Cut back on Japanese plums in the fall

It’s time to prune my Japanese plums (Prunus salicina) when the leaves turn color and fall off. The goal is to remove branches that have reached the desired thickness as well as wire branches that are bendable.

Here’s an example.

Plum 1 before pruning

Tree #1 before pruning

Plum 1 after pruning

Tree #1 after pruning and wiring

These plums are about eight years old and in the middle of their development. I want the trunks to grow, but I’m not sure how big I want them to get.

I’ve had time to consider the style or shape these trees may take as I’ve watched the trunks take shape over the years. My current approach is to focus on creating a movement where the branches would otherwise grow straight, rather than making the trunks fit into a basic style.

Plums growing in the landscape can have both straight and curvy growth, but I prefer the curvy movement. It has a cultivated appearance, but it reminds me of some of the first plum bonsai I saw many years ago.

Here’s another example.

Plum 2 before pruning

Tree #2 before

Plum 2 after pruning

Tree #2 after pruning

Tree #2 after wiring

Tree #2 after wiring

These trees were grown entirely in containers and are now in three-gallon pots. I’d get faster results if they were growing in the ground, but working on them in containers is easier.

Plum 3 before pruning

Tree #3 before

Plum 3 after pruning

Tree #3 after

The current plan is to let the trunks develop for at least another few years before focusing on branch development. Meanwhile, I’ll let the trees grow naturally until summer when I’ll check to see if they need pruning or wiring again.

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Finding a Happy Medium

Raise the head, close the eyes, breathe in, and test the air.
Feel the sun come out from behind a cloud, the breeze gives a kiss on the forehead, a caress through the hair.
Let the breath out, loud in the ears.
The sun heats the breast, almost too hot on the black t-shirt.
Open the eyes and look down at the tree. The bonsai. Dwarf tree, twisted.
Old as sin, seemingly, but young as the spring grass after a rain. Verdant, gnarled, ancient, new.
The sun flashes off the glazed ceramic vessel wherein the tree lives.
A hand falls over the scissors, curling into the handle.
Grasp, test, the feel in the hand, the cool steel, and the wrought shape compels a few practice snips.
Raise them towards the tree.
And begin.

Podocarpus macrophyllus. Often called “Buddhist pine” bit it’s not a pine. According to Wikipedia, it’s considered a conifer (though the fruit, from which the name is derived, literally podo-“toe”, and carpus-“fruit”, is not in a traditional cone-like structure like a pine cone but is still considered a cone. Morphology is a dying way to classify plants and I would bet money that the Podocarpaceae family will be removed from the conifer classification (which isn’t even a scientific classification), along with Ginko and yew. It’s a gymnosperm, which means “naked seed”, which further means, a seed that’s not encased inside a fruit. Or something like that. I digress though, a Podocarpus neither grows nor acts like a conifer. You can literally trunk chop them and they will bud from the chop. But that’s just my ranting. I don’t really have a say as I’m not a botanist.)

In Japan, where it’s considered somewhat sacred, they call it “Kusamaki” or “クサマキ” or “Inumaki” “犬槇”.

Which sounds like a sushi roll to me……mmmmmmnnnn….sushi sounds good about now.

On the top left, my favorite roll, tekkamaki, or a tuna roll, from my favorite place, Lai Lai’s

Maki means “roll” in sushi lingo. But, as I learned in the book “The Story of Sushi, an unlikely saga of raw fish and rice” by Trevor Courson, many words used in specialized disciplines in Japan have their own meanings and uses. For example, if we are talking sushi, “sake” is the word for salmon. But it’s also an alcoholic beverage made from fermenting rice, also called “rice wine”, which isn’t accurate either. One day I’ll figure out why they are the same word. The emphasis is on the first syllable for the fish and the last for the drink. I think. SAH-Keh and sah-KEH. And why aren’t they spelled the way they sound?

On a side note (to my side note, or a more bonsai specific one I guess) not all words we use for bonsai terms are the same in each Japanese nursery. I’ve been told by a reliable apprentice, who is from the West, that “nebari”, the word we use for the root spread on our trees, wasn’t used in his nursery. Go figure, right (if you put “nebari” into Google translate you get “stickiness”, meaning viscosity or how sticky something is. Further, there is no “r” sound in Japanese). It’s almost like we English speakers had to give formalized jargon to make us sound smarter. I like the English word for the root spread “buttress”. But I like big butts and I cannot lie……yes, that whole rant was just to tell that joke…..

Sorry…..Back to our tree! I’ve been seeing some browning branches within the structure these last few months, so, this morning, I decided to investigate.

It wasn’t as bad as I thought. Mostly inside branches are severely shaded out by the dense canopy. Podocarpus, though being a full-sized tree in nature, are most often used in landscape applications as hedges (they are ignominiously used to hide air conditioning units in la Florida quite a bit) because they can be sheared into a dense hedge. They’re used as living fences for this reason too.

This makes for good bonsai as, unlike conifers, you can simply hedge-prune them into a canopy. Now, notwithstanding this technique is effective, I tend to prefer selective wiring and judicious pruning for getting the same full-canopy effect. Topiary or hedge pruning does cause inner branch dieback.

To get light into the inner branching, we, regardless of it being not a pine, can use pine techniques on them. One technique is cutting the leaves (or needles, though, to beat a dead horse, they aren’t needles, but leaves) in half.

Therefore, I’ll do this first. It’s kinda like defoliating a ficus or deciduous tree

My procedure is easy. Pull the leaves up…

And cut them in half.

Like so:

On the stronger growing branches, I’ll cut the growing tips as well.

The apical part of the tree is usually denser and has stronger growth because the tree wants to be a tree, which means it wants to be 100 feet tall. Similar to a pine tree. This is referred to as “apical dominance” because it sounds exactly like it is. The top growth will take precedence, causing lower growth to stagnate or die.

By being more aggressive cutting the stronger growing branches, and less harsh pruning the weaker ones, we balance the….no, not energy as is often stated, but the hormones, mostly the main growth hormone called auxin. (I break down all the hormonal interaction in the article I use some fancy words to justify my defoliation habit, go figure. in case you’re interested. I was very interested, so I wrote a whole article on it). Why do I insist on saying hormones and not energy? Because hormones are what causes growth, not energy. Energy allows for continued growth, but you can over prune a tree and it’ll die, because it runs out of energy, because the hormones keep pushing new growth.

I’ll also use the opportunity to edit out excess branching, prune for taper and movement, etc. all the things I talk about when refining an established tree.

Example: there are three branches, I cut to two…

And further, cut those two down for better back budding.

Like so:

I repotted this tree this year in late winter/early spring. When I do this, I usually let the tree grow unchecked for the duration of the growing season (allowing for the tree to store energy). The most I did was prune off the fastest-growing branches to keep the canopy tight (basically, hedge pruning). After all, there is a place for that technique).

But now it’s time to get selective.

Hey, look at that, we can see the deadwood again!

All done, and, damn, I made a mess.

