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"And the LORD God made ... trees that were pleasing to the eye ..." Gen. 2:9, New International Version.

"Bonsai isn't just something I do; it's part of what I am." Remark to my wife and daughter.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

"Thanks! I wanted that!"

     One year when I was away at university, my father sent me a birthday check with a note instructing me to use the money for something I really wanted, but couldn't quite afford to buy. I don't remember now what I used the money for, but what my dad said in his note has stuck with me. Any more, ask me what I want for Christmas or a birthday and I'll apply Dad's criteria.

So when my wife and daughter asked me what I would like for my latest birthday, I stopped to consider: what was something I would like to have and would definitely use, but for which I hadn't yet felt free to spend the money? After a bit of thought two recently-published bonsai books came to mind: Principles of Bonsai Design, by David DeGroot, and The World of Ficus Bonsai, by Jerry Meislik.

David DeGroot's book, birthday gift from my daughter.
Jerry Meislik's book, birthday gift from my wife.
Each volume builds and expands on an earlier work by the same author: DeGroot's book on his Basic Bonsai Design, Meislik's on Ficus: The Exotic Bonsai. Each of the earlier books is well worth reading, and the new volumes are worthy successors to their respective predecessors.

Both authors are well qualified to write about their subjects. David Degroot is both a visual artist and a musician, with a clear grasp of the universal principles that apply to all art and a knack for explaining them. He served for a number of years as curator of the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection, now the Pacific Bonsai Museum. Jerry Meislik is, in my judgment, more knowledgeable about keeping tropical bonsai in a temperate climate than any other practitioner on the continent. (I'm not exaggerating for effect when I say that.) A bonsai artist's credentials are his or her trees, and both David's and Jerry's bonsai credentials are impressive.

Both my gift books were late arriving, for one of the best possible reasons: demand for both books was high enough that both were temporarily sold out when my wife and daughter placed their orders! But they're here now, and I am already enjoying and learning from them. <big grin>  I'm looking forward to improvements in my trees, too, as a result of studying them.

Give me a year or so and I may publish a review of each book on this blog. But that's for later. Right now it's time for a shout-out -
"Thank you, my ladies!"

:-)  :-)  :-) 




Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Serendipity Below the Soil

     If you wonder "who is this posting on Steve Moore's bonsai blog", I don't blame you! It has been a while. Suffice it to say that for more than a year, we have been dealing not only with the multiple aspects of moving into a new home (most of which are now behind us), but also matters having to do with another house in which we once lived. But those are now also, and finally, behind us, and I can put more time into not just working on my trees, but writing about them every now and then as well!

One thing I was able to do this spring is repot this Austrian pine (Pinus nigra) which had survived in the same pot and soil for seven years. I acquired this tree in December of 2011, one of 14 young pine whips that I bought to develop for future use. (As described here.) In the spring of 2012 I moved it into a 1-gal Rootmaker®.

After 2012 repotting.

And there it remained, through various ups and downs, until this spring. I kept it watered and fertilized, along with everything else, but that was all. If this tree is typical of Pinus nigra, the species is pretty tough!

You see the slanted planting angle in the picture above. Over those seven years the slant became more and more pronounced as the top branches grew and some lower ones were lost, making the tree rather top-heavy. A year or so ago I concluded that the best design for the tree - once I got a chance to style it! - would be a semi- or full cascade. That would have required using the notch method (or "wedge cut"), with the trunk as thick as it had become. But nothing else, I thought, would fit how the tree had grown.

A month ago, with the buds just starting to elongate, I got a chance to repot it. Here is how it looked.

This Austrian pine before repotting; April 17, 2019.
Since I expected to eventually shape it into a cascade, I chose a new training pot that was deeper than it was wide. However, a surprise was waiting for me under the soil surface!

During the years between repottings, a recognizable nebari had developed less than half an inch down. I make it a point, almost without exception, to level the nebari of a bonsai-to-be as soon as I can. For one thing, it makes the tree look more stable. For another, it is for me a way of accepting what the tree has given me to work with.

Levelling the nebari sometimes make it more challenging to style the tree. But this time it showed me an unexpected design alternative, which I like much better! The tree will now make a nice upright bunjin (a.k.a. "literati"). Here is what I saw when I finished repotting.

The most likely front.
The plan now is this. The branches below the orange arrow will be removed a couple at a time, with the stubs of some turned into short jin. One small shoot (maroon arrow and below) I will develop to be an accent point. Existing trunk movement will be accentuated a bit with heavy wire.

The young shoot I plan to develop into a small point of visual interest.

At about the level of the blue arrow, I will do one of two things. Either I will bend the top of the tree back to the (viewer's) left, bringing the apex back over the base of the tree; or I will keep the movement toward the right but bend the top down at a 45°-60° angle, for a more dramatic effect. Right now I am inclined toward the first option. But it will be a couple of years before I have to decide, so stay tuned!

