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With Age Comes Wisdom….Or Not

Oscar Wilde wrote “With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”

Turns out he was right. Scientists have found that growing older is no guarantee of growing wiser, if wisdom is an intuitive knack for grasping basic beneficial behaviours. I’m not sure why it was necessary to be a scientist to figure that one out. It appears to me that putting the word ‘scientist’ into any circumstance these days adds weight regardless of how ludicrous the proposition but, let’s park that or I’ll be here all week. Basically, not everyone who gets old gets smart, take a look around you.

I recently had the pleasure of a visit to the garden by what we will respectfully call a rank beginner taking his first steps into our world of bonsai. After an hour I was not a little discombobulated with the odd questions and mixed up thinking presented to me. It’s years since I stood face to face with one of those newbies. With thirty bonsai summers under my belt, it’s hard to remember when I stood in my visitor’s boots. Thankfully I never had the internet to m(f)uck up my formative steps, though for the most part I did a good job without help.

What annoys me most is the fact that, as a tenderfoot, nobody told me to be patient because this was going to take a very long time to master. Todays ethos of instant gratification is diametrically opposed to every single principle and element of the craft of bonsai. A ten-minute video or a snappy article following a web search is NOT all it takes to master our noble art. I now understand there really is no equal to experience in life, and assuming we were paying attention, grey hairs do indeed bring wisdom, simply because that’s how long it takes to sort our bumbling selves out.

My advice to anyone beginning their bonsai journey involves three steps….

1. Stay off the internet.

2. Buy as many cheap plants as you can and do a bit. The more plants you have the faster you will be able to gain hands on practical experience.

3. Get a copy of Colin Lewis’s book Bonsai Basics and actually read it.

Given the above and with just a couple of years experience one will have a basic grounding of what’s involved.

Creating bonsai trees is primarily a horticultural discipline with a little artistic fairy dust sprinkled on top. Given the season it’s like a plate of mince pies which look so much better with a dusting of icing sugar even though it is of little consequence to the main event it does add a little magic. However many folk appear to need to be ‘artists’ for a number of reasons, I say “Salute”. If we are making good trees who cares what we’re called right?

Bonsai trees become special thanks to their growth which produces maturity, it’s got little to do with wiring and carving. That should be viewed as the pastry in my analogy, we can’t do without it but it’s just a part of the tasty whole. Having hosted a thousand workshops I have to say bonsai is not about what ends up on the floor, it’s about what remains on the tree. Most novices cut off too much and don’t know how to grow it back and the more we cut off a tree the more we weaken it. In turn that slows growth and thwarts the desired progress.

Back when I was a rank novice I made a concerted effort to find a well experienced mentor to help me out. After several failed liaisons I fell upon Kevin Willson and the rest is history. Sure I didn’t learn everything I know from my raffish mate, a lot of folk had a hand in my development. One nugget Mr Willson did give me was to judge what I was being told in the light of the quality of the owners own trees. Bonsai don’t lie.

My first experience of a quality bonsai show was a visit to the Ginkgo awards hosted by the inimitable Danny Use, that was back in the late nineties. Whilst there I ear-oled another mentor of mine, David Prescott who agreed to walk me around the exhibition. That was a seminal moment for me. After a while I noticed DP kept on talking about “good work”. Personally I was primarily impressed with the quality of material on display. However it quickly became apparent that he thought a lot of the ‘best’ material was poorly worked and therefore sub standard for a show at this level.

Over time I have come to understand what we were doing there. A lot of the best ‘bonsai’ are created by the ‘smoke and mirrors’ technique. I remember sitting in a hotel restaurant with the legendary Walter Pall who was, in his idiosyncratic manner, very concerned about the success of trees in exhibition that were primarily supreme examples of quality wiring. In effect, this allows a skilled operative with top notch material to create the appearance of an old and mature bonsai tree without the input of the time it takes to develop genuine maturity. Walter’s argument centred around the notion that without the wire one would not have a bonsai tree. We could argue that until the wee small hours, which in that case we did.

My Prescott’s appreciation of ‘good work’ centred around the patient application of quality technique over many years in order to produce a result which, to the untrained eye, appears entirely natural. Today I agree that any sign of the hand of man detracts from the overall deception of the bonsai artists work. My goal is to have trees that look like they were always thus. Sadly that takes time and a lot of it and that also assumes we know what we are doing at the outset which of course we do not.

Having got those summers under my belt it is now my considered opinion that it takes ten years just to figure out which end goes in the soil. After twenty years, generally, we are no longer in a rush, which makes the whole endeavour much more enjoyable. By the time we reach our third decade I personally feel like a rank beginner all over again. My own ignorance is a little overwhelming. I recently watched a documentary on NHK Japan about an old guy who sharpens knives. It has taken him forty years of full time dedication to learn his trade. This guy has been virtually penniless for most of that time but now is widely considered the very best in the world and chefs wait up to two years to have their best knives attended too by him. What hope do we have of becoming bonsai masters when we dabble as an occasional hobby?

All of the above came into sharp focus recently following my attempts, as a rank beginner, at rolling cigars. I have been a brother of the venerable leaf for many years now and I decided it was time to commit to the process fully. Over the years I have taught myself a lot of new skills, how hard could this be?

We all know a professional makes just about anything look easy. This story made me smile and is salient here……

A giant ship engine failed. The ship’s owners tried one expert after another, but none of them could figure but how to fix the engine.Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was a young. He carried a large bag of tools with him, and when he arrived, he immediately went to work. He inspected the engine very carefully, top to bottom.Two of the ship’s owners were there, watching this man, hoping he would know what to do. After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something. Instantly, the engine lurched into life. He carefully put his hammer away. The engine was fixed!

A week later, the owners received a bill from the old man for ten thousand dollars.

“What?!” the owners exclaimed. “He hardly did anything!”

So they wrote the old man a note saying, “Please send us an itemised bill.

The man sent a bill that read:

Tapping with a hammer………………….. $ 2.00

Knowing where to tap…………………….. $ 9,998.00

So, after watching a few Youtube videos of how to construct a cigar I got to work. A year later my scruffy sticks are beginning to resemble what I hoped but it’s been bloody hard and frustrating. I have had cigars that are leaky, plugged, don’t draw and spontaneously combust. Others have fallen apart, some refused to catch light at all and no two were even remotely the same. I have been working hard all year and studying hard. It’s amazing just how difficult this is and the tiniest detail is massively important in a successful outcome.

Just to make my life a bit more difficult I decided I wanted to roll perfectos. For those not in the know, this is a short fat little number that tapers at both ends. The sucking end should be narrower than the lighting end. This looks not unlike a cigar you might see in a cartoon, think Baby Herman from Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The perfecto cigar.

Now, a cigar is made up of three elements, a bunch of filler leaves, a binder to hold it all together and a high-quality wrapper to make it all look good and give a pleasant experience on the lips and fingertips as well as the nose. Most cigars are straight and applying the wrapper, which has to be both neat and tight is not too difficult to achieve once the knack is mastered. However wrapping a flat strip of leaf around the compound curves of a perfecto is not a little tricky. I found a video by a guy who made this look as easy as dropping eggs on the floor. I watched it a couple of times and got busy. After a month I was extremely frustrated and getting nowhere.

The frustrations of a beginner in a skilled craft are all but second to none. I was being very dense and no amount of practice was helping. So, I went back to the video that was entitled something like ‘There is an S in Perfecto’. I had the construction right but my wrappers looked like Nora Batty’s pop socks. At three in the morning I studied this guy’s work for the dozenth time and all of a sudden it dawned on me, the wrapper has to be cut in a very specific exaggerated S shape, coupled with a very specific rolling technique the fog cleared and I got it. HOW could I be so thick? The whole point was the S, it’s in the title and I watched it a dozen times before I got it, what an absolute dumb-ass.

My newfound revelation and a little practice has resulted in a passable representation of a perfecto. I won’t be working for Davidoff any time soon but as an amateur it’s all about little victories. These are hard-won and should not be discounted. As the Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

I recall, as a bonsai beginner I was struggling to understand how to work with scots pine, now my favourite species. Every endeavour with this beautiful tree ended badly, they all died. Eventually I got to keep them alive but beyond that I was getting absolutely nowhere. At that time one of Colin Lewis’s books came into my possession and it had a chapter on Scots. Within that was a paragraph about the development of foliage and the mystical back budding. I read it and was none the wiser. So, I read it again…..and again and again. After more than a dozen attempts, I gave up in frustration. However, I did persevere with my pines. It was probably a year later I revisited that paragraph and after a few more read-throughs the clouds parted and the sun shone on my face, I got it.

The obvious answer to the above is that I am unusually dense. Too wrapped up in my own ideas and opinions to receive the wisdom of my betters. On the other hand we are all familiar with the saying “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I have been teaching bonsai for decades now and in that time I have learned a lot. I do believe that in teaching we begin to understand what it is we know. In the formulation of the presentation of knowledge a deep understanding slowly dawns.

