Making beautiful bonsai from humble beginnings

We can make very nice bonsai from very humble beginnings.  Sometimes we get frustrated and impatient with our own skills or development in this art.  We see fantastic trees that inspire us but also make us think we will never get to that level.  First, lets not get too critical with yourself.  We are not all meant to be professionals.  Bonsai can be a great hobby for anyone to express their creative love of nature.  One of my students in the Kaikou School of Bonsai has been a lifelong lover of plants and grows almost all his bonsai from cuttings and layerings.  He has patiently cultivated some exquisite little trees  from very humble beginnings.  This can give us all a bit of encouragement.  Here are two small chinese elms that were created from one tree over time.  the cascade one is from a root cutting from the original tree.

two chinese elm shohin bonsai created from the same tree!

So don’t get discouraged – you can grow beautiful, high quality bonsai from humble beginnings also.  Try to take cuttings from trees you are trimming – some trees, like Chinese elms, can be root trimmed for cuttings as well (called root cuttings).  Try air laying this upcoming season.  This is one way to get a mature shohin bonsai off of a larger tree.  Also, if you’re patient, try seeds as well.  I have a corner of my refrigerator full of a new crop of Black Pine, Japanese Beech, Privet, etc seeds stratifying.

Peace through bonsai.

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Mario Komsta and John Romano at Taisho en in Shizuoka Japan

The cultural ‘information’ revolution that has been occuring throughout the world  has of course affected the art of bonsai with the continued evolution of the internet as a means of transmitting knowledge and ideas – with videos, Facebook, blogs, etc. . There are numerous Forums to follow and participate in, images to study on line, etc. It has been interesting to watch this develop. I think the current manifestation of this revolution is in the dissemination of knowledge from Japan (and China, etc.) as more nurseries there have accepted non Japanese apprentices and how this new generation is blogging, posting updates on Facebook and creating videos of their experiences and lessons. Quite fascinating really. The pioneers who studied in Japan as far back as Bill Valavanis and Lynn Perry Alstadt and then Kathy Shaner, Boon, Michael Hagedorn, Ryan Neil, etc. disseminate their experiences in workshops, schools, articles and books.  Lately, however, we have evolved to this new generation of students who update their experiences almost instantaneously. Peter Tea posts regular updates on Facebook as well as his blog and Bjorn Bjorholm has featured some very nice videos from his site of apprenticeship at Kouka-en. I can also see changes in the way the Japanese teaching style is evolving in certain places. Traditional apprenticeship practice is learning by observation and rote practice over several years. While this is still the norm, there are some blendings of Western teaching through verbal instruction going on in some places. When I was at Taisho en, Mr. Urushibata was just beginning this experiment trying out his techniques with myself and another person as guinea pigs of sorts.  This was also while he had a traditional non Japanese apprentice there in Mario Komsta.   He would have a day with a theme which he taught and then had us practice. This has evolved into a thriving Japanese International bonsai ‘school’. On subsequent visits, I’ve seen students from all over the world studying there. From his postings, Peter Tea’s experiences also seem to be a bit more ‘interactive’ than the traditional Japanese style of teaching. I think a blending of the two traditions is excellent and I find the new revolution dizzying but fun! We’ll see if it makes for better trained people and more beautiful bonsai!

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Wiring: Put it on and leave it a on bit

White pine bunjin wired at Taisho en

double wiring method practiced by Hiromi Tsukada in Japan to achieve great movement in young branches on trees in training. Note the minor wiring scars to the left on the thicker portion of the branch that are almost healed completely. Only by time will those scars be unnoticeable.

Wiring is an essential technique to create beautiful bonsai. It is not the only means (as some practice the Lignan method of cut and grow) but it is the most efficient way to shape a tree; to open up foliage to let light in; to move branches/trunks into place.
However, many inexperienced enthusiasts, and even many experienced ones, make certain mistakes in wiring that is evident in their technique. I am not going to outline all of these deficiencies but want to mention one often overlooked. First of all, if one wishes to learn proper wiring technique, there is no substitute for practice, practice, practice AFTER you first learn proper execution from a good teacher. Then just do it and do it some more (and then do it some more!)

