How about some love for a ficus benjamina?

Today we shall look at the lowly ficus benjamina, a pariah of the bonsai world.
It seems that hardly anyone likes the so-called weeping fig except for rank beginners and…..wait a minute, am I reading this correctly?
I think I am….it seems that the really big time artists like Pedro Morales or Robert Stevens like them too.
Indeed.
Why?
What is it about these trees (and they are trees, I’ve seen them as big as freakin’ houses. So, to all you biased, ignorant, and elitist enthusiasts who dismiss benjaminas, and any ficus for that matter, to hell with you!) that inspire those enthusiasts who are just beginning their bonsai journey and those masters who should know better?
Well, that’s what I’m here to try to explain.
And, as always, I have a tree to work on at the same time.
I’ll begin by listing the drawbacks, which are many, to the cultivation and styling of this kind of tree.
Today’s work will be on a smaller leafed variety of ficus benjamina called “too little”.
20140717-000627-387042.jpg
A medium or “chuhin” sized tree.
It’s been neglected a little and it’s rootbound.
20140717-231515-83715757.jpg
Which isn’t too much of a problem with ficus.
This is the pot it’s been residing in for a few years.
20140717-231633-83793853.jpg
I’m going to go through the negative characteristics and, as I describe them, I’ll put them all into perspective.
One complaint against the benjamina is that you’ll get interior dieback like this.
20140717-231946-83986300.jpg

20140717-231949-83989011.jpg
The reason it does this is an easy one. Lack of light.
The same thing happens on junipers too.
Solution: keep them trimmed.
The next complaint: bizarre back budding.
20140717-232535-84335988.jpg

20140717-232538-84338840.jpg
I’m not sure why people complain about this but they do.
My rebuttal: have you ever worked on a trident maple?
They do the same thing and the trident is considered one of the best trees for bonsai.
Let me begin pruning the tree I have in front of me and as I cut, I’ll deal with the first two criticisms.
20140717-233400-84840327.jpg
Looks intimidating, doesn’t it?
Oh, here’s a third one too: the branches will suddenly grow straight up from a top bud.
20140717-233700-85020444.jpg
An annoying growth habit.
One shared by most elm trees.
How do you deal with it?
Easy, and it’s even a cliche, nip it in the bud.
Or, if you discover it too late….
20140717-234009-85209298.jpg
…..nip it at the base I guess.
Ok…all the dead branches, odd shoots, multiple limbs et al, have been removed…..
20140717-234238-85358177.jpg
….and this leads us quite nicely to the number one complaint about the ficus benjamina: if you cut a branch and don’t leave green, (a leaf or a visible bud) that whole branch will die.
To answer this pet peeve let me remind everyone that both junipers and pine trees are exactly the same as the ficus benjamina in this characteristic. And they are considered the two best trees for bonsai (at least by most bonsai people).
Why is this dieback characteristic vilified in the weeping fig but treated as a thing to be endured on a conifer?
Hmmmmnn…
How do we then prune this ficus if we could inadvertently kill a branch with an errant snip of our scissors?
Like this:
20140717-235556-86156020.jpg

20140717-235557-86157586.jpg

Which is the same way one prunes a conifer; leave some green.
In order to encourage some back budding, I’m going to prune as far back as I can.
20140717-235945-86385878.jpg

20140717-235946-86386932.jpg
And contrary to popular belief, you can defoliate a benjamina. You just have to make sure that you don’t damage the visible bud under the leaf.
Why would you need to defoliate one?
If you were showing the tree and you needed smaller leaves you would defoliate it.
The tree (most trees, actually) will respond by putting out twice as many leaves but they’ll only grow half as big.
This technique takes advantage of the way trees feed themselves.
The process is called photosynthesis. And, basically, a tree needs a certain square footage (or, in the rest of the world using the metric system, square centimeters, which just doesn’t sound as lyrical or poetic) of leaves to accomplish this process. When the leaves are damaged due to wind or insects (or my pruning shears) the tree responds by ramping up leaf production and growing as many as it can. But they’ll stop growing once that square footage is reached.
And they’ll have smaller leaves as a result.
I will point out this: we only do it to trees that are healthy and in development (for show or ramification).
A seedling doesn’t need this technique.
I won’t be defoliating today (Wow Adam, are you ok?) because I don’t need smaller leaves.
They’re “too little” now anyway (groan, I know, I know, I had to say it though).
Some other negative things that people don’t like have to do with wiring.
First, they say that wired branches don’t stay in place when you take the wire off.
Try working with a white pine.
Next, the branches get wire scars too easily.
Hornbeam?
Japanese maple?
Anyone?
And lastly, the branch will die if you wire it.
Ginkgo biloba comes to mind.
So, my dear readers, what are some of the positives about this ficus and do they make up for the (supposed) negatives?
Let’s see if I can make a case.
I’ll start at the roots.
20140718-002639-1599462.jpg
Being a ficus, you can cut the shit out of the roots and it won’t skip a beat just as long as it’s growing (which is year long if you can give bottom heat to the root zone). And, FYI, “cut the shit” is a highly technical horticultural term we in the industry use when we mean ” prune aggressively”.
Just in case you want to sound like you are “in the know”.
On my victim today, I don’t need to be all that drastic with the root work.
20140718-093251-34371463.jpg
There’s just one root I need to cut out.
Do you see it?
Yeah?
Now you don’t!
20140718-093450-34490083.jpg
If you’ve read my posts before, you’ll know that I truly dislike crossing roots on a ficus.
How then can I abide this?
20140718-093909-34749427.jpg
Well….let me introduce you to a twin trunk style called, variously, “mother/daughter”, “father/son” or “husband/wife”.
This one is a husband/wife; I’ll explain why in a second.
A father/son composition usually has one large and one half size tree and the smaller tree is in front.
A mother/daughter is a larger and a 1/3 size with the smaller tree in the back.
A husband/wife is two trees that are close to being the same size, maybe the smaller one is 3/4 as large.
The wife should be behind the husband.
And, as you might have guessed already, the placement is as it is for purely male chauvinistic reasons.
The male protects the female.
The father pushes his son forward.
The mother protects the daughter.
One more detail.
You may have noticed that I rotated the front from here:
20140718-095210-35530277.jpg
To here:
20140718-095249-35569856.jpg
This was to bring the couple closer together with the wife leaning towards the husband, adoringly worshiping her man.
Like I said, chauvinist through and through.
And that’s how I justify this crossing root.
20140718-100638-36398253.jpg
The husband is protecting his wife, or making sure she is behind him.
It’s a touchy subject.
But it segways right into another positive feature about the benjamina.
Of all the ficus (or trees in general) I’ve worked on, the benjamina will develop better nebari faster than any other.
The tree throws out roots readily (both surface and, if you want them, aerial) and from all sides (radially,as it were), which is what a bonsai artist is looking for in a tree.
They even fuse faster than any other tree, making for that melted wax look that’s prized on a root spread.
And, with our couple, as with all couples, the roots will fuse and become as one.
Also, as an aside, they propagate from cuttings very easily, with almost all cuttings developing roots fast.
Speaking of well developed roots, back to the work at hand.
20140718-101804-37084853.jpg
A fair bit or raking and pruning later.
20140718-101924-37164785.jpg

