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Magical Winter Appearance.

I don’t get out much, I just work. These days it’s even hard to get out into the garden during daylight hours. Once you know bonsai well winter is largely THE best time of year. All is quiet with the trees resting and displaying their magical winter appearance.

One of my favourite trees this time of year is Chinese elm that usually finish dropping their leaves in February. The biting east wind of last week certainly did it for this lovely old elm.

I featured this tree on my blog previously –

44,000 Hours Well Spent – Growing Bonsai Trees

So now without leaves it’s easy to appreciate the time spent on it’s development. It still has a lot of potential for further development but at this point i’m happy.

G.

Magical Winter Appearance. Chinese elm.

Chinese elm branch structure

Chinese elm, mature craggy bark

Magical winter appearance. Leaves just spoil this beautiful old tree

Graham Potter Does a Bit of Bonsai Work – New Video

So my Christmas holiday was a bit of a busman’s. Spent four days up to my knackers in sawdust and wire and then three days sitting in front of a screen editing this new video. Now, as a reward I have over 250 orders to get out so 15 hour days until end of January. I am beginning to think this holiday nonsense just aint worth the squeeze.

So enjoy the video, it might be some time before I can do another.

Happy new year all and if you have an order with us please hang in there, we’re on it.

Graham.

 

I Usually Got a Thick Ear

As a kid I was what might today politely be referred to as socially inept. I was in fact a socially retarded little twat with a penchant for getting in trouble and scant regard for anyone else. The truth is I have never understood other people, I just don’t get it. I simply do not understand human interaction no matter how hard I try, i’m a bull in a china shop, as those of you that know me well, know well,  subtlety is entirely lost on me. I think a couple of my school teachers got it because after a stern word was ignored I usually got a thick ear which typically did the trick and amused everyone else to boot.

Apart from a tiny handful of mates I have largely spent my life within a tiny circle of family with little outside influence. I like it that way and 2020 was the year for me, the year my lifestyle finally came into vogue. As a youngster my dear mother was always trying to help me be more outgoing and socially adventurous. At a very tender age I was sent to ballroom dancing classes (don’t laugh it won’t help) having been told I would love it, I didn’t. After that, every activity presented to me was rejected with a pouting lip and a gruff retort of “Don’t like that”. Inevitably I was asked “How do you know you never tried it”.

Experience has revealed to me I am actually a pretty good judge of what I will and won’t like. I never got my danglies waxed but I am pretty sure I would NOT like it. On the other hand some things are difficult to judge and so need to be given a chance. I once got so inebriated whilst camping at a car show that my mates put me in a strangers car where I woke up to a tirade of abuse from the cars owner and a banging headache the next morning. It was fun whilst it lasted but I didn’t do it again. So, my advice is if you are unsure give it a go. Obviously don’t apply this rule across the board, use a little nous.

This last year I capitulated to popular opinion and had a crack at social media. In light of the above there really was only one outcome. Facebook is not for me, I knew that before I started in but so many folk told me I would love it I figured what the hell. Turns out those folk don’t know me at all. Just because you might like something I fail to grasp the logic that everyone else would love it too. Much like ballroom dancing….

I have always applied that logic to bonsai. Evangelical is not my style. I don’t mind sharing what I do with other people but I have never once said to a single soul ‘get a bonsai tree you’ll love it’. It does no harm to be generous in this life and putting your ‘stuff’ out there, particularly if it’s free is a nice thing to do as long as it’s good stuff which, sadly, these days most of it is not. I have come to the conclusion that a lot of the problems in society today flow from one bunch of people trying to change another bunch of people. Our best bet is to work on ourselves and lead by example. Chances are if we get it right folk will come along. If not what’s been lost?

So, social media is not for me. Why? I am a fat bald middle aged white English man who likes a stogie and a Bourbon. I don’t eat five a day, I don’t go to the gym. I have a fanatical devotion to hard work and much like George Carlin I don’t hold with the modern ethos of political correctness. In common with most folk alive today my opinions are best kept to myself. However one post I saw just about summed it up for me.

