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Both my bonsai and personal life have been busy of late. I am fortunate that this year I have been invited to demonstrate and run workshops across Australia for local club, groups and the AABC National Convention.  On top of this travel I just begun winter styling of clients trees. It looks like I will have a fairly full book of client trees, workshops and demonstrations that combined with a young child, a house half way through renovations and a full-time job doesn’t leave a lot of time to work my own collections.

Today’s post is actually about a tree I worked on a year ago whilst in japan.

It was a small shimpaku juniper that Oyakata asked me to wire and style prior to taking it to auction the following day to be sold.

Prior to the work

Prior to the work

I initially wanted to tilt the tree to the right so that the first bend would come in contact with the soil giving the appearance of a much larger trunk but Oyakata didn’t want to re-pot as the auction was so close and as a result we utilised the existing angle and front.

It turned out to be a fairly straight forward re-style and Oyakata told me it sold well at the auction.

Post work.

Post work.

Looking back on trees like this it really gives me the incentive to start growing my own material to this standard. I now have a backyard big enough to experiment with a whole lot more stock so I am looking forward to starting this process off this year. Who knows, in ten years time I might have a whole lot of these ready for display………..

During my last trip to Japan I worked on what might be a very special maple. Oyakata brought it to me to cut back and wire in preparation for the following springs growth.

He said it was a very famous tree that had been sold, miss-treated, had gone backwards and was now back at the nursery to be re made under Oyakata’s care.

The tree in question.

The tree in question.

The tree had supposedly featured in the Gafu-ten special tree album “Miyabi” that recognised important shohin bonsai masterpieces and pots.

Of course, I quickly dug out the album and tried to locate the tree. But, it was not so easy.

The best match I could find was the tree below.

The same tree?

The same tree?

I am fairly sure this is the same tree although it has obviously changed a lot since that picture was taken. I am guessing it’s been about 10 years between the two pictures and many aspects are similar although many are also very different.

The base has obviously thickened considerably totally changing the proportions but you can just make out the link to the original form. Some of the original branches have also been lost, have thickened and or have seemed to have moved as the trunk has spread. all this make recognising the tree difficult. I am 90% sure its the same tree but of course there is a good chance I am wrong.

Any forensic bonsai detectives out there? Can you see the similarities? Is this the same tree?

After some work.

After some work.

The work itself was fairly straight forward. I tried to remove thick branch tips, pruned out other unnecessary branching and wired a rough structure. The usual work for a deciduous tree in this stage.

From the back.

From the back.

It’s nice to know that the tree is back on the path to one day being a great little shohin tree again. Looking over the above pics really makes you appreciate how much trees change over time and how you are forced to forever re-imagine them and adapt to mishaps as they develop and change. The nice thing about working with living things is their ability to be reworked and recovered which i think this tree is a good example of.

A year later.

A year later. Thanks for the pic Kelvin!

A friend sent me some photos of this tree during his recent trip that shows another year of ramification and a change in pot. The trunk looks thicker again! It’s amazing what a year can do and only makes you think of how great this tree could have  looked if it hadn’t gone backwards for a period of years after appearing in miyabi.

In today’s post I am hoping to explain one of the more difficult concepts of bonsai and or any art or design for that matter.  It is the concept of seeing.

But doesn’t everyone see? Well not exactly. I like to think that everyone ‘looks’ (except the blind) but not everyone ‘sees’.

What do I mean by that? Well, I like to think that seeing involves interpreting what it is that you are looking at in a meaningful way. For example; if you were to look at a truck, you mind would see the shape and tell your brain you were looking at a truck. But really what you are looking at is a combination of shapes and forms that are all put together to form what we know as a truck. Does it have four wheels, six, eight? Twin cab, single cab? Flat tray, refrigerated? Trucks come in a range of styles and shapes and to just write it off as a ‘truck’ is missing a lot of information.

Clear as mud?

I was going through my photos from my last trip to japan (almost a year ago today) and noticed a good example of me not being able to really see what was right in front of me.

While i was in japan I worked on the below white pine while studying at Taisho-en.

