One of the recent trees I worked was the below Pinus sylvestris or Scott’s Pine.

It’s a tree I have gone on a rollercoaster ‘love-hate’ relationship with over a long period of time. The tree was originally owned by a woman in my local bonsai club. From a very early stage she had told me she wanted me to have the tree when it became too big for her to handle.

I had never really loved the tree but I got along really well with the owner and was touched that she wanted me to take on her tree. Each time I saw the tree we talked about it’s future and health. The more I saw the tree the more I liked it and could see a future in it.

Fast forward a while and the tree declined in health and lost some branches. It was brought back to health to a point where it was offered up as demonstration material at a local club. During the demonstration via a visiting tutor, a number of branches were cut off and the tree was styled as a wind swept style. Now the styling was fine enough but I really dislike windswept styled trees, and the styling removed many of the branches apart from those at the upper most section of the trunk. The tree was then again left to grow out and several years later I inherited the tree.

At the time I had no idea what to do with it but wanted to hang onto it due to how much the previous owner had wanted me to have it. So I stared blankly at it each day as I watered it and wondered what to do.

Fast forward a few more years and I was selected to demonstrate at the Australian Association of Bonsai Clubs annual convention (2018) along side Bjorn Bjorholm. I decided that this tree would be a good contender for testing my skills so I began to prepare it and get it strong for the convention.

It was wired and styled as per the images below over the course of an afternoon (having been pre-wired)

I was pretty happy with the outcome given where it started and the tree grew on me a little more.

Fast forward a few years and the health of the tree had gone backwards due to some water issues I later discovered I had (see HERE) .

So I let the tree grow out as I dealt with the the pH problems.

I decided it was time to re-work it and begun to pull old needles and fully re-wire the tree. I also removed a number of branches that may or may not have been required (i cut one off that i didn’t like but probably should have kept in the short term….).

The remaining needles were a little shorter than i would have liked having been somewhat knocked about by my water issues and the overall styling is much more tight than that of the AABC demonstration (which I prefer), but as i see it this tree has a few years to grow out, extend a few branches, develop the ‘second apex’ etc. For this styling I focused on a tighter styling so that it sets a solid structure to then build future stylings upon.

All in all I am happy with where this tree is at and where it is heading. Its certainly a weird tree in the grand scheme of things but it is one of those trees I find myself starring at in the garden against some of the more ‘normal’ bonsai shapes.

You may have read my previous post on my local water pH (HERE) where i discovered that the water I had been using on my trees was very alkaline. Well I developed a simple solution in that i installed a rain water tank and bought a pressure pump to deliver near pH perfect rain water to my trees. The results the change in water had on tree health was nothing short of amazing! Greener foliage, a reduction in other health issues etc. all were welcomed changes.

But then the tank ran dry…………………………

Luckily I had a plan B although i had been dreading implementing it. Turns out it was much simpler and easier than I had imagined.

I decided to refill the tank with tap water and then adjust the pH from there.

To adjust the water pH I decided to use household white vinegar to add more acid to the water in the form of Acetic Acid. I did some very basic tests to work out the dosing rate and came up with needing 12L of Vinegar to dose the 2000L tank.

It turns out my tests were not very accurate because I used half that rate and ended up with a pH close to what I wanted.

So from 3 bottles of vinegar (2L a bottle or 6L total) I was able to take the water’s pH from ‘8.something’ to around ‘6.0-6.something’. This should work well as it is on the acidic end of the range that is good for growing most plants.

Being only $1.20 a bottle it was a very cheap way to re-fill the tank with water of a suitable pH.

I think in the future I will try 2.5L of vinegar and see if I can get closer to 6.5-7.0pH but the levels I have now should be fine. As we are heading into Autumn and Winter, the coming rains will dilute the tank water further and bring me closer to these numbers anyway.

Also on the way is a digital pH meter so I can confirm exact pH of both my town water and that of the adjusted water in the tank. While the coloured chemical test kits are OK they are a ‘close enough’ type of accuracy only. I will update again with a post documenting the exact pH numbers when it arrives.

The below tree is bonsai i have had on my benches for a number of years. For some reason i hadn’t really worked it much over that time and was putting it off so it could be used as demonstration stock. With covid hitting and my calendar being cleared i thought it made no sense to put it’s styling off any more. I think this tree was last worked in 2012 so it was certainly due for a re-visit.

The work revolved around framing the trunk movement and shortening / compacting the lower branch. Most of that was accomplished with a handful of guy wires and standard wiring.

Not the neatest job on the planet but as the new needles were still a little delicate i left more on than i otherwise might in case i damaged some during the styling. All in all i am pretty happy with the results and will begin hunting a new pot for this coming re-potting season. (probably means i will have to dig through all the boxed up supplies….)

