Today we have changed the packaging of our very popular soil mixes. Before I launch into a history lesson let me explain. For reasons I will explain we can no longer ship products NOT in neat cardboard cartons. Sadly that means an end to our infinitely popular 50l soil sack packages. I have been working on this for months now, how to package soil in a box that will get delivered in one piece, retain the great value the sacks provided and still keep the margin we need to make the whole endeavour worthwhile. I am sure that sounds simple enough but trust me, I have dozens of pages of workings out, we have had to re-formulate the soils for consistent weigh to volume ratios. We have done dozens of tests with various packaging options and purchased pallets of all sizes of cartons. In short this has been the subject of my waking hours for over three months now.
So we have replaced our 14L and 50L packages with a single 17L boxed product nicely contained within a re-used cardboard carton perfect for the carriers. The price of the delivered product remains pretty much the same after all that. Rather than buying a 50L sack we have a special discount price for 3x17L cartons (51L) amounting to over 16% discount. For a dumbass who flunked maths at school this simple thing is a significant triumph.
So, what caused this change? What bought us to this? For the two people that might actually be interested or care let me explain I need the catharsis….. Nobody cares about delivery until it goes wrong. At that point, for some you would think their whole family burned to death in a car if judged by their extraordinary overblown angry reaction. Let’s face it, we do bonsai stuff, what exactly happens in a hurry? Still, it’s a symptom of our over privileged first world life that we are (at least in our own minds) entirely justified in hurling scathing abuse at business owners, operators and staff along with hard working delivery drivers. Just like a baby throwing all it’s toys out of the pram, British people have become so self centred, self obsessed and self important that they will LITERALLY say anything to get their own way. Well…. around here abuse is not tolerated, I will not take it and neither will I let my folk suffer at the hands of dummy spitting babies. Try it on me and I will tell you to F**** right off, it’s happened a lot. Folk threaten to sue me because a parcel is late. Try it, i’ll burn everything I own to the ground before you get a penny even IF I were liable. The shit we get here over delivery from otherwise right minded people has literally left my beautiful wife in floods of tears. Thankfully I know a guy.
Back in 2004 when we started this whole Kaizen Bonsai malarkey there was no web site (writing that makes my heart miss a beat, what a wonderful time) just a paper catalogue. Yesterday I looked up a copy. Back then, 16 years for the numerically challenged, delivery cost £9.50 with up to 21 day turn around and everyone was grateful we provided the service and saved them the trouble of dragging their ass all around the country looking for stuff they needed. Back then few people ran mail order businesses. It cost a lot to compile, print and mail a catalogue even if you had the requisite skills and that’s not to mention the money you needed for stock to back up your offering. For the price of mailing two thousand catalogues you could go to a wholesaler, buy a few bonsai, some tools and a bit of soil and set up a backyard bonsai nursery and sell at your local club. That’s what we all did. But, some folk don’t do clubs and the like and so Colin Lewis saw the need for a mail order business which in time became mine.
It was fairly obvious to me right at the outset we would need a web site, quite an insight for Mr Stoneage here. Soon after, the Post Office decided they didn’t really want to deliver mail any more and increased their prices to the point where it cost over twice as much to deliver a catalogue than it did to print the thing. Finally, come the shenanigans of 2008 and the ‘financial crash’ it became impossible to fix prices for a year because of wildly fluctuating exchange rates, besides the fact so many businesses were going to the wall and supply of products became impossible to secure. All those factors combined finally nailed the lid shut on the coffin of our wonderful paper catalogue.
Around that time we saw a literal explosion of small web sites and Ebay shops selling bonsai stuff. Much like the little backyard bonsai nursery of yore, a quick trip to a wholesaler and a grand later you were ‘in business’. Perfect for those working full time and looking to make beer money. Not so good for larger businesses and bona fide traditional nurseries with real overheads and wages to pay. Those of us with a large business literally got our heads kicked in by insane cost cutting. I remember visiting with a tree importer of the time and asking why I was paying so much for little cork bark elms which were listed on Ebay for £1.50 below the Ex VAT wholesale price. He told me the guy in question was paying £2 more per unit than I was and chose to sell them at a loss. That sort of behaviour rocked our world. Remember Akadama was £16 a bag in 1995 before dropping to £5 in the mid 2000s. All the folk doing those stupid things have gone now (for now) having gone bust or come to the realisation that being king of the CHEAP hill was a stupid life goal and the paper crown made you look like a gormless t**t.
There is a simple way to build a business and fill your order books, just be cheaper than everyone else. Whilst that may work for Tesco, Argos or Amazon it won’t work for a little specialist retail concern. Large retailers do not make their money from selling products. I was told that Tesco typically make a couple of quid on a hundred pound grocery spend. Modern mass retail by PLCs does not make money from selling actual product, they can sell product at a loss but still make a profit. I’m way too bone idle to explain how that works, go figure.
So in the battle for market share product prices fell and fell. Since the day I was born in 1964 prices for retail goods have been falling. Literally everything is a lot cheaper today than it was previously. The pound more or less halves in value every fifteen years but a lot of the items we sell are literally lower priced than they were thirty years ago. In know folk will say that just proves how much everyone was making back in the day but that’s not true. Cost savings at every turn have largely made this possible along with cheaper transport and bulk buying. I remember back when I started carving bonsai trees there were not many options for buying cutters so I went to the local family owned hardware store and bought a dovetail router bit. That cost me £21. Today that same router bit can be bought on Ebay for £3.90 including VAT and delivery. So, let’s break that down…
£3.90 less 20% VAT leaves £3.12 less 8% Ebay commission (the rate for larger sellers) which gives us £2.87 less 70p for postage leaves £2.17 from which we need to buy a paddy bag, print a packing slip and shipping label, a conservative estimate would be 15p so £2.02 Next we have to cover someone pick and pack the order. From experience this would take 10-15 minutes but lets say 5 minutes at minimum wage so 68p giving us a balance of £1.34. Out of that we have to pay all our overheads, heat, light, Paypal/bank fees, computers, printers, vehicles, insurance, accountancy and a million other costs. For most businesses that could be 40% of gross profit so lets assume this seller works on a 100% margin. A half of £1.34 is 67p so 40% overhead allowance from that gives us 40p net margin and leaves 67p for the cutter to be manufactured in China and shipped to the UK. The manufacturer has all the same overheads as do the shippers and the importer has to deal with the meddling government and their sticky fingers. Our retailer would have to sell and ship ten of these to buy a pint in a pub. The manufacturer would probably have to sell a hundred pieces to do the same. Ebay and Paypal and the treasury make the lions share and everyone else makes f-all. It’s not until you sit down in your accountants office to go over your year ends figures you realise just what a waste of time it all was. Sure if you sold a million pieces at 2p profit you could say you were a success but in reality it does not work like that unless you are a PLC. Finally of course all the above only works if the retailer buys his product direct from the factory gate. If you buy through an intermediary it’s all for nought.
