By Jay Boryczko (Farmington Hills, Michigan)  Journal contributing editor

                 Aloha all,  this month it's time to get to the nitti-gritty on the steps I took to create Augusts' five tree, five-rock saikei composition.  The most important first steps are to plan, plan, and plan!  Then if something throws a wrench into your best laid plan you revise that plan. 

                 I ran into a few obstacles along the way that challenged my composition that I showed you in August. (See   In this article, I will chronicle my journey from planning to completion.


                  I had difficulty on what to write about next.  Do I discuss design first,  then materials or vice versa?  I chose materials over design.  After all, this will also be a shopping list for materials I used and its cost to build this composition.  When I break it down you will see it is not that expensive because at least half of the materials can be reused making those you build after this one even less expensive. 

                  The plastic tray I used was part of a plastic training pot/tray combo and cost about $4.00.  The rocks were purchase from a local landscape supply for $.70 a pound.  My rock weighed in at about 5 pounds, (that was before I took my hammer and chisel to it). 

                  Plants for this composition were free.  They were just growing wild in my landscape at home and I could not beat the price.  On the other hand, I did purchase a set of dwarf evergreens I will use in upcoming journal articles that averaged about $14 apiece.  The moss used to simulate green grass in my case was free.  There are two to three spots in my yard where moss grows really well.  If you do not have such a place in your yard then you will need to collect what you need.  I know David has mentioned the code of collecting before and it bears repeating.  Please seek permission before removing anything from someone else’s property. 

                  Now the messy stuff “keto-tsuchi”, I will cover how to make it later in this article.  The materials are cornstarch, around a dollar a box.  Sphagnum moss $ 3.97 a bag and some fine aggregate, I used my bonsai soil, which costs me around $.29 per pound in material cost.  As you can see from this list, the material cost to build this saikei was a whole $13.92, not bad. 

                  We can reuse the pot, rocks, and plants so the second composition would cost around $6.42.  That is like buying one and getting half off the second.  I will use the magic words, sounds like a SALE too good to pass up.



                 Pictured here is a design sketch I did with the five rocks I planned to use.  The three “anchor” rocks center of mass match the plan of our 30, 60, 90 triangle.  The lines of the paper are vertical but notice the rocks are set along a diagonal like the ones we did in past journal article designs.  You are probably wondering, how I go about choosing what rocks to use?  Good question, it was not easy.  My rock was a solid five-pound rock, which I used a hammer and chisel to break apart.  Then I used my saikei sandbox and stood combinations together until I found an appealing combination.

                Picture in the center above is my sandbox.  I filled the tray I was going to use with my bonsai soil and tried different rock combinations along the 30, 60, 90 triangle until something caught my eye and added two more rocks.  Remember we need to use odd numbers of rocks and trees.  I could have stopped at three rocks but I wanted to add more detail.  It is easier to see how the rocks will be positioned in the tray from the overhead picture.


                 Now that the rock positions are figured out, we need to plan the placement of our trees.  Once again I pulled out the 30, 60, 90 triangle for the placement of the “anchor” trees, shown with the black circle and a dot in the middle.  The picture on the right shows some of the trees we will be using for this composition.


                 It's time to plan our layout and prep the tray.  I wish I had bought a more substantial tray.  Remember you are adding a few pounds of rocks, a few pounds of soil and plants and moss.  This may not seem like a lot but wait until you water your composition and the soil and rocks hold their share of water.  The tray wants to flex every time you move of pick up your little masterpiece --- so handle with care.  I had to drill several, --- okay,  a ton of holes to make sure drainage would be adequate.  I used blue tape to help me with where I wanted to place my walls to create islands.


               That's right, walls!  I could have planted this flat on the tray, but it would be far less dramatic and interesting.  Imagine the plants placed in my rock sandbox photos above.  A little boring wasn't it?  Many saikei compositions have a water feature like a river or pond and this one will be no different.  To give this more interest and drama I needed to create raised islands with a river winding through the middle.  To create the raised islands I need to construct horticulturally friendly walls out of keto-tsuchi. 

              David’s wife Myrtle’s cornstarch keto-tsuchi recipe is as follows: “Mix ½ cup of cornstarch with ½ cup of warm water to dissolve.  Add 1 cup of hot water stirring vigorously.  Cook on the stove stirring constantly until it thickens like pudding and the color is opaque." 




                Starting to stir Myrtle’s keto-tsuchi brew and in just a few minutes it will congeal into a ball.  It is best to use a low heat.  It will only take 5 minutes or so.  If you try to go faster, you will burn your ball of keto-suchi.

            To mix after cooling:  (you should wait until the cornstarch cools, it will be very hot) mix equal parts of cornstarch,  damp long strand sphagnum moss, and fine coffee grain size potting media granules including some dust.  (I use my bonsai soil when I am in a pinch).  Keep it on the stickier side and once in place, you can dry off the surface with the dust/fine granules.  Moss is easily placed on the sticky keto-tsuchi. 

               With the keto-tsuchi walls built and the bottoms of the islands filled with coarse aggregate, which keeps the finer soil from plugging up the drainage holes.  I then placed the trees into position.  In addition to creating landmasses, keto-tsuchi will hold moss in position even vertically.



         Pictured above is the initial planting of my first saikei composition I showed you in Journal's August issue.  Remember the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”?  It looks like I have more work to do.  The center photo above is my effort at refining my composition (which I did right after submitting the August article).  It's still not quite there yet.  The above right picture is my attempt to use the computer to help me make corrections without actually cutting anything. 

