By Jay Boryczko, Journal Contributing Editor  (Farmington Hills, Michigan)

              Kicking off 2014, David tasked the Journal team to create penjing rock plantings.  Quite different from the bonsai style “Root-Over-Rock” workshops we've done previously.  You may wonder, what is the difference between Japanese bonsai and Chinese penjing?  How you tell depends on who you ask!  You may spend a good amount of time researching the histories of both and find that opinions vary on what constitutes a penjing versus bonsai.  Keeping my interpretation brief, penjing emphases natural scenes including rocks, water, and may or may not include plant material.  In penjing, usually the rock is the focus of the composition and plants, if any are used, are there to enhance the rock. 

            On the other hand, Japanese bonsai compositions use rocks to enhance the plant(s).  Like bonsai, penjing has many different styles, even one where the focal point is the tree.  Confused?  Spending time reviewing the differences may only leave you still trying to figure out which is what.  One thing for sure will be your understanding and appreciation for both penjing and bonsai.  This article will chronicle my Workshop II Bonsai “Root over Rock,” including my challenges thus far collecting and preparation for the 360-degree Michigan rock penjing type planting I have been tasked with creating.

           In the first rock workshop, I was supposed to be creating the “Hawaiian Root-Over-Rock” concept instead of my “Michigan Root-On-Rock” planting style, which you can read about in the October 2013 issue of this Journal.  In that article, you can share my pain as David told me that, “I fell far short of the mark.”  I will try not to disappoint anyone this time with another redo.  Skills that one acquires in workshop I also apply to workshop II however, with a twist.  That twist is taking left-over pieces from rock carvings and assembling them with your tree(s) to create larger scenes that are more interesting. 

          George and Ryan in last month’s journal created complex scenes by assembling different pieces of rock and used plants to create a larger more interesting composition.  Workshop II requires a lot less assembly than the previous two articles I mentioned but they give you a glimpse to what lies ahead.  Let's get started.  The first set of photos shows different views of my rock with comments. 


         (Left)  Front view, in my opinion, it’s the most interesting.  (Center) View from the back, some texture and features, nothing remarkable.  (Right)  Side view, no distinguishing features. 


           I sent David several views of the rock and advised him of which view I chose to be the front.  In addition, I included a photo of where I felt the saddle should be (left photo).  Then I received David’s confirmation with saddle location along with mark ups of where I should make my first cut.  Attached, are before and after pictures of the first of two major cuts.  Fortunately, I was able to get the first chunk out in one piece which I will use later to enhance my composition.  In the photographs, it may be difficult to gauge the size of the rocks we are working on without something to show scale; in these, I used a water bottle.  

            After removal of the first piece, David congratulated me and requested creating a second location by removing yet another piece of the rock.  Unfortunately, the second piece did not come out in one chuck, but many that were not suitable for the design.  However, they did come in handy for keeping the rock propped at the proper angle while the cement dried.  My goal is to keep the length of this composition to around six inches this opens up the possibility of using this planting for a future 1:10 project.  The next five photos show the different views where I carved crevasses for future tree roots.



              The left photo shows what is required to start.  I used a concrete patching material and aluminum foil.  The aluminum foil acts as a containment vessel for the cement.  You only need enough cement to bond your pieces into the desired position and provide stability.  Once you have tested your layout in the containment vessel, just add cement .  You will notice there are some wires in the cement and under the aluminum foil.  The wires in the cement are used to hold your completed composition in the pot.  Your planting may become top heavy and want to tip out of the pot.  These wires will let you attach your planting to the pot, preventing it from tipping over. 

              The purpose of the large wires under the foil is for when this composition one day graduates to a “1:10 Project.”  “1:10” Project plants are in very shallow pots that are ten times wider than they are deep.  The cement base may cover the many drain holes in the bottom of the shallow saucer and not let water drain properly.  These channels would allow water to run underneath the concrete base to allow water to drain.  Although not necessary now,  I have in my mind some exciting future compositions future.  I hope you saved the dust and small pieces from when you carved your stone.  You will notice the visible surfaces of the cement in the two above photos seem to match the rock.  That was not by accident, you do not want to make it obvious that these rocks did not naturally form in these positions.  Just after you place everything in position while the cement is still wet, sprinkle the dusk onto the wet cement.  When the cement is dry, which will take several days, the dust will adhere permanently, and your rock composition should stand without aide. 


