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The last few weeks have been pretty interesting. Our area has been under covid lock-down limiting movement and socialising and shortly after, a family member was exposed to a covid positive person at a local shopping location and we had to put the whole family into 14 day isolation where we couldn’t leave our property. Luckily we all tested negative but we still needed to complete the 14 day period of isolation…

Without being able to get out to exercise and walk off some of the kids energy we have been trying to come up with ways to occupy them (and ourselves).

Bonsai has been a good distraction and my daughter wanted to help out so we grabbed some things lying around the house and messed around with a few versions of a bonsai display. Its a pretty modern interpretation with a couple of monsters from ‘Ultraman’ showing up but was a fun exercise to do together and really all the same considerations around placement, scale and colour / texture remain.

I was hoping to use some of the other coloured figures but my daughter is going through a dragon phase so switching them out was out of the question.

Any way, they were a bit of fun and killed some time, I hope you enjoy them. Let me know in the comments your favorite version.

I’ve gown Pinus Radiata (Monterey pines) on and off over the years and have somewhat of a love hate relationship with the species. They have several good points and are readily available as escapees from the several large plantations close to home. They have great characteristics such as good bark, fast growth and seemingly high survival rate when collecting but………. That said, their foliage can be ‘scrappy’ and there seems to be a big difference between older examples and more modern plantation escapees which I think is due to the genetic selection of the forestry stock and how it has changed over the years. These younger trees seem to have much more twisty and messy needle formations and growth patterns compared to older stock examples.

Near home is one of the first radiata stock trees that was selected for a parent or mother tree of much of the forestry stock at the time (planted in the 1880’s). From what I understand this tree was used early on but is no longer a parent, as better examples were grown, bred and fine tuned.

That said i have been digging various specimens again with the idea of grafting them over to white pine or perhaps red pine to make use of the great bark but also get good foliage characteristics. Well, at least that was the plan…..

While out exercising the family in one of the local forests, I came across this radiata witches broom located not too high up in the canopy. I found another of these a couple of years ago, but while waiting for the right season to graft, the plot of trees was logged, losing my opportunity.

This one I should have a lot more time up my sleeve to try to get some material off it to propagate as the trees it is growing in amongst are much younger and likely 10 years away from harvest.

What are witches brooms I hear you ask? Essentially they are a form of damage to a tree (virus, insect or otherwise) that change the genetics of a particular area of growth on a tree often resulting in a dense twiggy dwarf section of growth. Often these areas can be propagated (via layer, grafting or cutting etc.) to retain these characteristics and create new versions of the parent stock.

This broom was showing dense growth and shorter more compact and neat needles so I am hopeful it may be a good candidate to replace scrappy radiata foliage with and still keep it in the family so to speak. Time will tell I suppose.

Who knows it could turn out to be a good new bonsai stock option. Many famous dwarf cultivars started as witches brooms; for example, yatsubusa Japanese black pine came from a witch’s broom on a kotobuki black pine.

ON A SIDE NOTE: Has anyone had much success grafting radiata pines (Monterey pines)? What species did you try? I’d be really keen to here about your experiences in the comments!

During one of the now countless lockdowns our state has been through, I enrolled myself into a Tafe Engineering (Machining) class as a point of difference in what at the time was a fairly monotonous pattern of “covid normalcy”.

It’s been a great change of pace and learning to run Metal lathes, mills and other machines (that seem to always be plotting to kill you or remove you digits) has been very enjoyable.

As re-potting season is gearing up, it was about time to steal another of my wife’s chopsticks to aid with soil settling. This year however, I decided that with 100’s of thousands of dollars worth of machines at my disposal that I should make a tool to do the job rather than raiding the cutlery draw.

So I fired up the lathe and started turning down some steel and brass.

I turned a handle out of some brass stock and made the shank from some 6mm mild steel bar. The two pieces are fitted together in a low tolerance fit and are held together with thread lock. That way should I ever want to change the shank (or switch to a stainless one), I can heat it up, break the bond and swap it out relatively easily.

I’ve repotted a number of trees with it already and it seems to work well. It’s certainly heavy in the hand and feels solid.

I enjoyed making it and there is something really nice about doing work with tools you have made yourself. Which brings me to a question back to who ever is reading this:

Does any one have any good idea for bonsai tools I could try to make in the future? If you have a good idea, please comment below. If it is something I could see myself using I will more than likely have a go at making it.

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.

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!

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.

At what point does nature stop being natural? Can we nurture nature to be natural?

I’ve been doing a bit of thinking lately (perhaps too much) and somewhere along the line, I started to think about the idea of nature and ‘looking natural’ in relation to bonsai.

I find the idea of striving to ‘be natural’ in bonsai ironic and somewhat funny as just about everything we do in bonsai is artificial, manipulated and controlled. In fact, if we put a tree in a pot and let ‘nature’ do it’s thing, it grows into something that usually isn’t accepted as bonsai.

Then what is the aim of bonsai? What are we trying to represent?

Most people I talk to are trying to represent a tree when they are considering styling a bonsai. But there is inherent problems with replicating full sizes trees in a shrunk down form.

Making a shrunk down, 100% accurate scale model of a tree is an impossible task to achieve with living plant material. You simply cannot recreate most of a full sized tree’s detail in miniature.

So even when attempting to make a scale model in bonsai, a certain level of approximation or abstraction has to be employed which pushes the end product away from it’s natural inspiration.

What is an acceptable level of abstraction or approximation?

