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The Triffid’s Return-Garden Juniper Bonsai Tree

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

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

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

A Ripping Yarn


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

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

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

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

The Triffid's Return to Bonsai

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

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

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

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

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


The Triffid’s Return-Garden Juniper Bonsai Tree

The Triffid's Return-Garden Juniper Bonsai Tree

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


Today’s Work, Scots Pine Bonsai Development

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

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

Abuse! Abuse!

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

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

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

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

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


Scots Pine Bonsai Development

Scots Pine yamadori January 2020.

Scots Pine Bonsai Development

January 2020 after first styling work.

Scots Pine Bonsai Development

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

Scots Pine Bonsai Development

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


Kevin Willson Bonsai Collaboration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yamadori scots pine bonsai material comes home.

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

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

Scots pine yamadori bonsai after a decade.

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty and the beasts.

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

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

Yamadori scots pine bonsai tree. Kevin Willson Bonsai Collaboration

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

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

New Products Now in Stock

New products now in stock. With so many products on our books it’s difficult to find new things that are not just variations on a theme. Inevitable some always are because everyone has their own way they like to work. Just recently I was looking through our first 2004 paper catalogue. Our range was tiny compared to today but the standard of bonsai was every bit as good. I am unconvinced that so much choice in life is good for us but i’m a Norfolk clod-hopper, what do I know.

After many years of searching for a suitably high quality material we are very pleased to introduce a new addition to our Green Dream range.

Green Dream Bonsai Biochar – Graded Horticultural Charcoal

BONSAI BIOCHAR. Graded Straight Horticultural Charcoal (2-8mm)

BONSAI BIOCHAR. Graded Straight Horticultural Charcoal (2-8mm)

Use Bonsai Biochar to improve your growing media. Horticultural charcoal has many benefits for plants of all types. Improves moisture retention whilst allowing good drainage. Also retains significant nutrient from fertilisers and promotes beneficial fungal and microbial activity which improves growth, health and pest resistance. Light weight, frost proof and will not decay or break down.

Produced from 100% FSC standard, managed British hardwood coppice and arboricultural arisings to UK-BBF, EU and IBC Quality mandates in modern retort low emission kilns. 100% sustainable British carbon capture product locks carbon into soil for hundreds of years.

Most biochars contain a huge amount of finnes or dust. For bonsai this is not desirable as it will wash into the bottom of the pot where it will seriously impede drainage. Green Dream Bonsai Biochar is graded 2-8mm and contains very little dust. Obviously because of the nature of the product dust is produced in handling and shipping but in comparison with most products available our horticultural charcoal has very little fine material, generally less than 1% by volume and can be used straight from the bag. Add to your favourite bonsai soil mix at 1-10% by volume.

New products now in stock this month include Zeolite by popular demand. We have sourced a fantastic grade of Zeolite Medium Grain Horticultural Media for bonsai use. Zeolite for horticultural use is largely unknown in the UK but is widely used under various brand names across Europe and beyond. There are significant issues around Japanese akadama these days and it’s safe to say that Zeolite is going to be the product that will replace the ubiquitous red clay. Zeolite is harder and will not break down, it’s less acidic, holds more water and has significantly higher cation exchange capacity meaning more nutrients to your bonsai and better growth. Zeolite also contains many significant minerals that are important to plant growth and health.

Our Zeolite is a 3-7mm graded product that does not require sieving and can be used straight from the bag. Use up to 30% by volume in your own bonsai soil mix.

 Zeolite Medium Grain Horticultural Media New product

Zeolite Medium Grain Horticultural Media.

We now have available two new grades of our popular Lapillo. Fine Grade Volcanic Lava and Lapillo Medium Grade Volcanic Lava.

Fine grade lapillo (puzzolane) 3-5mm. New product

Fine grade lapillo (puzzolane) 3-5mm.

Medium grade lapillo (puzzolane) 5-10mm. New products

Medium grade lapillo (puzzolane) 5-10mm.

Often also known as puzzolane this porous volcanic lava has become a staple of many popular bonsai growing formulae over recent years. We now have 3-5mm and 5-10mm grades available from stock.

Finally new products now in stock include Pumice Fine Grain Horticultural Media. Pumice is becoming extremely popular for bonsai cultivation as folk finally figure out just how brilliant it is. Use this fine grade 2-4mm pumice in smaller bonsai pots or where your tree demands a high moisture content in summer.

