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I don’t grow cedars myself but I have worked a number of nice ones over the years. The tree below is no exception.

It is owned by a good friend of mine who had just got it back after it spent a number of years with someone else. It was a little weak when he got it so he had spent some time letting it gain strength once more…….. which gets us to the below (terrible quality phone pic) image.

I’d love to take all the credit for this tree but really all I did was follow the bones that were there. I compressed the apex a little and moved some things about, all in all I was just bringing out the qualities that already existed.

The tree still has a ways to go but it is covered in buds in all the areas you would want to fill out (like the bottom branch) so I’m pretty confident that even after one year the tree will look full and much more developed.

On a side note, the roots remind me of a hand grabbing at the soil. Try to un-see it.

I’ve been working through some of my trees. Two of which are these black pines that were featured in the below blog post earlier this year:

CLICK HERE

Those two trees had their yearly needle work done and I now finally got around to wiring them.

Due to my water issues I had let many of my trees grow out (without doing the usual candle work etc) to gain some strength, and as a result their styling looks a little more sparse than it might otherwise. That said, I am happy with the strength they are now displaying and this styling will set them up for the next few years where I will work towards some more back budding and ramification.

Before after’s below:

I discovered on the tree above some significant rot had formed on the left side of the trunk. I dug out what I could but I will have to further investigate / treat it during repotting in the next few months.

This next tree was fairly straight forward, it was wired out and it’s branching spread to allow for the in-fill budding and ramification that I will hopefully build over the next couple of years. With any luck, this tree will fill in fairly quickly and present a dense canopy.

There is something to be said about the different ways in which you might approach styling depending on what stage the material is that you are working on. Trees like the two above, I tend to try to spread things out much more than if I was to style something that was more “finished”. You need to make a guess as to how many future buds and branches you need to make room for. If you style developing material as if it were a display tree (tight, dense branches) you end up having to re-wire almost yearly to re-distribute the branch ramification to make room for the new shoots.

All in all nothing ground breaking with the above two trees but I suppose it tracks the often mundane nature of the slow improvements over the years. Not every styling is a dramatic transformation and in fact the real skill lies in the fine tuning, not the dramatic, which is something I am still trying to perfect……….

I’ve had a spur of motivation lately. In my private life i have changed jobs and am now working a 4 day week. It’s given me the hint of a day a week i can spend on myself and thus far i’ve been dedicating it to Bonsai.

One of the trees that has benefited from this work is a Japanese Maple that i begun work on several years ago. You can read a blog post about it below:

CLICK HERE

Its been a slow road, mainly due to my lack of attention but I have been slowly removing course growth and re-growing better branching.

It has a long way to go but finally I am beginning to see it growing into its final form.

The upper areas of the tree have a lot of length to add to the branching and there is the start of another trunk (which will be the fourth, shock horror) on the bottom right of the trunk.

That said I am pretty happy with where it is at and with a little more time up my sleeve I hope to get some more mileage out of it this year.

This post will hopefully be the first in a run that i have been preparing and working on. I have a couple of pines left to un-wire before repotting season hits us so i will try to cover off some of that as it happens.

I am thinking that when I repot this tree it will likely get a change of pot to mix things up a little.

Until the next one………

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.

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.

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.

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:

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……….

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