By Ryan Chang (Waipahu, Oahu, Hawaii)
& David Fukumoto (Kurtistown, Big Island of Hawaii)

                 Root-Over-Rock bonsai is amongst the most attractive and desirable types of bonsai to grow and own if it is done properly.  It has the attractiveness of both an interesting rock combined with a well-positioned pre-trained tree that had been properly prepared by extending the roots.  It has multiple areas of difficulty and so high-quality root-over-rock bonsai are not commonly seen and very rarely offered for sale, even at premium prices!  It's just too difficult, takes too long and requires great skill.  So this is an advanced area being taught to members of our Fast Track Study Group.

                 Ryan Chang, a young man in a hurry, contacted Fuku-Bonsai at the beginning of 2013.  He is the undisputed leader of the Fast-Track Study Group and as a contributing writer, has had at least one article published in the Journal of Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai since the January 2013 premier issue.  He works nights and grows True Indoor Bonsai outdoors in Hawaii throughout the year. With his energy, enthusiasm, time, ideal growing environment and great plant growth,  he is able to do what very few others can!

                 Ryan visited Fuku-Bonsai in February 2013 and as part of a workshop series, did his first root-over-rock planting on a rock that had already been prepared.  Hawaiian "welded-splatter cinder rock" is ideal and he was sent two selected rocks to begin learning how to do rock sculpturing.    It is relatively soft and can be shaped with a hand pick, stone chisels, a drill with masonry carbide bits, or other tools.  The first four photos show a "before and after" front and side views as Ryan began.

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                    FIRST REPORT:   The initial objective was to trim the bottom so the rock would stand up in an interesting vertical position,  to create a saddle where the roots of the tree would sit on that saddle,  then to carve "root trail crevasses" to allow a tree whose roots had already been lengthened to travel down those root crevasses to enter the soil in the pot.

                   This first effort was better than expected, especially of the right side view.  But I considered the front view terrible and very unattractive like an obese beer bottle!  Who could possibly enjoy seeing this ugly blob for as many years as the tree will live?  Even if the tree became attractive over time,  such an ugly rock was worse than no rock at all.  First I stressed that the rock should sit solidly with a wide bottom base,  but to thin out the top of the rock and create an interesting profile.  Then create interest in the middle section.  

                   I sent Ryan some choice diplomatic encouragement to try harder,  to reach back into his Chinese heritage, to go to Google, and insert the key words:  "Chinese Taihu Rocks" and "Chinese Spirit Rocks" to see if it would wake up his artistic genes.  I told him his rock was boring that it should have some holes and to remove some mass from the bottom heavy rock.  And while he's at it,  bore a hole near the bottom to anchor the rock to the pot.  And he did.



                    SECOND REPORT:   Now we're making some progress!  I tried to teach Ryan the principles of Chinese design ---  the celebration of ying and yang --- learning the balance of opposing forces  --- rock and water  ---  mass vs. void  ---   heaviness on one side of the rock with many delicate almost filigree opening on the other side of the rock!  These are sophisticated concepts that I try to use in my best efforts that are heading into the Fuku-Bonsai permanent collection. But such philosophical concepts only influence old guys with a lot of white hair who have slowed down to try to figure out the meaning of life!  With Ryan's youthful black hair, I had to use a more direct approach. Basically I challenged him to keep removing mass and to add more character.  But to stop before he weakens the rock.  Stop before it breaks!  How do you learn this? Keep going until the rock breaks, then next time don't go that far!        



                     THIRD REPORT:  I was delighted to see these photos and pleased he had good instincts to reach this stage without breaking the rock!  WELL DONE RYAN!   Ryan was planning to put do a rock planting to go into a half-flat but I suggested it go into a 8" diameter x 2" deep round Fuku-Bonsai plastic bonsai pot and I'd send him a pair.  In the meantime, start work on Rock #2.  He had asked my opinion if textured paint would work and I just didn't know.  This guy is keeping me on my toes!  The redness of the rock was bothering me too.  It's especially red after being sculptured but becomes a more acceptable color with some aging.




                       FOURTH REPORT:  Due to the Labor Day weekend, I could not get the pots to Ryan and his newest set of photos arrived first.  I liked the granite gray and while it's not common to see such blue rocks, Ryan had an idea for a story to go with it so I gave my blessing whether it was needed or not.  It's going to be interesting to see the long-term effect and value of Ryan's textured paint.  I think it will help to make the rock less brittle and in sealing up the very porous lava, it's less likely that the roots will break apart the rocks.

