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.
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.
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.
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.
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…..
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.
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.
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!
And the new front.
That’s some good development for a few months. Keep an eye out for updates.
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 would visit the Cincinnati club often and Richard helped him during Ben’s demos
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…
Now, what’s next?
Awww, I fooled you, just a repot and…
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….
….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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Does it suit the style you want to create?
Does it present the best genetics the species has to offer (leaf or foliage size and shape, internodal distance, color, etc)
Can it physically be worked onto the deadwood? (Is it flexible or brittle)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Go out and make a Tanuki. Have fun and if you do it just right you will have everyone fooled, you raccoon you!
The following development tips are intended for enthusiasts growing Japanese black pine from seed for shohin trees. The pines featured in this article are in their 3rd year of growth (in Spring 2021 they will be 4 years old).
You may want to read my other blog posts for relevant information. Although some of the advice might be applicable to enthusiasts who wish to grow larger trees I have not written the content from that perspective.
Tip #1. Remove needles only when necessary
The more needles you have on a tree the more rapidly the tree will develop. Simple.
However as we are growing smaller, compact trees we need to make sure that we keep the lower, inner buds healthy as we will use these in the future for our structural branches. These buds will weaken and potentially die should they be overly shaded. To promote penetration of sunlight we, therefore, may need to thin some of the needles on parts of the tree.
If you need lower branches but don’t have buds in the right pots, then you can still graft what you need on.
You will need to assess your trees and determine if there really is a shading problem or not. For the tree above there isn’t really an issue and if the tree is grown in full sun there should be no need to further expose the lower growth. So I did not remove any needles.
However, in the example above, some needles were indeed removed and the lower portions will now receive more sunlight so they will strengthen.
For this fairly upright tree shading was a bit more of a problem and so some of the older needles were cut. However as the older, mature needles are said to contain certain hormones missing from younger needles, it is important to keep as many of them as you can.
Tip #2. Pull needles if you don’t ever want buds. Cut needles if you do.
For the Japanese White pine and perhaps others, it is always advisable to cut needles from the tree as pulling them can sometimes damage the needle sheath at the base. At the base of each needle sheath, there is potential for a bud to develop.
Although the needles of Japanese black and red pines do not usually pose a risk of damage when plucked from the sheath there is always the possibility. So if you don’t want buds to form in a particular area then pull the needles. If you think you may want buds then I would advise you to rather be safe and cut the needles. You can make the cut a few mm away from the needle sheath.
Tip #3. Cage wire to thicken the trunk quickly and add interest.
There are several techniques which can be employed to increase the trunk girth of this species. Sacrifice branches and growing in colanders are two which immediately come to mind. However, in my experience, and at this early age of the plant where sacrifice branches have not really had time to develop to a size where they really do contribute to this goal, so-called “cage” wiring is a fantastic technique that can make a marked difference.
The trunk above this 3-year-old pine was cage wired in the previous growing season. The wire was removed and then reapplied. The wire bite from the first wiring has largely healed or smoothed over and this is what has contributed to the substantially thicker girth of this tree when compared to others of the same age which were treated differently.
When cage wiring there are several things to keep in mind for the technique to be effective, some of them seem to contradict conventional wiring good practice. For instance rather than wire at a regular angle, the angles should purposefully vary so as to create a more interesting trunk, a result of the intentional wire bite and subsequent healing you’re aiming for.
Tip #4. Coil “cage” wire tightly and start as low as possible.
Choose the thickest aluminum wire you can apply to the tree, this increases the surface area in contact with the trunk and will accelerate thickening. I also think the heat conducted by the wire may play a positive part.
Anchor the wire properly in the container, hold the tree and wire firmly when coiling it.
It is very important that you apply the first coils on the lowest portions of the trunk, tightly and almost without any angle at all. The trunk will only thicken when the wire makes contact with the bark. If the wire is loose, which happens easily especially with poorly anchored thicker wire, you will find that higher up on the trunk where it is easier to wire tightly the trunk will begin to fatten sooner, but not lower down. This will lead to inverse taper, which is usually not desirable. (If creating bunjin style trees this is not so much of a problem but for all other styles that come to mind, reverse taper would be a flaw)
Tip #5. Allow the wire to bite in thoroughly and only remove the wire from those parts.
