however our friend and “bonsai bum” Will Hiltz has written an excellent article on a technique that Daniel Robinson calls “baby bending”. You can read the article here . This technique was applied to the tree you see below for many years developing the sub-trunking and secondary branching that is evident. It has been detail wired at the tertiary level on several occasions and the time came for it to be done again.

After re-wiring two of the other hornbeams in the garden Daniel asked me to take on this tree. Of course doing so meant I would have to take the tree home with me. It is one of a batch of trees purchased in the early 90s at Brussels’ and is the largest in the collection. I accepted the challenge to work on the tree as I have a somewhat personal relationship with it. This tree is one that for me stands out amongst the crowd. I can’t help but be in awe of it every time I spend time with it. The aged bark and gnarled branching give me the feeling of a tree that has seen the great passage of time. In wiring it I didn’t want to lose this feeling however I wanted to create the limited sense of order in the branching that inevitably helps frame the rest of the story.

It is important to impose a sense of age to the tertiary branching that is commensurate with the rest of the tree. To do this one of the most important elements is to add a sense of wandering to the branching. We see in ancient trees that the tertiary branching has movement toward the outer edges but that it is not entirely linear this is the “wandering” that I am talking about. Many events have occurred in the life of the tree and a slowed growth habit along with recovering from these events will shape every part of the tree including the fine branching.

Since one of the goals of the wiring was to add not only movement into the branch settings but a sense of age, this meant that the branches needed to have a downward overall movement to them. Forcing all the branches to just move downward however would not create the layering effect that gives life to the foliage. To create the sense of depth and layering in the foliage it is important that we realize that even in the sections of a branch there are additional apices.

As you look at the completed work one thing you will notice is that with the organization of the branching it has become more clear that each subtrunk has on it several apices. These multiple crowns add to the sense of age as opposed to the youthfulness we might see in a delicate thin trunked mountain maple image. This is part of what makes trees like this one feel so natural.

(before getting started on the job of wiring out the tree)

Wiring a tree this large can be a daunting task, but the joy in completion is certainly worth the effort. The key of course is to just start. You will find that once you start that you quickly get the hang of it. On this particular tree I mostly used size 1 and super fine copper wire (#24 salvaged from some twisted electrical line)


(close up of the lower right hand branch wiring)


(the branch from the side.. you can see some of the layering discussed above)


(another shot showing the outward “wandering” movement of a branch)

What is hard to see in the above image is that not all the movement is on a single plane. To give volume and shape to the foliage it needs to have movement in all directions. In the lower sections of the tree this is less pronounced but still visible.


(the final result after about 20+ hours or wiring… I go slow and just enjoy the process)

The final image reminds me of a wild and natural ancient tree while still having a sense of balance between chaos and order. Of course the pot here lends some information to the ideals behind part of the styling as well. A beautiful antique Chinese pot, the planting may seem odd for many people however the deeper aged pot helps lend an aesthetic feeling of timelessness to the tree. An overall image that , at least to me, is pleasing.

The tree has since been returned to Daniel at Elandan Gardens, where it lives and can be seen on display.

questions and comments are always welcome….. please feel free to join in!

The Seven States of Bonsai – Part Two

(This post is rated PG… seedlings should not read this without parental guidence… Yah I know, keep my day job.)

Continued from Part One in this series…

Reproduction: The development of fruit, seed pods, or cones on a tree. This usually happens during periods of active growth through to fall. Reproduction for a tree early in its development is mostly a negative thing. It is very important not to allow a tree in active development to come into a state of mature seed as the entire process robs the tree of significant energy. Less active growth will occur in a tree which has gone heavily into producing seed. Enjoy your flowers on a tree, but if it is in development – remove most of them, and be sure to remove the full flower head when it is spent. The only trees which should be allowed to fruit are ones which are mature and not in active development, and even then it is good to give them occasional years of non-fruiting seasons to maintain their health. Fruit and flowers are also the only things which will not reduce over time with bonsai horticulture. If you are working with a pear… no matter how small you can get your leaves, you will have a large piece of fruit on your tree. If you enjoy fruits, select species like crabapples (Malus) and Japanese winterberry (Illex serata) which are known for their smaller fruits/berries.


(Satsuki Azalea ‘Kaho’)

Trees allowed to flower or fruit should be well fed in order to help offset the energy being taken up in that process. This is often species specific and should be researched for the tree in question.

Stasis: The period of time between active growth and dormancy; or the state of a tree so far in its development that fine ramification has occurred which results in slow and/or minimal change in the tree. The first kind of stasis occurs when the active growing period is completed for the season and the tree is no longer putting on vigorous new growth. During this time it is building up reserves for dormancy and the next period of active growth. Some trees don’t have a period of stasis, tropical species or other vigorous trees like elms will continually put on new foliage if you continually prune it. The very nature of pruning a tree can negate stasis as many species will continually put on growth to try and build up its reserves for its dormant period.

(Scots Pine, by Dan Robinson. The foliage on this tree is less than 1/2 in.)

For a mature bonsai, stasis is the goal because the smallest possible ramification has been achieved. Since root pruning provides room for many new roots to be developed, thereby stimulating juvenile growth, the repotting of mature trees is done less often in order to slow the active growth period and prevent bursts of new growth. However, a mature bonsai kept in stasis too long can become weakened by not having new higher functioning roots, so even a mature tree needs to be reinvigorated from time to time by radical pruning of both roots and branches, necessitating the redevelopment of the tree’s structure.

(In the next segment, we going to get all stressed out… and its a long one, so bring some popcorn, I just can’t break it down more and make sense.)

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.

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.