Fictional characters are renowned for saying the wisest things. If it were possible to rehearse life we would all be clever bastards, wouldn’t we? Anyone know who said “The world don’t run on love” ?*
Forrest Gump’s Mama said “Life was like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”
My Dad said “Life is like a bank account. You only get out what you put in”
Over the years I have lived my life under the umbrella of this last pearl of wisdom. All told it’s paid off but f**k it’s hard work. The amount of effort you have to put in to get something worthwhile in return is massive. People don’t like that idea nowadays but I was raised by the generation that went through the war and they were significantly more grateful for small mercies than folk today.
Bonsai is a perfect example. The effort, time and skill we have to expend in order to see a moment of ordered perfection is simply massive. Even with good support and help it’s likely to be ten years before we realistically know which end goes in the soil. Thankfully bonsai is about the process not the end result so, by and large, we all stick to it.
Take this scruffy pine as a good example. It’s been cluttering up my benches for a while now. In the past someone had a go at styling it but that obviously never took, a classic example of working too soon. My only choice was to spend a rainy Sunday investing my time and a roll of wire in making it worth something.
Dad was right…… 🙂
Anyone who stops by here regularly will know I don’t consider myself an ‘artist’. That’s all too pretentious for a working class and comprehensive school educated (partly) boy from Norfolk. I just suffer from an over-active imagination and an obsessive dedication to minutiae.
At this time of year I get a chance to begin styling work on a few of my literal mountain of tree stock. Few folk have the courage to buy raw material, something I have written about at great length in some of my older posts here. Therefore I have to spend a lot of the off-season making scruffy bushes look like bonsai trees.
Last week I had a unique challenge. Back in 2017, at the end of a particularly long rant, I gave credit to my mentor Kevin Willson for a couple of scots pines he had worked for me.
One of those sold very quickly (obviously). The other is still sitting here. Somewhere along the line I did repot it but other than that we just let it do it’s thing. It’s been so long now I can’t even remember where I got this. I am pretty sure it’s from Norway or Sweden but more than that escapes me. So first job this autumn was to make another step forward.
I have never been a fan of extreme work in bonsai. If you are working a crappy skip rat I could care less. However where yamadori is concerned I believe in respecting the vital principle. What exactly is the point of obtaining an old wild tree only to remove all it’s unique and special character in order to make it look like a well grown Japanese nursery tree? Most of the yamadori I see worked has lost all it’s sparkle and magic. The resulting bonsai often look sad and oppressed. It takes a true artist, in this case, KW to respect a trees ‘soul’ and retain that after styling.
As I said at the top I am no artist but in Norfolk parlance I “Plough me own furra (furrow)”. So in respect of my mentor and this, lets be honest, average, scots pine I felt there was little choice other than restoring what Kevin had done. This really is a simple little tree but what Kevin did was impressive.
I was never very good at doing what I was told, going to school was purgatory. In the end I just stopped going to my lessons except woodwork. I had a good system 😉 So moving this tree forward was going to be difficult. In the end I accepted the restriction, printed off a picture, pinned that to the wall and did my best to stick to the plan.
This little tree has obviously grow a lot since it’s first work and so I had a lot to work with. I didn’t have to cut off a single shoot and only minor re-positioning of the primary branches were required. So, now it’s finished I am glad I chose not to ‘freestyle’ and accepted the restriction of my mentor. I learned a lot doing this and was reminded of a great deal more. There really is no substitute for work but do think it through before you start cutting.
For decades now I have been telling folk they need to learn to read their trees. A great deal of the problems folk experience with cultivating bonsai are related to erroneous half truths they have read or picked up from well meaning but inexperienced individuals. Many of those ideas may be sound in themselves but knowing when to apply them is the issue. The internet has made this situation pretty much critical but many books and some magazines are just as culpable. Added to the fact many of us today are raised without hands on experience of gardening and keeping plants, it’s not hard to see why so many of us struggle with bonsai, particularly in the early days.
