Sunday, May 18, 2008

Coastal Georgia Bonsai Club - May Meeting

The Club held its May meeting under the big Oak at the Pfeiffer’s today. The day got off to a start with some needle plucking, as Luigi ambitiously worked on a tall, slender Japanese Black Pine. This tree was a good 5’ tall and was grown from seed to originally be part of a JBP tree line. He decided to transplant it into an unusual container—not Mica or ceramic, but more like a plastic. Bill located his chisel and drilled some drainage holes. After repotting the tree, Luigi wired the first two lower branches, but then left it at that. This tree could make an interesting Literati in time, if you like em’ big.

On the other end of the size spectrum, Bill and I separated a successful air layer of Koto Hime Japanese maple. The mother tree is said to come from Bill Valvanis’ original parent plant, which has produced over 10,000 cuttings. Most Koto Hime bonsai in the United States came from Valvanis’ mother plant. If you haven’t worked with Koto Hime, I’d recommend picking one up. I’ve had two in my collection for several years and they’re a delight to work with. My older tree produced a large amount of micro flowers this spring. The foliage is always in scale and the autumn colors are brilliant.

The layered section was a lower branch that would not be suitable for the final design of the tree. We started the layer about 2 months ago and it had already established a good number of roots. Nothing fancy went into the prep work. I believe we used one side of a shear to shed the bark down to the cambium, then spread rooting hormone over the section and covered it in moist sphagnum moss and a section of a plastic. We then placed wire around the bag to tighten the seal and conserve the moisture.

Bill prefers to plant a newly severed layer such as this in a container that will support the first branches. The lower branches were tied to wire coming from the base of the pot, an interesting technique. This adds much needed stability in order for the new roots to become established in the pot. This little one should make a great mini. We’re planning on doing some more layering off this tree and Bill has recently done a tray of cuttings with Rusty’s assistance. I believe he’s already produced three other mature trees from the mother plant.

Check out some photos of the process...

I got my first taste of a southern delicacy today—boiled peanuts. Why in the world you’d want to soften up a peanut is beyond me, but everyone else seemed to enjoy them. I stuck to the rice cracker/wasabi pea mix, a good choice for the Yankee among the group.

Thanks to Bill and Charlotte for hosting the event today. They really have a great selection of pre-bonsai, bonsai, pots, etc. at Bonsai Beginnings. I’ve never seen such a fine selection of Juniper procumbens. Be sure to make it out for a visit if you’re in the Savannah area.

Photos of the day...

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Lenz Factor

I’ve been doing some research on Nick Lenz and stumbled upon this flickr gallery of his work. Most of it is in the development stages, but his root-over-rock alternative compositions have really gotten extreme. In traditional Japanese bonsai, it’s considered a faulty design choice to incorporate anything that would detract the viewer from seeing only the tree—the perfect replica. In Lenz’s work, he makes a mockery of this ideology.

In his Larix laricina with tank piece (above), for instance, Lenz fuses a perfectly brilliant and serene forest composition with that of a World War II tank model. One of the trees is made to look knocked down from the path the tank is taking through the forest. Could there be anything more realistic?

The influence of postmodern society is felt with Lenz’s more content driven work, as seen on the flikr gallery. At times, it seems he's using representational items, such as a cross (Piss Christ anyone?) or gun, as a way to voice his opinion, or frustration perhaps. When President Bush was elected for a second term, Lenz completely removed his Web site in protest. He has reached the point that he is using his influence as a bonsai aficionado to promote awareness, both societal and bonsai related.

If only he was actively doing workshops (and I actually had the time to attend one). It would be an enlightening experience to spend an afternoon with him.

Yamadori Korean Hornbeam I - Part II

Back to the Hornbeam…

I was in my "have to have everything perfect" phase of bonsai practice, so I thought I would carve out the natural bumps or knobs that this species tends to grow in an attempt to smoothen the trunk line. There were a group of knobs on the back side's lower trunk that were creating an inverse taper. I whipped out my trusty concave cutter and began carving. What did I end up with? Woody remnants and large wounds, wounds that will take years to heal. I decided shortly after this exercise in learning that I could have lived with the knobs.

