At this time of year I get a lot of people asking when they should begin re-potting their bonsai. Unfortunately I can’t give a straight answer to a question like that because, as with most things concerning bonsai, it depends upon many factors. However there is a simple answer….
This really is my last post of 2018. I think I said that before but now it actually IS. After this I am going on holiday. Well, actually I am going into the other room to sit by the fire with the dogs and a glass.
For me the bonsai year really closes out on the winter solstice (shortest day) and that is today. As of tomorrow we start looking forward to another productive growing season. It might be a very long time until spring but for today I can contemplate the last year, my successes and failures and lay plans for improving what happens next year. I shan’t go out the front gate for the next couple of weeks, we’ll unplug the phone and consign my Mac to a locked cupboard. Peace and quiet is a much underrated commodity these days and something I hold in high esteem.
Here’s a few pic’s of the winter solstice sunrise over my Norfolk dog walking route.
Now, where’s that bottle?
2018 started badly with me having to call out an ambulance having all but broken myself in two. An experience that leaves me weak at the knees even now when I think about it. Just as I was emerging from the dark tunnel of that I got flu for the first time in my life. My Mum always said that every time I got sick I was always twice as bad as everyone else. In this case I would agree, that was rough. Thankfully I have good people around me and so business carried on largely as normal.
Now sitting here on our last day of work in 2018 I can only say I have been humbled by the simply inconceivable success we have had throughout the last year. YOUR support this year has been absolutely wonderful, humbling and incredible hard work all rolled into an amazing experience so from us all here at KB THANK YOU!
Part of my job is surrounding myself with amazing bonsai trees and yamadori. I know it’s tough but somebody has to do it. Loving trees the way I do I find it keeps my little life in perspective, being surrounded by yamadori often five or ten times my age and having beautiful bonsai trees that have had decades of skill and experience poured into them. The responsibility of having to be a faithful custodian of this little treasure chest of magic gets me up before dawn every day.
Even though I have some nice bonsai around me I have to say it’s still what I might call the crap that really floats my boat. There really is nothing I love more than a nasty stump that someone has discarded. I often manage to get these for little more than the price of the pots they occupy. On a buying trip last spring I was given this oak. The top of the tree had died and just a single shoot was sticking out of the base. Even at just a hundred quid, which was pretty much the cost of inbound transport, VAT and a drink for me nobody gave it a second glance. This week I got everyone working hard and so yesterday I slipped off into the workshop to have some fun with my little stump.
Have a great Christmas and a restful holiday and sincere thanks to everyone that made 2018 such a great year. I can hardly wait to open the lid on 2019 but before then I have some special bottles of scotch to drain and a couple of very special cigars to smoke.
Best wishes from everyone at Kaizen Bonsai!
Around here autumn is a good time for me to get some trees worked. This year has been harder than normal because obviously Rammon went on his way and we have also been insanely busy too. I generally spend the autumn covered in dust knocking holes in big deciduous trees but this year I sold them all so I turned my attention to some sabina junipers that just weren’t selling.
I adore sabina juniper but with my sausage fingers wiring them does drive me up the wall. However it is possible with care to create a very tight refined image. Following a subsequent years growth first work junipers can look amazing. Autumn re-potting where necessary will also encourage strong summer growth as opposed to spring repotting which makes them sulk badly.
It’s been a chaotic week or two here. Christmas shopping is in full swing and it appears a lot of folk are getting the drop on spring by ordering soil and pots early too. It’s almost shocking how much stuff is going out the door every day. Thankfully we now have a full compliment of hands to man the tape guns and so we’re doing okay.
My first priority around here is always the trees. It’s practically become a full time job just buying enough stock to keep up with demand. It used to be the case a couple of good deliveries a year kept us going but of late we have been needing a delivery every month. This year we have spent a good six figure sum on bonsai and largely bought up everything we can find (at a workable price) and we are STILL desperate for more stock. Sadly because of that great demand and other global factors we are seeing prices rise quickly, that’s capitalism for you. By and large we are seeing folk buy less volume but better quality and in my opinion that’s how it should be.
This week we had a hundred new plants arrive and have also bought another hundred-odd for January delivery but for now here are some new sabina junipers that are a lot more interesting than some we have seen. Again, not cheap but every one is a keeper in my book.