20140718-101922-37162515.jpg
A fresh bed of my Supermix™.
20140718-102120-37280447.jpg
And Bob’s your uncle.
20140718-102318-37398330.jpg
Actually, Bob is my neighbor. Really nice man, he grows his own food and shares it with my large family all the time.
My wife loves it when it’s collard green time. I cook them with a ham bone and I use beef stock and I add lots and lots of garlic and onions.
Yum!
As for the ficus, plenty of organic fertilizer.
20140718-102749-37669466.jpg
Yes, that much.
And a pre-emergent weed preventer.
20140718-102844-37724831.jpg
And I think I’m done.
20140718-102916-37756799.jpg
No, not quite.
This branch has to go, it’s crossing and breaking up the trunk lines.
20140718-103019-37819345.jpg
Which leads us to one final pro in the benjaminas favor.
If I cut this branch, I’ll have a big pruning wound right in front for everyone to see (which I don’t mind too much, but some people think it’s an affront to god).
The benjamina heals faster than any tree I’ve seen too, ficus or not.
20140718-103332-38012089.jpg
So I’m not worried about this cut.
20140718-103606-38166838.jpg
Or the one behind it either.
One last bit of housekeeping and then I’m done.
The benjamina is loved by one other creature that I must mention.
The Cuban laurel thrip.
I control an infestation (which is evidenced by the leaves folding in half longways) by using this product.
20140718-103908-38348129.jpg
It’s a granular systemic that works by making the plant poisonous to the bug if the bug chews on the plant.
20140718-104027-38427068.jpg
It’s safer to use than a spray (no accidental inhalation or overspray) and it is targeted to one specific plant.
And with that done, I’m done.
I think, dear reader, the evidence is clear that a benjamina can (and does) make good bonsai.
Of course there are those that will never be convinced; these are the enthusiasts who’ve made a good intermediate level career by sneering at those hapless fools who just won’t listen to their good advice (“Why, oh why can’t the noobs just trust all my years of accumulated knowledge? It’ll save them so much time and wasted work on those worthless trees.”)
Here’s the before.
20140718-104527-38727869.jpg
And here’s the after.
20140718-105205-39125815.jpg
Looks like a tree to me.
A bonsai tree, even.

Carving a Japanese Black Pine and a Podocarpus

The two trees.
Podocarpus
20140714-072039-26439996.jpg
Black pine
20140714-072125-26485761.jpg
The podocarpus you’ve seen before at the Epcot Flower and Garden Show in 2013.
It belongs to my friend Bobby, in fact, they both do.
He wants me to carve on them and give a more natural look to the deadwood.
I’m starting with the pine and, as always, safety first.
20140715-150439-54279330.jpg
The pine was imported from Japan and the age guesstimates are between 80-100 years old.
It is what the growers in Japan consider “export” grade.
Which means it’s impressive but not very unique. There’s probably thousands of them on the market.
By exporting them, the prices are somewhat higher than what the grower might get when sold to a local finisher and, most importantly, it’s easier to sell; the Japanese consumers are not interested in this size tree much anymore, for various reasons.
So, it was sold to an American importer (it might not have even been seen before purchase except in photos) and went through the quarantine procedure (and all that) and then sold to my friend.
Wait, quarantine?
Yes. It seems that Japan is a nasty ecological nightmare when we consider fungus, disease and insects.
Which explains all those pictures of the hapless bonsai apprentices wearing hazmat suits and respirators spraying the bonsai with all types of nasty chemicals.
And also explains to you, dear reader, why I’m decked out like a Grand Theft Auto thug while I’m carving this pine tree.
I don’t need some rare, degenerative, alveoli-shrinking creeping-crud fungus living in my body.
The only problem is, this get-up makes it tough to slake the thirst, so to say.
20140715-154230-56550203.jpg
The problem I have with the pine is it’s commonness.
Besides it’s girth (which isn’t all that impressive, have you seen my belly?) it’s pretty undifferentiated from any other tree.
So, with that in mind, here’s my design for the tree:
20140715-154339-56619374.jpg
Pretty ambitious, I better get to work.
The tree was grown fat using (what appears to be, from the scars) many sacrifice branches.
20140715-154803-56883369.jpg
Whomever cut them off, however, didn’t have the forethought to leave any nubs for Jin or carving.
Slightly annoying.
In my carving today, I have to be real careful of knocking off the bark; it takes a long time to grow and it’s one of the most prized aspects of pine trees that show age.
Now, I think I’ll begin by cleaning out the….whoops, we have bark section falling off here.
Emergency!
20140715-155747-57467354.jpg
I DID NOT do that!!
I don’t know who did, but it wasn’t me, promise!
Who has the glue?
20140715-155905-57545827.jpg
Disaster averted.
Proceed.
I’m going to touch up the sawn-off-flat sacrifice-branch scars first.
20140715-160036-57636963.jpg
I’m using my flex-shaft grinder with the small handset, a one inch rotosaw, and the flame bit.
20140715-160438-57878208.jpg
And the carving commences.
Four down and…. hmph, looks like a hippo-
20140715-222517-80717115.jpg
A wise, jaded hippo..
20140715-222608-80768802.jpg
This one has a slim bit of wood to carve.
20140715-222711-80831000.jpg