In wasting a lot of time on FB this year I came across a post which I KNOW will make my regular right minded readers smile. Someone had bought a little bottle of Bonsai Focus fertiliser. They then took the trouble to photograph it and post it on FB with a caption along the lines of ‘Anyone advise me what to do with this?’ After I got past the obvious answer I had to go outside and take a breath, I could not decide wether to shit of go blind, in the end I walked away. The most polite answer I have is ‘read the fucking label’. Did I miss something?

Now I know FULL well we all have to start somewhere, I have written about this many times, however I fear our reliance on technology for all our answers is turning many folk into something akin to a sub class of human incapable of intelligent thought and ill equipped to deal with the necessities of life and survival without recourse to a screen. Too many times I have been speechless. Incredulity is defined as – the state of being unwilling or unable to believe something. Very apt in this case.

At times I have wanted to just pack away all my shit and go be a motorcycle mechanic. I built my first engine around 10 years old and have done that stuff my entire life and seeing as my only acquaintance outside of bonsai owns my local bike shop and my favourite bolt-hole I am in with a good chance of making a go of it. I have always said there is no shame in ignorance but remaining ignorant IS cause for shame. Surely today there is no reason to be ignorant of much, is there?

Talking to my spanner wielding buddy it turns out this new form of stupidity is not limited to our favourite pass-time. The stories I hear from him every week leave us both reaching for the big three litre bottle of Jack. I’m done with social media and mass communication, I really am best out here on my own. The juice just is not worth the squeeze.

So, my point? If you want to learn bonsai as a process the mechanics can be picked up in an afternoon with a top teacher (good luck finding one). A couple of years dedicated practice will develop a proficiency and confidence in those disciplines. However learning the foibles of growing plants is a whole other thing but it’s still basically simple. Just look up your species on the RHS website for a cultural guide to the basics and get outside in the sun. Constantly observe and watch what is going on out there, it’s THE only place you will learn what you need to know. Partly because you will begin to understand plants but also because you will be training yourself to learn how to learn in an environment where it’s not just laid out for you. Much like Marco Invernizzi said years ago the Net Bonsai Wanker prefers to spend their time in front of a screen behind a keyboard rather that outside in the sun where bonsai should be made. An extreme view perhaps but tell me it’s not true?

So, here are a few things I saw today out in the sunshine. It might be the depths of winter with the worst yet to come but life carries on. Here on the east coast it’s not been cold or too wet and that suits me and the trees just fine. However January is NOT spring so don’t go getting silly notions of re-potting! It’s going to be months before that silly season starts of which I have written a great deal.

2020 It Was The Best Of Times…

2020 is a year that will live long in our memories. Not least for us here at KB. If I go into too much detail I will just be adding to the cacophony of noise in the world. I have come to the conclusion that nobody cares what I think, only me. It’s a frustrating world to live in for those with common sense and a vision that allows them to see through the bullshit. Maybe that just makes me another opinionated asshole, you decide.

Sadly because I have a need to put food on the table and support my family I am forced to have to get involved. However it’s good for everyone if I just mind my own business. I figure the only real difference we can make in the world is to do our very best to be good at what WE do and leave the rest to others. For those wonderful folk that have spent a portion of their lives reading my particular brand of bullshit this year I salute you. I hope the reading was as cathartic as the writing. Beats the shit out of ‘wild swimming’ or keeping fit lumpin’ bags of produce around the television.

All I have to say is a great big thank you to everyone who participated in making 2020 our biggest year ever. Few businesses ever get to see growth close to three percentage figures but you all did it for us or near as dammit. Catherine, Sarah, Richard and I offer you a most humble bow of reverence. THANK YOU is really insufficient but it’s largely all I have in this format.

My salutations go out to Richard and Sarah who became parents at the very peak of our first ‘lock down’. I know Sarah was heartbroken over the way things went but as Eminem wrote “all’s well that ends ok”. Trust me it could have been worse, I know from personal experience.

