This tree was collected ca. 1995 by John Biel in preparation for the IBC ’97 convention in Toronto. Dozens of cedars and larches were collected to be used as workshop material for that event, and afterwards they were dispersed around North America with their new owners. If you’ve seen or heard of a thuja or larix in the USA that was “collected in Canada some time ago”, there is a fair chance that it was collected by Reiner Goebel or John Biel in the early ’90s in preparation for the convention. John and Reiner are two of the old guard of the Toronto bonsai scene.
Marc Noelanders styled this larch during a workshop at IBC ’97 and the new owner took it home. Unfortunately the owner passed away a year later and Reiner Goebel inherited the tree.
Here is the oldest picture I have of the tree in 1998.
The tree developed quickly in Reiner’s hands – here it is in 2004:
In 2006 it was potted into an outstanding Horst Heinzlreiter pot. At this point the tree was near its prime, with dense ramification.
Reiner is doing well, but as of this year is completely retired from bonsai. I bought this tree from him in 2015 and it was in a state of decline. It had not been pruned for a few years and most of the interior growth was dead. The tree was also quite weak – I don’t think it had been repotted since the previous image in 2006 (9 years prior).
The best features of this tree are the stunning old bark and the exceptional nebari (collected larches with good nebari are very rare). To highlight the elegant trunk and delicate bark, I removed the majority of the old low branches which had gotten too thick. This was a difficult decision as the branches had incredible character and old bark all the way out to the secondary branches. However, major changes were necessary in order to come up with a design that brings out the key features of the tree and is sustainable for many years into the future.
A few weeks ago I sat down with this tree and did some rough wiring. This is the best solution I could come up with. I’m pretty sure it isn’t better than the original design, but the important thing is this tree can be maintained in this image for a long time. I would really like to add a secondary trunk on the left side to make it a twin trunk, however it will be difficult to find a small larch which has comparable bark characteristics. Next year it will be planted either in a nanban-style container or on a flat stone.
I collected this cedar in 2013 and only this year decided to style it as a full cascade. The big character jin jutting towards the lower left is amazing, but presents a practical challenge for getting the tree into a classic cascade pot. Instead of removing it, I thought it would be interesting to try to bend it flush to the trunk. In addition to solving the pot problem, it would also add some thickness to the base of the trunk, which has some distracting reverse taper.
I’ve been working on this tree since 2013 and some of that work is documented here. Recently a friend helped me plant it on a natural limestone slab which I collected from a lakeshore. We decided to make some modifications to the slab, one thing lead to another, and it turned out to be a much larger project than I expected.
The photos below tell the story.
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.
Prior to last week I had only tried sandblasting on one small cedar. The results were excellent, but I was limited to using my friend’s small parts sandblasting cabinet which could only handle a shohin sized tree. Recently, however, a member of our club got a full sized sandblasting tank and offered to let me try it out on some larger trees. Often sandblasting is done in an enclosed tent or room, but we just did it out on his lawn.
This tree was collected in spring 2013. Last year I did a rough initial cleaning on it using hand tools, but with a craggy old thing like this, sandblasting is the most efficient way to clean away all the old dead bark while preserving the details of the deadwood. Many of the cracks and crevices are impossible to access with hand tools. Sandblasting should be a once-in-a-lifetime event for a tree. Once it is done, the deadwood can be maintained over the years with gentle brushing (water and toothbrush) and lime sulfur application (although this is often unnecessary on thuja as their deadwood will naturally bleach in the sun as long as it is clean).
We used aluminum oxide media at 50-90 psi.
Previous posts about this tree:
It is looking very sparse right now due to the removal of old foliage and unnecessary branches, but hopefully it will fill in before the end of this growing season. Its current sparseness gives an opportunity to see the strange relationship between the two trunks. As the foliage fills in, the pads and the spaces between them will become more well defined.