Pumice (bims) Fine Grain Horticultural Media 2-4mm. new products

Pumice (bims) Fine Grain Horticultural Media 2-4mm

If there is a new product YOU would like to see added to our range just drop us a line.


Mediterranean Species In Bonsai. Pistacia.

As I said in my most recent blog post “Bonsai is not easy”. After 30 years I begin to think I don’t know s**t. There are just too many variables to contemplate and the British climate certainly does not help matters.

Almost every day I am asked for my help and advice about some aspect of cultivating bonsai. I have no issue with sharing my best know-how with anyone who asks. However because there are so many variables involved, what works like a charm for me could have the opposite effect for you.

Years ago I moved house. I only came three miles down the road and whilst the garden was about ten times the size of the previous one it might as well have been in a different country. It has taken me years to master our new spot which seems odd when I am all but in sight of the old place.

Add to that the fact that two identical plants, even from the same source will grow differently from each other. Then two different people will be wanting to achieve different things with either of them and it becomes obvious the variables are all but infinite. That alone makes figuring out bonsai something of a job.

My best advice is to learn the principles of horticulture and the process of bonsai by painful experience. Given enough years it becomes possible, most of the time, to figure out what needs to be done to achieve our ends.

Every now and again I have been thrilled to see a plan come together. Sometimes the problems stop for a while and just like parting clouds, success shines through. I generally have to stand back and just marvel and enjoy the moment. One such experience came about this summer and the bulk of it was not by design.

Over the years I have developed a love of Mediterranean species we use in bonsai. Most of these have been a real struggle to understand in our oppressive British climate. However over the decades I have learned how to make them all work here. My favourite is the cork bark oak (quercus suber) and that would be quickly followed by Pistacia.

Mediterranean species we use in bonsai.

Pistacia yamadori from southern Italy. Spring 2020. Several years of preparation have passed.

Mediterranean species we use in bonsai.

Big leaves from last summer.

My job dictates all my best trees always get sold, which sucks. I have to content myself with enjoying the process rather than the end result. It’s scant compensation but I put myself in this position. Over the years I have had some spectacular pistacia and have rarely had one long enough to see them develop.

I bought this particular tree from a collector in southern Italy a couple of years ago now and, strangely, nobody considered it worth buying. In that case I jump on the chance to develop a tree as far as possible before it leaves me. This one got bare rooted and potted into a plastic tub at the height of summer 2019.

2020 has been the busiest year of my life and so time to work on bonsai has been largely non-existent. However one evening around June time I pulled this tree out to rid the pot of some weeds. A couple of hours later and I had it defoliated and wired. It’s had a good summer.

Here is what I have learned…

As with most, but not all, Mediterranean species, re-potting should be done only when the trees are in active growth in summer. Re-potting too often severely weakens most varieties.

Most larger leaf evergreen Mediterranean species need to be defoliated at last once a year, in some cases twice. This encourages strong growth but, pruning new growth too often or too early severely weakens most varieties.

Most Mediterranean species respond best to wiring, styling and pruning only in summer.

Most Mediterranean varieties need a lot of direct sun. High temperatures are less important than direct sunlight exposure.

Allowing a tree time to develop before styling always pays off. The longer the wait the greater the benefit. Mediterranean species we use in bonsai are something of a fish out of water in the UK. Give them time.

Back when I started this journey I found bonsai to be a great relief from all the ugliness in the world. Thirty years on and the ugliness has increased exponentially. However some trees just want to be beautiful and this is one of them. I know it’s a long way from really being a bonsai tree but after all these years I am learning to enjoy what’s in front of me rather than fussing about what’s come before or what’s coming next. Enjoy the good moments, they are far too few and far between.

Mediterranean species we use in bonsai.

Minimal interference allows a tree to express it’s true beauty.



The Cause of all Our Bonsai Adversities

Growing, creating and keeping bonsai trees is REALLY hard. After more than 30 years I should know. Over the course of those busy years I have seen a few things, done a lot of other things, had countless failures and even the occasional success. There is just SO much we need to know. It’s not that growing trees is hard. They grow everywhere we leave alone and thrive in every nook and cranny of the planet where water and light are available. Why then is it so hard to keep a little example in a pot? Assuming we have soil, water, air and light what’s the problem?