Another in the series of updates i will be posting over the next few weeks. The tree in question in this post is a japanese black pine that was originally a demonstration tree styled as part of the Central Coast bonsai societies Touch of Japan festival back in 2017.

I ended up liking the tree and purchased it post demo.

A year or so later a friend drove it from Sydney back to Victoria where it sat on my benches and it slowly deteriorated. The tree was in a plastic grow bag and on further inspection the root ball consisted of a sticky clay bulk that had been top dressed with good bonsai soil. I had assumed that the bonsai soil went the whole way through the bag but it didn’t and as a result a large percentage of the root mass had rotted off. I did an emergency repot into better soil and a smaller pot and soon the tree showed signs of growth and recovery. The tree continued to gain health and was re-styled as per below:

And now the tree has grown out for a full season without candle pruning to build strength, needles are a touch on the long side but i am happy with the level of back budding and strength the tree is showing considering it was on deaths door a couple of years ago.

Looking at the above image there is certainly room for fine tuning, but i will likely do that towards the end of Autumn / early winter while i am doing pine needlework.

One of the reasons i have skipped de-candling this year was to regain some health to my trees pending a shift in water quality.

Since moving regionally i had seen some health issues creep into my trees with them slowly losing form over a 5 or 6 year period. Colour was on the yellow side and some leaves were showing fungal infection and nutrient deficiencies.

I had tried everything from fungicides to trace mineral / elements with nothing making a dramatic difference. As a last ditch effort i decided to check my water pH.

Where we had moved from in Melbourne had a pH of 6.5-7 which is near perfect for growing most things so i guess water as a cause hadn’t been high on the radar.

Turns out i had been treating the symptoms without finding the source.

It turns out where i am living now has quite a high pH in the town water with it sitting somewhere around a pH of 8.0. Given that the uptake of nutrients can start to be inhibited above pH’s of 7.5 i figure that this explains my symptoms well. It also explains a slow decline in my trees health as nutrient deficiencies started to appear, health weakened and made my trees more susceptible to fungal infection and other issues.

Post pH check i looked up our local water provider and they say we have a Min /Max range of 7.5-8.5pH in the town water supply.

Alarming when you realise that nutrient uptake begins to be effected from 7.5pH and up.

To remidy the situation, last winter i installed a small water tank to catch roof run off. Luckily this year has been quite wet and the tank has just lasted through the’summer’. It is likely i will need to expand my storage again this winter.

Since switching to better water i have seen a big turn around in plant health. Pines are again lush dark green, fungal issues has mostly disappeared, trees on the brink have bounced back. I probably in hindsight should have checked the water pH the day i moved in.

So i suppose that the moral of the story is that when you encounter issues with tree health look to rule out some of the basic influences before going down a targeted treatment regime.

For the price of a pH test kit i would recommend everyone checking their water from time to time, you never know; it could lead to healthier, stronger bonsai!

Its been a while between posts. Im still here and while life has been getting in the way of bonsai the semi regular covid lock-downs have helped me get some quality ‘shed time’ to work on trees and other projects. The next few posts will follow a few of the trees i have been working recently.

I am also ‘de-social media-ing’ myself so i will likely be moving some of my facebook posts over to this blog as well over the next few weeks as time allows. keep an eye on the blog for future updates!

Below is the first of those. It’s a Chinese Elm that found its way to my garden a couple of years ago. I rotated the potting angle to show off the great twists and turns of the trunk and adjusted the branching accordingly. Unfortunately I cant for the life of me find the before pictures so you will have to take my word for it. It came into the shed for a quick clean up which you can see in the pic below.

This little lump of wood is something that has been sitting on my benches for a number of years. I’ve been slowly building branch density and roots having arrived in my garden shortly after it was collected.

With my re-potting supplies delayed due to a Covid19 lock-down I had some spare time and gave it a quick first style. I need to next go through my pots and find something that might fit it when i do get around to re-potting.

It obviously needs a fair amount of more tweaking but I will likely leave that until I get it into a more suitable pot. That said and looking at these photos I can see that the apex is bothering me and will likely need adjusting regardless.

Every bonsai growers secret shame is often buried in the bottom of tool boxes or hidden away from prying eyes.

Once glossy black, smooth and sometimes hand crafted, forged tools forgotten on a bench for mere minutes (or so it seems) can soon turn into rusty messes.

But don’t fear, you don’t have to cast such shame upon yourself and your family, there is a solution……….. (that doesn’t involve buying stainless steel tools).

Lets talk about what the black coating of steel tools is. The process that the tools have been through is called ‘Bluing’.

Bluing is essentially an oxidised layer or more simply, a black/dark blue rust. It forms a layer of oxidisation similar to the oxidised surface of aluminium which prevents further oxidisation to the surfaces below. Essentially this black ‘rust’ or (black oxide) prevents the red rust or (red oxide).

