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This is a question that dogged me in my early years…

  • Do we clean out and trim shoots over the whole tree before we wire?
  • Or do it branch by branch as we wire?

Being a huge fan of simplifying, it made sense to me to do all one thing first and then move on the next task.

Applying the ‘all at once’ technique to wiring prep, one would clean out and trim all shoots to length first all over the tree and only then start in with applying wire. And I did that for a while.

But I didn’t do that for very long. Japan kicked me of the habit, where the professionals find the second method more effective.

A Yellow Cedar, Cupressus nootkatensis, with all shoots trimmed and prepped for wiring, using the curiously less effective ‘all-at-once’ technique

Counter-intuitively I found that there was more flexibility to trimming and wiring each branch as I came to it.

The reason? One can relate one branch to another better. If you wire and set a branch, and then move on to the next, you have more options with a full branch than with a pre-trimmed one.

I know this may not make sense, yet handling each branch prep in piecemeal fashion allows flexibility, and working through a tree becomes more organic. It leaves you foxier on your feet. You can adjust branches in a more pinpointed fashion and the length you leave things is decided as you move up and around the tree.

The length you leave the branch or shoot will be heavily determined by whether you lower that branch much or not, or put curves in it or not. For that will affect its relationship to the next branch. And all that is easier to fine-tune if you do it one branch at a time.

Matt Reel and Bobby Curttright thinning, trimming, wiring, and setting branches using the ‘piecemeal method’ as they go up the tree. This is the preferred method of the masters in Japan. (Featured tree is a Mountain Hemlock, Tsuga mertensiana.)

Try the piecemeal method, or at least ponder it. Of course the all-at-once technique can work. But the pros in Japan avoid it for a reason.

Postscript—The piecemeal approach doesn’t seem to translate well into other bonsai tasks like Black Pine decandling, where there’s an advantage to dividing tasks cleanly into two parts—cutting candles everywhere and then going back and pulling needles.

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Many of us started out the same way—with all our bonsai benches in full sun, or all of them tucked under the shade of a massive tree. Too little love or too much. Either way after witnessing some bonsai getting grumpier we ponder where else we might put them. And that is the beginning of the thought bubble that says ‘Aha! Micro-positioning’.

To sum up a few general concepts:

  • Conifers like Pine and Juniper usually appreciate full sun, all day
  • Deciduous like Japanese Maple and Winter Hazel like light shade
  • Accent plants enjoy partial shade, such as next to benches on the ground

A few exceptions to this are:

  • Spruce, Fir, and Hemlock often like a tad bit of shade
  • Wisteria can be in full sun along with the Pines and Junipers
  • Succulent, grass, and reed accent plants may also be in full sun

A few more ideas in micro-positioning:

  • Recently styled trees prefer a bit of shade or greenhouse time
  • Recently defoliated deciduous like some shade for a couple weeks
  • Weaker deciduous usually prefer more shade
  • Weaker pines usually prefer more sun
  • All of this is relative to where you live, how hot it is in the summer, etc.
  • A stressed or diseased tree might appreciate time in a greenhouse, with the benefits of humidity and lack of wind
  • Placement of bonsai can change weekly according to what work was done on them, or how they are responding to where they are

These micro-positioning guidelines lead to two umbrella concepts:

  • Careful consideration of placement minimizes bonsai stress and maximizes growth potential
  • The more kinds of habitat—to riff off of last week’s post—one has in the bonsai area, the greater variety of bonsai one can grow
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Our friend Brian French is a wildlife arborist specializing in habitat creation. He’s also the State Coordinator for the Oregon Champion Tree Registry. And he came out to create a full-sized tree snag in my front yard, making for an unusual day in the bonsai garden.

When this vigorous 60′ Douglas Fir began to lift the concrete slabs in a neighbor’s side yard we decided it was time to remove it, and got in touch with Brian. When he came out to assess the project he said it was a perfect candidate for a snag. ‘We can make a chickadee cavity in it, which is also what nuthatches use. What would be really cool is if you got some violet green swallows in here.’

Brian French gears up for one of the most unusual events at Crataegus Bonsai—the creation of dead tree wildlife snag from a Douglas Fir that had become a problem

Cutting and breaking branches out of the fir to create habitat

Using a rope to guide cut branches down

Brian working the top of the snag to look broken and weathered—this part may seem familiar

A close up photo from his vantage point

Here I didn’t know what he was doing. Brian carved out a cavity and yet I couldn’t see how a chickadee or nuthatch could use the cavity without being visible to the whole world. The secret is revealed in the next two images…

Here’s the cavity…

…and this was the part I missed. He’d saved the slice of wood off the front of that cavity, replacing it after carving out the interior. With a hole of the proper size, a chickadee or nuthatch will likely find this a luxurious accommodation.

And the completed snag, good for 25+ years of bird nesting and foraging habitat

I asked if it wasn’t unusual to have dead tree snags in suburbia, and Brian said that HOA’s and golf courses are the most resistant, being at least traditionally seen as a dead tree with nothing left to offer civilization. This segued into a long chat about species loss and how this inevitably comes down to habitat loss.