I have been writing articles and presenting videos and lectures on bonsai technique for over twenty years now. It’s always been my goal to help folk attain the success they desire by whatever means possible. I have no interest in keeping any secrets to myself, I don’t consider bonsai to be a pissing contest. I have always gladly shared what I know to the best of my ability. I spend countless hours trying to make this all appear as simple as I can. I have never done a video or written an article where I did not put in ALL of the important stuff I know folk need to have in order to gain an understanding of the subject. Still it has always baffled me why folk often just don’t get it.

Some of you will remember the video I did regarding the vexed subject of how long wire should stay on a tree.

The Burning Question

Even after all that I still get folk who ask me the question. Being a cantankerous old sod I get very annoyed about this. I spend a lot of my time getting asked, what to me are stupid questions and I find it very hard not to reply with a sarcastic and demeaning quip. However in light of my stogie rolling experience, I see there is something more going on here.

These days doing anything practical is a simple process of finding a good video or article (not easy in itself I know), following the prescribed steps and then applying ourselves to practice until the action becomes second nature. Of itself this appears to take out all the guess work, heavy lifting and painful experience of mastering a new skill. But, based on the communications I have with folk and the experiences I have had in learning new skills this is simply not as straightforward as it appears.

My opinion is that life experience is like building a house. We all get excited and like to skip to the fun parts but unless the bit we can’t see is correct the rest is nothing more than a liability that could fall down and kill us without forewarning. That bit is the foundation. It appears some basic experience is required in order for us to make good sense and practical use of the skills that seasoned practitioners endeavour to give us. EVERYTHING in life is more complicated and involved than it first appears. Take driving, it looks effortless once mastered so why on earth do learners make such a hash out of it? Most of us were there once upon a time.

Mastering bonsai requires a lifetime of diligent work. Just like building a house each piece has to be put in the correct place in the appropriate way. Using the wrong materials and technique may not be immediately significant but in the grand scheme it will be important. Often a part may appear incongruous until the time comes for it’s employment. In my own case it was not until I realised the complication of wrapping a perfecto that the significance of the S became apparent, before that I figured it was just unnecessary complication or a guy trying to be clever. So I conclude that experience is built one element at a time. Being impatient and trying to cheat, cut out the practice or shorten the timescale required will leave some draughty holes in our construction that will give rise to a wry smile from those ‘in the know’.

Just take it one step at a time, keep an open mind, a sharp eye and an attentive ear. Hang onto the things that currently don’t make sense, they may be required in the future. Be prepared for a lifetime of learning and the reward and fulfilment that brings with it along the way. We are not in a race here, there’s no medals and no trophy for the winner there’s just the journey and it’s a good one! In fact the journey is the whole freaking point.

At this juncture I know it’s customary to wish all of our lovely loyal readers, customers, supporters, friends and family a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous new year and a hearty THANK YOU for support over the last year. So, there it was!

Thank ya’ll from the family at Kaizen Bonsai. We are off for a lay down and a big drink. Personally speaking it’s been a crap year for us apart from your valued input and support that has genuinely helped us through. May God bless every last one of you with his grace.

Graham

Black Friday My Arse!

Black Friday My Arse!

Just in case anyone was tempted to ask me about “Black Friday” deals I thought, for once, I would get ahead of the game. If you know me you know what comes next so let me step aside for a moment. Here is an excerpt from an email I received this very morning from an outstanding UK producer and supplier.

Our position of not jumping on the band wagon with Black Friday deals is not only because we don’t agree with the concept of fuelling consumerism to the detriment of our planet. It is because we don’t need to – we combine high quality, with great value for all our bird food products throughout the year.Vine House Farm

I entirely concur with those sentiments but also let me add….you knew this was coming, my two penn’orth.

Personally I consider it offensive to be offered a ‘deal’. Let me, at length, explain.

Running a business these days costs a LOT of money. Even before one makes their first sale there will potentially have been many thousands of pounds spent. In modern Britain, just for a company to exist costs money, to actually have the audacity to trade will cost an eye watering amount. When a business gets a little bigger the amount of money needed every day, just to open the door, even before making a sale, is best NOT thought about. I believe they call that your ‘burn rate‘, costs not directly attributed to sales that have to be paid regardless of economic activity.

So, everyone has to make a (dirty word coming up) PROFIT. That’s not so your local friendly business owner can get rich, fuck off on a yacht and make a spectacle of himself in the Caribbean wearing a loud shirt and budgie smuggler. Profits pay wages and taxes and they pay those who choose to work as well as those who cannot or will not? Profits are a good thing, at least in the hands of honest and responsible folk.

So, I went out to buy a massive ‘dining’ table and a bunch of chairs. At the time my circumstances were straitened but I will never let a lack of ready cash dictate what I buy. Neither will I borrow money. Rather than buy cheap crap I will go without until I can afford what I want or need. I was in my own home and married about eight years before I got my first sofa and because I waited and bought well I still have it thirty years later.

So, the table? We went off to our local family owned furniture emporium, who were famous for their massive discounts, and pretty soon I found the monster table and chairs I was looking for. It was on offer at something stupid like 60% discount which made no difference to me, it was what we needed and I had the folding in my pocket so we loaded it up there and then. Fifteen years on I still have it.

Some time later we decided we needed some sort of sideboard, dresser thingy and so we headed back to the same store with a roll of Her Majesties finest paper currency. Once again we found what we needed pretty quick, I must be easy to please. Having agreed to buy said item the salesman, who knew me pretty well by then, thanks to multiple visits, told me that if I waited a week I could get the item at a……you guessed it…….60% discount. I told him he was a c**** and walked out never to return. A couple of years later they had a genuine sale because they went bankrupt. I’m old now and so have many examples of bullshit discounting. I would not like to insult anyone’s intelligence by doing the same.

A while back I saw one of the big DIY sheds offering an 80% discount on kitchens. Just think about that for a moment. This advertisement was on TV which is really expensive to do right? VAT is 20%. I can really only think of four possible explanations for this….

  1. Their original prices were artificially stratospheric
  2. They were going bankrupt
  3. Their kitchens must be absolute shit
  4. Their goods are radioactive or really unfashionable.

Seeing as they are still in business my intuition leads me to believe it was number 3. Is anyone REALLY taken in by this bullshit? I guess so as we keep seeing more and more of it every year.

I was recently offered a ‘deal’ on some power tools. That got me to thinking I could really use some of those. It took me about as long as it takes to read this sentence to find the exact same items at a better ‘regular’ price from a reputable retailer. Then, in the end, I went back to a small local firm I use and paid more from them because they are nice people to do business with.

One thing I have learned and will pass on willingly is that, often, just buying from the cheapest source is not the best deal. I like the old fashioned notion of customer loyalty, not because it will get me a better price but I like to be invested in the folk that I spend money with. Trust me folk IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT PRICE.

Sure we can all get a low price (no prizes for that) from some big faceless corporation (or somebody going broke). But, what happens when things go wrong? Then you enter the Twilight Zone of ‘customer service‘ where emails are not answered or mysteriously get lost, telephones and automated “Please choose from the following 45 options menu“, “sorry I did not understand that answer” “please hold“, listen to this intensely annoying shit music for the next 40 minutes, “You call is important to us, please continue to hold“, “All our operators are busy right now” because we are too cheap to employ enough folk to take care of you…… BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT. Anyone been there? They should call it “Fuck the customer services“.

However place your order with a GOOD small business and the whole experience will be better. Small businesses generally do not have call centres, automated phone systems, live chat, app’s or any other tech’y bullshit. Buy from a firm with a landline number and a front door you can walk through and a hand you can shake. It’s worth the extra few quid and I think we will all feel a little better about ourselves having a bit less stuff and knowing our money is appreciated by people who don’t give it to shareholders and that just may become friends in the long run.

Talking of front doors, brings to mind the story of a good bonsai buddy of mine, sadly no longer with us. Smart as a whip, successful and wealthy my old mate was Norfolk through and through. Back then we all used Norwich Union for a great many financial services simply because they were based in Norfolk, as I recall they occupied about half of the fine city of Norwich. Anyhow, my buddy had an issue he needed to resolve and gave them a call which ended up in India or some such place. After a while it all started to get ugly so my short-tempered mate decided enough was enough, jumped into his truck and went to Norwich. Those were the days when you could just walk into a building without a cavity search. Now obviously we know this was not going to work but me ol’ mate stormed in the door demanding satisfaction. The bewildered staff, not forthcoming resulted in my guy going out to the car park to fetch the pick axe handle he always carried in the back of his truck. Eventually the police were called and satisfaction was NOT had.

I learned a lot from that, all of our insurance is handled by a local family-owned agent with a shop in the local high street. Should there ever be a problem the sight of my looming hulk over the counter will get some action. I can call my guy any time, directly and he knows me. I get prices better than I can find online, sound ‘inside’ advice, no telephone menus. Now that really is fucking “Simples”!

Kaizen Bonsai also deals with little family businesses all over the UK and beyond. Over the years we have built up good trading relationships and it’s nice to be taken care of by folk who know us and know what we need. Also as the years pass it’s nice to see other folks businesses grow and their families prosper, kids grow up etc’ and to know we helped in that does us a world of good.

Don’t get me wrong, i’m not against buying what we need at a decent price and I have made my living for decades now by haggling and stumping up that all important £ sterling to get what I want at the right price. I just hate being deceived and lied to by dishonest businesses and bullshitters.