I’ve begun to slowly scratch the new, healing growth down to the cambium layer to encourage activity. This can be done once a year during the growing season. The wounds are showing signs of healing, but I might be into my 40’s before the tree is recouped. Is a bonsai ever recouped? This is just another example of being too stringent with design. It was important in this case, to leave the bumps, albeit unsightly, since they presented a realism and evidence of this tree’s yamadori origins. A field or pot grown tree would not generally become this unsightly.

Meanwhile, I had done some branch work and taken in the growth. I removed a major lower branch since it was on the outside of the trunk line. Since then, I’ve transplanted it into a smaller Rayner container, although I don’t necessary feel the color compliments this species very well. I will eventually find a more suitable pot.

The (Dark) Back Side...Ouch!
Winter 06'

Here are some photos of the tree last winter -

The nebari is developing nicely and the wounds have healed over slightly. I plan to continue refinement and develop secondary branching, which is especially needed on the apex portion. I may add some more movement to the top apex branch since it seems a bit too straight.

Spring 08'

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Pedestal Project - Part IV

After presenting the various surfaces to me at our previous meeting, he left without a solid grasp on how to move forward with the project. It had not progressed as either of us perceived. We were left with our thoughts and the hope our meetings would eventually lead to a greater conception. I was beginning to get concerned and started to consider alternatives.

Shortly after our last meeting, I envisioned the pedestal during my sleep and called Bob the following morning to attempt to explain. I saw a curving structure, possibly with the stand being made of a trunk or large branch from a tree. I pictured its gentle, natural curves, eventually supporting a top that held the necessary flat surface, but the surrounding edges would be carved to represent the wood’s natural contours.

I was bruntly reminded that Bob’s carving tools were at his workshop in the Blue Ridge Mountains and would not be available for this project.

In Bob’s case, a 3 a.m. wake-up call was his presage. His mind had been so affixed on this project that his sleep was also being affected. His vision was crisp and enlightening that morning and he immediately rushed off to Allen’s workshop—my Aunt Ann questioning his sanity, at the same time trying to determine whether or not he was sleepwalking—not the best state of mind when working with power tools.

Allen, Bob’s brother, lives on Tybee Island and granted Bob reign over his shop during this project. He eventually became involved as a companion wood worker and contributed many valuable ideas during the construction. Somehow Bob managed to sneak by Allen’s dogs that morning without waking the family. It was 8 a.m. before Allen noticed someone was working away in his shop.

The result was a very artistic, natural stand, made of different wood types—mostly comprised of the materials available in Allen’s shop. The pedestal portion was made from a Live Oak trunk found by Bob and Allen a few days prior. The curves on this trunk matched my perceptions to the tee. It was left in its natural state and even featured some shari and jin.

The top of the pedestal was supported by two pieces, which appeared to be left from unwanted furniture—their curves did not quite share the same naturality as the tree trunk. One supported the top width wise and the other stretched the length of the top. An indention was cut into the Live Oak trunk for each piece. I liked their idea of creating an outlining ridge on the borders of the top. This could ultimately stop the tree from falling off the pedestal it was bumped.

The base was made from wood that didn’t take to water well, unfortunately, so albeit extremely supportive and sturdy, the base wood warped in a matter of a few weeks. The stand is still usable, but must be positioned correctly to appear straight. On a later visit, Bob noticed the warping and said it must be due to someone’s “faulty construction.” Since Bob is no longer staying in Tybee and has returned home, I’ve asked a bonsai compatriot of mine, Chad, to see what can be done to recreate the base.

So, the project was completed, or perhaps laid to rest would be a more suitable term in Bob’s mind. Thanks to my Uncle Bob for his dedication and hard work, and to Allen for his contributions. Since he produced one stand, this still left my other trees longing for a suitable display.

The Pedestal Project continues…

Bob’s words as written on April 6 -

“The project is completed—found materials seem to be the essential key in design. Who knows what form this stand might have assumed had I been working at my shop.

When you are skiing, the mountain skis you as much as you ski the mountain, hence, you are never in full control during the creative process. You were largely responsible for this project becoming a good learning experience for me. From our earliest conversations, I began to grasp the relationships (complex!) surrounding bonsai culture, man, environment, and aesthetics—a common thread among them seems to center around evolution. While the bonsai stand we crafted might reflect “completion,” that can’t be said about the other ingredients above. What generation will view the completed life of a Japanese maple or a black pine that may have rooted before we were born?

