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As the days get cooler we slowly approach the time of year where I like to style conifers. This year is gearing up to be a big one for bonsai work as I have taken on a number of customers trees to be styled. Following on from the last Black Pine I worked on, I had the opportunity to work on a similar tree.
At least it looked similar before the work begun, but soon after the old needles were removed a new set of structural challenged presented themselves to be solved.
I decided to rotate the front slightly which brought up the issue of the first branch. That is it was now heading towards the rear of the tree so with the help of a screw in the trunk I was able to bend it forwards. This then set the base of the tree and the rest of the canopy could be built around it. The head was finally lowered and rounded out to create the final image.
Again this tree now needs a couple of years to grow into its new shape but even after the couple of weeks that passed between starting the job and finishing, new buds are beginning to form which should see this tree become show-able in the not too distant future.
Things have been pretty busy since I got back from Japan. A new job, a pregnant wife and Autumn’s bonsai work just beginning haven’t left a lot of time for the blog.
On top of this, I have also been doing a fair amount of work on customer’s bonsai and their collections. Some of this work is routine seasonal maintenance, some of it teaching and then some of it is re-styling.
One such re-styling I completed recently was the black pine pictured above. For Australia, the black pine had some good age to it and was starting to develop nice bark textures, but it’s canopy had grown into a solid blob over the years. My job was to find the tree within the blob. I had to prune a large number of branches out and define a better branch structure to set the tree up for it’s future. As a result a fair amount was cut off the tree but now the bones have been formed to grow a better structure upon.
One of the main changes, apart from separating the foliage into layers was to enhance the movement of the tree. This involved shortening the right side and lowering the head to accentuate the left movement of the main branch which made a huge difference to the appearance of the tree.
I think a re-pot into something more suitable and a year or two of candle pruning should see this tree fill into a very nice tree.
Over the years while growing black pines I have always strived for more buds. Each year i tried to get back buds to form and most times I was successful although sometimes the tree I was working on would show signs of promise and then wave them in my face as it took them away again.
What am I talking about? I am sure you have all seen them; those small buds that form and give you hope, only to swell but never open, and then after a few seasons growth, wither and die.
As far as i can work out, these are needle buds and or weak adventitious buds that for what ever reason can never really get themselves into gear. Even after candle pruning the rest of the tree theses buds often still sit and do nothing. The most frustrating thing about these buds is they always seem to appear right where you want them which makes seeing them die all the more difficult.
I have tried a number of methods to awaken them but none have worked. I have had them in both shaded locations and spots where they get full sun, on bottom branches and in the apex, on strong growth and on weak. Nothing seemed to work no matter where they occurred or what I tried.
But there is still hope. At the convention a month ago Ryan Neil talked about these buds and passed on a technique I had not heard of before. He said these buds could be awakened by slightly damaging them with a scissor cut done at the same time you candle prune. That is to say that when you cut the candles, you also make a small incision into these sleeping buds. He said it was this damage that would trigger these buds to put out a flush of growth at the same time as the cut candles re-grow their second flush.
As we in winter at the moment I have not yet had the chance to try this method out, but I look forward to trying it this coming summer. Hopefully it is the answer to this annoying sleeping bud issue.
As the season rolls on I am slowly getting to the end of my needle work which in turn will mark the time to begin preparing the deciduous trees for winter.
The tree below is another that has been slowly developing over the years and with another wiring and another years candle pruning I think it will be close to exhibit-able.
The tree has appeared on the blog before HERE where you can see the progress it has made and the ramification it has gained. It also makes obvious just how much it needs a re-wire.
Yet another of my trees that desperately needs a re-wire, it will have to get into line behind all the others that I plan on doing this winter.
This weekend gone by I got some time to do some needle work on a few more trees. One of which has featured on this blog before. It’s a bit of a strange tree and people either like it, or want to cut off the first branch. I like the first branch and as a result i haven’t cut it off just yet and actually now the tree is filling in a little bit more I am beginning to like it more than I did at first.
Probably the part of blogging I am enjoying the most is how it has forced me to catalogue my trees as they progress. If you look at this tree 2 years ago HERE you can see that the tree has really improved over that short time. Looking at it day to day on the benches it is easy to lose perspective and feel like the tree is not progressing. It is only when you see a picture from a year or two ago that you realise just how much it has changed.
I am very happy with the progress I have achieved with it over the last couple of years and hopefully if I can keep this momentum up for a few more the tree will be well on the way to being exhibit-able.
I doubt if this tree is ever going to be everyone’s cup of tea but I think that it is now on a path where it will grow into a convincing image.
Its been a good year for growth in my garden which is always a bit of a double edged sword. A good seasons growth means that all your trees will have progressed and built further to their structure, ramification etc. but with lots of growth comes lots of maintenance.
With my pines this work takes longer and longer times. As the trees ramify the number of shoots double each year in turn doubling the time it takes to maintain them. As trees become more dense fingers can no longer reach areas of the branching so tweezers are employed which again can slow things down a little.
