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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 it’s 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.

I Got Off The Subject

I sat down to write a diatribe expounding the virtues of defoliation. As usual I got off the subject and never got back. However what follows has proven to very cathartic. Please forgive the self indulgence but rather than consign this to the folder of a thousand unpublished articles on my Mac I am hoping it will help someone who just might be losing their way as I have of late. 

What’s more stressful, having too much to do or not having enough? I always thought I was stressed out by being so busy, particularly over the last few years. Now, and I am thankful for this, I don’t really have enough to fill my days in the way I have for years past.

Everyone at KB is really busy and earning their keep but old Pott’s here is at a loose end. It’s not that I don’t have anything to do but, because I don’t have folk shouting down the phone or strafing me with caustic emails and because our Richard is doing such a sterling job getting orders out the door a lot of the day to day pressure is off me and to be honest I really can’t be arsed to do much since that pressure has lifted.

A creative person can never be bored and a working class lad like me cannot afford to loaf about too much but I guess any of us can fall foul of disinclination. I have never really had a lack of enthusiasm before. At least not since I was a teenager and my mum was trying to get me out of my nest in the morning to, as she though, go to school.

Kaizen Bonsai have been among the winners of the pandemic that has caused hardship to so many. YOUR support has been utterly amazing, thank you! Hopefully we have in return provided what ya’ll needed in a stress free and timely manner. It does appear however that our difficulties are beginning to increase thanks to, literally inconceivable, government interference and the utter chaos in international shipping, manufacturing and a whole host of situations that could close us down in pretty short order at any moment but, for now all is good and I suppose I have to be positive with regards to the future.

I am a resilient fellow, we’ll all be fine. If you follow my posts here you will be familiar with some of the more amusing hurdles I have cleared in the past. It’ll take more than a bunch of feckless public schoolboys and workshy upper class twits to trip us up. Having been so busy these last few years I have, sadly, been somewhat removed from what bought me here in the first place, BONSAI.

Over the last few weeks, since I have had time on my hands I have been spending more time in the garden with what is left of my nursery. I currently have over 800 fewer trees than at this time last year which is distinctly un-nerving. However all the BEST stuff is still here so don’t feel too sorry for me. It’s been very odd having time to even think about bonsai again. Nothing really went away but I am definitely re-connecting at some level. Having been distracted for so long my return has been accompanied by a new insight I never had before. A whole new understanding of the interaction of time and technique make me feel like I just took off sunglasses on a dark day.

For many years now I have, of necessity, bought and sold vast numbers of plants. Probably in excess of twenty thousand in the last twelve to fourteen years. I have sold the best trees I ever owned over and over again. Not much has stayed with me for the long term. In fact I only have one tree that goes back to my first or second year in bonsai. I spent well over 20 years perfecting that tree from the nebari up. I then sold it in a moment of hardship. The new owner totally trashed it in three years and so now it’s back and I hope to be able to restore it before I die. Otherwise everything is pretty recent.

I have spent more than twenty years teaching bonsai by dint of workshops. Many of those folk involved have become good friends. After a few years I began to realise those guys trees were looking good, often very good. At the same time mine kept leaving, all my hard work and vision was constantly going out the gate and I was left having to start over.

Fulfilment is defined as “satisfaction or happiness as a result of fully developing one’s potential”. With an active imagination I can see well into the future. It makes no difference to me wether it’s bonsai material, a rusty old car, a derelict garden or a battered and abused motorbike. I can see clearly what it can be and having done enough projects in my life I know I can get there sooner or later if I apply myself.

I don’t suffer from envy, especially where bonsai is concerned. I have no interest in owning the ‘best’ bonsai. I also know there is not a finish line to cross, Dave Prescott taught me decades ago ‘it’s all about the work’. Bonsai is not a competition.

For me bonsai is about the fulfilment of something I see in my imagination. What I see becomes the inciting incident that puts the whole creative process in motion. After thirty years my expectations are high, I know what quality is. I am not prepared to settle for ‘smoke and mirrors’. I am past the intoxication of ‘wire wonders’. To achieve the sort of quality bonsai I expect of myself I anticipate a journey of ten years plus. Then, after that ten years has passed I will have a much deeper appreciation of quality and so the path will stretch out before me ad infinitum.

There’s a motorcycle t-shirt out there that states “It’s not what you buy, it’s what you build”. My fulfilment, and therefore motivation, comes from the challenge of how to create what I see in my head. Building something from nothing has been my motivation since I was a kid. The more unlikely my chances of success the greater my resolve to be successful. I have NEVER got any joy from just buying and owning something.