When I complete a commissioned painting there is always some anxiety associated with the fact that the client may not like it. The same goes with the present project—after all, this was my first shot at such a project! At any rate, for the labor you owe me a bottle of wine.”

Monday, April 28, 2008

Shouts Out Dave!

My bonsai teacher and friend, David Fortune, just got through digging up some of my Japanese maple stock back home. Spring has finally arrived for the folks in Lincoln. I'm looking forward to working on this stock, but I may have to part with some of it as well. A majority of the trees have already been in bonsai containers. I've got several large Arakawa's, a Sango Kaku, Tobiosho, Yurihime, Seiryu, and a dissectum of some kind that I bought dormant under the false label of a Kiyohime. None of them are grafted. Dave did not go away empty handed from this deal as I passed on a very large European Hornbeam to him. Looking forward to picking these up this summer and thanks for all your efforts, my friend.

Yamadori Korean Hornbeam I

Photo courtesy of Evergreen Gardenworks

I felt it was time to introduce an older member of the crew, a yamadori Korean Hornbeam. This tree has been with me since late 2003 and was hand-picked at New England Bonsai Gardens. I do not have any photos of it during its first winter with me. In all likelihood, I didn’t own a digital camera at that time. That really dates this tree, doesn’t it.

It was raw, imported material, but I thought the curvy trunk-line was fairly uncommon for a collected specimen and it had the beginnings of an excellent nebari. I transplanted the tree from a garden container to a pot made by Sara Rayner, which could be displayed for its artistic signification alone. Most of my trees are housed between the confines of Sara’s high-fired clay.

The bark on the Hornbeam is light, but generally the collected specimens have fairly knarled trunk characteristics, so you can get away with darker glazes or even an unglazed brown.

The fall colors this particular year (2003?) were rich and make a striking composition paired with the Rayner-made container.

More to come…

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Pedestal Project - Part III

After reading the texts and grasping the concepts we discussed in our previous visits, Bob now understood conceptually what would be required for the pedestal. That did not satisfy him and he felt stuck artistically, moving from one thought to another. Reluctantly forging ahead and attempting to salvage his artistic credibility, his focus turned to surface.

Not just wood as we previously discussed, but stone in the form of slab and sleight and river rocks, metal, and polished marble and granite. A bonsai on display, according to Bob, should rest on a surface that’s aesthetically pleasing, both in color and texture. Mobility also came in to question, since a primary reason for having a pedestal is the freedom to relocate. It can be moved as the sun shifts, as the rain falls, and away from the sawdust mills of the carpenter bee.

On his next visit, Bob brought a sheet of sandstone, a slab of marble and a black, oval metal tray filled with smoothened black rock, similar in look and feel to river stone. Out of these three surfaces, I felt the sandstone had the most potential. Its earthy tones would compliment the subtle glazes of my bonsai containers and its slight surface ridging added to its appeal. The shine of the marble seemed unnatural and the pot could be easily moved on its smooth surface. I liked the idea of containing moisture when using the metal tray with black stones, but it would not provide adequate stableness. I could see myself constantly festering, measuring whether the container was level buried amongst the stones.

Bob's words as written on March 30 -

"Thanks for letting me read your books. Now I feel the need to visit gardens in Japan and engage in Zen meditation for the next five years before beginning our stand project! Since I am older than your bonsai trees, the stand may never be completed! At any rate, knowing my short-comings, I intend to forge ahead with the creative enterprise and allow at least one stand to emerge as my ideas do the same."

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Pedestal Project - Part II

Understanding the simplicity of bonsai display was the main topic of our next meeting. I asked Bob to consider the bonsai tree as a painting. Typically, the frame of a painting should not detract the viewer from the actual painting. In this case, the bench’s exquisite design would certainly detract from viewing the tree. In fact, I would likely receive more favorable comments on the benches than of the trees, especially from those that do not have a knowledge of bonsai. It would not be difficult to see the craftsmanship at-hand in the creation of the bench, whereas, the bonsai tree has lived a complex and abnormal existence. Some of these experiences are visually obvious and others masked.

I asked Bob to focus on the functionality and purpose of the display. We both agreed that a pedestal, not a bench, would be the best way to frame a bonsai tree. Bob seems to be most inspired when his imagination is challenged and I knew the pure functional characteristics required of the pedestal would be boring to him. I thought to myself that there must be some way to incorporate his creative expression into this project.

