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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, September 30, 2014

Mid-America Bonsai Show 2014, Part 5. Some Other Fine Trees.

     As best I can estimate, there are over 150 bonsai in the Exhibit at the Mid-America Show every year. Here are a few more pictures of this year's, with owner/artist names if I have them.

Willow-leaf fig, Ficus salicaria.
This is by far the largest willow-leaf fig composition that I've seen outside of the stock of a Florida-based vendor! What's potentially even more impressive is that it was entered in the Novice class: if the owner has done most of the work himself/herself, there's a major new talent on the scene.

It's not finished yet; look up into the inside of the canopy and you'll see there's more work yet to do. But it's quite presentable. Give it another 5-10 years and it just might take Best-of-Show!

Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris. Mark Fields.
The picture doesn't show it too well, but there are several twists in the middle trunk that add visual interest. The character of the pot is unconventional but quite a good match to the tree. And the accent plant's look contributes to the presentation's overall impression of wildness. (Picture a remote and craggy hillside in the Scottish Highlands.)

Mountain hemlock, Tsuga mertensiana.

The small foliage of the hemlocks (Tsuga) makes them good candidates for bunjin (a.k.a. literati.) This artist, whoever he or she is, has made good use of that fact. I especially enjoy the dogleg in the trunk!

Veldt fig, Ficus burtt-davyi; willow-leaf fig, F. salicaria; suiseki. Scott Yelich.
This 3-point display by Scott Yelich is just plain good. Notice the balance among the three elements. I think the choice of pot color for the main tree helps make the whole presentation exceptional.

Hornbeam, Carpinus spp. Chicago Botanic Garden (I think.)
Here's a tree with individuality!  It might be a little difficult to assign this bonsai to a traditional style, but doesn't it look like so many trees you've seen in the landscape? This tree succeeds at something fundamental - reflecting the image of a full-sized tree - and it does so very well.

Ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa; Spruce, Picea spp. (accent.) Andy Smith.
Andy indulged his whimsical streak a bit in this composition. It's hard to see in the picture, but at the base of the ponderosa is a figurine of a dog; and in front of it, set flush with the moss, is a small stone with a hollow like a basin. The basin was filled with water, and presto! - an alpine meadow in miniature!

Elm, Ulmus spp. Possibly Mark Fields.
The handsomely mottled bark is what draws my eye most to this tree; and the pot's color and lack of elaboration both serve to highlight that bark. Notice, too, the taper and the ramification.

Juniper, Juniperus spp. Jim Doyle.
Jim Doyle, of Nature's Way Nursery, lost his wife Mary Kay to cancer at the beginning of June. I don't recall ever meeting the lady, but from all I've read, I don't think she would have wanted Jim to miss the Mid-America. This was Jim's tribute to her: a tasteful, well-composed, and artistically excellent presentation, with a picture of Mary Kay on the miniature easel in the center. Enough said by me, other than "Rest in peace, Mary Kay."

As always, I spent a bit of time admiring some of the trees in the Chicago Botanical Garden's own collection.

Narrowleaf firethorn, Pyracantha angustifolia. Donated by Jack Thompson. 
Here's another very good example of a bonsai that is balanced without being symmetrical. On top of that, I'm impressed by the technical skill it took to develop that root system.

Ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa. Donated by the Midwest Bonsai Society.
Aside from the fact that I am partial to ponderosa pines, this is one heckuva well-styled and impressive specimen. I have no idea how old it is, but several hundred years wouldn't surprise me. This is another one that I visited more than once.

'Boulevard' falsecypress, Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Boulevard.' I couldn't make out the donor's name in my picture.
For those like forest plantings, this is a pretty good one.

And finally, when you walk out the main doors of the Regenstein Center in late afternoon, this is what you may see. (But be aware that my picture, pleased as I am with it, still doesn't do the reality justice!)

From the bottom of the steps in front of the main entrance to the Regenstein Center.

:-)  :-)  :-)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mid-America Bonsai Show 2014, Part 4. Kingsville boxwoods on "lace rock."

     I had never heard of "lace rock" until I watched Rodney Clemons create a group planting of Kingsville boxwood on an irregular slab of it, in his demonstration Saturday afternoon.

Rodney Clemons describing his plan for his demo. The rock is in front of him, the trees to his right,
and the ingredients for "muck" are on the floor to his left. August 16, 2014.
Lace rock, he said, is limestone that has developed pores and galleries as slightly acidic water has percolated thru it. (The same process on a different scale has carved out many of the famous caves in the world.) The resulting structure is a bit reminiscent of pumice, just not nearly as porous. It's still porous enough to hold some water, and natural hollows in the rock make great planting bays.

The best picture I managed to get of the rock itself.
(One member of the audience had heard something different: that lace rock is what is left behind after turquoise mining. I haven't been able to find definitive confirmation of either explanation.)