As an example, back in the eighties I bought a brand new motorcycle for August 1st registration day. I was proud as punch, a seventeen year old with a brand spanking new shiny big bike! By the end of the first week the shine had worn off and by the following August 1st I had traded that in for ANOTHER new bike TWICE. Three new bikes in one year.

After that I discovered something about myself. I find NO satisfaction in just buying something no matter how good. I sold my last brand new bike and bought a POS (piece of shit) Honda. A ragged to death old dirt bike held together by willpower and electrical tape and through hard work, imagination and bloody knuckles (I was skint by then) I turned it into something very special and I loved it for several years.

In the late 80s I bought a stunning sports car. This one had no floors. A foot of grass growing out of the seats and big holes at literally every single corner. To a man EVERY single person laughed in my face. The guys at work saw a picture and the derision was excoriating. My mum held her head in her hands and my dad was left speechless. What made it worse? It was a Datsun (240z). It ended up as a 250bhp 150mph V8 engined monster (this was around 1991) that won every competition I entered it into and featured in loads of national magazines. It’s still on the road today and looks just as beautiful as it did thirty years ago.

In writing the above it has become plain to me that for the last several years pretty much all of the bonsai I have been doing here has been commercial. In order to make a living and pay the bills I have been adding value wherever I can. Once any piece of raw material has it’s bones put in place and superfluous parts removed and a little carving complete it goes up in value. Again once that plant goes into something with the proportions of a bonsai pot the price goes up. It works too. Without exception every tree I work sells, often within minutes of going online. Looking back many were too cheap but who values their own work?

The trouble with the above is that I really never get much of a challenge, neither do I get any fulfilment. Nothing ever gets to develop, it just sells leaving me with a full pocket and an empty heart. It’s a bit like a world class snooker player spending his time in a local club playing the yokels. Sure it’ll pay but our man is going to lose his soul without the challenge of other players of his standard and above to apply healthy pressure. I am sure there are folk out there that can spend all day alone on the baize sinking 147 breaks. That’s never easy at any level but where is the challenge? Where is the soul, the passion, the reward and the fulfilment. A Michelin starred chef flipping burgers at McDonalds would be able to pay his bills but what a tragic thought.

As I already said, bonsai is not a competition. Anyone in this for public acceptance, to impress their peers, to win the ‘trophy’ or be the best just might ultimately become disillusioned, disappointed and not a little sad. I firmly believe the ONLY challenge in bonsai worth pursuing, once you know how it’s done, is to become the best that YOU can be. I am the only one that can tell if I have done my best work. What anyone else thinks is immaterial. I have to be honest, and a little critical with myself but hopefully come the day I will know.

You can pretty much go all the way these days by being a bit above average, there is absolutely no need to ‘be the best’ in order to get along in the world. It’s not hard to impress 98% of people and it’s only necessary to be better than most which is a long way from being the best. My old mate Blacky always said “ Bullshit baffles brains”. I have seen so many dog and pony shows over the decades it physically hurts. That’s why I don’t get involved any more, I consider a lot of what goes on to be fundamentally dishonest, well meaning perhaps but dishonest and at some level, misleading. Jesus said “If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” As far as bonsai goes I have, and do, see a lot of that.

I was watching some coverage of the snooker world championship recently. I believe it was Stephen Hendry discussing how few young folk of weight are coming into the game and what a threat that poses to the future. The reason? “Snooker is really hard”. He went on to explain just how hard and the commitment necessary to become THAT good. Along the way he said something to the effect that it takes two years just to know which end of the cue to use. I maintain many folk who have been doing bonsai for a couple of years still don’t know which end of a tree goes in the soil.

In bonsai many people refer to those of us who can put a green triangle on a bent stick as ‘gifted’. The definition of the word is …
a thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present.

The reason we like the idea of someone especially or extraordinarily talented, being gifted, is it creates a great excuse for our own callow efforts. It implies that one can never be as accomplished as an ‘expert’ because we were never given the GIFT. However for those of us that get referred to as gifted (yes it does happen, even to me) it’s a bit of a slap in the face and could be taken as a suggestion we didn’t work for our skill.