The original front

The original front

Firstly, I decided that from this aspect the larger root formed a very straight line which was much less obvious from the tree’s back side. So I decided on a front change.

The original back (new front)

The original back (new front)

So far the styling was going to plan. New front decided, check.

I then addressed the old first branch (which was now a back branch) by cutting it off.

Branch removed

Branch removed

This achieved a couple of things. Firstly it removed a large heavy branch which took away from the trunks size and secondly it compacted the tree which highlighted the trunk further.

Following the cut, I cleaned the foliage and branches, worked on the jin that the cut off branch had created and also introduced some shari to the new front of the tree. I added a bunch of wire and finally came up with an image I was happy with.

Where i thought the tree was finished.

Finished?

At which stage Oyakata strolled past and gave his review of the tree. I sat and listened and took on board what he was saying, nodding and agreeing with everything he was saying. Every point he made was spot on and I could see the issues the minute he mentioned them. I felt a little embarrassed I hadn’t picked them up myself as I had been staring at this tree for the best part of a day and hadn’t actually seen the errors that were right in front of my nose. My eye had got lazy and my work had suffered as a result.

After adjustments

After adjustments

Oyakata had made a couple of small changes that made big difference. He slightly adjusted the front angle which moved the back branch (between apex and first branch) into a position that gave some indentation to the outer silhouette. This broke up the rigid silhouette and made the canopy outline more interesting.

He also broke up the large mass of the apex by bringing some negative space into the apex foliage, exposing a section of trunk. This added layers of detail and changed the appearance and perceived scale of the tree.

He then slightly separated the bottom edges of the two pads on either side of the apex. Looking at the above image with this in mind, the separation could be enhanced to create some more dynamism in the future.

Now nothing that Oyakata did was earth shattering. All his adjustments were quite simple design changes that I already should have known. The issue was that I had stopped looking at the tree analytically and rather had got caught up in the over all form.

It probably had something to do with it being the end of the day and perhaps i might have picked up these changes had I come back to the workshop fresh in the morning but it is an important reminder to not just look at your trees. You should look analytically so that you really ‘see’ what is going on.

I am sure you all have trees on your benches that you look at every day, who’s form and structure you have become accustomed to and have stopped looking for improvement in. We all do it and it is one of the major contributing factors as to why an artists bonsai stagnate.

Small changes can have big effects, so get out there and really try to ‘see’ what you are looking at. Challenge what is in front of you and always look for improvement.

Most skills in bonsai can be learnt in a short time frame but developing your eye and keeping it active and critical, especially in regards to your own work, and this requires constant work over a long time frame.

The trident maple below is this years project. I spotted this tree in a friends garden and loved the big gnarly base.  I like the base so much that I have just realised that I don’t have a picture of the whole tree, just photos of the base!

Lumpy flared base.

Lumpy flared base.

After removing one root, can you see where it came from?

After removing one root, can you see where it came from?

The base has great character but the rest of the tree is tall and directs the eye away from the nebari so I felt I could work on that to improve the tree overall. The other challenge with this trident is that it is a variety with large leaves and long internodes which makes it difficult to make a good canopy, especially on small trees.

I have noticed that other tridents with this growth habit also develop nice bases easily. The down side is that their ramification is course and thick. How can you make use of the base and also have a good foliage canopy?

Approach grafting new foliage.

Approach grafting new foliage.

The answer is to change the foliage. I decided to graft a finer foliage onto the lower section of the trunk so that I can make a shohin sized small tree with a huge powerful base and fine delicate branching.

Seedling planted in the same pot.

Seedling being planted in the same pot.

I chose a seedling from a batch that showed good foliage characteristics. That is smaller internodes and compact growth. I planted the seedling into the same pot as the main tree for ease of watering and then grafted the young whip into the main trunk.

I actually grafted it twice into the trunk, once on each side. I bent the seedling into a ‘u’ shape and simple cut a channel in either side of the trunk for the seedling to fit into. One side will become the apex, the other will become the first branch. This way I will have the same foliage on the whole tree once I cut off the main trunk in a year or two.