It’s a sad fact we are all getting older. Having been at this bonsai lark for thirty odd years now I can say with confidence that there is a lot less testosterone flowing around the British bonsai scene than there was twenty years ago. Perhaps that’s the result of flagging middle age or perhaps we are all just a lot less motivated than we used to be. Life has a habit of doing that.
I am constantly ear-‘oled about getting smaller trees. It appears everyone is too old and weak to hump those big lumps about any more. I say “bollocks to all that” as they say, ‘use it or lose it’. Humping big bonsai around will keep you fit and heavy lifting is a sure fire way to stave off the onset of osteoporosis. To that end I thought I should assist in the upkeep of the health of the men of Britain by buying some big trees. Because I am so concerned about my customers health I might even be prepared to offer those trees for the price of an annual gym membership.
So, here are a couple of bargain basement monsters to get you all going. These two fantastic carpinus betulus are available for well under a grand a pop and even less for the pair. I have SO much new stock in the pipeline something has to give go grab a bargain and get fit into the bargain 😉
When I started Kaizen Bonsai years ago my only ambition was to handle a couple of orders a day so that Catherine didn’t need to go out to work any more and I could have a toe in the water of something I cared passionately about. Fast forward nearly twenty years and here we are, having turned over multiple millions, with tens of thousands of customers, handling close to twenty thousand orders a year. Who knew that was even possible in such a small minority interest like bonsai, it’s certainly surprised me. I did create something of a monster and some days it gives me a mauling. I often go a whole week and don’t even get out the front gate. Catherine might not need to go out to work any more but then she pretty much does not go out at all. Kaizen Bonsai is run right out of our home, each day many of your orders are piled up in our living room and so we quite literally live at work which is obviously good and bad. Because of that the whole subject of hiring staff is a difficult one.
Having staff in your family home requires careful selection of the right folk who, ultimately become part of the family. I know a lot of guys who would do a brilliant job but, cranky old me, I could not possibly have them in my house every day. It was, therefore, lucky that we were contacted years ago by Rammon who you will all know. He kind of pushed his way in here initially and over time fitted right in. Eventually we did actually begin to pay him and he has become an invaluable part of Kaizen Bonsai and almost a part of the family. Sadly that is now coming to an end as Rammon will be leaving us at the end of this week. He is moving away and I don’t think six hours commuting each day is really practical so we have to part ways, which is sad.
For such a small company that’s a big deal. Since my daughter Sarah has been with us full time (about a year and a half now) life has been a lot easier for us all, she has really stepped up and taken on a lot of the day to day despatch of orders etc’. Way back when I started I had a deep secret hope that Kaizen Bonsai could become a family business. Whilst my parents have ALWAYS helped out they never really wanted to get involved so that just left Catherine and myself. When Sarah came on board I was thrilled.
This Saturday I will be (in a sense) losing my little girl as she is getting married to Richard of whom I approve entirely and, if you know me, you will know that’s almost impossible. Last time I checked Sarah was in her mid twenties and I have to say it’s about time. Thanks to YOUR support of KB we have managed to help them get set up with a nice little place of their own. Because we lost Sarah’s mum when she was very young Catherine and I have never really been alone. There was no honeymoon and largely because of the pressure of a small business we have never had any form of family holiday, in fact Catherine and I have never had a single night away from home other than for work. However now that everyone is set up and everything is paid for I feel better about the outcome of all that.
So, having said all that it’s pretty obvious what the next episode looks like. Richard joined the Kaizen Bonsai team a couple of weeks ago and will be initially taking over Rammon’s daily workload before hopefully doing a lot more besides (he does not know that yet ;-). This week Sarah is off doing her massive wedding stuff and next week both of them are off for obvious reasons but on 3rd of December 2018 Kaizen Bonsai will officially become a 100% bona-fide family business and will be entirely responsible for the support of the Potters and the Newarks. I am both proud of that and eternally grateful to all of our customers for their support without whom none of this would have happened. We wish Rammon well for the future and I have to thank him for his significant efforts in helping to build Kaizen Bonsai and look forward to future collaborations.