Our carriers rep’ tells me his drivers do between eighty and a hundred and twenty drops per day but even so every van on deliveries loses about £75 per day. However if those same vans can make collections as well from the likes of us there is a chance of a profit assuming the van arrives back at the depot with enough parcels in it. Many drivers are self employed and rent their van from the company they contract their time to. Drivers can be paid as little as 50p a drop which does not include re-delivery attempts. They don’t get paid holiday and often have to work twelve or more hours a day. One of our drivers was in this situation, he worked from 6am to 7pm Monday to Friday and did Saturday 6am to 1pm. This guy was the best driver we ever had, an utterly brilliant lad who could not do enough for us. At the end of the year he cleared less that twelve grand. That’s the net result of mail order customers wanting cheap or free delivery AND low prices. You can’t have it all and even if you get it I can guarantee that provider will not survive.
Buying mail order is a privilege. You get what you want at a competitive price in a relatively short period of time without leaving your house whilst someone else does all the work. I suggest we all be grateful for the service we get because the writing is on the wall and this is not going to carry on like it currently does, change is coming my friends.
P.S As I was writing this I got notification that if as a company I sell products to customers in New Zealand I now have to register as a tax collector for the NZ government and collect GST (goods and services tax) direct from my customer at the rate of 15%. I love NZ and the people there, my grandfather (Nelson) was born there but the New Zealand government can go f*** themselves if they think I am going to do that. It’s just a matter of time before mail order becomes the expensive option and it will, once again, be cheaper to hit the road and go buy what we need face to face.
It’s been one of the most difficult weeks I have experienced here at KB. One of those periods of time when I was considering a new career as what we used to call a ‘drunk’. HOW has modern life become so terrifying? I have dealt with some serious shit in my life from a bump on the head to the death of my wife but, being in business today is coming close to recreating some of the feelings and concerns of trials past. Still, being an Englishman I will choke it all down and just get on. Nothing wrong with a bit of emotional constipation after all. Better that than all the grizzling, grumbling touchy feely diarrhea spewing forth from popular media these days. What was it Tony Soprano said? *
The one ray of sunshine is that we have been insanely busy, over 300 parcels left this week. Not bad considering Richard has been largely on his own and Sarah is half way to delivering their first kiddy. Catherine has not looked up from her computer, doing 12 hour days, she’s not seen the light of day since last Sunday and this weekend she will be incarcerated doing stinking VAT.
If you have been a little frustrated waiting for an order please accept my apologies. We do the best we can and if the government were not stealing all our profits we could easily employ two more full time members of staff. When I started this business I was VERY concerned we might not make wage N01. As it turns out making money is easy but keeping it is pretty much impossible. Business has become our esteemed leaders piggy bank and they just take whatever they want pretty much. I am just very thankful I am the age I am and the finish line is in sight.
The weather got a bit crazy this week. Here it became somewhat blowy overnight. Come the morning there were trees scattered all over the place. One in particular was this pine. To be fair I assumed it had a death wish. For the last year it’s been falling over almost without provocation. Every other day I found it laying on the floor having taken a header off one bench or another. In the end I just left it on the floor. In summer I stood it up to water it and then laid it back down again to save the fall. It’s had several pots in the last year and finally I just didn’t bother replacing them. Despite the abuse it’s grown really well.
This week it blew off it’s perch, rolled about thirty feet down the hill and then valiantly broke the fall of a large and valuable juniper which landed right on top of it. Having survived all that I finally got my conscience pricked and decided to sort it out. A couple of lunch times spent wiring squared it away and I have now popped it into a larger pot. I’ll tie it down outside on the bench now. Just goes to show how tough these things are I guess. Sometimes we just have to suck it up and go get on, right?
*Tony Soprano: Let me tell ya something. Nowadays, everybody’s gotta go to shrinks, and counselors, and go on “Sally Jessy Raphael” and talk about their problems. What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know was once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up! And then it’s dysfunction this, and dysfunction that, and dysfunction vaffancul!
The Sopranos – Pilot (season 1, episode 1)
Being Christmas I thought some of you lovely people might have time for a long winded diatribe so here it is….
A Cautionary Tale
We humans are creatures of habit. It may be fashionable to ‘mix it up’ but at the end of the day most of us are at our best when fully immersed in familiar surroundings and routine. That’s a good thing, our world needs us to be there, be reliable, turn up on time and do our bit for the common good.
One of our most reliable habitual behaviours is that of taking the route of least resistance to a desired destination or goal. That however can, on occasions, not be a good habit and just might lead us to frustration and failure. Where bonsai trees are concerned being idle is just asking for trouble. Over the last couple of years I have seen some instances where this issue has resulted in utter devastation and the catastrophic failure of some beautiful bonsai trees not to mention many wasted years, frustration and a spectacular loss of money and effort. I could post pictures but they are just too distressing for words so please take my word for it.
Taking the route of least resistance in life is a bad habit that leads at best to mediocrity. By and large our lives are the result of the choices we make. I know there are some pretty powerful outside forces that have significant influence over the lives of many folk but bonsai hobbyists, by and large, are lucky folk who have the privilege of living healthy, wealthy lives in good places. But, those of us living such privileged lives have a severe problem….. we have everything we need at our finger tips and good living is easy. We might say life is tough and we are ‘so busy’ but most of that ‘ business‘ is being expended on obtaining things we don’t need like expensive holidays or bonsai trees.
I do not resent success, I started work at the tender age of twelve years in order to assure mine and now forty three years later I am still at it. There was not a single one of those days I did not do something to assure the progress my family now enjoys. No holidays for Potts, not for twenty seven years now. I am a working class lad with a mediocre education, zero social skills and left school as a no hoper. I have bought my education in life at a high price and one of the lessons I learnt early on was that Easy Street is a dead end.