As for 2021 all bets are off. Between the virus, Brexit and our own government I doubt many of us will be left standing by this time next year. Take a leaf out of the book of the late Mr Richard Overton…

But, before then I need to point out that Kaizen Bonsai will be CLOSED until 11 JANUARY. To put no finer point on the matter we are all totally fXXXed and need a break. 14 hours seven days a week has taken it’s toll and besides Richard needs to see his family. This is the most consecutive days I have had off work since I started at thirteen. We ask you to respect our personal need that has to come first for once. Last time I ignored the call I ended up in hospital with only a couple of days to live. You are all welcome to place orders in the meantime but please don’t expect delivery until well into January. I know it sucks but we all have to be thankful for what we can get at the moment.

Again I offer our sincerest and heartfelt thanks for your support in this difficult year and I leave the last word to a man I consider Britain’s premier literary master (forget that clown from Stratford….)

Graham, Catherine, Richard and Sarah.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” ― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

https://youtu.be/BXyfCGDnuWs

Life Can Hit Us All Pretty Hard Sometimes

Bonsai is not easy! For many just keeping a little tree alive seems to be impossibly hard. It might be because they are over-complicating things, who am I to say. I am of an age where I likely have a longer past than future. I have been involved in bonsai for more years than not, thirty odd as I recall.

There are two very important things you will need in order to succeed in bonsai. Patience being the primary one. Trees move at a pace inconsistent with the ‘modern’ world. The other is perspective. I remember telling somebody that he needed to prune new shoots back to a couple of leaves. His reply? “What’s a shoot?” Being new to the keeping of bonsai trees the poor lad had no idea what that meant.

Having more than thirty seasons under my belt gives one a great perspective. I know what’s going to happen, all things being equal. I know how what I do today will affect my plants in the future and largely how they will respond and develop. Before I had that all I could see was what was in front of me. As I worked trees I found it all very disappointing. No matter how hard I tried, even today, newly worked trees leave me cold.

For sure, over the years I did a few clever things that folk seem to like. However for me the real magic comes as my clumsy fumblings disappear. The magic of bonsai comes from the trees response to our work. At best we can point a tree in a certain direction and hope it goes with us. Early in our journey this is more likely to end in failure than not but with time, practice and perspective it’s possible our empathy and understanding will result in better outcomes.

Personally I have always preferred to work with a tree, giving it the time and space to become beautiful. I find that better than foisting my ideas upon my subject and brutally hammering it into submission. This may well take longer but bonsai is NOT something for folk who are in a hurry. Years in the saddle have taught me to care less about what other folk might think, bonsai is not about making US look good it’s about making little trees look good and in that respect playing the ‘long game’ is the only option.

I have been very lucky (or was it hard work) to become the steward of some very beautiful old trees, some are bonsai, some will be bonsai but they do all have an inherent magic of their own. As a rule the harder the life of a collected tree the greater the magic it portrays. It’s all about triumph over adversity, it’s inspiring. Folk in bonsai tend to get very excited about deadwood but the focus should always be on the live bit. Bonsai and hope are all about the future and making the best of what we have. Life can hit us all pretty hard sometimes and those hits can leave scars. There’s not much we can do about that but we do have control over what we do after. Often those that took the greatest hits in life go on the do the most inspiring things.

On occasions it almost seems like getting a slap down was the best thing that could have happened. I have several examples of that in my own life. In the moment it seems rough but in time positives emerge, perhaps not what we would like or would have planned but, as they say we have to play the cards we are dealt.

So, recently I had to hitch up my sense of perspective when faced with this particularly uninspiring field elm. I bought a whole batch of these a couple of years ago. I would never have chosen this one but when buying large amounts of stock I have to take the rough with the smooth.

It looks a lot like a sledgehammer with a busted handle. A strange inverted T shape with ninety degree angles. Add to that all the best branch structure emerges from one side. The first branch on the left has a poor angle with the ones above it all emerging from a single knuckle. The upright trunk has absolutely no taper but thank fully what branching there is is reasonably well structured. Obviously there is a big cut in the top and another below the little stump on the left of the initial part of the trunk.

It took me a while but eventually I figured out it was time for one of those hard hit’s if this was ever going to be worth taking forward. I would like to think I saved this from being made into a mallet.

G.

Life Can Hit Us All Pretty Hard Sometimes - Field elm bonsai material. What to do?

Life Can Hit Us All Pretty Hard Sometimes – Field elm bonsai material. What to do?

