RUBBER BABY BUGGY BONSAI BUMPERS!
By John "Jay" Boryczko (Farmington Hills, Michigan) Journal contributing editor
Over the years, I have had a few small bonsai and I was intrigued after reading last month’s collaboration on refinement by David and Ryan. Adding to that intrigue was Jerry’s article on small bonsai. I thought I would take a break from saikei, and play with what we have coined as "mini-bonsai". There is no size rule regarding what a mini-bonsai has to be and in fact, there is no such class. You will see from the photos in this article how small my mini-bonsai is.
David sent a preview of Lesson #25 (www.fukubonsai.com/4a25.html) on how he creates mini-bonsai. I read the article, obviously not very well because when I showed David how I was planning to train the premium prepared bonsai stock, his reply in short was, I missed the whole concept and was not providing the tree with the best possible potential for rapid growth. I will spare all of us some of the photos of my mistakes. (See comments by David at the end of the article.)
Next time I will read the article, follow it closely, and you should too. Doing so will give you the best chances for success, and that is why the editorial team is here --- to help you succeed in your True Indoor Bonsai endeavors. This article will cover a few of my many missteps on my way hopefully to a successful mini-bonsai planting.
In David's lesson #25, he used a melamine sauce dish. I showed David pictures of the small pots I had accumulated over the years and I have to say I agree with David's analysis. "Most small bonsai pots look too large and bulky for the plants that will reside in them". That is why we will use inexpensive bowls for our mini-bonsai pots. After an exhausting search online and store shelves for something that resembled David's bowl, I had to settle on two fired clay drainage saucers. I thought for $.94 if I broke one “no big deal”, they were far cheaper than bonsai pots.
Pictured above on my first mini bonsai attempt. I put five holes in the bottom, which I thought would be plenty. I was lulled into a false sense of security when it came to drainage holes. Bonsai pots of this size would have one hole in the center. From my experience working with David, one hole was not going to provide adequate drainage. When I sent David the stack of pictures of my planting, David marked this picture up saying, “You need fifty percent more holes”. I faced two problems with trying to add more holes. These types of pots are brittle and crack easily when drilled into and the second was I had already potted the plant. The second photo shows the holes in my second pot in preparation for the redo so, the second time I tripled the number of holes.
Drainage is key when working with bonsai, especially mini-bonsai. With the drainage hole issue worked out, we still have a few other drainage related issues to resolve. Bonsai pots have feet to lift the pot off the surface so water can drain and air can circulate. Saucers and dishes do not have these amenities. David outlines a solution to these issues in lesson # 25. He cut away sections of the foot ring thus creating feet to let water drain out and air circulate. That works great on plastic but not so well on fired clay or ceramic pots.
David’s solution is a sensible one for getting the pot high enough for water to drain and air to circulate --- rubber bumpers --- the kind that goes behind pictures. Hence the name of this article “Rubber Baby Buggy Bonsai Bumpers”. Tongue twisters and bonsai have something in common. You get better at both, when you continually repeat the exercise. That is why my saikei uses movable pieces. It gives us the opportunity to repeat the process as often as we need hopefully, learning from our mistakes and improving with each repetition.
The picture on the left is the plant I selected to create my mini bonsai. After several e-mails with David and Ryan on how I wanted to trim this tree, we decided on what you see in the picture on the right. Well almost, David would have liked me to leave more leaves on this plant. David reminds me, the plant will flush out new leaves faster from the crotches of existing leaves than from old wood where there are no leaves.
At first, I was not totally sold on the design. The branch that comes out of the front and crosses the main trunk created visual issues for me. It took me a few weeks to understand what Ryan and David were telling me. I could not understand why this branch should stay. They kept telling me, “I would be removing 20% of the potential growing points”. While working on this article it hit me, what I think is the front now may not be the front in the future. This tree has a few years of development and that branch may become an important part of the design. I cannot glue it on latter once I cut it. In addition, when viewed from a different angle it does not look so bad. Think round pot. There really is no front with round pots. In addition, plants grown indoors should be rotated to provide even light exposure and growth. So leaving the branch was not such a bad idea after all.
