As promised, I’ve been working my way through the seasonal needle work on my black pines. Its a busy time of year for pines (as the title’s poor taste pun suggests) and can become a bit monotonous.

Endless thinning out, cutting back and de-wiring in preparation for next season growth and future styling is the order of the season. It’s not particularly glamorous work but necessary much like the bulk of bonsai care, the dramatic styling we all know and love really are a minor part of growing bonsai.

Of the two trees in this post, one was de-candled last season, the other was not. Can you guess which is which?

Not a whole lot to say that the pictures cant do on their own so I might leave this update brief. I have a bunch more to get through so expect some more updates in the coming weeks.

I was hoping to have a few more done but as is often the way, I got side tracked and began to re-wire on of the trees I was working (possibly a subject of a future post). As a result, it pushed back the other trees I need to clean up but we should be back on track shortly.

Trees below:

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)

I have begun (slightly late) my pine work and tonight I had the chance to select buds, pluck some needles and de-wire this little Japanese red pine.

The first tree in this clip is the red pine in question as per the 2018 Australian Association of Bonsai clubs national convention.

The process itself essentially involves assessing the new growth that developed after de-candling, balancing strength and density of old and new needles and reducing shoots back to pairs of two where more than two have developed.

Its a fairly straight forward process but certainly can take some time. Luckily on small trees the amount of time required is conveniently shortened while the frustration of not enough room to work is increased.

As part of the work I de-wired the tree. Most branches stayed in place but I decided to remove a front branch that was getting long and leggy which has created a hole that I plan to fill with some upper foliage next time I fully wire the tree. (perhaps next summer after de-candling)

For those interested, I did dig up a very early shot of the tree that I am guessing is from around 2012 or there about. Its come a long way and endured many an insult and mistake along the way!

2012, interesting to see how far it’s come.

The below pine is one I’ve had for a number of years.

It started it’s life as a much taller formal upright but by the time I took over the care of it, the upper portions had developed severe wire scarring and ugly lumps. It was restyled using only one branch, and so a formal upright became a semi-cascade.

The tree grew in this form for a number of years and slowly developed and filled in. I’d never really been very attached to the tree and I could never really put my finger on quite what it was that annoyed me about it.

I like the bark, the jin up top, and semi-cascades generally, but for what ever reason the tree never spoke to me. (yes I know, trees can’t speak)

At one stage I had Evan Marsh staying with me and I gave him a shot at styling it. He wired it up and did the much needed task of breaking up some large areas of foliage into individual pads.

I didn’t mind Evans styling but as soon as the tree grew out it again began to annoy me. It became a giant pom pom of foliage and had run out of room for additional ramification.

At some point I re-potted it into a lovely pot I was gifted (or perhaps traded for a gyoza dinner?) from Luke at Adelaide Bonsai Pottery (check him out, he does some very nice containers)

The pot suited the tree much more from both a size and style perspective and it made me think a bit more about the tree. The thinking didn’t go on for too long as I cut off a couple of branches to create some space in the canopy and put it back on the benches.

Which basically gets us to the starting off point of its most recent revisit.

While I liked the pot and the removed branches were an improvement, it was still not a tree I really liked.

I had been putting off working the tree for a while and had planned to simply remove the wire that was on it and pull some needles to prevent too much wire scaring. Like what often happens however, when you start working on a tree, (often during standard maintenance procedures), you make new discoveries and or see things from new angles (often literally).

I cut off a couple more branches. As they came off, it revealed some lines and movement in the upper sections that I thought were worth showing off some more. So out came the wire and I begun fully restyle the tree.

I wired it up and sat back and looked at where I had got to. I had compacted the head and brought it lower by bending the branch supporting the apex down somewhat to make the apex jin more prominent.

But there was still something bugging me about the composition.

The lower foliage was all forming one visual lump. I decided to test what it might look like with another branch removed. Out came an oily rag that had been wrapping an old motorbike carburettor and I tested to see how it would look.

I made the cut and a couple of small adjustments and this is where I finished up.

We are still a season or two away from being exhibition ready but at least now the bones (branches?) I will be building upon are ones I am much more happy with.

I think I will stare at this one on the benches for the next little while and decide where to from here. Maybe a trial run on a display stand… ooooh the possibilities!

What do you think? have you had trees that have undergone similar transformations: from unloved bench space occupier to something that might get a run at a show?

In the coming weeks I have a number of other pines that I need to get around to working (tis the season for pulling needles) so they will form the basis of the next few posts.

If it’s pine content you are after or have questions you want answered (life, pine related or otherwise) chuck them in the comments below and I’ll see if I can answer them in coming posts.

Until the net one……….

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:

https://www.worldbonsaiconvention2021.com/

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

https://www.facebook.com/WBC2021/

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!

Looking back at the date of the last blog post (2017), it kind of feels like i have abandoned this blog!

A lot has happened since the last post with life squarely getting in the way of bonsai on a regular basis.

I now have 2 kids and getting through their young years has certainly taken away from the amount of time I have had to work my own trees.

My motivation has had it’s ups and downs, with it hard some days to look at trees that are screaming out for time to be spent on them, time that I simply don’t have. It’s been hard seeing some trees go backwards while i focus the limited time i have on my better trees.

I will likely be selling off a few trees to get back to a number that I can spend the right amount of time upon.

I have managed to keep the teaching side of my bonsai practice going which has been really good as it is always exciting to help students get the best out of their trees.