                       With so much sculpturing to reduce the rock mass,  I recommended that Ryan use the shallow 1:10 Project saucer pots and I sent him the small 7" diameter, medium 9" diameter, and large 12" diameter.  In Hawaii FedEx is a next day delivery and Ryan went ahead with the planting while the containers were enroute.

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                       THE PLANTS.   Ryan has a lot of time,  a larger outdoor area for year-around growing, and more energy and positive aura than most people.  Consistent with "Hawaiian Young Turk" philosophy, those in a hurry have to have a lot of plants to work on,  to take risks,  but with an emphasis on growing the plants very vigorously.  Ryan has learned his lessons well!  After his Fuku-Bonsai visit in February 2013,  he concentrated on creating optimum growth. Ryan's collection is now over 40 trees and he keeps a folder record  and update notes of each tree for future reference. 

                       He absorbed accelerated growth principles and did what no other study group member has done. He asked me to create a special "Prepaid Account" and prior to his second Fuku-Bonsai visit,  we discussed starting him off with a load of plants including numerous untrained  young plants,  those that are part of the Introductory Workshop Package,  as well as a dozen or so plants at the intermediate workshop level. These went home with him on his second May visit and the two plants above show the results of only four months of optimum growing conditions as he now spends more time with his bonsai than on the golf course!  

                      The left photo above shows that just 5 months ago, it was in a 2" nursery pot and was one of several that Ryan extended roots using larger containers to get a faster growth rate.   It will be used on the taller more elegant "Rock #1."  The tree on the right is more of a Sumo, but in an experimental preparatory concept in which golf-ball size rocks are placed in the pot with the idea of creating fewer but larger roots.  Ryan didn't have any amount of rocks but his old golf balls worked great!



                           ROCK-PLANTING.  Ryan had learned rock planting on his first visit in February so he had no problems,  especially with his very heavily sculptured rocks that had a lot of "root trail crevasses" to stash and store large quantities of ultra slow release, on-demand Nutrient Granules. He used a generous amount of sphagnum moss which serves as a water distribution system to spread moisture throughout the porous rock to create exceptional growth.  Because the extended roots were long enough to reach the media in the shallow 1:10 Project saucers,  there should be no problems.  He had the plants on the rocks before the 1:10 Project shallow saucer-pots arrived.   


                           FUKU-BONSAI 1:10 PROJECT SHALLOW POTTING.  Ryan had already installed holes near the bottom of the rock and had wires running through them and coiled out our the way while he did the rock planting.  The Fuku-Bonsai 1:10 Project utilizes shallow saucer pots with a generous number of holes drilled into the bottom.  Shallow containers have very poor drainage.  Dwarf Schefflera is a lot more drought-resistant than most people realize and a shallow container will allow creation of a very impressive rock planted bonsai as you won't be focusing on the mass of a deep heavy pot. Ryan selected the 7" diameter x 3/4" deep pot for the taller rock #1 and the 9" diameter x 1" deep pot for the squattier rock #2.  So he quickly anchored the rock planting to the saucer-pots and completed adding first coarse bottom media sloped up to the rock, then a layer of body media, and finished with finer materials prior to creating the foil collars. 


                            ALUMINUM FOIL COLLARS.  In Honolulu,  Ryan finds that wrapping the entire saucer works well for him as it is a lot drier there and he is growing his trees outdoors. For the taller Rock #1 with a smaller saddle and plant, he used a portion of a paper milk carton to protect the exposed roots at the top.  As soon as they are hardened off, they go into full sun.  The two left photos show Rock #1 before and after first pruning.  Note the generous number of air holes in the foil, that the top of the foil is a water-catching funnel and that we use sphagnum moss as a mulch on top to keep the top porous and easily watered.

                            At Fuku-Bonsai,  we prefer to plant trees that are in full foliage with a generous amount of roots.  The trees are cut back very heavily and this will offset any amount of roots that are lost.  This is standard practice at this intermediate level where plants are growing very strongly.  We do not recommend such drastic pruning of the plants used in the Introductory Workshop Packages,  especially by beginners who have not yet developed the experience and growing environments to create vigorous growth! 


                         FINISHING AND AFTER-CARE.   For those growing bonsai indoors with just a few plants,  watering by soaking the plants for 30 minutes weekly is recommended.  For the plants that have aluminum foil collars,  a turkey roaster-baster is handy for watering the upper section.  Those growing plants outdoors when night temperatures are above 55 degrees F. must learn proper watering and fertilizer adjustments.  Ryan uses a fine nozzles to water his trees if he can throw on enough water to penetrate 1/2" of soil, for an 8" high foil extension, he may need to make 16 passes to get the plant thoroughly waterred.  Ryan uses an old aquarium in the shade to block drying winds and raise the humidity to help initial recovery. 