Our obsession with celebrities and social media where anyone can publish pretty much anything and the fact that, by and large, nobody fact checks what they read online and we have a potential but serious pitfall for the unwary, ignorant and terminally lazy. There are a lot of minimally experienced folk out there beavering away at ‘influencing’ us. Get enough followers and it seems most folk will just accept what’s being said as if it were gospel truth. There are a lot of self proclaimed messiahs out there but the fact that something or someone is popular does not make it, or them, right.
I am old school, i even went to an old school, I learned my trade the old school way and have learned bonsai that way too. I subscribe to the notion that we learn by doing, by practical experience and hands on practice. By far the best way to start anything new is to get alongside a more experienced fellow. That used to be called an apprenticeship and it imparts life long learning. I have always spent my time with folk who are where I wanted to be. I figured out a long time ago that spending my time with folk who were where I was would leave me right there. It may have been comfortable but it was never going to help me out. I got to spend time with some of the best bonsai artists working, often it was intimidating, particularly in the early days but it was worth the discomfort to progress my experience.
Over the years I have had my content plagiarised and blatantly copied. My videos have been ripped off and some folk didn’t even bother to change the soundtrack they just put their name on them and claimed it was their work. That’s simply incredible since there really is only one person around that looks like me and I know him well. I have had these lazy scumbags take credit for my trees, use my pictures to promote stuff they are selling. They have associated my name with their products and trees in order to try and get a better price or give them credibility. I even had one shit-bag who was advertising my trees for sale on Ebay. People will do literally ANYTHING in order to gain fame these days but of course they do it at arms length, keyboard warriors. Nobody has ever done these things within my reach, there is violence in my past and there could be in my future given the right circumstances. Beware the quiet ones, we are watching!
Having got that off my chest lets get back to the subject at hand. I have written recently about turning off, shutting up and listening. What we need to listen to is not what the great Marco Invenizzi once called the NET BONSAI WANKER but the quietest voice of all, our trees. As humans we think the best and most efficient way to communicate is words, that’s simply not true. Anyone who follows politics will know words can easily say one thing and mean another. Words have literally infinite capacity for being misunderstood and abused. Dogs communicate much more efficiently than we do and there is never a misunderstanding between our hairy friends. Similarly trees can communicate perfectly with us if only we could shut up, look and listen.
Trees respond to their environment and if it is us who control that environment we ABSOLUTELY must understand what’s going on if we want to be successful. I have literally lost count of the number of times I have heard folk say to me about their tree “It was fine for years and then it just died”. In that case, ninety percent of the time, somebody has been ignoring the signs and has actually been killing their tree slowly over a very long time.
If there is a golden rule for success in bonsai it’s the old gardening adage, “Right plant, right place “. Really simple, except, the bonsai community works very hard at overcomplicating everything. My advice? For every variety in your garden, look up the species, find out about it’s natural range and the conditions in which it grows. Knowing that will tell you what you need to do to make it a happy camper. Personally I would entirely ignore bonsai related information sources, stick with the horticultural and plant experts and commercial growers.
Sadly I can’t teach this intuitive aspect of bonsai remotely. I remember several happy occasions walking around my garden with consummate expert David Prescott. I was simply flabbergasted at what he could tell about a plant simply by walking past it. Sadly it has taken me fifteen years to catch up but at least I got there in the end. Life is all about the details, there are NO big things just details, ignore these at your peril.
The Tale of Two Maples.
I say all that, in my long winded way, as a preface to todays lesson. The best I can do to try and pass on how this works is to present an example so, here goes. Here are two pictures. The trees are identical species, Japanese produced Acer palmatum’Deshojo’. These were photographed on the same day in late September, both have been on the nursery here in Norfolk (U.K) for at least a couple of years. So, what do these images tell us? What can we extrapolate from what we can see?
