Volunteering at the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection

So I was emailing back and fourth with Dave Degroot some time ago – he is the curator of the Rim, and told him I’d love to volunteer sometime… he kindly accepted my offer. Today was my first day. I had a GREAT time!!! Fun crew to hang out with, especially our own Dick Benbow who is a SUPER nice guy! David showed us a bunch of stuff that was in need of attention. Between shows and vacations, there were some trees that needed some loving that had been allowed to grow out.

I had a wealth of things to choose from, and David just wanted us to work on whatever we were drawn to. I picked a monster of a Chinese Elm penjing that I’ve always been fond of. Dick hung out with me and gave me a hand getting it mowed down enough so that I could actually get into it before moving on to some other awesome trees. I ended up spending the entire 7 hour shift on this one tree.

Two months of re-growth on a previously defoliated Chinese Elm penjing.

I decided I wanted to open it up a bit and let the light deep into the canopy, so I was somewhat agressive with it, without being disrespectful. We were largely left to work on our own as there were multipul tours at the garden today. When he came back down, I think Dave was a little surprised with how hard I was getting after it… (cuz he sort of skidded to a stop and said WHOA when he saw it…lol) after getting past the surprise, he started getting into detail with me about his vision for the branch structure and the philosophy behind the penjing practiced in the south of China, where this tree would have come from.

I went back at it with a different appreciation of his goal, which was a little different than where I had been heading, but was not out of line… so no harm no foul. I later apologized to him and explained I should have slowed my roll and made sure I was heading in the direction he wanted. He was nothing but gracious and appreciative of the work that had been done. It was fascinating to get an close up explanation of some of the seemingly ‘wild and unorganized’ nature of penjing. What is closer to the truth is that in many ways it is more exacting than many aspects of bonsai practice in foliage arrangement…. as I said, just fascinating!

I only wish I could have had more time, my detail oriented nature felt frustrated by having to leave it incomplete (which you’d notice if you saw the back)…. But the day was done, and it was time to go home.

Chinese Elm after seven hours of pruning.

I must have done alright though… David told me he’d add me to the regular roster, and Scarlett (his beautiful assistant) gave me the compliment of the day…..

“Wow we could almost put that back out on display now!”

Chinese Elm - other view.

What an awesome day! I’ll keep you posted on my adventures there with David, Scarlett, Dick, and the gang. ūüôā

Front view. Unfortunately could not get far enough back to get it perfect.

The only thing which would have been more awesome is if David could do what Daniel does… throw it in the back of my truck and send it home with me to finish….lol


Kindest regards,


That moment when it all pays off

This last weekend we stopped by the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection to view an exhibit of several of our teachers trees. It is always very exciting to see them displayed in new and different setting. The trees of course were all wearing their very best and looking especially ¬†glamorous. One of the trees on display was the tree I worked on in the previous post “Wire Wire Every Where”¬†. I was so pleased to see how the tree finally looked in its new clothes that I was very surprised and delighted to have it pop out at me as I turned the corner of the display. I remember it being very much a moment of realizing that all the time and work put into that fantastic winter¬†silhouette¬†had finally payed off and there was that beautiful ancient tree I had imagined.

Below is a shot of the tree on display. The honor of having Daniel choose to display the tree is overwhelming and gratifying.

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!

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.