        You cannot glue the branches back once you cut them so, be sure you really want to cut that branch.  I have a few ideas of how to continue to improve it.  First off, the third rock on the right grouping cannot be seen.  I will have to see if there is room so the third rock can be visible when viewed directly from the front. 



              Now that it's October in Michigan, all on my tropical bonsai are indoors and under my light.  The outdoor temperate climate trees still have a little more time to grow, though very slowly.  As you can see, my first saikei has started growing and the moss looks stupendous.  It still needs quite a bit of refinement but it is healthy.  I will work on getting the foliage to back bud and grow denser.  I will leave this composition together for a while and share its progress with you overtime. 

              Though I have to move indoors to continue my winter bonsai studies, you can too with  tropical True Indoor Bonsai.  You can only get better by doing. Therefore, over this winter I hope to accomplish a few more  saikei to share with you.  Next month, I shall share redoing my Dragon bonsai and my efforts to make smaller Dragons like those that David has done.

              Warmest Autumn regards! - - - Jay (



             Jay, in your first Saikei effort, you did a lot of things right and I thank you for leading the teaching of this wonderful form of bonsai!  Although it can be complex,  like rock plantings, it's a basic "ASSEMBLY" technique in which you combine several elements to produce a completed result that has a greater net impact than any of the individual components. 

             Once you get past the basics taught by training four Introductory Workshop Packages as part of the Beginner Study Group,  you'll have the needed skills and confidence to do more challenging bonsai.  So those who "graduate" and join the Fast-Track Study Group are taking on a huge range of projects.  Ryan Chang seems to have a natural ability to sculpture rocks and is doing increasingly more complex conceptual designs to interpret a theme.  The ability to plan and create a personal interpretation of each bonsai is really the essence of bonsai --- man and nature in harmony!

             I compliment Jay for honoring the original founder's desire to create an inexpensive serene form of nature out of very inexpensive common elements --- but in a manner that is rich in personal investment of time and interest.  THAT'S IMPORTANT!   Toshio Kawamoto created saikei in modest circumstances where a war-torn nation sought to create some beauty when all around them was the ugly results of war. 

             I had the honor and privilege to attend several workshops with Toshio Kawamoto and Jack Kawamoto (same name but not related) of Kalihi Valley in Hawaii who had also studied with Toshio in Japan, but who returned home to form a nursery landscaping business that created the finest Japanese gardens in Hawaii. Jack taught me how to create very small single apex-tier branched evergreen trees with very strong low branches.  I am encouraging Jay to stay with learning the principles of saikei (including single apex-tier branched trees which is very appropriate for his Michigan location). 

             Hawaii also has another major saikei pioneer in Tom Yamamoto who was part of the American occupational forces right after World War II.  He got discharged,  married a Japanese national, and retired in Japan.  He became Toshio Kawamoto's primary English-speaking instructor for the staffs of the foreign consulates who wanted to experience a facet of Japanese culture.  Tom did a major presentation at the Kona Fuku-Bonsai Center and our Michael Imaino was his assistant. 

                 It is said that some of the first saikei containers were broken roof tiles scattered amongst the ruins of bombed out cities.  They began with young seedlings, as Jay did, and because they weren't able to continue to create large collections, the saikei arrangements were often taken apart, reused in different compositions, or continued to be improved over time on the huge challenge and gathered together a full range of materials including different sets of rocks,  containers, and plants.  And while your article of your first major assembled saikei rightfully began with a celebration of its humble origins,  you've begun to assemble and improve the components to launch a second generation of efforts to build upon what you've learned.

            When grouping trees,  you need to understand the principles of 1-tree,  2-tree, and 3-tree basic groupings. Learn these well.  If you do so and you substitute a 2-tree for a single tree in a 3-tree arrangement,  technically you'll have a 4-tree grouping which is a real no-no in traditional Japanese bonsai.  But if that 2-tree is done properly and with the bases of the trunks snug and tightly bonded to appear to be a naturally two trunked tree,  if can be substituted for a single tree and it is very possible to create an exceptional 4-tree grouping.

           The principles of saikei were used to create:  "CREATING A BONSAI WORLD!"  (See ) which utilized Dwarf Azaleas.  Advanced saikei concepts can also be adapted to True Indoor Bonsai that utilize Dwarf Schefflera. 

          The complex 360° landscaped named:  "THE WORLD OF BONSAI ALOHA!"  is really an advanced form of saikei.  (See ) It used a larger 25-year old and a 15-year old Dwarf Schefflera.

           The complex 360° landscaped named:  "DRAGON RAMPARTS!" was a further advanced form of saikei.  (See ) created as a more difficult compact arrangement less than half the size of the two previous successes,  utilized a fantasy theme and hand-carved "dragon-poles" and smaller, younger Dwarf Schefflera in Hawaiian Dragon, Roots, and Sumo stylings.

           "Assembly" techniques include rock plantings,  forest plantings, tray landscapes (including saikei) and the newest Fuku-Bonsai complex 360° landscapes.  These require much more detailed planning and the abillity to create such arrangements is the primary criteria used in Japan to determine whether a trainer has achieved "bonsai master" rank. In a sense, this is the highest level of bonsai and it is very doable for those who master True Indoor Bonsai.  The availability of Premium Prepared Bonsai Stock to members of the Fast-Track Study Group make such creations possible once your planning is complete instead of having to patiently grow your own pre-trained plants for 5 to 10 years before starting!

           I am encouraging Jay to continue to master the principles of saikei and will provide private assistance to him and other Fast-Track Study Group members wanting to learn saikei.  Please contact Jay or me if interested.  ~~~David (


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