Friday, January 10, 2014


Winter is the time that we refine our deciduous trees and prepare them for the upcoming seasons. At various locations throughout the country local and regional clubs will have a mid-winter show to display their trees in silhouette, this is were you can appreciate the fine ramification of the tree's structure. The largest show in Japan is the Kokufu-Ten show that is held in February giving bonsai enthusiasts the opportunity to view the beauty of the trees in all their glory.


This is a Triple Trunk Catlin Elm that I have been working on for the last fifteen years. The Catlin elm is a sport of the Chinese elm with small leaves. This mutation was discovered by Joe Catlin a landscape designer in Southern California in the early 1950's. This tree has been wired in the past but at this time is grown using the clip and grow method. I will let the growth extend out to 5 or 6 leaves then cut the growth back to 2 or 3 leaves. The Catlin Elm has a very thin bark and the bark will exfoliate providing an interesting effect somewhat like a Sycamore tree. This tree is potted in a cream colored oval pot from Bonsai Vision. The pot is acquiring a nice patina and the soft tones of the glaze and simple oval shape go nicely with this specimen.

This is a Burt Davi Ficus. This tree has been defoliated as it is a tropical and does not drop its leaves in the fall. By defoliating the tree I can improve back budding and increase the ramification. As you can see it is just starting to push new growth. The pot for this tree is a little over-sized but I am trying to push the growth and fatten the trunk a little. The style for this tree is a formal upright broom style and with a little more girth to the trunk it will appear straighter and be a better looking specimen. The pot that I have chosen is a light blue rectangle from Bonsai Vision. The straight lines of the pot and the soft blue color contrast nicely with the bright green leaves of this bonsai.

Here we have another Burt Davi Ficus. This tree will have a completely different feel and look than the previous bonsai as this is a Moyogi style (informal upright). This tree has also been defoliated to improve its ramification.This has been potted in a Mokko style pot of a dark blue from Bonsai Vision. The ficus species in general likes to be slightly root-bound so the use of small pots do not hinder their growth.

Korean Hornbeam 21inch x 11 inch

This a Korean hornbeam that I have worked on for 13 years. When this tree was first acquired it was growing in a slant style. I converted it to a semi Cascade and have been training it in that style for the last 11 years. I have potted it in a Bonsai Vision steel blue cascade pot that complements the white muscular shape of the trunk. This tree has been wired this year. When wiring deciduous trees I wire the branches downward as this weakens the tips and forces more back budding which will increase the ramification. Eventually the growing tips will begin to rise and the tree will take on more of the look that it should have as a finished tree

Korean Hornbeam 22 inch

This Korean Hornbeam was acquired 3 years ago and I have begun the work of increasing the ramification of the branches. As with the previous specimen I have wired the branches down to increase back budding. This tree is potted in a Bonsai Vision pot From the Yamaaki Kiln In Tokoname. Korean Hornbeams are vigorous growers and extremely hardy. The small dark green leaves are in perfect scale for mid size and Shohin bonsai. 

Zelkova Serrata 7 inch

This broom style Zelkova is just starting to begin to ramify and within 3 to 5 years should rival some of the the shohin Zelkovas that you can find at the Green club during the Kokufu-ten show in Japan. This bonsai is planted in a Mokko shaped pot from Bonsai Vision by the Tokoname artist Kouyou. The purple glaze is unusual and goes nicely with the grey bark and the light green leaves of early spring. I am pulling the front branch towards the right slightly as I changed the front to the right by about 10% to show the Nebari a little better so I have had to move the branches a little
Korean Hornbeam 19 inch

This slender trunk Korean Hornbeam is beginning to develop the twiggeness that Hornbeam's are so famous for.
The plan for this tree is to try to keep the trunk on this tree slender to enhancer its elegance, rather than trying to have a chunky tree. There are no large chops on this tree and it has always been grown in a pot.This bonsai is potted in a Yamaaki cream oval from Bonsai Vision.