I was a spotty teenager when I read a profound statement.
In order to be successful all you have to do is do what successful people do.
I learnt right there I had to spend my life with people who were where I wanted to be. From that moment onwards I spent my time with older people, clever, prosperous and successful men with good families and great businesses. They constantly gave me a hard time and I might have been a target for derision but nobody was happier than me. My ‘mates’ ran rings around me, took the piss and cost me a fortune but those life lessons have proven to be of infinite value to me all these years later.
Back when I was at work everyone in our factory would piss and moan about what a sweatshop we all worked in. Poor pay, lots of stress and pressure and a miserable boss constantly riding us. Everyone relentlessly threatened to leave but we were all besties in our misery. One day I did leave and to this day not a single one of those folk has said a word to me, not even when I went back there to say hello, I ended up chatting with the boss. A good friend of mine who spent his life in places like that said it was like having a bucket of crabs. They are all trying to escape but as soon as one gets up there and makes some progress the others all pull him back down.
It’s nice to know where we are, be comfortable and enjoy a reliable routine. That’s largely achieved by hard work, in this world security is a valuable commodity that was earned at great cost and should be appreciated every day. We do not have a right to this comfortable life and it should not be taken for granted, it cost a lot of folk a great deal. Taking the route of least resistance is a sure fire way to loose what we have.
In order to achieve anything in life we need to educate ourselves. You would think today that would be easy right? Apparently we live in an ‘information’ age. However, as with all things related to humans information is subject to corruption. The word information is defined as
1. facts provided or learned about something or someone.
2.what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things.
It’s this last definition that applies to the subject under discussion or at least it will be when I eventually get there.
Where bonsai trees are concerned there is no such thing as a straight answer to a seemingly simple question. There are just SO many variables involved. I spend a lot of my time helping folk to figure this stuff out. By far the largest proportion of that time is spent hacking through the undergrowth of misunderstanding and the inappropriate application of received wisdom. It’s imperative that we learn the basic principles of horticultural science. Once we have that knowledge we will be able to figure out what is working and what is not. If something we do has good results we need to know WHY, conversely we need to know WHY something is going wrong so we can correct it.
Received wisdom could also be called ‘common knowledge’ that is held to be true, but may not be. The received wisdom says a plant that has pale yellowing colour is suffering from a nutrient deficiency but that’s simply not true in most cases. In extreme cases a nutrient deficiency, particularly iron, can cause chlorosis, yellowing of the foliage. However the causes of yellowing foliage are legion and in my bonsai experience nutrient deficiency is very low on the list of likely causes. Knowing our horticulture enables us to discern precisely what is wrong and correct the issue. Therein is my point, received wisdom is insufficient to correctly discern and address a problem. Only scientific study (and understanding) along with practical experience and application is up to the task.
Sadly today what we call education is, by and large, just the learning by rote of received wisdom. Practical learning by physical experience, experimentation and failure has been swept away in favour of systematic instruction. Real personal learning has been sacrificed in favour a measurable standard to support political ends. In my opinion this type of learning stifles the inquisitive mind and oversimplifies complex subjects. In reality most bonsai knowledge falls into this category, it’s just tradition passed from generation to generation.
For a moment let’s think about some of the gospel truths that have guided bonsai accumulators for years.
- Bonsai need free draining soil
- Bonsai trees are re-potted in spring
- Bonsai trees need winter protection
- Fruit bearing bonsai can die if they set too much fruit
- Systemic chemicals are poisonous to bonsai trees
- Bonsai are potted in a sterile medium.
Whilst there may be an original truth in all of the above their over-simplification and blanket application can be extremely damaging in some cases. It’s just NOT true that we have to sieve out all our bonsai soil to remove fines. In some cases it’s desirable but in others it’s beneficial to add more fine material. We need to know the detail, success in life is all about the details.
So, to the point of all this. Three times recently I have been working with folk who are having serious problems with their trees and this has been going on for a long time. In particular the issue has been largely (but not exclusively) effecting coniferous trees. We went through all the usual things like soil, re-potting frequency, siting, watering etc’. In all cases there were no obvious reason for the issues and these were not inexperienced folk. It took me a long time to get there but in the end the problem came down to fertiliser. Specifically the OVER USE of fertiliser.
Education is important in all walks of life but obviously we do not know, what we do not know, so it’s hard to know if there is something we don’t know and are missing. That’s where spending time with folk who are where we want to be becomes valuable because often they DO know what we don’t. It takes experience to diagnose problems. That’s why doctors don’t recommend self diagnosis via the internet and why car mechanics think most people are stupid. Nine times out of ten, in our ignorance we come to the wrong conclusion. We all start off ignorant in life and don’t even have the sense not to piss in our pants. Good parents help us with those things and set us on the road to toilet success. However in later endeavours we often find ourselves on our own and so when we decide to go out and take on a new thing we have no idea if what we are learning is entirely good or bad. The only frame of reference we have is in relation to other things we have experienced.
I learnt a lot about cars, motorcycles and engines in general. I disassembled and completely reassembled a mini engine when I was ten years old. Entirely on my own and without adult help. However if I decided to become a doctor that particular frame of reference and way of doing things would be largely irrelevant. Mammalian bodies bear no similarities to internal combustion engines and my mechanics tools would be pretty much useless, except perhaps a ball peen hammer.
So, lets consider fertilisers. At some level most of us realise that plants need nutrients to grow. Not many people seem to know how or why plants grow but, based on life experience we know that growth is fuelled by food and THAT is where it ALL goes to shit and why I have been seeing SO many dead bonsai trees. There is evidence that early farmers were using animal dung as fertiliser on their fields 8000 years ago. It didn’t take us long to figure out the value of ‘shit’.
This has been important. Consider that until 1910 and the perfection of the Haber-Bosch process synthetic nitrogen fertilisers were not available and we were entirely dependant upon organic materials to support our food growing agriculture. That pretty much managed to support a world population of about 1.65 billion. Today we have around 7.5 billion mouths to feed. It is estimated that (in the year 2015) 48 percent of the worlds population is entirely dependant upon synthetic fertilisers to provide their food. This means that in 2015, nitrogen fertilizers supported 3.5 billion people that otherwise would have died. In fact, it’s estimated that nitrogen fertilizer now supports approximately half of the global population. In other words, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch — the pioneers of this technological breakthrough — are estimated to have enabled the lives of several billion people, who otherwise would have died prematurely, or never been born at all. It may be the case that the existence of every second person reading this attributes back to their 20th century innovation.