Of course there has to be a multitude of elements that need to come together in order for anyone to become successful. For example Bill Gates would not have been successful in the way he did had he been born five years earlier, or later or not had the family and geographical benefits he did. As an example of good fortune J.D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, William Vanderbilt, Andrew W. Mellon, Henry Ford, Cornelius Vanderbilt and others were all born within the same nine year period. In fact of the worlds 75 richest people of ALL time fourteen (19%) were born in America between 1831 and 1840. That meant they were the right age to benefit from the greatest transformation of human life in our entire history. Those born in 1840 missed the boat. We all need a bit of luck or good fortune if you will.

To do well we need opportunity, we can’t become a great snooker player without having access to a table. Bill Gates could never do his thing had he not been able to access the computer equipment he did, back when machines were the size of buildings and it cost an absolute fortune just to buy time on one. A bonsai guy can never become proficient without access to plants. However consider two of the most successful bonsai artists of recent times. One had access to his fathers commercial nursery and had soil in his veins from birth. Another lives in the foothills of the greatest collecting site on earth. That does not guarantee success but it’s an advantage very few of us enjoy. The opportunity has to be exploited and that takes effort and skill. The circumstance is a gift, a chance, a leg up or lucky if you will but, opportunity only ever turns up wearing overalls. Success requires work, It requires work EVERY single time without fail but it’s a little easier if you have luck on your side to provide a boost.

Many times I have mentioned the 10,000 hour rule expounded by Malcolm Gladwell in his fantastic book Outliers. Basically nobody will ever become exceptional at anything before they have spent that amount of time developing and honing their skill. Sportsmen, musicians, programmers, engineers in fact every field of human endeavour features bold examples of this rule. That’s a lot of hours and typically means ten years of concerted hard work. Sadly not everyone enjoys the situation to make that possible. Anyone that becomes exceptional at anything will have circumstance that allows them to spend the time. On the other hand those folk also tend to show outstanding commitment to their task, often at the expense of all else.

My advice to beginners, in an ideal world, would be not to expect ANYTHING worthwhile to happen before your tenth anniversary. By then you WILL know which end goes in the soil. From that point on it’s possible to begin doing bonsai…..proper bonsai. There are NO short cuts and for those folk that have reached the status of the ‘gifted’ there is no hiding or pulling the wool over our eyes 😉 However, I do realise that’s going to be a hard sell to anyone flirting with the notion of getting involved with little trees. Sure a good level of knowledge can be reached in a few seasons of experience but that’s not what we are considering here.

Ten years is a long time, 10,000 hours represents a monumental effort but once complete it’s such an amazing position to be in, an incredible jumping off point. I am now beginning to get to grips with developing bonsai trees and now I get to keep what I work on I genuinely feel excited about the future and just how much further this can go. It’s the work that teaches us, we learn by doing, by repetition, over and over and over for a lifetime. In the end it’s the trees that teach us and mould us and allow us to become the artisan of our dreams. My hard work and commitment expended over the last thirty years is hopefully on the verge of coming to fruition. Maybe, just maybe I have finally earned that mythical gift. Only time and the trees will tell.

Here is the defoliation I was going to discuss in process. More on that later….

G.

P.S Thanks for reading, this has helped me out a great deal!

I Got Off The Subject, this what the subject for today.

My week at Kaizen Bonsai – A Good One!

This week has been a good one. Having completed more than THREE THOUSAND orders and about TEN THOUSAND parcels since January this year we finally got it all under control and I came up for air, f***ing cold air mind but that’s another subject.

So, I finally decided that we are no longer importing plants thanks to the governments ludicrous requirements. I just will NOT bend the knee and submit to their ridiculous Gestapo paranoid bullshit. In the future, should they see sense I promise to go and spend a quarter of a million pounds and ya’ll can fill your boots. Otherwise I accept the death of  my thirty year dream and I will be buying old bikes whilst I still can before they F’ that up too and I have to leave altogether.

That was Monday, not a great start. Tuesday I started work on buying for Christmas 2021 and that is the earliest mention of the C word you are likely to get. With the world of international shipping in utter chaos and having lost tens of thousands last Christmas thanks to the governments mis-handling of ports and incoming containers this year i’m taking no chances. Some goods are already on the water.

Wednesday I bought about a million carving tools, some old and some new before embarking on something new for us. The herculean task of buying a container of rather special quality pots. I already have RSI calculator finger and fear I will need new glasses before I get done poring over catalogues. In everything we do now there is no choice but to cut out all the middle men and go to the source otherwise we just cannot survive. Another UK government issue I would rather not recount because I will end up resorting to the bottle and it’s sun up on Saturday morning so way too early for getting shit-faced.

