By Paul Bakerman (Phoenix, Arizona)

            This was my 6th trip to Hawaii to compete in the Ironman World Championship, and this was to be my 21st Ironman distance triathlon.  I had discovered Fuku-Bonsai on a previous trip. I really fell in love with the concept of dwarf schefflera bonsai, which was extremely logical to me: the development of a houseplant with a tremendous amount of character, which was also tolerant to various watering and lighting conditions.

            It seemed to be a stroke of genius, a way into bonsai for busy people in this modern world. To paraphrase David, bonsai is a way to connect to the tranquility of nature. As a busy physician/serious triathlete, I needed a thoughtful calming hobby to balance my life. During prior trips, I had purchased several plants, and gained some experience in raising plants in Phoenix, an environment very different from Kurtistown, Hawaii. Not particularly difficult, but it does require some attention to detail.

              My previous hobby of mineral collecting gave me a great appreciation for the beauty of rocks, and some skill in being able to appreciate their unique qualities. Last year, during my visit to the Big Island, I drove around the south side of the island, and found a shop that had some unique and beautiful lava rocks. I found one in the shape of a bowl, and bought it with plans to purchase a bonsai to place in the rock. I went to David’s with the goal of buying a bonsai to place IN the rock. I arrived late in the afternoon, and David explained that the planting should go ON the rock. This was the “AHA!” moment for me. Lacking the skill set and the time, David agreed to do the planting for me (the subject of a previous Fuku-Bonsai article posted at The light bulb was now on, and I wanted to develop the eye and the skill to develop rock plantings myself.

             Over the next year, I looked at the rocks that I had collected, and considered how they might develop into rock plantings. I emailed back and forth with David, which helped to develop my “eye”. I also made plans to spend time at Fuku-Bonsai, developing my skill. My race was on October 12th, so I planned to spend time with David before and after the race. We discussed bringing my rocks to Hawaii, but settled on a plan to do lava rock plantings in Hawaii, and develop the skills to plant my rocks in Phoenix. The reason to spend time before and after the race was to allow time for the cement that is used to position the rock to cure adequately prior to planting. So the trip was to be roughly divided into an introductory session and a rock selection/preparation session early in the trip, followed by rock planting sessions about 10 days later.


           I flew into Hilo from Phoenix on October 7th, rented a car, and went directly to Fuku-Bonsai. Although I was somewhat tired after the long plane ride, I was excited to be there, and we talked in general about plans for the sessions. We discussed plans for my rock plantings and David’s plans for development of several world-class rock plantings and permanent displays. We looked at David’s prior rock plantings in the permanent collection of the Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center and discussed different rock planting options. Hawaii has very distinctive and beautiful rocks with a lot of character. Imagine a beautiful rock with a lot of character, a rock planting that enhances the beauty of the rock and the plant --- the whole being more spectacular than the sum of the parts. However, the number of such rocks is limited.

          David showed me a second technique using common rock available in abundance near Kona. I rode and ran through miles and miles of this material the following Saturday during the race. This rock has a lot of character, can easily be joined with Liquid Nails to where it is difficult to tell it is not all one piece! You can then create very distinctive rocks that are beautiful, but also have channels optimized for water flow and nutrients for strong plant growth. Thus, you can create a world-class planting without relying on nature to create just the right size and shape! We planted an exquisite composite rock on Day #4.

          A third technique is to create the rock to plant using soft volcanic rock that starts out as a non-descript lump. This can be achieved using simple hand tools and a drill. David taught me how to do this, and I started. I learned the basics, and David will send me the pieces to continue this process and I'll describe the technique and show a finished planting in another future article.



         Today we preparation for the future plantings. First, I got to choose from exceptional natural stones. I selected a smaller 6” stone with a lot of character for a single plant, and a larger 15” stone for a 2 plants.

        After selecting examine it from every possible angle. My first impression is usually wrong because I tend to make a “safe” choice. Safe only gets you to OK or mediocre. What parts do you show off? What parts can be covered? Where will the rock be positioned in the pot? Where will the plant(s) sit? How will the plants be secured? How will water and nutrients flow to the plant(s)?  This is the artistic part of process and should not be rushed.

        After the rock is selected and position chosen, the rest is technical. QuickCrete cement is screened to remove the aggregate. Coloring (red, black, etc) is added as needed to match the rock. A ball of foil about 2 ˝ inches in diameter is formed, loosely, then flattened to create a 1/2 inch thick flat conical form that will create a depression on the underside of the rock to promote good water drainage. Three channels are created leading outward from this central concavity, using foil rolled like a straw. This will form channels to the central depression.