So, I have a new family member in the offing, a new member of staff, a shit load more responsibility. I have a beautiful new blazer, the shirt is pressed, the car is cleaned and despite all the doom and gloom out there I have to say 2019 is shaping up to be a pretty good year already unless of course I get pissed at the weekend and fall down Dad dancing and bang my stupid head.
Who knew the Queen had bonsai?
Anyone want to stab a guess at what happened to Jack?
This long winded article concerns this interesting picture I took earlier in the week. Do bear with me 😉
Bearing in mind the incredible information resources we have at our disposal is it not ironic that the scourge of our day is stupidity? Sadly our beloved hobby of bonsai is not immune from this either. I know this because every day I am talking with well intentioned folk who are seeking to learn about cultivating bonsai trees but after a stint online are so baffled and confused they end up not quite sure which end of their little tree should actually go into the soil. I have quite literally had folk in tears after following bad information they have read on line resulting in expensive failures. At this point I would normally descend into some bad tempered rant but i’ll resist the temptation this time.
In the history of mankind we have never had so much information available to us. Just the tap of a few keys and we have the collective wisdom of the world flooding across our screens. Much of this information is good, most of it is well intentioned but almost none of it is put into specific context. It’s also rare to find good original information that is from a genuinely qualified source. A lot of information online is created by SEO (search engine optimisation) companies and this is often cobbled together from random articles that tick all the boxes for search engines but has little to do with actually cultivating bonsai trees. There is also a lot of information available from very enthusiastic amateurs who try to make up for a lack of experience by substituting it with enthusiasm. There are obviously a million other scenarios that ultimately lead the well intentioned but inexperienced person down a blind alley.
The big issue is that we do not know what we do not know. I remember all too well being an enthusiastic young fellow just getting into bonsai. That was back when I had a full head of hair and there was no internet. My only recourse was to the local library where I ordered every book they listed about bonsai trees. A lot of those books suffered the same fate as I outline above, well meaning information, often re-hashed by publishing companies and absolutely no context. However publishing companies would tend to seek out experienced practitioners to write their books in the first place so I would say, by and large, things were a little better back then. However, I felt like a guy with a broken down car, a box full of tools at my side, all the information on how to fix said car but I had no hands.
They say ‘information is power’ but that’s cobblers. We are drowning in information these days but anyone my age will be constantly aghast at the stupidity we see at every turn. Information is only useful if we know how to use it to get a particular job done. Information out of context is a dangerous thing when it’s acted upon without regard to the bigger picture. Sadly today folk want a quick fix. A couple of lines of text or a two minute video is the preferred antidote to all of our ills and angst. Sadly cultivating bonsai does not work like that. Trees move slowly and anything we do will mostly have consequences that are often not obvious until it’s too late. In order to communicate good quality information about bonsai, particularly to those of less experience it’s important that the information is put into context. In particular any information we pick up needs to be applicable to exactly what it is we are trying to achieve.
Anyone who has spent any time either on this blog, reading the information on our web site or with me in person will know I write long. I talk long too, there really are no short answers to the questions I get about bonsai because the cultivation of bonsai trees is an expansive subject that incorporates a whole world of influences. I have lost count of how many times I have been asked the seemingly simple question”how often should I water my bonsai”. If you have kept bonsai trees for any length of time you will be very aware of what a huge question that is. If you know me at all you will also know that my answer will be long. A garden centre will tell you to water every day. Simple, easy to understand and it gets you off their back but it’s also one of the primary reasons for the failure of most of the trees people buy to start their bonsai journey. I figure that if you know why you have to water (some folk don’t) and what watering achieves you will be set for life and bonsai tree failures will be few and far between for you. Sadly by the time I have given the abbreviated version of that particular discipline most folk have fallen asleep or forgotten why they called in the first place.
It’s really not my fault. We live in an almost inconceivably complex world and understand very little of what goes on around us (in spite of what some folk may say). At an existential level all things are connected and we really don’t get how that works at all. Science would like us to believe we are super smart and know what’s going on but look at the world in the cold light of day and try to convince me, with a straight face, that is actually the case. We’re stumbling around this world like a pissed up bull in the proverbial china shop and making just as much of a mess. I doubt, at an existential level, we could find our own arse with both hands and a sat-nav. So when it comes to bonsai we are at what might be called a disadvantage from the get-go.