:-)  :-)  :-)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A New Kind of Training Pot

     At least, it's new to me. And it's also new in the sense of being different from other training pots - different enough to be granted a patent. The pot is made in Austria by an outfit called "Kristen & Zahalka", possibly the patent holders. I bought mine online from Stone Lantern, a vendor I consider worthy of repeat business. (More on both a bit later.)

The manufacturer simply calls it a "tie pot." One look at a picture and you see why: those knobs all around the outside rim are made to be anchor points for guy wires.

A "tie pot" for bonsai-in-training.
Guy wires can be very useful for stabilizing a tree while its roots re-establish themselves after repotting. This is especially true with cascade-style trees, whether semi- or full-, because their weight can be seriously one-sided. Sometimes anchor wires from below simply aren't enough, or in the right position, to keep the tree at the planting angle you want while it re-anchors itself. I have a semi-cascade 'Tigerbark' fig (Ficus microcarpa 'Tigerbark') of which this is true: if it's not guy-wired from the side after a repotting, its lopsided weight will topple it right out of position (and sometimes out of the pot!)

Guy wires can also be useful when shaping a bonsai-in-training. Sometimes a guy wire can pull a branch into position as effectively as wrapped wire. It can be left in place for years without danger of significant scarring, a consideration useful with trees that take a long time to set in a new position, such as ponderosa pine. And if a guy wire is thin it is much less noticeable than wrapped wire if the tree is displayed. 

Close-up of the anchor knobs.
The knobs are sturdy: when my pot arrived I tested them with my fingers, and they aren't going anywhere. That's important because, whether a guy wire is used for anchoring or for shaping, it goes without saying that a reliable anchor point is essential. There are 18 knobs around the circumference of the pot, spaced about two inches apart (roughly five centimeters.)

The whole pot is sturdy, made from high-impact plastic. I tried flexing the pot wall between my hands, using a good deal of force, and it would just barely flex. In normal bonsai use it won't flex. This matters because if a pot wall flexes, the soil mass inside it gets flexed; that means that the roots inside the soil get flexed, and that means broken feeder roots, because roots aren't made to flex like branches are.

These pots are also designed to promote air-puning, another worthy feature. For any who don't know, "air-pruning" is the term for what happens when a root grows out into the open air. The exposed root tip dries out and dies, and the plant seals it off. Then the part of the root still in the soil branches to the sides, and voilĂ , you are that much closer to a compact, well-branched root system close to the trunk. And because the old root tip is sealed off rather than cut or broken, there is no break in the root's surface thru which pathogens can enter.

I'm sure most of my readers know what a plant's roots look like when it's been grown in a standard round, smooth-walled nursery pot. The roots grow out horizontally until they hit the wall of the pot; then they grow down to the bottom. Then, once they can go no deeper, they start to circle round and round at the bottom of the pot. The result can look like a clump of long-strand spaghetti!

These pots break that sequence with a system of internal low ridges to stop the circling, and holes to guide the root tips out of the pot for air-pruning. Take a look at the next two pictures:

Internal ridges to guide roots down to holes to the outside.
A closer look at the system of ridges and holes
Notice the narrow shelf running around the inside of the pot, about two inches above the pot floor. Notice that wherever that shelf is intersected by a ridge, there's a little ramp on either side, leading down like a funnel. Those "funnels" guide the rootlets to openings to the outside, as the next picture shows.

Root tips that enter the side holes (previous picture) emerge from these downward-facing openings.

Forgive the blurriness of the next picture, but I don't have a better one. I held the pot up to the early-evening sky to show just how many holes the bottom of the pot contains. All those holes give root tips access to the outside air. The eight largest holes that form an inner ring should also serve adequately for drainage. They are each only about a half-inch across, but there are eight of them.

A view against the sky to show all the holes!
I haven't yet had my hands on both the pot and my tape measure at the same time, but I can say the pot's diameter is very close to 8 inches at the bottom and 12 inches at the rim. Internal depth is about 4 inches. I estimate it will hold between one and one-and-one-half US gallons (roughly 3½ to 5 liters). Here's a picture with a standard 12-ounce beverage can right in the center.

12-oz. beverage can for a size reference
Stone Lantern is one of those vendors that I recommend in the sidebar; for their website, click here. Wayne Schoech and his crew sell a wide range of bonsai-related supplies, and I've never been dissatisfied with anything I've bought from them. For the English version of the tie pot manufacturer's website, click here. They sell other pots besides.