Thursday was a big day. I got to bunk off and go see my mentor and bonsai inspiration. Mr Willson has had a bunch of our trees for a while now and having finished the lot I was excited to go pick them up. A very wonderful day and evening was had and I came home late and smiling.

Friday was bonkers with two of my besties visiting to do some work. It’s been the better part of two years since I did a workshop but with these two fellas It’s always a joy. We did a bunch of re-pots and made a big old kurama pot for a very special tree Kevin has completed for my buddy. Something I have never done before but we were all pretty impressed with the group effort so far. More later.

Saturday looks like being a good one too.

So here’s the all important piccies’.

Graham.

Sabina juniper Bonsai belonging to my buddy post Kevin Willson.

Spruce Bonsai Tree

A spruce that has a checkered history finally back to health and good shape. Possibly available for sale down the road.

Sabina juniper Bonsai

I tried to sell this at a couple hundred quid for ages but no takers. Now ex Kevin it’s sold in 12 hours for a much more respectable sum.

Yew tree Bonsai

Another non seller at under £200. Taxus by the yew-master. Sorry now not available.

Yew tree bonsai.

Collected by me in 2001 and belonging to one of the guys. From a bare stump Kevin did justice to all our patient work as always.

Scots pine bonsai

Previously styled by Kevin a stunning scotty in for a pot.

Yamadori oak bonsai.

Yamadori oak in for it’s first pot. A serious challenge with it’s awful big roots.

Scots pine bonsai

This one was a doddle.

Yamadori oak bonsai

This one not so much but it will live and we will improve it.

My work for Saturday.

The Irony of My Life.

The irony of my life just now is the fact that my bonsai business prevents me from actually doing bonsai. The less bonsai I do the more ya’ll can do because you have the stuff you need. That is unless you buy it of somebody else in which case stop reading at once!

Bonsai as a hobby is in for a major shaking very soon as global forces and political bullshit conspire to drown us in their effluent. I doubt anyone really understands the extent to which we are dependant upon imports. Virtually NOTHING we use is made here in Blighty, even the bark we use in our soil mixes comes from abroad now.

A little point that has not been reported on by the media is the fact that a container, shipped from China to the UK has gone up from about £1600 last summer to about £6000 today, some have been quoted up to £10,000. Also on the spot market yesterday shippers were charging £1000 extra to drop a container in Felixstowe as opposed to Rotterdam, just the other side of the channel. Somebody needs to ask Boris what the hell he thinks he is doing.

That is just one of a dozen simply incredible circumstances that is about to change life in the UK forever. Take Akadama, there is simply not enough to satisfy the world and lead times can be literally months on end, the price is rising and the shipping has increased by up to 500%. For the first time in history our price is over £20 and when new stocks arrive it could reach £30 or more.

Here’s another example. One of our European tree suppliers was charging us under £200 for a massive pallet up to 8 feet high. Pointless customs documentation and delays has now added exactly £250 to that price and by the time I get it cleared through an agent I expect another £125 this side of the water. Assuming 50 little trees that increases the price per item from £4 to £11.50 which is £13.80 including the VAT you have to pay. That’s actually more than the cost of a lot of little starter trees. Add UK shipping and you are up to £21.45. Add a decent cardboard box at £1, a glue slug at 75p and you reach £23.20. I then have to photograph and list the tree, we have to pack it and label the box and at a paltry £10 an hour that adds another £10.80 which brings us to £34 and so far there is not a single penny in there for the plant, it’s all just processing costs and with overheads running at around 40% of sales value………………… F**k i’d give an Asprin a headache.

So gird your loins folks and pucker up there are fun times coming. It’s time to be appreciative of just how much we have and just how lucky we are. It’s time to stop constantly looking for more, more, more. It’s time to look hard at our ‘consumtion’ and it’s time to be very grateful for what we have. Our great grandparents were very happy just to have a roof over their heads and food on the table. May God grant us all the grace to do the same.

Having less plants on the nursery (we dropped our stock by over 1200 plants in the last quarter) has given me chance to spend time on those special little bits and bobs I have been holding back over the last few years. Seeing as it’s spring it’s time for the obligatory flower pictures. So, here are a couple of recently potted trees.

First up is a crab apple, we sold a massive number of these but this one had to stay. It’s only three years out of the ground and will take at least another ten years to turn into bonsai but if you squint at it through a drunken haze it looks pretty good.