Kaizen Bonsai have never had a ‘sale’. However I have, on rare occasions offered ‘discount‘ items. The discounts on those come in two forms.

  1. I negotiated a special price from a supplier and passed on the saving.
  2. I got so sick of looking at something I either sold it for what it cost or even at a loss.

Sometimes I suffer a lack of good judgement and buy stuff that is all wrong. On those occasions I have to ‘man-up’ and take the hit by which I mean I lose money. So if you see a discount on our website I suggest you feel really sorry for me whilst developing a wry smile at my expense. I firmly believe in personal responsibility.

The whole essence of a ‘SALE” is to get rid of excess stock, bale out of bad buying decisions, clear out seasonal stock and generally move stuff on to free up cash and make space. The very day business started buying in sale stock the integrity was lost and these days clever marketing of ‘events’ like Black Friday are symptomatic of a distinct lack of integrity and respect. I say “give me your best price EVERY day“. Show me some respect and value my business, not just because you want a good review, or because you want me to come and spend even more. The way a lot of business is conducted today is losing dignity and respect. It’s a dishonest approach to selling good folk stuff they probably don’t need and persuading those same hard-working folk to part with money they often do not have, via’ debt cards, easy finance options and the like. FOMO is a powerful thing.

So, if you genuinely need to get something and you find a good offer knock yourselves out. Personally, I’m not easily swayed into parting with my hard-earned and have spent the morning unsubscribing to every single email offering me a Black Friday ‘deal’. Every bit of Black Friday mail through my door went back into the post box “return to sender”. I know it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever, i’m just a dog howling at the moon but things have got to change, the way we are going is destroying every one of us.

So, I have wasted enough time on this and if you, dear reader,  are insane enough to have read it there are Black Friday deals you are missing. I have to go sort this mess out now, video coming soon.

Graham.

P.S ‘SALE’ items are listed here. Bonsai Bargain Basement.

Soon to be a new bonsai video, the 4 year journey of this privet. Was it worth the wait?

 

 

 

 

Littered With Contradiction

I’m on safe ground here when I say Bonsai is Littered With Contradiction. But then perhaps it’s not the trees fault and it’s not inherent in the programme. Nevertheless there are a lot of variables and those can throw us into confusion at times especially where an individual is not reclining upon the comfortable lounger of experience.

After thirty years mucking about with bonsai trees, and, as has often been remarked upon by those who know me, having a capacious gift for memory, at least as far as our beloved little trees are concerned. I am lucky enough to be able on occasions to see the bigger picture and take into account a lot of variables when considering a particular course of action or outcome.

I recently wrote about how I love to peel away the autumn colour of maples and other deciduous trees in order to reveal the fruits of my labours and a trees development over the preceding summer. That’s preferable for me over a bold display of colour. Littered With Contradiction or just impatient?

Little Tommy Opposite

Having just spent ten days in abject agony with sciatica following a very stupid and self inflicted hip injury that ended up with me in hospital and subsequently incoherent on the highest strength pain killers available from Her Majesty’s health service. I have largely missed the best display of autumn colours there has been in our area in twenty years.

A couple of days ago at sunrise I managed to slip into my de-laced boots and still attired in my best nightwear placed a tentative step out onto the yard. Gingerly I stepped one cautious foot at a time and after some considerable effort and care arrived at the end of the garden where a spectacular sight greeted me. A display of coloured leaves the like of which our exposed east coast location rarely provides.

Almost every year late season foliage here is blackened and scorched by vicious north winds. However this year they held off and thanks to my incapacitation there were no fumbling fingers to meddle either. Despite an appalling summer, one of the worst I can remember for tree cultivation my lovely little trees have stuck a defiant middle finger up to the British weather right at the last and, following my traumatic recent experiences I joined right in with a lightened heart and mind.

Earlier in the year I wrote about defoliation in my interminable and loquacious manner. The subject that illustrated that article has now rewarded my efforts and created one of the best displays of colour I have enjoyed for many years.

Defoliation – What You Need To Know

One of the contradictions of this technique that certainly deceives many folk is the thought that it will weaken a tree and I have seen this expounded in several books. Whilst it may upset a poorly or weak tree and as I said in my previous diatribe it is not suitable for all species, in some instances the result is likely to be the opposite of what one might expect. All things being equal, and assuming one is sufficiently adroit to consider and exploit all the associated elements and factors the reverse is in fact true, it just might increase the strength and vigour of a plant. I dealt with that at great length in my previous post……

The Tale of Two Maples

So, having defoliated this Japanese maple, that I am in the process of restoring after several years of neglect in a commercial nursery, I am pleased to see that it still has a full head of leaves in November. That’s a full MONTH after all my non-defoliated maples dropped their leaves. Seeing as the last month has been utterly beautiful here means this tree is now much stronger, it will endure the winter better and grow stronger and with improved uniformity next spring. Notice how uniform the colour is top to bottom? It all arrived evenly and at the same moment which tells us a lot.

Whilst I am itching to remove those leaves now, in order to see how the summer development has progressed I will, on this occasion refrain and let nature take it’s course.

Having had a very traumatic couple of weeks which only a small number of you will appreciate I am very pleased to be largely pain free. I can see properly again and totter about my garden with only minor apprehension and I am seeing my bonsai trees and their surrounding big brothers in a fresh clear light the value of which I may have lost over the last and most dis-agreeable year.

Enjoy the season folks and be thankful for small mercies.

Graham.

Japanese maple November 2021

We almost never get to see a display of colour like this.

Littered With Contradiction? Na’h we’re good.

Littered With Contradiction? Work progresses.

I’m on safe ground here when I say Bonsai is Littered With Contradiction

We’ve Got Your Back.

Just a quick update on what’s been happening recently here at Kaizen Bonsai world headquarters. It’s nice to know that when things are uncertain, to quote a modern idiom ‘ We’ve got your back‘, or at least someone has.

None of us really know what’s just around the corner as we go through our lives. Most of the time nothing happens, life goes on. Sometimes there is a nice surprise waiting to shower us in blessings, rare but it does happen. And then, there is what most often seems to happen. Life is going along nicely and just as you turn a corner life lays you out like you were caught in the side of the head by Joe Root swinging for the perimeter wall.

2021 has been a thoroughly shit year for Catherine and myself for any number of life changing reasons I don’t need to go into. However last week will prove entertaining for those who take joy in other peoples misery, in this case mine.

It was a long tale of abuse that started in me resurrecting a big 1980’s Suzuki dirt bike from several years of slumber. It’s big, very tall (i’m short) and hard to kick start (no electric foot). Couple that with a carburettor containing several years of nastiness and some tired electrics and even though I got it going just fine, eventually,  I was left with a very sore lower back and hip on my right side. I am a bit odd in that I am left footed and right handed.

Next day was a long dog walk and then I had a couple of days of hard graft with new imports of goods arriving from overseas. Tuesday saw me humping a couple of tons of wire into a confined space before wrestling tons of pots into storage. The following day, a bit beaten up, i thought a gentle dog walk through the local woods would settle down my aching joints but, as always I overdid it. By lunch time I was laid out and terrified at the pain with which I was wracked.

Now, as regular followers of my nonsense will know I have had some run in’s with injury and pain before. You name it I have done it. I have cut, burned, crushed and busted everything in my time. I have had a bout of sciatica that, had it not been for my good lady, would have seen me dropping headfirst out of an upstairs window onto the concrete below.

However this time was a new experience. In retrospect I know I hyper extended my hip wrecking tendons in the process and that caused the sciatic nerve within my hip to get nipped up. Anyone who has done something like this will now be wincing in sympathy. So after 3 days laid out on a hard floor, screaming down the house and crying like a baby with a full nappy, and without a wink of sleep, I found myself in the back of  a vehicle impressively operated by the East of England Ambulance Service. Thank GOD for Entonox.

Interestingly as the ambulance crew and I sat/laid in the back of their van sharing an hour in an NHS queue the lovely lady present was sharing her experiences of back related sciatica (which I have also suffered with). “i’ve had five kids and that was NOTHING compared to the bouts of sciatica I have suffered with.” So, ostensibly I have been in child birth for the last 10 days which just might explain why I have been hard to get a hold of. Please accept my apologies for abandoning my post but thankfully I’m getting short periods of vertical time now which is just as well because there is a lot to do.

I have been banging on for ages about how hard I felt things were going to get here in Blighty and sadly that’s now all coming to pass. Thanks to an unprecedented rise in the cost of everything from raw materials to shipping cost and the inexorable and entirely unreasonable increase in government bureaucracy and endless pointless paperwork and levies placed upon businesses, costs are rising fast. That’s fuelling inflation which means likely interest rate rises, one of the dumbest responses imaginable in this current climate and experts in the forwarding industry agree there is unlikely to be any easing of the situation until at least the end of next year or into the next.

Just look at the cost of Akadama, a benchmark price in bonsai trading. Even though the price has increased 65% since the beginning of this year nobody is making additional profit except the government who’s 20% tax just goes with the price. Their cut for a bag has gone from £2.83 to £4.66 at our selling price, that’s since March this year. KB are making the same margin as always and it’s less that the tax after incoming transport and warehousing cost. So, hang on to your hats folks the pain is coming and your government is rubbing their hands and wearing a big F*ck you! grin.