Well, of course it’s US. Think about everything we know that’s f’d up in our world today and with a little study and careful thought you will discover we are the underlying cause of pretty much all our own problems. NEVER underestimate the ability of human nature to overcomplicate simple things. Assuming you have a garden go mark off a square meter of soil, put a string around it and then just leave it alone, entirely. I will guarantee that within a year you will be able to find some sort of tree beginning to colonise the space. If it’s so easy to get a new tree in your garden what’s so hard about keeping bonsai?

At it’s root (excuse the pun) our problems stem from the fact we simply do not know what we do not know. There is no shame in that, we all start off knowing nothing and over time we learn. It’s what we do and it’s called compound learning. Most people know about compound interest and why you should save money early in life. The interest on interest causes the invested amount to grow exponentially over time. A similar process also governs your life learning and bonsai potential?

Learning works just like compound interest. The more you try to do and learn, the more you understand how things work and how to learn better. These insights and experiences combine to create compound learning. A long way down the road a little fact can have a profound effect on what we know because we have amassed so much knowledge. However in the early stages the little details have a less pronounced effect because there is less context and interaction between salient facts. That’s obvious when stated but rarely considered when we embark on learning a new discipline. Initial progress is going to be slow.

For success-based activities, there’s a standard learning curve called the Sigmoid curve (or S-curve). It grows exponentially just like compound interest but it starts off slow and has a plateau of mastery at the top. Put simply it’s like a heavy truck that is slow to pull away but once the momentum starts to build progress is strong unless we try to go too fast then the rate of acceleration will again begin to slow before reaching a terminal velocity. It’s at this point most folk will plateau because further learning is really hard. To keep moving forward is hard and the steps are very small. It tends to feel like we are just treading water. I might say that the juice is just not worth the squeeze, or so it seems.

Learning Bonsai

The Sigmoid curve

The Sigmoid curve shows that going from nothing to capable could take as much effort as going from capable to absolute mastery. Things vary from the standardised curve, but it’s a rule of thumb that can inspire determination. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, repeatedly mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule“, claiming that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of around 10,000 hours.

Back when I was a fresh faced youngster it was common practice to take a spotty sixteen year old school leaver and pair them with a grizzly old bloke in the workplace. It was called an apprenticeship. It gave a boy the chance to not only learn a trade but to become a man and be a productive and respectful member of society. It also gave an old fella a fulfilling chance to pass on his experience and, often the opportunity for a good laugh at the lad’s expense. Stories of ‘elbow grease’ and ‘striped paint’ are legendary. In the printing trade one lesson involved the discovery that red ink gave off heat. A fact you would discover was not true whilst struggling to get it off your thoroughly covered and soon to be bright pink hands.

An apprenticeship was typically five or six years by which time a young fellow would be considered competent and as a journeyman would be allowed to work as a qualified person. However it would be a long time before a journeyman would become a fully elevated master craftsman, if ever. To become a master, a journeyman has to submit a master piece of work to a guild for evaluation. Only after successful evaluation can a journeyman be admitted to the guild as a master.

All told, learning to be very good at something was, and is, going to be a long road. Sadly however, in many instances today we have become lazy and just want a short cut. In our digital age, apparently, everything is simple, easy to achieve and guaranteed gratification is instant. Remember that scene in the Sopranos where Christopher is hoping to become a screenwriter? It’s going badly and he can’t figure out why especially considering he bought a computer that he thought would do a lot of the work for him. Learning the simplest of things is going to be a life long journey assuming we want to be any good at all.

The one thing I have learned about learning and bonsai is that the more I learn the more I have to change. Just because something does not suit me does not mean it’s not true. Often I have to bend to incorporate some significant factor. I know a lot of people that have purchased expensive bonsai and then, mid-summer go on holiday without making appropriate arrangements for care of their bonsai. Often on their return their charges are dead. Many times I have been asked to “do” something. Trust me, if I could raise the dead I would no be doing this! Solution? Don’t go on holiday, go away in winter or make suitable arrangements. To carry on as normal, having taken on the responsibility of a living thing, is simply stupid. If it were a child one would be locked up and publicly excoriated for such actions. Success demands change, unless of course you already have more than you can cope with.