It may seem that autumn, or fall, isn’t the best time to do this heavy thinning, but, in Florida, this is a prime time to do this work on this kind of tree. I’ve talked about why people hate us lonely Florida growers before, and one reason is we have, in the Fall months, what we call, “Second Spring”.

Jim Smith (grandfather of tropical bonsai in the USA) coined the term. The day temps are in the 70’s and 80’s F (21-26c), nighttime temps are in the 50’s to ’60s (10-15c) and, importantly for growth, it’s not raining as much in the afternoon and evenings.

Plants grow at night (a tree creates sugars, photosynthesis, and transpires, using co2, sunshine, and water to make carbohydrates, (sugars), releasing oxygen in the process. At night, a plant uses oxygen to burn those sugars, called respiration, releasing co2. Much like how we use sugars. The catch is that in photosynthesis, the co2 is brought in through the leaves. In respiration, oxygen is absorbed through the roots. If the roots are saturated by water, like an evening rainstorm or watering your trees too late in the day, your trees won’t grow as fast. One reason not to water late in the day. The other is a fungus, but that’s another article. My Florida readers will chime at this point in and say, “so why do my trees grow so much in the summer rainy seasons, Mr. Smartypants?” Easy, it gets hot enough for our plants to dry out by evening, as we have afternoon rains).

Anywho, we can now see our tree, almost denuded.

Now I’ll use a brush to clean up the deadwood and bark a bit.

Get rid of the moss growing up the trunk.

Now would be a good time to apply lime sulfur, but I’m not in the mood for it. Lime sulfur has quite the aroma. But I might quote Gurney Halleck, from Dune at this point:


“What has mood to do with it? You fight when the necessity arises—no matter the mood! Mood’s a thing for cattle or making love or playing the baliset. It’s not for fighting.”

Dune, Frank Herbert

And since the tree is in a growing phase, I’ll eschew wiring (I love it when I get the chance to use “eschew” in a sentence).

We don’t want wire marks, after all.

I was called out in the last post, in the comments, about wire marks on the branches. I could go back and forth in the comment section, but it’s easier to answer it here. When developing main branches, it’s best to allow the wire to cut in a little. The two words to notice are “developing” and “a little”. Those main branches will thicken enough that the wire marks will grow out. I’ve done it and seen them go away. But, you don’t keep branches with excessive wire marks anyway. Usually, in an initial styling, the branches you have to use either thicken enough to erase the wire marks, or another branch grows in a place that’s better for the design, so you can cut off the offending branch. It’s a matter of time. The tree will mature and your wire marks will go away or you cut them out. If they persist, you can sand them off. That’s another post too.

Here’s the tree, pruned, partially defoliated, weeded, fertilized, etc.

And, to give you an idea of the development, here’s the tree from several years ago:

It looks like I wired it at that time. I believe the picture was after I let it grow freely for a few years to recover from when it was on display at the 3 months long Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival at Disney World.

Each time you work a tree, it should show progress. I let it rest in between major work, as I did this year, or as I did after the Epcot show. Your trees will appreciate it and grow better for it.

Before this session:

And after:

Maybe I’ll find a better pot next year, though I recently saw this one for sale online for around $800. I say a better pot because I bought it for less than $100 about ten years ago…..such is life, I suppose.


Out of season slip potting

I need to do something about a client’s Conocarpus erectus, a Florida buttonwood.

The tree is tall. My client purchased it a few years ago from Dragon Tree Bonsai on Florida’s East Coast in Palm City. It hasn’t been repotted since he’s had it (partly my fault due to my hectic travel schedule, partly his, as he’s the owner of a growing body shop, an ethical one that refuses to use substandard parts or allow insurance companies to only pay for patchwork). Talking with him really opens your eyes to the cost-cutting insurance companies and other body shops that will go to any length, often in tandem, to save money. My client spends upwards of $40,000 per year on factory training to learn what it takes to repair a modern car so that it is not only cosmetically correct but also safe. Today’s automobiles are designed to perform in a specific manner in the event of a collision, with crumple zones to reduce force and occupant injury while also ensuring that sensors, airbags, and reinforcement structures perform as intended. And he goes to bat, even providing digital documentation for his clients and their lawyers, factory specs, and so on, so that if the insurance company pushes back, the client will win the lawsuit against the insurance company, if it comes to that. I try to surround myself with people who share my client’s moral values. As a result, he’s always on the go).

This brings us to the standard for repotting buttonwood, in Florida, in October. Short answer: We don’t generally do it at this time.

But, looking at the roots:

It needs something done. They are pushing the tree out of the pot. My experience with buttonwood and going through a Central Florida winter pot bound, as this one is definitely….

This makes me concerned about its health. The standard procedure for repotting buttonwood is to wait at least 6 weeks after repotting if the nighttime temperatures are above 70 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius). This gives the roots time to recover before the arrival of winter.

Buttonwood in this shape, in my experience, does not survive the winter. It may lose its leaves completely (the Conocarpus erectus is classified as a semi-deciduous tree, so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but it is prone to losing branches when dormant, sometimes significant ones. This is bad for bonsai). And, once again, dormant buttonwood takes an eternity to recover in the spring, in my experience. One that has been repotted in season and worked, pruned, and fertilized will grow for the duration of our mild winter and will begin to grow again when temperatures rise. I’ve had buttonwoods dormant until June, not pushing new growth and losing fine ramifications.

This tree is in desperate need of growth right now. The leaves are far out on the branch tips, there is little back branching, and the color of the leaves is off.

Now, to address a common question I see about every tree in the online forums, here’s a yellow leaf:

“What’s wrong with my tree?” is the question. Usually accompanied by lamentations and a great deal of hand wringing

If you look up at the previous photo, you’ll notice that it was an older leaf, about 7-8 leaves in from the growing tip. It’s perfectly fine for those to be yellow. It can be found on any tree, whether it’s a juniper, a ficus, or a pine because it’s just an older leaf about to fall off. Don’t be concerned. The tree is fine as long as the growth tips aren’t yellowing. If the yellowing or damage is on new leaves, consider your watering, sun exposure, when it was last fertilized, and the strength of the soil, among other factors.

Back to our tree…

So what’s a professional bonsai artist to do to make sure this tree not only survives the winter but thrives?

Those that read the title, they know, for those that didn’t, I’ll slip pot it.

Let’s define terms:

Initial pot: when removing from a grow pot and reducing the roots to fit into a training pot or bonsai pot.

Repot: pruning the roots of a tree in a bonsai pot already.

Up-pot: taking a tree in a grow pot and putting it into a larger grow pot.

And finally, for this post, Slip pot: taking a tree already in a bonsai pot and putting it into a slightly larger bonsai pot.

We usually do this for the health of the tree, as with this buttonwood.

Here’s the new pot I’m using:

And, as you see, it’s a little bigger than the older pot:

Let’s get to work and stop talking.

First, weeding.