THE DIRTY JOB
With the plant trimmed, it is now on to the dirty work, soil preparation. To provide our mini-bonsai with the optimal conditions for growth, we will use a few different layers of soil. This will require the screening of your soil media through 3/8”, ¼”, 1/8” and 1/16” screens. Since these trees are small, it will not take much soil to get enough of each grade. When screening what makes it through the 3/8” screen and is caught in the ¼” screen becomes the coarse bottom soil for drainage just like the introductory workshop. The soil that makes it through the ¼” screen, and caught by the 1/8” screen becomes your body media. Finally, what goes through the 1/8” and caught in the 1/16”screen is your fine top dressing.
Like the beginners workshop you want to build a little hill of the coarse drainage layer, and not lay it flat across the bottom as I did the first time. This first hill should be an inch or so in diameter and only be ½ the height of the interior of the pot. You will need a trowel or an old spoon to compact the soil. I found using a squirt bottle with water extremely helpful in compacting the soil of the hill. Water acts like a lubricant allowing the pieces to slip past each other so they fit snuggly together. Normally on larger bonsai, you would use a chopstick to work out the air pockets under and around the roots of your bonsai. When you are working with trees this small a chopstick will bring your drainage layer to the top of your soil mass, which I managed to do on my first mini bonsai attempt. This will cause the finer soil to run out or even plug the drainage holes.
David suggested I us an old spoon or masons trowel so I could work the soil to get it to compact. I did not have an old spoon I could use. Then I remembered a trowel looking thing on one end of my root rake. Now I know what that end was to be used for, you learn something new all the time. The picture on the right was the beginnings of my coarse soil hill. Take notice of the pieces of soil in the drainage holes. These pieces will keep the finer soil from running out or plugging the drainage holes.
The soil that made it through the ¼” screen, and caught by the 1/8” screen is the next layer to apply. This layer will fill in the spaces in the previous layer you just put down and should be twice the diameter of the first and cover all of the drain holes. You also have to keep in mind this layer will raise the height of the hill. However, it should finish lower than the height of the pot and extend to where the pot wall meets the bottom. The photo to the right shows the next layer, which is the fine top dressing. This is the last layer used to build the planting hill. The planting hill should extend just above where the pot wall meets the pot bottom.
The first time I planted the tree I spread the roots out to lower the tree’s final height in the pot. The other intention was to give the impression of a good root buttressing.
For my redo and for future mini’s, David suggested I pull them back in so they resemble the shape of a cone. This will provide a snug fit between the tree roots and the hill. You will want to be a little firm, push the tree onto the hill.
Then wire down one side, you should be getting it tight enough so it will rock the tree in that direction. Then wire the other side tight enough to right the tree again.
Now the voids around the roots need to be filled with the body media. You work the body media using the trowel around the roots and filling the pot to no more than half its depth. Do not forget to add your nutrient granules during this stage of potting.
Only two more layers to go if you do not count the aluminum foil collar. The fine top dressing is next. Gradually work this layer of soil with the trowel to fill in the voids left by the body media to a gentle slope leaving a ¼ inch from the top of the pot as shown in the picture above. Notice how well all of the little pieces seem to fit together.
Finally, a layer of coconut coir is added, (you could also use what made it past your 1/16” screen), to help promote the development of hair roots. Hair roots are a precursor to the larger surface roots that make these mini-bonsais look that much more impressive. Now add the usual tight fitting aluminum foil collar with the funnel top. Do not forget to punch many air holes in the foil collar and soak for 30 minutes.
(NOTE THE PHOTO BELOW TAKEN JUST SEVERAL DAYS LATER!)
While the mini-bonsai can and is, very rewarding, it is a tedious process. Remember when using larger bonsai stock you can use a chopstick to work out the air pockets in and around the roots. Mini-bonsai are too small for something as large as a chopstick. I know first-hand that was also a point David made with my first attempt. The chopstick when working the soil to remove air pockets tends to pull up the larger aggregate. Everyone with a bonsai collection should have a few mini-bonsai to complement their collection. Since I was able to correct my drain hole issues in my first pot I now have another pot to do a second mini-bonsai. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or comments. Mahalo! - - - Jay
A NOTE BY DAVID
This article is the result of a three-person email chain amongst Jay, Ryan, and me as part of the editorial team preparing for this issue (with Jerry off on a trip). It wasn't intended as an article as we had expected Jay to put together his first complete saikei with all of his components, plants, etc. Ryan and I had emails going back and forth as we bounced ramification concepts and details off each other and we included Jay into the chain. But Jay started getting excited about mini-bonsai too after I had sent them a preview of the Mini-Bonsai article. Jay just couldn't resist putting together his version of a mini-bonsai container. I must say that he came up with a nice result --- and with material cost less than a dollar --- the price is great. I can see he could have a whole bunch of these to incorporate into future saikei arrangements!