First up the smaller tree in the bonsai pot. For the time of year there is no way this should be largely without leaf, it’s not unknown in our micro-climate to have leaves on maples at the end of November. Notice the leaves are fairly large and the petioles are long. We can also see the tree has made at least an inch or two of new extension growth all over. This tells me the tree is not intrinsically weak or unhealthy therefore we can deduce (sounding like Sherlock here) the issues with this tree are largely, but not entirely, environmental.
What you can’t see is that the tree is not extensively well rooted simply because a lot of the soil is very loose. This tells me that before I got this tree it had spent a good amount of time in a larger pot before someone re-potted it with extensive root removal into a bonsai pot that is too small and a soil mix that is too coarse and then, adding insult to injury, the tree has been heavily pruned in all the wrong ways.
Over winter trees store a huge amount of energy in their trunks for springtime. After the poorly completed work detailed above this tree has burst into spring growth only to discover it’s roots have disappeared and it can’t support the amount of foliage and new growth. It’s much like folk who spend too much borrowed money before something changes and they find themselves with their bare asses out in the breeze. Drastic action has to be taken before we lose our ass altogether.
Look at the new growth on the tree, look how thin it is with long internodes. Our tree thought it had plenty of cash in the bank but very quickly discovered it had been robbed. After the initial spring flush the tree bravely struggled on all summer but could not manage a second flush. Therefore the leaves are, by the end of September, six months old. It’s been a rough summer here with very high temperatures and vicious drying winds. The weather has taken it’s toll and at this time the tree is not strong enough to fight back and has shut down early.
For sure a better gardener than me (with 3000 plants at this time) would have given this a little more TLC and helped it out a bit. I like to think I grow tough trees, no place for slackers on my benches! I have kept it in the sun, but the pot in the shade to keep it from cooking the roots in direct sun. Keeping it warm and sunny meant the pot dried out regularly which meant I could water twice a day. Passing water through the root system supplies oxygen and ensures fast root development. Absolutely no pruning, every leaf was needed to supply energy to help restore the trees equilibrium. A very limited amount of fertiliser was used.
Soon I will move this back to a terracotta nursery pot without disturbing the roots. This is a classic example of how a bonsai pot is only suitable for bonsai trees, which this is not. Moving this immature tree into a bonsai pot too early and in all the wrong ways has set it back about five years. That’s how long I estimate it will take to restore this tree and re-balance it’s equilibrium. It will also take that long to rebuild it’s ramification which no doubt it once had. At that time a skilled individual will be able to return it to a bonsai pot without rocking it’s world in all the wrong ways.
This long suffering maple is a text book example of ignorance, incompetence and impatience. The calamitous three I’s of the bonsai apocalypse. The fastest way to get to where we want in the development of a bonsai tree is to take our time. Sadly a great deal of the work done on bonsai today pretty much guarantees they will never become the bonsai we hope.
So what about the second example, a larger tree in a terracotta nursery pot? This arrived in a worse state than the little tree, about five or six years ago. It was, again, in a tiny pot but this time had been ignored for years, not re-potted and barely even watered and was, I judged at the time, just a few months from complete collapse and death. Obviously that’s not the case today and rebuilding of the tree is well underway. So, what does the picture tell us?
Most obviously the leaves are a beautiful green colour and are nearly perfect, well formed and of even size. At a glance the tree has a well groomed appearance without shaggy growth. However there are a few scorched examples here and there. That lower branch has obviously been grown out for a reason and look how evenly thick it is with evenly spaced internodes. It’s hard to see in the pictures but there are some light brown lines running along the trunk. Also the soil looks good, A largely even colour, no green algae or weeds and the pot is much the same, algae on the outside of terracotta indicates a constantly wet soil. I am having to water at least once and sometimes twice a day. So what can we tell from those observations?
