Lesson #11: ADVANCED ROCK PLANTING CONCEPTS AND TECHNIQUES WITH OLDER CHARACTER CUTTINGS

            Rock plantings are a facet of training bonsai by "ASSEMBLY."  The concept is very simple and although difficult,  it is ideal to teach serious beginning bonsai hobbyists.  That may seem to be overly ambitious and it may be for those with limited interest or long-term commitment.  But just as Fuku-Bonsai is fully committed to creating the finest bonsai materials that we can,  we want to create enough so that those hobbyists who have the interest, the skills, and the resources can take giant leaps into training advanced bonsai arrangements. 

            "ASSEMBLY" is putting together a bonsai arrangement made up of a few or many components.  It can be a simple plant on a single rock.  Or it could be several multiple-rock formations assembled to be a complex landscape with numerous trees all mounted on a large circular disc with mechanism that allow rotating it to be able to view the scenes from multiple viewpoints!

            "ASSEMBLY"  include two-tree plantings where two imperfect trees are grouped to create a more pleasing arrangement, but also multiple tree forest arrangements,  tray landscapes, and other forms of bonsai where the "sum of all parts is greater that the individual elements." 

             Some forms of bonsai require starting with as much age as possible and if the quality of the plants are high,  the amount of skill needed by the bonsai hobbyist is very low.  So there are many with the resources but without the interest or skill who purchase older trained bonsai.  But for the beginner who wants to master the entire bonsai art,  assembly offers an opportunity to start with younger plants and to sculpture or assemble more readily available rocks to create exceptional arrangements!

             It is said that a person achieves the status of "bonsai master" when he or she consistently can produce both high potential complex rock plantings and landscapes and multiple-tree forest landscapes.  For those who aspire to this goal,  this lesson provides the basics and I invite you to join the Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation and our study groups!

 

         Information about  "complex character cuttings" is posted at www.fukubonsai.com/4a13.html

         Normally when we root cuttings,  we trim all leaves in half to reduce the nutrient draw.  This cutting was set two months ago and already has two new leaves on each of the two branches.  The base of the cutting is about 3/4" in diameter with nice taper from having been trained as part of a bonsai for several years. 

        Few if any rocks are perfect and this one was prepared by using colored cement to position it upright and by extensive sculpturing with a drill with 1/4" and 1/8" masonry bits. Overall, there are three major "root trail crevasses" and in small areas, the sculpturing has created openings between the  "root crevasses" and these are used to anchor paper covered thin wire that will rot away. 

        I prefer to use these to anchor the plants rather than bonsai wire which do not rot and which will badly scar the tree.  

         Hawaiian lava is soft enough to sculpt and I prefer to create bold designs and deep crevasses.  All the edges of the root trail crevasses are lined with damp sphagum moss and heavier at the top even if you do not plant at the top.  Later when you water the top of the rock planting,  the sphagnum moss layer will transmit water through all connecting sphagnum moss and you will be watering the plants through this sphagnum moss water pathway.  If deep,  add body mix, another layer of sphagum moss,  Nutrient Granules,  another layer of body media, another layer of spagnum moss, etc.   
        The recently rooted "complex character cutting" had a number of roots about 2" long that were carefully guided down and the cutting positioned in one of the "root trail crevice."  Using the paper-covered thin wire that had been prepositioned,  the rooted cutting is secured in position.

        Additional layers of body media, Nutrient Granules, sphagnum moss are dibbled into position.  The paper-covered wire keeps it firmly into position.  It is preferable to use pre-trained plants or "complex character cuttings" rather than young seedlings or cuttings which are weak and harder to establish.

        Use some type of support so the "root trail crevasses" lies horizontal as it's easier to fill the various layers of sphagnum moss, Nutrient Granules, and body media.  The second plant will be mounted just above the "saddle" in the middle.  Note that there is over an inch of open area above the saddle. 

        So the plant will actually be sitting on over a 1" thick "cushion" made up of sphagnum moss, Nutrient Granules and body media.  Because of the way that the root trail crevasse as formed, once the planting is completed, no one will guess that there is so much choice media to support the roots and the plants will very quickly become established and grow very vigorously.

         This is the older "complex character cutting"  that was rooted in November 2012 and now about 9 months old.  The cutting is very well rooted and growing vigorously in a cut-down nursery 4" pot.  The base of the cutting is about 1 1/4" across.  It had been a part of the same bonsai as the first cutting.

         Fuku-Bonsais primary training technique is "massive reduction-building" that keeps extra branches on the bonsai.  From time to time, entire large sections are pruned off and these already have a lot of character as soon as rooted.  I estimate the section that was severed had been trained on the bonsai for 6-8 years. 

         The cutting was bare-rooted,  the roots untangled, and the leaves removed.  These "complex character cuttings" are ideal for rock plantings or for creating "Sumo Bonsai."  When large sections of a bonsai are removed,  what remains has a greatly improved taper and usually a new apical direction is selected.

        When a training strategy includes frequent "apical replacement,"  the resulting bonsai may be smaller, but have much more character and interesting tapering complex branches to match exciting trunks.  But for this to be effective, there must be a strong company-wide discipline and long-term commitment to highest quality standards. A senior staffer will cut back plants hard when necessary to maintain that standard!

         Separate and spread out the roots to position the tree on the saddle so the roots run down the sculptured root trail crevasses.  We prefer to work with roots that are already long enough to reach the media in the pot as these become established very quickly.

          Note that the rooted cutting is pulled down against the saddle and the securing paper covered thin wires went under the concrete bottom of the rock. Working with the rock in closer to a horizontal position makes the work very easy and fast.  Use enough wire ties so the rooted cutting is well secured and will not move or shake to allow the roots to quickly form and develop. 

          If done well,  you should have no problem picking up the entire rock arrangement by lifting up on the plant's trunk.  Some who lack the skill to solidly attach the plants believe lifting by the trunk is extreme and harmful.  It is not.  If done properly,  there will be no movement at all.

         But if not done properly, you can't hide the fact that you did not do it properly.  Those who develop the skill will confidently lift up the planting.  Beginners think it is scary and spooky.  But study group members are expected to develop the needed skills and sending a photo of a bonsai lifted by the trunk is a standard requirement.  If it's shaky,  send a photo and we'll explain how to correct your technique.  It's not hard.

         Completing the second tree is similar to the first tree. If there's a lot of roots, some may cross over into the adjoining root trail crevasse.  Note that only simple tools are needed:  A screwdriver ground down to be a narrow dibble,  an ordinary spoon,  and a spoon bent to be a "semi-funnel" to position material exactly where it is needed. 

         The dibble and semi-funnel is used together to pack openings when the rock planting is standing upright.  The potting media is very coarse and unlike the traditional Japanese rock plantings, no mud is used.  Rock plantings seem difficult but the techniques have been developed and we have a very high success rate.

         Before finishing, use the paper-covered thin wire to solidly secure the cuttings in place by going around and tying tightly around the rock.  Two long plastic ties that are knotted in the middle to form an "x" is threaded through the holes in a 10"x10"x2" half-flat that is used as a training pot.  Secure the rock planting by looping over portions of the rock and tying it down.
          Fill container with coarse bottom and body media.
            Install aluminum foil to protect the roots from drying out. 
*** Return to the September issue of Journal of Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai
*** Go to Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation website
*** Go to the Fuku-Bonsai website
Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation & Fuku-Bonsai, 2013