Still, I guess we should all be thankful because at least most products are still available. We will all have to budget a little more carefully, consume a little less and make what we have go further (or forego some other luxury like a holiday). That’s what I had to do at the outset of my bonsai career (30 years and still no holiday) when I was as poor as a church mouse. In a strange way it was kind of fun.

So, whilst Kaizen Bonsai is slowly winding down our tree sales for a considerable number of reasons (more news on that to come soon) we are FAR from chucking in the towel. Having freed myself from the yoke of three thousand trees I can now begin to apply myself to other exciting new projects. One of those is the import of tons and tons of Bonsai Pots, thousands of Bonsai Tools and tons of Bonsai Wire and the like. From fertilisers to carving tools we are stacking our warehouse.

Our warehouse carries upward of 40 tons of soil, containers filled with wire, tens of thousands of pots and everything you can imagine or are ever likely to need in the pursuit of bonsai perfection. We buy a lot, often months in advance, so we can ensure continuity of supply to make our dear customers life as easy as possible.

Part of our warehouse filled with bonsai goodies. If you need it chances it’s in here somewhere.

Tons of wire and tools fresh off the container ship ready for unpacking. This is what laid me out for two weeks because I am a knackered old git.

As we start to move in different directions we have the chance to bring in products from new and different manufacturers that may not have been seen before. As far as bonsai pots go, it has been a considerable cause of concern to me for years now that what we see is most often the cheapest nasty quality available. This is because they have passed through too many hands before reaching your bonsai workshop. In order for the retail price to be acceptable the factory gate price has to be very low indeed. This results in poor quality at a high price.

Another aspect of low quality goods is the number that are simply not up to standard for UK retail. With some pot ranges we have often had to dump up to 10% right out of the box due to significant faults and that adds a lot to the final cost. I hate waste and to make a pot, ship it to the opposite side of the world and then simply drop it into the bin looked like madness to me. That is NOT what you call good husbandry of our environment and resources and it’s certainly not good business.

Pots are a funny thing. In my experience unless you are paying upwards of £8 an inch the quality is never going to be the best but then not many bonsai need the best pots. Something that looks nice and sympathetically balanced often is plenty good enough and that’s the bulk of what we sell. Some people will always want to buy a signed antique pot from a Japanese master and whilst that might be the gold standard 99% of us are content to lower our sights besides the fact that few of us can afford those beautiful items.

In my experience a bonsai pot needs to be fit for both purpose and pocket. Not too good and not too poor, it needs to be ‘just right’. But then that means entirely different things to every single person with a bonsai tree to home. To that end Kaizen Bonsai do our best to offer as wide a range of options as possible from plastic to aforesaid antiques (on rare occasions).

Last week I was very excited because we received our first shipment of Japanese made bonsai pots. Back when I started tinkering with trees bonsai pots were a lot of money and a regular subject of discussion at our local bonsai club. Nobody wanted to produce large bonsai trees because few could afford the pots. Back then we had plastic Mica bonsai pots which saved the day….at least to some degree.

Part of this reason for high prices was that by and large nobody was bringing in Chinese made pots, most were Japanese (where wages are much higher). Since the mid ’90s we have been drowning in cheap Chinese product. The Chinese can make exceptional pots every bit as good as their neighbours but sadly our importers mostly went for the cheap end of the spectrum to maximise throughput and profit margins.

Now that’s all changing. Environmental concerns are bringing huge government pressure to bear on manufacturing that consumes large volumes of energy and materials like ceramics. Back in the day I heard tell of massive Chinese, drive in pot kilns fired by everything from the local woodland to coal and bizarrely even diesel. Of course that’s all largely being stopped now and the result is more costs to producers and higher costs to you, dear customer.

It would appear we are beginning to close the circle now because here are those Japanese pots of yore once again. Thank goodness the factories survived. The Japanese have always been responsible manufacturers of quality goods and we are very pleased to be able to support their endeavours once again. To the best of my limited knowledge these good quality pots have not been imported into GB for at least twenty years and I for one think it’s very nice and reassuring to see them back again.

We have in excess of 1600 sets in over 50 designs with multiple colour ways. Here are a few pictures my lovely daughter snapped yesterday of the first sets out of the container. I will be doing my best to get them listed before Christmas assuming I can avoid kicking over any more large motorcycles for a while.

These new pot ranges are predominantly in the smaller sizes up to 12-15″. Put alongside our standard ranges of Chinese made pots from 3″ to a spectacular 40″ I am hoping we have got what you need but take my advice, if you see what you need today, buy it now because pots move fast and there is no guarantee it will be there come spring time when we are selling dozens of pots a day.

So, thanks for you attention but I now have to excuse myself and go for a lie down as sitting this long is quite literally starting to get on my nerves.

God bless y’all.

Graham.

Typical Japanese attention to detail with understated colours and finish.

Nice thin walled mame bonsai pots. There are dozens of designs and colours still to be unpacked.

I’m getting into little bonsai!

Hundreds of high quality miniatures available in a huge spectrum of colours.

Lots of new informal glazed and unglazed designs not seen before.

Informal shell pots available in several popular sizes.

Lots of unusual and contemporary designs and colours for accent plants and unusual bonsai trees.

Japanese Bonsai Pots in our warehouse.

Dozens of full shelves. We got you covered!

Just a tiny part of our bonsai pot range available from stock.

Quality, responsibly produced Japanese quality bonsai pots.

Lots of interesting new designs and colours and some old favourites not seen for decades.

Dozens of interesting unglazed bonsai pot styles.

There is a lot of stock here!

Classic understated Japanese colour, finish and design. Class on a budget.

 

Little Tommy Opposite

By and large I was a sullen little kid, never happier than in my own company, doing my own thing. I was hopeless at being told what to do and my mum used to call me ‘little Tommy opposite‘. It didn’t seem to matter what my parents had to say I would want to do the opposite. Chips for tea? No, I want pie. Lets go to the beach! No I want to stay home. Let’s stay home and watch TV. No I want to go to the beach. Don’t hit your sister!……..You get the idea.

Back in the late 70’s everyone was losing their minds over punk rock and later new wave synthpop which just made me retch. Me? I was a hold out for the heavy metal bands of the sixties and very early seventies: Status Quo, Deep Purple, AC/DC, Judas Priest and the like. The closest I got to being up to date was Iron Maiden who I came across when, aged 12 my mate Woody and I took off school, jumped on a bus, all alone, and went to see the band up the coast at a little hellhole in the countryside. It’s safe to say I have never been a slave to fashion.

I have written here before about Warren Buffet’s theory of, effectively, swimming against the tide. The fact that almost everyone believes a certain thing to be ‘true’ does not make it so. Life is governed by some immutable laws; jump out of an upstairs window and the result will be the same today as it was a thousand years ago. Sadly today we are governed by a great many fickle laws but, that serves us right for putting lunatic criminals in charge of our national destiny.

As humans we have the choice to live our lives by either conviction or preference. Loosely we might say we order our lives according to what is ‘right’ (those immutable laws) or what is ‘comfortable’ or convenient. This opens up a complex can of worms we are best to save for another day. Suffice to say that very often doing what is right may not be easy, convenient or popular. Bonsai is a bit like that…………..

Remember being at school? Learning was hard right? It certainly was for ‘little Tommy opposite’ here. It’s not that I was stupid, I have made a fair success of everything I have attempted in my life. However when it came to school learning nobody took the time to really lay out what was in it for me so I played the fool and at age 14 1/2 I took it upon myself to leave. I figured out how to turn up, get registered and then bunk off without being noticed. I did hang around for woodwork but that was about all.

Having said that I have had a wonderful time in my life learning. Applying myself and learning new skills has been a fantastic journey in so many different disciplines. For example I taught myself to operate a litho printing press which led me into the printing industry for more than twenty years. I didn’t need an apprenticeship, NVQ, SVQ, City & Guilds or any other silliness. I turned up with a folder of the work I had produced and got every single job I applied for. Put simply I could do the work and was motivated.

My bonsai journey has been much the same. Hard work and dedication made up for a lack of talent. My penchant for not listening to other folk and, as we say in Norfolk, ploughing me own furra’ helped a lot. I learned at an early age how to figure stuff out on my own and back when I started trying to grow little trees I was, once again on my own.

Those were blissful times, I had no internet, no TV and no telephone. The only source of bonsai information was books from the library and even in my embryonic state I could tell a lot of those were written by cabbage kickers. My go to source for all things horticultural was The Readers Digest Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants and Flowers. That wonderful book, which I still have right here, taught me all I needed to know about growing plants. The bonsai bit was separate and the easy element in the equation to understand and much like my printing escapades it only took me a couple of years to get the basics down pat.

Back in the day when I did actually go to school I always sat, sullen in the back of the class or failing that I was causing trouble being a smart-arse. So, here’s a thing that never happened, even after I attended the same class several times. They NEVER asked to stand up and teach the lesson. In fact I was never even asked for my opinion or thoughts. There were some subjects in which I excelled: English, woodwork, general science and darts but even there nobody asked me for my two penn’orth.