In the picture above Rodney is starting to mix his "muck" for planting. His recipe is simple:

  • - 1 part chopped long-fiber sphagnum peat;
  • - 1 part "Michigan" peat moss (the black, fine-textured product;)
  • - 1 part powdered clay. (The idea of powdered anything in a planting medium surprised me, so I checked the bag afterward; the clay was almost as fine as talcum powder.)

Another perk of being a bonsai teacher: you can play in the mud and truly call it art!
An advantage of such a mix, of course, is that it keeps its shape well when applied to a sloped surface. But Rodney's muck recipe sounded to me like it would be very poorly aerated, except where air made its way in along the strands of sphagnum. So I asked. Rodney explained that in a case like this planting, the roots will grow thru the muck and into the pores in the rock, where there will be more oxygen.

A further advantage for the bonsaiist is that once the roots grow out - thru the rock - they will be naturally air-pruned; this will keep the whole tree compact. So a planting like this, he said, can go for decades without repotting and still stay perfectly healthy.

As mentioned, the trees for the demo were Kingsville boxwoods. Kingsville boxwood is Rodney's specialty, and he told us a bit about it as he worked. (I gleaned a bit more information afterward on-line.)

What we call Kingsville boxwood was discovered in 1912 as a sport of Korean boxwood, by a gentleman named William Appleby. When Appleby died, Henry Hohman bought his entire stock of the new boxwood, named it Buxus microphylla compacta, and released it to the nursery trade in 1937. Hohman's nursery in Kingsville, MD, was named "Kingsville Nursery," and the name stuck to the new variety. (So "Kingsville" is not part of the botanical name in any way; it's a common name, like "ponderosa pine.")

While above-ground a Kingsville boxwood is a genetic dwarf, below the soil it isn't: the root system is much larger than one would expect at first. This allows Kingsville to tolerate surprisingly heavy root-pruning, another advantage for the bonsaiist. An example in point: Rodney Clemons cut off at least 75% - I'm not kidding! - of the root system of each tree he used. (In August, too.) I thought at first that he had doomed them all, but he was obviously not concerned about that possibility!

(Rodney also mentioned that, because Kingsville boxwood is a sport, a grower has to be on the watch for two possibilities: reversion to the standard form on the one hand, and even further sporting on the other.)

Work in progress.

The slab of lace rock could have held at least half a dozen boxwoods of the size Rodney used, but he only had three (one of which he split to get a fourth.) He explained why. When a rock or a slab is used in place of a pot, it becomes a more important part of the composition. To use a theater analogy, it goes from being a supporting actor to being a co-star. So you want to show it off, too; and the best way to do that is to leave some interesting areas of it exposed. (He had made the same point the evening before in the Exhibit Critique; commenting on a forest planting on a slab, he told us that more of the slab should be shown off.)

The finished piece, from one angle. Darlene Kittle of the Fort Wayne Bonsai Club (green shirt)
looks it over from the far side.
From another angle. You can see here, and in the picture above, just how much of the rock was left visible.
Rodney's composition was the grand prize in the raffle at the Show banquet that evening. I understand that Mark Fields (see my previous post) was the lucky winner. Congratulations, Mark!

Next post (and last for this year's Mid-America): some other fine trees in the display.

:-)  :-)  :-)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Mid-America Bonsai Show 2014, Part 3. The Year of the Yew.

("Year of the Yew" for me, anyway.)

When I was around 12 years old, I discovered the stories of Robin Hood. I was fascinated by his adventures, but I wondered what a "yew bow" was. At first I didn't even know that "yew" referred to the wood used to make the bow! Yews don't grow in Ecuador.

About 8 years later, I had a summer job on my university's grounds crew. One day, I noticed some small shrubs (about 18 inches high, or 45 cm,) whose appearance I liked, and asked what they were. "Yews" was the answer. My first two thoughts were, "So there really is a plant called 'yew' after all;" and, "I wonder how many of those branches it takes, end to end, to make a bow?"

I've learned better. I've now seen plenty of yews here in the USA that could yield bow staves, even if only a few. I had to go Ireland, tho, to see yews of what I consider "full tree size," such as this one in the FOTA arboretum outside Cork.

My daughter took this picture of her mother and me. Notice the moss and lichens on the yew's trunk.
And I've become a yew lover. The deep green of the foliage, the color of the inner bark, and their unobtrusive elegance all appeal greatly to my eye. Besides that, they're tough, adaptable, long-lived - there's a lot to like about yews, in my opinion.

So when I knew that Mark Fields (of Indianapolis) would use a yew in a styling demonstration at MABS 2014, I made sure I was there!

Mark's demo tree was a Japanese yew, Taxus cuspidata. It was growing as a natural upright, with a smaller secondary trunk (on the left in the picture below.) As Mark said, it would make a good candidate for a "mother-daughter" informal upright. (Forgive the gold-tan false color, please. My camera still doesn't always play nicely in that auditorium.)