Here in Australia we are beginning to slip into autumn and it is time to shoot prune the second flush of growth and do needle work on the pine’s remaining growth.
The first tree off the bench was THIS little black pine.
Finally it is beginning to look like it belongs in a bonsai pot. you can see in the before picture how nicely the needle length has come down compared to the long needles attached to candles that were not pruned in spring due to them being weak. These weak candles now have strong buds at their tips getting ready for next springs flush.
After a few hours work things begin to look a whole lot neater. The new length of the needles is much more suited to the trees size and over all the tree is beginning to look more in proportion. Next step is a re-wire which I hope to complete some time this winter and then a re-pot into something a bit nicer.
Sometimes things elsewhere look better than what you might have at your own disposal. This can do two things. One is you can become inspired and in turn try to improve your situation, or you can feel defeated and do nothing and long for what is over the proverbial fence.
In terms of Australian bonsai we sometimes look over our fence (or ocean) and long for the material of Japan or the yamadori of America or Europe. Sometimes this inspires but a lot of the time due to Australia’s strict quarantine laws (making importing near impossible) and the fact that most native collectible material is protected by law it instills a feeling of giving up or accepting second best. Myself, after returning from a trip from Japan, have looked over my collection and felt as if I was so far behind that I might as well sell up and take up stamp collecting when comparing my trees to Japan’s masterpieces and fantastic stock.
I have done my share of moaning and complaining about what is available (or perhaps more importantly not available) but complaining doesn’t solve the problem.
Australia doesn’t have juniper and pines as our native flora and those species we do have that do make good bonsai are often protected from collecting by law. This combined with an import ban on most bonsai species puts the us on the back foot when it comes to yamadori. The best chances we have at material even vaguely similar is digging from gardens.
So where does this leave us? We need to start growing more of our own. Taiwan produces ground grown or farmed junipers that for all intents and purposes look the same as their yamadori counterparts. Japan produces tons of quality raw material in a massive range of species that ensures that there is always a healthy base of material being produced for future excellent bonsai.
Growing material is not difficult, it just takes a little time. Most of this time is best invested early on in a plant’s life when it is young and flexible. 5 minutes to do some root pruning and another 5 minutes to wire the trunk for shape and you have the foundations for something interesting that has the potential to turn into an excellent bonsai.
The above Juniper came from a grower in Shizuoka. While I was studying at the nursery we went on many stock buying trips and this tree was from one such trip. The grower was not a professional nursery man but rather a home grower. The rooftop over his small garden shed had been turned into a small stock production area. He grew stock and traded it with the nursery for pots and other trees, supplies etc. What surprised me was that this was a guy living minutes away from a nursery that sold stock and trees I could only dream of here in Australia, yet with all this stock at his disposal he still was growing his own, excellent material.
If every grower in Australia, grew 5-10 good stock plants a year we would have so much good stock we wouldn’t know what to do with it all.
This year I have finally decided to stop complaining about the lack of stock and making excuses about my lack of space and have planted 60 Trident maples and 60 Japanese Black Pines as a test batch. For some reason I had been making excuses over the last few years as to why I couldn’t get this process started. My backyard was too small, I didn’t have the time and I wanted to keep my collection at a small size etc.
This year I decided that I could make room in my backyard, the time I needed was not all that much and that I could sell a good percentage of the stock once matured to keep the collections size down and to add some money to the bonsai bank.
I decided that because space in my garden was at a premium, I would grow small bonsai stock. I don’t have a ground growing area so I also had to be able to grow in pots. Growing small-sized bonsai made this an easy proposition.
What I was hoping to achieve was similar to stock i had seen produced in Japan.
Using the above trees as my base inspiration, I decided for my test batch I would grow a mix of half deciduous and half conifer so I had some variation in the final bonsai. As I didn’t have any juniper cuttings, I struck some Japanese Black pine and Trident maple seed and potted them up individually.
Pretty simple so far. The time spent on each plant to this point ran to the 5 minute mark (a generous estimation). Not a lot of time considering how much time will be invested in the future with watering, pruning and re-potting etc.
After the seedlings have established and put on some growth I got some movement into them.
This should take another couple of minutes per tree. The process is pretty standard really, insert the wire into the soil at about a 45 degree angle until it hits the side/ bottom of the pot. Then wire the trunk making sure that the wire is applied in even coils. Then you simply bend the trunk.
The bends you put in the trunk should be tight and irregular. As the tree thickens the bends will soften in appearance so over exaggerate the bends at this stage. I try not to think about the final form of the tree at this stage rather I like to combine interesting kinks and twists and make each seedling different to the next. This means that come styling time I will have a range of shapes and styles to play with. I have also found that if you try to create styles at this stage you limit yourself somewhat. The more random you can make the trunks the more natural they seem. The times I have thought about their final form I ended up with many similar trees.