The problem we have today is that the whole of human history and ingenuity is right there at our finger tips. Never has it been so easy to learn wonderful new things but on the other hand never has it been so easy to choke to death on total bullshit. Much like my spotty young self sitting at the back of the maths class I might have thought I had it taped and could teach the class myself but come exam time it turned out I was a feckless clot and that’s all I have to say about that.

I got onto that because I realised recently, unlike many folk in bonsai I actually prefer the end of the season to the beginning. There is nothing better than the first warm sun of spring on your face but in a bonsai context all that new coloured growth and larch shaving brushes stuff leaves me cold. I also have little interest in autumn colour nice as it is. The really exciting element of developing deciduous trees as bonsai is when we can finally get rid of the pesky leaves and reveal the structure beneath, it’s the first chance to see the results of our summers labours.

Deciduous bonsai are ONLY really improved over summer. The old ideas about growing out 5-7 leaves and then pruning back to two is cobblers. There is so much both clever and intuitive technique in building something like a Japanese maple, especially in a northern climate,  that it’s not surprising they are so rare and valuable. Most folk are content to look at an upturned mop (of leaves) on a stick because doing much more is really hard and that explains why there are so few very good deciduous trees in British bonsai.

I do not need all my digits to count the number of UK bonsai growers that can do this work. Even despite the prevalence of broadleaf deciduous trees grown in this country, top quality examples with properly constructed branch structure and dense ramification are as scarce as the proverbial rocking horse teeth. A bonsai needs to be an authentic, if slightly stylised and tidied up example of a venerable old tree. Leaves can hide a multitude of sins and usually do.

I am sure that part of the problem is the lack of mature quality examples of good work. Most of those we have come from Japan simply because they have been using quality technique for decades where we have been fumbling around in the dark for little more than twenty years. Let me put this considered opinion out there. Assuming you begin creating a deciduous bonsai from the very best quality collected material it will still take at least ten years to get on the first rung. To build a top quality tree will take the fastidious application of complicated technique for twenty of more years. And that assumes one has the vision and creativity to know what will look good after that time and effort has passed.

In Britain Japanese trees are widely dissed as ‘cookie cutter bonsai’. To be fair cheap low end commercial trees are just that but once the price tag gets over a few hundred that’s not the case. However even at that level I have lost count of how often I have been told a fella has no interest in ‘finished bonsai’. That phrase cracks me up, there is no greater display of  ignorance that uttering those two words. The only time a bonsai tree is finished is when it’s owner runs out of skill. Unless of course that guy had no skill in the first place which pretty much guarantees a dead tree early on in the game.

Go outside when it’s quiet and spend some quality time with your trees. There should be a plan for every single one, ideally stretching into years of work. If you find a tree that you think is finished or you are satisfied with it’s time to go back to school and lean something new. Push hard, never be satisfied and keep on learning. If you can’t find the ‘man who can‘ help you out then develop your own techniques and disciplines.

A mature bonsai tree takes infinitely more work to develop and maintain that raw material. Don’t be afraid you will run out of work because both structural and refinement work is very time consuming and creative in nature.

Some folk out there will remember Danny Use’s Ginkgo Awards. Danny pretty much built the foundation upon which all European bonsai has been built ever since. I missed the inaugural 1997 show but under orders from Kevin Willson I got a passport and attended the 1999 show. I was crestfallen at how poor my efforts measured up to the trees on show and came away determined to do better and one day have one of my trees at a future show. To my utter amazement I had a yew tree that I dragged out of the woods accepted for display at the 2001 show. I was like a dog with two dicks, getting accepted was probably the highlight of my bonsai journey. I was thrilled, proud and terrified all at once.

I remember after the show as I wheeled my tree out the door Danny stood right there and as I passed he leaned in and said ” Nice tree, now go home and make it better.” That’s it, a simple phrase that encapsulates everything i have been doing for the last thirty years, the reason I chose Kaizen as the name of our business and the basis upon which I have set everything I have done.

Fittingly the last word here goes to Danny Use.  “You do not make a tree, you build up a tree”.

G.

Trident imported from Japan 2019. October 2021 and finally I get to unwrap my summers work.

I can’t stop pulling leaves off. It’s been a good summer.

When this arrived it took a whole day to clean up the structure, get rid of knuckles, threes, pruning scars and unnecessary branches.

Now at least the structure is clean, pruning scars have mostly closed and the taper is mostly good. Secondary branching is mostly acceptable tertiary branching has improved this year but there is a very LONG way to go yet but for a jumping off point i’m happy.

 

Per Aspera Ad Astra.

Living in modern Britain is not easy. We have always been a country that lurches from one crisis to the next but at this moment it does appear we are in a state of flux. That makes us feel uneasy and the more bone idle one is the worse the feeling will be. Many have become used to living the good life of rest and ease. It appears to me those days are over. Our country presents some fantastic opportunities just now but that’s going to require work on our part if we hope to benefit. As always opportunity comes in overalls.

There are few things in life that are certain, as Benjamin Franklin made mention, “except death and taxes“. The other I would suggest is government incompetence. It baffles my little brain why so many people think that politicians have any answers. There is a universal cry rising from the British people that “the government should DO something“. WTF are they going to do? Government is a one trick pony as far as I can see but just chucking vast gobs of money at a problem pretty much never fixes anything. If things in our fair country are going to improve it can only come from our own individual efforts.

There really is no point in our trying to change the world, protesting, ranting, raving and the like only serves to annoy others. The only thing we have any business changing is our own selves. Leading by example is the only real option to change the world. I would prefer to get my own house in order before going out and foisting my ideas on the world.

Talking of uncertainty lets talk about the weather. Having done bonsai in the Blighty for over thirty years now, I can categorically state the weather is not our greatest ally. Over those years I have seen it all. In order to create beautiful bonsai we have to grow our plants. Growth comes from sunshine and warmth is required for cell division. This year I did not see the sun in August, in fact we had to spark up the log burner a couple of evenings because it was so cold. North winds have prevailed most of this year and being right on the east coast that has come close to breaking our spirits on more than a few occasions.

Over those thirty years of frantic bonsai activity I can safely say that the summer of 2020 was by a country mile the best I have ever seen. That resulted in strong vigorous trees chomping at the bit in spring 2021 which turned out to be the worst I remember. Now the trees are poor with little energy in reserve due to so little sunlight and almost no growth or development as a result. Across the board I have seen very little development in any of my bonsai this year. Even the apple trees in my garden are at least a month late this year.

Doing anything that is reliant upon the weather in this country is a fool’s errand. I sure am glad I never became a farmer. I am also quite pleased I don’t do holidays, caravanning, camping etc’. “exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis” states if an exception exists or has to be stated, then this exception proves that there must be some rule to which the case is an exception. The rule being you can no more rely upon the weather than the actions of a politician.

The weather has put a dampener on the progress of my trees this year, and not for the first time either. However here IS the exception that proves the rule. The one tree that has grown spectacularly this year is this beautiful big olive from southern Italy. I have had it for about three years now and strangely it did not grow much in the balmy days of 2020 but in the cool dull days of 2021 it has grown faster than my lawn.

Considering that I have done nothing different, the development of this tree remains a mystery. It’s in the same pot, the same soil and lives in the same place. Last year it made a sickly few inches of growth that I did my best to wire into place at the end of summer. This summer it has grown and been cut multiple times and I had a huge mess of new growth to incorporate at the end of the season. I cannot explain why this tree above all others has done SO well but i’ll take it. Compare the pictures from Autumn 2020 and October 2021.

I guess it goes to show that even when everyone else is struggling we can, with the right attitude, do well and prosper even when conditions are not ideal.

Per aspera ad astra*

Graham.

*(Google it)

Olive October 2020.

The same olive in October 2021. 2 more years like this and i’ll be a happy camper.

Bonsai. It’s All About The Trees!

Warning: Pretentious opinionated bullshit follows!

 

I am not the first to say, of late, that the world has gone insane. To be fair planet earth is just fine and carries on much as it always has done with it’s ups and downs, it’s the bit that we humans inhabit that’s gone nuts. Personally I no longer feel the construct we have created for ourselves is worthy of habitation. In fact it looks a lot like we will create our own mass extinction within the next cup-full of decades and not by the means the media and politicians would have you believe. That will sort out climate change and the earth will recover without us and life will go on in some form or another, twas ever thus.

Within that paragraph there are two words we need to focus on World and Earth. I use these to mean the following…

World: humankind; the human race; humanity and the structure of our society

Earth: A biosphere, this planet as the current habitation of humans

The insanity all around us is almost entirely of our own making. It’s largely down to our lack of respect for the resource we were given, greed, selfishness and a self serving competitive nature. You know only too well I would be the first to point the finger of accusation at our pathetic shower of political leaders but sadly we are all equally culpable. Only a fool would think there is a way out of all this mess based on our current trajectory. It’s like a fly caught in a bowl of shit soup looking for an island of croutons (cretins?) to save itself. It looks to me like the human species was doomed from the outset hoisted by our own petard of smug cleverness. Whilst we may be clever enough to dodge some trifling thing like Covid there are graver enemies at the door. The only way through is to live our own life, the best we can and with respect and honour. In the words of Robert FrostThe woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” Time to get busy.

