Demonstration at the Bonsai Society of Brevard

If you are a friend on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Tumblr you’ll remember that I teased you with this pic about a week ago:
If you’re not, then you are seeing this tree for the first time.
If you are of the second group, I suggest saving the pic, closing the tab, and ruminating about the pic a while. You need a little time to let the chaos of the tree and my unparalleled cheek germinate some of those placid internal paradigms into the epic, pretentious posings that only me and my posts are capable of producing.
Or something like that.
Or this:
Brains…I need brains….yes, indeed you do Adam.
But I regress…
Here’s the tree, since we are talking about bonsai I guess:
Quite a specimen. It was purchased at Dragon Tree Nursery ( in Palm City, FL. I suggest a visit if you get the chance, Robert is one of the good men in bonsai.
I was able to pick out my tree for the demo at the zoo from Robert’s nursery.
The Brevard club has a show every year at the Brevard Zoo (they also have a permanent exhibit there, an excuse to take the whole family out and for you to sneak in some bonsai at the same time…).
This is the second year they have invited me to be a demonstrator and a vendor.
The Brevard club is one of the most active clubs in Florida and probably the most active in outreach in support of spreading the art of bonsai.
Which makes one wonder what I’m doing giving a demo.
To the work.
I had my friend Yamida take some pics for me while I was working on the tree.
I kid you not, she took more than 70 pictures. It’s kind of embarrassing to have that many pictures of yourself on your own iPhone.
I mean, isn’t it?
Here I am getting ready-
Imagine four more pics like that, two of them scratching my butt, and you’ll get the idea. How many pics do you have on your phone of you scratching your butt?
Don’t answer that.
I did get a quick pic of the audience-
I swear, the guy on the left didn’t change his expression the whole time, even with my best jokes.
Back to the tree.
I studied it a bit (for effect) and started to talk a bit about the species.
Which is, of course, a ficus green gem.
It’s similar in growth habit to the green island ficus but the main difference is the green gem has a pointy leaf, green island, rounded leaf.
I quickly pruned out the branches I didn’t need.
And proceeded to massage the tree.
No, really. Massage.
That look on my face was me answering a question from the audience about what I was doing.
I was massaging the tree.
What does that mean?
I was pre-bending the cascading branch so that when I put the wire on it and started to actually place the branch, it would be more pliable.
It works.
No one believed me in the audience either.
Here’s the front of the tree
The before, if you will.
Now I begin the wiring process-
What am I looking at?
Let’s just say that if that bird had been one second sooner in its release I would have been a victim.
It was a big bird too. Big bird. Big poo.
The main branch I am wiring (the cascade) is pretty thick. I end up using three of the heaviest wires they have.
Someone asked what gauge wire it is. I had no idea, maybe 5 mm?
I explain that I always prefer to use two smaller wires than one bigger one when making heavy bends because the branch always breaks where the wire isn’t. And two wires cover the branch (obviously) better than one.
So….three wires-
And now it’s time for me to really get to work-
Look at that concentration…those forearms….call me Popeye even.

The pic above looks like I actually know what I’m doing.
Now where did I put those wire cutters?
I must admit, I actually cracked the cascade branch three times in the bending process. Embarrassingly, it was loud enough for the audience to hear.
After skillfully explaining that,
“I’m going to crack it as many times as I need to to get it bent” I then obfuscated enough to convince them that it won’t be detrimental to the health of this ficus (which it won’t, truth be told).
And then I did an LBJ and held the beagle up by its ears:
At this point I also justified the contradiction of a ficus (a jungle tree) in the style of a cascade (a tree falling off a mountain).
Besides the fact that bonsai is an art and we don’t really have to strictly adhere to the natural growth habits of a particular species, I explained that ficus seeds have a tendency to lodge in any crevice and sprout, often on the sides of buildings or the tops of buildings.
And that, a lá a strangler fig, the tree will throw out limbs in search of light.
Just like a tree on the side of a mountain.
The finished tree as the audience saw it.
With this being November, I won’t touch those roots; it won’t hurt the tree (it hasn’t so far) to go through the winter like this.
Back view:
This tree will be available for raffle at the 2014 BSF convention, Memorial Day weekend in Orlando.
By that time I’ll have it repotted into a nice container and it should have two more levels of growth on it.
Trunk close up:
I’ll post updates on it so don’t worry about that.
The final studio pic and I’ll call this post done except to mention that, if you’re in the Brevard County area of Florida I recommend a visit to the Bonsai Society of Brevard ( They are a truly gracious bunch of bonsai people and you will be welcomed with open arms.