Even though i am changing the foliage I also wanted to keep the old foliage so i can experiment with it in regards to its base thickening properties. To save the foliage I decided to air layer off the top and the first branch.

The cut made and scraped clean.

The cut made and scraped clean. I actually used some branch cutters to cut a small amount of wood from around the layer site to ensure I got all of the cambian layer.

Spagnum moss soaked in seasol all wrapped in strong plastic.

Sphagnum moss soaked in seaweed extract, all wrapped in strong plastic.

If these layers work, I will probably grow them in pots for a year or two before ground growing them to see if the base flaring/thickening is a genetic trait or just a result of how this tree was grown.

I have noticed that there are tridents that grow good bases and poor ramification and then tridents that do the opposite. Has anyone else noticed this?

I am hoping that I can use cuttings from this tree to grow great bases then graft a good foliage variety on top to finish up the process. Time will tell if this works out or not. If this doesn’t work out I have another seed grown trident that shows similar properties. Fingers crossed.

 

Every one needs a project or two in their collection. I really enjoy project trees, that is tree that are undergoing various processes to transform them into a new style, shape or form.  The problem is that each year project trees undergo their transformation and then move into ramification/maintenance phases leaving me to find new projects.

Trident maples are one of my favorite species to work on and I really enjoy having one as a project. I always have my eye out for something that has plenty of room for improvement. The tree below is one such tree.

The tree as I recieved it

The tree as I received it

The tree was an imported trident maple. It had been brought into the country back in the 90’s when Australia’s border protection was much more flexible in regards to bringing bonsai in.

When I got the tree it had been left to grow out for the last 2 years and as a result there was a fair amount of work required to bring it back to its former glory.

After first cutback.

After first cutback.

The first thing I did was cut it back hard to stimulate some back budding. It’s branches were quite old so it didn’t bud out how I had hoped. This lead me to go down the path of approach grafting rather than risk cutting off branches and not get any buds pop. I decided to graft on a new set of branches at the base of all the old branches. In total I grafted 5 branches and left the tree to grow.

The grafted branches have taken.

The grafted branches have taken.

I also re-potted the tree and found a lump of old akadama in the center of the root ball. I bare rooted and picked all the old soil out of the root-ball. Almost immediately after the re-potting the vigour of the tree improved and I was rewarded with strong growth which helped the approach grafts to take. In the above image you can see the grafts emerging from the underside of each branch.

The large branches removed.

The large branches removed.

This spring I cut off all the large branches as the grafts were now strong enough to take over the sap flow.  When I made the cuts I cleaned the wounds up with a knife and then applied cut paste which in my experience helps things heal.

A wound and a grafted branch.

A wound and a grafted branch.

I have left the grafted shoots long and I will let them grow until I am sure that they are strong and well connected to the host trunk. Once I am sure of that (probably in a month or so) I will cut them back to the first internode and then begin growing the branch structure.

Unfortunately the back branch’s graft didn’t take but as luck would have it this spring a bud has popped right at the base of the branch right where I wanted it. Sometime trees do what you want.

The two leaves are the new bud at the bas of the back branch.

The two leaves are the new bud at the base of the back branch.

Once this shoot is strong enough I will also cut off the old thick back branch above.

This spring I also placed the last graft I need, just below the apex. This should allow me to cut off the last heavy branch on the tree without having to chance whether or not I get a bud where I want.

The shoot on the bottom left is bent up to under the apex where it has been approach grafted into the trunk.

The shoot on the bottom left is bent up to under the apex where it has been approach grafted into the trunk.

Its been fun replacing the branches on this tree and i am looking forward to this season of growth where i can start to grow the branch structure and form the outline of the bonsai. Hopefully in 5 more years this will be a highly ramified and ready to show bonsai. Time will tell.

Well as is often the case, life has been busy and the blog has suffered. I have been able to find some time today to write a string of posts that should be published over the next few weeks.