Understanding the relationship between plants and their world is not something humans have really got to grips with yet. I feel that if we did we might be treating our planet with a little more respect. When cultivating bonsai we pluck those plants out of their natural eco-system of support and place them in the most stressful situation a plant can endure other than a fire maybe. Where trees are concerned they are programmed to be as big as their environment will allow. That means that standing right there on square one we have set our face against nature. Fortunately plants are infinitely adaptable and can overcome considerable adversity, just as well.
I have banged on endlessly about learning to ‘read’ trees. If we can read our plants we will be very well placed to understand what they need, see problems before they become serious and reduce the stress our plants are under in order for them to perform at their best. A happy healthy plant grows well and with a skilled hand to guide it becomes beautiful mature bonsai and stays that way long term. Happy tree happy owner right?
The problem is the signs a tree gives to us are not particularly significant and often hard to figure out. As an example yellowing of leaves could mean a lot of different things and as often as not it’s NOT just a nutrient deficiency which is normally the go to answer. I have been stupid enough to keep anything up to three thousand plants at a time over the last thirty years. Because I love what I do I have a quite unnatural ability to retain information about my trees, often going back decades and so, over those years, I have learnt how to interpret what plants are saying and act accordingly where required. For those with just a few pots and few years under their belt it’s hard to figure out. There really is no way to distill this into a compact form. How do you condense a lifetimes experience into a few pages?
Learning to read what plants are telling us is the ONLY thing we really need to know in order to be successful with bonsai. All the wiring, carving and styling is actually very simple to master with some concerted effort and practice. All of that good stuff is really only the groundwork upon which we build bonsai. Once the first styling of material is done the real work of creating bonsai can begin, it’s the start, not the end. As an example I live in a four hundred odd year old house. It’s a nice spot but the magic is not the old house some good-ol-boys threw up years ago, it’s the story of what has gone on in the house over all of those years. A good bonsai will always display the skill of the person that formed it in the first place but the real magic is in what the plant does in the decades afterwards and the plant will only conjure that magic if we give it what it needs to prosper.
Because there are SO many variables it really is impossible, even for a long winded gas-bag like me to lay out this subject in an easily digestible form. Learning to cultivate bonsai trees genuinely is the work of a life time and even that may not be enough. Even after all these years I am still learning about bonsai. In fact I would say I am learning at a faster rate than ever before simply because one thing leads to another. The secret to this, as with any other big task, is to break it down into small elements, pace ourselves and have a realistic expectation. You are not going to be a bonsai master in five years in fact you won’t be a bonsai master in ten years either. Some folk I have met didn’t become a bonsai master in forty years. As far as I am concerned the salient point is to be ready to never stop learning and NEVER be satisfied with what you are achieving. I have always said that on the day I know I have done my best work I will sell everything, buy a big leather sofa, spark up a massive cigar and watch the world go by. In the past I have done that with a lot of things I have been involved with, gone as far as I wanted and given up overnight. To date I feel bonsai is only just beginning to open up to me so I should be here for a while yet. Our only limit is in ourselves, come the day we say ‘i can’t‘ it’s all over. I have always said that if someone else can do something so can I. Perhaps I can’t be as good or carry something as far but being as good as we can is surely what we are here for. We only have ourselves to blame if we don’t achieve our goals.
Every time I step out into the garden there is something to learn. Outside is the home of plants and we are perfectly capable of experiencing what they do. Smell the air, look at the light, feel the wind and the temperature. Light, air and water are the magic ingredients that give us plants and understanding this relationship is key. There really are no quantum leaps to be made in the understanding of bonsai just small steady steps which build bit by bit. I figure that so long as I know one tiny thing more than I knew this morning i’m still on the right path.
I have no intention of summing up all the variables I consider important in the cultivation of bonsai trees. Nobody is going to read that. This week I was out watering and came across this good example of what I am talking about. The picture shows two examples of zelkova. Both cultivated in the same spot and treated the same of late. I would also guess, knowing something of the trees histories, that they are broadly of a similar age and level of development in regards to branching, ramification and foliage density. So what can we learn from this picture? What are these trees telling us? Why is one going to drop it’s leaves weeks before the other?