Just tilt the pot a little

First lesson today:
Get the before pic.
I got carried away.
It was really just a standard prostrate growth juniper.
The second lesson (of which some of the drama is lost because I didn’t get that before pic):
Don’t accept the planting angle that your tree is currently sitting as the way it should stay.
Tilt the tree, man (or woman, or child…)
That said, um…ta-da?!
Sooooo….that’s a pretty harsh angle change. I’d say about 45 degrees, right?
The angle is what was needed to make some drama.
Let’s proceed then.
I’ve killed off and removed the bark from two back branches and did a crude carving on them-
And now what’s left is just some wiring.
A couple of establishing shots:
Some cleaning out and some wire:
I prefer to use aluminum wire; mostly because I like the fact that I can reposition the branch after I’ve moved it (which you don’t want to really do too much, but it’s always good to have the option) and it’s cheaper and reusable. The way I wire is to use larger gauge on the big branches, position those, and then wire the secondary branches.
The before:
The after:
The secondaries wired and placed
Another view:
And now the cascade (or semi-cascade- for the style nazis out there).
And after:
All together.
I see the tree in an amorphous container, not too shallow but not a full cascade pot either.
The sketch-
I like the idea of using a non traditional stand with this tree. Maybe I’ll start making them.
Something like this:
That’s my one indoor bonsai by the way, a glass Japanese cherry.
A short, quick post for you.
I’ll repot (and report) in January on the tree (for the curios, it’s probably a parsonii juniper but it’s very healthy so the foliage is super green and it had almost no juvenile foliage on it.)
Next post will be on my demo tree at the Bonsai Society of Brevard’s annual show.
See ya’ in the funny books!

Some chopping, some refining, and a piece of…

Let’s take a look at three trees and see if I can form a coherent and connected narrative out of the techniques I used on them.
The trees.
An ilex schillings that needs some refining.
A bouganvillea that I’ve pretty much styled.
And a juniper that needs…. something.
Each of these trees were worked on at different times and under different circumstances.
Let’s look at the juniper first.
I was leading a bring your own tree workshop and this was one of the victims.
It’s transformation is the most dramatic but it’s also the simplest in execution (execution….that’s called foreshadowing..hee hee)
Three steps.
Believe it or not, it was styled as it was sitting in the pot. Don’t ask me why.
First step, change the planting angle.
The next step, one small cut…whoops!
Third step, wire.
Ah, looks like a tree now.
I did strip the bark from the leftover branch and did a crude carving.
Here’s a digital doodle to show you the tree in a pot.
And, you guessed it, a sketch.
The reason I chopped all that off the top was, first, it had no taper. And, second, the bends were not interesting at all. It was a large, boring s-curve.
Thirdly, it was dramatic.
Life (and workshops and even blogs) are, really, just a performance.
To badly paraphrase The Bard…life is but a bonsai bench and we….we are but bonsai on that bench…..or something like that.
Which segues nicely into the next tree.
A bit of performance art, if you will.
Most won’t allow it to be bonsai, let me know what you think.
I don’t have any before pics at all but I’ll give you the history:
It’s a bouganvillea glabra, red, that was a cutting. Most of it has rotted out.
But a bougie is almost a legacy of vegetative persistence.
As far as the tree and it’s style, I could give a whole treatise (as modern artists are almost required to do nowadays) on it.
Let’s just call it a bunjin, or literati if you will.
But mostly I’ll let the tree speak for itself.
The first and last pics are how I like to look at the tree.
Tell me what you think.
The next tree is a bit more bonsai-ish, it’s an ilex vomitoria, shillings-
I’ve let it grow unchecked for a few months. It’s had a bout of blackspot that I’ve beaten back until next year (hopefully).
It is a bit late in the season (middle of November) to be trimming it, but if I protect the tender new growth from a frost (unlikely but possible. Let’s hope for none at all) it should be ok.
The first step was removing all the ups and downs and old inbetweeners.
When I do an initial styling I will tend to keep more branching than necessary. Sometimes the reason is horticultural, and sometimes it’s just to fill a space.
This branch is now unnecessary.
So long branch.
It’s growth was also just too much different than the rest of the branching.
When pruning the tips, simplify to only two branchlets at each split.
And try to think ahead to the wiring stage….can this upward growing rebel bet wired into shape?
Why, yes… yes it can.
Now, to the wire.
I start at the bottom and work up.