20140715-222709-80829295.jpg
This is just a hole, into which I can’t help but to stick my finger.
20140715-222856-80936530.jpg
Here’s a knob has some meat to it.
20140715-223014-81014330.jpg
But overall there’s not much to carve.
20140715-223059-81059035.jpg
This one turned out cool.
20140715-223241-81161064.jpg
I still can’t really believe how sloppy the grower was in just sawing off these sacrifice branches.
This is the trunk chop.
20140715-223434-81274592.jpg
It looks like the Farpoint Station/space jellyfish from the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
To boldly go where no one has gone before indeed.
How’s this, more like a tear than a pointy point?
20140715-224156-81716041.jpg
Unfortunately, no one’s going to see it.
20140715-224249-81769275.jpg
By this point you should’ve realized I was pulling your leg when I showed you my “design”.
If I did that now I’d surely kill it.
The extent of my carving today is cleaning up the sloppy job the grower did when pruning off the sacrifice branches.
I don’t need to transform every tree I work on into an Adam Lavigne exclusive tree.
And, even if was asked to do a full on, carved out, hollow trunk re-styling, I don’t think I would.
The tree, with it’s impressive size, has a gravitas already that needs more than a flash and bling treatment just for the sake of doing it.
To prove to everyone that I can piss just as far as they can.
20140715-224518-81918003.jpg
And so, this is how we will leave the tree.
20140715-224624-81984507.jpg
But wait, you say, what about wiring? Candle pruning?
It’s a big bush!
I know, I know!
You all (and my wife) can attest to my penchant for trimming back a big bush, but it’s just not the correct time, by about a month, to do that kind of work in Florida.
This tree is on it’s maintenance schedule and we can’t interrupt it just because my palms are itching to do it.
(You know, if you think about it, a bonsai tree on a schedule is a tad like work:
Thou must do this specific work, on this aspect of development, and at this particular time, falling during this exact interval on the Julian calendar or else.)
Anyway, next tree: podocarpus macrophylla.
20140715-225840-82720031.jpg

20140715-225842-82722286.jpg
My job here is to make the Jin a little more natural.
20140715-230004-82804266.jpg
I like to teach that your carving should be carved, not just drawn on the surface with the carving tools.
20140715-230238-82958986.jpg
I like deep detail and a natural look.
Here, I even connected the two hollows.
20140715-230342-83022905.jpg

20140715-230342-83022147.jpg
I wish there was more to carve here.
20140715-230442-83082496.jpg
I have no choice but to make this feature a little, ah….vulval.
20140715-230537-83137858.jpg
Which isn’t all bad, if your into that kind of thing. Which I try to be…you know….into those kind of things…
Ahem.
Anyway, it’s better than a sharp stick in your eye.
As you can see, I didn’t changed the structure or look of the tree at all.
20140715-230727-83247311.jpg
The style and the mature look is there already, I just blended the old look of the branching with the, now, older, more natural looking Jin. Or versa/vice, as it were.
20140715-231042-83442312.jpg
And that’s all.
Sometimes I do feel the need to drastically change a tree.
But it wouldn’t be honest to do that kind of work to every tree you’re asked to work on.
Would it?
Thank you, Bobby, for the opportunity once again to work on some high quality material.
I will see you soon my friend.

Hollies, Junipers and Ficus, oh my!