You will need to ignore your first reaction which will be to remove the wire when it begins to bite in. It is only when the wire begins to bite in that this technique begins to work its magic.
Here wire has been allowed to remain on the tree until the wire is just about to be enveloped by the live tissue making it then impossible to remove without damaging the tree. This is a little far and you might wish to remove the wire before this point but for me, I think it’s not a problem whatsoever. Even if I cannot uncoil the wire I am able to cut it and push it from the sections where the tissue has begun to roll over the wire.
With the wire removed you can see just how much girth the tree has put on since the wire was applied. Magic!
If when you remove the wire any live tissue is exposed you will need to seal immediately at these points to protect the exposed areas and to promote rapid healing.
It’s important to leave the wire on until it begins to bite in good and proper. So you might wish to begin unwinding the wire towards the tip, unwind a coil or two and then leave the tree for a few more weeks to allow it to bite in further, then come back to it and remove a few more coils and leave it again. This will ensure the lower portion of the trunk will have thickened the most as the wire had bitten in there the most.
Tip #6. It’s never too early to start working on the nebari
It’s rather important to begin working on the nebari of your trees at the earliest possible point in their development. It is very difficult or even impossible to correct flaws in this area when the tree is older.
The ideal is to have surface roots radiating in all directions from the trunk at a slightly downward angle, appearing to firmly anchor the tree to the ground.
Roots which overlap others should be removed revealing the roots immediately below them.
Use scissors to cut any roots which rise out of the soil. You may use an old branch cutter or a root cutter to remove thicker roots.
Where possible and or necessary, make a kind of hairpin from wire, pressing it deeply and firmly into the soil forcing any raised roots into the soil again.
It’s likely that I will repot these trees as they are just about to go into their 5th year of growth. This will be a good time to properly trim and organize roots, although growth in the season after that will be substantially less due to the root reduction.
Tip #7. Take precautions for a strong wind to prevent broken pots.
I live in the Western Cape and experience a lot of wind. Although this helps to control fungal problems which are so common with pines it does mean I often find trees falling over in the gusts.
I use plastic bread trays as they:
Help me to space my trees apart so each tree has its own exposure to the sun, but has plenty of air movement between it and its neighbor.
The bottom of these trays are also grids so water cannot accumulate and in fact, air can move freely through.
When I want to work on them I can carry several at a time, saving me from having to walk back and forth dozens of times.
However and perhaps most importantly should a tree topple over, which is already a frequent occurrence but will only worsen as sacrifice branches increase in size, the pot will not smash.
Tip #8 Develop your own maintenance plan
Spray at least monthly with Odeon fungicide and a miticide such as a Seizer during periods of hot, dry weather. Be sure to use a wetting agent such as Sporekill or another.
Always provide maximum sunlight to your pines.
Don’t overwater your pines, the soil should dry somewhat before watering should be performed again.
Don’t water pines at night or when then there will be insufficient time for the needles to dry properly before sunset. Failure to heed this advice might lead to fungal problems.
Feed like crazy. I always have BonsaiBoost on my developing pines, which is changed every few weeks. I also perform weekly foliar drenches of Seagro or Sea Secret.
I have written a number of blogs on my experiences with growing material for bonsai. You can read them here if you have not done so already. However this post summarizes much of the knowledge I have accumulated to this point, and I also managed to produce a video on the same content to demonstrate many of the techniques I write about.
Over the last 17 odd years of field growing, I have learned a lot, and continue to do so. When I started I made many mistakes, fewer so these days, but my hope is that the content below will help you to shortcut at least some of the mistakes I made.
Tip #1. Rapid development
There is simply no substitute for growing trees in the ground. You will not be able to produce the same growth no matter how hard you may try or how much fertilizer you apply to a tree in a box let alone a ceramic container.