So, we need to eat in order to grow right? We all know that a lack of food or a lack of correct nutrients will cause us significant developmental and long term health issues. Therefore it’s logical to assume that plants are the same. Whenever I was sick as a kid my wonderful old grandma would cram me full of food. The old wives take about feeding a cold… Turns out that, by and large that’s cobblers. But that’s probably buried deep within the minds of many of our older generation. If you are sick you need feeding because you are lacking something that has caused weakness and resulted in illness. Feasible but bollocks.
By extension we assume that if a plant is not growing it must need feeding. If a plant is off colour it must have a nutrient deficiency. Couple that idea with the fact that, years ago, some crafty bastard coined the phrase “Plant Food” in order to sell more of his fertiliser (by taking advantage of this ignorance) and you quickly end up with a dead bonsai tree.
Plants do NOT eat food. Plants MAKE food.
The base of earths food chain, the organism at the bottom of the pile are plants. Be sure nothing else could survive without plants but plants do not need food in the conventional sense to live, plants MAKE their own food. Mammals ingest complex organic material that are broken down into their chemical constituents in order to be assimilated. That food also has a physical characteristic that is important too. The size of food particles can affect the extent to which nutrients are digested and made ready for absorption. The way in which carbohydrate is absorbed from the bowel depends to some extent on the presence of dietary fibre, even though the fibre itself is not absorbed. This is all fiendishly complicated but it happens inside us all the time without any input from us.
Plants can’t do that, they do not have stomachs, or brains, or nervous systems. Plants do not need ‘food’ in the sense we know it to live. Plants make their food in the form of simple carbohydrates (sugars) from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water. The only additional nutrients a plant requires are for the building and maintenance of cells and complex structures that keep the plant upright and functioning. Plants largely but not exclusively absorb these nutrients through their roots which requires nutrients to be dissolved in water. Other nutrients are absorbed through the leaves and these are primarily in gaseous form though some may be absorbed through water entering the stomata or surface of the foliage.
So, how do these chemical nutrients help a plant grow if they do not actually cause growth in the way too many crisps make us fat? Lets take nitrogen as a simple well known example. Most folk in bonsai know (at some level) that nitrogen makes a plant grow, but how? Nitrogen is a major component of chlorophyll (the green stuff) and it is also a major component of amino acids which are the building blocks of protein. Put simply extra green soaks up more sunlight which produces more energy for cell division and having all the components available to create and maintain new cells means more plant, assuming there is enough light and carbon dioxide of course.
Put simply, in order to live plants do require some chemical compounds that enable them to build and maintain their life giving structures. Some of these are freely available, water, sunlight and carbon dioxide. Others are possibly less readily available, particularly for plants growing in pots, like bonsai trees. That small amount of soil has a very limited capacity for the support of micro organisms and fungi so valuable in the supply of nutrients. All of these elements need to be kept going by good husbandry and regular applications of a nutrient rich substance we call fertiliser.
How best to achieve this is, by a country mile, the most divisive subject in bonsai. There has been a raging argument in bonsai growing circles for decades as to whether chemical or organic fertilisers are better and whether growing media needs to be organic soil based or inorganic aggregate based. Anyone still bitching about this really is just displaying their ignorance but to be fair the construction and long term maintenance of a vibrant rhizosphere is a complex subject with infinite variables.
I have met no end of folk over the years that grow incredible healthy and vibrant bonsai trees but upon investigation they really have no idea how they achieved success. Other folk work really hard but never seem to make it. Stupidly we might call the former ‘green fingered’ like it’s some form of preordination or luck. However I have found those who are less successful often suffer from a lack of patience, unrealistic goals and information overload coupled with a lack of observational skill and practical long term experience. The trouble is if we get off on the wrong foot at the outset how do we get back in step? Very often the more we learn the further we get from the truth. Even quality information can be detrimental if we lack the skill or knowledge to appropriate it correctly. Compound ignorance is a powerful thing.
My advice is to abandon your bonsai books, online groups, forums etc’. Enjoy those things for the pretty pictures. Buy a book called “The Principles of Horticulture”. Then go and complete an RHS certificate in horticulture. Absorb all that and it’s unlikely anyone would be left with difficult questions in regard to the cultivation of any form of plant. From this starting point it will be a lot easier, more satisfying and rewarding to learn bonsai cultivation from practical experience. It will take a couple of hours to learn to wire properly and about a year to build your speed. Styling of bonsai comes from constant practice and observation of trees in their natural habitat. Throw in a little practice with the carving tools and most folk will be doing pretty well. That’s about five years work. How hard can it be?
Bonsai as a hobby is not something that rewards impatience, it’s not a competitive sport, and it will not feed your need for acceptance by others or reward pride. Anyone suffering from those pernicious traits is largely doomed to failure. Ultimately we do not own bonsai, they own us and remembering that will keep the green eyed monster of envy at bay. So what has that got to do with fertiliser, in case you’ve not already figured it out?
Whether you are using organic or chemical fertilisers the ultimate outcome is the same, both provide chemical nutrients a plant can use to grow. Organics also support microbial activity within the soil, that is, fungi and bacteria that break down the organic compounds into their constituent chemical parts. These organisms have a huge beneficial effect for bonsai trees in their small pots, I have written about that at length in previous posts here. Because the natural breakdown of nutrients from organic compounds happens slowly these types of fertiliser like Green Dream work best simply because every day a small amount of nutrient is released. Plants absorb water pretty much constantly and so there is always enough nutrient, assuming a quality product is used, to meet the plants needs for that day.