Talking of poets reminds me of East Coker from T.S. Eliot’s  Four Quarters. The poem discusses time and disorder within nature that is the result of humanity following only science and not the divine. Leaders are described as materialistic and unable to understand reality. The only way for mankind to find salvation is through pursuing the divine by looking inwards and realising that humanity is interconnected. Only then can people understand the universe.

“So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres (between two wars)-
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

So, what’s all this jabbering got to do with bonsai trees? With my advancing years I begin to see there are two worlds we are exposed too. One is a deafening cacophony of discordant noise characterised by fear, anger, doubt, violence and destruction and silliness. The second world is the one that was here before us and will continue long after we are gone. We might call it the natural world with it’s cycles of life and death, cold and heat, light and dark. It’s where we came from and once our “miles” are done it’s the place to which we will return, of that there is no doubt. We may spend our waking moments and days in this human construct but make no mistake when this all ends we are no more than fertiliser for the trees we bonsai folk love so much.

That’s still a bit cryptic so in the words of a politician ‘let me be clear’. Bonsai success can only be attained through an understanding and appreciation of time and the natural world, it’s principles, cycles and rhythms. This esoteric wisdom is available to all who can quiet their souls sufficiently to find it. It’s like a wisp of morning mist laying on grass before a rising summer sun. Sadly most of us never make it because the writhing cacophony of the world keeps us from it.

Still not got it? ‘let me be clear’……. again. There is the right way to do something and there is the popular way to do something. It’s a rare day indeed that these two converge. I think we could all agree that lying and deception are wrong but that does not stop politicians doing it and because it is ever present we just go with the flow rather than make a fuss. Bonsai is a bit like that. These days our plate is piled high with goodies and, much like a chumpster at an all-you-can-eat buffet, we know what we like but figuring out what’s actually good, or necessary is a whole other issue. Just because a lot of folk tell you something is ‘right’ does not make it so, especially in a world where popularity is often lauded above fact or truth.

This is known as ‘crowd thinking’ to which we are doubly susceptible during periods of transition or uncertainty. We question the wisdom of the past and even our own experiences and learned behaviour. As billionaire investor Warren Buffet says….

I will tell you the secret to getting rich on Wall Street. You try to be greedy when others are fearful. And you try to be fearful when others are greedy.

I would call that swimming against the tide, not just going with the flow. That’s tough but when you do a couple of things happen. Firstly you will be more likely to find new ideas in a quiet less crowded space and secondly you are also going to find cracks, issues and problems with the popular position. A skeptical eye is priceless. And even if you go with the flow, you’ll see the potential pitfalls and will be more ready to succeed than others picking the path because it is the most popular.

A little peace and quiet for the mind, a skeptical eye and an assumption that anything is possible opens doors. Having the ability to shut out the noise and slow things down can really make all the difference. It’s what Kevin Willson calls ‘a moment of clarity’. But, we have to create the opportunity for it to happen. Just be careful what you put on your plate, just because it’s served up in front of you do not, for a moment, assume it’s good for you. If a blind squirrel can find a nut or a country clod-hopper like me can produce a nice bonsai tree from time to time how much better are your own prospects?

Bonsai is about an almost spiritual connection with nature through the medium of a living breathing tree. We might like to think we are bending the plant to our will. In fact the opposite is actually true, once we master the art it’s the tree that bends us to it’s will. If we fail to yield, the tree will likely die and we will lose our soul. The best bonsai are created by those who respect their plants and understand them and how this all fits together. It’s not all about wiring, styling and carving it’s all about respect, cooperation and understanding and the first step is to entirely dis-regard the opinions of other folk in pursuit of our own individual journey. All that matters is that silent little tree that is entirely dependant upon you for it’s life and survival. It could be said our trees are our prisoners but I prefer to consider myself a prisoner to my love of those little fellows whom I respect and care for so deeply and that give me so much in an entirely over crowded noisy and ruinous world.

Without trees all human life on earth would be lost. Trees are our air filtration system not just a source of wood for us to pillage. If bonsai can teach us anything it’s that OUR entire existence is thanks to them and not the other way around. Most of the trees on earth have already been lost. Bonsai is something that can help re-connect us to our most important ally. It’s not about winning a trophy or bragging rights, it’s not a competition, that’s all bullshit. It’s ALL about the trees we need so much and our very survival depends upon. As bonsai folk we should know this. We need more trees!  Spread the word!

As Mr Eliot said  “there is no competition – There is only the fight to recover what has been lost”

Graham.

 

Bonsai. It's all about the trees

Bonsai. It’s all about the trees

Pretty Pictures

Seeing as I was having a good bitch and moan last week I thought it would be a good idea to redress the balance with a happy post. Sadly we are not able to trade trees like we have done in years past so the number in the garden is drastically reduced. However the quality, relatively speaking has improved seeing as a lot of the lesser materials have gone.

It’s been a rank summer here on the east coast with almost constant onshore northerly winds and this has seriously hit our plants. We have also not seen the sun very often so progress has been catastrophically slow. These pic’s were snapped on a dank dark heavily overcast morning at the height of summer but lets not go there.

Many of these trees are part of my own collection and will not be for sale, at least not without a very serious offer. If there is anything you would like me to consider letting go just drop me a line at info@kaizenbonsai.com.

Enjoy!

G.

Cork oak

Privet

Olive

Sabina

Portuguese oak

English elm

Olive

Chinese elm

Trident maple

Rosemary

Pistacia

Chinese elm

Scots pine

English elm

Korean hornbeam

Field elm

Garden juniper

White pine

Field elm

Mahaleb

Sabina

Field elm

Sabina

Mahaleb

Scots pine

Scots pine

Arbutus

Hornbeam

Scots pine

Barbary oak

San jose juniper

Sabina

Field maple

Massive olive

Scots pine

Chinese elm

Ficus

A Smashing Time

This week I had several tons of Bonsai pots delivered. The experience got me thinking about where we find ourselves and what to expect going forwards. If strong language offends PLEASE do not read further. If you are a bone-idle tired hands please do NOT read further.

bonsai pots

First pallets of bonsai pots hot off the boat.

At some level the past few months have been tough for most everybody. The last thing you need is for me to start griping about how tough my life is. For sure some folk around the world are in a struggle for their very existence, by comparison our ‘first world’ problems are petty and inconsequential. However, for any number of reasons, there are some storm clouds on our horizon that are beginning to rain toast crumbs into the comfy bed of our lives. The world is awash with hyperbole about ‘the new normal‘ and using our current straightened circumstances as a springboard towards a ‘new’ start.

I have some very strongly held opinions on what’s going on but to be honest nobody gives a shit so I will keep that to myself. Suffice to say much of what is wrong today is the idea that we need to change everyone else in order to make a better world. Protesting is rife and anger is on the streets. In my opinion and experience there is only one person we have a legitimate right to force change upon and that’s ourselves. There is no way to change the world by telling everyone else they are wrong, trying to do that just makes matters worse. All we can really do is stay home and work on being the best person we can and doing the very best we can in relation to our own work and contribution to the rest of humanity.

I have written many times here about folk NOT doing their jobs. A lack of care and consideration and blaming everyone else is bringing our country to it’s knees. Here’s a recent example….. I had five tons of Pumice arrive from Italy. It was dropped off at Dartford and was due for delivery a couple of days later. I got a call and headed for the warehouse. We don’t have a fork truck so rely on tail lift drops which was made plain when booking the transport. So this guy arrives with five big pallets over 6′ tall and a thousand kilos each. A hundred and twenty mile run one way just for this drop. Upon arrival he refused to offload because his lift was only rated for 500Kg. We offered to jump up and reduce the pallets in size but apparently letting us on his truck was more that his job was worth. So getting arsey with us I told him to GFYS and left. The pallets then went all the way back to Dartford before the following day coming all the way back to my freight agent 25 miles away and he dropped them off as we had requested the following day without incident.

That’s a lot of pointless waste considering we have done this job multiple times with the same operators. That’s at least 240 wasted miles at an average of 8 miles per gallon, 30 gallons (136L) of juice up in smoke and about £200 plus 2 working days. When someone fails to do their job properly the repercussions are far reaching and the most insignificant detail can cause total chaos and cost a lot of money and resource. There are people everywhere that do the bare minimum in their work, just enough to get paid and not get sacked. Whatever happened to pride in a job well done?

I have based my entire business philosophy upon doing the best we can. That’s not to say we are the best and I would be loathe to make that assertion over something that’s a matter of opinion. However we do the best we possibly can all things considered. If that involves going the extra mile, getting up early, staying late, working weekends or missing meals we are all happy to do just that in the pursuit of customer satisfaction. For me it’s all about the pride in a job well done and delivering my very best. Some folk will never be satisfied but they get short shrift from me. Nobody is perfect but that’s no excuse for not bothering.