                 1.      PREPARE AND/OR PRE-TRAIN THE TREES! In nature trees growing on rocks tend to be stout and compact and so no thin, scrawny trees should be used. Trunks should have taper and character within one inch of the soil line with multiple trunks, and low branches.  Roots should already be extended to be able to reach the media in the pot. Only strongly growing, healthy plants should be rock-planted as weak plants can become stunted or die.  This preparation is the key to success.       

                 2.      MINIMUM BARE-ROOTING.  Try to retain all possible roots and do not bare-root unnecessarily. It is better to do extensive rock sculpturing to allow using a generous amount of sphagnum moss, body media, Nutrient Granules, and to not have to remove all media attached to the root hairs. 

                 3.      ESTABLISH A DISCIPLINED PRUNING STRATEGY.  Creating high-quality bonsai starts with discipline.  If the stock has character within 1" of the ground, it down-grades the quality if long sections are added and in the future, a long uninteresting branch or trunk section will be a major eyesore.  So although everyone wants to create a large tree quickly,  by doing so you'll create a large low-quality tree.  At Fuku-Bonsai, we allow the trees to grow wild to create heavier trunks and branches.  Note where the trunk or branch was last cut, then estimate the diameter of the new growth.  For apical growth, we make vertical "dive-bomber" cuts and add about 2 diameters and prune off the rest.  This will keep the height of the tree compact.  For side branch growth, we make "flat branch" cuts so the scar is on the top of the branch and the new growth will more likely emerge on the bottom or sides of the branch.  We may add on 2-3 diameters of the new growth.  If this practice is used consistently,  the tree will develop character and age beautifully.


                          In 1962 when we moved to our Kaneohe home,  our yard quickly began filling up with trees and it really has been great working with Ryan. Then we learned by trial and error.  It took me several years to learn the importance of fast-draining potting media and that a non-soil gravelly aggregate type potting mix supplemented with long-lasting shredded coconut husk was far superior for container plants than that fine loamy top soil that works great for vegetable gardens!  So helping Ryan to formulate his potting media from materials he can obtain in bulk quantities has greatly reduced the cost of his hobby and he'll be passing on this information as he becomes a larger influence in the Honolulu-Oahu bonsai community.

                         Ryan started with prepared bonsai stock that had high-potential and character within one inch of the soil line and a compact complex root system.  He's learned to move them into "Sumo" and "Roots" preparatory stages for premium future training stock while learning to begin cuttings and developing them into prepared bonsai stock.  He's trying, has snapped some plants, but getting better and will one day be able to create "Hawaiian Dragon" prepared bonsai stock.  He'll be able to keep developing more complex character.  We're trying to install a discipline that dragons get totally restyled each time it is repotted with the hope of creating exciting trees that are uniquely different and complex.

                        In focusing on Sumo, Roots, and Dragons as three styling concepts,  Ryan is following a non-traditional bonsai path totally different from traditional temperate climate outdoor bonsai.  I am try to not expose him to the huge number of Japanese bonsai styling concepts that are primarily based upon "single apex - tier branch" structures as it seems most effective in creating "pine-tree" shapes that are not applicable to tropical and true indoor bonsai.  So at this stage of training,  I am not overly concerned about how Ryan shapes his trees.  I am more concerned that he can recognize traits that make a tree high-potential and other traits that degrades trees as less suitable for bonsai. 

                       THERE IS A MAJOR LESSON HERE!  Note the tree that Ryan used on Rock #1.  Although he's had the tree for just five months,  note the extraordinary change in that five months! Five months ago it was the "premium grade" similar to the 2" potted plant that is sent with our Introductory Workshop Package that was already 2 to 4 years in training. At this stage,  the tree has completed the most difficult and critical training as the trunk already has a lot of character and trunk taper within one inch of the potting media surface.  There are multiple trunks and established low branches and a shallow, compact complex root system!  With this high-potential stock,  anyone has an excellent opportunity to create high-potential bonsai. This if Fuku-Bonsai's major contribution to it's customers success! But it's only as good as the customer's ability to create strong vigorous growth and Ryan has acquired that skill and his growth rate approaches or exceeds the plant growth rate at Fuku-Bonsai.  I'm very proud of him and encourage everyone who wants to create high-potential bonsai to start with the highest potential prepared bonsai stock and to initially focus on creating the optimum plant growth rate!  