For this reason, if you have access to a piece of ground – use it! You can even plant your garden full of plants you are actually field growing for bonsai use. Many beautiful bonsai were once part of garden hedges.
You are not going to get this kind of development from seed in 15 odd years if planted in a container or even in a wooden box.
Tip #2. Preparing your tree
My preferred source material to field grow is cuttings. This is as the plant is already off to a great start as its roots already all emerge from the same level which will lead to better nebari in the long term. Additionally, it is assumed that you will only bother to take cuttings of plants which have good genetics such as good leaf size and or shape, short internodes, good bark characteristic or other.
Depending on the size of the material you are starting with you might plant it upright and change the direction of the trunk is successive trunk chops or you might plant the tree at an angle so that from the ground there is already a movement. If you want a tree with lots of movement you may wish to wire the tree before planting it in the ground (remove the wire before it disappears into the trunk though).
Cuttings are a great source of material to field grow into something special. Choose the material based on some desirable characteristics of the mother plant.
Tip #3. Planting
If the soil you are planting in needs some amendment you may wish to add some organic material; just follow basic guidelines available anywhere for planting trees when it comes to soil preparation.
I have used raised beds in my backyard, which my back is very grateful for, but planting at ground level is also fine. Or you might simply place the tree on the ground and mound soil up around, this latter method makes digging the tree from the ground in the future much easier.
Brick growing beds like these are great for field growing too. You may need to share some of the space with the family for growing vegetables though.
Tip #4. Planting on a surface
When planting the tree you may wish to use a flat surface such as a tile on which to place the tree.
The benefits to using a tile are:
roots are forced to grow off the edge of the tile and then down into the ground, and this produces a very pleasant trunk flare.
when you dig out the tree you need only find the edges of the tile, sever the roots and the tree is loose. In contrast, without tile roots are free to grow straight into the ground which makes the work of digging trees out much harder.
This trunk flare at the base is due to the fact that it was initially planted on a tile, forcing roots to grow horizontally first, instead of just straight down.
Tip #5. When to cut the trunk
You need to have some idea of the end result you want to achieve, for without this forward-thinking you will not know when to cut the trunk of your tree.
Here’s a scenario; you have allowed the trunk of your tree to grow uncut for several years and it’s just about the thickness you want or need for good proportions. You need to cut it now so that you can:
change the direction of your trunkline by developing a branch that grew after you made the chop.
create taper in your trunk line, which is critical for visual interest.
develop growth above the cut in order to aid the healing of this cut scar.
Once the trunk is cut, although there will be some further thickening of the growth below the cut, it will be minimal. So cut the trunk only when you have reached your goal, no sooner.
It should be fairly clear to you the several trunk chops which have been made on this tree, and the gentle taper into the next portion of the trunk.
Tip #6. Season to cut
The trunk chop must be made in a season when you are likely to get the most back budding as plentiful back budding will give you lots of new growth from which to choose your new leader to continue your trunk line with.
Late spring, when spring leaves have hardened off and become slightly leathery is the best season in my experience as this is when the tree is full of energy.
This trunk was chopped at the right time, and as a result, a lot of new growth emerged low down on the trunk. This growth can be thinned, keeping only a few to develop further.
Tip #7. How to cut the trunk
When I first started out field growing I read in books to cut at particular angles and how the cut was to be shaped. I have learned that this is a waste of time.
Cut the trunk just above when you want the change of direction to occur, bearing in mind that there will be some dieback. Using a sharp saw cut the trunk at any convenient angle being careful not to damage any surrounding growth if there is any. You do not need to shape the cut at this point.
A simple straight cut with a sharp saw is ideal initially.
Tip #8. Seal the cut
After making the cut described in tip #7, you need to seal the cut with a good sealer making sure that any live tissue is covered. This will protect the cut ends from bacteria or another attack.
I always seal my cuts straight after making them. Whether sealing the entire cut is necessary I am not sure, but I’d rather be safe than sorry with all the borers, bacteria, and other nasty things we have these days.