Of course black oxide only prevents this so far, so if conditions are right or moisture levels are great enough the tools will eventually rust. Which is what happened to the tools above. (They may or may not have been left outside for a period of time.)

The first step in restoring the black oxide coating is to remove the rust. Unfortunately black oxide being chemically very similar to red oxide means that in most cases removing the red also removes the black.

Now there are heaps of different ways to remove rust from mechanical (wire brushes and sandpaper) to acids, electrolysis and other chemical solutions.

For the above tools I chose a product called ‘Evaporust’ which removes rust well but doesn’t damage the metal beneath like an acid might which is another good method (citric acid works really well and is cheap but you need to keep an eye on the removal).

After a day or so of soaking the tools come out completely rustfree (of red and black rust).

Now there are two main ways to replace the Bluing; hot bluing and cold bluing.

For the home gamer, cold bluing is probably the most accessable and there are plenty of cold blue products that are mostly aimed as restoring firearm finishes. They usually have pretty clear instructions but for the most part it involves painting on the solution with a cotton swab. (heating the tools with a hair dryer prior to application can make for better results.)

Hot bluing is usually more of an industrial process as the chemical mix used is very toxic/caustic and usually done at high temps.

Hot bluing usually produces a better finish but for a couple of bonsai tools the cold bluing process is generally acceptable.

It can be hard to get a good finish in cold bluing as immaculate preparation and minimum contamination of the steel surface are big drivers of the end result. If you are not too fussy however, applying multiple passes/ coats usually ends in an acceptable end result.

My tools came out OK. Not perfect but certainly better than the rusty mess they began as. If i had perhaps acid etched them a little or done a better job of de-greasing between coats the result would have been less patchy. But for tools that are going to get knocked around and used, it’s good enough.

Following on the Bonsai and Art topic, I thought we could do a shallow dive into some well known art and how it has dealt with the subject of trees.

I’m sure most people reading this blog will either know the name Piet Mondrian and or recognise his artworks.

He is most well known for his bold patterned, minimalist abstract paintings, most often formed in a grid, filled in with bold primary colours.

Whats interesting about his work is that he painted a number of studies of trees, or at least one tree in particular, an Apple (I seem to remember) in his garden.

What I like about this series of paintings is it tracks his exploration into breaking the tree down into its rawest forms. First by showing main branches and omitting fine twigs and working through a series of iterations to end up in pure intersecting lines, completely abstract but born from the original tree.

You can almost see how his eye is developing as his works progress and he starts to distil and see into the form to extract the raw structure of the tree.

If you haven’t seen these paintings I would recommend doing a google search and checking out a few of his tree paintings and studies. He painted many versions of this tree in varying degrees of abstraction which are very interesting to look at and think of how it might relate to a bonsai context.

A few key leaps in his exploration are in the images below:

When I look at these paintings I begin to wonder what the bonsai equivalent of each stage would be? I think Mondrian’s explorations explore many of the things we grapple with as bonsai growers.

  • What do we omit?
  • What do we focus upon?
  • How much abstraction should we include?
  • At what point do we lose the original intent and is this point the moment something unique is born?

All interesting questions to ask your self and think of how they apply to what you do.

I wonder what ‘bonsai boogie woogie’ would look like?

Let’s look at two scenarios, the first one to get your brain gears turning; the second to apply that turning (grinding gears in some cases) to a bonsai context.

Let’s start by scaling up to get the thoughts moving along……….. First question: The universe, how big is it?

One idea is that the universe is infinite and continues indefinitely.

As far as we know, there are some fundamental building blocks making up what we understand of the universe, Atoms, particles, elements etc. all making up the soup of what we can observe, calculate or predict around us.

Now let’s think about ourselves; A 70kg human for example is made up of around 7 X 1027 atoms (that’s a 7 followed by 27 zeros) or seven billion billion billion atoms.  

That is obviously a lot! In an infinite universe however, there are only so many combinations that all those atoms can be assembled into, meaning that if the universe is in fact infinite then there must be, by raw probability alone, the circumstance where not only ourselves but our known reality is perfectly replicated down to the atom.  Meaning somewhere out there in the void, an infinite number of your perfect selves are also reading this strange seemingly un-bonsai related blog post from some guy who has been daydreaming at work and decided to write some thoughts down.

Of course, for every perfect version of what we occupy (which there must be an infinite number of) there must also be an infinite number of alternate combinations, ranging from one atom out of place through to a total reshuffling of everything and of course every possible combination in between.

When I was introduced to that idea it blew my mind and was hard to wrap my head around. It shifted my goal posts and changed what I thought I knew.

It’s much easier to think that the universe is something that is finite, something that has an edge or an end to it.