Brian is a big fan of an organization called the Backyard Habitat Project, co-directed by the Audubon Society of Portland and the Columbia Land Trust, which supports folks hoping to make natural wildlife habitats in their yards.

Up in the fir Brian pulled down branches when only partially cut off, breaking them to make them look more natural, like jin. He also carved the top of the snag to look as if had been broken off and decomposed. The bark will begin to slough off in the next few years, making places for insects which then attract insectivorous birds.

I wondered how long the snag would last before eventually falling down, a concern given how close it is the house. Brian said, ‘Twenty-five years or more. Then we can reassess and pull it down if needed.’

Feeling forever guilty about covering my backyard with weed barrier and then gravel on top of that for a clean and simple bonsai yard—essentially banishing soil health—I was happy to do something in the front yard that wasn’t a step back. Although neighbors may differ on aesthetic grounds, a win is usually a matter of perspective.

For many of us bonsai is our main contact with nature. At best it is an opening though which we can see a lot of other things happening, such as trees as habitat for birds and other living things. Especially the less well appreciated trees, like dead ones or partially dead ones.

Before the end of the day there were chickadees investigating the snag.

For more about Brian French and his work, visit his fascinating website Arboriculture International.

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This is an update on the Dark Paths thread initiated in the last post.

I overheard a conversation which was quite clearly a conspiracy, though it was in sotto voce and I was likely intended to hear it. My two apprentices, both disgustingly young, were plotting to take my scissors away at the first indication of infirmity, shaking hands, or lowered brain activity. Naturally, I was worried.

I asked if they weren’t more concerned about the car keys than the scissors, and got a laugh in reply, ‘We don’t care about the car keys!’

They speak for the trees.

My age resting somewhere between 50-100 these days, this is the sort of development that meets with a cautious approval. For their intentions are honorable. But I may need to reach out in years hence to see who’s steel is with mine in case of untimely mutiny.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

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Crataegus by Crataegus - 2M ago

Another has joined our growing list of indentured servants at Crataegus Bonsai, following the path well laid by Bobby Curttright and Andrew Robson. Bobby has since started his business in Portland, OR and Andrew is in his last month before freedom.

John can feed you. He’s run a successful wood-fired pizza food cart in Portland for the past ten years, a skill set which delights those of us like me who tend to be subsistence rather than inspired eaters.

John Eads, new apprentice at Crataegus Bonsai

John is from the prairies of west Texas, where he was surrounded by millions of acres of ten-foot tall shin oaks, and so he says ‘his formative years were spent with little trees’. His background is in small business development. The numbers of beings at the studio residence will swell with the addition of this family of four, including his wife Leah and children Amos, 11, and Clara, 7. I hear the kids are particularly excited about the cats.

John has already changed our lives by teaching us how to make kombucha, which Andrew and I are nearly addicted to now, and to which a friend of mine on learning this said, ‘Oh jeesh why don’t you just brew beer like a real man!’

So. Dark paths will be trod.

Additionally, John has expressed interest in making a development nursery for bonsai—setting young plants on the road to aesthetic brilliance—which will continue to build the local bonsai community in unique ways (John plans to stay in Portland). I’ll keep everyone up to date on that and of course any new developments on the dark paths.

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In short, they keep getting better.

These joint courses from Bonsai Empire and Bjorn Bjorholm really shine as a resource for the self-taught student, and yet are helpful even for those with access to a physically present teacher.

Here’s a snapshot with some quick commentary:

  • If you like long detailed wiring and styling sessions and great close up photography, this course is for you
  • 2/3 of the case studies are about conifers, such as styling a collected juniper, detailed shoot positioning on Japanese white pine, and front choice and styling a ponderosa
  • 1/3 of the case studies are on broadleaf plants, including setting a nebari on a young ‘Shishigashira’ Japanese Maple.
  • Nice fertilizing segment which will appeal to the science-minded (there’s even a chance to flaunt your math skills—which was one of the few criticisms I felt inclined to offer, until I realized it was my lack of math skills that gave me this reaction in the first place).
  • Great intro on display and its elements with many examples, including the three main display choices: Shin, Gyou, Sou.
  • Refers back to earlier courses to see how the trees dealt with then are doing now, and what’s next for them—I thought this was a particularly strong feature

Advanced Course 2 is clear and conversational. It is also one of the longest of the series at 6 hours—fully 28 minutes longer than the epic 1927 silent film Napoleon—so definitely stock up on popcorn/butter/nutritional yeast. It is less scripted than earlier courses, with Bjorn showing his generous and easy going teacherly chops. Not shy of humility, in one scene he shares an embarrassing moment that many bonsai artists would deny ever happened.

On the whole I thought this was another substantiative installment in the growing course constellation at Bonsai Empire, with improvements in ease of presentation, linking with past courses in novel ways, and certainly a deeper level of information. For the quality of the product and the sheer number of hours offered this is a deal. And it offers an excellent alibi for the necessity of popcorn.