Most of the old crusty larches I collect need grafting. It seems the older they are, the farther the living foliage is from the interesting part of the trunk. Three thread grafts were started on this larch in spring 2014 and all three of them failed this summer (despite not yet being separated from the donor branch).
I’m not sure why they failed, but I think it might have had something to do with long period of time elapsed. Ideally, once started, a thread graft will grow rapidly and then take within a few months. Unfortunately, these grafts hardly elongated last year therefore they had no change of reaching the thickness required for fusion until they really started to take off this year. But in July of this year when they should have been fusing, they were instead girdled and died. This is purely anecdotal, but I believe that the callus that formed around the edges of the drilled hole was somehow too hardened-off or otherwise too old to readily form a graft union with the threaded branches by the time they were thick enough to do so. Or maybe the drilled hole didn’t form a callus at all.
Anyway, they failed and I needed to re-graft. Late summer is not a good time for thread grafting larch, so I tried a traditional approach graft instead.
This is one of my smallest eastern white cedars, collected in the spring of 2012. It took longer than it should have to reach peak health following collection because quite a bit of mucky field soil remained in the root ball until spring 2014 when it was completely bare rooted. This year it was healthy enough for a rough initial styling. Next year it will be planted in a new pot at the correct angle and the deadwood will be cleaned. It could be show ready by fall 2016.
This raft style Juniperus chinensis ‘Blaauw’ was started 10-15 years ago. I acquired it in 2013 and after two years of preparation (thinning, gaining strength) it received its initial styling over the last few days. A lot of raft style Blaauw junipers were created in the Toronto area 10-20 years ago, when upright single trunk Blaauw junipers were readily available at garden centers. As the Blaauw juniper has fallen out of fashion in garden centers, so has creating Blaauw rafts.
I find multiple trunk bonsai the hardest style to work on and photograph since there are so many variables to consider. Parts of this group are still too crowded for my taste, despite having removed one of the trunks. For now though it will relax for another year.Currently we are undergoing somewhat of a heat wave in the Toronto area, so this planting will be under shade cloth with the occasional misting for a couple of weeks to help recover from the work.
As far as forest designs are concerned, this one is unusual, with the largest trunk being near the outside of the group. I think this unusual design makes it unique and very reminiscent of a Georgian Bay vista. To further emphasize this connection, I would like to plant it on a flat natural stone next spring.
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.
This tree was looking pretty good last August but I am hoping it will be looking even better by the end of this year. But before that it will have to look like crap.
It was finally repotted this spring into its first bonsai pot, some five years after collection. I am not completely happy with the planting angle nor the positioning in the pot, but that was the best I could do given the placement of the roots. The quality of the pot is not ideal either, but a comparable high quality container would be very, very expensive. If I could even find one. I am thinking about ideas for a custom made container in the future.
Much of the wire from last year was already biting in severely so the tree was completely de-wired. When I remove wire I always try to unwrap it instead of cutting it off. As far as I can see, there are three benefits to unwrapping the wire instead of cutting it off:
- it is much faster to unwrap it than cut it off bit by bit
- you are less likely to miss little loops of wire which could girdle branches in the future
- it is impossible to cut off wire that is biting into a branch without severely damaging that branch. You have to unwrap it.
The exception is very thick work-hardened copper wire which can be very difficult to unwrap without twisting the branches. I usually cut that off if possible.
The tree was also thinned quite drastically. This will simplify the upcoming wiring process and also improve the branch structure. And for the first time, the deadwood was properly cleaned and some old dead stumps were refined. It was also treated with a 50% dilution of lime sulfur.
It is now resting for a couple of weeks then it will be wired.
I acquired this “Kinsai” satsuki azalea in March 2014 from the Kennett Collection Reduction Sale. This event was the most significant bonsai sale in North American history and probably one of the most significant outside of Asia. According to a Facebook post by Doug Paul, owner of the Kennett Collection, “all the Satsuki’s were purchased from Kobayashi San in Kanuma City”. At first I thought this was referring to contemporary bonsai master Kunio Kobayashi, but I’ve since learned it is referring to Kobayashi Sangyo Co. Ltd. which is a wholesaler, producer, and exporter of satsuki azaleas.