They should now be fed and left to thicken for a year or two. Once the wire cuts in I will un-wire and depending on how the bends have set, I may re-wire again.
Once i have them at pencil to finger thick I will start thinking about creating branching and small canopys. This should ensure that in a few years time I will have a lot of interesting stock to play with.
Hopefully this post inspires a few people to have a go themselves. You don’t need a lot of space, ground or time and the rewards in a few years from such a small investment should be well worth your efforts.
As I managed to get some time to work on my trees this last weekend, I though it was a good opportunity to do some grafting before my black pines woke up too much. I like to do grafting on black pines just before they start moving in spring. For bud grafting this is important as once the sap starts to move in a big way any cuts made to hold grafts tend to flood with sap before placing the scion which makes them a little less successful. Approach grafts on the other hand are a little more forgiving but if I can I try to do them around the same time so that the burst of energy that comes with the first flush of candles extending goes into healing the graft site.
I have decided to graft this tree as it has a rather large bare section of trunk. If I can graft a new leader to the base of this I can build a much smaller and more compact tree with the new graft’s growth. Obviously this will be a longer term project but I figure why go down a long road just to end up at a mediocre tree. If this graft takes and the tree develops as I imagine it will be a far greater result in the future than had I just persevered with the existing structure.
The first step is to create a cut for the graft branch to sit inside. I like to make the cut about 1/4 smaller than the branch that is going to be inserted into it. I start by making the cut with a small saw. I try to make the cut so that it is wider at the rear of the cut than at the front edge. usually this takes two cuts, one slightly slanted upwards and a second slightly downwards. This flared cut will help the scion branch to lock into the cut.
Once I have made the first pass with the saw I clean up the cut with a knife so that I have clean and neat surfaces upon which the graft can be placed.
Next I remove a small slither of bark from either side of the scion branch. Make sure that you check where to make these cuts prior to getting the knife out as it is important that these cut surfaces line up with the cut surfaces you made with the saw. I usually find that the knife cute that clean up the saw cuts combined with the cuts on the scion branch tend to eliminate the 1/4 under size that was initially cut with the saw.
The Scion branch can now be inserted into the cut in the trunk. The fit should be snug and tight. Small adjustments might be needed to be made to the channel in the trunk to make sure things are all snug. If the channel is on the large side it is best to chock the scion branch so that it contacts firmly with the lower surface of the channel cut. (I use small twigs as chocks.) As sap runs from the roots up, contacting the lower surface will ensure that the graft has a better chance of taking than had it only contacted the upper surface. Either way, the scion should be firmly touching at least one cut surface on the channel in the trunk.
Finally you simply seal the graft union and hold the scion firmly in place so that it cannot move and disturb the graft before it has had a chance to take.
The speed at which the graft takes will depend on the amount of growth you allow to occur on the scion branch and above the graft site. Obviously the more the trunk and scion branch grow and expand the more chance the graft has of taking. I would hazard a guess that this graft will be taken by the end of this coming seasons growth. Having said that I will probably cut off the growth above it in stages so it may be two seasons before I actually sever the scion branch from its original source.
It has been a busy couple of weeks. Autumn has begun and with it a range of seasonal tasks. I have been madly plucking Japanese black and Red pine needles. Here in Melbourne we have a convention coming up for which I have to prepare a few trees so I tried to get my needle work out of the way early on.
It took a long time this year. What hadn’t really dawned on me until now was that needle pruning takes more and more time each year. Now this is not a bad thing, its more a by-product of a successful technique. As ramification increases, so does the amount of needles you have to remove. Where last year I was removing needles from one candle there are now two candles at that location that need needles removed from them. Not only are there more needles to pluck, but also the space you have to pluck them in becomes more and more cramped forcing you to use tweezers to negotiate the cramped conditions.
The above tree has wholly been grown in Australia and has come great leaps and bounds since I learnt how to properly care for it during my first trip to Japan. It is becoming a nice little tree although it is not perfect and it bears the marks of many of my early mistakes. That being said it has taught me a lot and although I have though about selling it on a couple of occasions I think now I would find it a little hard to part with. After all I have invested a huge amount of time into it.
Perhaps this is something to keep in mind when deciding on how large your collection should grow. How much time do you have, and will this time be enough to maintain your trees to a high level? Bearing in mind that as your trees improve and refine, in turn their maintenance times increase. I really enjoy growing pines but I am very aware of the time I have to spend on them each year. Needle plucking, pruning, wiring and candle work all add up. On a tree that is starting to get refined I am guessing I would be sending 6-10 hours on each of them over the year. When you add up all the pines you grow and then the time you spend on them, combined with the tasks you have for all other species you grow you begin to realise that there is a limit to how many trees you can look after to a high level. I lean towards keeping a smaller collection that is well maintained rather than a larger collection that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. That said it is hard to turn down a good tree.