The last three pics above are the right, left and back.
The drumroll please ……
The before
And the after…
Faithful readers will recognize this tree form three or four previous posts. The last in the string is here.
And, rereading it, I did exactly as I said I would.
Strange that I could be so consistent.
I gave the tree a light dusting of fertilizer (my go to, Milorganite) and refreshed the soil.
My plan now is to keep the watering to the minimum I can and hopefully get another flush of growth. Let’s hope the weather cooperates.
Now, for some shameless self promotion-For those readers in Florida,
I’ll be at the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne this Saturday and Sunday (November 16-17) selling some trees and performing a demo at 1 pm.
The Bonsai Society of Brevard is having their annual show and there will be other vendors, a world class display and demos all weekend. It’s a fun bonsai show to go to.
Hopefully I’ll see you there.
If not, I’ll be posting soon on the demo tree I work on.

A day with Dan Robinson

Just recently I had the privilege of spending an afternoon and evening with one of the old rogues of bonsai, Dan Robinson.
He is a first class orator with a quick tongue and a quick wit. A true joy to watch.
His ideas on bonsai design are controversial.
That’s an intentional understatement.
This is the tree he picked out to work on-
I had picked him up in Vero at one of my favorite nurseries, Old Florida Bonsai, and the tree came from there.
Dan is in the midst of the Bonsai Societies of Florida’s Visiting Artist program.
The Central Florida Bonsai Club hosted him on Thursday 11/12/13 (yeah, I know).
Anyway, what do I mean by controversial?
Well, first, he believes that every tree needs and deserves a deadwood feature. Whether it be a Jin, Shari or uro.
He is an old forestry man and has seen true, old growth trees and his vision of an old tree is somewhat different than the Asian ideal of trees.
It’s somewhat similar to the vision that Vaughn Banting had with his bald cypress flat top style.
Old growth trees have multiple apices, flattened tops and have almost always gone through some cataclysm (his word).
He thinks the most important aspect of the tree is the trunk and how old and gnarly (his word) it looks.
And, secondary, is the branches (which should always be wired into twisted and contorted shapes).
The last thing he is worried about is the foliage.
He says that will grow when it needs to.
His design principles are truly based on his observations of the natural world as he has seen it over the last seventy five years.
He doesn’t see scalene triangles in trees.
He doesn’t see fast taper in ancient trees.
His works are very natural, very tortured looking works of art.
He abhors the artificial hand of man being apparent on a bonsai.
I suggest to you, my readers, to pick up this book-
It is a biography of this man and his vision of bonsai.
To his work.
The tree is a bouganvillea.
It is unusual to carve on a bouganvillea.
He uses this die grinder-
And, surprisingly, not a carving bit but a router bit-
And one last unusual thing.
He performs his demo with his back to the audience. He does this solely so you can see what he is seeing and doing.
And if he’s carving, he really gets involved in his work. He doesn’t talk if the machine is running.
Now, I’ll let the work speak for itself.
As some of you may know, the wood of a bougie will rot away. He recommends a product called “Cure Rot” to preserve the wood.
I’ve used MinWax wood hardener to good results.
If you get a chance to see Dan, take it.
If you get a chance to spend time with him, do it.
Not all learning is done in a formal setting.
Thank you Dan for being you.
I’m glad we had the day together my friend.

The worst juniper in the nursery? I’ll take that challenge.

