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GEORGE TAKES ON THE CHALLENGE!

             George McLean of Montana is a member of the Fast-Track Study Group.  He has some previous bonsai experience and so began with an IWP Sumo,  an Intermediate Roots,  and was then ready to take on an Intermediate "Root-Over-Rock" workshop.  It's amongst the most challenging of our workshops and includes two major parts:  1) Sculpturing a rock,  then 2)  Root-over-rock planting. Here's his report:

 

 
ROOT-OVER-ROCK WORKSHOP
By George McLean (Assisted by Celeste McLean)
Kalispell, Montana

             It all began innocently enough. Little did I realize what lay ahead! Jerry Meislik, our well-known indoor bonsai expert here in north-west Montana, had put me in touch with David Fukumoto of Fuku-Bonsai on the Big Island of Hawaii. I wrote to David requesting a kit to do a roots-over-rock style Dwarf Schefflera bonsai. 

             In contrast to the "clinging-to-a-rock" style, where the tree subsists entirely on nourishment in natural or created pockets in the rock, Root-Over-Rock employs extended roots which reach down to soil media in the pot. David wisely recommended that I first do a "Sumo" and "Dragon-Roots" to get acquainted with some of their techniques, including foil columns.

              My interest in trees and rocks has a long history. As a teen growing up in northern California, I did some hiking in the High Sierras surrounding Yosemite National Park and remember being impressed by ancient twisted and contorted high altitude conifers growing out of rock and seemingly subsisting entirely on granite.

              Later my passion was technical mountain climbing in the nearby Canadian Rockies, and on several occasions I remember clipping the rope into small trees protruding from the depths of cracks in the vertical limestone cliffs. So trees and rocks in combination have given me not only aesthetic pleasure, but were potential lifesavers as well!

              But... now it was time for the workshop. The Dwarf Schefflera from Fuku-Bonsai was a very robust specimen, with 4 or 5 healthy aerial roots, a sturdy trunk, and a well-developed low branch structure. The rock was Hawaiian "splatter lava" with interesting surface texture and a natural saddle. But, as David pointed out, it wasn't perfect (very few rocks are). It needed a sculptor to enlarge and deepen the saddle where the base of the trunk would sit, and a wide groove emanating from the saddle to accommodate this trunk; some holes drilled for anchoring wires, and grinding to create deep grooves (root trails).

              I'm no artist. In fact my sketches of people are frozen at the 2nd grade stick-figure stage, so my wife had trouble suppressing giggles when I showed her preliminary drawings of my proposed design. The thought of playing Michelangelo and ruining a nice piece of Pele's lava was frightening at first, but using my old foot-operated Dremel, while slow, suggested safety against catastrophe. My rock was only 5 and 1/2 inches tall, so my Dremel with some conical heads worked very well for all but the hole drilling, for which I used a cordless drill and 3/16th and 1/8th masonry bits. The Dremel  would be too slow on large rocks, but worked well on this project.

PART I:  THE ROCK SCULPTURING

   

                 Initial photos:  August 12, 2013 showing the original shoulder to be planted upon.  Advised to do more! 

                 Hawaiian volcanic rock is fairly soft, but occasionally foreign inclusion pebbles would present a problem. The saddle was deepened 1 inch without altering the profile of the rock, and a 1 inch wide groove was carved all the all the way to the top of the trunk, also without materially changing the frontal profile. The deeper saddle serves as a stash for soil and nutrients. The bottom of the rock was flattened by hand grinding on a concrete block.  David liked the sculptor work so far, but advised more grooves, in fact as many as possible, which were done.

  

  

               Second set of photos received August 20, 2013 with larger amount of sculpturing to create "root trail crevasses" and depressions to accommodate additional sphagnum moss, body media, and Nutrient Granules. Shows 4 views plus a top view. 

 

   

           Third set of photos received August 27, 2013 showing trimming of top section to eliminate top-heavy section, creating holes to pull trunk tight into carved trunk channel,  holes through the bottom area to anchor the rock to the pot, details of using the Dremel and drill with masonry carbide bits.   

              He also advised keeping the "front" of the rock as is, ie with the saddle on the right side, but turning the tree 180 degrees and elevating it so that essentially all foliage was above the apex of the stone.  That decided, it was time to prepare for the nitty-gritty: the planting.

PART II:  ROCK PLANTING!

  

  

              The day before, the work table was cleared, tools assembled, rock was prepared by inserting nutrient granules in all available natural and artificial holes and crevices,  more drainage holes were drilled in pot and plastic mesh secured over the holes, soil sifted to remove fines, pleated aluminum foil collar made etc.

  

             The next day I cut the tie wires and gently removed plant from pot and carefully disentangled the root mass using a root hook. One question that came up was whether to tear off large media lava pieces from the hair roots.  If I did so, I risked damaging the roots. If not the roots wouldn't fit well into the root trails. Such are the "devil in the details" conundrums that come up in the middle of a project. And it's not like you have a lot of time ---  roots are drying out --- time is of the essence!

              Misting and covering fine roots with wet sphagnum moss, though, was done frequently to try to prevent drying. Some roots directly under base of trunk were removed to facilitate placing it on the saddle, which had been filled previously with sphagnum moss , nutrient granules, and body media. After bare-rooting the tree, it was placed in pot to get an idea of where to drill 2 small holes for the anchoring wires.