        Two pieces of heavy gauge wire are twisted together in the center, and the four ends are equally spaced outward, and placed on top of the flattened foil “pyramid” A pancake of the cement is placed on top of the foil pyramid/foil straws leading outward, 4-pronged wires leading outward, exceeding the radius of the pancake by 4” or so. Edges of the pancake should be tucked so as not to be too thin in the periphery.

        The rock is positioned and supported as needed with chopsticks. The rock is then placed into the cement. Cement is feathered into the rock. Small stones complementary to the larger stone are embedded in the cement, and the cement is textured.

        Fine lava rock is pressed into the surface to add further texture and disguise the cement. The entire cement/rock is prepared on a sheet of foil so as not to stick. Once the cement has cured, the foil is removed from under the base, to reveal the three water channels and the central indentation. The cement should be allowed to cure for 7-10 days.

      COMMENTS BY DAVID.  As soon as the concrete was set and hardened, the tripod supports and foil were removed and the rocks placed in the sun and sprayed with water several times a day to cure the cement well.  With a 1/8" masonry drill bit, I drilled a few strategically placed holes and set up a string network so Paul would quickly understand the planting concept when he returned for the planting portion of the workshop.










      This photo shows the larger rock with cement at the base for support. This is the back side, so all of the area will eventually be covered by the support wiring and root system of the bonsai.









        First spoon concrete onto the foil and wires to form the base. The wires will be used to secure the planting to the pot.  The smaller rock is pushed into the concrete pancake, and supported by chopsticks to obtain the appropriate angle.








            The smaller rock is in position. Smaller complimentary rocks are embedded in the cement to add character. The cement will eventually be covered by planting media.



         I returned about 10 days later after the race. The first step was selection of the bonsai and planning the final positions. We set the position of the rocks in the pots, and I am looking at the plant from various angles to determine their final placement. We looked at a number of bonsai specimens, ranging from smaller to larger. I picked a medium sized plant that seemed to fit the position. I turned the plant around and around, and compared different positions.

        I selected the best position with the apex toward the rock, and major branches to grow outwards. The plant and rock should be looked at from multiple angles to determine the front view, and minor views.   I finalized the  bonsai to be used for each of the two plantings.

      The Banyan Cove commissioned bonsai that David did for me last year is on the left, for inspiration.

       We started with the smaller rock. When the bonsai position was finalized, heavy wires were placed to secure the bonsai to the pot and also for the scaffolding to be used to attach the plant to the rock.

        This photo shows how the scaffolding is attached to the wires embedded in the cement which will secure the planting to the bottom of the pot. You can see the depression in the bottom of the concrete, which allows good drainage.


         In this picture, you can see the proposed thick (permanent) wire structure for one of the two bonsai that will be planted on the larger rock.  String was used because the white color of the string shows up much better than the darker wire for photography purposes. This heavier scaffolding structure allow multiple attaching point for thin paper covered wire that will temporarily hold the plant in place and which will rot away to not hurt the plant or its roots.
       I am attaching the thick wire scaffolding for the second planting on the larger rock. Needle nose pliers are used to firmly secure the wire. This wire must be secured firmly as it will be a permanent hidden part of the planting that will hold the root structure in place.
      I am marking final position of the planting on the bottom or the pot. Once the rock is planted, it will be positioned based on these marks.


      Prior to planting, keto-tsuchi was prepared with equal parts sphagnum moss, fine lava, and cooked cornstarch, The mix is mashed together to form a sticky muck, which will be used to help adhere layers of sphagnum.  Low water soluble fertilizer will be embedded to allow extended slow safe release of nutrients.

       The smaller rock is ready to plant. The heavy wire support structure is in place, the keto-tsuchi is mixed, and there is plenty of extra sphagnum and potting mix available. You can also see a couple of the coated temporary wires that are attached to the permanent scaffolding, which will hold everything in place.
        We've smeared keto-tsuchi along the rock where sphagnum, planting material, and eventually, roots will form. Insert caches of nutrient granules in the muck and cover the with a ˝ inch thick layer of moss. Top with soil mix, then another layer of moss. Secure with a latticework of thin degradable wire over moss layers as needed, gradually building up to the desired thickness and profile. The final soil/moss layers should be secured with a firm latticework of degradable thin wire. We have built up a sufficient layer to support the eventual root structure.
       The bonsai has been bare rooted and a tool is used to remove embedded media, smaller roots, and to straighten and separate the roots for placement on the rock. In the lower right, you see the rock with a thick layer of sphagnum, ready to receive the planting.
         Place a thick padding of sphagnum where the bonsai will be placed, secure firmly with 2-4 permanent wires. Pad between roots and wire with moss. Plant should be firmly positioned, and almost immobile. Additional layers of moss and media are tied over the dangling roots.
        Once the planting mass is firmly secured, the mass should be probed from all sides to find gaps, and planting mix dibbled and packed firmly. More moss is then tucked in the sides to keep the media in place.
         The rock is firmly attached to the pot at the predetermined place previously marked with the marker. The four wires placed in the cement go through the nearest hole and are twisted together underneath. Coarse gravel is initially placed in the bottom of the pot, followed by potting medium, which is tapered downward form the base of the rock outward to the edge of the pot, and packed firmly in place.
         The finished plant over rock from different angles. Not a bad view from any angle!

