Professional Image of Thuja occidentalis

This twin trunk thuja has progressed well since it was collected in Spring 2013. It was styled in the summer for the first time. While the foliage is still quite immature and lacking density, I am happy with where the image is going and it is becoming hard to imagine this tree without the lovely pot by Erick Križovenský’

It was shown for the first time last weekend at the Toronto Bonsai Society Fall Show and Sale. The entire show was photographed by one of our members Mike Pochwat, who is a professional photographer. When the full album is available, I will share the link here.

We are extremely fortunate to have such a talented photographer in our show, and that he was generous enough to take his time to photograph our trees. Meeting great people like this is just one of the many reasons why I always encourage bonsai enthusiasts to join a local club.

Happy autumn to everyone! A busy time of year for us cold-climate bonsai nuts.

Thuja occidentalis

Thuja occidentalis

Twisty Twin Trunk Thuja in Erik Križovenský Pot

This serpentine tree was collected in the spring of 2013. I’ve always admired Erik Križovenský’s bonsai containers and thought this tree would be a great candidate for his unique style so, in 2014, I commissioned him to make one for this tree. Many people have tried to imitate Erik’s style of containers, but I’ve never seen anyone get it quite right. Furthermore, Erik has an incredible eye and designs containers to specifically match the style of each tree.

Erik is based in Slovakia and his work can be seen on his website Atelier Bonsai Element.

I hope you enjoy the following photo essay.

Spring 2014, still in an untouched state one year after collection.

Spring 2014, still in an untouched state one year after collection.

This tree recovered faster than most, so received a rough initial styling in June 2014. This was the picture I sent to Erik for his design input.

This tree recovered faster than most, so received a rough initial styling in June 2014. This was the picture I sent to Erik for his design input.

Erik's initial design. After some minor revisions, I gave him the OK to make the pot.

Erik’s initial design. After some minor revisions, I gave him the OK to make the pot.

As of last week it had recovered from the repotting and was ready for work.

As of last week it had recovered from the repotting and was ready for work.

After deadwood work, thinning, and detail wiring. If it grows as planned it could potentially be displayed this fall.

After deadwood work, thinning, and detail wiring. If it fills out as planned it could potentially be displayed this fall.

New Pot for Japanese Maple

This fancy pot is branded Ejiri Taizan, which I learned thanks to Ryan Bell’s very comprehensive Chop, Seal, and Signature Resource.

I overwinter this tree in my insulated garage. It can handle the cold, but keeping it in the garage allows me to appreciate it throughout the winter. The disadvantage is it breaks dormancy about one month early meaning it has to be run in and out of the house throughout most of April, which is probably the most unpredictable month in the Toronto area, weather-wise.

Daily bud-pinching has been underway on this tree for about three days, even though the ground outside is still pretty much frozen.


New Pot for Potentilla fruiticosa

Quite a flamboyant choice. Perhaps too flamboyant? Well, it technically is a flowering tree… although it certainly doesn’t carry that presence.

Regardless, I find it a fun change.

New pot by Heian Kosen

New pot by Heian Kosen


Old Yamaaki pot. This pot couldn't handle the winter and developed some hairline cracks.

Old Yamaaki pot. This pot couldn’t handle the winter and developed some hairline cracks.

Japanese Maple

This spring I acquired my first Japanese Maple. After ten years of bonsai, what took so long? Well I suppose it was a combination of finally having safe overwintering conditions and, more importantly, finding a good one that I couldn’t refuse.

It originally came in a lovely textured unglazed John Pitt oval. Great for a larch, but maybe not for this maple. I wanted something a little more flamboyant, so I planted it in a pale blue glazed custom made pot by local potter Geoff Lloyd. Geoff has only been making pots for a couple of years but he is making serious progress. I own several of his pots and he even made me a large custom slab which I will be planting a larch forest on in a couple of weeks.

If you need a bespoke pot and want to support your local artisan, shoot me an email and I will put you in contact with Geoff.


A washed out picture of the tree as purchased March 15th in it’s original John Pitt container.

Besides the repot, only minor work was done. Some branches were wired, pruned, and the moss was brushed from the nebari after killing it with vinegar.

Today in it's new pot by Geoff Lloyd.

Today in it’s new pot by Geoff Lloyd.

Fellow Ontarians are probably wondering “how the hell is that thing already almost in full leaf?” Everything else around here won’t start moving for at least another two or three weeks. Well, you may have guessed that this tree came from southern Pennsylvania.