Learning bonsai is like building a house, one brick at a time. Bonsai really has to be a way of life that will ultimately touch every area of your life and help you be a better more patient and considerate person. At least, in my head that’s how it works. Nothing in bonsai happens in isolation, it’s all connected. Every single day I am asked the question “What sort of soil do I need for XYZ species of tree”. For the inexperienced that’s a perfectly valid question but, in reality the answer could easily run to three hundred pages if your friendly bonsai master were to give you the answer in context. Ultimately it’s complicated but only if one is at the bottom of that Sigmoid curve. At the top it’s easy, knowledge is king.

Back in the day when I knew everything about everything, everything was pretty much simple and obvious to me. I was what is colloquially known as a dickhead. In my later twenties I woke up and realised I had to get busy. Thankfully I learned two powerful guiding principles for success.

1. In order to be successful do what successful people do.

2. Spend time with people who are where you want to be.

A good example of how that worked occurred in my late teenage years. Back then it was a big deal to go fast. Most cars were laughably slow and few road-going motorcycles were genuinely quick. I had the biggest bike I could afford (we didn’t borrow money with the aplomb folk do today) but my car was given to me for free. I loved Mini’s back then and I was consumed with making one go fast. With no internet it was down to magazines, books and word of mouth if I were ever going to figure out how to achieve such a feat.

Eventually I came across, and kept hearing just one name. David (The Wizard) Vizard. The man’s work on the Mini engine and it’s performance is legendary in those circles. As far as I could tell nobody had really taken that little engine quite as far as he had. Not being a mate of mine all I could do was buy his massive book Tuning BL’s A-Series Engine. This became the pillow on my bed. Finally after close to a year of intense study I began to understand the principles of performance. Long story short, one of my Mini’s ended up with over a hundred horsepower at the wheels on a rolling road. That’s over double what it started with and made a genuinely fast (if terrifying) little car that could easily beat all the stock turbo offerings of the day in a traffic light drag race.

I achieved my goal because I dedicated a year of my life to understanding what Mr V was teaching and then did what he did and low and behold I got exactly what he got. Could it really be any simpler?

Today everyone’s first port of call with a question to answer is Google. They are pretty good at matching things up. However it is down to you to decide if what they serve up is relevant, helpful or even correct. In my own research about virtually anything a Google search seems to lead me to a similar question, often asked on a forum or social media group. These are open to comments by anyone and often go like this…..

I was recently searching for information about an obscure American made item called a Reece Fish Carburettor. The first hit on Google was a forum about old cars where someone was doing exactly what I was.

Here is the first response….
Wow, haven’t heard that name for a few years. I haven’t got any first-hand experience with them but……..No first-hand experience? Better shut up then because you are not going to help me out with your unfounded opinions.

Go online and search a health related question and see what happens. I had a bad case of kick-starter foot. Like an idiot I had been kicking a super tight rebuilt Harley Davidson engine and without really concentrating had been using the ball of my foot. The result was badly damaged tendons between the front and back half of my size 10. It was hard to walk and ultimately took a year to heal. The result of a Google search was at best….. your an idiot, your foot if fucked, cut it off and die…. A painful little swelling on your head will inevitably be cancer eating it’s way out of you. Nobody would even consider it might just be a zit.

Try the same with bonsai and you will very quickly descend into a morass of incalculable and insurmountable misery. As an example a friend of mine had a little mushroom appear in the pot of an old yamadori larch one autumn. Asking online he was advised the tree was infected an should be burned as soon as practically possible. Ten years later the tree is in robust good health as is the fungi that produces it’s little mushrooms every year. In the words of Edgar Allan Poe “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see” and don’t burn bonsai trees.

It’s easy to be impressed as a fresh faced newbie and even easier to get your head turned by a good looking something. As I mentioned earlier, being a master of something is entirely judged by those that have gone before. The status of “Master” can only be bestowed by other masters. Self proclaimed masters are no such thing. Self confidence, bullshit and bluster are no substitution for a life of learning. Pick your Sensei carefully and guard your mind jealously. Picking up every bit of trash that crosses you path will leave you up to your neck in worthless trash.

I am often asked how one should go about learning the art of bonsai. My answer will always be the same five step plan.

1. Get a copy of Bonsai Basics by Colin Lewis. The best book on the subject in the English language.

2. Get a copy of Principles of Horticulture by Charles Adams

3. Put together a full set of Bonsai Today magazines. Read and study the work of Japanese bonsai masters every single day until you drop dead.