But what I wanted to comment on in this post is the often practiced action of taking wire off too early. I know some practitioners who are so quick to point out wiring scars, however minor, and then diminishing the artistry of that particular tree off hand because of this.
Lets try to understand the process of putting wire on a branch to shape it and keep it in that new position or shape. Every species reacts differently to the effect of wiring (and that also can only be learned from experience) – how long it takes for the branch to hold it’s place by itself, how long before the wires start biting into the bark; how big a wire to use, how tight, etc.
In general, once the wire is applied and the branch is moved into place, it is the action of the branch growing and the cambium swelling a bit on that branch – in that new position – before it will hold there on a more permanent basis. Pines and Junipers take a while to hold their branches into a new position and wire can often be kept on for 1+ years to achieve this. Maples swell quickly and branches wired in early spring may have to be removed in a month or so.
However, it is often taken off too soon because we are afraid to cause any scarring. This is a misconception. Letting the wire dig slightly into the bark (or rather letting the branch swell a bit to cause the wire to dig slightly into it) is often necessary to achieve a good hold in that new position. Experience shows that a healthy growing branch will allow those minor scars to heal over in a season or two. (Notice I am only saying slightly – major digging into the bark can be a long term problem that may not be correctible unless it is disguised or hidden).
There was a visiting master to our nursery who was hired by a customer to completely wire out their very nice black pine. It took about 4 hours of work to achieve a very beautifully shaped tree. A few months later this customer brought the tree to a workshop at the nursery and had already removed all the wire! – from a black pine no less!  It should have been kept on for a lot longer.
One common myth is that there are no trees in Japan with any wire scars (just as the other myth that trees in major shows have no wire on them). It all depends on the stage of development that a tree is in. To make branches stay in position on a younger developing tree, you must allow the wire to bite into the bark slightly for it to stay in place. One the tree is closer to the refinement stage and detail wiring is executed, these older minor scars are healed.
You can only really learn this by practice and making a few mistakes until it becomes ingrained in you.

Apprentice to Mr. Kimura wiring a pine at his nursery.

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the power in our hands

It is funny how a seemingly inconsequential event or conversation can evolve into an insightful progression of thoughts.  I was leading a class at the nursery and one of the students was looking for gloves to cover their hands while working on their bonsai.  Although I occasionally will wear thin latex gloves I kind of cringe when thinking of wearing anything on my hands when I work on trees or in the garden.  Even when I encounter the sting of thorns or the itchiness that I get from working with Juniperus species, I find that there is something visceral in my touching plants, soil and water.  When I was quite young, my Italian grandfather, whom I lived with,  had an incredible vegetable garden and fruit trees.  His hands during the spring,summer and fall were quite callused – ‘gardeners hands’ as I later described them.  I have always remembered the toil and creativity in those hands and the loving touch he had with his plants.  It has always signified something heathly and healing when I encounter those kinds of hands.  

It is not only a badge of honor to have those healing hands but it provides us with a more direct contact with the trees we are cultivating.  If we do not love our trees, we will not be as successful with bonsai as we can be.  Hitoshi once said that to at least touch a tree(s) when you pass it will help make that tree more beautiful and healthy.

In our quest to develop a ‘cleaner’ and disease resistant society, we have sacrificed some of that human, healing touch with nature.  People are all to eager to wear gloves all the time in the garden.  Me, after repotting hundreds of trees during the spring, I wear my callused hands with pride.  Of course, my wife may not always feel the same way!

During a subsequent class I was discussing callused hands with another student and he shared with me a hand cream he found very useful in softening the skin of his hands. It is made by a local, New England company (which I also liked) and contained Olive Oil, lanolin, etc (olive oil was one of the things my grandpa would rub on his hands in the evenings after working in the garden).  I ordered some and use it regularly.  I think I would rather do that than wear gloves all the time.

