South Dakota Rally

***The Bonsai Unearthed Website and Blog has a “new face” now.  New items for sale will be posted in the coming months including containers of all sizes, bonsai, and related goods.***

No, I didn’t go to Sturgis; I did disrobe a few trees and give some bonsai a more sleek and aerodynamic image though.  After a short photo interlude I compiled during my …… research, we’ll get on to bonsai in South Dakota.

When contacted to go to The Rushmore State for a week of bonsai work earlier this year, I had no idea what I was getting into.  My mind went to directly to Andy Smith’s collected spruce and pines (Golden Arrow Bonsai).  It was hard to pack when recent storms brought tree splintering ice but my client Josh said “pack shorts”.  That is one of the many challenges facing a bonsai practitioner in South Dakota.  Another would be the lack of local clubs and suppliers.  The all-powerful Internet can help, but 2D just doesn’t cut it for the depth and true feeling any bonsai contains. This isolation was fascinating to me and before arriving, I pictured miles of row crops and wind turbines with a lone square of trees surrounding a bonsai garden.  How does someone with some experience in a teacher – student setting but limited access to other practitioners fare when expanding their knowledge base from almost exclusively publications and the Internet?


Leaving the airport, I found that Sioux Falls is a lot more like Mayberry but far more classy and tidy.  Rows of homes full of character with welcoming landscapes were everywhere.  Hidden amongst all the rows of Tudor and Colonial style homes is a respectable collection of bonsai.  I was surprised to see no South Dakota native plants, but at the same time we often want what is hardest to obtain.  We went to work immediately and I didn’t stop working until just before my flight left.  It was admirable to have a client work with me in a rally-like atmosphere with work starting early and finishing long after dinner.  Part of the isolation issue is limited access to outside help so we ran hard and fast for the week.



A Prunus mume restyle.  The next International Bonsai Magazine will have an article I wrote about the species soon.


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After we had styled a few trees we took a break to look at Josh’s well-documented photo progressions over the years.  A few of his most challenging projects came from Growing Grounds for a Lawsuit.  Documenting your projects is not only nostaligic, but also an effective way to track success of changes in nutrition and media changes.  William Valavanis and Walter Pall have the best-documented collections to my knowledge and their books and blogs are truly inspiring.  Those disheartened by a collection of mostly long-term projects can see what time and effort can yield.  It may be time to invest in tree with a more established design.

Josh was always busy working on another project while I tackled my share of styling work.




A shimpaku juniper also had all the right branches and health, but needed a push towards refinement.  You can stare at your own tree until you’re blue in the face and stay stumped; another route being removing the wrong branch.



DSC_0521DSC_0539We also spent a good deal of time discussing seasonal tasks for each species and container possibilities for improvements to his collection.  While I bounce around neglecting my collection to improve those of others, I have a lot of time to ponder what is the best use of time to communicate what I’ve learned and also value in a bonsai.  This point is well fleshed out in a recent American Bonsai Society Journal article I wrote.  The majority of his collection had all the right healthcare and character, but without an objective opinion, was limited in the finer detail department.  This is what hiring a bonsai professional is for.  We can provide immediate feedback on an entire collection of trees and resolve issues present and prevent future ones from occurring as our eye is seeing a bigger picture.  It’s much like a BMW mechanic who has worked on all the makes and models instead of just one so knows the quirks and subtle differences.  Information and product references are another realm a bonsai professional can also be a guide for.  My time on the road thus far have yielded tons of concepts implemented by clients that I can use and pass on to others.  Exhibitions also connect me to both new and seasoned vendors.  Making connections between people has always been an interest of mine and I like to promote specialization in the product and instruction world.  Paul Katich, a ceramic artist in Jacksonville, Florida makes glazed and unglazed containers

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that would fit well with trees for this client.  Josh for example, pushes his deciduous trees to leaf out in a greenhouse to extend his growing season in the harsh environment he lives in.  Another client not only builds his own benches, but wrote a book about it available through the American Bonsai Society website.

A few of my favorite projects were his trident and Japanese maples.  The trident he styled had most of the structural flaws addressed before my visit and it was the perfect time to talk final “front” selection and set the primary branches.

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To answer the question I opened with, Josh has done quite well being isolated from the mainstream bonsai scene.  His patience is admirable and shows well in the wooden grow boxes and media choices for different stages of development.   I’ve encouraged him to exhibit some of his bonsai in the future and to benefit from the other primary draw bonsai has for me; camaraderie.  Bonsai people are by and large quite interesting.  Rarely is bonsai the only hobby / addiction we have.  Exhibitions and study groups also get people fired up to continue on in their pursuit of whatever bonsai gives them.  His collection will continue to improve and I look forward to working with Josh again.


***The Bonsai Unearthed Website and Blog has a “new face” now.  New items for sale will be posted in the coming months including containers of all sizes, bonsai, and related goods.***