                        But beyond the basics,  I'm trying to teach Ryan that each tree is different with a unique personality and at one point each bonsai should also have unique features and a story to go with each. This rock planting exercise included discussing whether it is appropriate to use textured paint on rocks that would be planted.  It evolved into whether an attractive blue is appropriate.  Maybe if there's a story behind it, it would make sense.  Ryan likes that blue color and here's his story!  


            "A tiny island in Algonquin at sunset."  Aarchiba at en.wikipedia (author, April 22, 2004)  in Wikipedia public domain.
By Ryan Chang (Wapahu, Oahu, Hawaii)  Journal contributing writer

                  In a time where majestic and mystical beings filled the earth for hundreds of years, a mystical tortoise roams a tiny piece of land yearning to return home.  After being taken from his native land, he was washed away by a gigantic storm from a large ship, which he was the only survivor.  Not able to swim, the tortoise washed ashore, and made its way to a large magical pond centered on the tiny island. 

                 A single koi fish was trapped there for many years.  Together, they produced magnificent miniature trees. The magical pond water feeds the trees, and somehow the water never empties and the river like water flows around the roots constantly nourishing. In return, the koi turned into a majestic size and lived for an abnormally long time.  The tortoise never went hungry; the trees foliage kept low crowned because the tortoise would eat the long leafed branches.  The miniature trees stood out from afar on the tiny island.

                The tortoiseís home was the mystic mountain.  The mountain stands far into the distance high into the clouds and reaches towards the heavens.  There lies the most beautiful land and abundant life forms, but no trees. The mystic mountain only appears at first light.  The mystical tortoise would tell stories of how the mountain was filled with ponds from top to bottom, and how the koi would enjoy life on the mountain. 

                The tortoise could not get there alone, so his new friend, the Majestic koi agreed to carry him home.  The mystical tortoise was so grateful, and allowed the koi to carve out a special holding within the tortoiseís shell.  It looked like the mystical tortoise was growing a tree out of its shell. The Majestic koi was big enough to carry the mystical tortoise, and off they went under the cover of darkness into the vast openness in search of the mystic mountain. 

                 On their journey, their friendship was strengthened through the challenges that laid ahead of them , even the tree seemed to be alive as the spirit of the mystical tortoise grew into the roots of the tree.  It seemed like a dream when the mountain appeared, emerging out of the distance, there at the top, the tortoise slowly made its way up to plant the tree. Now, with a new name, known as the Majestic Mystical Mountain, the tree was proudly placed upon the highest plateau while its roots reached down to greet the majestic koi and mystical tortoise.


                     POST-SCRIPT.   Ryan's drill and masonry carbide bits with most work done with the 1/2" bit with detailing with the 1/4" bit.    Early in the exercise, he traced the photos of his blue stone and discovered a turtle sitting on a fish that inspired his story!


                I really had fun working with David on this article.  As you can see, I was a bit hesitant to really work the rock.  I basically carved out trails and very minimal rock sculpturing.  After David let me go wild and gave me the inspiration to do Taihu rocks, I might work on it for a few days. Each time I came back to it; I'd see something more I can do. 

               The hard part is backing off when you need to.   Many times, I would try to smooth out or get delicate with a certain area and next thing you know a slight twist of the drill will take off a whole chunk of rock.  Then you are left to figure out how to change the design into something even more exciting.  Thatís how I was able to envision the rock;  do drastic changes and make the best out of it. 

                I asked David if it was okay to use this cobalt blue metallic after he told me to use only dark colors.  So, I am really pleased to be able to feature this colored rock.  I also used a textured type of spray paint that changes the surface of the rock.  After studying Davidís basic rock planting and taking what I remember from my first rock lesson with David at Fuku-Bonsai in Kurtistown,  I was able to confidently pack the channels and tie the roots to the rock as well as anchor the rock. 

               This was another challenging area; keeping the plant seated can seem easy, but keep an eye on it as you tightly secure it using the bind wire.  It might start to tilt one way or another because you are tightening down, so make sure to secure properly and to your liking.  This is evident in my Rock II, the anchor wire is used as an anchor for the bind wire to tighten and secure the plant in the middle of the tortoise shell.   

                Iím surprised I was able to heavy prune as well.  The reason for it, was to keep the foliage nice and compact.  I will take pictures every 3 months to keep track of any progress.   - - - Ryan

*** Return to the September issue of Journal of Tropical and True Indoor Bonsai
*** Go to Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation website
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      ©   Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation and Fuku-Bonsai, 2013