After the Cincinnati workshop (see the last post) and lunch at the Hoffbräuhaus (beer), it was time to travel to Indianapolis and to my new friends house, Mark Fields.
And this is what I’m talking about, total bonsai, the first thing I see when I get there is a wiring job in progress on a pine.
20140709-173847-63527238.jpg
He had been teaching a class earlier in the day on wiring a secondary level on the branch pad. Something that is never seen in books.
I got a quick tour in the bright, Indiana summer sunlight.
This is a jade called crassula ovata “gollum”.
20140710-101630-36990976.jpg
He grew this tree from a small cutting.
This next tree is a trident maple made up of about a hundred saplings that were attached to a cone structure and allowed to fuse together.
20140710-101836-37116967.jpg
It’s pretty cool but also controversial. Is it a real bonsai?
I think so, because, if grafting is a valid bonsai technique (which it seems to be) then this is just an extreme form of grafting.
20140710-102106-37266617.jpg
What do you think?
The next tree is a familiar face.
A Neea buxifolia forest.
20140710-102238-37358060.jpg
Which was a welcome sight, I’d like to introduce neea to a much wider audience and the fact that Mark can grow them and, indeed, make them thrive up in this frozen tundra is heartening.
Look at this little fella:
20140710-102525-37525739.jpg
Mark had a lot of trees, many tropicals but also many conifers.
20140710-102626-37586024.jpg
Look at the deadwood on this juniper.
20140710-102717-37637978.jpg
And the grandeur this tree oozes.
20140710-102818-37698977.jpg
If, in fact, grandeur can ooze.
He also had many deciduous trees, hornbeam, elm, and many maples, like this Acer palmatum….
20140710-103011-37811152.jpg
…which are usually grown taller. But I like the short, wide, almost tropical feel to this one.
But of all of these trees, this next one stood out.
A small leafed ficus burt davyii.
20140710-103257-37977082.jpg
It was grown by Mark from a pencil-thick cutting into that magnificent root-over-rock specimen.
It is probably the best root-over-rock I’ve ever seen and, me being from Florida and all, the best burt davyii I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot.
I told him, sincerely, that if he put this tree into the upcoming National Exhibition put on by William Valavanis, it could possibly take the best tropical award.
He photoed it and emailed it to Bill and, within minutes, it was accepted into the show.
I hope it shows well.
After the whirlwind nursery tour I once again fell victim to the late northern sunset. It was almost 9:30 pm and the sun was still up and I’d had a long day.
It was time for a little blogging and then bed.
I had a very busy day the next day.
It was the workshop I’d been waiting for the whole trip.
The one with my favorite tree, the ilex vomitoria schillings dwarf.
Which is a weird thing that I didn’t get many pics.
20140710-104458-38698970.jpg
The workshop took place in a Catholic high school in one of the science labs.
I only got one pic of a finished tree (and a grumpy looking man. He wasn’t grumpy, actually very happy, I think he was just giving me his passport photo face. )
20140710-104810-38890926.jpg
I styled his tree into an upright, deciduous tree style (like the silver maples I’d been seeing all over).
In an earlier post I had mentioned that deciduous trees up here grew taller, by half, than they did in Florida and I wanted to make a tree that looked like the ones I’ve been marvelling over since I’d been here.
I promised I’d draw him a pic of the tree as I saw it.
20140710-105313-39193863.jpg
What a great bunch of people to work with in the Indianapolis club.
Thanks for inviting me.
By the end of the workshop it was time for dinner.
Everyone chose Hooters (I was indifferent. No, really, I promise) but, after an adventure looking for an open one, we were stuck with eating at Red Lobster.
Then it was back to Mark’s place for another night.
20140710-105834-39514815.jpg
The next morning’s coffee was a surprise: it took me travelling all the way to Indiana to discover this awesome Puerto Rican coffee.
20140710-110030-39630194.jpg
Which is ironic since I have so many Puerto Rican friends.
With many thanks to Mark’s family and a goodbye to his tortoise….
20140710-110203-39723916.jpg
….I left this ilex in his care, I’d really like to see what he will do with it.
20140710-110317-39797637.jpg
It is a personally collected tree that I brought along because I wanted to bring the best trees I had, but I had hoped no one would want it.
Mark wanted it.
It’s in good hands now, I know.
I can’t wait to see what he does with it.
On the road again.
This trip to Washington Indiana was full of big, empty fields with all the interesting stuff way in the distance.
20140710-110658-40018283.jpg
I was on my way to a private session with my friend CD, author of a bonsai blog as well (indianabonsai.com).
He had some junipers and some ficus he wanted help with.
20140710-111429-40469321.jpg
It was on my way back to my accommodations for the night so I met up with him.
He had two junipers that looked surprisingly like a parsonii juniper.
20140710-111656-40616280.jpg
But had a different cultivar name.
20140710-111743-40663589.jpg
The foliage was really similar though.
20140710-111825-40705786.jpg
After examining the first tree I decided that we could do some initial styling but, horticulturally, it might not be a good idea to wire everything now.
If a juniper is in a growing state the bark and cambium layers become loose and wiring/bending excessively can compromise the health of the tree.
This “looseness” makes it easier to create Jin though.
20140710-113133-41493956.jpg

20140710-113132-41492133.jpg
Some hand carving with my pliers.
20140710-113236-41556595.jpg

20140710-113234-41554733.jpg
And a little major branch moving (very carefully)
20140710-113347-41627940.jpg
And that’s about as far as I want to go.
We worked on two junipers and the care they need now, after the abuse, is some shade and to provide some wind protection and using the technique of foliage watering, which a juniper responds well to, the absorption of water through the foliage (it needs regular watering too, but since we removed more than half the foliage and trees transpiration will be diminished by that, it won’t be “using” water quite as well and overwatering now might suffocate the roots).
CD had some ficus to work on as well and I immediately wanted to work on this one.
20140710-114225-42145013.jpg
This was the original front but I liked this front better.
20140710-114654-42414579.jpg
A little wire later and…
20140710-114907-42547843.jpg
I’m not sure CD was convinced that my front was better.
20140710-115016-42616887.jpg
As a side note, he’s a single man at the moment ladies. He’s the quiet, brooding artist type.
He has a beard too.
Anyway, he must have liked how the tree turned out at least a little because I helped him out with a few more trees.
20140710-115154-42714842.jpg
At least, until the skies decided that it was time to go.
20140710-115615-42975408.jpg
I had a four hour drive with many miles to travel before I could rest for the day.
And part of that journey was through a State Park called, improbably, Big Bone Lick State Park.
I just wasn’t sure what to expect.
Fortunately, I arrived back in Covington Kentucky without incident.
20140710-120621-43581897.jpg
I’d managed to stay ahead of the tornadoes and dodged any bone licking that I might have been forced into, and finally I made it back to my home away from home.
20140710-121449-44089411.jpg
You remember Evan?
I took him out to a little fine dining for his hospitality.
20140710-152440-55480953.jpg
After dinner I treated myself to one more of the awesome, local microbrews.
20140710-152730-55650110.jpg
And then it was off to bed.
I had a thousand miles to travel on the morrow.
So far, on my most fantastic bonsai journey, I’ve travelled two thousand miles, met many new friends and worked on some of the most spectacular (and biggest) trees I’ve ever worked on.
Thanks to all the people who made this possible, put together all the workshops and volunteered their homes for me to crash in, to those who fed me and plied me with beer.
I thank you all and hopefully we will see each other again next year.
But now, my thoughts and trail turn towards home.
Just one thousand miles more and I’ll be able to rest my head on my own pillow, snuggle my beautiful wife and sleep, knowing that my family is under the same roof as I am.