At the start of his article, Jay noted that I replied that he missed the whole point of the article. Actually, Ryan caught the problem and responded first. Essentially, Jay had indicated he planned to remove some branches that he thought didn't fit and Ryan immediately emailed to stop him. In this area, Ryan has a solid understanding of Fuku-Bonsai's emphasis on creating strong growth, but unlike others, we have a strong recommendation not to prune or select branches at the start of training.
I think Jay got influenced by the way he was originally taught the basics of bonsai many years ago. There's a general tendency to try to teach "branch selection" in beginner classes. At Fuku-Bonsai, this is a big "NO-NO!"
Generally beginner trees are skimpy scrawny cheap young plants that have few ideally positioned established branches. What are called "branches" are immature and may not develop. So selecting and removing some almost assures that bonsai will never have strong lower branches. We emphasize creating superior plant health and retaining all possible branches! Don't remove any branches until you need to. This is especially important in mini-bonsai where branches are much closer together. The basic principle: "YOU CAN ALWAYS CUT IT OFF LATER. IT'S REALLY HARD TO GLUE BACK A BRANCH THAT YOU TOO HASTILY CUT OFF EARLIER!"
AS JAY STATED, I CAME DOWN HARD THAT HE MISSED THE ENTIRE CONCEPT OF PREMIUM PREPARED BONSAI STOCK! If you look at the first photo of the plant used in this article, you really should recognize that is is super premium bonsai stock! It is still in a 2" nursery pot, BUT LOOK AT ALL OF THAT CHARACTER WITHIN 1" OF THE SOIL-LINE!
A KEY BONSAI PRINCIPLE: "You should invest enough time and effort to fully understand the plant material that you plan to train. You should be able to understand the weak points of the tree to be able to improve the tree and eliminate or address the weak points. BUT YOU MUST ALWAYS UNDERSTAND AND CONTINUALLY TRY TO EMPHASIZE THE STRONG POINTS!
If you are fortunate enough to have access to Premium Prepared Bonsai Stock, you really should know and appreciate the difference. Compare that first plant photo against a young untrained seedling that is thin with no character at all. Imagine the amount of work over 3 to 5 years that it took to produce all of that character within one inch of the soil-line and that shallow complex root system within 1/2" of the soil line. Recognize that the plant is the result of a lot of professional knowledge and skill, but that it is also a plant that survived the culling process that threw out those that did not develop to that high standard. Knowing this, you should not use beginner training techniques to produce low grade bonsai.
The spirit of Fuku-Bonsai is a commitment to continual improvement. The tree as shown in the first photo has five well established growth points, a stout lower main trunk with additional smaller trunks. As soon as the tree leafs out, it will already be a very creditable mini-bonsai! With ideal development, the five growth points will increase and in dispersing the energy of the plant, each leaf will reduce in size. Careful detailed pruning and training will create a beautiful mini-bonsai in record time!
Premium Prepared Bonsai Stock are very special bonsai opportunities that are rare and hard to develop and find. We will not sell them except to members of our Fast Track Study Group until we can teach them how to properly bring out the plant's potential. Fuku-Bonsai's Hawaiian Lava Plantings and Potted Bonsai are premium high-potential bonsai because they are trained with such premium prepared bonsai stock. There are really no bonsai secrets. To create high-potential bonsai, simple acquire and start with high-potential prepared bonsai stock. But you still must learn how to develop it to its highest potential and resist the urge to make rapid decisions that reduce potential!
I'm pleased Ryan was able to pick up and led the way to guide Jay into the right direction. I hope Jay goes on to guide others and that we continue to try to help everyone raise the standards of Tropical and True Indoor Bonsai. As you can see, Dwarf Schefflera are ideal for the entire range of large to mini-bonsai. We invite you to join us!
© Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation and Fuku-Bonsai, 2014