He left with the current issue of Bonsai Focus and “The Japanese Art of Stone Appreciation” by Covello and Yoshimura. The Bonsai Focus issue featured a wide variety of bonsai display—from gallery to tokoname.

Bob’s words as written on March 27 -

“We talked more today and you helped me realize that my early ideas were off the mark. Bonsai is organic art and you said simply that the stand on which it is displayed is a big deal. Now I begin to understand at a deeper level—we are talking now of an organic sculptural art form for display as if in an art gallery—now I have to think as a curator. The stand itself must be a sort of pedestal art form raised to near eye level for the observer, but not as a structure to be more significant than the plant itself, and, so back to the drawing board.”

Coastal Georgia Bonsai Club

Today I was welcomed by the warm folks of the Coastal Georgia Bonsai Club. The club holds monthly meetings and I was able to attend my first today. It is a privilege to be part of any bonsai group, as the amount of people involved in bonsai is limited. I used to travel from Lincoln, NE to Kansas City for routine meetings, but today was just a short drive across town. The gathering was hosted by Luigi Trapani of Southeast Bonsai Studio.

Luigi’s grounds are nothing less than tranquil. There are many fine bonsai on display throughout the garden. The front features a zen-like rock garden and the back is nothing short of a phantasm. One portion of the garden features a sitting Buddha throne, encapsulated by a lush forest of black bamboo. Behind that sits a couple turtles, I believe of African origin. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the garden is the koi pond—Luigi fed the Japanase koi today so we could all get a glimpse of their decorous colors. There are also a few, very large Yamadori Pond Cypress bonsai, obtained from Luigi’s master in addition to a Trident maple originally trained by John Naka.

In attendance today was myself, Luigi, Bill, Chad and Dawn, Richard, Harvey, Rusty and Wilbur (I believe this was his last name). We were graciously accompanied all afternoon by Luigi’s two Basenjis. It was good to see Bill’s smiling face again and I was elated to meet a fellow youngin’ in the group, Rusty. There was nothing planned in particular for the meeting. Luigi was bound to take advantage of the numbers and was handing out shears, so I worked on trimming back his Catlin Chinese Elm.

Bill Pfeiffer, of Bonsai Beginnings, enlightened us on why the Crepe Myrtle around town always get chopped back so hard over the winter. Apparently, a U of GA Professor’s claim to fame was finding that this method produces more blooms from the Crepe. That may be, but we all agreed this finding did not seem particularly credulous and we’d settle for less blooms and more tree.

There was talk from Luigi about getting a live-in student as he’s really in dire need of someone who can assist with weeding and trimming. “You could sleep in the Zen room and I could hand you a few scraps to eat every once in a while,” Luigi said, in response to our conversation about typical Japanese apprenticeship.

The day ended with an interesting conversation regarding aesthetics education and the contrast of Chinese and Japanese philosophies. The Chinese are in general disgruntled by the idea that the Japanese took this art and re-defined it—most would say for the better, but there in lies the predicament.

Check out the photos!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Pedestal Project - Part I

My Uncle Bob is an accomplished painter and in the past ten years or so has delved into the world of woodcarving. At a lunch on Hilton Head Island in January, the discussion regarding this project initiated. The moment he heard my trees were benchless, he offered to make them a suitable throne. As a bonsai enthusiast, the thought of custom-made benches is a godsend, especially when you’re fortunate enough to be intimately involved in their creation. He’s been staying at nearby Tybee Island for the past month, so we’ve been readily exchanging thoughts and ideas regarding this project. Bob’s original design was fairly industrial, which isn’t necessarily a bad concept for this project, but he soon realized this would not satisfy his artistic needs. The next concept was heavily influenced by Asian design (as depicted in the photos). It was at this moment that I knew this would not be a quick, punch em’ out project, but rather a lesson in bonsai culture—primarily display. As an artist, Bob was immediately enthralled and began reading bonsai books at the library and borrowing whatever texts I had available.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Road Trip

Any thoughts as to where this might be located? I'm there! Odd how they all look the same though. It would be interesting to know the sketch artist's influence.