Mark Field's demo tree, Taxus cuspidata. August 16, 2014.

But. Mark told us that when he picked this tree out, he did so because he saw another possibility in it. And he proceeded to flip it on its side!

Getting things ready to turn this yew into a semi-cascade. August 16, 2014.
A two-line semi-cascade is what he has in mind. When I saw the tree in this position, I had to agree with his choice. Besides the flow of both trunks - which in this position is almost ideal for a semi-cascade - there is the fact that one side had noticeably less growth than the rest of the tree. By making that side the bottom, Mark turned that partial one-sided-ness from a defect into something that will actually further his design!

Mark welcomed questions as he worked, and made comments of his own. Here, along with a few more pictures, are some of the things he had to say.

- In this part of the USA, yews are used so ubiquitously for landscaping that people tend to overlook them for bonsai. That's too bad, because they make great material. (Hear, hear!)

- When wiring, place the anchoring part of the wire below the branch if you will bend it down and above the branch if you will bend up. That way, the first wrap that is actually on the branch will be in position to support the first bend.

Cutting wire to length. August 16, 2014.

- English yew (a.k.a. European yew,) Taxus baccata, is not as cold-hardy as T. cuspidata. Mark has one T. baccata in his collection in Indianapolis, and it suffers foliage burn every winter. The "Anglojap" hybrids, Taxus x media, happily, have the cold-hardiness of T. cuspidata.

- All yews have rather fleshy roots; that fact makes them quite vulnerable to damage from alternating freeze-and-thaw. I believe I now know why I lost two yews last winter!

The design is beginning to emerge. August 16, 2014.
- Mark has had the cambium separate from the sapwood when a yew branch was worked while frozen, or during the spring burst of growth. Best to wait until the first flush of foliage hardens off, he said. (This confirmed something I had heard from another source.)

- Mark has successfully dug and potted yews into mid-summer. Good aftercare is the indispensable key to survival in summer digging.

After 2½ hours, he was done for the time being. The work will continue for several years, but the basic design is established. 

Finished for now, with some jins already started. When this tree goes on display in the future,
I expect it to be a bonsai worth waiting to see!  August 16, 2014.

Within a day or less, he planned to cut off what is now the top of the container, and cover the exposed soil of what was the top with mesh to hold it in place. When he repots this tree next spring, he will start exposing the roots that are now above the base of the trunk, a little at a time, covering them with sphagnum at first to let them adapt. He expects it to take as much as 5 years for the root system to fully "re-route."

Besides his comments and answers about yews, Mark shared a couple of more general things that he has learned from his mentor, Danny Use of Gingko Bonsai in Belgium.

- Never pinch a juniper. (Cries of "heresy!") When a juniper shoot is pinched, tho, several more segments below the pinch point are stretched and thereby damaged. Better to cut back to an appropriate point. Don't worry, good twigging results.

- After a branch is first wired on a thick-barked tree, Danny leaves the wire in place until it has sunk in to half its own diameter. (Then, he says, there will be no need for a second wiring.) Mark now does the same. But how, I asked, does one get rid of the wire scars? Cut paste on the scars helps, Mark said, but the most important thing is generous fertilizing.

Besides watching Mark's demonstration (and learning a good deal in the process,) I devoted some time at this year's show specifically to studying (and enjoying) the yew bonsai in the Exhibit. Let me leave you with two pictures of one of the best of them.

Owner and artist, Carl Woolridge. I think the award is well deserved! 
A closer view of the same tree. The pot appears to be made by Sara Rayner.

To see a picture of the oldest - and the largest - yew that I have seen "up close and personal," please click here.

If you wish to visit Mark Fields' professional website, please click here.

Next post: 'Kingsville' boxwood on "lace rock;" Rodney's Clemons' demonstration.

:-)  :-)  :-)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mid-America Bonsai Show 2014. Part 2, Exhibit Critique with Rodney Clemons

     (I know it's been over a month since Part 1. As I mentioned before, life of late has been devoted to catching up on one thing or another: one result is that I've been working on trees more than writing about them. But that isn't all bad, when you stop and think about it.)

Rodney Clemons.
Photo from the Midwest Bonsai Society Website
     Rodney Clemons, this year's Guest Master at the Mid-America Bonsai Show, is originally from Florida and now lives near Atlanta, Georgia. He said that he's been in bonsai for 45 years (which made me re-assess my impression of his age - he looks "late-40's" now, to me!) He has his own nursery, Allgood Bonsai, and serves as curator of the bonsai collections at Smith Gilbert Gardens (Kennesaw, GA,) and the Monastery of the Holy Spirit (Conyers, GA.) Like most bonsai masters he'll work on just about anything, but his specialty is Kingsville boxwood (more on it in a later post.)