Ahhh, the dreaded artillery fern. Using my handy-dandy, (and homemade) root hook-

-which you’ll note is a single tined one (my preference), I loosen the roots of the larger weeds. Here’s a video of the first step, pulling the weeds, using the hook to loosen the roots. There’s some very satisfying weed pulling footage there:

It’s important to get the roots on artillery fern or they just grow back.

And here’s a video of the action I’m using to get rid of the smaller weeds. Kinda like hoeing a row in a garden bed (if you look up videos about this technique, make sure you don’t commit a Spoonerism and type in rowing a ho…..that’s a completely different type of video).

Organic matter abounds in the soil in which the tree is currently growing. Some believe that because buttonwood grows naturally in swampy, brackish water-soaked soil just above the shoreline’s mangrove area, it requires more organic components to help hold water. And they will thrive in that setting. Many people used to believe that adding salt to the pot was also a good idea.

However, the landscape industry (as well as many bonsai practitioners) have shown that buttonwood grows just fine in regular potting soil (or standard bonsai soil) and does not require salt. Just because a tree has adapted to a specific biome does not mean that it will not grow well, if not better, in more ideal conditions. It all comes down to determining how to water in the container and soil you’re working with. This means that buttonwood should not be allowed to dry out too much. Whenever possible. And, by all means, if watering necessitates the addition of more organic or wetter (smaller particle) soil, do so. Because of their work schedules, some people can only water their plants once a day. I’ve also seen portulacaria and pines thrive in pure pine bark. The most difficult aspect of learning bonsai is said to be watering.

We use bonsai soil because it is easier to work with within the confines of a bonsai pot. Use what works for you, but be open to new soil concepts. Bonsai soil can and often does work best, but keep in mind that watering must be adjusted accordingly. I use what I use (I’ll explain my mix later in the article) because it works for my zone, the amount of rain, the amount of sun and shade, and so on, but many bonsai experts are dogmatic, insisting you use what they use. That, in my opinion, is at best short-sighted (though well-intended), because their experience had taught them what works for them.

Dragon Tree Bonsai Nursery uses a heavy organic mix that works well for them. And has been doing bonsai for longer than most popular current bonsai professionals have been doing bonsai.

Because it hasn’t been repotted in a while, the root ball is compacted and full of roots. I don’t want to rake them all out as I would with a full repot, so I’ll be poking holes as best I can to aid drainage and fertilizer penetration.

Using my American Bonsai repotting tool…

I push down where the resistance is least…

And wiggle the tool a bit to open up the hole.

Now, let’s look at those circling roots.

Slip potting is similar to up-potting or planting a tree in the ground in a landscape. In most places, you can do it all year (except on frozen ground in the north, unless you use a pickaxe like you’re playing Minecraft). And, if you’ve ever planted a tree, you’ll know that you always rough up the roots before sticking it in the hole. This allows the roots to grow into the soil rather than circling the root ball.

Aha! The old drain-hole screen

Let’s get rid of that.

You’ll notice how much the roots have grown since the last repot.

Up to my second knuckle.

At the edges, I tease out some of the long roots.

And by long I mean long…

If this were a full repot, I’d remove many of the thicker roots to encourage more roots, closer in. But there won’t be many roots removed today, (mandatory in Florida, in October).

Except what falls off.

The pot. It is an older Chinese container. I’m not sure of the stamp, which on a Chinese pot, usually depicts the city the kiln is in.

When there are two, it usually refers to the city and the kiln. The number represents the Potter who worked on the pot. Potter #20 in this case. The lower the number, the better the potter. The person who has been there the longest and is a Master would be ranked first. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.

We are relegated to #20 today. That’s okay, this is a temporary pot until next June at the earliest.

I’ll mound the soil in the middle of the pot so that when I put the root ball down, it’ll fill in any voids in the root mass. Like where the screens were.

Then I place the tree in the pot.

And wiggle it into that mound of soil.

Wiggle wiggle.

And, of course, it’s well tied down (that’s one of those procedures I insist on, similar to how my client follows the manufacturer’s repair specs). When I’m working on a client’s trees, the first thing I look for is a tightly bound tree in the pot. I’ll add more tie-down wires if it’s not secure.

And now to backfill with fresh soil.

My current soil mix is two parts scoria (lava rock in vernacular, for drainage, water retention, and air spaces), one part expanded slate (the grey stuff, the brand today is Espoma’s Soil Perfector). This is strictly for drainage. Inside the matrices, it holds little to no water). One part diatomaceous earth (the white stuff) and one part “small” fir bark nuggets for fertilizer retention (called CEC) (for fertilizer CEC, and water retention). I’d add pumice because it’s similar to lava but holds more water, but there’s a pumice shortage in Florida right now.

Make sure to fill all the air pockets, take your time backfilling the soil.

We do need air space, but not huge pockets.

Make sure you’re pushing the soil under the root ball too. Sometimes using the blunt end of your chopstick helps here.

Wiggling helps here too, wiggle wiggle wiggle.

Then, my last step is to tighten the wire on the bottom.

Pull down, and twist.

This really secures the tree.

To get this pic, alone in The Nook, requires some fancy camera work. Balancing the pot on my big head.

Look at all that grey in my hair. Man, I’m getting old!

Some fertilizer, in this case, granular organic from American Bonsai Tools.

Mmmmmm….smells like chocolate!

Chopstick it into the soil because if organic fertilizer isn’t in the soil, it’s not being utilized by beneficial soil microbes.

And some pre-emergent weed preventers (I use a commercial brand called “OH2” but you use what you can find, something like Preen).

And that’s all there is to it for this year on this tree. We’ll let it grow until spring when a synthetic granular will be applied to the soil and the real work can begin. The client requests that some deadwood be added to it (much like a juniper, buttonwood looks odd without deadwood).

See you next year, my intrepid little buttonwood!


Quick update on the Ficus microcarpa

A mere two months later, time to remove wires, re-wire, and cut it back.

Here’s how you saw it last, a Ficus microcarpa from a client’s backyard.

Excellent, you’ve got some good back budding.

The wire is perfectly cutting in.

“If you don’t have wire marks, you’re not using enough wire,” is one of my aphorisms for developing ficus bonsai. That’s because if you don’t leave the wire on long enough, the branch will lose its shape. Particularly on a ficus. Then you’re just wiring for the sake of wiring.

This summer has been particularly wet in Florida, or at least in my backyard. And I believe it’s a fungus.

It’s on a lot of the leaves, which is unusual for F. microcarpa. I’ll use BioAdvanced All-in-One Rose and Flower Care, which contains a systemic fungicide (tebuconazole), a systemic insecticide (imidacloprid) for Cuban laurel thrips, and fertilizer (6-9-6). For a ficus in Florida, it’s ideal for transitioning into fall.

I believe it’s a fungus because not only are the leaves black, but some of the stems are as well, as shown in the photo above.

Of course, it could be phototoxicity from the imidacloprid I used in the previous session releasing too quickly due to all the rain we’ve had. But we’re entering the dry season, so that shouldn’t be an issue going forward (though, as I write this, the forecast is calling for a severe thunderstorm event that’s been sweeping East, across the Gulf States). It was quite severe in Louisiana a day ago).