Life Can Hit Us All Pretty Hard Sometimes Field elm bonsai

Life Can Hit Us All Pretty Hard Sometimes – It gets worse before it gets better.

Trust me there is a plan....

Trust me there is a plan….

Trunk Hollowing begins.

Trunk Hollowing begins.

That's a lot of wire.

That’s a lot of wire.

Totally hollowed out trunk.

Totally hollowed out trunk.

some hefty branch bending.

Some hefty branch bending.

In five years this will be quite something.....hopefully.

In five years this will be quite something…..hopefully.

The Reports of my Demise are Greatly Exaggerated.

* The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.

I have now been involved in this bonsai lark longer that not. My dad was retired four years when he was my age. Here I am working harder than ever. Whilst I have been around bonsai for the larger portion of my life now I am socially challenged, lubberly, stolid and particularly uncomfortable around other folk. Being a clod-hopper from the wetlands of deepest Norfolk I missed the social graces class at school, too busy pulling beet in the fields don’t you know. As a result I have tended to keep myself to myself. I have few friends (those I have are GOOD friends) and I rarely leave home. Beyond writing this drivel I prefer not exposing myself in public. There are enough big headed personages out there today without me adding to the melee. Nobody needs that. As a result I feel I have had little influence over the progression of bonsai in the world beyond supplying a lot of kit to people (several £ millions to date) and I am absolutely fine with that.

Being the way I am seems to discombobulate a lot of folk. I do do strange things at times, we Norfolk folk are a rum bunch. Sadly due to stereotypes perpetuated by the media and some very funny comedians being “country” has become synonymous with being dumber than a bag of hammers. You’ll have to make up your own mind about that, however one thing I do know and have quoted here often courtesy of Edgar Allan Poe is…

 “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.”

I have been around the bonsai community long enough now that I rigidly adhere to this axiom. Rumours abound, bad information based on hearsay and conjecture, malicious gossip, one-upmanship, I could go on……. However it was fascinating recently  to hear from a customer that Kaizen Bonsai was shutting up shop. NEWS indeed, especially seeing as it didn’t come from me and I own the whole shebang, lock stock and the whole barrel of monkeys. So, where did this game of Chinese whispers start? What’s going on?

Earlier this year I did put out there that Kaizen Bonsai would be selling less plants and carrying less bonsai tree stock. So, thanks to the rumour mill I now need to clarify. I am reducing our stock of bonsai trees and yamadori. We were carrying up to 3000 trees and for a single old fat bloke that was just too much to look after seeing as we are close to fulfilling 10,000 orders a year now and there are only three of us working here. My holding of trees has gone from just under a million pounds to about a quarter million mostly good quality and exceptional bonsai and yamadori. If that appears to be shutting up shop it’s time to get those bumps felt.

On another subject I have heard from multiple sources that the soil products we use in bonsai will be in short supply after Brexit. That’s also a crock! Whilst it may not be as easy or cheap to buy products from mainland European suppliers post exit as it is today there is no reason why aggregate products will not continue to move. For the many products we buy from non EU countries absolutely NOTHING will change.

The whole Covid situation has hampered the movement of goods from all corners. The primary reason being the unprecedented demand took us all by surprise, goods sold out so fast that many existing stocks were exhausted. That meant the root producers could not manufacture goods fast enough and waiting lists grew.

Inbound transport has been severely hampered by excess demand and reduced staffing levels at shippers, cargo handlers, delivery hubs, freight forwarders and the vast army of people that work to get stuff out there into the world. Also international air freight capacity pretty much disappeared overnight and costs trebled in days.

As much as I might look like a dumb country redneck one thing I do know is the bonsai business. Nobody has more interest in keeping it shiny side up than I do. To that end Kaizen Bonsai are currently carrying thirty odd tons of soil products in stock with the same amount again held ready for call off at our suppliers and producers across this country and abroad. I have over two tons of wire, ten tons of ceramic pots, half a ton of plastics and over a ton of bonsai tools. We have seven tons of fertilisers, five tons of cardboard boxes, ten thousand empty bottles and cartons and a hundred grand in carving tools. As long as I draw a gasping breath the British bonsai community will not have to go without.