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Japan Tour I: Visiting friends

One of the focuses of our bonsai adventure in Japan was to visit with some of the bonsai artists that have come to our nursery on a regular basis. During the whole of our trip we had the pleasure of being with our guide, Jun Imabaysahi, who was incredible with the work he did to make our trip enjoyable.

Here is Jun describing the carving work on an 800 year old yamadori Shimpaku Juniper.

His knowledge of the bonsai culture in Japan and connection with some of the best masters was greatly appreciated by all of us.
We visited Mr. Hiromi Tsukada who many of us know from his annual visits to our nursery. Tsukada san is one of the top azalea bonsai artists in Japan but we also saw that his work with maples and pines was also quite impressive! He was SO happy to see us and gave us a little demonstration of his grafting techniques to renew a beautiful Japanese maple that was starting to get overgrown.

One of Mr. Tsukada's beautiful Japanese maples

our sensei, Hiromi Tsukada

Jun teased me with the promise of seeing a fantastic shohin black pine. Here it is with Mr. Tsukada and me. Funny man!

Later on the trip we visited Mr. Mitsuo Matsuda in Kinashi village on Shikoku Island. This is a town that is known for its bonsai growing, especially black pines. He joined us for a wonderful dinner at a restaurant in Takamatsu.

Our group at Mr. Matsuda's nursery

We also met some of Jun’s bonsai friends – Mr. Yamahata, who creates very high quality bonsai; Mr. Miura, who is an up and coming shohin bonsai artist.
More to come!

Meeting Mr. Yamahata in front of his exquisite bonsai for sale at the Taikanten Exhibition vending area.

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Caring Takes Time

Caring Takes Time

Do you know that we lose very few bonsai out of the thousands we have to care for?

Working with hundreds of bonsai at the nursery, I am always amazed at the beauty and variety. Hitoshi and Teddi have always stressed health and beauty (with health
always being the first focus – my motto has become ‘without health there is no beauty’).

This is not just bluster but a result of the priority of maintaining healthy trees. I work with
many students and customers, both in classes and privately to help evaluate trees, promote health and beauty by repotting, pruning, wiring, etc. I have to say that there is a certain sadness that goes along with this as I often see many trees in decline that were once very beautiful (or had the potential of becoming very beautiful bonsai).

There are many levels of bonsai enthusiasm:
~ Customers and friends who simply like to acquire beautiful trees while leaving
the maintenance and styling to us. There is nothing wrong with this. Patrons of the arts
are always needed. That people are willing to pay to
have professionals maintain the health and beauty of their trees is a good thing.
~ The vast majority of enthusiasts are practitioners at one level or another ñ from the
casual bonsai hobbyist to the bonsai addict (you know who you are!) Looking for and
acquiring good pre-bonsai or bonsai to further develop and maintain is their passion. The
art of doing bonsai is the joy ñ repotting, searching for good material, wiring, learning
new techniques and advancing in the art/practice, pruning, etc. are all enjoyable
endeavors. However, we are all affected in some way by the strong cultural tendency to
acquire things but not invest the necessary time to maintain these living sculptures.

I have been at the nursery for over 10 years (friend of NEBG since the days of South Natick) and have seen many fantastic bonsai and some very simple but still beautiful ones.
I’ve met many wonderful enthusiasts here. I have seen trees that were wonderfully styled
by a visting master (eg. Kenji Miyata, Mr. Tsukada, Mario Komsta, Mitsuo Matsuda) and then have watched the trees decline in health or slowed in progression for various reasons.