Bald cypress workshop in Cincy

Some super-fuel for a busy morning.
20140707-131846-47926240.jpg
Gotta love the goetta!
We had way to many trees…
20140707-132059-48059668.jpg
….it was an ungodly time in the morning and after way too little sleep…..
Time for the impossible.
20140707-132224-48144193.jpg
Yeah, that was a long, painful setup for a lame “flying pig” joke.
Sorry.
This was a workshop I led for the Greater Cincinnati Bonsai Society.
As all good workshops should begin, I had my students defoliate their trees.
20140707-142413-51853717.jpg
The trees we worked on: taxodium distichum, the bald cypress.
Let me set the mood as we watch the defoliations.
20140707-142612-51972242.jpg
The day before I had the day-long ficus salicaria styling session with Evan.
20140707-142757-52077323.jpg

20140707-142754-52074131.jpg
There were many beers.
That night we drove from Covington, Ky to Springfield, Oh for a concert by Get the Led Out, a band that plays Led Zeppelin songs with all of the instrumentation and vocals from the studio recordings. Which means that, at times, there might be three guitarists and two vocalists (Zeppelin liked to overdub a lot).
Now, this isn’t a theatrical act where they try to look like the original members, they just love the music and try to make it sound right.
Kinda like how a symphony orchestra plays.
The band does a great job at it too.
Should they stop in a town near you, I recommend seeing them.
This was the set list.
20140708-175604-64564867.jpg
Anywho, we didn’t get home until near 2 am.
And we had to be at the Garden Civic Center for the workshop at 7 am.
20140707-143740-52660098.jpg

20140707-143735-52655465.jpg
I felt sorry for this student, she is a pretty new beginner.
20140708-000145-105632.jpg
So I did a little pruning to make it easier for her to take all the leaves off.
20140708-000306-186339.jpg
She looks a little perturbed.
It’s her first workshop.
The next step was pruning and wiring.
20140708-105500-39300516.jpg

20140708-105505-39305069.jpg
Or, in some cases, raffia!
20140708-105745-39465399.jpg
Wait ’til you see those trees.
Some people chose small trees and they ended up as sweet, old and spooky looking shohin.
20140708-171515-62115394.jpg

20140708-171511-62111082.jpg

20140708-171847-62327651.jpg

20140708-171922-62362646.jpg
We got to practice the flattop style on some of the taller ones that had branches which would support that look.
20140708-172433-62673740.jpg

20140708-172739-62859772.jpg
And we made some pretty neat Jin too.
20140708-172923-62963310.jpg
Our newbie ended up with a cool flattop…
20140708-173058-63058099.jpg
She seems to like it….or maybe not.
20140708-173303-63183972.jpg
But now for some fun.
Evan’s tree.
20140708-173623-63383950.jpg
And this one.
20140708-173728-63448809.jpg
Are you ready?
Let’s work on Evan’s cypress first.
First bend.
20140708-174244-63764288.jpg
We are able to do this because the raffia keeps the outside of bend from breaking in the same way that a pipe bender works. It compresses the outside of the bark and keeps it from together.
It works.
20140708-175916-64756586.jpg
Evan doesn’t seem impressed.
20140708-180037-64837374.jpg
I think it’s cool.
Maybe he’s just hung over.
This next tree was my favorite of the morning.
20140708-180431-65071353.jpg
There’s so much potential.
Tee hee! I feel like a school girl with a new Barbie.
First bend.
20140708-180551-65151883.jpg
And the finished tree.
20140708-181131-65491154.jpg
Before I get complaints that cypress don’t grow this way, they do. Look up a gentleman named Joe Samuels (try the Bonsai Mary website ) who has photographic and artistic representations of naturally occurring cypress that look like these.
But even so, this thing we call bonsai is an art.
And these trees are definitely artistic.
It seemed as though everyone had a good time and were pleased with their trees.
I should also note, I stole this technique from Guy Guidry, cypress virtuoso extraordinaire.
The aftercare I recommended after the work we did:
Doing this type of work at this time on a cypress is a little stressful to the tree but they should do ok if the students soak the tree in a bucket of water until the new growth fills in.
And fertilizer. Lots of organic fertilizer.
Phew, that was hard work.
I think I deserve this.
20140708-183248-66768276.jpg
Lunch at the Hofbräuhaus in Newport, Ky.
There’s nothing like good German dark beer and various wurst to fortify the soul.
My next stop is Indianapolis and a little town called Washington, both in Indiana.