To kick things off, while going through my photos i found some before and after images of a small tree I have been playing with. The images are just a summer’s growth apart and seeing pictures like this reminds me of how good it is to capture your trees in images to track their developement. This tree I thought hadn’t really changed all that much but looking at the images you can see it has changed a lot from the start of the season.

Picture one shows the tree as I received it. It was imported from japan some time in the 1990’s when regulations were a little less strict and I managed to be in the right place at the right time and picked it up.

This is how i recieved the tree (althought i think for this photo i had just cut off a number of long branches)

This is how I received the tree (although I think for this photo I had just cut off a number of long sacrifice branches that had grown out)

Since it came into my collection I have potted it up and begun to build the branch structure. I had to graft on a branch (Third on the left) but now the basic structure is set and I am looking forward to ramifying it over the coming summer.

As the tree is now, ready for another years development.

As the tree is now, ready for another years development.

Probably next year it could go into a more suitable pot but for now the Koyou pot it is residing in isn’t too bad.

Where to from now? well I want to grow the first branch out a little longer and generally ramify up the tree a whole lot more. Buds are just starting to open and I cant wait to get started.

The following tree is a customer’s that is already well on its way as bonsai. The tree has had its first styling many years ago and is now at the development and refinment part of its life.

Before

Before

The tree had just been un-wired when I received it to work on and I set about re-applying wire to fine tune certain areas of the trees canopy.

Many areas in the canopy had borrowed foliage that had served it purpose and could be replaced with growth from better locations so a fair amount of branches were removed. I also focused in turning large singular pads into multiple, smaller layers to add some more detail to the tree.

After

After

Probably the largest change to the tree was removing a portion of the first left hand side branch to reveal the elbow in the trunk and small shari. I also lifted the first right hand side branch and generally compacted the foliage mass.

I think now the trunk appears much larger and the branch structure is now made up of more, smaller sized pads which add detail and give a sense of scale to the tree.

Although I have been told some people have an issue with the straight section of lower trunk, I really like the tree and don’t mind its irregular trunk. Perhaps in future re-pottings the owner could lower the planting level which might visually shorten the trunk line a little.

Overall a very nice tree that was a lot of fun to work on.

Another customer tree that has undergone needle work, candle selection and re-setting of the pads (tenaoshi). Unfortunately I didn’t realise the camera was in black and white mode for the after picture but you can see the results fairly well despite the lack of colour.

Before, looking bushy and healthy after a season of good growth.

Before, looking bushy and healthy after a season of good growth.

An film noir look at this bunjin tree after the work.

A film noir look at this bunjin tree after the work.

Not a dramatic change, merely some minor tweaks and re-setting of some candles that grew out of the silhouette. Over all a very nice tree that is ready for another year of development.

Tenaoshi (手し) is a japanese term for a what is a fairly un glamorous but necessary task. The character  ‘te’ (手) means hand and ‘naoshi’ (し) means to fix or repair so together they basically translate to fixing by hand. It’s a very logical description that describes the maintenance task of resetting and fixing the tree after a season’s growth.

As the tree grows often branches slowly lift their tips, and or the wind, passing people and or animals can displace branches despite being wired. To remedy this the artist should as part of their maintenance adjust the wiring and maybe even add some additional wire to new growth. Often this fixing by hand is combined with some light trimming (and needle work in the case of pines).

after a seasons growth

A customer’s white pine after a season’s growth.

As large changes in the before and after images are not really the aim, tenaoshi can seem like a bit of a tiresome task, but it is an important part of any seasonal bonsai routine and your trees will be much the worse for not doing it.

After some trimming, needle work and re-setting of foliage.

After some trimming, needle work and re-setting of foliage.

So next time you are out in your garden working on your trees, don’t simply wait until the tree needs re-wiring, adjust the wire that is currently on the tree to keep it looking and growing in the best form it can.

Been busy as per usual but I have managed time to fit in a couple of customer trees.

Below is a quick before and after of a black pine that needed teasing out of a sea of needles. A fun tree to style.

Before

Before

The after shot is a little lacking in quality but I am sure you get the idea.

After a day or so work.

After a day or so work.

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