Tip #9. The angle of the trunk chop
In the season following the trunk chop, either late autumn or early spring when it is clear that a new line of sap flow has been established and surrounding new growth has developed enough, you can go back and cut the trunk again.
This time you will want to cut at an angle that will promote callousing of the wound, and this is usually done in the direction of a branch you have decided to use as your new trunk line.
Don’t bother making shaped cuts until you know where a new sap flow line has been established. This is visible after a season or two.
Tip #10. Shaping the cut
Cuts of significant size need special treatment or the tree will find it difficult to callous over, and the resulting callus formation will also not be very attractive. To aid the flow of callous tissue, you need to round the edges of the cut and hollow the center portion.
A good, sharp gouge chisel or other suitable implement is great for working trunk chops at a later stage.
Tip #11. Treating wounds
Callous tissue will not form on rotting wood or any non-sound surface for that matter. I wish I knew this years ago!
Should you have any large wounds inside which you find rooting wood, this must be thoroughly cleaned out first. After cleaning out the wound you can fill the hole with a cement product. This forms a great surface over which callous tissue can form.
In the video I prepared for this blog post, you will notice that I filled large cavities that resulted from callous formed around old wounds. Rather than expect callous to “roll” into and fill this space, simply filling it and then encouraging callous to form over the cement, dramatically reduces the time required to hide such large defects in the trunk.
Filling large cavities and then scoring and sealing the edge of the live vein will ensure callous tissue forms quicker and the scar looks better once properly healed.
Tip #12. Treating branch cuts
I don’t develop branches in the field when I am growing relatively small trees. However, when growing larger trees the benefit of the superior speed of growth produced by field growing can accelerate the building of structural branches.
The treatment of branch cuts is much the same as trunks in essence. When making the branch cut I once again do not go too much effort to cut at any particular angle, however, it is important that you do not cut beyond any dormant buds, or the entire branch will die back. I simply seal the cut and leave it. Once the growth which developed after the cut has matured enough, after say one or two growing seasons, then I go back and shape the cut based so that the future callous or healing, will be pleasing.
A combination of tools is available for working or shaping branch cuts and trunk chops. Here I am using a knob cutter.
Tip #13. Wiring in the field
Wiring in the field can be of great value, just be careful. Wire bites can happen quickly and maybe the demise of a branch. Once again one needs to be mindful of how fast things happen when trees are in the ground especially in autumn and spring.
On larger trees, I like to use wire to guide structural branches initially. Be careful of wire bite though.
Tip #14. Field rootwork
Doing frequent rootwork will dramatically slow the development of your trees. Every time you uproot a tree you lose at least a full year while the tree issues new roots as it prepares for growing branches.
The advantage of uprooting the tree, at least initially, is that you will be able to form the surface roots much better as you will be able to cut them and arrange them. However the alternative would be to allow the tree to remain in the ground and when you have finished developing it and you are ready to pot the tree, you ground layer it. This will produce a lot of fine roots which will sustain the tree.
Although it is safe to do rootwork like this on field-grown trees, due to their immense energy, it does slow the tree down and you will lose some development time.
The above tips are explained further and demonstrated in the following video I did. I hope you enjoy it and please be sure to like my channel and share the video with others you think will enjoy the content.
When creating bonsai trees, scars are almost inevitable. Whenever possible it is best to make these scars to the back of the tree so they cannot be seen. If they are visible from the front, encouraging them to heal over is of course a strategy but sometimes this can be rather challenging for the following reasons:
The cut is particularly large.
The species of tree has trouble forming callous over the cut.
This post presents a simple solution that addresses both of these but can only be used on species that form a heavily plated or coarse bark.
For demonstration purposes, I will use a Cork bark elm I purchased from Stone Lantern Bonsai in Joostenberg a couple of years ago. Originally field grew by Stephen le Roux, he typically leaves multiple branches in order for the person who buys this stock to be able to choose which to cut and which to keep. This does however mean that you will create some large cuts when removing some of these unwanted limbs.