But the new shoots are healthy and green, so I’m not concerned.

And it’s a ficus. It’ll be ok.

The first step is always defoliation and cleaning up all the old leaves (which I began before the first pics at the top).

Then there’s a little wiring.

And some guy wires (tie-down wires, if you will). I know some guys who are into bondage, so it’s a strange name for them. I’m not sure what you’re talking about).

Let us return to the task at hand!

After defoliation, a good way to get rid of all those fallen leaves is to use your scissors like you’re a yard policing officer.

Jab the leaves…

Simple. That one took me 18 years of picking them up by the fingertips to figure out.

It’s the next morning, and you’ll notice that the branches have risen slightly and some of the movement has straightened out. This is why I also teach that bonsai is “cutting, wiring, un-wiring, re-wiring, un-wiring, cutting, re-wiring, cutting, re-wiring, ad infinitum.”

So you don’t have to scroll back up to see the upward movement, here’s the first image again:

As the song begins, “the ficus has no taper, so I gotta cut it back.”

My students complain that they have spent months growing ramifications, only for me to come in and cut it all off.

Have faith in the process. Taper, movement, and proportion, and don’t be concerned. A tree sprouts. That is its function.

Now, a little wire on the new branches, and re-wiring on some of the old ones. (Wire, un-wire, re-wire, and so on indefinitely.)

More importantly, I’m going to secure many of the main branches.

What causes the growth of new branches? Hormones are also the cause of adolescent rebellion. Hormones force them to grow in the direction of the sun (auxin is the main one, and auxin dislikes the sun, so it collects on the underside of the branches, in the shade, and causes those cells to elongate faster than the cells on top, pushing the branch up).

That should suffice until next spring. Except for some un-wiring, re-wiring, and so on,

Now I can relax for the rest of the morning. Maybe

It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, our subject looked like the little ficus on the right. Many sins are washed away by growing in the ground (or a large pot). That is life, and it is also a truism for growth in general.


That is a lot of roots!

John, one of my clients, called. He stated that his trees require some attention. I hadn’t heard from him in at least three years what with the lost pandemic year and all, and him being a busy businessman. There’s a word connection here. Business, business, business. I’ll have to look up the etymology because it bothers me, much like entomology does. It should irritate you as well.

With all of my recent travel, I told him when I’d be home and he said, “I’ll be there by Thursday!” I had no idea how much work his trees required.

This is just one example of a Ficus microcarpa:

What happened to my machete? The tree began as one of those retail “ginseng” style ficusses found in big box stores, but it’s grown quite a bit. It simply takes time to mature. And for those who think this is just a Florida thing, this article includes a “ginseng” from Indiana.

In a normal bonsai working day, I’d prune out the branches I don’t need first, and then work outward, defoliating as I go, but for the purposes of this article, I tend to defoliate first, or as the cool kids might say, denude, because, just like it’s “inverse” taper instead of “reverse” taper, or “substrate” instead of soil, them cool kids have to create jargon or use big words to make the process and themselves sound more scientific.

Let me then begin to denude the specimen in order to elucidate the methodology for optimal visualization.

As always, the old and damaged leaves come off.

They do nothing for the tree and, in fact, take energy from it, while the tree keeps them alive by providing energy. Then, for the same reason, remove the shaded ones.

But I am repeating myself, I’ve written extensively on the concept of defoliation. Read this article for some clarification while I get to work.

Done, that’s about all I’ll take off for now. It looks like a lot….

…..but there’s still a lot of foliage left.

Most of the branches with leaves will be pruned off or shortened as I continue the styling process.

Sometimes (many times) a tree can benefit from some neglect and overgrowth. This one has, and I have a lot to work with.

Next, I’ll clean up some of those aerial roots and remove some glaringly in-opportune branches

Here we go, I can work with this now.

I’ll get some wire on the branches I have left, then repot.

Some wire…..

Out of the pot…..

Whoops, seems like we’ve lost the sun and its night. Don’t worry about continuity, nothing is real on the internet anyway.

The roots aren’t as bad as I thought they might have been.

Get in the pot!

Don’t worry, I’ll get some pics tomorrow morning with some better light. Now it’s time to finish my adult beverage and get some dinner. See you in the morning….

Good morning! After feeding the tortoises (who are still sleeping I might add)…..

…..Let’s take a look at the tree….

….OOPS, where’s the tree? I guess I moved it over to the photo booth last night. You’ll notice I’ve switched to coffee this morning. Today just happens to be National Coffee Day in the US, but I’d be drinking it already. Maybe I’ll indulge in a second cup (Like I need a reason for that!).

I believe that John will be happy with the development, especially going from this.

To this…

It’s well on its way to becoming a specimen, banyan-style ficus worthy of display. Next year, I’ll suggest a wider, shallower pot to highlight the trunk and wide canopy.

Let’s not wait another three years, John.


Patience and air layering

Ficus salicaria, the willow leaf fig.

The tree belonged to a member of a Fort Myers study group who was downsizing her collection. Not downsizing in terms of numbers, but literally downsizing. It had to go if she couldn’t lift it.

Unless we can afford large machinery and young backs to lift our trees, it will happen to all of us. As for me, I intend to put large wheels on an engine Jack so that I can move the trees when I’m older (I must admit, I’m getting older. At least in my body, I’m still the brash, immature, iconoclast you all love (which could just be the non-grey version of the cantankerous, much complaining curmudgeon from central casting). I could see myself maturing into that. That is, of course, how my family ends up. You should’ve met my grandfather, whom we affectionately referred to as “Pee Wee.” He was old, greasy, and smelled like classic, lanolin-based mechanic soap, which he kept in a 50-gallon drum. He was bow-legged and arthritic. That’s exactly what I’m turning into. I’ll be telling the kids next door to “Get off my lawn!” soon).

She’s done an incredible job developing it from the beginning, which was a cutting about the size of an air layering off. The nebari (root spread) is stunning.

I bought it a few years ago and have done some branch editing, but it took until July of this year for me to get drastic (hey, I’ve been traveling). I’m falling behind on everything). I made the decision to remove that one branch. But why waste the branch I’m about to cut down? Let’s add an air layer to it.

The cut.

I had decided to move the font slightly counterclockwise

And, as you see, I went pretty deep with the cut. You’ll see why in a second.

Flash forward to today, September 1, 2021

Let’s see what we have for roots. I hope it’s good, I want to start styling this tree.

Gently, oh so gently, like removing silky undergarments, I pull off the aluminum foil…(I learned early on after I started wearing silky draws that you can’t just rip them off, that’s how you bust the stitching….)

Hmmmmnnnnn…..not what I wanted to see.

There are maybe three visible roots.