Chinese Elm 22 inch

This Chinese elm was purchased as a twin trunk unfortunately the smaller trunk (the stump that you see on the bottom right) died so I was left with making the tree with a single trunk. The hollows and crevasses in the trunk of this tree make it one of the most popular trees on my benches when I have visitors over. The tree has many classic faults according to the rules but I like the tree the way that it is progressing so I think I will keep it. This tree has been potted in a Bonsai Vision oval pot with rivets around the top in a robins egg blue glaze.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Were are we heading in Bonsai

Having just returned from the GSBF convention in Burbank it started me thinking about were are we going with bonsai here in the United States and also around the world. I've attended the GSBF convention for the last 20 years or so and it seems like every year it is the same people doing most of the work and carrying the load for all of us. When I look at our local club I see the same thing:  There are a handful of dedicated folks that make everything click and so many that enjoy the fruits of the labor of so few. At this time in the U.S. we are so very fortunate that there is a cadre of hard-working bonsai enthusiasts and bonsai professionals who continue to provide all of us with direction and the chance to improve our understanding and vision of bonsai. I know here on the West Coast we are lucky to have such a depth of knowledge with people such as Kenji Miyata, Kathy Shaner, Ryan Neil, Michael Hagedorn, and so very many others. On the East Coast you have such talented artists as Bill Valavanis, Suthin Sukosolvisit, Bjorn Bjorvala and the list goes on and on. As an aside, any of you who haven't purchased Bill Valavanis's album Classical Bonsai Art had better get it quick as it is awe-inspiring to look at what he has achieved over the 50 years that he has been studying and teaching the art of bonsai. Do we consider ourselves as bonsai artists-in-training or is this hobby just something to do when were not watching TV?  I remember reading an editorial by John Palmer, the editor of Bonsai Today, with the same thoughts 25 years ago. Do we support the local bonsai nurseries and vendors with our dollars? I remember at the last Shohin convention in Santa Nella one of the participants was complaining about the prices that some of the vendors had on some of their plants. In looking at the pre-bonsai that she was complaining about, I could see that this particular vendor had spent probably 12 to 15 years growing this type of material, keeping it healthy, repotting it every few years, trimming it to keep the foliage tight, and he had the audaciousness to ask 300 dollars for it! So I promptly told this young lady that she was correct that there was no way that she should purchase that plant, if she couldn't see the value of 15 years of labor then the material would be wasted on her. I promptly purchased the tree in question and feel that I received a real bargain. How many of us look for nothing but the bargain and overlook the best?  If we are to continue to grow personally in bonsai we need to improve our understanding of what will be a good bonsai and what will not. How many of us have that very first bonsai that we started with?  I know that my first attempts have been donated to club raffles as I have tried to improve my own collection. If we keep every tree that we have ever owned we wouldn't be able to expand our collection and acquire better and better material. So this is enough ranting I just want to implore all of you to support your local club by volunteering to help in any way that you can. Take a class, improve your skills, visit your local bonsai nursery and purchase something that you can turn into something wonderful.

Some photos of the GSBF convention. A wonderful time was had by all.

Bonsai Vision work cart in the raffle

Suthin and Mel Ikada demo on Californis Juniper

A little further along

My favorite tree in the show: A very elegant San Jose Juniper

A beauitiful bunjin style Silverberry

Ted Matson's Foemina forest

A wonderful Shohin Ivy

Old friends

The final winner of the Bonsai Vision Work Station

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bonsai Tools Specialised Tools for Bonsai's special tasks
Ashinaga shears stainless steel
Trimming shears with a fine point used to cut branches and leaves growing in small spots. It can cut branches up to 3/16” diameter. The Bonsai Vision brand shears are available in high-carbon steel and stainless steel. The high carbon steel version is strong and holds an edge a long time. The stainless steel version resists rust and requires less maintenance. These shears have a bowed handle to help prevent crushing leaves and twigs when trimming.
Ashinaga shears carbon steel

Satsuki shears stainless steel

The satsuki shears have a very fine point and are the ideal shears for trimming satsuki azalea's but are also indispensable in working on shohin and chuhin size bonsai. The shears are 7.25 inch and can cut branches up to 1/16 inch. These shears come in stainless steel and carbon steel.
Satsuki shears carbon steel

Kiri shears stainless steel

The Kiri Shear with its long narrow body is a fine shear for trimming buds and reaching deep into your bonsai with minimum disturbance to the surrounding foliage. Its finger ring are also well suited to a wide variety of finger sizes.Its 8 to 9 inch length provides you with precise control when you are needing to trim inside your bonsai. Both the stainless steel and carbon steel tools will provide you with a lifetime of service if maintained properly​
Kiri shears carbon steel

