Field Grown

Ginkgo wire removed

This is the first spring where I am having trouble keeping up with the needed work on my trees. I am planning on doing some (more) culling on my collection soon, but much of that depends on the survival rate of my newly collected yamadori. I don’t have a huge collection (40-50 trees), but giving every tree the attention they need really takes a lot of time.

In the meantime, I am busy as hell. A friend was nice enough to remove the wire from my Ginkgo  for me 🙂 As a side note, this guy also has an amazing collection of fine mame and shohin sized pots and is always selling/buying. If you are looking for nice small pots, check out his website: Mame & Shohin Bonsai Pots.

As for the Ginkgo, many of the branches sprang back once the wire was removed. Kind of expected. Ginkgo is tough to wire because it scars so easily. Last year I wired it in late October and took off the wire yesterday (April 30). The branches seemed to have set better than in the past where I have wired it in March and had to take the wire off by early June.

I still haven't decided on a front for this tree. I think this side is more attractive, but the apex leans slightly back (it was not designed as the intended front by previous owners).

I think this is the original front of the tree, but I don't like the two symmetrical lumps about 1/3rd up the tree. They never used to bother me, but then my friend's wife pointed out that they look like bull testicles. Now that's all I see!

(Another) Unique Composition: Penelope by Nick Lenz

This tree must be one of the great American bonsai masterpieces…. although some may not call it bonsai.

This is ‘Penelope’ by Nick Lenz. Some decades ago, Nick got the idea to plant a young larch (Larix laricina) on a cheap concrete garden statue, and ended up producing something truly amazing.

She is named after the faithful wife of Odysseus who patiently waited many years for the return of her husband in Homer’s Odyssey. Here she is lounging under the semi-shade of early spring larch foliage.

Penelope was recently on display at a bonsai exhibition at the McMichael Gallery in Toronto.I posted a picture of her in a recent post, although I feel she is deserving of a little more attention.

I know that this is a composition loved (and hated) by many, and I am fortunate that I get to see her pretty often since she was deported to a private collection in Toronto some years ago. This post is for everyone who has not seen her since she was published in Nick Lenz’s book Bonsai from the Wild (get the book if you don’t have it). She certainly has grown since then. If you can’t see her in person, hopefully this video is the next best thing.

Don’t forget to change the viewing resolution to 720p.

A Unique Composition

This is a very interesting trident maple that I did some winter cutting on at Aichi-en back in December. I think Mr. Tanaka’s father started this tree something like 30 years ago. The development of branching and ramification has begun relatively recently, but with the rate at which tridents grow in Nagoya and techniques of the Aichi-en crew, this tree should progress rapidly.

What makes it interesting is that it is planted on (not in) a natural crescent stone. I like this planting because it shows the variety of bonsai that you can find in Japan. I’ve heard the term cookie-cutter used to describe Japanese tree before, but I really don’t think it makes sense. Definitely not for this tree, and not even for the rows of black pines I saw in Japan and in Kokufu albums. Once trees develop age and bonsai maturity, they seem to develop their own character that could not be duplicated if you tried.

I like how the curve of the stone is continued in the curve of the trunk. The dropping branch is a recurring motif on tridents at Aichi-en.

The stone acts as a basin that fills with water. There are roots growing in there, and an entire ecosystem it seems.

Run free, Forsythia!

This forsythia was collected two years ago from a school that wanted to replace all their landscaping with native species as their feeble contribution to the Green Wave. Its not a great piece of material (lacks taper) but forsythia with thick single trunks are rare so I was happy to dig it up.

I stuck the thing in a small pot last spring and I’m surprised it didn’t break it with the root growth. To thicken the new apex branch, I planted it in the ground today. It will probably take a while to get the desired taper transition (read: forever) but I am mainly growing this tree for the flowers so it doesn’t have to be perfect.

On another note, did anyone else notice this was an incredible year for forsythia flowers? Maybe it had something to do with the mild winter…

Pretty gnarly trunk, but lacking taper.

Forsythia are incredibly prolific root growers. I had this tree half submerged in a basin of water all last summer because I couldn't keep up with the watering. It loved it.

The roots were coarsely raked out and some thick roots cut back.

This pic shows the new apext that I want to thicken up a bit. Thrice its current thickness would probably suffice for a decent image. That branch was grown in 1 year, so who knows what might be possible this year in the ground...

You're free.. now go! The soil was enriched with a bit of turface and some bone meal.