4. Buy lots of cheap plants (not bonsai) and learn to keep them alive. Bonsai horticulture takes 10,000 hours to understand the basics. Having accomplished that you will be ready to start thinking about bonsai trees.

5. Having completed the above your Sensei will appear to you. Learn all that you can by doing what they do and then some.

Add 50 years of tireless practice and just maybe somebody will call YOU a master and bonsai will seem easy but remember….

“The keenest sorrow is to recognise ourselves as the sole cause of all our adversities.”


The Cost of a Good Bonsai Soil Mix

We all like a little grumble. British are particularly renowned for our grumbling prowess. Mention the weather and see where that goes. The cost of a good bonsai soil mix?

We all like to grumble about the price of things too. ” I remember when …..” that sort of thing. I have a lovely old mate who pointed out a fairly average bonsai tree for sale on our bench cost more than his first house. On investigation that was about 65 years prior to our discussion. It’s all relative though. My dad likes to point out his first house cost him what is now the price of a special pair of handmade shoes but then he was earning 2/6 a week.

Money is not worth what it was and there is nothing we can do about that. However as age advances it does become difficult to deal with. I was discussing the minimum wage with my old fella the other day and he nearly passed out at the cost.

As a seller of products we constantly have to wrestle with making enough profit to keep the wheels on whilst not pricing ourselves out of the market. It’s a tough one and we (at KB) will not be able to retire on the proceeds. We all know about the crisis in high street retail and online retail is absolutely no better. They say the costs are less for online sellers but that’s utter bull crap.

There is rarely a day goes by that I don’t get bitch slapped by someone complaining about the cost of stuff. It goes with the territory but that does not mean it does not hurt. It really digs deep and the lack of respect and understanding is deeply offensive.

The real problem is that everything looks quite simple from the outside. Creating a bonsai tree looks like a simple thing to the uninitiated. We know better of course. There is nothing more enlightening than to walk a mile in another man’s shoes.

I get a lot of complaints about the price of what we commonly call soil. Bonsai growing media, or soil, is a complex business as I outlined here Choosing Soil For Bonsai Trees. The time, effort and work, not to mention transportation, warehousing, mixing and packaging that goes into these products is simply beyond the comprehension of most folk who are not directly involved.

Processed clay aggregates of many different kinds are a large part of most bonsai growing media. Take a look at this incredible video. Consider the cost of build, running, maintaining and feeding this absolute monster. 90% of a good bonsai soil mix will have come from similar plants around the world.

Those products have to be bought to one place and then processed, blended, packaged and finally packed for shipping direct to your door. How convenient is that? I reckon the price of these things is incredibly low. Many products are cheaper than 20 years ago and don’t forget 1/5 of the cost goes onto the Westminster gravy train.

I am very grateful to companies like the one shown in this video. Their hard work, dedication and long term investment makes our silly penchant for little trees possible. Next time you pick up a bag of soil product remember this video.


Missing The Point – Re-potting Bonsai

When you make that first fateful move and obtain a ‘Bonsai tree’ you take the first step on a journey that just might last the rest of your life. It matters little that your first plant is most likely not bonsai at all. Mine was a sycamore seedling I lifted out of leaf litter in the woods on a dog walk and planted in a plastic plant pot. It could be a cheap poor quality ‘bonsai’ you buy in a garden centre, something you are given as a gift or inherit. The quality is perceived and matters little in our ignorant state of the time. To be clear I did not know what a bonsai tree even was (it’s a partly redundant phrase anyway) and had never even heard the phrase. I had never seen a bonsai tree in any form but I always loved trees and figured it would be nice to own a little one.

Some time later I bought a house that came with a ‘Koi pond’, another redundant phrase seeing as koi pretty much live in any pond. Having been an avid fish keeper since winning a goldfish for tossing a ping-pong ball into a bowl at the traveling fare back in the early seventies my new pond was welcome. You don’t spend much time around koi keeping before running into bonsai trees. Most are normally accompanied by shockingly naff attempts at Japanese gardening. Chinese pagodas, concrete Buddahs, deer scarers and so much tawdry, kitsch and tragic gimcrack it’s hard to know wether one should shit or go blind.