Chemicals on the other hand offer a super refined chemical solution that can be absorbed instantly, assuming the plant is taking up water at the time. Chemicals are best applied in the morning when a warm day is in prospect. Applying in the evening or in wet conditions when water uptake is reduced will make them less effective and can have negative effects. Chemicals will not, by and large, support microbial activity and certainly will not introduce or encourage it where an inorganic growing medium is used. Chemical fertilisers have a very short period of availability within the rhizosphere of bonsai. It’s been proven that a chemical fertiliser can be fully dispersed throughout a plant within twelve hours of application. However in bonsai, and in particular, within a poorly constructed or inappropriate growing media, a chemical fertilised may have dispersed within just a day or two leaving pretty much nothing for the plant. Regular watering and a soil unable to hold nutrients (an atomic function) can mean insufficient nutriment is available quite quickly. The old practice of using a balanced chemical fertiliser at half strength once a month will produce a desperately sad and weak tree over time.
The hardest aspect of bonsai for most people to grasp is the time it takes. Today we are all about delivery, getting things done, performing. After thirty years playing this game I can confidently say it is going to take ten years of hard work and deep involvement with plants before the uninitiated even grasps the horticultural basics. Once that’s in place we can make a start. Good quality raw material will take ten years to develop into a passable bonsai here in the UK. Poor material, growing from small stock or starter trees is likely to take even longer. I know of folk that have been growing bonsai for over thirty five years and they have never really even grasped the basics and have little idea what a bonsai tree actually is beyond the trite “ Tree in a tray/pot “ platitude.
Given that fact it’s no wonder we will try every trick imaginable to shorten the process. That in itself is tragic because ‘bonsai’ is not about a goal, there is no finishing line. In my opinion bonsai is a process, there is no finished trees at the end simply because as the years go by we gain a deeper understanding of what is going on and our “finish line” keeps receding into the distance. But because we are intrinsically impatient and the fact that, somewhere along the line a crafty marketing man came up with the term “Plant Food” we put two and two together and get ourselves in a pickle. We all know more food means growth, particularly as we get older, and we know our trees need to grow more and so a logical person will conclude that more food is the way to go. Good for fertiliser manufacturers but very bad for your bonsai. It leads to the utter devastation I referred to at the beginning.
Overuse of chemical fertilisers will result in the death of your bonsai trees! This in NOT an uncommon problem and of late there has been an epidemic. I have several thousand pounds worth of (other peoples) dead bonsai to prove it and have seen the walking wounded too. The reason why is simple, you learned it in school chemistry.
Osmosis: Osmosis is the spontaneous net movement of solvent molecules through a selectively permeable membrane into a region of higher solute concentration, in the direction that tends to equalise the solute concentrations on the two sides.
In other words, two solutions of different strength will seek to combine to become uniform. Too much fertiliser in your soil will basically draw water out of your trees roots in order to achieve this which can result in critical dehydration of the plant. If not corrected the plant will suffer loss of foliage, then ramification, then branches and eventually it will completely die from root desiccation. Best case scenario growth will be severely retarded.
In my opinion stick to organic fertilisers for bonsai, it’s convenient, safe and natural. If you must use chemicals use them for their intended purpose. Only use chemicals as directed and also at the recommended frequency. Don’t use a product designed for hanging baskets for bonsai trees. Don’t use Tomorite for bonsai, that nasty stuff is literally toxic to bonsai of all types it’s just all wrong. Just think about what a tomato plant has to do in a few weeks. Does your bonsai have to do that? Bonsai trees grow long and slow. Flowers, tommys and cannabis have to do a lot in a short time, they burn bright live fast and die young. Trees work on a thousand year time scale. If you can’t cope with that find another hobby.
Fictional characters are renowned for saying the wisest things. If it were possible to rehearse life we would all be clever bastards, wouldn’t we? Anyone know who said “The world don’t run on love” ?*
Forrest Gump’s Mama said “Life was like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”
My Dad said “Life is like a bank account. You only get out what you put in”
Over the years I have lived my life under the umbrella of this last pearl of wisdom. All told it’s paid off but f**k it’s hard work. The amount of effort you have to put in to get something worthwhile in return is massive. People don’t like that idea nowadays but I was raised by the generation that went through the war and they were significantly more grateful for small mercies than folk today.
Bonsai is a perfect example. The effort, time and skill we have to expend in order to see a moment of ordered perfection is simply massive. Even with good support and help it’s likely to be ten years before we realistically know which end goes in the soil. Thankfully bonsai is about the process not the end result so, by and large, we all stick to it.
Take this scruffy pine as a good example. It’s been cluttering up my benches for a while now. In the past someone had a go at styling it but that obviously never took, a classic example of working too soon. My only choice was to spend a rainy Sunday investing my time and a roll of wire in making it worth something.
Dad was right…… 🙂
Anyone who stops by here regularly will know I don’t consider myself an ‘artist’. That’s all too pretentious for a working class and comprehensive school educated (partly) boy from Norfolk. I just suffer from an over-active imagination and an obsessive dedication to minutiae.
At this time of year I get a chance to begin styling work on a few of my literal mountain of tree stock. Few folk have the courage to buy raw material, something I have written about at great length in some of my older posts here. Therefore I have to spend a lot of the off-season making scruffy bushes look like bonsai trees.
Last week I had a unique challenge. Back in 2017, at the end of a particularly long rant, I gave credit to my mentor Kevin Willson for a couple of scots pines he had worked for me.
One of those sold very quickly (obviously). The other is still sitting here. Somewhere along the line I did repot it but other than that we just let it do it’s thing. It’s been so long now I can’t even remember where I got this. I am pretty sure it’s from Norway or Sweden but more than that escapes me. So first job this autumn was to make another step forward.
I have never been a fan of extreme work in bonsai. If you are working a crappy skip rat I could care less. However where yamadori is concerned I believe in respecting the vital principle. What exactly is the point of obtaining an old wild tree only to remove all it’s unique and special character in order to make it look like a well grown Japanese nursery tree? Most of the yamadori I see worked has lost all it’s sparkle and magic. The resulting bonsai often look sad and oppressed. It takes a true artist, in this case, KW to respect a trees ‘soul’ and retain that after styling.
As I said at the top I am no artist but in Norfolk parlance I “Plough me own furra (furrow)”. So in respect of my mentor and this, lets be honest, average, scots pine I felt there was little choice other than restoring what Kevin had done. This really is a simple little tree but what Kevin did was impressive.
I was never very good at doing what I was told, going to school was purgatory. In the end I just stopped going to my lessons except woodwork. I had a good system 😉 So moving this tree forward was going to be difficult. In the end I accepted the restriction, printed off a picture, pinned that to the wall and did my best to stick to the plan.
