This is my first fast-track study group project after the four introductory workshops of the beginner study group. I like the root-over-rock aesthetic, so I decided to make two double-tree plantings on rocks. I picked out two rocks with lots of character while visiting the Fuku-Bonsai. I have the advantage of living close by, so I was also able to pick out premium rocks and trees. This article describes the first root-over-rock planting.
Here are two rocks I obtained at the Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center in Kurtistown. They were already partially pre-shaped, but I still needed to work on them. This planting will use the rock on the right. The drill will be the primary tool used to prepare the rock.
The rocks needed “saddles”, or spots to place trees so the roots could extend in opposite directions, and with a deep pocket to hold fertilizer directly under the trunk. These particular volcanic rocks are very soft, and can be easily carved with a drill and chisel, so they make good specimens to start on. I had worked on these rocks a bit, but David advised opening up more room for the trunks. I also drilled two horizontal holes through the rock at the base to accommodate tie-down wires.
The trees selected for this rock were a 3-5 year old small tree used with the Introductory Workshop Package and a larger, older Premium Prepared Bonsai Stock about 4-6 years. Notice the crazy-long roots on that plant! At this point I started to think I underestimated the size of the plants relative to the rock and what I had envisioned.
I added Nutrient Granules to the deep pockets in the saddles. You can see the white slow-release pellets in both saddles. Then wet sphagnum moss, visible in the bowl, goes over that. I used a modified spoon, with the sides curled up, to guide the pellets.
I then lined the root trail crevasses with wet moss through which roots would run . One of the basic principles of training Schefflera is to have the roots in contact with the rock and media at all times. You never want the roots to be “floating” above the surface as they will never cling.
Next the plant is prepared. Using a root hook I loosened the roots and removed most of the soil media. This takes some practice. Some trees will have roots extending from the periphery of the root ball, which is what you want, with a kind of root “stump” in the middle, which you don’t want, and can be removed with scissors. Freeing the roots also exposes more of the trunk. It’s like Christmas, you choose a plant in the pot and then unwrap it to find that it’s larger and has more character!
Positioning the big tree was a challenge because it didn’t fit where I had envisioned, and had to sit it higher. The tree has to be seated snuggly in the saddle so there is as much contact with the rock as possible. Then the tree is lashed down with paper-cover wire, further increasing contact. I pruned a large branch in front to promote new lateral branch development. This was a difficult decision as I am still learning how these plants grow over the long term.
The next step takes care and is crucial. Despite lashing the tree tightly to the rock, there will be space under the roots. You need to fill that with gravel and moss. Slide gravel around the roots and push it in with a dibble. Use force, as you really want to fill in all the spaces. Then push in a little moss. One trick is to position the moss between the wall of the channel and roots, and then twist the dibble so it “rolls” the moss under the root.
The body media is screened with a 1/8" and what goes through is dampened and added over the roots. This step take a little time, so it shouldn’t be rushed. One common problem is expecting roots to bind to bare rocks. Adding the moss, filling the spaces, and finally the fine media promotes fine root hair growth, and these are what binds to rocks.
I repeated these procedures with the other tree. The fine media goes over the roots including within the channels in the rock. Here you can see both trees in position with the fine media over the roots, and one of the wires holding the upper tree in place.
The fine media and bindings are complete. Notice that the fine media in the channels extends all the way the to the base of the rock. You can also see the placement of the wires.
The rock was then wired to the tray. Between lashing the trees to the rock and wiring the rock to the tray, this piece is one solid unit. That helps because it forces the tree to grip the rock, and prevents anything from shifting as you move the whole thing around, during watering for example.
Next comes the foil. The whole thing is wrapped, and you want the foil to be tightly clinging to the rock. But you constrict the foil at the bottom, add some soil media, constrict a little higher, and repeat as you go up the rock. This adds more organic material while locking it in place vertically. If you just made a cone and added soil, then pressed it against the rock, you’d be left with a pile of soil around the base. Doing it incrementally distributes soil along the entire vertical surface. This will promote root growth over the rock. The foil is wrapped with reinforced tape, and air holes are punched. The air holes must be made pointing downward, rather than perpendicular to the surface; this will prevent soil loss during watering.
A final adjustment was starting to train some branches to grow horizontally. This was achieved by wedging gravel between a branch and the trunk. Here you see the second smaller tree extending laterally away from the rock.