So, from the point I knew what a ‘Bonsai Tree’ was it all started to get a bit pear shaped. Ask anybody what ‘bonsai’ means and you will be regaled with the trite platitude about trees in trays / pots etc’. The emphasis is almost entirely on the pot. Surely it’s the ‘tree’ bit we need to focus on? However for the few of us that managed to cut through all the crap and actually get our arms around this thing the word itself is irrelevant. It may have taken me thirty years of dedicated work but I now know I don’t have ‘bonsai trees’ in fact I just have TREES. Plain simple little trees that I keep in various pots (most of which are NOT shallow, or dishes or even ceramic). That thirty years was full and busy! The crazy things I have done have impacted upon everyone close to me for most of their lives, caused me to quit my job, sell everything I ever loved and put me in hospital with life itself hanging by a thread.

I don’t suggest for a minute that, in order to be good at bonsai, everyone must do the same. However this IS a long journey fraught with danger and perils. You would assume that in this ‘Information age’ learning to grow trees and keep them small would be easy. After all just look at the volume of content out there. I always had a passion for learning new things and today what could be simpler. I recently learned to TIG weld, sure I need to practice and work at it but after about an hour I knew what I needed to buy and once it arrived I knew how to set everything up and within minutes I was sticking bits of scrap metal together.

I previously taught myself how to operate a manual metal turning lathe. Another project required knowing how to work with Marmorino (lime plaster). I learned to spray two pack paint, build a sandblaster and repair our cooker. I mastered the arcane electrical systems of British motorcycles and found out how to apply/repair the patina on my pre war truck. There is not a week goes by that I don’t have to learn something new and these days it’s all at my finger tips. What you are staring at now has incredible potential for life enhancement. Of course a modicum of intelligence and common sense are required in order to use this powerful tool. Sadly for lots of people it just leaves them looking like a tool swinging in the breeze.

Just using the word ‘bonsai’ implies that our little trees are something special, something apart or removed from their wild and unfettered relatives. Right there it all went tragically wrong and we didn’t even get to the second word. As soon as the ‘B’ word is applied to a plant folk of lesser experience totally loose their minds and all sense of reality. The word bonsai is a little magnet that attracts so many myths, hearsay, conjecture and in my working class parlance, bullshit that, in the hands of the uninitiated 90% of these little plants are entirely doomed to die a sad and lingering death. Let’s focus on the TREE bit folks!

As a trained horticulturalist and life long gardener and grower it became obvious to me very quickly that a bonsai tree was just a plant in a pot like any other. The interest and unusual appearance is created by some rudimentary shaping and the tree is kept small only by pruning. Returned to the ground any bonsai tree will quickly return to it’s natural state. Like any potted plant with limited resources at it’s disposal a bonsai tree relies upon it’s owner for it’s essential needs. These needs are simple, light, air and water. It really is SO simple that, after thirty years doing this, I am increasingly perplexed and disillusioned at why folk are struggling with such a simple thing. One guess is that so many folk have become entirely removed from nature, the rhythm of the seasons and all the wonders of life outside.

I would suggest the word bonsai ought to indicate the process of making a small tree. The successful result we can just call a tree. That saves a lot of people a lot of confusion. A fabricator might build you some nice iron gates but if you called them a fabrication, and not gates, some people might be confused because the word has several connotations. The word gates is quite specific as is the word tree. In the minds of the un-initiated bonsai is the same.

So, here’s the thing. What’s the big deal with re-potting? 99% of the questions I receive concern re-potting. Before someone buys a tree they want to know when to re-pot. After they buy a tree they want to know when to re-pot. I see people re-potting new trees they just got, re-potting out of season in fact, looks to me like the bonsai community, and I use the term lightly, is totally and utterly obsessed with re-potting to the exclusion of all else.

As a motor-head please allow me a motoring analogy. The last time you bought a car, once you got it  home what was the first thing you did? I am betting it was not to go outside and remove the engine right?* Assuming you are the kind of person that could actually do that successfully I would guess that before you did you would check how it ran. Most folk buying a motor would buy a fairly decent one that would do a good job. Some folk like me would seek out the opposite because we like a project but that’s an entirely different thing.

So why on God’s green earth would you buy a bonsai tree and instantly assume it needs to be re-potted? Most bonsai trees are killed by over-work. In my estimation the number of bonsai trees sold in the UK that survive a ten year period are a single figure percentage. A lot of those die because they are literally pruned to death, weakened as a result. A lot die because of inappropriate horticultural care, like keeping them indoors or in other inappropriate situations. A few are poisoned with fertilisers and other snake oil concoctions. But, the lions share are killed by re-potting.