So, to propagate the mis-quoted words of Mark Twain –

* ‘The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.’

Get a grip folks, we are here to stay, please don’t believe the rumours!

Graham, Catherine, Richard and the Kaizen Bonsai team.

The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.

The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.

The actual quote from Mark Twain in response to a newspaper article….

* “I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Practicing My Bonsai Wiring Skills

It’s getting busy around here. We have new stock arriving every week, at this time of year it’s mostly what we call ‘dry goods’ like pots, tools etc’. Whilst it’s not as exciting as getting a lorry load of beautiful trees it all still has to be dealt with. Last week I spent over 60 hours sitting in front of my Mac listing bonsai pots…. joy. By way of a little relief I was popping outside from time to time and practicing my bonsai wiring skills.

I buy a lot of untrained material. It represents good value and people like it. However sometimes I cock it up and buy something that, whilst I might think is beautiful, fails to find a new home even at half price. In that case I have no option but to whip it into shape. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it. Strangely every time I do this I start getting offers of a sale. However I usually end up keeping the tree because I like what I do, some times.

I bought this very unusual sabina juniper a couple of years ago. It had been kept under automatic watering and thanks to that and too much fertiliser the foliage had become long and floppy. I figured such an amazing tree would sell quickly and so did nothing with it. I was wrong and it’s still here. The foliage is beginning to get back to normal but still needs a couple of years.

In the summer my good friend Albie wanted some work to do so I set him up cleaning the trees extensive shari and deadwood. After a couple of days he began to uncover the trees very beautiful appearance and at that point I knew it meant I would be practicing my wiring skills down the road.

So here it is, a rule breaking juniper. It’s first work so cut us some slack and no it’s not for sale anymore.

G.

Practicing My Bonsai Wiring Skills. Sabina Juniper yamadori.

Practicing My Bonsai Wiring Skills. Summer 2019. Sabina Juniper yamadori.

Beautiful details hidden under a veneer of decay.

Practicing My Bonsai Wiring Skills. Winter 2020

Practicing My Bonsai Wiring Skills. Winter 2020

Practicing My Bonsai Wiring Skills. Winter 2020

Practicing My Bonsai Wiring Skills. Winter 2020. Yamadori ignoring the rules of bonsai.

The Triffid’s Return-Garden Juniper Bonsai Tree

Another busy week here at KB. This week has been a bit of a merry-go-round rather than a rollercoaster which, after the year we have had has been nice. Not too much stress and lots of sunshine all week. That allowed me a few pleasant hours in the greenhouse doing a bit of bonsai. In this case the The Triffid’s Return-Garden Juniper Bonsai Tree.

It’s a sad fact that I have sold all the best trees I ever owned, except of course for the ones I killed in the exuberance of youth, yes I was actually young once. I have a bit of a rule around here that I do not buy back trees we have sold. I have a character flaw that makes it impossible for me to do the same thing twice.

However there are exceptions to every rule. Two or three years ago a long time friend and client of ours hit upon some seriously hard times and so I jumped in to do what I could and that involved relieving him of some bonsai trees I had formerly owned. One of those was a garden juniper I had collected way back in 2002.

A Ripping Yarn

 

By and large most people have stopped using garden juniper varieties for bonsai. After the conifer and rockery craze of the 1970’s and 80s these things were everywhere and when I started bonsai any other form of juniper  cost a fortune. I busied myself knocking on doors and over time procured a huge number of different varieties.

Garden junipers fell out of favour when better varieties came along. The main problem, apart from their rampant growth, was the fact most prostrate and dwarf garden varieties lacked the ability to hold up their own foliage. This required endless wiring in order to turn the foliage skyward and the branches simply never stayed put.

Not easily beaten I did come up with a solution. The extremely vigorous nature of these varieties meant it’s possible to get back budding way back down into the thick branch structure. Once that appears it’s just a matter of cutting out the floppy stuff and controlling the new inner growth to prevent it becoming overly long. This way the foliage was held on stout branches that easily held themselves up. With enough sun, little water and even less fertiliser a very nice and presentable bonsai tree can be created. I know a lot of folk will ask why not graft a better form but where’s the challenge in that. I love the fact that different tree varieties display so much different variety. DIFFERENT IS OK!