This little tree has obviously grow a lot since it’s first work and so I had a lot to work with. I didn’t have to cut off a single shoot and only minor re-positioning of the primary branches were required. So, now it’s finished I am glad I chose not to ‘freestyle’ and accepted the restriction of my mentor. I learned a lot doing this and was reminded of a great deal more. There really is no substitute for work but do think it through before you start cutting.
For decades now I have been telling folk they need to learn to read their trees. A great deal of the problems folk experience with cultivating bonsai are related to erroneous half truths they have read or picked up from well meaning but inexperienced individuals. Many of those ideas may be sound in themselves but knowing when to apply them is the issue. The internet has made this situation pretty much critical but many books and some magazines are just as culpable. Added to the fact many of us today are raised without hands on experience of gardening and keeping plants, it’s not hard to see why so many of us struggle with bonsai, particularly in the early days.
Our obsession with celebrities and social media where anyone can publish pretty much anything and the fact that, by and large, nobody fact checks what they read online and we have a potential but serious pitfall for the unwary, ignorant and terminally lazy. There are a lot of minimally experienced folk out there beavering away at ‘influencing’ us. Get enough followers and it seems most folk will just accept what’s being said as if it were gospel truth. There are a lot of self proclaimed messiahs out there but the fact that something or someone is popular does not make it, or them, right.
I am old school, i even went to an old school, I learned my trade the old school way and have learned bonsai that way too. I subscribe to the notion that we learn by doing, by practical experience and hands on practice. By far the best way to start anything new is to get alongside a more experienced fellow. That used to be called an apprenticeship and it imparts life long learning. I have always spent my time with folk who are where I wanted to be. I figured out a long time ago that spending my time with folk who were where I was would leave me right there. It may have been comfortable but it was never going to help me out. I got to spend time with some of the best bonsai artists working, often it was intimidating, particularly in the early days but it was worth the discomfort to progress my experience.
Over the years I have had my content plagiarised and blatantly copied. My videos have been ripped off and some folk didn’t even bother to change the soundtrack they just put their name on them and claimed it was their work. That’s simply incredible since there really is only one person around that looks like me and I know him well. I have had these lazy scumbags take credit for my trees, use my pictures to promote stuff they are selling. They have associated my name with their products and trees in order to try and get a better price or give them credibility. I even had one shit-bag who was advertising my trees for sale on Ebay. People will do literally ANYTHING in order to gain fame these days but of course they do it at arms length, keyboard warriors. Nobody has ever done these things within my reach, there is violence in my past and there could be in my future given the right circumstances. Beware the quiet ones, we are watching!
Having got that off my chest lets get back to the subject at hand. I have written recently about turning off, shutting up and listening. What we need to listen to is not what the great Marco Invenizzi once called the NET BONSAI WANKER but the quietest voice of all, our trees. As humans we think the best and most efficient way to communicate is words, that’s simply not true. Anyone who follows politics will know words can easily say one thing and mean another. Words have literally infinite capacity for being misunderstood and abused. Dogs communicate much more efficiently than we do and there is never a misunderstanding between our hairy friends. Similarly trees can communicate perfectly with us if only we could shut up, look and listen.
Trees respond to their environment and if it is us who control that environment we ABSOLUTELY must understand what’s going on if we want to be successful. I have literally lost count of the number of times I have heard folk say to me about their tree “It was fine for years and then it just died”. In that case, ninety percent of the time, somebody has been ignoring the signs and has actually been killing their tree slowly over a very long time.
If there is a golden rule for success in bonsai it’s the old gardening adage, “Right plant, right place “. Really simple, except, the bonsai community works very hard at overcomplicating everything. My advice? For every variety in your garden, look up the species, find out about it’s natural range and the conditions in which it grows. Knowing that will tell you what you need to do to make it a happy camper. Personally I would entirely ignore bonsai related information sources, stick with the horticultural and plant experts and commercial growers.
Sadly I can’t teach this intuitive aspect of bonsai remotely. I remember several happy occasions walking around my garden with consummate expert David Prescott. I was simply flabbergasted at what he could tell about a plant simply by walking past it. Sadly it has taken me fifteen years to catch up but at least I got there in the end. Life is all about the details, there are NO big things just details, ignore these at your peril.
The Tale of Two Maples.
I say all that, in my long winded way, as a preface to todays lesson. The best I can do to try and pass on how this works is to present an example so, here goes. Here are two pictures. The trees are identical species, Japanese produced Acer palmatum’Deshojo’. These were photographed on the same day in late September, both have been on the nursery here in Norfolk (U.K) for at least a couple of years. So, what do these images tell us? What can we extrapolate from what we can see?
First up the smaller tree in the bonsai pot. For the time of year there is no way this should be largely without leaf, it’s not unknown in our micro-climate to have leaves on maples at the end of November. Notice the leaves are fairly large and the petioles are long. We can also see the tree has made at least an inch or two of new extension growth all over. This tells me the tree is not intrinsically weak or unhealthy therefore we can deduce (sounding like Sherlock here) the issues with this tree are largely, but not entirely, environmental.
What you can’t see is that the tree is not extensively well rooted simply because a lot of the soil is very loose. This tells me that before I got this tree it had spent a good amount of time in a larger pot before someone re-potted it with extensive root removal into a bonsai pot that is too small and a soil mix that is too coarse and then, adding insult to injury, the tree has been heavily pruned in all the wrong ways.
Over winter trees store a huge amount of energy in their trunks for springtime. After the poorly completed work detailed above this tree has burst into spring growth only to discover it’s roots have disappeared and it can’t support the amount of foliage and new growth. It’s much like folk who spend too much borrowed money before something changes and they find themselves with their bare asses out in the breeze. Drastic action has to be taken before we lose our ass altogether.
Look at the new growth on the tree, look how thin it is with long internodes. Our tree thought it had plenty of cash in the bank but very quickly discovered it had been robbed. After the initial spring flush the tree bravely struggled on all summer but could not manage a second flush. Therefore the leaves are, by the end of September, six months old. It’s been a rough summer here with very high temperatures and vicious drying winds. The weather has taken it’s toll and at this time the tree is not strong enough to fight back and has shut down early.