Passing Along a Japanese Black Pine at Aichi-en

During my short stay at Aichi-en last December one of the pines I worked on lead to a hierarchical styling session. First I gave the tree my best shot, then apprentice Peter Tea tweaked it, and finally the resident master Junichiro Tanaka offered his improvements. This was an incredible learning experience that started (for me) in the morning and went well into the night in the smoke-filled workshop.

Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii). Probably purchased as inexpensive material from an auction. Mr. Tanaka thought it was collected as a tree with a nice base but a scraggly and bare top that was compressed by a bonsai artist several years ago.

After needle plucking. The contorted nature of the upper trunk is much more clear now. Branch selection had already been completed a couple of years ago. The tree was planted at a good angle, and all it needed was some wire and branch placement. Easy, right? Well, the task became much more challenging when I knew my work would be critiqued by two bonsai professionals!

Wiring this tree was quite the experience. First of all, my wiring skill is still very amateur. Secondly, I was using #10 Japanese copper in very tight spots on this incredibly contorted tree. Thirdly, I often underestimated the required wire diameter for many of these branches. Young, vigorous branches are very hard to bend compared to old branches. As a result, I probably ended up rewiring many parts of this tree 2-3 times!

All wired and ready for further manipulations.

To make the tree more compact, a guy wire was used to further compress the contorted trunkline.

This is as far as I took the tree. There is a small branch under the paper towel that I wanted to remove, but would not unless I got permission. I knew that Mr. Tanaka likes to use every available branch to increase the fullness of the tree. This is important when you are a bonsai professional. (He ended up keeping the branch :P)

While this was the best I could do, I was still not happy. I thought the lowest branch was too lanky and needed to be brought forward. Also, the branch on the right needed to be embracing the trunk more. However, I was not confident enough to make these bends as I felt I had already brought those brittle young branches to their limit. In the process of shaping this tree, I had already cracked several branches. So, I called over Peter.

Enter Peter Tea. Here is is fixing some of my shoddy wiring :)

The result of Peter's adjustments. The improvement is quite remarkable. Two things really stand out. (1) For the first branch, he combined what I had separated into two pads into one pad. The resulting pad is much more full with a nice round top. (2) He managed to bring in that branch on the right for a much nicer and more compact image. Peter is MUCH more confident and capable at setting pine branches than I am! I was really blown away with Peter's improvements, and thought that the work was definitely done.

Enter Mr. Tanaka. "Hmmmmm...."

When he picked up the branch cutters, Peter and I were like "seriously?"

Here is the final result, after three people taking their shots at the tree. Mr. Tanaka cut off one of the main branches and opened up the 'window' to the interesting upper portion of the trunk. The resulting branch is not as full, but it has excellent basic structure. While the the branch may looks sparse now, the value of the tree will definitely increase down the road because it has good basic structure in the primary branch.


Working on this tree was one of the most challenging and fun bonsai experiences I have had. Reminiscing on this work session really got me thinking… I hope I get the chance to go back to Nagoya some day soon!

Taxus cuspidata ‘nana’ Planting Angle Adjustment

The main purpose of this repot was not horticultural, but rather to adjust the planting angle of this Dwarf Japanese Yew. It has been tough to get this tree at the right angle due to the presence of thick sections of downward growing trunk which I have been rather timidly chipping away at (the tree was developed as a ground layer). You can read more about the history of this tree in my progressions page. This tree has been slow to develop, largely due to the long period of time spent replacing the root system. It is finally at the point now where I can solely focus on its development as a bonsai. It does admittedly have a few years to go before it is show ready.

The tree last spring. The tree looks unstable at this angle, and the direction of the first branch is upward. This branch will be pulled down eventually, but correcting the planting angle will reduce the degree to which the branch has to be lowered.

The tree before repotting, propped up at the intended angle.

After grinding away some of the offending 'root' (which is actually a section of trunk from where the ground layer was separated). Yew develop fantastically dense fibrous root systems. It is important to really open them up during repotting so soil can be worked in. The final bits of original nursery clay were also hosed away.

The result. I believe that this is the best angle for this tree. It also went into an aged yamaaki pot which may look a bit small right now, but I think will be ideal when the intended silhouette of the tree is achieved.
This tree will not be repotted again for several years.

Ginkgo is Early… Time to Repot

Today is March 12th, and my Ginkgo is already showing green buds. This means it is the ideal time to repot. This is more than one month earlier than I am accustomed to seeing movement on this tree.