This is actually a really simple one to figure out if you look hard, all the tell-tale signs are there. Look at the leaves, the green tree has some brown tips from summer scorch whereas the other is perfect. The tree on the right is in a larger pot and so could be drying out less in the heat and this would be supported by the lush growth of moss on the soil surface. That would suggest the right hand tree has had a more consistent moisture level over summer that would lead us to believe it is in good health. The brown tipped scruffy leaves of the other tree suggest possible poor health, erratic growing conditions and a plant that has been suffering heat and drought induced stress.
Looking at the soil surface is always a valuable part of assessing the condition of a tree. Moss looks great with bonsai. In Japanese gardens moss is used to duplicate the tranquility of nature and, through meditation, take the viewer of the garden to a peaceful, serene place. Moss only grows in places that are left undisturbed for long periods so we know this tree has not been re-potted for a while whereas the tree on the left has no moss growth which tells us it was re-potted more recently. Watering both trees indeed confirms that because the tree on the left drains excess water almost instantly.
Watching the growth of these two trees over summer in conjunction with the above details fills in the blanks and determines what we will be doing with these two trees in the near future. The little green tree was in fact re-potted this spring having been in the same condition as the tree on the right last year. As a result this summer it has made close to a meter of summer growth allowing us to prune several times and dramatically increasing it’s ramification. Watering has been required two or three times a day. Conversely the tree on the right has only made small growth this summer, needed pruning once and it’s only needed watering once a day. So, why the difference in leaf colour?
For a more detailed explanation of leaf colour change see Bonsai Autumn Leaf Colour .
The colour of a leaf results from an interaction of different pigments produced by the plant. The main pigment classes responsible for leaf colour are porphyrins, carotenoids, and flavonoids. The primary porphyrin in leaves is a green pigment called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is produced in response to sunlight. As the seasons change and the amount of sunlight decreases, less chlorophyll is produced, and the leaves appear less green. Chlorophyll is broken down into simpler compounds at a constant rate, so green leaf colour will gradually fade as chlorophyll production slows or stops. Chemical interactions within the plant, particularly in response to acidity (pH) also affect the leaf colour.
Our beautiful looking tree with it’s dazzling display of colour weeks before it’s compadre is actually displaying the effects of stress induced by being pot bound. Autumn leaf colour can be affected by acidity and the root zone of pot bound bonsai tend towards the acidic. A pot bound bonsai tree has less air in it’s soil and this dramatically reduces it’s rate of respiration and root development and can even lead to anaerobic respiration. For more detailed explanation see Choosing Soil for Bonsai Trees.
Our pretty coloured tree is crying out for help. It’s becoming weak, another year in this condition and it will begin shedding branches and reducing it’s ramification in order to preserve itself in straitened circumstances. Our little green tree has suffered a surfeit of energy this year, like a kid on a sugar high it’s got more energy that it can use, not good when we are trying to ramify a delicately twigged zelkova. It won’t be re-potted next year and it’s growth rate will be better suited to the requirements of it’s future development. Once re-potted however our multi trunk tree will go off like a firework next summer and will grow like a weed. A year of that and it’s full vigour will be recovered and we can then progress with it’s development as bonsai. This is clearly a delicate balancing act and one that is very easy to get wrong.
In bonsai we have two primary growth cycles we use to develop our trees. In the first instance we need incredible strong irrepressible growth with big leaves and huge extension from a big vibrant root system. That’s how we produce a nice trunk and big fat primary branching. After that we need to slow the pace down whilst we develop secondary branching and ramification and settle our tree down into maturity. Over the years I have seen folk developing beautiful mature bonsai trees into raw material by not understanding how this cycle works and re-potting way too often. I have also seen beautiful mature bonsai allowed to descend into almost inconceivably poor condition or even death by not re-potting often enough.
As an example take a look at this large shimpaku juniper. We picked this up about eighteen months ago. The tree was originally purchased form a large well known bonsai nursery twenty five years ago and cost a good four figure sum. Good bonsai like this used to cost a great deal more than they do today. When I got the tree it looked considerably worse than it does today. I imagine that it was a very impressive piece back in the day. That’s what twenty five years of terminal ‘deaf ear’ and a reluctance to be sensitive and flexible does to bonsai. I just can’t bring myself to sling this out even though it’s going to take me ten years to restore the tree.