You would assume this is the exclusive domain of the novice who, on a good day I could excuse for their inexperienced fumblings and daft questions. We all have to kill a few trees, that’s the price of an education. But, sadly this issue seems to afflict even some of those with decades of experience. In that case it’s rare that trees actually end up dead but inappropriate re-potting is responsible for a lot of beautiful old bonsai trees being turned into raw material as they end up with juvenile vigour and loose their maturity.

I assume folk must read that a bonsai tree needs a free draining soil. Most bonsai trees you buy do not have a free draining soil, at least not in the estimation of many folk who are most likely not experienced enough to make that judgement. Trouble is, if you put a tree into a free draining soil mix how long will that last? Even the most open growing medium will close down after a while simply because it’s pore spaces are filled with pesky root. So you buy a tree and when you water it does not drop right out the bottom of the pot, it must need re-potting right? Perhaps a responsible person has spent several years making sure your new tree has a good strong and vibrant root system. Not always the case but mostly so. Going out and throwing that work away on an ignorant mis-understanding is criminal.

A bonsai tree, just re-potted in the right way, allows water to drop through the soil pretty quickly. However after a year or two that’s not going to be the case simply because the pot is filling with root, as it should be. So, then it takes a little longer to thoroughly wet the rootball when you water. On the other hand it can remain quite wet if it’s raining so then what? I have explained this so many times i just want to go chop my own head off. I have made videos and written dozens of times and explained it in demo’s and a thousand telephone conversations.

Bonsai trees go through phases of development. Initially we are looking for explosive rampant growth in order to build a powerful trunk. Subsequently we have to build primary branching, secondary branching and finally mature ramification. It is NOT possible to move onto any one of these phases before the proceeding step is complete. Each stage has it’s own technique too and using the wrong one won’t work. Anyone ever seen a trunk double in size where a tree is planted in a bonsai pot (in the UK)? Not in less than forty years you have not. In order to grow a big trunk you need a lot of growth. In nature a big tree carries a LOT of branching and foliage. I wrote about that at length here  Upside Down Bonsai

That last phase of bonsai development is not understood by many folk. Remember when you were young you had boundless energy and strength to do most anything. Later on in life that started to fade but then you were a little smarter and so managed to compensate and do more with less. That is how we mature a bonsai tree. The whole process and point of ‘bonsai’ is to bring a tree to maturity in order to create a miniature characterisation of the venerable old soldiers that touch our souls. In the early stages we have to tolerate boundless explosive growth but the WHOLE object of the exercise is to bring a tree to a mature and stable place of balance exactly as happens in the trees wild natural home.

Trees in nature follow this path. When young they grow away like weeds exploding in every direction. Later on they become larger, heavy and tall. After decades they will begin to bump up against the law of scarcity. Limited resources in the form of water, sunlight and nutrients coupled with the effects of weather and competition mean that growth has to slow and mature. Rather than making huge straight and soft vulnerable new growth, a tree will begin to create a more robust, long lived and ultimately efficient fine ramification that is very good at what it does and looks beautiful to our eyes.

The law of scarcity or the scarcity principle has two sides, one being that all resources are limited, the other side is that demand is infinite. Limited resources are one half of the fundamental problem of scarcity that has plagued humanity since the beginning of time. The other half of the scarcity problem is unlimited wants and needs. The phrase limited resources means that the quantities of productive resources available are finite. That is what creates those beautiful old and mature trees that inspired us to go out and develop the whole idea of bonsai in the first place. Trees mature once they reach a point at which the resources available to them are no longer sufficient to fuel their infinite demand for increase. At that point a more careful and measured use of those resources means a stable and mature growth pattern that allows for the best return for energy expended.

The problem with bonsai is that most folk are obsessed with re-potting to the point where a tree never manages to mature. Free draining soil, hard pruning, excess fertilisers, too much water and inappropriate positioning will keep a tree young, possibly vigorous and trying it’s best to expand rapidly. That coupled with the owners immaturity, lack of patience and inexperience mean a tree can never truly mature and actually become bonsai. All clever wiring and pruning do is make a tree ‘look’ like bonsai. Actual bonsai is a mature and harmoniously balanced tree that is at one with nature and it’s surroundings and has reached perfect equilibrium based on the law of scarcity. I would call the process of achieving that state ‘bonsai’. The successful net result I would call a TREE.