But then what exists outside of that edge? Interesting things to ponder.  

But how does any of this relate to bonsai? Good question.

You’ve probably thought that this bonsai guy has gone completely mad……. i’ll have what that guy is smoking!

Well kind of; my professional background began in fine art which in turn, led to design, more specifically within Landscape Architecture and Urban Design. Through solving design issues and problems while working on a range of sites and projects I have been able to get a very good understanding of how I see the world, what I am drawn to and what interests me. I’ve begun to understand myself.

I think part of doing anything well is at least starting from a position where you are open to a wide range of ideas and concepts before you hone down to a final position. Once you reach that position I also believe that you should be open to it being challenged and potentially changed from time to time. 

What I have learnt thus far is that it is very easy to begin a task with a whole lot of base assumptions that prevent and exclude capturing opportunities that may have been present but don’t necessarily fit the usual filter. 

The more you understand yourself often the more you have to forget.

The universe is much more than what we know or can ever know, in fact the observable horizon is moving away from us at a faster speed than we could ever approach it so it is unlikely we will ever ‘see’ past what we have already observed. But there is a whole lot more to the universe than what we know or accept as known. I would hazard a guess that the same could be said about how you understand yourself and how you understand you process the world around you. 

Which brings us to bonsai. Bonsai has (particularly in the west) a huge history of base assumptions ranging from form, the limited set of styles we are “allowed” to work within, and the infamous “rules” (right, left , back) of structure and styling.

These are hard things to break or step outside of. But we must. Much like our known universe there is much beyond the horizon of our accepted bonsai traditions.

Which leads me onto the second question: Bonsai, is it art?

“Of course it is!” Is the usual first cries you hear whenever that question is raised.  For the sake of this article, let’s drop that assumption and work through the idea of what bonsai being art actually means.

Firstly, does the fact that we for the most part do not see bonsai being part of fine art museum’s permanent ‘art’ collections not confirm that bonsai is not a clean fit into the fine art world?

Interesting question. Let’s for the sake of argument assume it is fine art.

Collins Dictionary defines art as:

“Art consists of paintings, sculpture, and other pictures or objects which are created for people to look at and admire or think deeply about.”

I think that description sits fairly comfortably with what bonsai is however….

If we look at fine art, subject is not limited. The objects, paintings and performances tackle all gamuts of human existence. Our interaction with emotion, nature, different representation and ideas or expressions all play out in various forms and mediums.

If bonsai is just another medium within an artist’s tool kit then it too should not be limited subjectively. If bonsai is fine art (or even art) then it is fairly unique in that it for the most part is restricted subjectively to representing trees and landscapes in its contemporary forms.

Would bonsai still be bonsai if its forms strayed away from these representations of trees and ideas of natural scenes? Would it still have value?

If bonsai had no relationship to nature in the forms and images it created, would it still be bonsai? Are we as a bonsai community ready to embrace that?

Interesting questions.

If bonsai is to be art, then there are no rules, no limitations, and no guidelines. We have no say in what is acceptable because art by its very nature, validates every expression within it. (The quality of that expression is a whole other discussion).

Can we accept the bonsai version of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal (whatever that might look like expressed through bonsai)? Can we accept the bonsai version of a Mark Rothko abstract colour fields?

Maybe we can? But maybe by doing so we lose what bonsai is?

Perhaps we need to think about it from another perspective? Perhaps bonsai has artistic elements but is not necessarily a pure ‘fine art’?

Collins Dictionary provides a usage of artistic as:

“An artistic design or arrangement is beautiful. …an artistic arrangement of stone paving.”

You will notice now ‘design’ is thrown into the mix. Design is another potential good fit for bonsai but let’s keep that out of our muddied waters for now.

The use of the term ‘artistic’ potentially further clouds things, can stone paving be art? Is all stone paving that has been assembled artistically, fine art? Can anything be artistic by nature and then not be art?

I don’t have any hard and fast answers to the above questions (universe or art wise) but I think they are all interesting concepts to think about and guide what we do.

I hope that by writing this article my role in all of this is to pose these ideas to the wider community and hopefully have people look at and question their own assumptions and or ‘givens’.

Your role in all of this is to question what you do, why you do it and what you hope to achieve. I think ultimately it is your decision as to where you want your bonsai to sit. Art, craft, design, meditative activity, horticultural experiment or frivolous pursuits all hold value and will find different values within different practitioner’s minds.

What I believe is important is that you understand your own motivations and then pursue them. What you produce as a result will find its place in the world one way or another.

As for where I sit in this whole discussion, I think these days I tend to lean towards the infinite universe model and in a lot of ways find it comforting that there may be infinite numbers of ourselves also wondering about how their infinite number of shrunk down potted trees fit into their infinite classifications on their infinite worlds.

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