This tree is left over from my early days of bonsai, when I bought anything “bonsai-ish” and thought you could make a tree out of it.
But, I’m hearing someone say, you can make a bonsai out of anything.
Can that last statement be true?
Well, it’s a loaded question; anything can make a bonsai-
given time.
But we probably won’t live long enough for most plants though.
This is a fundamental truth that most people do not understand about bonsai: even though bonsai grow, we don’t grow bonsai.
To paraphrase Kurt Cobain: “..we… build a tree…”
We take a grown tree and turn it into a bonsai.
The growth a bonsai does experience under our care is mostly limited to the branches. the trunk girth, except for some ficus, will not increase unless you take the tree out of “bonsai mode” and into growing mode.
You put it into a big pot or in the ground and let it grow. You don’t practice any bonsai techniques (or hardly any) and you’re basically just waiting for the tree to get big.
How does all this soapboxing apply to this tree?
I got this tree in a landscape nursery (it is a juniperus chinensis “parsonii” or parsons juniper)
It was in a 3 gallon nursery pot and I bought it for some reason.
I never worked it, it worked itself.
What I mean by that is: a beginner plant person (or even an experienced one) will have a hard time keeping a plant healthy in a container for a long time.
(Which is the another reason most bonsai artists don’t grow trees. It’s a wee bit difficult)
So this tree suffered the inequities and iniquities of a too busy, part time bonsai enthusiast.
Poor tree.
It’s growing well now.
I repotted it from that 3 gallon nursery can into the training pot with my regular bonsai mix in January of this (2013) year. It’s now November.
Let’s peruse the branches my dear readers.
It has a not-too-bad trunk with some deadwood (again, it was unintentional on my part. The tree sat for years until I decided to work it in January).
And it actually has a nebari (root spread) which is unusual for a juniper.
The difficulty (and why everyone who picks it up puts it right down again) is the awkward branching it has.
There’s a lot of oddly placed branching and straight, un bendable bits that I’ll deal with in a second, but my first bit of styling is jinning the top branch.
It needs to be reduced in thickness and length but that can wait. I’ll just be wiring this session.
Which will require some of this-
Basically, I’ll wet this stuff (available at most craft stores) and wrap it tightly around the recalcitrant branches that need some help in bending.
This protects the outside bark from cracking (there is an engineering principle at work here, when you bend a tube, which is basically what a tree branch is, the outside of the bend is breaking whereas the inside is compressing. So if you add another layer over the bark, the bark won’t split, it’s now being compressed.)
Anyway, wrap it tightly around the branch in question-
And viola!
Doesn’t that just look so cool?
And now some wire.
And I made sure to bring the wire out as far as I need it
Now for some bending.

Here’s a before
And the after
And the style begins to show itself. A cascade or semi cascade.
I’ll repot it again in January next year but for now it’ll sit in a bigger pot at the desired angle.
Next, the secondary and tertiary branches.
Before placement
After placement
Moving along quickly now-
All the weird branches on top?
Bye bye
Now just a little more wire.
And after-
Not too bad, right?
Here are the side/back/side views-
It’s hard to really see what it should look like as it sits in that pot so, how’s this?
Neat trick, innit?
And of course, a sketch-
We have the ugly, awkward juniper that no one loved-
Some pruning, binding, wiring and a lot of bending and (just for my friend Nick)
Bob’s your uncle-
What’s the lesson?
Or is this post just me showing off by giving a rambling, deprecating build up and then styling the tree into a near facsimile of a bonsai?
The lesson-
It took eight years before this tree had the character and structure to make a decent bonsai. Eight years of looking at good trees and watching masters work and styling countless other trees before I had the vision to finally see the tree hidden inside this one.
Keep studying real bonsai, working and wiring every tree you can get ahold of, and, of course, drinking beer. I promise you’ll get there.

And now, for something different, a tiki man carving

Considering the name of my blog is “Adam’s Art and Bonsai” I guess it’s time to post some art stuff.
Maybe I’ll do a painting post soon too.
But now…….we have…..a log!
Almost as exciting as a blank canvas.
The wood is cypress (taxodium distichum). It was a tree I had collected for bonsai but unfortunately it didn’t make it.
On a larger log I would start with a chainsaw but I will start with my angle grinder with the Lancelot chainsaw wheel on it (which you’ll recognize from 3 posts ago)
If you look at the piece of wood you’ll see that the top is wider than the bottom; it is actually upside down.
I’m doing that to give some character to the head I’ll be carving.
The first cut I make is to define where the end of the nose is-
Then I widen it a bit and then define where the bottom of the lip is-
And then block out the sides of the mouth-
And the bridge of the nose-
At this point there are probably people out there who are wondering why I don’t draw on the wood first before I cut with the tool.
The answer is that I’ve done this basic shape many times and I don’t need to draw it out. I don’t mean to brag and I’m not but I am basically drawing with the tool because my brain sees what needs to be removed already.
If I were doing a new design like a pelican (which I guess I should learn to do if I’m going to sell these carvings on eBay) I would draw it out.
But I don’t need to on this carving.
I should also point out that one should never remove the guard on one’s angle grinder and safety glasses and gloves should be worn at all times.