Ohkubo Shears Stainless Steel

  • The Ohkubo Shear is a heavy duty shear that is a versatile shear that can be used for a variety of gardening work,. It makes an excellent flower shear and is perfect for trimming small branches. The design of the blades make it the tool of choice for trimming hair roots when repotting

Ohkubo Shears Carbon steel

Concave Cutter Stainless Steel

One of the single most important bonsai tool is the concave cutter. Its main function is to remove branches in a manner that promotes rapid and smooth healing of the wound. Its name comes from the shape of the cut and wound left on the woody trunk or branch. When properly used the concave pruner leaves a wound on the trunk that is taller than it is wide and slightly concave. The characteristic shape of the concave pruner wound makes use of the fact that wounds on the trunk of trees heal in from the sides rather than from the top and bottom. The concave depression into the trunk allows the wound to callous over without creating an undesirable bump on the trunk. 

Concave Cutter Carbon Steel     

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Magic and Mystery of bonsai soil

The most important aspect of growing bonsai is the horticultural requirements that the different species require. A Japanese maple requires a completely different environment than a juniper. And even within the same genus the cultural requirements can be vastly different. A Chinese juniper such as a shimpaku will need different growing conditions when compared to a California juniper or a procumbens nana.

The strength of any tree starts with the root system and improving the root system needs to be the first goal in turning a possible bonsai into a truly great bonsai. So how do we improve the root system so that we can supercharge the growth and start our tree on the road to a bonsai? The proper soil mix is the first item that we need to look at. What are the climatic conditions that our trees are subject to, how often are we watering, how hot does it get, what are the humidity levels, how about the prevailing winds, how fast will our trees dry out? Do we grow Shohin size trees or do we prefer to grow the larger trees, or do we have both?

Medium  size soil mix

Shohin size soil mix
 Bonsai masters in Japan prepare a soil mix specifically for each tree, and we need to be looking to the masters for instruction and try to follow their lead on horticultural practices when we can. Many of us use a premixed soil that we can purchase and this is a good starting point. Most premixed soil from Japan will come with 60% to 65% akadama, 30% to 35% pumice with 5% scoria (cinders) and 5% to 10% kiryu which is a course sand similar to decomposed granite. For pine and junipers the 60% akadama is good but with deciduous trees you might want to add to it and have a ratio of 65% to 70% akadama. Now the CEC (cationic exchange capacity) rate of this mix is very poor and we will need to add some items that will increase the ability of this soil mix to hold and disperse the nutrients rather than having them flush through the soil and onto our benches where it's not doing anybody any good. One of the best soil components that we can add is vermiculite. This has a very high CEC rate but is very light so will need to be added at the last minute and mixed in well, 5 percent is a good quantity to use and will improve root growth. I started using vermiculite about three years ago mainly because my teacher Kenji Miyata was complaining about how they quit using it in Japan because they had to transplant more often because the roots were filling the pot to quickly. I decided that was a problem that I could live with and I have noticed that I am getting better root growth when mixing in 5% vermiculite. There are other components that you can use.  Certain Zeolites have a very high CEC rate but they are difficult to find in sizes that are economically suitable, or they are impossible to find in a lot of areas.

Mitsuya-san preparing a pot for repotting

 One problem that I see a lot of is people repotting their trees too often. Repotting is a major surgical act to perform on a tree and will often set the tree back and produce a slower growth rate for a season until the tree reestablishes a root system. However the opposite is also true if we postpone repotting until after the tree is root bound. That can have disastrous consequences  also, so we need to know what to look for to determine when to repot. One thing that we can be doing is picking up the pot and looking at the drainage holes. Do you see roots growing through, is the soil above the drain holes full of roots, when you push down on the soil on the top of the pot is it hard or can you push you finger into the soil? Do you see roots growing out of the soil on top of the pot. These are all indicators that we need to be looking at.
Time to repot