For sure a better gardener than me (with 3000 plants at this time) would have given this a little more TLC and helped it out a bit. I like to think I grow tough trees, no place for slackers on my benches! I have kept it in the sun, but the pot in the shade to keep it from cooking the roots in direct sun. Keeping it warm and sunny meant the pot dried out regularly which meant I could water twice a day. Passing water through the root system supplies oxygen and ensures fast root development. Absolutely no pruning, every leaf was needed to supply energy to help restore the trees equilibrium. A very limited amount of fertiliser was used.
Soon I will move this back to a terracotta nursery pot without disturbing the roots. This is a classic example of how a bonsai pot is only suitable for bonsai trees, which this is not. Moving this immature tree into a bonsai pot too early and in all the wrong ways has set it back about five years. That’s how long I estimate it will take to restore this tree and re-balance it’s equilibrium. It will also take that long to rebuild it’s ramification which no doubt it once had. At that time a skilled individual will be able to return it to a bonsai pot without rocking it’s world in all the wrong ways.
This long suffering maple is a text book example of ignorance, incompetence and impatience. The calamitous three I’s of the bonsai apocalypse. The fastest way to get to where we want in the development of a bonsai tree is to take our time. Sadly a great deal of the work done on bonsai today pretty much guarantees they will never become the bonsai we hope.
So what about the second example, a larger tree in a terracotta nursery pot? This arrived in a worse state than the little tree, about five or six years ago. It was, again, in a tiny pot but this time had been ignored for years, not re-potted and barely even watered and was, I judged at the time, just a few months from complete collapse and death. Obviously that’s not the case today and rebuilding of the tree is well underway. So, what does the picture tell us?
Most obviously the leaves are a beautiful green colour and are nearly perfect, well formed and of even size. At a glance the tree has a well groomed appearance without shaggy growth. However there are a few scorched examples here and there. That lower branch has obviously been grown out for a reason and look how evenly thick it is with evenly spaced internodes. It’s hard to see in the pictures but there are some light brown lines running along the trunk. Also the soil looks good, A largely even colour, no green algae or weeds and the pot is much the same, algae on the outside of terracotta indicates a constantly wet soil. I am having to water at least once and sometimes twice a day. So what can we tell from those observations?
Deshojo maple flushes bright red leaves in spring. By mid-summer they tend to take on a rather odd green/purple colour. In the UK and my nursery in particular leaf tips will be scorched by drying summer winds. The leaves on this tree are fully mature, the red spring colour has long gone but why the green colour? That’s the effect of a shaded position, maple leaves that are exposed to direct sun often take on some colour, in the case of deshojo this tends toward dark green and purple.
Notice those badly scorched leaves on the downward pointing branch? That tells us all we need to know. Those are old spring growth that were left after defoliation in summer. Why else would they be scorched when the top is perfect, sun comes from above right? Bright green even sized leaves, all identical and very late in the year show this tree was defoliated in summer, the lower leaves were left at the time because the branch to which they were attached was weak and, at the time, they were in good condition even though senescence has set in now..
So what background do I know? This got left in our poly-tunnel having been put in there over winter to protect it’s now vibrant root system from excess wet. By the time I got around to moving things about in spring it was already in leaf and so I could not put it outside as the risk of frost had not passed. Therefore I had to leave it where it was. It grew incredibly, that long branch made over three feet and carried more leaf than the rest of the tree put together. However by mid-summer we were experiencing temperatures up to fifty five Celsius in the greenhouse. Even damping down three times a day was not going to keep this looking good. At the end of July the leaves were almost entirely fried, brown and crispy, except for that lower branch that was a little shaded. So, rather than lose the rest of the growing season I removed all of the leaves and shortened the current seasons growth and performed some structural pruning.
Two weeks later the tree flushed with new red leaves and made extension everywhere, just like a second spring. Because temperatures were falling and day length had begun to shorten I left the tree in the tunnel. Once the new flush of growth made three to five leaves I shortened it back to one pair. Defoliating is about improving ramification which in turn will produce smaller leaves but, beyond that it can, as in this case, allow us to extend the growing season. This was sold just last week but left where it was it would still be photosynthesizing into November. That gives us a long season (for the U.K) and ensures a vibrant, strong, healthy and FAST developing tree next summer.
This tree has been going backwards for years. Of late it’s lot in life has begun to improve. It’s strength has returned and it’s facing a bright future in the right hands. The old grey bark has begun to show light brown vertical cracks. This shows us the trunk and primary branch structure has begun to swell as the tree lays down thick new sap wood. Each year this allows increasing amounts of sap to flow which increases the growth rate and hastens the trees development as bonsai, so long as we do our bit in that equation properly.
The rebuilding of this old tree has JUST begun after five years of basically doing nothing other than allowing the tree to build a new root system and, step by step, gain vigour. That has now reached an insanely high level and finally this tree can be restored and we have something to work with. Much like whack-a-mole, every time I cut this tree it just bounces right back at me. That means I can be constantly intervening and the trees response ensures every step makes an improvement. Basically what has happened is we have taken an old somewhat mature but dying bonsai tree and turned it into raw material again. Had I caught the tree earlier that might not have been entirely necessary but in this extreme case the best approach was to begin the cycle all over again.
Absolutely every time we touch our trees it HAS to be for the tree’s benefit. If your intervention is because you want the tree to look good, say for a show or to impress a visitor you put your own needs before that of your tree. That is the top of a steep slippery slope, trust me I have been down it. Before you go getting busy be sure what you intend to do will be to the benefit of your trees in the long run and not just a quick lick of paint and a cover up job. If you are not sure what to do, do nothing, watch, wait, mull it over and think deeply about how you got to this point with your tree and where your TREE needs to go. Everything you need to know is written right there in front of you, just look!
It’s been a long time since I passed a significant watershed in my bonsai journey. I have now been studying and practicing bonsai for more of my life than not. That might not be significant for some who started young but I was not a spotty kid.
Years ago somebody came and asked me how long I had been doing bonsai, about fifteen years was my reply. He then asked if he could expect to be as good as me (that’s a matter of opinion of course) once he reached that particular milestone. My reply was almost certainly not. I don’t think my answer was the anticipated one. As my last boss always said “It’s not the hours you put in but what you put in your hours”.
