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How I Found a Bonsai Teacher

Posted Apr 27, 2009 by matsubonsai

I met Boon Manakitivipart at Brussels Bonsai Rendezvous many years ago.  We talked about his Bonsai Intensive series and where one should start.  He indicated that winter/repotting was the place he suggested everyone start.

Due to timing, and the fact that repotting didn't sound very exciting, I started the Bonsai Intensive series in June of 2005.  There were 5 of us in my first class, 2 graduating women and 3 completely new attendees, myself included.  We worked on japanese Black Pine, Satsuki Azaleas, and an assortment of junipers.  It was an incredibly powerful experience, and I made it back to the hotel each night exhausted.

My second Bonsai Intensive session was in Fall.  There were again 5 attendees and the work was equally exciting.  We worked on wiring and Fall cleanup mostly.  I didn't feel I learned quite as much as the June/Summer workshop, but it was well worth the experience.  I remembered not being quite so exhausted at the end of each day.

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Bonsai - Don't Accept Good Enough

Posted May 28, 2008 by matsubonsai

It's my constant pursuit of perfection that I think helps me to improve my bonsai trees.  I'm never completely satisfied with my work and am always looking to improve, both myself and my trees.

I have a small library of bonsai books sitting on my shelf at the moment.  There are a few Kokufu-ten exhibit books spanning the last 10 years or so.  Next to those are several Ginkgo Awards Best of Bonsai in Europe books that I've received as Christmas gifts.  On down the shelf is the Bay Island Bonsai exhibit book, along with books on varying techniques and other topics.  There are also a large number of bonsai magazines from all parts of the world.  All of these tomes have been put to great use over the years.  Each one has been used to further my development and bonsai career, so to speak.

There is a natural progression in bonsai.  First, you must learn the basics.  There will probably be a time that you flounder and kill a tree or two.  Much of these failures will be due to lack of knowledge.  It is your own determinations that will help you decide to give up or pursue better bonsai.

Once you've mastered the basics its time to start the real learning process.  There is a world of knowledge available.  New books and magazines are being published constantly displaying newly devised techniques as well as old techniques rarely seen before.  Clubs and study groups are filled with knowledgeable people that you can learn a great deal from.  Conventions, symposiums, and seminars are constantly being held across the country and abroad.  Bonsai Masters are traveling the world teaching and demonstrating their vast knowledge of how to create and improve bonsai.

But, all the knowledge in the world will do you no good if you don't put it to good use.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

I attended a convention a few years ago in which Marc Noelanders asked a question in the middle of his demonstration.  "How many of you have wired a tree?" he asked.  Nearly every hand in the audience went up.  "Ok, how many have wired for more than 1 hour in a sitting?"  About half of the hands went down.  "And how many have done that once a month?" he continued.  A half-dozen of people still had their hands raised.  "How about once a week?"  All hands were now down.  He continued on to say that he wires a few hours each and every day.

Traveling bonsai masters on the teaching circuit may be a bit extreme for an example.  They have the unique opportunity to practice bonsai with a large variety and assortment of trees almost every day.  If you're a small collector or hobbyist you may not have the same opportunity, but the point should not be lost.  You can only improve at a skill by constant practice.  And your trees will only improve with constant training.

More time needs to be spent with your trees.  Spend more time doing.  Cut, bend, and prune with a purpose.  Enjoy the work and see the outcome for yourself.  Don't accept "good enough" from yourself.  Strive to constantly improve your trees.  You won't regret it.


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How to Get Started in Bonsai

Posted May 26, 2008 by matsubonsai

I've heard all kinds of excuses from "I don't have a green thumb" to "I have a black thumb".  I have even had a woman tell me she can't keep dandelions alive.  I think that's a bit extreme, but I understood the point she was trying to make.  The problem with this attitude is that it defeats you before you have even had a chance to begin.

Remove Obstacles

The first thing to discover is that bonsai is not hard.  Bonsai is just a tree in a pot.  A container plant.  There are some artistic aspects of bonsai, but that can be learned and your artistry developed over time.  Don't concern yourself with the art of bonsai until later.  First, focus on keeping your tree alive.

Decide what you like

Often those just starting out in bonsai are overwhelmed by the choices of species that are available.  Just about any tree, bush, or shrub can be turned into a fine bonsai.  However, it's best when you're just starting out to focus on one or two species.  Decide which species you’re most interested in, whether fruiting or flowering, deciduous or conifer.