I have also recently been announced as one of the Australian Demonstrators at the World bonsai Convention in Perth next year (more on that in a future post) which is very exciting and daunting all at once!

On the home front my trees have been getting some attention but never as much as they need. To rectify that I have built a small shed/ workshop which has allowed me to get some bonsai work done once the kids are asleep. It looks like I will turn into a nocturnal bonsai grower!

I will probably do a shed tour post at some stage if its something people are interested in. One of the things the recent covid19 lockdown has allowed me to do in the shed has been installing an old blind that now serves as my new photo background. Its a warm beige (or perhaps bone, off white, cream, light brown, or any other number of versions of that colour).

It was chosen to be close to the colour that Taisho-en uses for its photo background in my good friend Asunma San’s workshop (some pics of the colour can be seen in the post Quiet Reflection). You can let me know if you think the colour is a good match below….

Anyway, enough excuses, its been over 3 years since my last post and I figured that it is about time I got back into the swing of updating the blog on at least a semi regular basis.

I’ll jump straight in with a small unusual English Elm.  

I wont go into too much detail around the work, in essence it was a gentle rewire but i like the direction it is heading. I guess i will have to start looking for a pot……. Probably a good excuse to go through all the boxes of pots I have stashed away. (more potential future post content)

I am a big fan of weird, lumpy and strange material, so this tree is right up my alley and perhaps the perfect restart to the blog. I hope you enjoy the tree. What pot would you choose?

See you in the next post!

Joe.

I’ve been trawling through some of my old photos lately, pictures of previously sold or styled bonsai or trees that I’ve worked on over the years.

It’s been good to look over them with a fresh set of eyes, noticing all the mistakes, problems and weaknesses. Trees that I was once proud of now show bare my shortcomings during that period.

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A tree I styled almost 10 years ago while in Japan in 2007. When cleaning the foliage I was overly keen on stripping old growth from the first branch, leaving it weak, and was reprimanded accordingly. I didn’t do that again.

Some of those trees still bare signs of those errors years later and it will take many more years to correct them. It is a good reminder of just how far my skills have improved over time and how this art we pursue is an ever evolving learning process.

Just when you think you think you are getting a handle on what it is you are doing, a new avenue of possibility opens up and challenges your understanding.

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A huge flat bottom pad. I would approach that differently these days.

The beauty of bonsai is that the trees we work on evolve over time along with our skills, vision and understanding of the art. Your actions on the tree, right or wrong, shape both the bonsai and yourself.

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I was overly concerned with needle length over health and candled pruned when I shouldn’t have. It set this tree back years and is only really just getting back into it’s rhythm again 5 years later.

There are trees that I have worked that have shaped the way I look at bonsai as much as I have shaped them. I am constantly challenged and surprised by trees I see which keeps the art fresh and engaging.

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I tightened the bends in the deadwood, leaving it less interesting than when I begun.

I’ve enjoyed digging back through time in this way and I look forward to gazing back in another few years time and seeing how my understanding of the art has once again changed, improved and ultimately furthered my approach to creating bonsai.

Just a quick post for those clubs, organisations and individuals out there looking for bonsai demonstration, workshops, teaching and private work this year. I have been taking bookings since late last year and my schedule is filling up fast.

So far I will be working with clubs and individuals around Victoria (Melbourne, Geelong, Ballarat), Canberra, Sydney and Western Australia.

I still have some openings and would love to get to other parts of the country and share ideas and knowledge with new faces.

Tasmania, The Northern Territory, Queensland, New Zealand or anywhere else for that matter, if you are looking for a demonstrator I would be keen to discuss how I can work with you.

I am a Level 1 demonstrator with the AABC but am also able to organise work on private collections and or targeted teaching for individuals.

If interested, send me an email and we can go from there.

nichigobonsai***gmail.com

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The idea of using Australian native plants as bonsai has been gaining momentum over the last few years. Bonsai growther in Australia are very excited about developments and experiments with various local species to the point where dedicated native bonsai clubs have been established.

This is all good news in my books. We have a great range of interesting plants and while I personally think that many that are used as bonsai currently are not ideally suited to bonsai there are some species that not only are suited to bonsai cultivation but thrive under it.

Having said that, I haven’t owned any natives in my collection. It’s not that I didn’t want some, it was more to do with the fact that I haven’t come across any stock that grabbed me or that I was willing to collect.

Most stock i see is converted from normal nursery stock and has never really grabbed me although i know of at least one grower that is now putting in the hard yards to grow high quality native stock spefically for bonsai.

I also have mixed thoughts on collecting natives from the “wild” and personally would rather remove the many exotic weeds that are damaging the bush rather than remove the few interesting native bonsai specimens that i might find. I personally have enjoyed stumbling across contorted native material during hikes into the bush and Ithink it is somewhat selfish to remove this opportunity for others just so i can have something in my backyard.

My native  bonsai situation changed however this past winter when a good friend allowed me to dig a plant from her garden. It’s a Baeckea and has some amazing features that should see it becoming a top tree in years to come.

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Twisting deadwood, extreme movement and tight foliage should all work together to form an interesting bonsai in the future. 

It was my first time digging a Baeckea and while it suffered some die-back after collection the remaining growth is now putting out new shoots which is always a comforting sign. I will not be in a hurry to develop this tree as it really needs to recover, put on new growth and develop new roots prior to me doing any work.

I will then be looking to down-size the container it is in and begin working on the structure of the tree. This is probably a number of years off but I am looking forward to the journey from this early starting point. I will keep the blog updated as it progresses.

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nichigobonsai***gmail.com

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