A while back Journal contributing editor Jerry Meislik (Montana) emailed that he was visited by George McLean and he recommended George become a part of the fast-track study group.  Shortly after George emailed and although he had some experience,  recommended that he start with one Introductory Workshop Package (to learn basic Sumo) and two Intermediate Workshop II with the objective learning how to extend the roots of a Dragon,  and using a Roots to learn basic root-over rock.  He agreed and on June 8, 2013, he wrote:


              " Aloha David,  Your 3 dwarf schefflera arrived here in Montana yesterday as scheduled--they look very, very nice and very healthy. I gave them a good soak and will keep them indoors in bright glass-filtered sunlight for now and then--temps permitting-- move them outdoors during the day to get them used to their new northern Rockies environment. After a week or so I'll get started on the 1st workshop.  Aloha,  George  (p.s. I've never seen such a careful and thorough packaging of bonsai material before. Thanks!)
        On June 14, I received the shortest report ever!    

        "Aloha David,  Completion of Intro Workshop.  Went well. Mahalo, George"

       So I wrote to congratulate him on a nice placement but asked him to consider using the accent rock tight and to the left of the plant.



         On June 15, I received a longer report:

              "Aloha David, thank you for your suggestions. The rock does look better on the left side; I couldn't get right next to the trunk because of roots. I elevated the tree--I hope enough (I'll let you be the judge). Yes I would like to join your journal.

        My bonsai history: in the early 70's my wife's mom gave us some plants but I was in my internship training and didn't really get into it in any big way. When I retired 3 years ago I got interested again--not sure why. Started with yamadori collected from Montana mountains--larch, 5 needle pine, ponderosa, fir. Then some nursery plants and on-line bonsai outlets. Except for 2 figs (and now 3 schefflera) all are outdoor specimens. I have about 30 trees--junipers, pines, Hinoki cypress, crabapple, Chinese elm, Japanese maple etc.

       The ones that need special winter protection I store in a south-facing bonsai shed I made 2 years ago--I bury pot and all, cover with mulch, close up the shade cloth in the front and forget about them until spring. I recently made 3 "monkey poles" against a fence in our backyard and enjoy relaxing in a chair looking at 3 random specimens from my collection.

       My wife is from Oahu (Kaimuki) and really knows plants and is anxious to learn more about bonsai and looks forward to watching me work on my next workshop!   Aloha,  George"

        So I again congratulated him on his improvement in integrating the plant and rock and creating a scene that nicely shows off the aerial roots.  But although nice,  if the arrangement was potted higher, there would be room for more roots (that could be exposed) and stronger growth.  Some say I am never satisfied and it's true.  I really like to see everyone maximize and get strongest possible growth!



          That same day I received an email: 

          "David,  have exposed more roots as you suggested (about 1" higher than original planting) and repositioned rock.  As a beginner, afraid to expose more roots for fear of killing the plant. George"

          There are generally two type of bonsai hobbyists,  those like George who think tropical bonsai are just as weak as slow-growing temperate climate traditional bonsai, and beginners who have poor attitudes and techniques who use their abilities to quickly kill all of their temperate climate traditional bonsai and apply that expertise to also kill all possible tropical bonsai!

          I gambled that George was in that first category and just needed a bit of confidence.  So I sent him my standard "No Guts - No Glory" spiel and pointed out how to handled tropical bonsai roots. I was delighted to receive the following on June 19: 



         "Aloha David,  to deal with the root which interfered with the rock's position, I carefully lifted tree out of the pot to see where root's end was--it wasn't bound up in the root ball and I was able to bend the root around--it was surprisingly flexible-- to a more forward position. A new orientation/angle and a natural concavity of the rock was then used to allow it to snuggle up to the trunk nicely.

          During these operations the soil had become a bit mixed so I used my soil sifters to again separate the different sizes. Because of our low humidity here  I meanwhile wrapped the root ball in damp sphagnum moss to prevent drying. I then re- positioned the tree/rock combo with the tree actually in a bit higher position which looked nice, and added the soil layers and gently but firmly tamped them in .

          All that was left was the cardboard and wire, but I then noticed to some dismay that I had inadvertently rotated the initial front of the tree somewhat counter-clockwise (as viewed from above). I debated whether to take the whole thing down and start again but decided against it for the following reasons:

    1.  The rock in its new orientation snuggled up very well to that part of the trunk, and the trunk was in a pleasing position

     2. A branch which formerly was sticking straight out toward the front--not too desirable-was now off to the right

     3. I liked the prominence of the thick root in front

     4. Although most of the branches are currently growing toward the right, I gave higher priority to the root base and lower trunk, figuring that new branches could be formed to balance out the growth to the left, if I desired to do that in the future.

           I then cut a strip of cardboard about an inch wide and fixed the rock/tree combo firmly together.   Aloha, George" 


             For a fellow who started off with the shortest report ever, retired doctor George McLean  was moving forward on his own and just as I had completed the article to this point, I received another set of photos showing his latest changes and this made my prepared recommendations moot!