This is the planting I envision. The small tree sitting in the lower pocket in front will lean out to the right. The larger tree will sit beside and behind the pillar on the left, have a root that would travel down a crevice on the front, with branches emerging from the back to the left, and have a larger canopy above.
The smaller tree fit well in its place. It also could be positioned to lean strongly away from the rock so such that I think it can be trained to continue with a strong horizontal line. The larger tree did not fit behind the pillar, so had to be moved up. The trick to creating the effect I’m looking for will be to promote branches horizontally around the back of the pillar. I want the apex of the rock to partially obscure the upper tree. The main problem is that the rock is too small compared to the size of the trees. I plan to hunt for larger volcanic rock specimens on the Big Island. Unfortunately these rocks will likely be much harder and heavier. I’m not sure where I would put a large rock, because I am concerned with the climate here in Volcano Village.
The general advice is that Schefflera can survive outside if temperatures don’t drop below 55⁰F. I looked up the climate here, and from October through June, it can get down to the upper forties. Yet I have a neighbor with a large Schefflera bonsai that she keeps outside all year. It’s tolerance might be due to its size. Bringing everything inside is fine, but then light becomes a problem. I plan to supplement with light fixtures, and even small counter-top mirrors to reflect sunlight back onto the plants.
Watering is a bit of a challenge with this rock specimen. There are two trees at different heights, so when submerging the whole thing I can only let the water up to the lip of the lower tree. I will hand water the top tree with a turkey-baster during the soak.
In retrospect, I really should have made the “sketch” beforehand. So next time I’ll do better planning. But I’m very pleased with this start! - - - David Raikow
SOME COMMENTS BY DAVID F
This was one of the most interesting workshops! David is a really intelligent guy and he kinda knows what he wants. But at this point, he's a bit insecure and instead of sharing his vision in detail, he gives out general ideas and asks for opinions. So I got suckered into telling him what I would do, start to run with it --- only to be pulled back with a comment that he was planning to go another way! So a lot of the workshop was trying to get him to explain what he really wanted to do and even at the end, I got the feeling that the result was not what he had in mind!
I found out a few days later when he sent over the final sketch. So now's a good time to make a strong True Indoor Bonsai Statement of Principle. True Indoor Bonsai is a very individual art that creates the strongest relationship between the tree and its owner-trainer. THIS IS IMPORTANT AND THE BASIS FOR BASIC BONSAI ETIQUETTE RULES:
1. THE OWNER-TRAINER MUST TAKE THE LEAD AND CLEARLY COMMUNICATE THE IDEAS AND CONCEPTS! If the owner-trainer is not sure or has only a fuzzy general idea, STOP AND DON'T DO ANYTHING! Fishing for other ideas when a workshop begins is okay for beginners, but not for those who took home plants and rocks, studied them, and came here to train. Once a person knows the basics, ONLY THE OWNER-TRAINER MAKES STYLING DECISIONS!
2. THERE'S ALSO A NEED TO CURB OVERLY AGGRESSIVE HELPERS! When I began some of the old-timers thought they were expected to show beginners how to train bonsai --- so instead of trying to explain what to do and why --- they just showed and did it! They didn't bother asking if the owner had any ideas. Most beginners were too timid and some grumbled later that they really wanted to do it a different way. So the owner MUST speak-up and not allow others to train their trees. And the old-timers must keep their hands off someone else's trees!
3. IT IS NOT NECESSARY TO ALWAYS MAKE DECISIONS AND THE BEST DECISION COULD BE TO WAIT AND THINK MORE ABOUT IT! Bonsai is not a race. It's really hard to glue back what was too hastily cut off. Too often I've seen branches that took many years to develop be cut off. DON'T START UNTIL YOU HAVE A CLEAR DETAILED LONG-TERM PLAN AND STRATEGY!
We are building a Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai community. But I want it to be as comfortable as possible for everyone. I want everyone to become friends and because of this, I discourage the term "sensei" which in traditional Japanese bonsai means "teacher." But this term lasts forever, even when the "student" surpasses the "teacher." I hope everyone who participates will develop strong friendships and each person become known for their abilities, but is treated as friends. I want everyone to start on my shoulders and build on top of what I have accomplished to date. I think David Raikow can make a nice contribution and hope he continues to increase his planning and communicating skills to become a strong part of our team! ~~~David (firstname.lastname@example.org)