This all feeds into so much of what goes on in bonsai, most of which is entirely unnatural and ultimately harmful to trees. How many times have you seen a discussion about how to reduce leaf or needle size. A mature and balanced bonsai tree will not have overly large leaves. If it’s mature it will have good dense ramification and a stable root system which interprets as nicely formed leaves. If you are trying to make bonsai from an Indian bean tree (Catalpa) this won’t work but the endeavour was doomed from the start.

If your pine tree grows big needles it’s because it needs them at this stage in it’s life. Inducing stress by doing something dastardly is not going to help, in fact it’s likely to severely upset your tree and retard it’s progress. Young pines have big needles. To get small needles you have to mature the tree and that takes a long time assuming you know what you are doing which many folk do not. Kids have excess energy. Gagging them and stapling them to a wall by their clothes may well arrest the annoying and excessive motions about the house for a while but it will not actually turn them into your venerable grandad. As soon as they get free again it’ s probably going to be worse than before.

Real bonsai technique is the art of marshalling natural forces that bear upon a tree to bring it to maturity. As in nature so in bonsai. It’s a finely balanced art form. Mastering this is a lifetimes work. Constant obsession with repotting bonsai, free draining soil, obsessive fertilising, unrestrained pruning and unnatural meddling is feckin’ stupid, don’t do it. Learn your horticulture folks!


Should I repot this bonsai tree?

This little tree is so far off kilter it’s in mortal danger. Will repotting help?

A mature Chinese elm bonsai tree. Repotting bonsai

This little elm started off like the one above. It took about 6 years to reach this relatively mature and balanced state and only two repots in that time.

*I actually did that, aged 16, I took the engine out of my first motorcycle the day after I bought it. Therefore I do get the re-potting obsession but I was an ignorant impetuous spotty teenager with a dangerously inquisitive mind and a box of spanners.

Bitchin-n-Moanin Again

So, anybody that knows me, or our business will know we are always busy. Not busy in the sense most of Britain at work is busy. I don’t consider 2 hours work followed by three hours of needless paperwork to be busy. We have one of the lowest outputs per head of working population in the developed world but don’t even get me started…. So we ARE busy, in the sweating my arse off sense. Myself and Richard literally move about 1-4 tons of stuff a day each. Moving between our warehouse and getting stuff packed is HARD work and for a fat middle aged bloke that likes a stogie and a beer that’s exhausting.

Add to that the stress of running a business means I only sleep about three nights a week. That nearly killed me a few years ago and I was rushed to hospital apparently 3/4 dead. Now it’s happening all over again and this current shut down of most everything is not helping. Since the governments actions our order volume has increased about 100%. Soon we too may have to shut down for the simple reason we cannot get any more boxes. All our usual suppliers are shut and there is an EU wide shortage, believe it or not. I’m wondering if I might not get a taste for loafing about and make it permanent. What do you think?

Anyway, sick of people bitching about not getting their goods fast enough. Kaizen Bonsai consists of aforesaid middle aged fat bloke, a pension aged wife, a strapping young son in law and a daughter going on maternity leave next week who looks like she was blown up with a tyre pump. This ragtag little family get out between 60 and 90 parcels in an 8 hour day. My accountant reckons it’s physically impossible for four people to turn over what we do but we HAVE done it for over 15 years now and so I reckon he’s wrong. So to all the complainers, government advice is that you go jump off a bridge and I say amen to that.

Just so you know I am not bullshitting here is our collection at 4pm today. We started work at 9am. That’s 67 parcels and about half as many (small ones) again that already went by post. If anyone would like to send me a medal I will happily send a signed photo of me wearing it by return.


Bonsai orders being dispatched

That’s social distancing in action.

Table Sale !

Seeing as everyone has been shut down for the foreseeable future there are no car boots or bonsai bargain basement, knock it out cheap events going on I figured we could host a bonsai table sale. However that’s not what you think. In fact it is just a special offer sale of display tables. It’s intrinsically against my genetic programming to offer discounts but in this case, through gritted teeth I have to clear out this stuff. Our warehouse looks like some crazy cartoon building that is all distended to the point of exploding. Mr Creosote if you will. I probably paid too much for some of these and now have to take the hit but, such is life in business.

These are a genuine 20% right off the top discount. There are only one or two items of each and the discount is only online for a short time so don’t procrastinate.

Click here to see products