We all have busy and sometimes difficult lives and sometimes we have a major event in
our lives prevent us from temporarily focusing on our trees (my hip replacement last
summer slowed much of the work that my trees needed). I am not trying to make this a
guilt trip by any means but would like you to think about your approach to bonsai and
your trees. Are you doing the necessary work to keep them healthy and progressing
towards beauty?
What can you/I do if we find that we need to do more but am not sure how? I’ll make a
few suggestions:
~ consider taking some time to schedule a tutorial with me at the nursery. We can
accomplish a lot in an hour or at least I can point you in the right direction as far as goals,
tasks to keep you trees healthy. I can teach you or a small group to wire or prune
properly, etc. I usually schedule all day PT’s at least once a season and often do not get
many takers!
~ if health is good but styling is needed, you can also bring your tree to the nursery for us
to evaluate or request that I (or visiting artist) prune and wire your tree towards beauty.
~ take a class! We offer a multitude of classes. I also offer the Wednesday night mid
week open workbench.
~ do you have too many trees? This hard fact afflicts all of us to a degree with the
impulse towards owning things, etc.
Consider quality over quantity. As most enthusiasts progress with this art, they tend to buy better trees. Yes, this usually means more expensive trees but you have to pay for quality. If you have too many quality trees, focus on the better ones and the ones you are good at maintaining. You also can sell/trade your trees back to nursery or put them on consignment here.

~ Finally, work with species that you do well with and are hardy in our area rather than
ones that you definitely do not have the time to maintain. I meet people who are
magicians with tropical species while others, like myself, work with hardier varieties that
winter well in our region.

As Dr. Spock says (with a little twist): ‘may your trees live long and prosper’
If you’d like to set up a time for a private or group tutorial, you can email me at:

Peace in bonsai-

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Up and Coming Bonsai Artists

Is bonsai an old person’s hobby? Sometimes it seems so– and it certainly can be portrayed as such in Japan.

John and I read a novel by one of our favorite Japanese writers, Natsuo Kirino- entitled Grotesque. In the book an old man pursues his bonsai habit and the picture is not exactly pretty (he ends up selling trees from his prized collection to fund a new romance!) So, yes the stereotype exists and usually stereotypes exist for a reason. In Japan many of the premier growers are run by a man and his wife- often in their seventies or eighties, These people are bonsai heroes- they do the growing, training and cultivating for the better know artists to buy and ‘style’ as their own.

It’s important to remember that bonsai is a process that takes time and dedication. There are a few younger Japanese people stepping into this arena- friends like Hiromi Tsukada, Jun Imabayashi and Mitsuo Matsuda. But the life of a professional bonsai grower is tough- as Mitsuo says- I celebrate a holiday when the trees have a holiday, like when they are dormant. No wonder young people are not taking over their family bonsai businesses.

There are many shining star stylists and artists coming out of Europe these days. We are very happy about this, since it underscores the ART of bonsai and inspires people to approach bonsai as an art form not just a horticultural pursuit. These people still need to get their excellent material from somewhere besides Yamadori (collected) trees– all eyes still look to Japan for the best bonsai.

The mean age for Japanese hobbyists is still over 50, so like it or not, for now, at least bonsai is still considered an old folks hobby, but I have noticed something over the recent months– teenage boys and girls with a bonsai habit. Some as young as 12 and younger. They come with their Mom or Dad or someone else who is enabling them in their rather unusual quest. These are bright, curious kids who somehow got hooked on the idea of bonsai and despite their peers’ penchants for computer and video games they have made it as far as our nursery.

Maybe something is changing and there is a slight shift. Maybe people are teaching their children to respect nature and to love plants. To take the time to grow a garden or have a bonsai- to care for and to nurture something.

In light of the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with tragic losses and damages to wildlife and sea plants, let’s hope the lesson learned is: take care, appreciate life. Let’s hope that younger people start to get that message. Once we age and experience loss and truly see and feel the fleeting nature of life, then we cherish life more fully. If bonsai helps bring this message to young people, it might make society more enlightened.

Now there’s an excellent reason to nurture the bonsai artist in us all.

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