That philosophy has also driven my bonsai since day one. I do bonsai for myself and I simply do not care what anyone else has to say. My bonsai, my work and my appreciation of the result. I know if I have done my best and expended appropriate effort and that’s ALL that matters to me. I can’t help thinking the world would be a better place if we could all muster the energy to do our best. As Vince Lombardi said… “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfilment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”

So, back to those toast crumbs. I have been warning for a long time a change was coming. There is too much demand in the world and not enough supply, of anything. In a bonsai context bear in mind most of what we use comes from small specialist cottage industries. There is no ‘economy of scale‘ enjoyed by more mainstream pursuits. Akadama is pulled out of the ground by a few guys, a loader and some open ended poly tunnels. Tools are made by a dozen guys in a unit with some archaic machines. Nothing is mass produced and it’s only thanks to the passion of a lot of dedicated folk that we have anything to use at all. Trust me nobody in bonsai is getting rich.

Covid has turned the world on it’s head. It’s been the catalyst for a lot of change. Ever since the early eighties, we Brit’s have been enjoying increasing prosperity. A lot of that has come from falling prices relative to earnings. In the late 1970s, one pound in every four spent, and nearly one pound in every three for pensioners, went on food. That is now down to less than 13% for those of working age and 18% for pensioners. In 1977 56% of households had one or more cars by 2010 that was 75%. Basically we got wealthier to some considerable extent thanks to the relative decrease in the cost of manufactured and farmed goods. Thanks to efficiency and mechanisation and the ability to cheaply transport goods from low wage parts of the world we all get more for less.

If you earn £20,000 a year in Britain today you are in the top 5% of the worlds most wealthy people. However it does not feel that way thanks to the cost of living. A person earning less than a quarter of that in another less developed part of the world could easily live a millionaire lifestyle. Still, for most of my life we have been enjoying ever-cheaper consumer goods when compared to our forbears.

As an example when I started out in bonsai at the turn of the 1990s a bonsai branch cutter cost £30. For me at the time that was about 13% of my weekly wage. Today 30 years later that branch cutter costs £33.50 which is actually £32.80 adjusted for increased VAT. I earn more than I did back then, I’m old, so let’s take my son-in-law Richard’s earnings as an example as he’s not far off the age I was then. Our branch cutter will cost him 9.4% of his weekly take home pay. For the same percentage as I was paying Richard could get the same branch cutter and a pair of very good scissors which, from a certain perspective could be viewed as free. We like to bitch and moan but I recon we are, by and large, doing okay.

The media have been slow in pointing out the problems our reactions to Covid have caused in global shipping though as the effects feed through it is making secondary headlines. Most of us know there are a lot of shipping containers in the wrong place. According to my freight agent our government has 15’000 containers of (rapidly going out of date) PPE sitting in a field in Essex. That’s a lot of landfill and a lot of tied up boxes the world needs.

This is happening everywhere so a lot of the initial problem was simply a shortage of boxes. However underlying that was a shortage of container ships. Bear in mind that 90% of the worlds non-bulk cargo is carried by these behemoths of the sea. Because shipping rates have been so low for years now I guess buying container ships has been less than attractive considering the hundreds of millions involved and many industry experts agree that a lot more capacity is required. They also agree that current record prices will continue in the medium term.

Container ships

These things don’t come cheap. Our pots are on there somewhere.

So what does this largely esoteric information tell us? Bonsai is overwhelmingly dependant upon import and rising costs there mean rising costs for our stuff. Because of employment conditions and business costs imposed upon us here it’s largely not possible to manufacture goods at a reasonable, let alone competitive cost. I recently negotiated with a UK manufacturer to have Copper bonsai wire drawn and processed. The cost was 2.5 times more than I can source it offshore. The minimum order was massive, I had to stump up five figures with the order and the lead time was in excess of three months. These guys call themselves wire manufacturers, seriously?

I really want to support the old country. I am constantly trying to find folk to make stuff for us. However I bought my copper in China. No up front money and it was on the port within two weeks, even adding all the rip off port and customs fees and charges it ended up costing me well under half the UK manufacturing cost. We currently charge £12.95 a 1/2 Kg. For a UK sourced product that would rise to about £25-28. How patriotic are you now? I’m not, sorry.

Just yesterday I was notified a shipment price had risen by 500% since October last year when we previously ordered. This week we had tons of pots arrive from China for which I was quoted £1200 door to door. When the shipping invoice arrived there was an additional fee of  £2600 levied by the boat owners on top of that. As it stands these record high prices mean record retail prices because little guys like us have no choice but to pass on the cost to our beloved customers and that really SUCKS. Anyone seen the price of Akadama recently? Even at that price I guess we should be grateful that at least we can still get it because that simply is not going to be the case with a lot of things. Going forward stuff will cost more so lets just value what we have and take care of it just that little bit better.

Bonsai pots

Safely stashed away. Just glad we have something available for ya’ll.

So, my shipment of pots cost exactly double the FOB price thanks to all of the above. What adds insult to injury is the fact we get such high losses simply because some tosser could not be bothered to pack stuff properly despite the fact we paid a high fee for them to do so. That’s just how it goes and I have to suck it up. However in light of my frustration at everything that is conspiring to thwart our efforts I have to highly recommend the cathartic activity of destroying (previously broken) bonsai pots. Once I got past the disappointment busting this lot up was an absolute joy.

To all those folk that spend their lives doing the bare minimum to keep their jobs FUCK YOU!

So next time you are minded to question the price of something try to consider what might be happening behind the scenes and give a fellow a break. In the words of my hero Forrest Gump “That’s about all I got to say ’bout that.”

G.

 

 

Defoliation – What You Need To Know

There are many mysterious techniques used in the world of bonsai tree creation and maintenance. In my experience, many of them are misunderstood and therefore incorrectly applied. In my own case it certainly took a long time to understand what defoliation of deciduous trees was all about. Over the last few years we have been so busy it’s been hard to find time for elective techniques. Thankfully life has settled down a bit of late and I’m back on the tools so here’s Defoliation – What You Need To Know.

Defoliation is the act of removing leaves from a tree. In this context we are considering the near total removal of leaves from a broadleaf tree as opposed to partial defoliation that is a technique used to balance vigour. Back in the mists of time I was under the impression that defoliation was a method of achieving smaller leaves (which ultimately it is). That’s what I was told and also what I read. However I was also told all I had to do was cut the leaves off in early summer. Like most everything in life it’s much more involved than that.

So, here’s what I have picked up along the way…..

Defoliation is a three stage technique that is employed to increase the ramification of broadleaf bonsai trees.

Defoliation is a technique that is performed during the peak growing period of summer. In the UK that is typically from late May to early July depending upon local conditions and the unpredictable weather.

Defoliation is a technique that is used in the later stages of bonsai tree development and for refinement and long term maintenance of fully mature bonsai trees.

Just cutting leaves off your tree might well be the definition of the term but it is certainly not the correct application of the whole technique and will return little benefit. I tried this in my early days because those around me said it was what you did to get small leaves. However, in practice I found that when the leaves returned they were much the same as those that came before. Perhaps my, largely, untrained trees were too healthy or too raw to benefit. I was also told that defoliation would weaken my trees if performed too often.

After a couple of years I largely abandoned the whole affair consigning the idea to the bin of spuriousness. Following that, about ten summers came to pass and I found myself extremely unhappy with my ability to build ramification (a subdivision of a complex structure – fine twigging in this case) and refine my broadleaf trees and so began to revisit defoliation.

For a while I reclined upon the old excuse that the British Isles do not have the most suitable climate and so we cannot do what some other folk can with bonsai. That’s largely bullshit, it has since become obvious to me that we need to develop and refine our own techniques to work here. Back in the day it was largely a case of copying what the Japanese were doing and when that didn’t work very well we just blamed the weather and gave up. Lazy bastards!

Creating bonsai trees is all about helping a plant to become EXACTLY what it would in the wild. A mature example in perfect balance with its surroundings and an integral part of the world. We just want that to happen within the confines of a small stature.

A young tree typically grows with great enthusiasm and abandon. It’s little and in ideal conditions has more than enough of everything it needs and grows accordingly. Later on resources are less abundant to the now much larger tree and so growth becomes more refined. This tree will grow what it needs, shed what it does not and makes efficient use of what it has available. That’s how our bonsai should be.

Here is an explanation I have recounted literally thousands of times before. It’s simplistic but true and proven….

If a tree of a given size requires ten square inches (64.5 square cm) of leaf surface to photosynthesis the energy it needs and it only has a couple of buds it’s going to make two really big leaves. If we increase the number of buds tenfold the leaves will inevitably be much smaller. Ultimately the more buds (growing points) the smaller the leaves, or needles. Anyone who has reduced a wild tree for bonsai by chopping it right down to a nub will have seen how this works over a few years, see my elm below.

It’s possible to get small leaves or needles by restricting a trees ability to grow them. This involves withholding resources like water or nutrients etc. I have seen some dastardly devices employed upon this endeavour. Every time the net result is stress for the tree. If a tree needs big leaves it should be allowed to grow them. Small foliage is the result of good quality technique applied over time in a skilled manner. Choking the living shit out of your tree just to please your warped sense of aesthetics is not only stupid but risky and disrespectful. Us old guys can spot the ‘smoke and mirrors’ every time.

Before we employ defoliation it’s important to determine if it’s right for our particular tree and if it’s the correct time. You tree needs to be healthy. It needs to be holding good viable leaf late into the autumn, it needs to be sucking water out of it’s pot vigorously every day it’s in leaf and it needs to be creating back buds all on it’s own. No back buds no bueno. Go back to the start and restore your trees health.