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we make these abstraction decisions when designing bonsai. We decide what characteristics we believe represent a certain tree or species, or use what the collective unconscious holds as an archetypal symbol of a tree (or bonsai) and use it in our designs. This of course can shift culturally and may vary across the world as peoples’ experience of different climates, ecosystems and their relationship with the world around them varies.

So what natural bonsai is, is actually what humanity has deemed to be natural.

‘Natural’ as an idea or construct is a man-made construct in the first instance.

So then are all the results of natural processes ‘natural’ by definition? And following on from that thought, is nature what we are striving to recreate in the first place?

Is this a natural response therefore a natural look? Sorry oak, you’re not behaving like you should.

Is it not more interesting to look at bonsai as human kind’s relationship with the natural world?

Humans experience of the world is a limited one. Our brains, eyes and ears filter out a whole range of information that is out there in the world around us.

We cant see the infrared spectrum, hear certain frequencies or smell in the way other animals can. By default our experience of nature is not the full picture.

Depending on the person that is viewing the world around them, different elements or areas will become more prominent depending on their interpretation.

A simple example of this might be asking two people to pick a single element that represents a forest in their minds. Depending on the person’s previous experiences and knowledge you may get one person thinking of a dense green canopy over head with another focusing on a tight rhythm or collection of trunks.

Another might be one individual noticing hundreds of tiny mushrooms on the forest floor as the next person walk past oblivious to their existence.

When we are designing bonsai we use this limited window that we look through to make choices, meaning that the decisions that are made, the abstractions, the areas of focus etc are all based from a human perspective and say more about the person that has created the bonsai than about the world it is trying to represent.

So how do you see the world around you? Have you ever stopped to think about how your interpretation of the world differs from someone else?

Are you trying to represent nature in your bonsai? Or something else?

Me, I’m not too concerned with representing scaled down trees or trying to replicate ‘nature’.

I don’t even mind if a species of bonsai doesn’t look like that same species in the wild. (a topic for another day)

Over my bonsai growing experience thus far I have enjoyed unpicking how I see the world, figuring out what i’m drawn to and what interests me.

I’m not interested in the perfect average example of a species. I like the outliers. I like the weird and wonderful, and I think that flows through into the types of bonsai I like to look at and aspire to grow.

I’ll end this rambling with a favourite tree not far from my home that has featured on the blog before. Nature can sure make some un-natural forms!

Do outliers make natural images? (One of my favourite trees in a local pine plantation)

Do you ever look at a tree and wonder what you were thinking when you made a previous decision about it?

Pretty sure (according to my detailed and hazy recollection) that this tree was re-potted some time in the last two to three years. It hazards a guess then as to why I chose to pot it with this front at the time?

The tree in question is another English Elm (brother of THIS tree) that I have been slowly growing branches on. I tracked down the gnarled trunk a number of years ago along with some other weird and wonderful stock which are also in similar stages of branch building.

I brought this particular tree into the workshop the other day and removed some old Autumn leaves along with the weeds that were thriving under my care.

As is often the case when performing routine maintenance, you really get a good chance to look at a tree from all angles, inspect features and generally get reacquainted with it, which is exactly what happened here.

Having turned the front 15 degrees I realised that it was a much better front (the square hole of negative space disappears, the canopy is more even, movement is more directional and it flows better).

After making this discovery, it had me questioning why I had chosen the original front in the first place?

Had the tree developed in such a way that the front had gone from a good decisions to a poor choice? Had I not been paying enough attention last time I potted the tree? Has my eye developed so I am now seeing something I previously couldn’t?

There must have been an answer at one point, unfortunately it seems to be lost to my immaculate mental record keeping and the rigors of time.

This is another tree ready for a change of pot (to something more suitable than its current grow pot) and hopefully in the coming months I can rectify these past miscarriages of bonsai artistry and who knows, i might also get around to re-wiring the branching (particularly the lower left branch).

This constant update and change that happens with bonsai is one of the points that keeps me engaged and interested in growing them. As I develop as a grower (heaven forbid I brand myself an artist, (more on bonsai and art in a future post) my eye and tastes have shifted which has often seen previous good decisions become bad choices that need to be remodeled and remade.

It brings me back to the idea of self reflection and looking at your bonsai objectively with fresh eyes each time you work on them. Never accept what you are presented with, and always look to push past where you last left off.

Maybe to be able to do this well you need to forget the decisions that came before…………..

This post comes a little late (lets call it fashionably late) as the announcement regarding demonstrators, program and venue was made around 2 weeks ago.

That said I am also very happy to announce that i have been selected to demonstrate as part of the event. I feel very lucky, grateful (and a touch nervous) to have been given the opportunity to stand along side artists that I have admired during my own journey down the bonsai rabbit hole.

Some of the names you might recognise are:

Hugo Zamora – Latin America region
Kim Seok Ju – Asia-Pacific region
Ravindran Damodar – South Asia region
Zhang Zhigang – China region
Shinji Suzuki – Japan region
Marc Noelanders – Europe region
Michael Hagedorn – North America region
Jonathan Cain – Africa region
Tony Bebb – Australia-New Zealand region
• And me…. Joe Morgan-Payler – Australia-New Zealand region

There will also be a suiseki display critique by Seiji Morimae which will no doubt be insightful and interesting.

The full program and other information about the convention and perth in general can be found at the convention website:

You can also keep up to date on the facebook page found here:

For the astute reader, you can also find a bearded me (convention video) and a clean shaven me (convention booklet) hidden around the site.

With every thing happening across the globe at this time I am really looking forward to this event as something positive to aim for. It’s going to be a great event!

I hope to see and meet as many of you as I can in 2021 in Perth. If you see me in beard or without come up and say hello!

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