While this tree has an awesome trunk and nebari, it still needs years of work before it reaches its peak. It has a number of significant wounds that, while not overly large, had not been treated with much care – probably because it was grown for wholesale purposes. Also, it seems that detailed branch thinning hasn’t been done for years. As a result, the ramification was overly dense in need of major work. Last year it was only repotted, watered, fertilized, and flower buds were removed in order to build up strength. The wounds were also carved back and sealed so they can continue to heal over. This year it was lightly repotted again and after seeing that it was extremely vigorous, I set about drastically thinning the tree and doing some structural wiring. I am relatively new to satsuki bonsai, but I know by now that they are incredibly dense growers and it seems that drastic thinning work like this will be necessary every 10 or so years, as is the case with most trees.
I recently received my Fourth US National Bonsai Exhibition Commemorative Album and have thoroughly enjoyed studying the over 200 top quality bonsai displays in what is widely agreed upon to be the best US National Exhibition to date. As you probably know, this exhibition and commemorative album is the product of the tireless efforts of William N. Valavanis. As I have come to expect, the album is expertly photographed by Joe Noga and professionally designed and annotated by Bill and his staff. However, what truly makes this year’s album special to me is the strong representation of Canadian bonsai art.
For decades, bonsai enthusiasts from Ontario and Quebec have traveled to Bill’s International Bonsai Arboretum and other venues in Rochester to receive a world-class bonsai education. For many of us, this education culminated in an invitation to share some of our best bonsai in the 2014 USNBE. Members of the Karamatsu Bonsai Study Group in Montreal have exhibited their stunning bonsai at past US National Exhibitions, but 2014 marked the first time that special exhibits from both Quebec and Ontario bonsai societies were invited, making for a stronger Canadian presence than ever.
I counted fourteen displays from private collections in Ontario and Quebec and almost all of them were collected native specimens. Those who know me know that I firmly believe that our native species, especially Thuja occidentalis and Larix laricina, have the potential to be absolutely world class bonsai, even next to the mind-exploding yamadori of the west coast. It makes me extremely proud to see them well represented in this album and I hope that the Canadian presence at this important exhibition will continue to grow.
Bill was kind enough to allow me to reproduce some of the images from the album here and I have decided to focus on the Canadian trees. To fully appreciate the beauty of this exhibition and see more of the outstanding Canadian trees (not to mention the award-winning American masterpieces), you can easily purchase your own copy from Bill.
Here is one display I will have at the Toronto Bonsai Society Show and Sale this weekend. I hope to see you there!
The phrase “bonsai is not a rescue mission” is sometimes used to discourage eager bonsai enthusiasts from trying to make a bonsai from every plant they find. Instead, we should focus on the best material we can possibly get our hands on, thus increasing our chances of making something we can be proud of.
Sometimes, however, bonsai really is a rescue mission. Story time!
Last August I responded to an online ad where someone was selling their collection. Not knowing what to expect from the vague description and two blurry pictures of some tropicals, I arrived surprised to see a very old and once impressive bonsai collection in its final death throes. This elderly gentleman had been doing bonsai quietly in his backyard for 30-40 years, away from the clubs and shows, and now was in the predicament of having to sell everything due to failing health.
He had (understandably) put off selling them for years, but in those last few years the trees suffered greatly. To make matters worse, everything was planted in pretty much pure topsoil and was weak to begin with, therefore many were unable to handle the stresses of erratic watering.
Some of the tougher species were still hanging in there, but other more finicky ones like this impressive Japanese white pine had no chance.
After much haggling I went home with two larches, a ginkgo, and a Japanese maple – three very tough species that had managed to survive but were now in serious need of rehabilitation. This was August 2014 and some of the trees were already showing fall colours- A sign of definite stress.