One would think that a ficus, which is known for lots of roots, would have made more. But I knew from experience that this species takes a lot longer to put them out on an air layer. The last one I did took half a year: this big guy…

Here’s the air layered I got from it:

Here’s today’s tree. It did put a root out above the cut, amazingly. Maybe next time I’ll just put the sphagnum on without cutting. Hmmm. Science and horticultural knowledge are one thing, but practicing them is an art. And what may work for you, I may never get to work for me.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

That root I’m pointing to above comes down to here, below.

But the cut, which was pretty deep, as you see from July…..

….healed over.

Never take setbacks as failures. What I’ve learned here is that maybe the best way to heal a big cut is with sphagnum, at least on Ficus salicaria. That’s a big deal.

From here on, considering I still want an air layer, the best practice (science-wise) is to recut the line and re-apply the sphagnum and foil.

So that’s what I’m going to do.

And I’ll leave it another few months.

And no worries, I’ll keep up with the updates

Stay tuned!


A collected Ficus microcarpa from SW Florida

Well, for the life of me, I can’t find the first chop back photos for this tree, from several months ago……wait, let me check one more time….

Here we go, from May 2, 2021. It is a Ficus microcarpa that volunteered in one of my student’s yard down in SW Florida, so she dug it up.

Now, first, some botany on ficus (why doesn’t Mr. Miyagi have any ficus bonsai? He’s never “botany”….sorry) anyway, the “flowers” (or “inflorescence” as it is a flowering body) are a special structure called a syconium (for the Latin language curious, the plural form is syconia, though it sounds, to my ear, that it should be the other way around). Think of syconia as outside-in flowers, with all the reproductive bits inside the structure that will eventually become the fruit, or fig (a fig is a ficus, a ficus is a fig)

A very immature syconium cluster on Ficus microcarpa “green island” pic from Daniel Harvey

The way most figs are pollinated is by a specific species of wasp for a specific species of ficus, which then climbs into that syconium and looks around. Unfortunately for that wasp, it gets trapped inside the soon-to-be fig and becomes a part of the fruit (don’t worry about the figs we eat, which is from various Ficus carica varieties like Mission or Turkey, as they are what the pointy heads call perfect, meaning they self pollinate without the need of a pollinator. So no, you aren’t eating dead ficus wasps in your fig newtons).

What does all of that have to do with our tree today? Well, I’m glad you asked; somehow, we in Florida either imported the specific wasp that pollinates Ficus microcarpa; they are native to China, and we import hundreds of thousands of ficus for the bonsai trade, those dreaded S-curve ficusses for sale everywhere (here’s a good post on some S-curve treatments as regards to them. And if you follow the backlinks you’ll learn some air layering techniques, nomenclature in fighting, cutting strategies, and a really bad joke you can tell at your next bonsai gathering).

The state of Florida is actually considering banning the sale and movement of Ficus microcarpa for fear of it becoming invasive and supplanting our native strangler fig in nature (Ficus aurea). That would severely ruin the various bonsai nurseries that rely on importation as a means of revenue. Might be why the importers call them Ficus retusa…….the same reason the Chinese elm is often called “zelkova” in the bill of landings on the ships, instead of Ulmus parviflora….but that’s just me musing. Chinese elm has been prohibited for importation ever since Dutch elm disease came to the USA.

Anyway, back to our tree, which technically could be considered a “ginseng” ficus, since it’s a seedling F. Microcarpa.

Again, from about three months ago….

And today (end of August).

We have new branches and some more aerial roots to work with. Let’s get it cleaned up, shall we?

I like how this side is filling in. Especially the roots.

Below, this was the front we went with at the class…

I think I’ll change it slightly, as often happens when new growth appears.

One downfall of the original front was the window or slingshot effect created by the two main trunks (we are going for a banyan style, which has more than one trunk. You can read about it here and here). So I am letting this branch (below) grow into another trunk, to fill in the negative “negative” space, as opposed to positive-negative space, which sounds like jumbo shrimp, I know, but there’s good and bad negative space. Basically, if it adds to the composition (how your eye moves around the tree) it’s good. If it stops your eye, it’s bad.

Let’s get rid of some superfluous new growth and refine the branching.

Like here:

And here:

Let’s get that work done and see what’s left.

A good pruning. I’m not happy until I have a pile at my feet.

But not too much taken off. Now let’s clean up some roots

The ones are right in front now.

We left them in to see what would happen, but now they obscure the trunk. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but not in this case.

Now let’s sculpt this side


We want the roots to ramify as well, so when it doesn’t, on ficus or other trees that heal (like tridents) we can split them and then spread them out. and we can spread out the aerial roots too, editing out some that cross.

And we were leaving this knob to add some cragginess, but I suddenly don’t like it (artists prerogative).

I think I can move it in the pot to get to that better front…

Now for some structural pruning and wiring.

I think I’ll get rid of this branch, after the rotation. It’s too far forward, what we call an “eye poker” meaning we don’t really see it as a branch, just a blob of green.

Now the rest….

Basically, go to your basic styling concepts: only two branches at each branch junction, prune for taper and movement, alternate each branch, etc.

I tend to hold the branch down to where I’ll wire it to when I choose what to cut off.

The biggest cut is at the top.

This is a “cut for taper and movement” chop, something that’s done at the top a lot as most ficus are apical growers.

The new “apex” is nowhere

Now, big wire, then more pruning, and then some detail wiring and pruning

Getting near the end. You’ll notice that many small branches I’ve left un-wired. For a demo, I might wire them, (for the show, you know, as that’s what the audience is there for) but this is for development and the wire won’t hold and most likely, that branch will get cut off in the final design or drastically shortened.

I’ll cut some growing tips for back budding purposes, but leave some to lengthen and elongate the branch.

And that’s about it

That tiny branch needs to grow more. With leaving the grow tips and opening up the canopy to the sun, it’ll catch up quickly.

Now the glamour shots!

Original front.

Another side.

And the new front.

That’s some good development for a few months. Keep an eye out for updates.


Another unfortunate northern ficus

It doesn’t look good for this tree, as you might be thinking if you’ve read my blog with any regularity.

It needs some drama….

Let’s spin it around a bit, take in the whole tree…

Hmmm. Where to go? It’s in an older pot. Korean I think.


The tree belongs to Evan, up in Cincinnati. He inherited it from his first teacher, Richard. It’s been in training for many many years.

I think a change is in order.

But, before I continue, let me show you what this tree looked like in the early ’90s

Interesting that, even in Ohio, the trunk got bigger Here are some more pics of the tree early in development as well as pics with both John Naka and Ben Oki with the original owner, Evan’s teacher, Richard Strauss.

Interesting. That’s the same pot. Goes to show that a ficus WILL get bigger in a bonsai pot. Like I said, even in Ohio.

Richard and John. John (Naka San) called Richard “Daichi San”

Richard was great friends with John, with John giving him what John called his “Samurai name” Daichi-San.

Ben Oki and Richard

Ben Oki would visit the Cincinnati club often and Richard helped him during Ben’s demos

Richard and Ben, I might guess late 1990’s
On display in an exhibit

Anyway, below, here’s the new front I chose. Changing a front on a tree is a pretty common thing, especially on a quality tree, as you can see from all the different pics above.