Savannah Garden Walking Tour

This is your dedicated roving Savannah bonsai man chiming in. I attended the second day of the annual Savannah Garden Walking Tour today. I was disappointed that the first day of the tour was on a Friday since that is a normal working day for most, including myself! Word was there were some nice bonsai on display during the Friday leg.

A majority of the gardens featured English-influenced designs with a lot of formations and borders created using boxwood. Water features were a common theme, including a gorgeous pool centerpiece in the first garden I visited on Gaston St. This garden also featured a quaint sitting/dining area. A great spot for an afternoon tea perhaps? There were also some very interesting sculptural designs using various mediums, but generally stone of some sort. As common as these sculptures are in the historic district, they are always a fascinating element of these gardens when done in good taste and accented appropriately. Did you know there’s a wiki page about the Bird Girl sculpture?

There was one garden that featured primarily Japanese maples, which I found particularly of interest. This gentleman had several dwarf varieties, including a tiny little Kotohime! My fav for bonsai culture! There was also a very unique green linearilobum cultivar that may have been Koto-no-ito, but I could not be sure. The lobes on its mature growth were very narrow, whereas the new growth tended to display typical palmatum leaves. He had several large trees growing above the Japanese maples to shade them from the afternoon sun. I left my name and number with the door attendant to share with the owner. I foresee some in-depth Acer discussion in the future!

The photo of the large, split-trunk tree is a Jerusalem Thorn (Parkinsonia aculeate)—the oldest in Savannah according to the door attendant. This was the most unique gnarled-specimen on the tour. Unfortunately, there were two different vines that were intermingled with it, so you had to really search to locate any of the tree’s actual foliage.

Check out the photos!

Sunday, March 30, 2008


I wanted to introduce a member of the crew—a Kiyohime Japanese maple. This was propagated for bonsai, not grafted, and originally trained by Suthin Sukosolvisit. There has been much confusion about the Kiyohime cultivar. I’ve seen many trees labeled as such that are upright growers. It is a horizontally growing tree, so it’s very difficult to establish an apex branch. Each spring, the tallest growing bud will be the last to open instead of the first. It still does not have a primary apex branch—I’m not sure it will ever have one. It’s giving the impression of a triangle this season, which brings some much-needed formality and completeness to the tree.

During its initial shipment, a major top branch broke, so it has been filling back out since. It has extremely dense branch ramification and an enormous nebari, which practically fills the entire pot. My plan is to continue refinement and attempt to define an apex branch. I’ve been recently considering transplanting the tree into a large container since it has such a large spread, such as this.

I arrived back from a recent vacation and noticed a small branch had broken. I realized I should have reiterated its brittle tendencies to the caretaker. I’ve included a photo, the branch is very small, but it will still take several years to replace. It was very refined with many nodes.

Broken branch

Spring 07'

Winter 07'

Spring 08'

The growth is more compact, the leaves are slightly smaller, and its shape is more pronounced.


Both my shohin Japanese and Trident maples appear to have an iron deficiency this spring. They’ve been fertilized well, but never treated with iron. A local bonsai artist mentioned to me recently that he generally gets burn when using chelated iron. He has since switched to the current method used by the Japanese—rusty old nails. Just space the nails evenly around the pot and their rusting provides a slow, even amount of iron to the root system. I tend to learn the hard way, so I decided to treat my trees with the chelated iron. We’ll see how they’re affected. If I see positive results, I will likely treat the rest of the crew.

My current growing area...

I recently moved to Savannah, GA from the Midwest. I was unable to bring my current benches, which is just as well since they were not meant for bonsai use—basically two-tier utility benches. As you can see, I’m currently benchless, except for a one-tree bench I’ve borrowed. I switch around the tree on the bench to avoid any feelings of favoritism among the crew. My trees are basically positioned on wooden blocks to raise them from the ground. On a positive note, they’ve had a good spring thus far—the space provides sufficient ventilation and approximately two hours of direct early-afternoon sunlight.


This blog should be of interest to those involved in the art of bonsai and its many sub-cultures, and those who have a general interest in gardening. I will be documenting the development of my trees, in addition to anything else I feel would be of interest to the readers of this blog. My specialty is Acer palmatum (primarily dwarf), but I also have experience with Carpinus and many other species. I'm currently working on a bench/pedestal project, and in the upcoming weeks, plan to document the creation of a Japanese-themed garden using a confined space. I encourage anyone to offer feedback to my posts.