One of the things that Bonsai masters will say when they come to the US for conventions or shows is that we don't fertilize enough. If you use the soil mix above you will need to be using an organic fertilizer. There are more and more high quality organic fertilizers on the market at your local garden shop, many with added mycorrhiza and beneficial bacteria. In looking for a quality fertilizer consider the delivery mode, are you top dressing, are you using fertilizer baskets, how do you prevent the fertilizer from caking over and compromising that beautiful soil that you worked so hard to make so that you had good drainage and air exchange? I've used fertilizer baskets for the last ten years or so and find for myself that this is the best may for me to be able to control the application of the fertilizer without compromising my soil. You might have other means to do so. Some people use tea bags that they fill with their fertilizer.  You can buy the empty tea bags online or at many oriental markets. I've tried this also and it works marvelously until the birds take off with them and you have empty tea bags all over your yard. In looking at fertilizers try to make sure that it is a balanced blend and that it contains the micro nutrients that all plant life needs to truly flourish. Here you will find a list of micro nutrients that your plants will need: Iron, Molybdenum, Boron, Manganese, Sodium, Zinc, Nickel, Chlorine, Cobalt, and Aluminium. Try to make sure that your fertilizer provides these elements or you can purchase trace element frits that you can add to you fertilizers. 

Using tea bags for fertilizing

The next thing that we need to consider is the climatic conditions that we are trying to grow our trees in. What we need to embrace is climate change, not for the whole world, but only for that part of our yard that we are trying to grow our bonsai in. Now where I live it will hit 100 degrees around the first to second week of May and never drop below 100 degrees until the end of September and sometimes into the first week or so of October. This last summer we had 20 days in a row where the highs for the day were 115 plus.
Tough bonsai weather

 Using shade cloth will protect your trees from the worst of the midday sun and by keeping your benches and surrounding areas wet you can increase the humidity levels and this will decrease the transpiration load on your trees and slow down leaf burn. By enclosing as much of our bonsai garden as we can it will also help protect the trees from the drying winds and for some of you hail storms. For those of you that live in an area where you can grow your trees out in the open without any shade or protection from the weather, we envy you.
Bonsai nursery with shade cloth and wind protection
So lets be looking at our growing conditions from the roots up. We will never be able to complete our vision of what we want to achieve with our bonsai if we don't have healthy trees, and the very best growing conditions that we can provide will help us reach that goal.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Bonsai Pots: Choosing the Right Pot for your Tree

It is very important to choose just the right bonsai pot for your tree as your tree matures and is beginning to reach a level that you can consider entering it in a show, or just for your own enjoyment. You have to consider not only the artistic points of a pot but also the horticultural aspects of what your bonsai will need to continue to flourish.

The proper bonsai pot needs to act as a picture frame for your finished bonsai and not detract from the overall composition that you are trying to achieve. The correct pot should be no more than 20 to 25 percent of the visual weight of the finished bonsai. This holds true with trees in the range of 12 inches and larger. With Shohin and Chuhin the rules are a little more relaxed and you can use bonsai pots of vibrant colors such as yellows, reds, and blues. When picking pots for your larger trees the general consensus is that you use unglazed pots for your pines and junipers and glazed pots for your deciduous trees.  An old black pine in a nice blue pot is a little jarring. There are exceptions to these ideas but these are just general guidelines. When choosing a glazed pot look for glazes that are muted and have an appearance of age. You want the pot to have a certain patina that only use and age will provide. If you place your new bonsai pots under your benches for a season or two you can begin the process of aging and seasoning your containers.

One of the problems many of us have is buying a pot that we like and then trying to make a tree that we already have fit the container that we just spent a lot of money on. This is the wrong approach as we should be looking for a bonsai pot that suits the tree and not the other way around. The old adage in bonsai is that you can never have enough pots, and you never have the right pot for that special tree when it comes time to repot, so it's time to buy a new one. This is okay, and sound judgment since I sell pots; however, spend the needed time to decide what that special pot should be. A general rule of thumb is that the pot's depth should be 1 to 2 times the thickness of the trunk and the length should be 2/3 of the height. However, as this is just a rule of thumb, we can ignore it if need be to make sure that the tree remains healthy and continues to thrive.

This style of bonsai pot is often used for Bunjin style trees or trees with thin trunks when using the shallow type container, and is appropriate to use in a cascade style with heavier trunked trees.