Let’s get to chopping, as you knew I’d be doing sooner or later, right?

Ready for the carnage?


That’ll make a good cutting…

Some cleanup…

Now, what’s next?

Awww, I fooled you, just a repot and…

….some wire.

Not everything needs a chop job (something aging Hollywood actors should take to heart).

The tree belongs to Evan, who inherited it from his sensei Richard when Daichi San passed in 2005.

Evan met Richard in 1991, here is Richard, Evan, and Ben back when Evan still had dark hair.

The new soil.

The soil is the coarse blend from Wigert’s Bonsai, a good, all-around blend.

Before he passed, Richard bestowed upon Evan….

This is Evan btw

….the samurai name “Edu-San”.

Evan is an amazing man, he’s held every position in the Greater Cincinnati Bonsai Society and was given the lifetime achievement award by the club in 2018 and I had the honor of being there to witness it.

Evan and then president Joanne

Just a new pot and some refinement of the branches through some pruning and a bunch of wire.

And age, the best refining element we have.

Thanks to Evan again for inviting me up to the Great White North to teach about tropical trees. See you next time my friend.


What can a ginseng ficus be used for?

What shall you do with a ginseng ficus, – a Ficus sea shanty

We will begin with the end. Then, by the time my rambling storytelling actually gets to the end, you’ll have forgotten the end and it’ll be like the beginning again. Or something philosophic like that. It seems to be a popular and successful plot device in stories recently…..

As you see above (and at the end, which was the beginning) The tree is turning out well. But how did we get there? Well, here’s the real beginning, from about 2 years ago….

A decidedly male tree…

Here’s the tree even before, awwwww, it’s just as a baby..

I tend to make a big trip in the summer months, touring several clubs and performing, working in private sessions (which this is) or workshops. I call myself a “Bonsai Roadwarrior” and in 2019, I found myself, in all places I could have found myself, Toledo, Ohio (a good place to lose oneself to).

I was at John and Julie’s place, actually just outside of Toledo, in Maumee, declared an All-American City in 2006 (per the National Civic League, whoever they are). It was, coincidently, the home of Betty Ford, founder of the Betty Ford Center, a famous drug treatment center, and both the Soledad Brothers, a punk blues band, and Necros, one of the first punk hardcore bands. But I digress. As usual.

Let’s turn our inquisitive view upon our tree, a ficus microcarpa, seed grown, called in the trade, a “ginseng ficus”.

They are known for those bulbous, potato-like roots that are, depending upon your experience and aesthetic sensibilities, either lauded or derided.

Much like yours truly.

John and I decided to ground layer the roots, to give them more of a “tree-like” look and less of a “spud-like” look. It’s what I usually do in La Florida, where it happens naturally, (but contrary to this post). As a counterpoint, here’s an article here where I keep the potato look on several trees.

Ground layering is much like air layering, except we do it on the ground (easier on the knees….) or soil line.

The first cut is to remove the bark and cambium layers to the woody part (called by the pointy heads “xylem”. The bark and those tissues below are the phloems, and between the two is the cambium. The xylem moves water and minerals throughout, mostly up, the tree, the phloem moves carbohydrates and sugars, mostly down, and the cambium, in the simplest terms, grows the new xylem and phloem cells, thickening the trunk.

A ground layer’s (and air layers) purpose is to make the tree grow roots at the cut site. The top will still get water through the xylem, but the carbohydrates have no place to go, so the tree grows new roots, to store the carbohydrates from the result of photosynthesis (one of the jobs of roots is to store the energy of the tree for later use).

The first cut is to remove a strip of bark (and cambium) from the raised roots.

All the way to the wood.

Sphagnum and, since I’m up North, we used indole-3-butyric acid powder, what people call a rooting hormone.

And I prefer aluminum foil to hold the sphagnum in place while the roots grow.

Last year, 2020, during Lockdown, John separated the top from the bottom. Unsupervised even, which, if you know John, he needs supervision. That’s what Julie is for, she takes care of him.

Looks like John has had great success so far. I say that because I just applied the layer, he’s been taking care of the tree all this time.

He potted it up, using the soil mix he had delivered in from American Bonsai Tools. Since it was lockdown I wasn’t able to make the usual trip and deliver it for him.

You’ll notice he’s inside. John brings his trees into the basement with a grow light and a heating pad underneath for his winter set up. The light is for photosynthesis (a lesson he learned: he was using a florescent grow light and about halfway through the cold dark winter, his trees began to suffer. A fluorescent light will lose intensity as it gets older. We can’t tell the difference, but the trees do. So get the new LED to grow lights, they are fantastic). The horticultural heating pad keeps the roots at about 65F (18C), a temp that keeps metabolic processes moving in plants.

And now we are mid-June, this year, 2021. I’m in Toledo, drinking Scotch with John (and working trees…).

The roots are maturing, getting some age and girth.

The soil mix has done its job, creating new fine roots.

What I’ll do is lower the soil level a bit more, straighten out the crossing ones, and do some sculpting with my knife.

I want a more shallow pot, to spread out those roots and give the nebari room to widen. Let’s see how this one works.

Not a bad pot.

Well, not so good it seems. It’s a little.

Luckily, John has a small to-go food tray, made from aluminum.

Perfect size!

And no, the aluminum won’t hurt the tree, it’ll only be in there for a season or two (metal toxicity takes years, the metal has to build up in the soil over time, and we change the mix out every repot, mostly), and from research I’ve seen, plants grown in metal seem to stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Now for that sculpting (and an operation).

The transition from the trunk to the roots is abrupt, from the cut I made at the beginning of the layering process. What I’m doing is just making a V-cut to alleviate that straight edge where the roots come off the trunk.

And, as uncomfortable as it may be for some readers, I must geld the poor tree.

Looks better as a girl anyway.

Now to refine the top a little. The chop scar needs some re-carving to get it to heal totally.

If you have a cut you want to heal, re-cut the edge about every two years. It’s a frustrating phenomenon that wounds tend to stop healing after about two years, so we re-cut to stimulate new healing.

Now the top. Let’s reduce the branches, only keeping what we need, and I’ll cut everything back to the last active bud.

The regular F. microcarpa does have dieback if you don’t always keep an active branch or bud. So, in an abundance of caution (and being up North where the tree spends half the year inside) I keep green at the branch tip).

“Chasing the greenback” is the phrase we use.

Now to the “pot”. Some drain holes…

Into the new “pot”…

With my “coarse” soil, of course. A shallow tray doesn’t drain as well as deeper ones, so I use more coarse soil to help drainage and get better root growth. An axiom to remember, the drier a mix is (bigger particles) the better growth will be. As you get near the refinement you reduce particle size and this slows growth, making it easier to keep up with refinement.

Chasing the greenback and some wire.

Fertilizer, in this case, Miracle Grow Shake ‘N Feed. I like it because it has both synthetic nitrogen and organic components that feed the soil microbes.