               Of eight possible trees, I chose the two pictured here.  I tried to find trees that were somewhat bare on one side, or looked like the rock/mountain and the weather influenced their growth.  I made a quick sketch of the rock, including the trunks and main branches of the trees to help me map out the future of this composition.  While I am not an artist, you can see the trunks have the same contour as the rock so it looks like the rock influenced the growth of the trees.  As you can see from my plan, there will be eventually a unified canopy.



            After taking inventory of my supplies, I noticed I did not have any paper-coated wire for binding the trees to the rock.  The use of regular bonsai wire would eventually scar the tree.  After a short search, I found my solution, raffia.  Raffia is a reed like filament that will also break down over time, not as fast as the paper coated steel wire but it should deteriorate fast enough so scaring does not occur.  You may wonder why not use raffia instead of paper coated wire.  Well, raffia strands are not as long as wire and you have to tie it together to create long pieces and, it does not have the tensile strength of wire.



               The set of three photos above should look familiar as it is the same process as the first root over rock workshop.  Build up the saddle with overlapping layers of sphagnum moss and nutrient granules and do the same in the root crevasses (just like workshop I). 

                Now the planting of the trees can begin, one at a time.  The process of planting multiple trees in workshop II is the same as workshop I.  You just need to do one then move on to the second, the third and so on.  Notice the raffia I used to hold the trees in place and then dabble the soil into the crevasses.  Do not forget to get soil between the rocks and cover your cement base.  Your roots need to grow over the cement base and into the pot.  This can only happen if the roots have a path to do so.  Once that is completed, wrap your little treasure with foil like the picture. 


             Just a tip --- as I suggested it on my last rock planting,   mist the moss and soil once it is in place to help hold it in position.  You're almost done!  Now follow the first four steps on the provided cultural sheet for the preparation of your pot for planting.  Be sure to use the wires imbedded in your cement slab to secure your planting into the pot.  Now fill the rest of the pot with body media, tap it down with a spoon then cover the pot and your newly created treasure with aluminum foil.  Poke several holes through the foil and soak for thirty minutes.   YOU ARE DONE! 








        When growing bonsai here in Michigan between the months of November and March the traditional outdoor bonsai trees enter a dormant state. There is a risk of injury or even killing these trees if major root or branch pruning is performed during this dormant period.  So it was a good time to take on this True Indoor Bonsai project as it gives me something to work on when I cannot safely work on my outdoor bonsai trees.  As you can see, I had some snow to contend with but that turned out to be the least of my worries.  These rocks were frozen to the ground and I had to use a piece of firewood, which you can see in the background, to break old man winter's frozen grip on them. 



        The temperature on rock collecting day was a balmy -20°F.  A good piece of advice when looking for rocks to use for Penjing or Bonsai, do it when it is warm outside, plan ahead. 

        My correspondences with David about trying to cut these rocks were almost comedic.  One of the rocks purchased was indeed featherstone that you can cut with a branch pruning bow saw.  Unfortunately, the other rocks purchased were more interesting as far as color and grain (strata) than the featherstone.  Pictured is me starting my cut through the first rock.



              David said he cut his Featherstone into several slices in thirty minutes.  All I accomplished in thirty minutes was working up a sweat and the destruction of one saw.  Obviously, this was not Featherstone!  It was the heaviest of the rocks purchase that day.  Not to let a rock get the best of me, I grabbed a Saws All and went back to cutting this stone.  It was not long before blade number two then number three were destroyed, time to re-think the whole rock cutting process. 



           On a positive note, the rock was sliced into pieces at a thickness of approximately 1 ½ inches.  I thought the rock-slicing portion of this project was complete then, David requested my pieces be cut into ½-inch thick slices.  I was starting to worry if that was going to be possible.  The rock slices highlighted in the red box are the ones I have to choose from to create this penjing planting. 



         The rock in the green box was the most interesting and will be used for my penjing planting that, if all goes well, will be featured in my May article of this Journal.  David wanted a slice (blue box) so he too could feel my pain with trying to cut these into ½ slices.  David told me I needed to slice the large rock in this picture in to three slices measuring ½ inch thick. 


      Laura and I watch plenty of Do-It-Yourself TV shows, with our weekend morning coffee.  No idea why this wasn’t thought of sooner, there must be blades available to cut stone.  They do it on TV all of the time.  With a quick trip to our local big box home improvement store, low, and behold, they had masonry blades for both my 7 ¼ circular saw as well as my 10 inch chop saw. 

      Two options were available, either diamond blades starting at $30, or the carbon ceramic abrasive blades starting at $4.  The $4 blades are a lower priced option for those who are still uncertain about creating penjing landscapes.  Now to come up with some type of jig to hold the pieces of rock steady so precise cuts can be made. 