Having more or less finished that process on this tree it looked pretty impressive when I sold it. A few years later, when it returned my hard work was largely gone. The owner had been a little too kind to the tree and it reverted to it’s shabby natural state. It’s taken 2 full growing seasons but now I am getting back to where I was.

The Triffid's Return to Bonsai

The Triffid’s Return to Bonsai. Two seasons of careful management and it’s doing good.

This week I decided it was time to give the tree a scrub and polish. Some of the deadwood had gone soft and that required a little power tool work, a wash and scrub with a stiff brush before a pleasant hour with the Lime Sulphur brush. All this revealed quite a lot of new shari too which was nice.

After that I cut out a lot of old floppy foliage and redundant branch structure before the tedious but necessary wiring. Fortunately most of the foliage is on thick branches now so this new shape should remain going forward.

Returning to one of my old trees was initially a chore but having refined the shape and with the new shari the task was ultimately a rewarding one. With these old trees I like to keep the spirit of the original as much as possible whilst refining and improving the original concept.

Back in the day I got this tree from a garden clearance in exchange for a bottle of plonk. I’m kind of pleased it came back to me…….for now.

G.

The Triffid’s Return-Garden Juniper Bonsai Tree

The Triffid's Return-Garden Juniper Bonsai Tree

The Triffid’s Return-Garden Juniper Bonsai Tree. 2020 and looking good….finally.

 

Today’s Work, Scots Pine Bonsai Development

By far the greatest reward for all the effort we put into our bonsai trees must be seeing their progression, it’s like watching your kids grow up. At least that’s the case when it all goes according to plan. Today’s work was this scots pine bonsai development progression.

You last saw this scots at the beginning of the year…

Abuse! Abuse!

For the last few years I have been pre-occupied with having to work some really ugly runts. Part of a successful business strategy today is adding value. Anyone can buy a product and sell it for a little mark up. However there is no real future in that for the small man, it’s just not possible to compete. We small folk have to concentrate our efforts on doing what the big boys can’t. That includes developing unique and special things and one off items…. like bonsai trees. This could, in modern parlance be called an ‘artisan’ bonsai tree.

Over the years I have put the cost of a small country estate into bonsai trees. Some of those sell right off, some I keep but the largest proportion of all need work. Sadly I don’t get the time I once did to do such work, I became a victim of our own success. I just have to grab the moments I can.

Seeing trees develop around here is not easy, as soon as they look good folk tend to take them away. Got no bites on this slightly weird scots pine so todays work involved it’s second wiring and set up ready for next summers growth. Considering the change from just January this year it’s been very rewarding.

The heavy foliage mass from the first wiring fuelled insane summer growth and branch thickening. This helped to fix all the heavier branches in place. All the first wire was removed piecemeal over the summer. Now we have to begin setting up the secondary branching before turning attention to building ramification.

The second wiring in the scots pine bonsai development is typically about improving branch lines and breaking up large foliage masses into smaller elements. There is a way to go before we start on refinement work and candle pinching etc’ but each step requires a lighter and lighter touch.

G.

Scots Pine Bonsai Development

Scots Pine yamadori January 2020.

Scots Pine Bonsai Development

January 2020 after first styling work.

Scots Pine Bonsai Development

October 2020. Foliage thinned out and fully wired ready for styling

Scots Pine Bonsai Development

October 2020. Much less wire and improved branch lines. Add next summers foliage and this will be looking good.

 

Kevin Willson Bonsai Collaboration

This is the story of a Kevin Willson bonsai collaboration stretching back nearly fifteen years, bear with me….

We all want to live in a perfect world. Trouble is we all have a different opinion of how that world should appear and therein lies the entire history of human conflict. Lock two blokes in a room and sooner or later there WILL be a punch up. Our modern world has become, possibly, more divided than at any time in our brief history and it’s a deeply unpleasant place to be for those of us who remember what we would call better times.