Ficus salicaria rootwork and detail wiring

This post is about the day I took this pic.
20140703-211524-76524930.jpg
If you follow my Facebook or Instagram pages, you’ve seen the photo before.
If not, why not?
Here’s the beginning of that daylong, Kentuckian, private session which ended with a Led Zeppelin concert.
Well, kinda.
Let’s get to work.
This is a ficus salicaria belonging to my friend Evan of the Cincy club (but he lives over the river in Covington, KY) 20140703-211951-76791863.jpg
Yeah, I see those roots.
20140703-212204-76924090.jpg
You want a close up?
I think you’re like one of those people who slow down at a roadside accident, aren’t you?
20140703-212750-77270977.jpg
This must not stand.
I mean, just damn.
20140703-221522-80122788.jpg
Out of the pot, what kind of roots are we looking at?
20140703-222717-80837421.jpg
Hmmmn, the soil is a very familiar mix: calcined clay, red lava, and pine bark.
Look at all these fine roots!
20140703-222915-80955236.jpg
Holy moly!
20140703-222912-80952842.jpg
Who’d a thunk it with all that calcined clay in the mix. Or should I call it by its brand name, Turface?
This is the new mix I’m putting the tree in.
20140703-223315-81195186.jpg
This is my SuperMix© I use on all my trees.
But first, I must have a drink.
It’s hot today here in Kentucky, over 90 Fahrenheit, and I must stay hydrated.
20140703-224147-81707872.jpg
Purified water, ahhh.
We must make sure that the beverages we drink are not contaminated.
It used to be, hundreds of years ago, before the germ theory of illness came into favor, people thought there were water sources haunted by evil spirits and they wouldn’t drink from them.
But….if you made beer out of it, God would bless the brew and it would be safe to drink.
In fact, many a religious experience was had after imbibing alcoholic drink and that’s why the Trappist Monks are renown the World over for their beer making prowess.
Do you know what?
I’ve inspired myself, I think I’ll have a beer.
It’s noon o’clock somewhere.
20140703-225259-82379534.jpg
Cheers!
Ahhhhh, by the gods, that’s good.
Alright, where are my tools?
Time to go all medieval on the roots.
20140703-225734-82654887.jpg
Uh huh.
20140703-225828-82708578.jpg
That’s right.
20140703-225907-82747483.jpg
Some cut paste, or putty, as it were.
20140703-230312-82992917.jpg
And Bob’s your uncle.
20140703-230530-83130618.jpg
I think I’ll dip my foot into the deep pool that is the “wound sealer” debate.
Just a toe, promise.
The first reason I’m using cut putty here is because these wounds are so low on the tree and I want them protected from the routine watering we do.
Ficus will rot no matter what but, by protecting the cuts, the edges will begin to heal and roll over faster.
The second reason is aesthetic, the putty blends in a little better and looks oh so much prettier.
We are practicing a visual art here.
I’m putting it back into the same pot.
20140703-232208-84128965.jpg
Which is not a bad pot for the tree.
And, as always, I tie it in.
20140703-232404-84244878.jpg
Now, for the pruning.
20140703-232451-84291771.jpg
But first, another frothy, pure beverage.
20140703-232538-84338230.jpg
My idea for an Adam Lavigne signature tool: bonsai scissors with a bottle opener built in (consider this a published, and, therefore, protected idea).
Look for it soon.
Since this tree is really well developedalready (a tribute to Evan’s work, not mine, I’m just a hired wirer) I’m not really removing any major branches or doing anything drastic (well, the root work was kinda harsh) except to rotate the tree about 10-15 degrees counter clockwise (anti clockwise for our European friends) in the pot to show off the movement a little and mitigate some reverse taper (inverse taper for those same Europeans and those who have adopted the term).
I prune as I wire, and I go from the bottom up.
Which brings me to a question; how do you prune and wire your trees?
Let me know, I’m curios.
I’ve read that at least one Japanese nursery teaches their apprentices to prune from the top down because it’s easier to clean up. Idk on that, kemosabe, I don’t clean up after myself.
Back to our ficus at hand.
There are several instances of wire scarring.
If you wire the opposite way as the scars and allow the new wire to cut in……20140703-234731-85651536.jpg
…the resulting scar will add ruggedness to the branch and, in the long term (how we should be thinking about our trees), make the tree look older.
Wire scars are cool, like bow-ties.
Wire, wire, wire, my friends.
20140703-235155-85915193.jpg
It wasn’t until the advent of malleable wire that bonsai really became a truly refined art.
Like the difference between fingerpainting and using a filbert.
Your trees deserve wire.
20140704-000852-532937.jpg

20140704-000951-591878.jpg
Oh, don’t forget the beer.
You deserve beer.
20140704-001138-698314.jpg
Or at least I do, this is thirsty work.
All done, a little dunk (dunk, not drunk, not yet) in some water to settle the soil.
20140704-001858-1138848.jpg
Some serious contemplation of the mess I’ve made.
20140704-002233-1353216.jpg
And the finished tree.
20140704-002501-1501054.jpg

20140704-002502-1502153.jpg
The before-
20140704-002641-1601363.jpg
I’m thinking I’ve reduced the height by about four inches.
I think the roots look so much better now compared to what we started with.
20140704-002906-1746119.jpg
And overall it’s a little more detailed than it was.
Evan seems very happy with it.
20140704-003034-1834207.jpg
Which is what is important, it’s his tree after all, and he has to look at it everyday.
Oh yeah, I didn’t get to see Led Zeppelin, obviously (they’re no longer a band anymore, in case you live in a cave.) but a cover band called Get the Led Out.
Very talented band, they travel all over the country and you should take the time see them when they visit your town.
If you’re into that kinda music.
I am, and I like it loud while I’m working on trees.
With beer.

Eight foot tall ficus trunk chop. How low can you go?

This, my friends……is day three.
20140628-135702-50222757.jpg
It was like seeing the tree from Gondor, of old.
Majestic, ancient, noble.
20140629-183848-67128018.jpg
An eight foot tall bonsai.
It’s name is Bigfoot.
How do you do, Bigfoot sir?
The tree is a ficus microcarpa (some still call it the old name, ficus retusa, or the common name is tiger bark).
20140629-184050-67250969.jpg
I was called in by my friend Darlene, who is this trees caretaker, to help lower it so it could fit through the door.
At eight feet tall it wouldn’t fit anymore.
The tree was suffering from lack of sunshine and fresh, outside air.
20140629-184333-67413565.jpg
It was seriously dropping leaves.
20140629-184721-67641460.jpg
You’re thinking, it’s in a giant window, that isn’t enough light for a ficus?
No, no tree is a houseplant.
This one even had some supplemental, high power lights.
It was just not enough.
Why does lack of light cause a tree to drop its leaves?
Well, to simplify it, when winter comes along, the northern hemisphere experiences less daylight hours as well as diminished light strength.
This causes a tree to go dormant.
Which is what is happening here.
Bigfoot needs sun.
There is a history to this tree.
It was probably grown in Taiwan and it’s age is estimated at about eighty years old.
20140629-185503-68103707.jpg
I’ll probably be at least this wrinkly at that age.
20140629-185608-68168617.jpg
Many of the branches are grafted on.
20140629-185745-68265567.jpg
Which is how many of the ficus are grown in Taiwan; they are at the pinnacle of technique in bonsai there and are highly specific when growing a ficus bonsai.
The Taiwanese are even more technical than the Japanese, and they insist on perfect branching and perfect nebari.
Usually a different leaf variety is grafted on (f. Microcarpa grows faster than, say, the green island or the kenman varieties, that have nicer leaves) but they used the species type microcarpa on this one.
20140629-190149-68509849.jpg<