Repairing a Broken Bonsai Pot

I’ve been buying a lot of pots from Japan over the winter so I suppose it is inevitable that one would arrive broken (although it could have been prevented with better packing). Fortunately I didn’t pay a lot for it, but it is (was) still a valuable pot. Instead of tossing it, I took it as an opportunity to experiment with repairing ceramics. My goal is to make it usable which, in my climate, means it will need to stand up to constant moisture and freeze-thaw cycles. I love this style of pot and actually have the identical one in a smaller size, but it doesn’t have nearly as nice patina as this broken one.

You might be interested in the excellent articles and videos that Lakeside Pottery has on repairing ceramics. Some really great tips in there.


Broken Keizan pot, 16.5″ x 12.5″ x 4″

After asking around and doing some research, the general consensus seems to be that epoxy is the best adhesive for repairing broken ceramics. I purchased some water-resistant marine epoxy for the job. An experienced potter and bonsai artist warned that epoxy will degrade after constant exposure to moisture, but more on how I tried to address that issue later.


Water resistant two part epoxy.

After cleaning the broken pieces and doing a test fit (the order of assembly is important) I glued the pot back together in two stages. Excess epoxy that seeped out of the joints was wiped away with rubbing alcohol.


The assembly was done in two stages, with the largest piece being glued on first, then the two smaller pieces the next day. The missing chips had been ground to dust during transit, so those areas were filled in with epoxy.

The goal was of course to get perfectly flush joints, but I found that  the quality of the joints decreased as more pieces were added. This is because as more pieces went in, the space taken up by the epoxy became incresaingly significant. This problem was magnified by the fact that there were so many joints. Removing some ceramic material from the joining surfaces might be a solution but could affect the final fit.


One of the better joints.

I blended brown and grey acrylic paints to try and match the pot colour. I knew it wouldn’t be perfect since the patina on the old pot results in a gradient of colours. But it was an improvement on the glaring white epoxy. Many of you have probably heard of the approach of highlighting ceramic repairs with gold (kintsugi). I love this look but think it is most suitable for chips, single-line breaks, and older more valuable pots. The break on this pot is more of a “why didn’t you just throw it away?” kind of break.

Most damaged side of the pot, after touch up painting.

Most damaged side of the pot, after touch up painting.

To try and prolong the life of this repaired pot, the final step was to apply a heavy bead of waterproof marine grade silicone over the inside joints. The idea is that if I can waterproof the epoxy line that sees the most moisture, I may be able to keep it together longer (since I was warned that expoxy . Yes it looks ugly, but my goal is to make this pot usable and the inside of course will not be seen when the pot is in use.

Inside after applying silicone.

Inside after applying silicone.

Fortunately the pot still has an undamaged front which is presentable. Time will tell how well this repair will stand up to the elements. If you live in a cold weather climate and have tried a repair like this, I would really like to hear your experience.





New Old Keizan Pot

I recently got this Keizan pot from Matt Ouwinga of Kaede Bonsai-en, Chicago. I’m not sure exactly how old it is but the patina definitely suggests a few decades of heavy use. I’m not a hardcore pot collector therefore the chip in one of the feet doesn’t bother me much. As far as I’m concerned, it made the pot a bit more affordable. While I didn’t buy this pot for a specific tree, it is extremely versatile and I’m sure I won’t have a problem pairing a tree with it, mostly likely a Thuja.

I have Peter Tea to thank (blame?) for getting me into aged pots. Before I went to Aichi-en I had never really seen old pots in person but once I got my hands on some I was hooked. While I can’t necessarily afford the higher end antique Chinese pots, I have come to appreciate the subdued look of a heavily used pot over a brand new one.

I think it is important to recognize that in order to continue to raise the level of bonsai display in North America, we not only need better trees but better pots as well. Peter Tea and Matt Ouwinga are each a driving force in bringing old Chinese and Japanese pots into North America, and I am grateful for that. My wallet, on the other hand, is perhaps not so enthusiastic.

Apparently this is “Post Your Keizan Pot Week”. Jonas at Bonsai Tonight also posted a beautiful Keizan pot earlier today, which motivated me to post mine.

    13.5" x 10" x 3.75"

13.5″ x 10″ x 3.75″ with chip

The patina is probably the most valuable aspect of this pot.

The patina is probably the most valuable aspect of this pot.