It’s important we learn to listen to our trees and do right by them. The result of ignoring the signs will be massive losses. I have lost count of the times I have been told of a tree “I have had it for years and it just died“. If that happened to you, truth be known you killed the tree through ignorance and an inability to learn and adapt. Dead trees are normally expensive either in terms of lost money or time. To an intelligent person losses are the price of an education and a great opportunity. To a dullard failure is reason to give up and do something else. Anyone who ever manned a display of bonsai will have heard the recurrent words “Oh! I had a bonsai once but it died“. Sometimes we have to put aside the things we know and be open minded to something new. Just because I read something in a book thirty years ago does not make it irrefutable fact. Having the ability to look at your bonsai tree as though you have never seen it before and understand what you see, free of preconceptions, is one of the most valuable skills any of us can master. Being honest with ourselves is another and that can hurt.
Lessons cost money, good ones cost lots.
A poster I saw years ago said “A wise old owl sat on an oak. The more he saw the less he spoke. The less he spoke the more he heard. Why aren’t we like that wise old bird.”
I say Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut and as we say in Norfolk “Keep yew a troshin”.
Most people my age are desperately trying to simplify their lives. Apparently everyone is really busy and leisure time is at a premium. Once the kids have finally left home for the last time us old gits only really have retirement to look forward to (not me, no pension) and so I am told we should offload as much as we can prior to getting the big E’. After all (again i am told) I can’t expect to do what I used to twenty years ago. You’ll not be surprised to know I say “Bollocks” to that.
Being ‘comfortable’ is not a natural condition for a human, striving, grafting and fighting for every inch is what we were designed to do. Looking to nature just consider plants, what happens once they stop growing and flower? They produce fruit and then quickly go to seed before withering away. That’s fine if you are a tomato plant but not if you are a father, husband or son (daughter etc’). The more pressure that’s applied to us and the more that’s expected of us the more we produce and the more ingenious we become in order to handle the loads put upon us. As far as I am concerned once I reach the point in life where I stop taking on and doing more, call time and say ‘enough’ it’s just a matter of time before I go to seed and become compost myself.
The last few years I have been working harder at everything I do than ever before. I might not be doing so many hours as I did in my twenties but like my old boss used to tell me ‘It’s not the hours you put in but what you put into your hours’. On the outside it might not appear much is going on but since I started Kaizen Bonsai in 2014 our turnover has increased something like fourteen times over. Thats going on 1200% more than what Bonsai Mart was doing when we took it over. We still only have four permanent members of staff but I am told it’s impossible to turn over the figure we do per head. I am a stubborn cantankerous old sod and being told I can’t do something is like the proverbial ‘red rag’. Just imagine what I was like as a kid!
I really don’t want a medal, a pat on the head or even thanks but I could seriously do with some help. Part of getting older is realising that some folk are better at some things than we are. I’m crap at accounts and even worse at anything ‘tech’ so I let some very good people take care of that for me.
Of late I have been complicating my life by expanding our business into some new areas as well as increasing the range and scope of what we have now done for years. One thing I have done is bought up every bonsai tree and bit of bent stick-n-leaves I can find. As a result I have a few plants I am at a loss to identify. I know there are a lot of folk who like to read the old cobblers I write and than many of those good people are very knowledgeable about bonsai and the plants we cultivate. In the past I have been put right more than a few times by my readers and customers. I am always open to learning something new and as such love to get unusual and unknown plants onto the nursery so I can learn about them.
So here’s a little bonsai quiz. What on earth are these?
So, all sorted now. Sincere thanks for those of you who put me straight.
Plant No1. Hibiscus rosa-sinensis. Known colloquially as Chinese hibiscus, China rose, Hawaiian hibiscus, rose mallow and shoeblack plant.
Plant No2. Acacia arabica of the family: Leguminosae. It is estimated that there are roughly 1380 species of Acacia worldwide so this ID is likely a bit vague.
Plant N03. Calliandra brevipes. Pink Powderpuff is an attractive shrub with finely divided leaves and clusters of red powder-puff flowers. It is native to southeastern Brazil, Uruguay, and northern Argentina.