The drawback with this species and other species which produces thick bark such as the Acacia is that when a large cut is made it is either never going to properly heal over and take on the characteristic cork bark surrounding the cut, or it will at the very least take a very long time.
Large, visible scars like this are not pleasing to the eye; not while the tree is in training and of course completely unacceptable for a tree on display.
There is a really simple solution; hide it.
Let’s be clear, this is not the first prize. That would be for the scar to heal completely naturally. However, what we are planning on doing will not hinder callousing and perhaps one day our “patch job” can be removed or will fall off and we find we don’t need it anymore.
Quite simply, we will use pieces of bark from the same species, although not necessarily collected from the same tree to conceal the scar below.
Before starting, it is a good idea to ensure the cut has been properly prepared and sealed with a good, waterproof sealer such as Top Jin Paste, so that you have a sound surface onto which to attach your pieces of bark, but also so that your tree can continue healing naturally, behind the concealment we are going to fabricate.
You should then collect some suitable pieces of bark, ideally more than what you think you will need so you have plenty of choices. A variety of sizes is great. Precise color is not critical as it will age to the same as the surrounding bark as it is exposed to the same elements it is.
You then can decide what to use as your adhesive. I used an epoxy putty which hardens like a stone for this application but in the past, on an Acacia, I performed the same operation on, I used a bonsai cut sealer. The sealer has the added advantage that the color is a little more camouflaged and it is flexible. You could probably use superglue too, but this has no gap-filling properties so I think you might find the bark pieces will fall off easier.
Try to remove any loose debris like dust or sand from the rear of the bark piece you plan on attaching, as well as from the surface you plan on attaching it to.
Play around with different pieces of bark, placing them at different angles but you should mimic the direction of the lay of the natural bark on the tree.
Apply some of your adhesives to the back surface of the bark, and if necessary, to the scar. Attach the bark firmly but carefully so as not to damage the bark plates. Add further pieces of bark so that the entire scar is covered.
Repeat the process until all scars you have on the tree are concealed. You can now allow the adhesive to dry completely after which you can treat the tree as normal. In time the color of the bark will blend perfectly with the surrounding bark and you will actually forget the concealment is there.
Simple and fast. Now you can go back to designing your tree and not worry about scars distracting the viewer.
A customer asked me to style this swamp cypress which was part of his collection.
I thought I would video and also write about the process I followed to style the tree. The intention and hope are that this might help you to formulate an approach when you have just added a tree to your collection and wish to work on it.
The tree before commencing any work
I would advise strongly against just sitting down in front of a new tree and beginning to chop off branches, however tempting it might be to do so. After bringing the tree back to my place it was with me for about 2 weeks, with me passing it every day and giving it the once over each time. Finally, I was ready to work on it. This time allowed me to have some idea of what I wanted to do with the tree before starting to work on it.
Here are some of the questions I asked myself when studying the tree:
Are there any weird contorted roots that don’t suit the rest of the tree, or which demand immediate attention when viewing the tree?
Are the roots one-sided ie. all emerging from one side of the tree?
Can you see the roots or are they buried – can you remove some soil to expose them a little more?
Do the roots need to be improved through grafting or even ground or air layering?
Which angle presents the trunk best? Does tilting it backward, forwards, and or rotate it look better?
Does it have any scars which you do not want to be visible? If it does can you make it a feature of the tree in the future?
Does the trunk have a taper and if not can it be rotated for a better visual taper? Would cutting it shorter enhance the taper by bending a branch up, making it the new trunkline?
Is there movement in the trunk, do you want or need more? Can you rotate the trunk to improve the movement?
Where are your branches situated angled in relation to the viewer (and potential front of the tree)? What is the best compromise between finding the best solution for the preceding considerations and finding the best angle to display the available branches?
Do you have multiple branches originating from the same position along the trunk which you need to eliminate to prevent swelling at this point (assuming it hasn’t already started)?