Here you see a bonsai pot in the Mokko shape. These pots can be used for trees that are a little more feminine in style. This shape of the pot comes in deep and shallow forms so is very versatile

The octagon shape is a much stronger shape and can be used for trees that are stronger visually. These bonsai pots also come in different depths so you will see them for cascade style trees along with shallower styles for upright styles.


For that strong upright tree you might want to consider a rectangular or square shape as these pots project a strong image and will give your tree additional visual strength. You will find rectangular pots that have rounded corners or cut corners that will change the overall look and feel of the finished composition.

One of the best resources for advice on the proper bonsai pot is the Bonsai Albums published by the Kokufu-ten and Gafu-ten shows in Japan. It is very informative to see what the experts are choosing for their pot choices.  It is a valuable  guide and a pleasure to look at what is possible.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Looking for Something to Start With

One of the questions that I hear most often in workshops and demonstrations is where do I find material to work on. The first thing that you need to learn is what is good material and what is not worth spending time on. Bonsai is an art form that can take decades to bring raw material to a point that a tree is of show quality. Spending decades on material that doesn't have the potential is discouraging and a waste of your time and talents.

The most important thing in looking for raw material is to evaluate the trunk and the Nebari. The Nebari is the roots that you can see lying at the surface of the soil.  A good Nebari adds the appearance of age and dignity to a tree, so this is a crucial part of the future design of the tree. A good trunk line is also very important, so what you want to avoid is a reverse taper where the trunk gets fatter as you go up from the base. Another flawed trunk is the lazy S shape.You see a lot of these for sale on some bonsai websites and they will never make a good bonsai, so avoid them. So picking a trunk with good movement is the first step.

The very best place to start looking for starter material is at old established landscape nurseries, preferably those that grow their own stock. Good materials to start with are the junipers, especially the Japanese Garden Junipers, the Chinese Juniper varieties such as Old Gold, Blauuw and Shimpaku and also the Sabina Junipers such as the Buffalo and Tam. Many of these will be overgrown and will need to be cut back drastically to start with. Always leave healthy growth on junipers when you start cutting them back or the tree could die or lose important branches. If you are new to bonsai take your purchase to a workshop at your local club and have one of the more experienced members help you with initial styling.

This type of material
offers a lot of possibilities cutting back hard will produce something in a Shohin size or possibly a windswept or cascade style. This tree was a close out for $3.00

Here you have something that can
be developed into an informal upright style that already has a nice trunk line
and branches were you need them,

And here the possibilities are endless, a sea of junipers all for less than $10.00 each.

If your tastes run towards the deciduous varieties such as maples, elms, boxwood's or other species then the same holds true about looking at the trunk and Nebari. With deciduous trees you can cut them back quite drastically and they will pop out new growth all over the tree. This will allow you to pick where you want branches and the final height of the finished bonsai.  Just remember in cutting back your tree to plan ahead for where the scars will be from large drastic cuts. Don't be in a big hurry to put your tree into a bonsai pot. Your new pre-bonsai will appreciate you not disturbing the roots at this time as it will grow much more vigorously and heal over cuts if you wait a year or two before starting to reduce the root ball.

When choosing material, make sure that you look at the health of the tree. Healthy plants will have firm glossy foliage and an overall appearance of health. If you start with sick plants it will not only take longer to start working with your tree but you could be introducing a problem to your other bonsai. When purchasing plants from a local nursery you are not only supporting a local business but you can see the health and vitality of the plant before you purchase it. You also will spend $10 to $20 dollars for material that would cost $100 from an online resource.There are some marvelous bonsai nurseries throughout the U.S. that have old material that you can purchase, so you should take the time and visit these nurseries as most do not sell their best material on the Internet.

Another good resource for plant material is your local bonsai club. Many clubs have raffles where members bring in plants that they are willing to sell. Also, the conventions held throughout the country are another good source of bonsai as there are many backyard bonsai growers who only sell at the conventions.

So good luck in your searches, and if you are new to bonsai take someone with you who has had more experience to help you in finding the perfect plant to begin your journey. Half of the fun in bonsai is in the looking and the anticipation of finding that diamond in the rough. For those of you with the years of experience, reach out to those who are new and share your knowledge and just remember there was a time when the shoe was on the other foot.