Look for trees that are native to your area or thrive in your climate.  Perusing a local nursery or garden center will show you what is available, and what will grow well for you.

Focus

Learn the requirements of the tree or trees you've decided to focus on.  Trees have very distinct water, fertilizer, and sunlight requirements.  Learn these requirements and what effects slight variations have on each tree.  A healthy tree will reward you with healthy green foliage, wonderful fall colors, and/or beautiful flowers.

Read

There is a wealth of books available on the subject of bonsai.  Libraries and bookstores are a good place to look for bonsai books.  Garden centers and nurseries may have books available as well.  The Internet and bonsai blogs, such as this, are also a great source of bonsai information.  If you're looking for specific bonsai information about a certain tree or technique rest assured someone has written about that subject somewhere.

Research

Once you've found sources for valuable information you'll have a place to turn when looking for answers.  Research about advanced wiring and bending techniques.  Discover when the best time to prune a particular species for maximum return.  Read about artistry and begin to learn about bonsai design and aesthetics.

Success

Set yourself up for an early success.  Choose trees that thrive in your area and you'll be rewarded with an easy triumph.  With one or two good trees under your belt you'll feel energized and ready to branch out to new and different species.

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How did you get started in bonsai?  Add your comments below.


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Bonsai Questions - Well, it depends

Posted Mar 9, 2008 by matsubonsai

Almost without exception every bonsai question can be answered with the phrase "well, it depends." 

  • When should I fertilize my bonsai?
  • When should I water my bonsai?
  • What is the best time of year to wire my tree?
  • Should I remove this branch?
  • Can you really grow a tree in nothing but marbles?

Well, it depends.  The main thing to ask yourself is, what am I trying to accomplish?  What is your ultimate goal and what is the best way to accomplish that goal?  Careful observation should lead you in the direction of the appropriate answer.

I often try to avoid the what/when/how/where questions when asking for advice.  It is often an opinion on the course of action that I am looking for when I have a question.  My questions are often in the form of "if I remove this branch and then wire the one above it into position would that fill the area appropriately and provide a natural and pleasing shape?"  This removes a lot of the follow up questions that my advisor might have and gives him or her the insight into what my intentions are. 

Seedlings

If you have a young tree, or one that requires a lot more growth, plenty of fertilizer and unrestrained growth are the answer.  Often the first response to the "what should I do with this tree" question is to put it in the ground for a number of years.  What this answer is truly saying is that this tree is far too young in it's development to worry about refinement or restraining growth.  If you start the refinement process (pinching, etc.) too early on this tree you will have a well ramified branch on a slender trunk that lacks movement, taper, and character.  At this stage you must keep the tree alive and well fertilized.  Roots can (and should) be worked on during this phase, creating the structure for future development.


Pre-bonsai

Now you have grown or perhaps you've purchased a tree in this category of the approximate size you want.  Now what?  By this time you should have examined the roots and come up with a plan for the future.  Perhaps you've identified a taproot that you will remove over the next few years.  The trunk has good movement and character and has pretty good taper from nebari to apex.  Now you can start to select the branches that you've been eyeing during early development.  Remove completly unwanted or unneccessary branches.  Don't concern yourself too much with the "rules" during the early parts of this work.  If you remove every branch from the inside curve of a bend you may severly limit your design choices.  Look to the future of your design, but don't tie both hands behind your back, and certainly don't risk the health or your tree. And remember, fertilize, fertilize, fertilize.


Refinement

Okay, it's not ready for Kokufu but this tree is starting to look like a bonsai.  This year's club show just passed, which means you've got almost a year to get everything done.  You don't think the tree will be ready in just 12 months?  Okay, wait an additional year.  On fast growing trees such as maples and elms you could quite possibly be ready for the show next year.  Stay on top of pinching, pruning, and wiring and you'll be amazed at the progress.  It may take a few additional seasons to get well refined branches from species such as pines, but the ultimate goal is the same. Careful timing of fertilizing, pinching, and pruning is required here.  Well worded questions to local experts and an idea in your head should get you the appropriate answer if you still need guidance.