Secondly is my mahaleb. Collected in southern Italy just 3/4 years ago I offered this for sale at around £500 before thinking better of it. Work has been focused on creating substantial primary branching in keeping with the trunk proportions. I didn’t do the carving, that needs work. This is it’s first pot, it’s vital NOT to put trees into bonsai pots too early in their development but now IS the time for this one and it’s a nice Tokoname signature pot I had cluttering the place up.

G.

The Irony of My Life.Crab apple bonsai

Crab apple in it’s first bonsai pot. An old Chinese pot I have had for 30 years.

The Irony of My Life. Cherry bonsai tree yamadori.

From southern Italy and just 4 years in development from a bare stump. Early days but happy so far.

The Irony of My Life.

Not my carving work but the branches are. Another 10 years and this will be good.

The Irony of My Life.

Compulsory spring flower picture. Prunus mahaleb.

It’s Like The Whole World Has Gone Gardening

I was speaking to one of the countries largest manufacturers of commercial compost products just last week who told me they were busy, busy, busy, he had never known anything like it. “It’s like the whole world has gone gardening!”. I would concur, since January 1st we have processed nearly 2500 orders and unusually they are big orders too, especially considering we are coming to the end of selling trees.

Saying that, I sound like a broken record I know but the logistics of shipping a hundred parcels and three quarters of a ton of product daily with only two folk packing boxes, hauling goods, mixing soils and the million other frustrating little jobs involved is no laughing matter. My staff don’t take lunch breaks and work late most days and we even work Saturdays too. Catherine and I do 6am to 8pm every day and have resorted to asking her brother to come and cook for us just to get a decent meal once a week, he is a chef though 😉

I doubt anyone will really appreciate what it takes to do this unless they are running a small business just now. Just finding enough cardboard boxes is exhausting (and expensive). No washing gets done, no cleaning, no gardening, no house maintenance (i live in an old house). Cars don’t get washed, bikes don’t get ridden, dogs don’t get walked and I sleep 5 hours a night. There is CERTAINLY no time to do bonsai.

With the government busting their hump to destroy commerce in the UK and with the EU determined to try and make an example out of us for leaving their club not to mention Covid and the VERY serious situation regarding global shipping and looming oil price increases this time next year is going to look very different indeed both for the bonsai community and the country as a whole. There are some very dark storm clouds on the horizon for us all, life is NOT going back to ‘normal’, trust me. I can’t believe the ‘media’ are not covering these stories…..but then perhaps I can. I’ll explain more later.

Still, lucky for me we are on the back nine and nearly done. Of late I have managed to largely clear my garden of stock leaving, by and large, just my own collection of trees and I feel good about that, the stress has lifted off me and it feels wonderful. I have not done any bonsai since Christmas and my last video so Sunday night I got to pot up something nice.

This hornbeam came in about 18 months ago. The variety grows incredibly slowly and unusually a big pot does not speed that up so a bonsai pot at this stage is entirely appropriate. I found the unusual pot lurking under a bench covered in years of crap and spiders web, I kind of like it but at this stage it maters little what it looks like.

This hornbeam has had no styling work, just a few unnecessary branches removed. I would guess it’s been 2/3 years since collecting. In my book that makes it good yamadori and once I put ten years on top it will be a great and unique bonsai tree.

Now, off to pack boxes……

G.

It's like the whole world has gone gardening

Hornbeam yamadori in it’s first bonsai pot.

It's like the whole world has gone gardening

No work here just the magic of nature.

Magical Winter Appearance.

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

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

I featured this tree on my blog previously –

44,000 Hours Well Spent – Growing Bonsai Trees

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

G.

Magical Winter Appearance. Chinese elm.

Chinese elm branch structure

Chinese elm, mature craggy bark

Magical winter appearance. Leaves just spoil this beautiful old tree

Graham Potter Does a Bit of Bonsai Work – New Video

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

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

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

Graham.

 

I Usually Got a Thick Ear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 It Was The Best Of Times…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham, Catherine, Richard and Sarah.

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

https://youtu.be/BXyfCGDnuWs

Life Can Hit Us All Pretty Hard Sometimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

G.

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

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

Life Can Hit Us All Pretty Hard Sometimes Field elm bonsai

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

Trust me there is a plan....

Trust me there is a plan….

Trunk Hollowing begins.

Trunk Hollowing begins.

That's a lot of wire.

That’s a lot of wire.

Totally hollowed out trunk.

Totally hollowed out trunk.

some hefty branch bending.

Some hefty branch bending.

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

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