Battling some Needle Junipers and Bonsai Friends

We bonsai people are an interesting breed.  One reason I chose to follow this path is the people I would get to meet.  We have found something that inspires us, relaxes us, etc and come together for exhibitions and other functions to share our love of this art and place our creations out in the open for others to see.  I will never forget the first time I exhibited.  It was like taking my soul out, placing it on the table, and waiting for it to be praised or stomped on.  You have my word I’ll never do the latter.  That Nashville Bonsai Society exhibition was also the starting point for multiple friendships that I have sustained to this day. A group of men who I have named the Taimadera Crew visit Kouka-en a few times a year from a city on the outskirts of Nara.  A Buddhist temple in their town named Taimadera is the local landmark and renowned for a giant mandala said to made in one night.  The men come from different walks of life but have found common ground in bonsai.  A bonsai compound of sorts evolved on one of their properties that I had the chance to visit last year.  Meetings are frequent and the convenience level of sharing the workload on watering and other tasks is quite high.  They are some of my favorite clients as they come through the gate brimming with energy and can’t wait to see what is new. Bonsai teaching for the most part here in Japan is quite different from the standard protocol I’m used to in the United States.  I speak only about what I’ve been exposed to in this region of course.  The Crew always comes prepared with a list of very pointed questions about techniques and proper timing for their application when they visit.  Fujikawa-san shares cultural information freely with clients and often demonstrates then and there if the timing is right for the work. One member of the Crew recently purchased a Pinus densiflora I styled and documented HERE.  Three weeks ago, another member eyed a Juniperus rigida on the turn-table I was half-way finished with and told Fujikawa-san he’d buy it on the spot.  I quickly received the “don’t screw this up” glare from my sensei. I’ll spare you most of the details as this is one of a number of Juniperus rigida I have had the privilege of styling in the last few months.  The main issue with this tree was that it was in need of wiring badly.  We figure it had not been styled for about 5 years and maintained only by pruning.  Many of the lowest branches are really weak and the top far too strong.  The nice thing about older Juniperus rigida, Chamaecyparis obtusa, Cryptomeria japonica, and other “pad forming” conifers is that a few guy wires can often put the tree back in line.  This tree however, needed about 20 guy wires and quite a bit of detail wiring.  As tosho go, the foliage on this one was about a 5 out of 10 on the pain scale.  The slightly scared expressions on the faces of grocery store workers after a long day of tosho or black pine work never gets old.  Not only are they scared I can’t communicate with them, but my arms are shades of black and / or covered with raised red dots : ).

“Contemplation” by Pino

Revamping the lower branches required lots of careful fine wire work to maximize the appearance of volume.  The weakening of these lower branches could have been avoided if the previous owner had A.  Been knowledgeable enough to thin the upper two thirds of the tree properly through previous instruction or B.  Enlisted the help of a bonsai professional earlier before this issue arose.  Now that I’ve caught your attention……. If you have or want to have nice bonsai, hiring someone like me can sustain, improve, or save the bonsai in your collection.  A second set of trained eyes can evaluate your collection objectively without emotional attachment or preconceived notions of a tree’s future.  Accepting your current level of experience / technical skill level can be really empowering.  When I acquired a really nice field-grown hinoki about 6 years ago, I took the tree to Warren Hill; someone who had re-potted old hinoki numerous times.  Seems logical right?

Back to the tree.  Here is what I had to work with and the result.  


After adding volume to this and a few other lower branches, the remainder of the tree took quite a while to thin and detail wire.  Pads were shaped not just for the present, but for the next few years of new shoot growth and filling in.  Some of the tosho here at Kouka-en have new growth shortened up to four times a year.  With this much yearly growth, leaving spaces for future flushes is necessary.   Adding little details like this to the layout of the pads really brought the feeling of age back into this tosho.  Removal of thick branches was a priority.

The final product came out well. Here is the tree after styling….

….. and a photo from yesterday after new growth has started and die-back from styling has been removed.

Here’s something to consider when styling or refining a bonsai.  Take a photo in black and white of a tree some time.  Areas with too much “visual weight” and flaws in the silhouette can become more glaring; both before and after styling.    What issues do you see in the tree before styling?  New strengths achieved in the final product?

Here is another tosho that only needed a bit of pruning and detail wiring.  Next year, a smaller pot will really make this tree pop.  A fair number of branches had to be removed, so a “full” image will take a while.  This one was a 2 out of 10 on the pain scale.  Bonsai refinement is a process of course, and achieving a design takes priority over instant gratification


Taken yesterday after a few weeks of rebound time.

Thanks for reading.  Upcoming posts will be on another cool Juniperus rigida restyle and more day trips to cultural sites around Kansai Prefecture.