Personally, I doubt things were better in the past but they were certainly simpler for many folk. The coming of the internet, not a bad thing in itself, has caused a great deal of this unpleasantness. It’s not that there is anything wrong with computers being linked up but there is not much good in the human heart. In the past we all had to concern ourselves with staying alive, putting food on the table, keeping a roof over our heads and hopefully trying to avoid the icy cold grasp of disease. But, in today’s prosperous society it seems all we have time for is arguing and fighting.

When I started bonsai all I wanted was some cute little trees. Once I got inside the bonsai community I found a lot of strange things going on. There were a lot of good folk going about the task quietly but I also came across a lot of competitive folk. I saw a lot of ugly politics and a lot of harm being created between different groups, factions and individuals. I won’t go into detail but the things I have witnessed over the years are to quote a very overused word these days ‘shocking’.

Bonsai has the power to change our lives. It can permeate down into our very souls and the discipline of the work we have to do and the patience we need to exercise can make us a better individual. However much like money, guns, alcohol, knives and any number of other things bonsai is neutral and it can be a positive or negative influence upon us. I know it sounds strange but I have seen people turned into ugly, competitive green eyed monsters by bonsai and the harm they do is irreparable to some gentler folk and usually themselves too.

Anti-mimesis is a philosophical position who’s most notable proponent is Oscar Wilde, who opined in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying that, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life“. Wilde holds that anti-mimesis “results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy”.

At a stretch, the presentation of our lives on social media might be called art. Our daily lives neatly packaged into attractive photos and sound bites carefully manicured to make us look good and interesting. This content is what we might call a stylised or ideal representation of our largely hum-drum lives, an artistic version of the actuality. The trouble is those of us who are a bit ‘simple’ in the head buy into this harmless re-engineering of the facts and quickly feel a little dissatisfied with our own lot in life.

I was a bit like that, sick of my day to day job and yearning for a better life. Someone stupidly said ‘If you can dream it you can have it”. What a crock, I often dream I can fly but last time I launched myself from a great height all I did was knock myself out cold and snapped both arms in half. I’m an old fart now and one thing I have learned is that opportunity presents itself wearing overalls. Dreaming gets you nowhere but combine a good idea with hard work and you have a winning combination.

I have been blathering on about this for years now and, much to my surprise, some folk have actually benefited. It’s very humbling when one of these folk call me up or write to say thank you. Who knew! It’s nice to pass on a little encouragement, I would never have stepped out into what I do today had it not been for the encouragement of others. In particular, my late wife Tina and my sorely missed best mate Blacky to name just two. People working together can be a powerful thing.

I never really intended to turn my bonsai hobby into a business. It’s my character to do everything to extremes, that’s how I ended up with broken arms. I think I might have an addictive personality. I once heard a little ditty that said “Bonsai trees are like potato crisps, you can’t just have one”. I can remove the ‘Bonsai trees’ bit and put in just about anything. I was raised as a bit of a collector starting off with Brook Bond tea cards. Since then I have obsessed over everything from knives to American cars, fossils, motorcycles, houses, cacti, military medals, stamps, koi carp, hand grenades, vinyl albums to antique farm tools and Roman brooches. My dad always told me you get out what you put in and I believe him so put everything into everything I do, whether that’s drinking beer or cutting my lawn. Once I decide to do something it’s getting done come hell or high water.

Trouble is these days I have become a victim of my own success. I have put everything into bonsai for over thirty years now. At the beginning, all I wanted was a collection of good ‘Bonsai’. Later on I figured out bonsai was not really a ‘thing’ more of a process. To date, I feel I have never really owned a bonsai tree or come close to mastering the process. Pretty much everyone these days knows that Kaizen represents the idea of continual gradual improvement but it’s a hard row to hoe and can be very dissatisfying, always reaching for better. But, as a strategy for business it’s worked out pretty good.

Over the years I have sold all the best trees I have owned, it goes with the territory. Most of the stuff I have now that I might call my own is not the best, but my collection means a lot to me and I could not possibly care less what anyone else thinks. Sadly due to the pressure of business I get less time to work on bonsai trees now than at any time in the past but thank goodness I know a few good folk.