It's not possible to comment on the strengths and weak points of all the trees in the Mid-America exhibit in just 90 minutes, so Critique masters often focus a majority of their remarks on a theme. Sometimes the theme is explicit, sometimes implicit. Rodney's recurring theme was consistency and harmony in design and display, and he had some worthwhile things to say along those lines.

Side note: before commenting on a bonsai, Rodney frequently asked, "Is the person this tree owns here (among the Critique attenders)?" Everyone enjoyed that.

- Make sure the different parts of your tree show the same apparent age and maturity. The yew below prompted that admonition. While it has many good points - the deadwood, the overall health, the pot-tree match - the top zones of the trunks (above my blue line in the picture) look young, while the rest of the tree looks mature. (It still won a ribbon.)

Once the apices match the rest of the tree in apparent age, this tree will win more than 2nd place.
Owner and artist Roy Heinen (I believe.)

- "If a dog chases two rabbits at once, he catches neither." Rodney quoted that proverb (that he learned from John Naka) in regard to the ponderosa pine in the next picture. This tree is very healthy, but there appears to be no coherent design in the artist's mind! Choose one trunk to be primary, Rodney said, and shape the rest of the tree around it. (My own thought: I would tip the tree about 45 degrees to the viewer's left and develop a semi-cascade, bringing the thinner trunk on the right over to become the upper line.)

Very healthy tree, but the design has no internal consistency. Pinus ponderosa.
- An accent plant should be native to the same sort of environment as the tree. The same display prompted that remark. This accent plant may or may not be native to wet, boggy habitats, but it looks like it is, and image is central to bonsai. Ponderosa pine is a dryland pine, and an accent that was obviously native to an arid habitat would have been a better choice. (At the same time, it must be said that the artist did an excellent job of matching the form of the accent to the present form of the bonsai.)

- Just as a bonsai tells a story, what I'll call a "display," for lack of a better term - a bonsai with an accent plant and anything else displayed with it, such as a scroll - also tells a story. That story may be just an expression of a time of year; but whatever it is, it should be consistent within itself. Don't put a spring flower with a tree bearing autumn fruit, for example.

- While the accent plant must harmonize with the bonsai, don't choose a plant that merely duplicates the tree's features. Rodney said this in reaction to a display in which the accent plant's foliage was the same shape as the tree's, foliage color of the two was almost exactly the same, and the pot colors were almost identical!

- In nature, the trunk of a cascading tree doesn't come out of the ground going one way, and then reverse direction. The trunk of a cascading bonsai - whether semi-cascade or full - should not reverse direction between the base and the first branches, either; it does not look natural.

I've saved the best for last, when it comes to the theme of consistency. Possibly Rodney's favorite display in the Exhibit - and certainly one of mine - was this Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) and its accent (which appears to be a sedum.)

Rodney Clemons commenting on this display. (Please forgive the picture quality.)
Owner and artist, Dan Turner.

The pots are not at all traditional, the stands are far from traditional as well, and climbers like Virginia creeper are not often used for bonsai. But as an artistic composition, this display is superb!

As Rodney pointed out:

  • - the colors match without duplicating each other;
  • - the shapes of the pots and stands harmonize well;
  •  - all the elements of the composition work together to draw the eye into a pleasing picture. Besides the harmony, there is a feeling of resolution, without any hint of monotony.
(I came back to this display from time to time all the next day, just to appreciate it.)

Some other comments from Rodney Clemons that are worth passing along:

- The outer bark of some species, including yews and junipers, gives away the true scale of the bonsai and destroys the illusion of a full-sized tree. Take off that outer bark before displaying the tree.

- Every genus has its own typical look. Deciduous trees share a common appearance; but within that, there is a "maple look," an "elm look," a "hornbeam look," and so on. The same is true among conifers and tropical trees.

- A semi-cascade design works nicely if you want to display fruit.

- Don't allow the lower edge of the trunk of a semi-cascade to show along its entire length; it looks boring.  Hide parts of it with foliage.

- Small gravel is a good substitute for moss when a tree is native to a dry climate.

- Moss cover looks best when it is unbroken. Use different kinds of moss, for visual interest; for even more interest, add a few lichens.

- Bonsai artists in the USA have lagged behind much of the rest of the world - especially Europe and Japan - for a long time. But now he believes we're starting to catch up, thanks especially to the efforts of people like Ryan Neil and others, who are trying to raise our expectations of ourselves as well as our abilities.

Let me leave you with two more pictures.

Rodney's comment on this shohin display: "It just looks very good."
I had to get a close-up of the lichen on this JBP in the shohin display, after Rodney Clemons pointed it out.
Adds something, doesn't it?

Next post: the year of the yew (for me.)

:-)  :-)  :-)