Are there branches directly above and close to one another which could cause weakening of the bottom branch?
Do you have handlebar branches that need attention? This refers to branches that are directly opposite one another on the trunk, allowing such branches to remain can result in reverse taper but depending on how prominent they are can create a cantilevered look on your tree.
Would grafting branches to the tree be an improvement?
Branches vertically above/below one another in near proximity and of equal girth are less than ideal
The above are only some of the considerations which go through my head when sitting down in front of a tree that needs to be styled. The questions will differ depending on the species, the style, and also very much on the stage of development the tree is in.
When making decisions on the above some might need to be taken immediately and some can be postponed. For instance, if you already have a grouping of branches causing a reverse taper problem then it would be prudent to remove one or more of the branches immediately. However in the same situation but where the reverse taper is not visible yet perhaps the branches can remain to serve one or another purpose such as healing a scar lower down the trunk.
Sometimes it’s best to remove excess growth before it begins to create problems. Knowing when to cut and when not to is a skill developed by experience and understanding the result of actions taken.
My strategy for this tree
For most of you, when determining your strategy for a tree you can do so without considering another party. In my case, this is not my tree. I need to consider what my customers’ expectations might be with regards to the styling. For instance, I cannot simply decide I want to chop off all the lower branches and keep those in the apex. Sure, sometimes such styling happens in consultation with the customer but as I mentioned for most of you, your considerations will be what you and you alone are striving towards.
In determining my stylistic approach to this tree I went with something fairly orthodox however based on my idealization of these trees in their natural form. As you will see from the work once completed, there is much room for improvement. However one can only work with what there is available at the time, with a view of how it can be improved in the future and the strategy you will apply in order to attain it.
As this tree is very much still in a development phase my focus is mainly on positioning the structural branches, forming the skeleton of the tree on which to later place the “meat.” Of course, secondary branches, where there are, will be used to begin the formation of ramifications though.
From experience I can tell you that wiring and bending a swamp cypress branch is not a long-term solution. When the wire is removed the branch will simply spring back to almost its original position. The only reliable method of bending these branches is to cut the wedge and bend the branch down. The branch heals in this position and will remain set once the wire is removed.
Good wedge cuts require a little practice. Fortunately, swamp cypress is relatively forgiving being such strong growers.
When cutting the wedge do so with a sharp, fine-toothed saw for the best result. Try to ensure that when bent the two halves meet cleanly. For some species this is critical but with swamps, as they are such strong growers it’s actually a good species to learn this technique on as they tend to be more forgiving. You can choose to use wire only or wire with a guy wire anchored elsewhere on the tree.
Guy wires worked best for me on this tree
Choice of wire
For this tree, I used aluminum wire in various thicknesses. I personally do not prefer to use very thick aluminum if I can avoid it as I feel that it can easily crush the plant tissue as you apply it to the branches.
One always starts at the base of the tree, working up into the apex. I prefer to wire a branch and then set it into the position I want, adding any curves to the portions being bent as I go along. And don’t forget to add curves in a 3D manner, I see FAR too many trees wired so branches look great – for a bird – but when viewed from the front they appear perfectly flat.
Wiring for volume
To create volume to your foliage pads you need to wire accordingly. The concept is a little challenging to describe in words, bonsai is after all not a theoretical pursuit, however in principle using side and top branches, try to create volume to your pads so that all branches do not lie on the same plane. It is possible to use bottom branches too, however, bear in mind that they can weaken over time as they are usually shaded out by branches above them, I generally tend to eliminate bottom branches.
I often see secondary branches on bonsai which have been wired into very unnatural positions, for instance at angles of 90deg and greater to the structural branch. Please do yourself a favor and go study trees in nature; this seldom happens. Such branches tend to have a much more acute angle, and appear much more fluid as opposed to having jarring changes of direction. In this tree, in many places, I closed the angles quite considerably and you will find that when you do this, it will just look right.