       In addition, and the most important part, the jig would allow you to keep your hands at a safe distance from the rotating blade.  With materials from around the house, this is what I used for my jig.  Now the rock can be held with one hand and the other works the saw, simple but effective.

      Duct tape was used as a guide, since the rock was too thick to cut in one pass.  It would need to be flipped over to complete the cut.  Carbon ceramic abrasive blades wear down with use so get more than one.  Comparisons of a new blade versus the blade used for cutting this rock shows the amount of wear.



          Now that the rocks have been sliced into ½ to ¾ inch slices comes cutting them length wise and assembling pieces together to form one cohesive scene.  More on that venture later…


             This should be no surprise to anyone that the “Rock Workshop II” is more difficult than the first rock workshop.  Steadily increasing difficulty is how one increases their skills.  Getting used to working with carving rocks leads us to creating complete landscape scenes.  I have seen many penjing compositions and wanted to undertake one of my own.  It looks like that day has come, join us on this journey

             If you have questions about the transition to taking your tropical True Indoor Bonsai outside when night temperatures are above 55°F,  you can contact me at

             Mahalo!  Jay



             In the first year,  the members of the beginner study groups made great progress and several, including Jay, graduated into the Fast-Track Study Group where each person helps to create his own customized workshops.  The original Introductory Workshop Package is really great for teaching how to create Sumo trees in two ways and Roots trees in two ways.  So those joining a beginner study group become members of the Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation ($12 per year) and order 4 Introductory Workshop Packages (and get free shipping when 4 or more are sent to the same address). 

           Upon completing one at a time and all four, you'll know whether you want to continue the hobby and at what pace.  Some move into larger older plants.  Others take on the challenges of rock planting (which is an "assembly" technique) as it creates a nice bonsai improvement in a short time compared to patiently waiting for the trees to grow (with not much to do except a modest amount of pruning and wiring that is quickly done).  So the bonsai activity is waiting for the tree to grow and while soothing and restful,  it doesn't salve your creative juices if you enjoy training bonsai! 

         Rock planting and rock sculpturing are two different challenges that are ideal for bonsai beginners with small young trees.  Preparing and sculpturing the rock is necessary and much more difficult.  Once the rock is properly prepared with a saddle,  root trail crevasses, etc. the actual planting is not difficult.  But by planting the small trees on a small rock,  a much more attractive bonsai is the result! 

          Jay wants to use rocks obtainable in Michigan and when we began, I thought he had found a source of Feather Rock which is relatively easy to cut and shape. He did, but he also obtained three other rocks that may have much more potential.  He didn't have much of a problem cutting the Feather Rock.  He set aside the lava rock for future sculpturing, but decided to power-cut the other two that had a lot more interesting character!  I agreed that the photos of those two rocks show greater promise and asked him to send me a piece of each and he did.  BUT THESE TWO ARE HARD!   MUCH MORE DENSE THAN FEATHER ROCK!  GREAT FOR RUINING SAW BLADES!  BUT WITH REALLY NICE POTENTIAL!

         First I tried splitting them with a wide stone chisel that produced small pieces.  Then I marked where I could cut one rock into two but would do this by marking the cut all around and drilling a series of 1/4" holes repeatedly until the rock broke on that line.  I tend to use only hand tools and drills and will leave ruining  power saw blades to Jay.  So I drilled and found it was drillable but I'd be taking on a MAJOR project!

         Like most Americans,  I like results ---  especially fast and nice results ---  the result may not match world-class work done by masters, but I want it to be better than I had ever done before!  In other works,  I LIKE SUCCESS!  It dawned on me that my role here is as a teacher and that Jay should be doing the sweating!  SO I'M SWITCHING GEARS AND REFOCUSING BACK ON EASY TO CUT AND SHAPE FEATHER ROCK!

        You can see the Feather Rock in the front below the two other harder stones.  It has less strata but was easier to cut.  SO LET'S START WITH THE EASY STUFF!  I'll be forwarding some sketches and concepts to Jay for use with the Feather Rock and we'll come back to the hard stuff once Jay gets a little more experience with the easier stuff!  Stay tuned!   Please contact Jay or me if you'd like to join in the fun! 

        ~~~David  (


*** Return to the February 2014 issue of the Journal of Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai
*** Go to the Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation website
*** Go to the Fuku-Bonsai website
© Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation and Fuku-Bonsai 2014