Bravo gents!

For more on the course: Advanced Bonsai Course 2

Note: There are two free previews in the menu…

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This fall my new book Bonsai Heresy will be published, and next year, in April 2020, I’m leaping on a train to do readings and signings—barnstorming fashion, like days of old.

Our endearing Amtrak service

The book tour will be a big loop around the U.S. for roughly three weeks.

I have fond memories of long distance train travel, having visited family in Wisconsin a few times by Amtrak. In Glacier National Park, if memory serves, there’s a view of the lodge from the tracks. The last time I was in Glacier the train lost power near the end of December—we sat there on the tracks for quite some time, with snow building up outside like Murder on the Orient Express—and the fella running the cafe was starting to drink in preparation for a passenger insurrection. Memorable.

This time, definitely skipping the winter trip and trying a spring one.

A few initial details (many more later when my assistant and I iron this thing out):

  • Planned events: For readings, fair warning, I probably won’t be landing on club meeting dates, so they would be special events. Most of these will likely be pop up events in alternative spaces.
  • Spontaneous events: Even if there’s no club nearby for a presentation, fret not, if you live near the station where I’ll be stopping briefly we’ll have ways to be in touch. We can meet in the station for a bit, get books signed, share stories, and then I’ll hop back aboard.
  • Route: In another post there will be a map with the confirmed route. As a sketch, though, I’ll likely go south from Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, LA, then east through Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, Houston, New Orleans, then north to Atlanta, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal, then west to Chicago, Twin Cities, and home to Portland.

Some of you continue to ask where in the process Bonsai Heresy is. You wouldn’t believe the number of steps involved in making a book, but I can report progress. Last Friday the manuscript editors—all ten of them—got the rough draft.

For more about the book, here’s a post about Bonsai Heresy.

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A few years have passed since this hemlock was styled, and it seemed a ripe moment for an update on its progress. It was collected by Anton Nijhuis, and is unusual being a naturally rooted branch off a larger tree.

The first styling was in December 2014 when former apprentice Bobby Curttright was here, and he is featured on the first post about this tree along with a cameo by Matt Reel.

The second post covered the potting in a low rectangle in April 2018, featuring current apprentice Andrew Robson and a few students.

This third post is the latest, and doesn’t feature anyone. I did the trim and detailing in the last photo, and yet there weren’t any cameras around for proof of this.

First styling, 2014

Potting up, 2018

How it looks now, April 2019

In a year’s time the moss has engulfed the akadama-laden muck, and also the foliar pads have been adjusted. One can see adjustment in the foliar pads to show more of the drama of the sharply dropping upper trunk, from the first to the second photo. That area is opened up. Then the last photo shows more complex negative space within the upper foliage group. These are subtle tweaks. And the length of the branches has also increased in this last photo, allowing a more stable feeling for an edgy design. Finally, the lichen on the basal trunk area has moved around in the photos like the peripatetic mole on Marty Feldman in ‘Young Frankenstein’, making one wonder where it will be next year.

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A tree with red berries in a green glazed pot. A conifer with green foliage in an unglazed, reddish brown pot. An orange flowered tree matched with a blue glazed pot.

Common and good options. For pot choices, these opposing colors from the color wheel can work, and work well. But they are also Bonsai 101 choices.

This Japanese Maple ‘Beni-Kawa’ has a delicate rose color to the branches. It’s a subtle wash of color that could easily be upstaged by pot color. And arguably this quiet red color the most important feature of the tree. We want to see it. And we have to be careful not to obliterate it.

Japanese Maple ‘Beni-Kawa’ with an unusual pot choice, an unglazed brown.

The decision was to show off the reddish rose of the branches and trunks, to have that be the focus. Often a key tree color is balanced by the opposing color on the color wheel—in this case, the pot would have a green glaze. By NOT going that route we have a quieter tree, with the focus on one simple color. The matte, medium brown clay of the pot recedes leaving the trunk and twig color as highlight.

Pot choice is an opportunity. See it as a chance to support what you most want to show in the tree. If what you wish to show off is color, often the way to do that is to stay close on the color wheel to the color you wish to show off. In this case, red (color to show off) and brown (supporting color).

The bonsai guidelines of balancing a color with its opposite are fine and useful, and often allow for jazzy results. Yet these guidelines may be sidestepped on clear purpose.

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Crataegus by Crataegus - 4M ago

This Shore Pine—Pinus contorta subsp. contorta—has several interesting fronts. It has been a conversation piece with guests for their favorite front. Here’s what we did in a restyling.

The original front of the tree, where we started our adventure

…but here was a more engaging trunkline, about 90 degrees left, and inclined 30.

 After cutting off the long right branch. Bunjin are best with short branches, and high up on the tree. This helps show off the wiggly parts of trunk line, the bark, and the character of this idiosyncratic bonsai style.

The final design. We made a small jin out of the cut off branch. And we swapped the container for this one, sporting a glaze splash and nice, rich brown color. We chose to leave a few roots as a design element, like a shoe, the toe of which is exploring beyond the edge of the pot.

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