I was very lucky that when I started bonsai there was no internet. All I had was a few library books, two eyes, two hands and a big nose. With the exception of a few basics like wiring, everything I have learned about bonsai was learned from the trees I have owned. Anyone who knows me will be aware I consider myself to be a gardener first and foremost and I am proud to continue on this noble profession that has largely been forgotten in modern Britain in favour of ‘gardening’ which is something all-together different nowadays.
All of my earliest memories revolve around gardening, in part thanks to my grandparents who always worked hard at growing next years dinner. My mum’s parents had a large guest house in Great Yarmouth in the late fifties and sixties and they had a market garden in which they grew the produce for the family and guests, a far cry from today. My nan grew the food she cooked and served to her guests. My other grandfather grew his own vegetables for most of his ninety six years.
During the summer I would often stay with my mothers mother and we were always outside pulling weeds, planting, pruning and watering. She would take up handfuls of soil and hold it to her nose, smelling it’s earthly aroma and the look of joy that crossed her face has inspired me for life. She would pluck a leaf, crush it and again hold it to her nose. Flowers, fruit, foliage in fact everything in the garden has a tale to tell. In a garden the least important sense we have is sight. Sadly in this day of screens that fact has been entirely lost. Even today I get more from my bonsai at night in the dark than I ever do during the day.
My own parents always encouraged me to ‘try harder’ and ‘do better next time’. A noble idea but as an insecure and uncertain boy I always considered what I did was not good enough, I felt a continual failure. In life that has driven me hard. The reason I told the guy he would probably not reach my level of understanding after a given time was the fact I knew he simply would not put in the hours, he did not have the perfectionist gene. He also lacked the enquiring mindset and the courage to do what it would take. Besides if he possessed those characteristics he would not need to ask me for help.
For twenty years I worked eight hours a day in my job and i did nine hours a day bonsai work, seven days a week, EVERY single day. I have not been on holiday for twenty seven years and I did not own a television until I was over forty five years old. I have not missed more than thirty days work since I was thirteen years old. I love what I do and I will NOT let anything get in my way and, in my opinion, that is THE only way to learn something.
Looking at my bonsai I am infinitely critical, nothing I have ever done measured up to the standard I set myself. I have always said the day I do my best work, and know it, will be the day I walk away because there will be no more challenge. When it’s dark my bonsai are beautiful because there is no evidence of my inept fumbling. In the dark they are just small trees that share the majesty of their wild origins.
Trees give us life, they were here before us and they will be here after us when they will absorb our nutrients in order to cover over the fact we were ever here. The more evil and self serving a society becomes the more trees suffer and are destroyed, how many people cut down a tree because it ‘blocked their light’. In the old testament, invading armies would ‘lay waste’ to a land by destroying all it’s trees. A land without trees is tragic, hopeless and desolate. Whilst everyone seems to agree cutting down the rain forest is bad most seem quite happy to lay waste to their own gardens. Bonsai at least opens up our hearts to develop a love of trees even though a lot of folk do seem to kill a lot of them. In the long run there really is no hope for us is there?
Saying that reminds me of Mr Doubleday. He was the person that I first met in the bonsai world that inspired me to take up my life’s work. A third generation nurseryman who produced roses from his little nursery on Walnut Hill. He lived in a caravan without electricity, wore tweed and hobnail boots and had hands like ancient gnarled branches. His father had seen bonsai in the far east during the war and decades lated Mr D was still practicing the art. I remember he shared with me the utter joy and magic he experienced walking amongst his trees at night with his old paraffin storm lantern. A flickering flame is a much better light to view bonsai than the latest 4k UHD screen, the smell is better too. I have hundreds of paper photographs of my early attempts at bonsai taken by the flickering light of a candle or lamp. These were often taken in the quiet wee small hours of a freezing cold night in winter. All very emotive stuff that fuelled my imagination and passion.
Thirty years have passed since and it’s just not so easy to stay up until it gets light, splash some water on my face and go do a days work. The flip side is I am a little more skilled than I was and so I can do things faster with better outcomes than I did once upon a time. However I am still the student and not the master. It reminds me of the parable that Jesus told about the man that took a high seat at a feast and was asked, much to his embarrassment, to move to a lower place by the host in favour of a more important man. Yet another man that took a low seat was asked to take a higher seat more suited to his position. My mentor always said that the term ‘Bonsai Master’ is an acknowledgement bestowed upon us by others who respect and understand our work and not a moniker we apply to ourselves. Ultimately the only stars of the bonsai world are the trees themselves I see no room for celebrities in what we do.
Another story I heard was about a wealthy man proudly showing his friends around his impressive koi pond and boasting about the quality and value of his beautiful fish. The fish looked out and a new arrival said “Who is that up there”. The other fish replied “Oh that’s just the guy who cleans out the toilets”.
When I sat down here I intended writing an article about defoliation and maples but that has got away from me now and I will have to save that for another day. I have been reminded of the power of silence in bonsai. Sadly the world has become a cacophony of noise and we are losing our very souls in the clamour. Time to slow it down, shut up, turn off and go back to our origins. When was the last time you went out to smell the soil that made you and your bonsai trees?
Thanks to everyone who sponsored me. Our local group has raised around £18,000 and worldwide the Distinguished Gentlemans Ride is closing in on $6 million raised.
Okay Peeps. It’s that time of year again when I make an appeal for your money. Not for me of course, I earn every penny I have, but I need your money for a very good cause.
Once again this Sunday I will be joining The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride. I feel this event is important in raising awareness of issues that affect all of us men. The point is to raise money to help men that really need it so PLEASE go to my fund raising page and sponsor me dressing up like a twat and enduring a 200 mile trip on a bike designed in the 1930s, this year the Harley flathead will be my distinguished ride. Come on peeps put your hands in your pocket for this great cause.
Bonsai is largely populated by men, with a few notable exceptions, and I am proud to be numbered among those proud fellows. But, having been through the mill a few times in my life I am acutely aware we should never be too proud to ask for help if we need it no matter how hard that might be. I have had great help and support from the bonsai community over the years and I know what a great bunch of characters we all are. Now is the time to pay some of our good fortune back and help somebody in need. PLEASE follow this LINK and donate whatever you can afford. You can copy and paste this into your browser too https://www.gentlemansride.com/rider/GrahamPotter148253