The next cut is to define the brow-
And then the eye itself-
And at this point I’ll start to remove unneeded material.
The Lancelot wheel is best for the first, rough carvings, like this:
The bridge of the nose before-
And after-
The real detail work will be done (on the angle grinder that is) with this sanding disk-
First pass-
It’s this disk that, on wood like cypress with annoying fibers, will really bring out the details and grain of the wood.
One side done-
The other side finished and that’s as far as I can go tonight-
Let’s examine the tree in the light of the day……
I think it looks pretty cool but the wood deserves a little more finishing.
If it were a palm tree log that’s as far as I’d go.
Switching tools I’m going to the mini angle grinder-
A close up view really shows how rough it is-
Just like a bonsai, the real art is in the refining of the work.
The wheel I’m using is a carbide carving disk-
This disk and the mini grinder are sold by King Arthur Tools as a set called The Merlin.
Here’s the first side-
Aha! An eye!
The other side before-
And after-
It’s still rough-
Now, as I said earlier, cypress wood has a lot of fibers that are hard to get rid of. On a bonsai I use a torch but on this I use a sanding disk (which is from Arbortech I believe)
Before the disk-
It needs just a little more work on the upper lip-
For that I switch to a die grinder and a Dremel (I know, you thought I hated dremels, but they do have a use in limited roles)
A flame tip carbide burr on the die grinder above and below, a small drum sander on the Dremel.
And the mustache is gone-
I also use the drum sander to remove some of the tool marks on the piece-
Now comes the decision to either apply a finish or not.
Whatever you use will change the color and look of the wood.
A good way to see what it might look like is to wet the piece.
In this case, and considering the wood is cypress, I will use some oil based polyurethane on it-
Why this product?
It’s what I was able to steal from my brother-in-law.
Polyurethane will be slightly darker than the water and it will add a yellow tone to the wood.
Like this-
If I didn’t use the finish on this cypress the wood would (ha!) age and turn grey.
This way, with the finish, the grain is emphasized and makes it much more interesting.
At least I think so.
The finished tiki:
The next pic really shows the grain up close-
I hope you enjoyed the post.
We started out with a dead bonsai-
And finished with a tiki guardian for the house-
Maybe in the next post I’ll make soup.

A ficus styling by email

So,I get an email from Ryan, a reader from Hawaii, asking my advice on a ficus he had found at a local nursery.
Just about all the pics in this post are his, except for where I drew over them.
To quote him:

I was wondering if you’d entertain a question, or maybe more a plea for advice. Attached are a couple pictures of a small-leaved ficus I bought cheap from a local nursery. It looks like it got chopped back HARD at some point and has a hilariously wide and awkward stump (about soda can diameter). I root pruned and repotted it a few months ago and its doing well.

I asked for more pics and, after I got them, and had a good look at the tree, I sent him some ideas and asked if it would be ok to do a blogpost on it.
He liked my thoughts on how the tree could be done and gave me permission to write the post and, so, here it is.
Ryan sent me four more pics-
Look, it’s a guest hand model!
I’m going to mention that Ryan is a skateboarder (which has nothing to do with bonsai but…) and he posts some pretty cool stuff on Instagram and Tumblr (his Instagram is @rmhgreer).

My guess as to the origin of this tree: it was probably the top of a big imported ficus that was grafted with green gem foliage that got chopped off and rooted. Sometimes the big tree is a standard ficus microcarpa and sometimes it is the same variety as the grafted foliage.
When I said big, I meant a ficus about 4 feet tall. It takes years and years to grow those and the now the current trend is shorter trees so, the nursery will chop the tops off and regrow it (which is doable in Hawaii and here in Florida).
It’s hard to tell the species of the bottom piece as the bark color on both the scion and the bottom are close.
I know it’s grafted, here you can still see the union-
For those doubters out there, grafting is a valid technique for creating bonsai. Sometimes you just don’t get a branch where you need it.
The foliage, I am sure though, is green gem
Green gem (f. Microcarpa, nitida or retusa, “green gem” is the variety) is one of the better grafting foliage as the internodes are short, the leaves are small, it gets dense and it grows fast.
And the green of the leaves is just so darn green. Like emeralds.

So this, I believe, should be the front:
Let’s do some scribbling.
It should be tilted to the left to make the straight fat trunk appear to taper into the ground.
Next, this aerial root
should be straightened.
To do that, a wedge will have to be carved out of the trunk.
This will give the root a place to sit (and it will fuse eventually) and it breaks up that beer can shape of the trunk a bit.
To do it, uproot the aerial and just use a hand saw to cut out the wedge.
Like a cake, man. A cake.
If you noticed, I would also cut the top for movement and taper.
Let’s add some branching-
How about foliage?
It’s beginning to look a bit like a bonsai.
And I think Ryan can develop it from there.
And finally, you all know that one of my posts just isn’t complete without a sketch.
Here you go:
Much thanks to Ryan for the opportunity to do a little creative exercising and for letting me write a post on it.