Obviously I have yet to grow anything in my new pot, but I expect it to live up to the claims about it. And I believe I have an appropriate candidate for its first occupant: this dwarf yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria 'Schilling') that I got last summer in a workshop with Adam Lavigne of "Adam's Art and Bonsai." If any of tree of mine will need guy wires to keep it stable after repotting, this will be one. Look at that hollowed and twisted lower trunk!

Dwarf yaupon holly, first in line to spend a year or two in the tie pot.
Give me a couple of years and I'll write a follow-up post on my experience with my new container.

:-)  :-)  :-)


Monday, November 19, 2018

Call It A "Teaching Demonstration" on Wiring

     I could almost title this post, "Learning some things in spite of a mistake." The mistake I refer to was my own. I'll get to the reason I could say that, in a little bit.

If you're like me, wiring is one bonsai technique that is often more challenging than most others. Explanations and demonstrations can only teach so much: in the end, one has to buckle down and practice until one can do it right without conscious thought. But without explanations and demonstrations beforehand, practice is pointless. My old trumpet teacher used to say: 'Practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanent.'" (Thanks, Dick Whitmire.)

The Fort Wayne Bonsai Club has enjoyed an influx of new members recently. For their benefit, and because we old-timers can always learn more, we invited Mark Fields, owner of Bonsai by Fields LLC in Indianapolis, to teach a session on wiring at our November meeting yesterday. Because it was my idea and I've known Mark for a number of years, I was the one who made the arrangements.

Mark Fields has been interested in bonsai since the age of 9, when he asked a neighboring nursery owner why the man had weights hanging on the branches of some mugo pines. Over the ensuing half-century he has developed his skills studying with multiple teachers in the USA, Europe, and Japan, served as an officer in a number of bonsai organizations - he is currently President of the American Bonsai Society - and taught and given demonstrations in too many venues to name here. For more about his bonsai career, click here.

Since we weren't interested in an all-day workshop, I asked Mark to fit an explanation of theory - why wire in the first place, basic principles, alternative shaping methods, and so on - and some supervised practice time for our members into our usual two-hour time slot. As matters unfolded, I felt a growing sense of blunder: four hours would barely have been enough time to do what I asked and do it well! (In my defense, I can only plead abysmal ignorance of the full scope of what I was asking. Now I know.)

But Mark did his best, and he still gave us a session worth anyone's Saturday morning. The club recently received five fairly large potted pines as a gift from a local nursery, Blue River Nursery. Four of them will best go in someone's landscape, but the fifth, a lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta 'Spaan's Dwarf'), has definite bonsai potential, and was selected for what followed. 

(Please forgive the quality of some of the pictures. I have no better one of the tree chosen for the work.)

The five gift pines from the Blue River Nursery, Columbia City. The one chosen for the work is at the far end of the row.

Mark Fields assessing the tree chosen for the morning's session.
Mark's best and most natural teaching mode (it appears to me) is not lecture, but to teach and explain as he works. So we lifted that lodgepole pine onto a table in the garage of club co-president Pat Guido, and gathered around. Mark started working and talking, explaining the whys and wherefores of wiring as he went along, stopping sometimes to answer questions or expand on a point he had just made. All the time the first shaping of a pine bonsai was beginning under his hands.

Mark explains a point while he works, as Bob Mortenson and Bruce Kennedy watch carefully. 

He was assisted by his son Lincoln, whose interest in bonsai started at an even earlier age than his father's. Lincoln has already shown some of his bonsai in various venues, including the Indiana State Fair and last year's MABA convention. Besides being his dad's gofer and tool-finder, he created a jin on a branch stub his father indicated, and then suggested a shari leading from the jin down to the soil line. Mark looked at the spot, thought for a minute, and then concurred; Lincoln went to work.

His work on the jin finished, Lincoln starts carving the shari that his father approved.
As it turned out, and using the term I suggested in this post's title, the morning might best be called a "teaching demonstration." Mark wired and shaped the pine's first major branch, including its secondaries. As he did so, he demonstrated and explained a number of the important concepts of wiring, including selecting the proper thickness of wire for a given branch, anchoring, transitioning to a smaller gauge, wire position at a bend, and other aspects.

There was no time for supervised practice as I had envisioned - again, four hours would barely have been enough. Even so, the session served its purpose: I think even the most experienced members learned something about wiring that was new to them. I heard a number of comments along the lines of "This is so helpful," "I'm learning a lot," and at least one "This is great!" Our sincere thanks to Mark and Lincoln!

Mark's nursery is only about 2½ hours' drive from Fort Wayne, and he will soon resume his practice of holding open workshops on Saturdays. Our people are already talking about a field trip to Bonsai by Fields next spring or summer.

Last picture is of one new thing I learned: when it's actually OK to cross wires!

Red arrow: it's acceptable to cross wires when one secures the end of the other.

:-)  :-)  :-)