Keizan branded pots are made in the Tokoname region by Shizuo Hisada.

Keizan branded pots are made in the Tokoname region by Shizuo Hisada.

Thuja occidentalis #9

This little thuja was put into a nice Shibakatsu pot last week. This is one of my favorite pots and it suits the tree better than I expected. The major work on this tree is now done – both above and below ground. Now it is just a matter of pruning and pinching to develop the foliage pads. As I refine the foliage, I will slowly scrape the dead bark of the old top jin while trying to maintain the detail of the deadwood. This will be a slow process.

May 2013

May 2013

Summer 2012

Summer 2012


Spring 2011 as collected.

Spring 2011 as collected.


Thuja occidentalis Slab Planting

The other day I planted this Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) on a slab I picked up from Aichi-en in Nagoya, Japan. I believe the slab is made of concrete, although the artist did a very good job of giving it a natural form and texture.

I had the help of a friend who has much more experience planting trees on slabs than I do. I was expecting to have to make a retaining wall out of muck like Bjorn does for a white pine in this excellent video, but I learned that this step is completely unnecessary with healthy Thuja because of its incredibly dense root characteristics.

Unfortunately I didn’t get many pictures of the process because I was busy working on the tree 🙂 However, the key points to planting Thuja on a slab are as follows:

  • The material should be well established and have a dense, fibrous rootball. Most Thuja can produce this in two years of growth in a coarse bonsai soil such as a lava rock or pumice based mix.
  • Do not disturb the rootball any more than is necessary. In other words, don’t rake the whole thing out. This will weaken the structure of the rooball and will make it difficult to keep it intact once planted on the shallow stone.
  • Remove thick, downward growing roots.Thuja collected from rocky areas typically have few of these, as was the case with this tree. Once the rootball is shallow enough, leave it alone.
  • Trim long, thick roots that extend beyond the desired perimeter of the rootball. Excessively long fibrous roots can be tucked underneath the rootmass once it is placed on the stone.
  • Tie it in tight. Drill more holes if necessary.
  • Work in soil where necessary, If the rootball is dense and was undisturbed, relatively little soil will need to be worked in near the trunk.

"Before" (this is actually a picture from last summer).

The rootball tied into the stone. I'm guessing only about 25% of the rootmass was removed for this planting.

The result. I am happy with the stone and the more upright planting angle. This is actually closer to how it was growing in the ground. This tree still has a lot of development ahead of it, so there is no point in adding moss. No top pruning was done. The tree just looks thinner because it shed its foliage last fall, after the first picture was taken.

Spring Work on a Siberian Elm & Bonsai Aesthetics Aluminum Wire

This tree took a step forward over the last couple of weeks, but still has a long way to go. It is one of several Ulmus pumila I got from this old hedge in 2010.

Just out of winter storage

As a side note, this winter I ended up with about 10 kg of Robert Stevens’ Bonsai Aesthetics aluminum wire. This is the first tree I actually tried it out on. It is pretty good stuff… only slightly softer than Japanese anodized aluminum with a bit less holding power, but at a fraction of the price. As is typical with aluminum on deciduous trees, I found myself using wire about 1/2 the thickness of the branch to achieve the desired bending power. It is worth noting that this wire is pure glossy black, as opposed to the copper-ish colour of Japanese aluminum wire. It will be interesting to see how the colour stands up to the elements over this growing season.

Setting some secondary and tertiary branches with Bonsai Aesthetics aluminum wire.

Root work came next. This is the first time that this tree has had focused root work since coming out of the hedge. Almost all of these elms had massive taproots. This one needed some work with the reciprocating saw and a die grinder to further reduce the taproot. Furthermore, a few excessively long roots had to be pruned back. This may look extreme, but every root I have cut back on one of these Siberians has produced new roots near the cuts – even tap roots 15 cm in diameter.

Reducing a massive taproot with a reciprocating saw, then a die grinder fitted with a carving bit.

The root system of this tree is not ideal, and needs much further reduction, but this is where I left the work for this year.

This Nick Lenz pot was the right size for the rootball, but the tree is not planted at the right angle. I'm not concerned about that right now, since this tree is still very much in training.

This Elm has an excellent trunk for a classic informal upright design, but the nebari is terrible due to the presence of large taproots. On an informal upright elm, the nebari is one of the most important features. Root grafting may be in this tree’s future.