And that’s it for June.

Fast forward a month and John has sent me some shots of the growth the tree has put on.

Lots of back budding, even where I left just nubs.

To review, baby pic


2019, layering.

June 2021, repot and restyle.

And July 2021, new growth and back budding.

I’ll update it the next time I’m up in Ohio.

Thank you John for the opportunity to experiment on your tree, and for all the updated pics.

And the Scotch of course. And to Julie for putting up with us working on trees all that day. You’re a saint.

See you soon!


Tanuki Bonsai


If you are not familiar with the term, you will, of course, be wondering what it means so let’s get that defined first and go from there. “Tanuki” is a Japanese word that directly translated means “raccoon.” What has this to do with bonsai you must be wondering! Actually, the explanation is rather humorous. The raccoon is an animal that has featured prominently in Japanese folklore and the arts throughout the centuries. This legendary animal is said to be mischievous and jolly. It is rumored it is a master of disguise and even capable of shapeshifting.

This meaning gains significance when you understand the context of how or why the word is applied to bonsai. I searched many Japanese bonsai books I have in my library and none describe Tanuki as a style, in fact, I could not find a single mention of it at all. I did however find it described as a substyle under deadwood techniques on Wikipedia. Here is an extract:

In tanuki bonsai, a living tree is joined to an interesting piece of deadwood to create a composite in the driftwood style. The deadwood usually has the form of a weathered tree trunk, or at least its lower portion.

You will find the full article on Wikipedia here.

Natural driftwood-style bonsai can only be collected from nature and are thus rather rare and or costly. In the case of Junipers, at least within the South African context, impossible to collect. Using the process or technique of Tanuki it is possible to create a very similar-looking specimen although it is in effect cheating. For this reason, it is said that Tanuki is not an acceptable bonsai technique, which explains why I could not find it in any of my reference books and furthermore may not be exhibited in any formal Japanese exhibition. It is frowned upon in Japanese bonsai, certainly, it would seem, amongst professionals.

Getting started – what you will need

It is my intent with this article, with the help of Brett Simon in the video, to show you how you can create a Tanuki as I firmly believe there is a place for it, certainly in countries where it would be impossible to collect such a tree. 

The deadwood

Depending on how long you have been practicing bonsai you may already have the material you need in order to create a Tanuki. This would include an interesting trunk from a tree that did not make it after collection, or perhaps even a piece of driftwood (although be careful of salts). If you don’t have a trunk of a dead tree you most likely can speak with a local bonsai nursery or bonsai enthusiast who may be able to oblige.

deadwood trunk

This piece of deadwood is from a juniper I collected from an urban garden, which unfortunately did not make it. It possesses some interest and potential as part of a Tanuki planting.

I have heard of people using pieces of Mopane wood which you can find at pet stores as it is often used in fish tanks. If you buy this wood elsewhere be sure it has not been treated with chemicals that might kill your living tree, and if you are unsure I should imagine soaking it in some water for a few months, changing it occasionally, should leach this from the wood.

I’d encourage you to stay away from softwood. Bear in mind that you want this creation to last for many years and in order to ensure the trunk does not rot naturally, it will need to be treated. If the wood is soft this process is accelerated so try to use wood considered hard. This would include but not be limited to species such as juniper, olive, and even bladdernut. Softwoods include pine, maple, false olive (Buddleja), or in general any deciduous tree. 

Living tree

You can create a Tanuki with any species of live tree provided it is flexible and vigorous enough to withstand the process. However, I would suggest that the most suited species is the juniper. The reason I say this is as the resulting planting is characterized by a pronounced live vein on the otherwise deadwood. If you wish to have any resemblance to a natural tree then wild Juniperus is species that immediately comes to mind as it develops this character is a very old, mature tree. Very old olives also do develop live veins and with plenty (I presume) of collected olives around which never made it one can make good use of them and give them a chance to be reborn.

A lot can be written about your choice of live material and as I do not wish to make this article any longer than needs be I would rather suggest certain questions you might ask yourself when making your choice:

  1. Does it suit the style you want to create?
  2. Does it present the best genetics the species has to offer (leaf or foliage size and shape, internodal distance, color, etc)
  3. Can it physically be worked onto the deadwood? (Is it flexible or brittle)
  4. Will it live long enough for this planting to mature and develop an interesting character or is it a short-lived plant such as a shrub?

Tools, fasteners, and more

Carving. A groove is often carved in the deadwood, into which you will lay your living tree. You will need the necessary carving chisels or power tools and bits for this.

deadwood carving

Nibbler carving bits can remove fairly large amounts of material rather quickly and will allow you to create further interest in your deadwood.


Securing. Decide whether you will use plastic cable ties, raffia, screws, wire, or other means to secure your tree into the groove. The fastener should be easy to use, especially if you are working alone [as most of us do]. A branch jack will come in extremely handy as it will allow you to really get that live trunk right up against the deadwood. If your live tree is thin enough you can use a piece of rope and a metal rod to twist the rope, tightening the trunks together.

cable ties

Make sure you purchase strong enough cable ties for the job at hand or they will simply snap when pulled taunt. A metal rod and strong rope help compress the tree against the deadwood.

Sealer. You might need to make a number of cuts to remove branches that get in the way. You might even split the trunk of the live tree. In any case, sealing this exposed live tissue is best to promote healing and also prevent infection.

conifer sealer

With the size cuts, you are likely making the putty type sealer is preferable. Use the green lidded type for conifers and the white for deciduous.


Growing media. You will ideally want to disturb the root ball of the live plant as little as possible, as this will further weaken it. However you will most likely be potting the tree up into a new container to accommodate both the deadwood and live plant, so additional media will be needed. I would suggest a growing media which drains well and will encourage rapid growth in the live plant.

Container. Whether you use a plastic tub, purpose-made wooden box, or a ceramic pot, I would encourage you to use the smallest container you can possibly fit the final planting into. Overpotting may lead to overwatering (and rotting) and will at the very least be a waste of resources (read fertilizer and water). This might mean that you will need to secure not only the planting into the container but also the complete planting to a surface to prevent it from being blown or knocked over.



It goes without saying that you need to have a fairly clear idea of what you want to create. Unlike more commonplace bonsai design where you are working with a trunk with existing branches, Tanuki presents an opportunity for the artist to create almost from scratch.

I would strongly suggest a fair amount of time be given over to the study old, wild specimens of the species you intend to reproduce. Pay particular attention to the deadwood character; flow, texture, thickness, tapering line, and more. Consider carefully the live veins (which you will emulate with your live plant), where they originate from at ground level for greatest interest, the line they follow on the trunk, and where they occur ie in depressions or protrusions.

Koji juniper

I saved this image of a semi-cascade juniper created by well-known Japanese bonsai artist Koji Hiramatsu. This, I believe, was the first styling of this tree but it was still quite inspirational to me.