         Personally, I think I like the first angle the best, because it shows the character of the rock with a “halo” of leaves.

         But the second angle shows the root best .  .  .
        .  .  .  and the third shows the branching of the tree, as well as a great profile of the rock.

           This is a winner from any angle!

             Foil is crinkled and wrapped tightly around the entire rock/root system. This will keep the roots moist, and encourage rapid, vigorous root development.
          The foil is secured to the pot and around the rock with 3/8” reinforced packing tape. Perforations are made in the foil every inch or so all around to allow some air to the roots as they develop.


         PLANTING THE SECOND LARGE ROCK.  The second planting involved twp bonsai with compatible characteristics. Although all the plants are dwarf schefflera, their characteristics vary. Some have smaller, leaves, some larger. Some have thinner leaves, some thicker. Some tend to be more upright, others spread more. With two bonsai on the same rock, this attention to detail is important.   Once the plants were chosen, the procedure is similar to planting the smaller rock. Placement of the plants is determined. The support structure was developed using a combination of heavier permanent wire that would ultimately be hidden, and thinner paper covered wire that is used to hold moss, media and roots in place until there was further root development.



        I've secured a large amount of moss and media along the eventual root course of the larger tree. Smaller “temporary” wire is used to secure these layers.


            The plant has been bare rooted, and the roots seem to form a natural “saddle” that will fit very nicely onto the knob that is shown on the large rock. Many of the plants at Fuku-Bonsai are planted over small rocks below the soil surface early in their development to promote a broader, more aesthetic root development.
         The larger tree has been positioned on the larger rock and secured in place with permanent wires. As with the smaller rock planting, the roots are secured in place with layers of temporary wire to hold the layers of moss and medium.
        Once secured in place, the sides are probed for gaps, which are firmly packed with planting media, then secured in place with moss. You can also see the concavity in the concrete base to allow proper drainage.


         Here, the smaller tree has been positioned using similar techniques. In this case, piece of hard plastic is used to hold the medium in place. The plastic is held in place with binding string to hold it firmly against the rock. Again, the sides are probed for gaps which are then firmly packed with media and held in with moss. The root area of the larger tree on this rock is covered with foil and perforated for air circulation, as previously described.

                  The above photo was taken the next day after Paul had assisted me with a 5-tree rock planting. On top left,  "Banyan Cove" created last year.  Front left, the small rock planting in a 1:10 Project 9" x1" deep saucer-pot.  In front of Paul, the larger rock planting with two trees, and on right,  softer Hawaiian lava cinder that was one piece. As part of that first day class,  Paul was taught how to "read" the grain and split the rock along that grain and started sculpturing the larger piece to emphasize the strata.  These rocks will be going to Arizona for Paul to complete. 


          I spent 4 days with David at Fuku-Bonsai, with a focus on learning rock planting techniques. The first day was an overview of different planting options. The second day was preparation of rocks for later planting. The third day was planting the smaller lava rock with a single tree, and the larger rock with large and small bonsai. The last day, we planted the large composite rock with 5 bonsai. I learned a tremendous amount in that time.  The concept that I liked the best was that Fuku-Bonsai is truely American bonsai --- influenced by and evolved from Japanese and Chinese traditions, but with American innovation! This really shows in the rock plantings!


         COMMENTS & NOTES BY DAVID.  The next day,  Paul assisted me in planting an "assembled rock" formation that had been done about a year ago.   Using scraps of locally available small rocks,  it is possible to create formations that can become attractive rock-planted bonsai almost anywhere --- even in places that may not have ideals rocks for bonsai!  Throughout that day, I enjoyed sharing my thoughts but invited Paul's input. And although his bonsai experience is still limited, his contributions to our effort were significant and provided viable alternative routes.  So we shared a wonderful experience and produced what will be a nice celebration at the Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center! That article is also in this issue and is titled:  "LESSON #13A.  ASSEMBLING AND PLANTING HARD CLINKER ROCK FORMATIONS."

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