Tired Old Potentilla fruticosa

The potentilla that is the subject of this post was collected about 10 years ago by a friend of mine. I have admired this tree for some time, as potentilla’s of this size and drama are quite rare. When I had the opportunity to buy it for a reasonable price last year, I didn’t hesitate!

Potentilla fruiticosa yamadori


However, this tree has some serious issues and serves to illustrate some limitations of potentilla for bonsai. In a recent post, I said that potentilla are one of my favourite species. They are certainly not perfect, however. Many people will refer to the limited longevity of potentilla. While they are hard to kill, their weedy growth habit is subject to dieback. Their biggest issue, however, is wood rot. This tree is a perfect example of the issues that arise with potentilla over time.

When designing potentilla bonsai as a deadwood species, you must be very conscious of the soft wood. It is nowhere nearly as robust as the deadwood of other deadwood species such as Thuja and Juniperus, and requires extra care. This means treating at least once a year with a penetrating wood hardener, and keeping the deadwood clean and dry. This is the product I like to use.

These techniques were not applied to this potentilla over the last decade, and as a result it has lost much of its structural integrity as a result of rot. Some of the fine jins near the base of the tree also crumbled away when I first laid hands on the tree last summer. The tree is literally falling apart. To make things worse, was planted in a very mucky organic soil mix which takes a long time to dry out.

The purpose of this spring work was mainly to take steps to minimize the advancement of the rot by doing the following:

  • Remove as much of the rotted wood as possible
  • Bareroot the tree and replace the soil with a coarse inorganic mix
  • Plant the tree more upright so that the deadwood is far away from the soil surface
  • Treat with limesulfur, then wood hardener

Crevices such as this are highly at risk of rot, especially if they are not kept clean and dry.

This organic soil mix holds far too much water. This rotted the jins that (used to) lay on the surface and also creates too much humidity for the deadwood that lies above the soil. It is worth noting, however, that the tree grows fine in this soil. Potentilla will grow well in almost anything!

The video clip below shows the extent to which the rot has compromised the structural integrity of the tree.


This is the new pot. It is a yamaaki pot with some signs of age. It is far from ideal, but I think it is a slight improvement on the current pot. I think this tree is ideally suited to a crescent stone, but I have not been able to find the right one yet!

After much struggling, I decided to break the pot. The unusual shape made it very hard to get the tree out and, given how fragile the tree has become, I did not want to pry on it too hard. This pot was made by the previous owner and he warned me that I might have to break it - sorry! :)

Barerooted with the hose and trimmed. You can see that the root system is strong despite the difficulties the tree has presented to the bonsai design.

The tree is so "floppy" that it had to be tied to itself in order to achieve the desired angle. This guy wire is hidden at the back of the tree and can be adjusted if needed.

Thats it for now. Much cleaning and wood preservation still needs to be done, but I think that the deadwood is much safer now than it was before.

The back of the tree is quite interesting as well. As the structure of this tree continues to deteriorate, I am sure that I will have to keep other design possibilities in mind.

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!


Strange Patina on an Aged Glazed Pot

Patina always makes a pot more desireable, and it is difficult to find bonsai pots with nice patina in North America. So, when I was digging for pots at Aichi-en Nursery in Nagoya this winter, I was looking for unique pots that showed some age.

This is an approximately 80 year old Japanese pot. The patina is very strange. It is not at all uniform, being much heavier on one side of the pot than the other. The patina even extends inside the pot!

How could this have happened? I discussed this with Peter Tea, and we came to the conclusion that it must have been partially buried for a long time (with no tree in it). The buried part of the pot will not develop patina nearly as well as the part that is exposed to the elements.

The pot itself is nothing special. Despite not having a stamp, we can tell it is about 80 years old because of the style and quality (or lack thereof). Early in the 20th century, Japanese potters typically put little effort into bonsai pots. After all, why should they create a masterpiece if it was just going to be filled with dirt? As a result, it “rocks” when sitting on a flat surface. The narrow width of the pot is also characteristic of the time, and makes the pot less usable and therefore less valuable today. However, I’m sure I can find a collected potentilla in my yard that will slip into this quite nicely.

Nevertheless, I was happy to pick up this pot because it was inexpensive. Most pots of this age with such mature patina are way beyond my price range.

The "waviness" of this pot is typical of hastily made Japanese pots of the time.

Glazed pots typically develop patina more slowly than unglazed pots. The complexity that patina adds to the finish makes a pot truly one of a kind, and echoes the patina carried by old bonsai.