The last time I repotted this tree was in 2010, and it was not until April 17th that the buds were starting to move! This seems to be the same throughout the bonsai community… a warm winter means early spring.

I am happy spring is here, but I am always concerned about taking my trees out of winter storage, then having to shuffle them around again when it becomes -15C in April 🙂

The ground is already thawed so I pulled out my ginkgo and brought it to a Toronto Bonsai Society meeting.

Normally I don't see this sort of action on this tree until mid-late April!

This is the new pot, which I got on a recent trip to Japan. It is probably 20-30 years old, based on the patina that is starting to develop. The shiny blue glaze has begun to relax into a complex, matte colour which I absolutely love.

The pot has no stamp on it. Nevertheless, it is a very high quality pot... heavy, but with thin walls. It will have no problem standing up to Canadian winters.

The tips of the shoots are just turning green, and the tips of the roots are just turning white. This tells me its a good time to repot.

All done! I think the new pot is a very nice fit. The old one was great too, and I was happy with it for 3 years. But I think its time for a change. This pot will really make the fall colours pop (unlike the last one) and is also suitable for the winter image. Can't wait for fall!


Repotting a Very Rootbound Satsuki Azalea ‘Kaho’

Repotting mature trees is different than repotting trees in development. Mature trees are usually repotted for maintenance purposes, so the root work is less dramatic and much less technical than the sort of work used for trees in development. At a recent workshop, I observed the repotting of an extremely root bound imported Rhododendrum indicum ‘Kaho’. This is a species that I have never worked with since I sadly don’t have the proper overwintering environment for azaleas. Still, its fun to watch and learn 🙂

The bonsai in question. The owner has had this tree for 3 years. He believes that it has not been repotted for 8 years, and had reached the point that water could no longer penetrate the root ball. As a result, the tree is weak.

The kanuma soil has almost completely broken down, and the pot was absolutely crammed with the fluffy roots that are characteristic of azaleas. The first step after removing the tree from the pot was to clean away the surface soil.

One of the most important tasks in the repotting was cleaning out the bottom of the rootball, all the way up to the base of the trunk. This area is most prone to rot, so cleaning it out well allows it to be inspected and refilled with fresh coarse grade kanuma. About half of the excavation is complete here.

A saw was used to trim only about 1.5cm of roots all around the perimeter. Since the tree is weak, a more aggressive root reduction may have been detrimental to the health of the tree.

All hanging superfluous roots were carefully trimmed back so that they were flush with the rootball. This picture shows the extent to which the bottom of the rootball was excavated.

The tree is going back to the same pot. There was a unanimous agreement that this pot is unsuitable for the tree, although the owner will be repotting the tree again next year once it regains strength. Hopefully he has found the right pot by then :)

With such a deep "pit" in the bottom of the rootball, simply making a mound of soil in the bottom of the pot is not good enough. Thee tree was held upside down and coarse soil was filled into the cavity. A chopstick was used to fill all of the voids. This is a step that is unique to trees with mature root systems - particularly azaleas.

To prevent losing the soil, the pot was also put on upside down. Getting the tree at the correct height in the pot can be tricky when this method is used, but this time it worked just fine the first try. Someone commented that this must be how they repot bonsai in Australia :)

The tree was securely tied into the pot, and the pot was submerged in water for several minutes, thus completing the repotting.

Wiring a special Larix laricina (American Larch)

This unusual but impressive American Larch (Larix laricina), aka Tamarack was grown from scratch by the eccentric American bonsai artist Nick Lenz. The tree is currently owned by a good friend of mine, who has been a student of Nick’s for several years. He estimates that it took Nick about 20 years to produce this trunk from a collected whip. American larch with taper like this are rare to find as yamadori (but certainly not unheard of).

This tree is a few years into its development as a bonsai, and still has a ways to go. The unusual “thrusting” branch inside of the curve may seem unsual to some people, but it is a very common sight in Nick’s trees.

My friend has far too many bonsai, so I am happy to help him out during the busy times of year (I feel like I have far too few bonsai!). I eagerly accepted when he asked me to wire this tree for him (as long as he provided the wire :)).

In the Toronto area, heavy freezes are to be expected until late March/early April. As a result, this tree was wired, but the branches were not set. Without winter protection, there is always a risk of freezing temperatures damaging recently bent branches (even with larch – one of the most cold-hardy species on the planet).

After several hours of wiring (branches will not be placed until winter is definitely gone).

Photoshop: if this was my tree (which is isn't), I would seriously consider shortening the apex.