Show prep

Your tree is finally show ready and you plan to make a big debut of all your hard work.  The tree has been finely wired to the tips of each well ramified branch.  The pot that you recently selected complements the tree in shape, color, finish, and texture. The soil is cleaned of debris and a top dressing of short, neat, health green moss has been applied to the surface of the soil.  Several options for stands have been selected and you're waiting for show setup time to make the final choice based on the lighting, height, balance, arrangment, and personal preference.  Watering and fertilizing has been carefully monitored over the last several months so that growth is in check and internodes are short.  The tree is the healthiest it has ever been and you can't wait for the other club members and visitors to the show to see your beautiful tree.


Recovery

It may not be feasible to keep the tree in show-ready state for many years in a row.  Pretty soon the health of the tree may start to decline.  It would be far better for the tree to have a period of rest.  This would be a great opportunity to examine the tree and perhaps rework some of the branches.  Some of the larger or more coarse growth can be replaced by finer, more refined branches which will most likely increase the quality of the overall design.  Your choice now is to decide how much to remove and how drastic a change you want to create.  It may be a few years before the design is realized, but you've got the time.  Besides, you've been working on several other trees and one in particular is just about ready for the big show.  Focus your efforts on this new tree while the other recovers.


How long did all of this take?  Well, it depends!


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Being Successful in Bonsai

Posted Mar 1, 2008 by matsubonsai

I have found that bonsai is filled with constant knowledge, constant learning.  The more I learn the more I study.  The more I study the more I find I don't know.  As I find things that I don't know I have an even greater desire to learn.  It's a vicious cycle that keeps my passion about bonsai growing more and more.

Recently I've been thinking about my successes and failures.  I seem to have subconsciously adjusted my methods over the years in response, to help secure more successes.  Oh, if I only knew then what I know now.

Learning is a must to any practice, whether a hobby or vocation.  Knowledge is power.  There are a variety of ways to gain knowledge such as independent reading, training classes and club meetings, or hands on practice. 

Books and magazines can be an invaluable resource for learning new and different techniques that you are not aware of or have not tried.  Stone Lantern publishing has offered some great new book recently focusing on specific species.  There are also a variety of magazines in the United States and abroad.  The American Bonsai Society (ABS) offers a quarterly magazine with their annual club dues.  Another great magazine from over seas, Bonsai Focus, is absolutely wonderful.  When shopping for a book or magazine be sure to evaluate it’s usefulness to you.  Can you see yourself referencing the text or photos often?  Is the publication high quality or its content superb?  Give it a shot and see what you think.

Training can be found at local clubs.  There are also a variety of opportunities at some of the regional and national bonsai shows.  Many of these offer small classes with various bonsai artists and instructors.  Through these meets I have had the opportunity to work closely with Boon Manakitivipart, Suthin Sukosolvisit, Marco Invernizzi, Jack Sustik, Marc Noelanders, and many others.  Each one of these incredible experiences has helped supplement the tremendous knowledge gained from our own local club members.  All the knowledge and tips gleaned from these meetings has given me the confidence to try new and different techniques on my own trees.

In my collection I have many trees in various stages of development.  That means that I have plenty to work on.  Through my reading and teachings I have learned a great many number of techniques that can be applied to trees in any number of situations.  Until you experience working on a unique bonsai with a truly difficult problem, such as rogue branch placement, it’s hard to really know the technique.  Hands on work really is an invaluable part of the learning process.

There are other things to keep in mind as well.  In the beginning of my bonsai journey I had fallen victim to the problem that many face early on.  I wanted to work with every tree I saw or read about.  I wanted to learn about everything from fruiting and flowering species to evergreens, to deciduous trees.  I spread myself too thin and my trees suffered for it.  I hadn’t yet learned the basics of watering, soil mixtures, or fertilization.  How could I possibly know what the different requirements were for such a large array of bonsai trees?  The answer is, I couldn’t.  And didn’t.  It was a hard lesson to learn and a difficult thing for this stubborn person to admit.  I needed to narrow my focus and learn all that I could about one or two species. 

I decided to pick a major.

When I was finally able to convince myself that I needed to pick a focus I settled on Japanese Black Pine, the king of bonsai.  This was an easy choice for me, as it was by far my favorite tree for bonsai.  Other trees of interest to me were Satsuki Azalea and Shimpaku Junipers.  These three types of trees were my main focus, with Japanese Black Pine being my center of attention.  I have spent the last several years learning all that I possibly can about these three trees.  I have since branched out to include Japanese Maples and Trident Maples, among others.  This has proved to be a very affective way of learning for me.  I am able to focus solely on a tree, its care, and its specific needs; and am able to learn how to make it into a magnificent bonsai tree.