I’m happy to report that all four trees survived the winter and were completely barerooted and repotted this spring. They seem to be doing well and I anticipate that they will have recovered their strength by the end of this growing season.
If you follow the traditional guidelines, the best time to wire and repot Larix laricina is when the spring buds are just starting to open. This is usually the most practical time to unwire larches too, because around here it is the only time they are without needles and not frozen in the ground. This “spring buds just starting to open” window can be very short – often just two weeks in mid to late April. Needless to say, if you have a good number of larches like I do, spring gets pretty busy. Add to that repotting a couple dozen more trees, building a new bench set up in my yard, and a couple of collecting trips, and you have an insanely busy last few weeks.
Here is one larch that I recently worked on. This tree changed hands a couple times in the last few years, and I snatched it up almost exactly one year ago as soon as I had the opportunity. I was collected about 20 years ago yet has spent most of that time in bonsai limbo, without a coherent design. Most of the finer tertiary branches used to create this structure were grown last year.The tree was also gently repotted into a simple Yamaaki container that suits the semi-cascade style pretty well.
After a few more years of ramification development, this will be a killer chuhin sized larch, and I am proud to be its new caretaker.
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.
Way back in 2011 I remember seeing this Bonsai Tonight post of a Boon Manikitivipart workshop where a participant tried out a root arranging technique of the deciduous bonsai genius Ebihara. What a great idea, right?
Last summer I acquired a maple that turned out to be perfect to try this technique on. It already had several years of root training therefore a good number of flexible lateral roots were present. Still, a fair amount of prep work was needed. The base of the rootball needed to be completely flat and all unnecessary roots removed. Hopefully this will improve the nebari as I rebuild the branch structure of this tree over the next several years.
As a side note, Boon posted an update about the tree in the Bonsai Tonight post on Facebook. Apparently using plywood was a mistake as it rotted quickly. Keeping that in mind, I used pine.
This small Ulmus pumila was displayed at this year’s Toronto Bonsai Society Fall Show and Sale.
The tree was developed from a naturally layered low branch from a much larger elm that was collected from a hedge, along with many others.
This is peak season for eastern white cedar foliage shedding. While not at all a health concern, it is somewhat unsightly and can leave your tree looking quite sparse.
To reduce autumn foliage shedding, I’ve been following the advice of Reiner Goebel and making sure I prune my cedars some time around mid-August. This year the results are really showing. Bear in mind that if a tree is early in it’s development or recently collected, it is often better to avoid pruning and just let it shed.
This large Thuja was collected in Spring 2013 and this year has been growing well enough that I have started some basic work. In the first year of collection, I try to do absolutely nothing to a tree – not even move it around the yard. Cleaning work like this invariably involves bumps and vibrations, so I don’t do it until the tree is obviously strong and established in the grow box – typically the second year.
This is not a thorough cleaning – just the removal of bark that come off easily, getting piles of detritus out of cracks and crevices, and cleaning the deadwood with water and a toothbrush to get rid of algae. After this it is easier to study the tree and identify the path of the live veins. As the live veins swell up over the next few years, they will be defined further.
The thin dead bark that is really stubbornly adhered to the deadwood will gradually be picked at over the next few years. Removing it right now would require aggressive scraping or rotary brushes that would ruin the natural texture of the ancient wood. I’m estimating this tree won’t be show ready for around ten years, so there is no point in rushing things. Cycles of wet-dry-freeze-thaw will aid the gentle removal of the bark.
Next spring it will be bare rooted and repotted into a much smaller pot or box. Like most collected Thuja, designing this tree will be a serious challenge. Semi cascade seems like the obvious direction but close examination reveals that there is no easy solution.
Collected Spring 2011, about 30 cm to the tip of the dead spire. The deadwood of this tree was sandblasted last year which helped preserve the lovely little jins. The pot is by Shibakatsu.