Yes, yes I know. Don’t make your bonsai look like a bonsai… however, this is my attempt at achieving something similar. With a little imagination (OK, a lot) you can see how an otherwise useless piece of deadwood, combined with this common garden variety juniper has the potential to provide hours of fun and one day become something rather interesting.

The most important aspect of design at this stage of development will be the interaction or relationship of the life to the dead. The canopy will come later and will be formed from existing branches which of course might naturally develop from the live trunk or may be grafted. Grafting in fact elevates this technique to another level as you will also be able to determine the foliage type in the case of junipers.

Preparing the deadwood

You may want to carve some additional interest into the trunk and it is best to do as much of this before you attach the live plant as possible. The Nibbler bits combined with either a Dremel tool or a die grinder allow you to get really creative and safely remove wood rapidly.

carved deadwood

Old junipers often possess these “blades” and by carving the already oblong shape of the trunk, thinning it, and created some indentations, I was able to create some additional interest.

If the wood calls for it you may want to have it sandblasted to remove bark and other debris, soften tool marks or even add texture.

deadwood trunks

These are 3 pieces of deadwood I worked with root cutters and jin pliers to give some character to the sawn-off ends to the branches.

post shotblasting

The same trunks post-shot blasting (not sandblasting) rapidly removed the bark, tool marks and also created a lot of texture from the process itself, but also as softer wood was removed leaving the harder grain behind and more exposed.

close up of shot blasting

This is a close-up of the texture created by the shot blasting. Of course, it is very unnatural at the moment, but I expect it to smooth out, crack and fissure over time. The trunks will not be treated until the desired surface finish is achieved however long it may take.

Applying a wood preservative might be appropriate now, it just depends on how weathered the wood is already and whether you want to halt that process. If not then don’t apply the preservative yet, but rather allow the wood to weather and gain character over further exposure to the elements.

I am not experienced enough on what wood preservatives are currently available, however undiluted or slightly diluted lime Sulphur with or without ink (for more natural color) is the traditional solution for deadwood preservation although I know more modern products are available on the market.

root cutters creating jin

Root cutters are robust tools that can be used to split wood, which can then be pulled with jin pliers to create a very natural-looking jin. Do not use your branch cutters to do this, please. 

If you are going to carve a groove into the deadwood with the intention of allowing the live plant to gain girth and become firmly wedged in place, you need to bear in mind that you will need to create an undercut. If you don’t, you might as well not create the groove as the tree will simply pop out. An alternative to creating a groove will be to firmly secure the tree against the deadwood with cable ties so it can grow into that shape. After a season or two, you can then systematically remove the ties and fasten the trunk into place using appropriate screws. These screws are left in place and the tree will callous over them.

One step you should definitely not forego, or you may regret it later, is to flat cut the base of the trunk. This is an important step in order to ensure your planting can fit into a suitable size bonsai pot in the future. If you fail to perform this step you might find your choice of container is limited, or that the container you are compelled to use does not visually balance as it is too deep. Furthermore, you may wish to drill and then insert a metal rod or rods onto which you can attach wires to secure your planting in the container.

metal rods

To the flat base of the trunk, wood pieces have been secured (which can be replaced as and when needed) to elevate the deadwood as close to the surface of the planting as possible to reduce the onset of rot. An additional measure would be to use a medium like pumice, stone, LECA, or basically anything which will not retain moisture immediately adjacent to the trunk.


Live wood preparation

Depending on the species you have chosen to work with, you may need to proceed differently from what I describe below.

Assuming your plant is in a nursery bag, you are most likely going to need to reduce the soil mass, which is also in part why you need to create Tanuki at the time when you would normally repot the species being used. However as the roots will be exposed while you assemble the Tanuki, take precautions to protect them from drying out. You can wrap them in plastic wrap for instance or simply mist them often.

If there are branches obviously in the way, it will be easier to cut them off now before you find your hands otherwise occupied.

If you have opted to lay the plant on the surface of the deadwood instead of inside a channel then I would encourage you to split the live tree in half. Although this may not work for all trees, it is quite safe to do this on a juniper provided you have sufficient foliage remaining to assist plant recovery. The advantage of splitting the plant is that you will start with a half-round sort of shape that better resembles a live vein. If you leave the trunk intact you will need to wait for it to form on the surface of the deadwood but I would suggest the tree will simply expand outwards and not begin to spread on the deadwood unless somehow forced to do so, so it is more likely to retain the appearance of being “attached” rather than “part of” for much longer.

splitting the trunk

You can split the trunk of your live plant, discarding the unused side (as you will retain all the roots on the side you keep). The flat side will be pressed up against the deadwood and will achieve the appearance of a live vein faster.


After preparing your deadwood, live plant, all the fasteners, and whatever else you think you are going to need then you are ready to start.

Position your tree in the desired spot on the deadwood taking care with the level of the roots; not too deep so a gap remains between the roots and the base of the deadwood, but also not too high up the deadwood leaving a significant portion of the deadwood buried as this will accelerate rotting. Fasten your live tree in place using your chosen method ie screw, cable tie, or other.


You may find that there is a gap between the live and deadwood. You need to make your best attempt to close this gap. The best way is with a branch jack. If you don’t have one you can use some rope and a metal bar; twisting the bar will tighten the rope. Use padding to protect the bark of the live tree if you need to.


I wrapped raffia on the one planting after securing the tree to the deadwood. The idea behind this is similar to the reason it is used when bending; it helps to retain moisture which facilitates healing of the micro-breaks in the trunk. Not sure if it will make too much of a difference but hey, every effort is worth it to ensure the tree’s survival.

Continue along the length of the deadwood, securing the live tree well as you go. When you reach the apex you can place your final fastener. Do not cut the tip of the live tree as you will want to encourage it to grow for at least a full growing season. This uncontrolled growth will help to conform the tree to the contours of the deadwood, initiate callousing of any cuts you might have made, and generally ensure the health of the tree and the future of the Tanuki planting.

secured tree

Note the height of the old soil line/root level and how close it is to the base of the deadwood. You can use multiple live trees depending on your design, although it does become rather challenging when doing this on your own!


The aftercare of your Tanuki is very important if you want it to flourish in the season ahead. Essentially you will want to treat it like any recently repotted tree. This means you need to shelter it from the wind as much as possible. Shading it for at least the first month or even more (up to 6 months where more drastic work was done) is a good idea, exposing the planting to morning sun but shading it from the hot afternoon sun.

finished tanuki

The creative possibilities with Tanuki are extensive. Make use of these opportunities and get really creative. 

You can foliar feed your planting after a few weeks when you see positive signs of recovery such as new growth. Roots need time to settle and begin developing so solid fertilizers should be withheld for at least a month. However fertilizing with solid fertilizers earlier will do no harm, it will just not fully be utilized by the plant yet.

Keep an eye on water like you would any other recently repotted tree, there will be less moisture loss than normal and you don’t want to cause roots to rot by exposing them to constant moisture.

Bonus Content!

Go out and make a Tanuki. Have fun and if you do it just right you will have everyone fooled, you raccoon you!