20140629-190151-68511525.jpg
You can see that, even though the tree is self-defoliating, there are still healthy growing tips present.
Bigfoot was purchased from Miami Tropical several years ago along with its smaller brother, Little Foot.
20140629-190900-68940473.jpg
Little Foot is so much healthier because it’s able to be moved outside in the spring and summer months.
I’m at a company in Ft. Wayne that deals in the buying and selling of gas and diesel for distribution to trucking companies, cities and school systems.
The owner, Mike, is a collector of bonsai and rare trees.
He has some nice, smaller bonsai on his rooftop garden.
This is a small trident maple.
20140629-191617-69377862.jpg
A ficus salicaria.
20140629-191713-69433304.jpg
Yes, I saw the mess of roots.
20140629-193545-70545426.jpg
One thing at a time, I have a bigger tree to work on.
This is Bigfoot before.
20140629-193738-70658568.jpg
And these are my tools.
20140629-193827-70707117.jpg
Time to go to work.
I might as well chop the top off and go from there.
20140629-193932-70772757.jpg
Hmmmmnnnn……..somewhere around here….
20140629-194109-70869955.jpg
Seemed like a good time for her to enter the room.
20140630-163702-59822619.jpg
Thats quite the look of astonishment on her face.
And there it is.
20140630-163821-59901233.jpg
Makes a bit of a difference. Hopefully it’ll fit through the door.
20140630-184423-67463571.jpg
Bigfoot has been written about before. The indoor ficus master, Jerry Meislik, repotted it years ago. They had to use an automobile engine lift to accomplish the task.
There exists a link somewhere out there on the world wide inter-web and if anyone can find it, I’d appreciate the address so I can include it here.
The tree is in need of some hard pruning and refinement.
20140630-201844-73124189.jpg

20140630-201846-73126184.jpg
Nothing but to go to it, I’ve already cut off the top.
20140630-233856-85136905.jpg
This is something I’m not really taking lightly but I am working quickly.
All the hundreds of trees I’ve worked on so far in my career were but training for this tree, for Bigfoot.
20140630-234343-85423751.jpg
And the pruning is done.
20140630-234459-85499149.jpg
That is Darlene cleaning up after me, I made a big mess. Thank you ma’am.
Me, I gotta pee.
20140630-234558-85558184.jpg
Bigfoot’s home is a beautiful building with fine art and a modern design.
Those were actually the urinals, you should’ve seen the hand washing sinks; pure gold with a micro-mist faucet system using an ionized, uv-light purifying, cherub-shaped faucet coming out of a giant, purple Madagascarian geode rock sink with moon rock, cantilevered drains.
Simply amazing.
I was told that this ficus was purchased for $25,000 and 50 cents from Miami tropical.
Then it had to be boxed up, put on a truck, and shipped up from Miami.
In the snow, uphill all the way.
They used a crane to get it to the rooftop garden and at one point it fit through the door to get it to its current living space.
Now, my dear friends, you know what comes next, right?
Now…it’s time for some wire.
20140630-235946-86386201.jpg
It may seem like a slightly mad thing to you that I am undertaking the wiring of this tree.
20140701-000501-301635.jpg
And it seems odd to me to be doing fine, detail wiring with #5 and #6 wire.
Here are some action shots for the ladies.
20140701-071406-26046926.jpg
Maybe I should change my Facebook profile pic.
How’s this?
20140701-071500-26100005.jpg
Hmmmnnn, I look a little confused.
Maybe this one with my muscular forearms.
20140701-071617-26177112.jpg
Hah, I’m blinking. Maybe I could say I can do bonsai with my eyes closed? Nah?
Aha!
Here’s an heroic, noble pose.
20140701-071823-26303196.jpg
Let’s have a vote on it, chime in and let me know which one should be my new profile picture.
It took about three hours to complete Bigfoot. Let’s see if it’s short enough to fit through the doors.
20140701-072106-26466711.jpg
How did we move it?
It’s on a specially made stainless steel drip pan with caster-wheels on the bottom.
20140701-082903-30543216.jpg
We made it out of the room that Bigfoot had been living in for years.
We made it into the break room.
20140701-083321-30801002.jpg
We took a short break.
Which is a good stopping point to show you the finished wiring job. You see, we ran into a problem with the last door.
20140701-083527-30927291.jpg
Unfortunately, whoever constructed the building decided that the door to the outside, rooftop garden should be about four inches shorter than the interior doors.
I thought there were building codes for these things? What happens to those tall guys who get used to walking around inside and then bash their heads exiting the building?
I smell a lawsuit.
Anyway, after a small tantrum with oaths about goats and their offspring and contractors in general….
20140701-092310-33790721.jpg
I got my tools out and cut it back just a little more.
20140701-092428-33868746.jpg
And Bigfoot is outside.
20140701-092531-33931645.jpg
It seems that the whole world heaved a sigh of relief at Bigfoot in the fresh summer sunshine.
20140701-092814-34094454.jpg
Even the hitchhiking Buddhist monks seemed happy.
20140701-093120-34280753.jpg
It looks like they’re starting a card game (shhhhh! Don’t tell the police! Everyone knows that owning a deck of cards is highly illegal in the State of Indiana. It seems inexplicable but it’s true, I mean, there’s nothing to do during those long, cold winter nights but to play cards, especially that oddly Indiana-ish game pronounced you-kerr but spelled euchre.).
The progression, for your perusal and convenience.
The before:
20140701-094220-34940639.jpg
After pruning:
20140701-094314-34994470.jpg
In the break room, before lowering the top a second time:
20140701-094439-35079555.jpg
And, finally, there he is, Bigfoot, standing tall in the sun, proud and very stylish with his new haircut.
20140701-094532-35132728.jpg
He will be in good hands with Darlene taking care of him. And she’ll be petitioning for me to make a return trip next year for a much needed repot; I think it should go in an oval pot.
I’d love to fly up on his private jet.
That’d be cool.
Oh?! Did Mike, the owner, like the job I did?
To quote him (a very honest and straightforward man of few words) he said,
“It is well done. Thank you. Michael “

Two familiar trees in a northern land.