Position of wire
There is a simple RULE, yes I said it, I swore – sorry. If I want to bend a branch down I wire over the branch, if I want to lift it I wire under the branch. This supports the bend when I apply the force to the wire to change the branch position. Break this rule and break your branch, or at least risk breaking it.
Should you need to remove any branches you might consider using them as anchor points for your wiring. Sometimes such jin’s already existed and can be used immediately.
It is important that you seal any cuts you make. I prefer to use sealers developed for use on plants. Plant sealers often have disinfecting properties and even hormones to assist with callous formation.
It is advisable when you make large cuts with a branch cutter or similar tool, it’s a good idea to neatly trim the edges with a grafting knife or blade of some sort. This will accelerate healing of the area and reduce the risk of infection.
On the wedge cuts which I made on most of the branches, I used the putty types of sealers. On smaller branch cuts I used the Top Jin paste applying the sealer with a small brush.
For now, there is no real apex. The termination of the tree felt a little too abrupt to me so for now I have trained a fairly thick branch into the position on which a future apex can be built. This branch has been left uncut and should remain so, acting as an escape or sacrifice branch. The more sap flows into this the more the region will thicken and at the same time, it will assist healing over the cuts which I made.
When this branch has done its job it will be dramatically shortened and side branches will be encouraged and ramification can be developed in this region.
Natural VS Stylized
There is a debate that has been raging on for some time now and will most likely continue for many years to come. Not that I profess to have been enlightened myself yet, but it seems at the very least that it is the “in” thing to claim to be styling in a natural way rather than I guess unnatural (seeing as this is the opposite to natural). In my view, without delving into the debate too much, and neither do I wish to oversimplify it, no bonsai are natural, they are all artificially created. I will admit that some trees do appear more random or chaotic than others which appear highly stylized or perfect. For me, there is room for all in the bonsai world. One is not better than the other, the beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. (Have you ever taken a peek at the greater art world???) *
I took this photograph of a very young swamp cypress just outside Stellenbosch. Take particular note of the angle of the branches.
I took this photograph of a group of swamp cypress, also outside of Stellenbosch. These trees are a little older but still project an image of young trees.
Some examples of older swamp cypress, taken off the internet. The downward branch angles depict older more mature specimens, and it is this image that I prefer.
So to reel in the debate to the tree in the discussion, this swamp cypress. There are some examples of this species that have been styled very differently to what I perceive as the norm, and these have been dubbed at least by some as being very natural – thus perhaps by default claiming others as fakes. I can style my swamp cypress like a baobab tree if I wanted to (which I do not) or perhaps more accurately if my customer wanted me to. However, I like to believe I took inspiration from nature for this styling and did consider how the species grow where I live and indeed other parts of the world too. My goal is not to reproduce precisely what nature has created, although beautiful, sometimes this is not possible for horticultural reasons or others. Usually, designs will be to a lesser or greater degree a stylized version of the natural tree form.
I have made a number of comments in the video which I hope you will watch, like, and share (and do subscribe to my channel for when I do more like them). However, in brief, the tree offered me certain opportunities for styling. I know this species to be a very strong grower and over time new opportunities will be presented.
You can rest assured that whenever I am asked to work on this tree, it will be done with a view of improving it – which may or may not mean I will remove certain major structural branches in favor of branches deemed to be better positioned. Some of the branches are also a little long and might be shortened when the tree has had a chance to respond to this styling.
There are certain areas of the design which are a little empty but I am confident we can fill those up in a relatively short space of time. Given that these trees are such strong growers it will be a tree that will have to be watched quite carefully if wire bite is to be avoided.
To build and maintain ramifications will also present a challenge to the owner of the balance between health, fertilization, and watering is not good (Lots of fertilizer + lots of water = lots of coarse growth) however I hope to post again about this tree in subsequent blogs and videos so you too can watch its progression, so be sure to subscribe to my newsletters so you don’t miss this.
* One should always strive for creativity. If every tree in your collection looks the same then I would encourage you to experiment and break from your comfort zone a bit, the results might surprise you and you might feel revitalized by your newfound artistic freedom.