           Aloha David,  After mulling it over I decided to redo the planting. The photos pretty much tell the story. I filed the rock for an even better fit. As you can see the thick root emerges from the center of the root ball, so there was no way to get it to lie flush against the trunk. I nevertheless did try bending it with the cardboard but it snapped. Hopefully it won't be a problem as it had very few hair roots. I left it in place as it had about a quarter of its diameter still attached. The tree was rotated back clockwise for a better aspect.  When you get a chance let me know what you think.    Aloha,  George

            This article was originally scheduled to go into the June issue of the Journal of Tropical and Indoor Bonsai and the issuing deadline was already here. So I asked George to stop, don't do anything more, water the tree, and I'd catch up and place the article in the July issue after we've had enough time to resolve the various areas that needed to be addressed.   

            On  June 27 and 29,  follow up emails provided a critique and recommendations, and very shortly after, got a short email: 

           "Got the itch and went ahead with  the repot of Sumo today. All went well!" 

          A day later,  his final report was received!


          Aloha David,   your sumo revisions have been completed and pictures taken.

          As you recall, my first effort was acceptable, but at your suggestion it was re-potted to place the accent rock to the left of the trunk and in better contact with the trunk.

         More re-pottings followed, to elevate the tree, and then to file the rock to better contour it to the rock for a more intimate fit, and finally to use a cardboard collar and wire to assure a snug fit.     


        Finally, it was suggested to substitute an aluminum collar to cover the entire media for better moisture retention and also to pile finer soil medium at least halfway up the rock and base of trunk to encourage development of more roots and achieve a more pleasing appearance.

        I then assembled the materials for the project. Note homemade root hook (to punch air holes in the foil) and sphagnum moss.


       I  started by removing the wire and cardboard collar, inverting the pot and collecting some soil mix which I put through a 1/4 inch soil sifter to separate out some finer media. The coarser material was added first and I then temporarily taped rock to trunk while adding finer soil.

       There was one problem: because the tree/rock were quite elevated the slope was so steep that I couldn't add media halfway up the rock (even moistened) without first putting the aluminum collar in place.



       So I proceeded to do that, taping it in place temporarily.  I then added soil halfway up the rock and around the trunk , carefully tamping it in, and compressed the collar so that tree/rock were now integrated into a mound of soil in the pot.



        I then wired the collar to assure a snug fit. Air holes were punched in the collar and a bit of sphagnum moss was then packed into the top of the collar for better moisture retention in our dry climate. The top of the collar was then bent outward to create a funnel to facilitate watering. The tree was watered from above and below. 



      The finished product on one of my monkey poles.  I learned quite a bit doing this deceptively simple project-- you can read all you want but you need to actually do one to gain a better understanding.

        The devil is in the details--all kinds of little snafus and unanticipated problems tend to occur. Although my creation is undoubtedly not perfect, part of the challenge is the process of trying to make it as good as possible.  I thank David for that last lesson.    

       Aloha,  George



          It's  a joy to have George as a member of our study group and I hope that in the coming years, he will raise the bar and standards to bring TRUE INDOOR BONSAI to a continuingly higher level.  Most would have been happy with his first result, but he improved it , then improved again and again!  There are some factors at play that need attention. 

         Dwarf Schefflera is a unique plant that is very forgiving.  It has an extraordinary root system that can be very vigorous and aggressive when grown properly.  But it can also be stunted or rotted easily if drainage or the potting media is poor.  It will only exhibit its best traits when it is pushed and George now faces the challenge of creating maximum growth!

        Tropical Bonsai exploits strong buttressing roots and these are potted higher than temperate climate bonsai.  But the very loose granular potting media needs to be handled properly for it to settle in place.  There needs to be a finer organic rich surface layer held in place by the aluminum foil collar and there are many creative effective ways to use the foil collars.  Fine hair roots will develop in that fine thin layer to be followed by larger heavier roots that will fill out the media held in place with the foil. Keep the foil on for as long as it takes to fill up with roots! 

         Usually SUMO either does not use aluminum foil or uses only as a narrower strip similar to the cardboard that George used in the middle efforts.  It was great that he learned the more difficult "full surface aluminum foil technique," as it will be used in his next ROOTS and ROOT-OVER-ROCK workshops.

         George starts his next workshop which will be on basic roots and some additional information has been sent.  For this second workshop,  I've asked George to go through all information, ask questions, then go right through and take photos with captions.  Although a lot harder than sumo,  if he can get past roots,  he'll be well on his way!  Stay tuned as George has a good eye and will be a valuable member of our fast-track study group.  Welcome aboard George and congratulations on a great workshop!  Shaka bro!   

         ~~~David  (


***  Go to George McLean's second more difficult workshop on EXTENDING DRAGON ROOTS

***  Return to the July issue of 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, 2013