I’ve lost count of the number of days I’ve been on my tour.
But if it’s Wednesday, it has to be Dayton.
I left the Kittle homestead midday (the next post, Darlene, I promise, will be on that magnificent eight foot tall ficus named Bigfoot) and arrived at my host home for the night, Judy’s house.
20140625-185118-67878632.jpg
Dayton from the on ramp.
20140625-185120-67880511.jpg
Judy has an amazing collection of conifers and Japanese maples; of which she knows all the names and cultivars and I couldn’t begin to remember them.
I’ll just post some pics, how’s that?
20140625-185622-68182842.jpg

20140626-094841-35321096.jpg

20140626-094937-35377642.jpg

20140626-094939-35379368.jpg

20140626-095054-35454968.jpg

20140626-095051-35451740.jpg
Beautiful garden, isn’t it?
She also grows orchids and even has one named after her.
20140626-095325-35605946.jpg

20140626-095328-35608350.jpg
After a whirlwind tour (she had some spectacular bonsai too) we sat down and had a short rest before the Dayton Bonsai Club meeting.
20140626-095829-35909995.jpg
Ahhhh, a little Newcastle to refresh the soul, eh mate?
All good things must end and it’s time to work.
After a short ride to the agricultural extension office (the meeting place for the club) and after the briefest business meeting I’ve ever had to endure (the bane of the visiting artist, this one was over before I had even dozed off. I could’ve really used a nap) it’s finally time to perform.
Up until now I had been doing workshops and when I’m teaching one on one I’m very quiet and intimate.
It is in the demonstration, to some people’s horror or delight, where I really go crazy and shine on like a crazy diamond.
Imagine this blog, live and uncensored, but with a live audience to encourage and cheer me on.
20140626-101133-36693900.jpg

20140626-101136-36696030.jpg
The Dayton club is a nice group, they made me feel at home with their informal meeting style.
Someone was even thoughtful enough to make me feel at home by baking some familiar shaped cookies for me.
20140626-101817-37097967.jpg
The tree I’m working on is an ilex vomitoria schillings.
It’s a dwarf variety of a full size tree; some would call it a bush even.
Here’s a blurry pic of the bush I’m going to trim. I remember a time when all amateur bush photos were blurry.
20140626-195751-71871824.jpg
I talk about the species and give the background for the Latin name (vomitoria), the ilex is one of my favorite trees and I have written about it more than any other species.
And I have a lot to say about it too.
20140626-201142-72702358.jpg
Working on a bush like this it’s just a matter of whittling down the branches enough to turn it into a tree.
20140626-222445-80685110.jpg
And, coincidentally, the last bad joke coincides with the end of the styling of the tree.
Almost like I planned it or something.
I say goodbye and promise to write and all that.
One more night at Judy’s home where I can contemplate her husband’s underwater seascapes.
20140626-231901-83941264.jpg
Then it’s up early and some breakfast.
20140626-231949-83989863.jpg
She let me cook my own omelette.
A last look at her landscape and pond.
20140626-232112-84072393.jpg
And then it was off to Cincinnati and Evan’s house.
And what was awaiting me there?
Probably the rarest thing I’ll ever get a picture of, in fact, there’s never been photographic evidence of this rarest of occurrences.
Me doing laundry.
20140626-232531-84331467.jpg
I got the clothes and soap in ok but then these controls baffled me.
20140626-232641-84401690.jpg
I could disassemble (or even dissemble) and repair this washing machine but it took me a good five minutes to realize that the lid has to be down for the wash cycle to start.
I guess it’s some kind of safety thing or something.
I contemplated sticking my pocket knife into the contact point just so I could watch the machine work, and just to thumb my nose at the safety nazis, but I had other things to do, like a demo at the Cincy club.
20140626-233154-84714734.jpg
They meet at the Cincinnati Garden Center.
My victim for the night was a bald cypress.
By now I’m sure you’re wondering about the suitability of growing both an ilex and a bald cypress (trees native to Florida) up in the frozen north.
You’d be right about the ilex; it’s only hardy to zone 7, so it will need winter protection, but it’s not a tender tropical either.
The bald cypress, on the other hand, can take the cold.
I saw a thirty year old one in Ft Wayne Indiana that had cones on it (which I’ve read can’t happen up north).
They use them for the same purpose we do down here, they plant them in the medians and in retention ponds and on the sides of highways.
I had to do a double take on my way from Indy to Ohio, I swear that a highway rest stop looked just like a Florida one with a whole stand of cypress in front of it.
The one thing that’s different about the cypresses growing habit though, they weren’t turning into flattops.
Here’s the tree before the work.
20140627-071138-25898729.jpg
I’ve reduced the roots and it’s in bonsai soil, so whoever gets it won’t have too much to worry about transitioning it into a bonsai pot.
Before any work can occur though……the dreaded business meeting.
La la la la la!
20140627-071512-26112872.jpg
Maybe if there were dancing girls in the back? That would definitely make the business part go more quickly.
Or if they dispensed beer.
Yeah….beer.
Some people might have thought perhaps I had been indulging before the demo.
There is actually a video that was shot of this performance and as soon as I get ahold of it I’ll find a way to post it.
20140627-090035-32435366.jpg
As I was saying earlier, the tree I was styling is a bald cypress.
20140627-090301-32581853.jpg
And, as we all know, cypress grow in swamps, and in swamps there be alligators and alligators make good shoes (or good shoes are made of alligators) so I jump up on the table, don my official cypress tree demonstration shoes….
20140627-090723-32843240.jpg
….and take an official cypress tree demonstration selfie!
20140627-090838-32918546.jpg
Yes, my friends, there is video evidence of all this.
There was also a betting pool to see when I would actually start styling the tree.
I did eventually cut and wire it.
20140627-091403-33243886.jpg
And I even drew a sketch.
20140627-091538-33338067.jpg
I styled it in a naturalistic Louisiana flattop form.
20140627-091641-33401763.jpg
And this is the sketch.
20140627-091731-33451508.jpg
I worked on two Florida trees but I used two different approaches.
The ilex, a stylized, super-forced perspective (or a close up view) sumo tree:
20140627-092115-33675439.jpg
And the cypress, a naturalistic, far-view, flattop swamp tree.
20140627-092225-33745108.jpg
Pheweee!
What a couple of days!
The next post will be on day three and Big Foot.