              Gently, roots were freed up as their flexibility permitted. The largest aerial root--about 1/3rd inch thick and inflexible--could not be placed in a groove.   All root trails were packed with media, moss, and granules and the tree was placed with base of trunk securely seated on the saddle in what I considered the most pleasing and feasible position.  All flexible roots were placed in grooves (root trails) and secured with paper-covered tie wires. The trunk was firmly secured via two through tie wire holes at the upper part of the rock. A 2mm aluminum bonsai wire was placed through the lower hole to attach the rock to the pot.

    

          Body media was sprinkled on the pleated collar, tree was placed on it, and collar was carefully wrapped around. Meanwhile, drain holes were covered with a little coarse media and covered with plastic separators and about a 1 inch thick layer of coarse media was added to pot. Media was pushed aside as necessary to expose the anchoring holes and tree was placed on the prepared pot.  Some media leaked but this was minimized by prior misting.

          After completing the planting I consulted with David about how to handle the root sticking out.  He suggested making a small V-shaped incision at the juncture of the trunk and the recalcitrant root. This was done, but a small wedge shaped excision of the inferior aspect of the root was also necessary to bend it down --- slowly.  So the root was now flush with the trunk! This was secured with rubber-covered wire to protect the bark and wound sealant applied.

          Tree/rock ensemble were secured firmly, more media added to column and dibbled in and the funnel compressed; a funnel at top of column was created to facilitate watering, and the entire soil surface was covered with foil. Pot was submerged in water for 1/2 hour as well as watered thoroughly from above.  Total time for the above planting procedure was about 3 hours, with roots exposed for approximately 1 and 1/2 hours.  Forty-eight hours after planting, the plant appears healthy.

 

    

            George has been in bonsai for awhile and has more bonsai tools and supplies than most of those in our study group.  So I asked him to send photos of the tools he used:   1) Dremel grinder with a range of bits,  2) Electric drill with masonry carbide bits,  3)  Bonsai wire and screens for grading soils, and 4) Paper covered bindwire, brush, spoon, chopstick dibble, root hook,  wire cutter, concave pruner,  and fine branch pruner.

            This was a difficult workshop to get really right. The most difficult part was trying to predict the flexibility (and length) of roots which are bound down with wire and buried out of sight in a pot (and, as in this case, one crossed over another). One cannot know the true situation until the tree is bare-rooted, and by that point,  time is of the essence!  To mold a rock to fit a theoretical scenario?  And also, even with sophisticated software and image manipulations, how can one predict with certainty the outcome, with some of the crucial data hidden until the last minutes?

            Maybe that's part of the appeal, other than aesthetics, of "roots over rock" .  .  .  uncertainty.   Will rock and root bind in a durable and lasting union?  Will they hold me if I take a fall?

            - - - George McLean   (August 29, 2013)

 

SOME THOUGHTS FROM DAVID:

              CONGRATULATIONS GEORGE AND CELESTE!   Root-over-rock bonsai are amongst the more difficult challenges in bonsai.  George's article is the longest to date with the most photos ever used in an article.  It's the first study group article on root-over-rock and he did very well and should be very proud of his first such effort!

              Please understand that more than any other styling,  Fuku-Bonsai knows rock plantings. So our standards are higher that anyone I know, including the bonsai masters of Japan and China.  I want to pass on to the members of the study group the highest possible standards so while I congratulate George, I need to also provide higher goals for future efforts.  George really is just at the start and if you want to continue to improve, it gets a lot more challenging! 

             There are several schools of thought regarding root-over-rock. "Purists" insist that the rock must be kept as natural as when you found it.  The disadvantage is that you limit yourself to a position in which the rock is very stable and this usually means a flattish presentation.  I like vertical rock plantings that depict or suggest the more dramatic scenes of nature and to do this, I either need to carve the bottom flat or use a cement base to create a stable vertical rock position. 

             I also like my root-over-rock plantings to appear as if the root is partially embedded into the rock or a bit flattened and taut instead of having a round root sitting on the surface of the rock.  I'm afraid this may happen with George's planting after he removes the foil and excess media in the future.  Roots will not bite into the root trails that he's laboriously carved.  I tend to make my root trails a lot wider and a lot deeper.  If the roots don't grab the rock,  the only way that I know to get the roots to flatten against the rock is to wrap heavy plastic strips from top to bottom forcing the roots extremely tightly against the rock while also giving maximum fertilizer and growing conditions to create very strong growth.  With the roots held flat against the rock,  a rapidly expanding root will actually flatten out between the heavy plastic strips and the rock.  The root will have a flattish appearance.  This technique works well with ficus also,  but it may take a few years.

              My primary recommendation is that if you are going to do any amount of rock sculpturing, do much more!  George did a creditable amount and much more than most beginners.  But in the future,  I hope he'll do more and find the limits of what can be done.  Others in the study group are also in the midst of rock sculpturing and to try to provide some basic information, the August issue included Lesson #8: Root-Over-Rock Planting to provide some guidance.  To further assist those doing rock plantings, I've moved up Lesson #11:  Introduction to Advanced Rock Planting and Lesson #12:  More Advanced Rock Planting to this issue.           

               Those who join the Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation and the study groups get access to items that are not listed on the Fuku-Bonsai website.  This includes older special stock and workshop supplies that are used for bonsai club demonstrations, programs, etc.  Please contact me for more information.  ~~~David (david.f@fukubonsai.com

              E KOMO MAI  .  .  .  come discover the serenity of nature, the beauty of bonsai, and the spirit of Hawaii!

 
*** Return to the September 2013 issue of Journal of Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai
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          Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation and Fuku-Bonsai, 2013