After my first eight years of growing bonsai trees I had a good grip of the horticulture but the rest eluded me. However, as the old saying goes “When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear”. In spring 1999 I walked into the garden of Kevin Willson and my life changed forever. Now I know Kevin is a rum cove but over the years I have come to admire and respect the man beneath the brusque exterior. Nobody was happier than me when he returned from Spain and set up shop in our part of the world. As Kevin is a regular visitor here I have had the privilege to get to know him a bit better and am every bit as inspired to press on as I was that first day.

It was more than a decade ago that Mr W left our rainy clime and set up in sunny Spain. I felt sad but had work to do so moved on. However, before he left I took the opportunity to visit his Essex base one last time and ultimately left with this amazing scots pine. What an amazing deal he did me too, on the drive home I felt like the luckiest bloke alive, what a score. Now that tree has been sitting in the same spot in my garden for about thirteen years. One August aided by my good friend Bob we bare rooted the tree. After that, it went off like a little firework. Once a year I have hard pruned the foliage and every three years it gets a re-pot because it lifts itself out of its pot by an inch or two. But apart from that, I have done nothing.

Yamadori scots pine bonsai material comes home.

About a million years ago I bought this scots pine home with no idea just how long this saga was going to last.

I like to do styling of scots pines after the end of September here in Blighty. The thickening of branches will have finished and the trees are settling in for the winter. That means wire can stay on for the longest time possible thus aiding the branch set. For the last couple of years my super compact pine with it’s thick, self-supporting ramification and dense foliage has chased me through my dreams. I know this is an important tree but I simply do not get the time to do the work required. I have considered selling it. I have considered flying in another artist. I even made a part work plan to finish it over a few seasons.

Scots pine yamadori bonsai after a decade.

A decade on and my scots pine has become a shade tree for hot days.

Finally this year, buoyed up by the encouragement of those around me who’s opinion I value and respect I made the discussion to give the tree to my long time mentor. I reluctantly loaded my charge into the van with a bunch of other lesser stuff. Kevin was not expecting the tree, i just dropped it on him but being a consummate professional he accepted the commission with grace. As I left for the day I was VERY uneasy, I felt like a kid going to Uni’ and spending my first night out in the big bad world all alone.

I gave Kevin carte blanche simply because…
A. I trusted his appreciation of just how important this pine was to me. I knew full well he would pull off too many needles but it’s got the internal energy of a hand grenade so no real worries there.
B. I also took comfort in the fact that he knew I would show it to the world and not a one of us want’s to look like a numpty in that respect.

I didn’t expect to see the tree for a few months and was a little concerned when I got a call a couple of weeks later. Stuart and I went, with not a little trepidation on my part, to pick it up a few days ago. I made nervous jokes about just how much of my carefully cultivated foliage would be piled up in the corner but the fact that after all those years my pine might look good was exciting. I had not felt that nervous since the first time I took a girl to a posh restaurant.

Upon arrival I was pleased to know Kevin had been stressing over this as much as I had. You always get the impression that a professional does what they do with ease but I know that’s just not true. Creating a bonsai tree from raw material is a series of important decisions, each one based on the last one, start off wrong and it’ll all go wonky. Work between professionals is never easy, like a chef cooking for a chef or being a barbers barber.

Beauty and the beasts.

I don’t have words to describe what this picture means to me.

In the end I made the right call. I did ask Kevin to leave me with the deadwood work to do, i’ll get this done over the coming months. For now I am thrilled with my new tree after all these years. There is a little pang of sadness I didn’t do it myself and the subsequent loss of street cred’, but to be honest it’s MUCH better being a collaboration between mutually deferential artists. As I get older I realise life is not about what you own but the connections we make. If we can make those connections using our beloved bonsai trees, they, we and the world around us will be the better for it. I’m so glad I left my ego at the door.

Yamadori scots pine bonsai tree. Kevin Willson Bonsai Collaboration

Day #1 as a bonsai tree. Worth the wait!

Kevin Willson is available to complete your commissions too. My recommendation is you do not present him with junk and leave your ego at home, let the man be an artist*. Kevin can be contacted through his web site kevinwillsonbonsai.com
Business permitting I’ll be working the deadwood of my pine in the coming months, watch this space…..
Graham.
*Don’t bitch about the price either!