The structure of a typical broadleaf tree consists of what are known as branch orders. Primary branching (1st order, the first thick bits), secondary (2nd order) and tertiary branching (3rd order). That’s a minimum of three zones of decreasing size and increasing twig density. These orders can extend well out into double figures. For our purposes three orders are pretty much a minimum. Our ramification is built on the ends of these branches. If you do not have this level of structure your tree is NOT ready for the application of defoliation. Please excuse the puerile graphic…..

A tree developed sufficiently for defoliation to be of benefit should have it’s new growth stopped early on in the season. Typically new soft extending tips are pinched out. Stronger parts of the tree are stopped at the first pair of true leaves, weaker parts should be allowed to develop a few extra leaves before they are pinched which helps to balance the trees energy.

Next some careful observation will be required. Allow the leaves to fully form and harden. Progressively stop any emerging shoots as above. There comes a point where growth seems to stall. Leaves will be fully mature and hardened off and there will be a period of stasis. This is a stage when leaves are feeding the tree and replacing the energy it took to produce them, it’s important. Eventually movement will be seen as a second bud break begins and that’s when we need to jump in. With experience and an eye on the weather it becomes possible to pre-empt this moment by a few days and that’s the ultimate.

Defoliation: Stage 1

This is pretty simple, cut the leaves off. Simply sever the supporting stem (petiole) with sharp scissors. The remaining stem will dry out and drop off in a week or so. Most varieties will suffer if leaves are pulled off as this will, remove some axillary buds and can even pull tiny strips of bark off some species. In this context removing part of the leaf is not going to work, remove the lot. Working on a tree like elm the tiny round primary leaves on the current seasons extension can be ignored if they are too small to cut.

Start at the top and work down. It’s possible to leave a few leaves if parts of your tree are very weak. Small inner or lower branches may qualify but in general if you are doing this then do it. Half measures will produce poor subsequent results.

Defoliation: Stage 2

Once the leaves are gone it’s time to prune the new growth in order to integrate it into the rest of the trees structure and do your bud selection. This is much the same as you would be doing in autumn or just before spring flush. A simple rule is pruning to two. Three shoots from a single point cause thickening that will become ugly with time. There is no point developing ramification unless it’s structure is correct or it will have to be removed later on. Remember branch orders, one becomes two, becomes four, becomes eight, becomes sixteen. That’s how to build ramification.

Once pruning and bud selection are complete it’s time to break out the wire. At this moment most broadleaves are like putty to bend and will fix in position within as little as two or three weeks. Where it’s required I take opportunity to lay in new growth and correct errant branches that are getting out of place. Use the opportunity to open up spaces to let light into inner structure. This is the moment that really BUILDS a broadleaf tree and ultimately produces genuine quality. Stage 2 is vital!

After this work is complete I like to leave the tree in the greenhouse for at least a week. The added warmth really helps bring on the new flush of foliage. As soon as I see the fat new buds about to open the tree goes back outside into it’s normal spot.

Defoliation: Stage 3

Once our tree flushes new growth I like to let it extend a little. For a mature tree typically 3/4 leaves, more in weaker areas before nipping out the ends. This typically takes a month from leaf removal assuming decent warm weather. I like to let the leaves mature, they are feeding the tree in the strong sunshine we get so little of in Blighty. Typically six to eight weeks after cutting the leaves (normally August) I will reduce the new extensions to one or two nodes whilst also removing a good percentage of larger and low hanging leaves. This opens up the trees structure and lets light inside. Now is also the time to remove that wire. Assuming it was applied correctly the shapes it was holding will be perfectly set. From here on out until leaf fall make sure you have a good fertiliser regimen and plenty of sun. That will ensure a good season next year.

This last stage is a little different from what might normally be described and is a modification required because of our weather. If you are entirely growing inside then pruning can happen earlier, as can later growth flushes. On average GB gets a fraction of the sun some other places do and we need to utilise every single moment to our advantage if we are going to produce decent bonsai trees.

Who said there was noting to do with mature bonsai trees? That’s a lot of work. But, keep that tree healthy and keep this up for two or three years and the results will be astounding. Bonsai is NOT about what we CUT OFF, it’s about what we grow, it’s about what we ADD to a tree. This defoliation technique works wonders.

Some trees do not take well to cultivation in a small pot. For instance I have a very stout little English elm (ulmus procera). Every year it enthusiastically bursts into life full of the joys of spring. I cut back the new shoots after which LITERALLY nothing happens for the rest of the year and the tree typically starts to drop leaves at the end of September.

In this case defoliation in June results in a powerful new flush within a few days. The new flush is strong with powerful extension and good colour alongside some good back budding. The new leaf stays strong and vibrant until it gets significantly cold which in my part of the world is late into November. That is several weeks later than without defoliation which means more photosynthesis and a stronger tree overall. I have seen this happen so many times with different species now. It rather de-bunks the notion that defoliation weakens a tree. Done correctly the opposite is actually true.

Below I have included images of an evergreen oak, quercus ilex. These trees are the ultimate lightweights. This one spends winter in the greenhouse so by spring it’s leaves are in very good condition. Therefore it will not bother making any new ones. In the past it has gone an entire summer without making a single new leaf.

I was scratching my arse wondering how on earth I could develop this as bonsai if it was not going to grow. The answer of course was defoliation. I now cut it’s leaves away in May and the subsequent flush comes in a just a few days of good weather and it’s incredible. 75% of the ramification you can see on this tree has been produced in a single growing season. In fact a lot of Mediterranean broadleaf evergreens are the same. See the pistacia below. Again that ramification has all happened in a single season.

Defoliation works wonders for some more difficult subjects used for bonsai. Acer campestris is a strong tree that grows fantastically here. However I can count on my thumbs the good quality examples I have seen well developed in the last thirty years. The solution is a double defoliation about four weeks after first leaf flush and again just before the height of summer. The bud selection and wiring stages are vitally important. This works a treat with big leaf maples like sycamore (acer pseudoplatanus) too.

Defoliation is not right for every species. In my own experience Hawthorn, Chinese elm, beech, deciduous oaks and a great many small leaf shrubs will return poor results. Even privet will only produce marginal improvements in our mediocre weather. Many varieties require a modified technique to return their best. If in doubt, so long as your tree is strong, give it a go and monitor the results over the following winter.

One note of caution. This has a lot to do with the weather over here. A few years back I had a spectacular native hornbeam booked for a show in September. So, a little later than I hoped I removed all the slightly scruffy leaves. The expectation was to rock up at the show with pristine shiny bright leaves, not so easy on a native hornbeam that late in the season. I did all of the above and then in August the wind turned to the northeast, not good on the east coast. Temperatures for the whole month hovered around low double figures. The result? Not a single leaf grew until the following spring. Showing a tree with no leaves in September makes you look like a rank amateur so it never went along. The moral? Watch the weather and choose your time wisely!

In effect defoliation gives us a whole additional cycle of autumn, a winter rest and a spring flush. That can, with the application of some skill and sensitivity give us two years development in just one. It exploits the natural growth phases of a tree without hurting it, in fact it makes for a stronger happier tree when used wisely.

Ultimately it is exactly as I was told, defoliation produces smaller leaves. Of course it’s possible to entirely ignore the above and just get rid of the leaves and, if you are lucky they will come back smaller but this just might be the result of stress having depleted the plants energy levels. However as with all things in life there is more to it than meets the eye.

Contrary to my earlier thoughts defoliation is NOT an elective process you can use or not. It’s THE fundamental work involved in creating a bonsai tree with broadleaf species. If you are not doing this you are not creating a bonsai tree you are doing topiary. It entirely explains why we see SO many poorly developed broadleaf trees like maples, oaks and elms. Many folk are too bone idle to do the work. Isn’t that like being a footballer who never plays the game? Where I come from that guy’s a bullshitter and, in the words of Forrest Gump “That’s about all I got to say bout that.”

G.

Defoliation – What You Need To Know. It involves cutting off a LOT of leaves

Defoliation - What You Need To Know. Japanese maple upon completion.

Defoliation – What You Need To Know. Japanese maple upon completion.

Defoliation - What You Need To Know. Holm oak prior to leaf removal.

Defoliation – What You Need To Know. Holm oak prior to leaf removal.

Defoliation - What You Need To Know. New leaves just beginning to show.

Defoliation – What You Need To Know. New leaves just beginning to show.

Defoliation - What You Need To Know. My reticent little elm after leaf removal.

Defoliation – What You Need To Know. My reticent little elm after leaf removal.

Defoliation - What You Need To Know. Early days and first defoliation for this little deshojo.

Defoliation – What You Need To Know. Early days and first defoliation for this little deshojo.

Defoliation - What You Need To Know. Pistacia defoliated for the second year.

Defoliation – What You Need To Know. Pistacia defoliated for the second year.

Two branches enter this image from the right. All this ramification developed in a single season.

Two branches enter this image from the right. All this ramification developed in a single season.

English elm after 4 growing seasons from a chopped down totally bare trunk.

Second season of defoliation and ramification building. New buds opening a week after leaf removal.