Archive for February, 2012

Expensive Japanese Cut Paste: Is It a Waste of Money?

The debate over whether or not to use cut paste will never end. I’m not here to discuss that πŸ™‚ Let’s just assume you do use cut paste (like most bonsai professionals), but you have always secretly felt like a sucker for buying this stuff.

As usual, the professionals have found a cheaper and more efficient way to do it. At Aichi-en in Japan, they use regular old joint caulk. And they use it on everything – conifers and deciduous, tears, splits, clean cuts, everything.

Its dirt cheap, waterproof, easier to apply than the clay style paste, and it even comes in pink!

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.

Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) Hedge. You’re Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t

This hedge belonged to a buddies neighbour in an old Toronto neighbourhood. It had been growing there somewhere between 50-70 years, and was sheared back pretty much every year.

Looks great, right? Unfortunately, it is the infamous Siberian Elm. They have a bad reputation for bonsai. The idea is that, being a pioneer species, they tend to die back once they reach bonsai maturity and you try to slow their growth down. We knew this going into the project, so common sense should have said “don’t waste the effort, step away from the hedge”. I received this warning from a more experienced bonsai friend who had suffered Siberian Elm Heartbreak in the past.

Well, being the fools that we are, we dug them up anyway. All of them.

Now I have plenty of great Siberian Elm trunks that grow incredibly fast and are lots of fun to work on. But I am trying to not get too attached. In the mean time, I have a few ideas that I am going to test to try and stabilize them for bonsai cultivation. But I am not getting my hopes up.

Growth Rate of Stressed Thuja occidentalis

This is not a rule, but you can see that Thuja in some stressed conditions (especially drought, poor soil, and crushing ice) grow as little as 2 radial centimeters every 40-50 years. This promotes the development of great bark and deadwood character in small trees. Good junipers cannot be collected in my part of Canada, but Thuja has much of the drama that is so desireable in Juniper bonsai, combined with a unique ruggedness.

The picture of the rings is from where the old top of this tree was cut back after collecting (not a dead tree πŸ™‚ ). This tree was sold last year.

Old Thuja bark

Grafting Hinoki on Thuja (Arborvitae) Part 1

Many people think that the foliage of Thuja is untameable and unsuitable for bonsai. This is not true – a very refined image can be produced with the native Thuja foliage, especially for medium to large bonsai.

However, there is always the possibility of grafting the more fine hinoki foliage on if you are truly dissatisfied with the native Thuja. The two species are, after all, quite similar. While hinoki has better foliage characteristics, thuja has better vigour and wild specimens have incredible deadwood features. When I showed pictures of my collected Thuja to Junichiro Tanaka (owner of Aichi-en in Nagoya), he described them as “Hinoki Juniper”.

But even though I am content with the native foliage, sometimes grafting is necessary. Take this tree as an example.

When it was collected, I planned on building the bonsai from the branch closer to the trunk. The longer section was to be cut off when the tree recovered.

The long, far away section of foliage had no purpose for the bonsai design.

Why didn’t I cut it off when I collected it? Well, I’m not totally convinced by the “balancing the roots with the shoots” idea. It seems like common sense that leaving more foliage will give the tree more strength to produce new roots, as long as you can minimize transpiration with misting.

Well, it looks like I ate my words here. The most important branch died, of course. I think this is because the roots supporting it were damaged when collecting. Cedars have a very “divided” lifelines that are distinctly attached to roots. If I killed the roots that supported that branch, there was not much hope.


The trunk is nice enough that the tree is worth setting aside as a grafting project. I have never grafted cedar, and this will be an exciting project for this year (and maybe a few years to come). Nick Lenz has a “hinoki cedar” that is rather famous in the Eastern North America. It took him something like 4 years to completely replace the thuja foliage with hinoki. I believe he used thread grafts for this (yes I know… sounds insane) and Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana’ (dwarf hinoki).

An older picture of Nick Lenz's "Hinoki Cedar", created by grafting Dwarf Hinoki onto a collected Thuja occidentalis trunk.

I am not planning on using thread grafts, nor am I planning on using Dwarf Hinoki. I will try two types of graft – approach graft and bud graft using Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Kosteri’. This variety seems somewhat more vigourous that ‘Nana’. The foliage is not as compact, but it is still very fine, dark green, and somewhat less curly than ‘Nana’. Hopefully the greater vigour of Kosteri will accelerate the grafting process. Check back soon for updates.

'Kosteri' Hinoki foliage.

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.

RIP Potentilla. A harsh lesson.

Bonsai is, to some extent, about making mistakes. Sometimes we make really stupid ones.

This Potentilla fruticosa ‘Pink Beauty’ developed very quickly from nursery stock to being practically show ready in about 2 years. It was my favourite tree, and had lots of fine detail for being only 10 cm tall. You can see the progression of its development here.

The tree reached its prime in the early summer of 2010. This was the first tree I had created that I felt proud to exhibit, even though it still needed its planting angle corrected and a much finer pot.

Well, an important Canadian bonsai exhibition was appraoching in the summer of 2010, and I was very unhappy with the planting angle of the tree. It needed to be tilted about 10 degrees to the right. In August, about one month before the show, I removed the tree from the pot and corrected the angle. No roots were cut and the soil was hardly disturbed. I was not concerned about doing such an operation on my best tree mid-summer because it was non-invasive and potentilla are tough as hell. I would have felt comfortable doing the same with any healthy tree, let alone a potentilla.

Big mistake.

A few days later I noticed signs of weakness. Then I was certain the main branch was dying. I thought to myself “this sucks, but I should be able to restyle it”. I still hadn’t accepted the gravity of my error.

Within two weeks the tree was dead. My best tree, killed because of my impatience and zeal. Sure they may be tough in the spring. When I collect them, I literally rip them out of the ground like turnips and get 100% survival. But apparently the lesson here is DO NOT mess with potentilla roots at any time except the early spring.

The tree at its peak around May 2010

Less than two weeks after adjusting the planting angle, it was clear that something was terribly wrong.

Now the poor thing sits 'permanently defoliated' near my repotting bench πŸ™ At least its at the correct angle now!

Bonus Tree

This big siberian elm was collected from a 50+ year old hedge in 2010. I found a little surprise when repotting it last spring.

An old low branch had rooted after being in contact with the soil.

Since the branch was too low to have any design merit, I cut it away.

Later in the season, it became clear that this freebie shohin has some nice potential. The pot is by Chuck Iker. Too small for the development of the tree, but its all I had handy when I separated it from momma.

It has nice bark, taper, and movement, alth0ugh it is far from perfect. There are absolutely no roots on the front of the tree (you can see this where it is lifting up above the soil level). I am certain that a large portion of the front of the tree is dead. It might take some time to figure out where. Nevertheless, it has good branch placement so even if the front becomes a hollow in the future, it should still make for an attractive little tree.

Next year I think I will reduce that lare jin to a hollow. It will probably go into a slightly larger pot to allow for some more rapid branch development.