If all goes well I will continue learning and growing for the rest of my life.  There are still a wealth of techniques and species to learn, but that’s just part of the fun.  I still take a look at the works of Kimura to remind myself how tremendous the journey can be.  The works of a true artist have the power to amaze, and that is not something that is learned overnight.


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Inorganic Soil Mixes

Posted Mar 1, 2008 by matsubonsai

There are nearly as many bonsai soil recipes as there are bonsai trees in the world. It seems that just about everyone has their own mix. The important thing is to find a recipe that works for you and your trees. Your soil mix should provide enough water retention to sustain the tree between watering, yet be loose enough to allow for adequate drainage. You must also consider your fertilizing routine when planning a soil mix.

Soil mixes with organic components tend to retain more moisture, as well as retain more fertilizers. This means that if you are fertilizing often then you will need to be careful that you do not overload the soil with fertilizer. Too much fertilizer may burn the fine feeder roots.

Inorganic or "soil-less" mixes are another alternative. I've been using a soil mix that I adopted from Boon Manakitivipart:

  • 1/3 Akadama
  • 1/3 Lava
  • 1/3 Pumice
  • 5% Horticultural Charcoal
  • 5% Decomposed Granite

For deciduous trees and trees that prefer more moisture, use a smaller/finer mix with a little more Akadama added to retain more moisture.

An inorganic mix such as the one detailed above, allows you to water and fertilize a little more often. Watering more often will help flush the soil of excess salts and other build-ups that may occur from municipal watering. Fertilizing more often will help produce ample growth during our growing season.

"You can grow plants in anything if you change your watering, fertilizing, and other cultural habits to match your soil" – Brent Walston

There are a number of trace elements that a tree will need to survive. By using a soil-less mix you control when the tree receives fertilizers, vitamins, and minerals. A good way to add the amendments to the soil is with organic fertilizer cakes. Organic fertilizer cakes will have many of the nutrients that a tree will need, and will deliver these on a continual basis with each watering.

With a well draining soil mix, liquid fertilizer may be lost too quickly. That isn't to say that liquid fertilizers shouldn't be used. Trees such as pines and junipers will do well with an extra dose of an acidic type fertilizer a few times during the growing season. This will increase the acidity level enough for the trees.

Since switching to the inorganic soil mix I've seen increased root development, and have stronger, healthier trees. In fact, watering has become easier, as it's nearly impossible to over-water with this rapidly draining soil.


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Proper Workspace

Posted Mar 1, 2008 by matsubonsai

I'm a relatively young guy. I'm athletic and do my best to stay in shape. But, from time to time I do have sore muscles and an aching back. I often have to stop and think about what I'm doing and how this will affect my body in the morning.

For years I have worked on my trees just about anywhere. More often than not I ended up at the kitchen counter or dining room table. As you can imagine this makes quite a mess. At times I have worked in the garage, standing in front of a folding table. This too is troublesome, causing a lot of weird posturing to get the appropriate angle for viewing, wiring, trimming, etc. This all has led me to rethink my bonsai workspace.

There have been recent discussions and postings on several different internet forums about bonsai workspaces. This spring I have started to improve my workspace, in hopes that this will help me improve my trees, by providing a better work environment.

My new workspace is in the garage, with blank white walls and plenty of light. The amount of light and white walls makes for a blank canvas should the desire hit me to take a quick photo of a tree. The lights ensures I am able to see well all the areas of a tree that I am working on.

I have recently aquired a large spool from a local cable company. With a nice round turntable installed this makes for a great work table. My office chair also has been upgraded, with the old one now becoming my new bonsai workspace chair. Completing my new setup I have a new 3 tiered cart for tool and wire storage. With a wheeled base I can be sure it is always near when needed, or pushed aside when it is in the way.

I also have a small corner devoted to my stackable containers of soil. I found quite a few small storage boxes at Target that hold several gallons of soil each. I have pre-sifted all of my soil ingredients and keep them in their own clearly labeled bin. I also have 2 bins of pre-mixed soil in medium and small sizes. Keeping these bins close by is a big help when it's time to repot many trees.

So far the newly designed workspace has proven to to be quite beneficial for both my back and my bonsai. In the future I hope to discover even more ways to further improve my workspace.


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