Deshojo maple flushes bright red leaves in spring. By mid-summer they tend to take on a rather odd green/purple colour. In the UK and my nursery in particular leaf tips will be scorched by drying summer winds. The leaves on this tree are fully mature, the red spring colour has long gone but why the green colour? That’s the effect of a shaded position, maple leaves that are exposed to direct sun often take on some colour, in the case of deshojo this tends toward dark green and purple.
Notice those badly scorched leaves on the downward pointing branch? That tells us all we need to know. Those are old spring growth that were left after defoliation in summer. Why else would they be scorched when the top is perfect, sun comes from above right? Bright green even sized leaves, all identical and very late in the year show this tree was defoliated in summer, the lower leaves were left at the time because the branch to which they were attached was weak and, at the time, they were in good condition even though senescence has set in now..
So what background do I know? This got left in our poly-tunnel having been put in there over winter to protect it’s now vibrant root system from excess wet. By the time I got around to moving things about in spring it was already in leaf and so I could not put it outside as the risk of frost had not passed. Therefore I had to leave it where it was. It grew incredibly, that long branch made over three feet and carried more leaf than the rest of the tree put together. However by mid-summer we were experiencing temperatures up to fifty five Celsius in the greenhouse. Even damping down three times a day was not going to keep this looking good. At the end of July the leaves were almost entirely fried, brown and crispy, except for that lower branch that was a little shaded. So, rather than lose the rest of the growing season I removed all of the leaves and shortened the current seasons growth and performed some structural pruning.
Two weeks later the tree flushed with new red leaves and made extension everywhere, just like a second spring. Because temperatures were falling and day length had begun to shorten I left the tree in the tunnel. Once the new flush of growth made three to five leaves I shortened it back to one pair. Defoliating is about improving ramification which in turn will produce smaller leaves but, beyond that it can, as in this case, allow us to extend the growing season. This was sold just last week but left where it was it would still be photosynthesizing into November. That gives us a long season (for the U.K) and ensures a vibrant, strong, healthy and FAST developing tree next summer.
This tree has been going backwards for years. Of late it’s lot in life has begun to improve. It’s strength has returned and it’s facing a bright future in the right hands. The old grey bark has begun to show light brown vertical cracks. This shows us the trunk and primary branch structure has begun to swell as the tree lays down thick new sap wood. Each year this allows increasing amounts of sap to flow which increases the growth rate and hastens the trees development as bonsai, so long as we do our bit in that equation properly.
The rebuilding of this old tree has JUST begun after five years of basically doing nothing other than allowing the tree to build a new root system and, step by step, gain vigour. That has now reached an insanely high level and finally this tree can be restored and we have something to work with. Much like whack-a-mole, every time I cut this tree it just bounces right back at me. That means I can be constantly intervening and the trees response ensures every step makes an improvement. Basically what has happened is we have taken an old somewhat mature but dying bonsai tree and turned it into raw material again. Had I caught the tree earlier that might not have been entirely necessary but in this extreme case the best approach was to begin the cycle all over again.
Absolutely every time we touch our trees it HAS to be for the tree’s benefit. If your intervention is because you want the tree to look good, say for a show or to impress a visitor you put your own needs before that of your tree. That is the top of a steep slippery slope, trust me I have been down it. Before you go getting busy be sure what you intend to do will be to the benefit of your trees in the long run and not just a quick lick of paint and a cover up job. If you are not sure what to do, do nothing, watch, wait, mull it over and think deeply about how you got to this point with your tree and where your TREE needs to go. Everything you need to know is written right there in front of you, just look!
It’s been a long time since I passed a significant watershed in my bonsai journey. I have now been studying and practicing bonsai for more of my life than not. That might not be significant for some who started young but I was not a spotty kid.
Years ago somebody came and asked me how long I had been doing bonsai, about fifteen years was my reply. He then asked if he could expect to be as good as me (that’s a matter of opinion of course) once he reached that particular milestone. My reply was almost certainly not. I don’t think my answer was the anticipated one. As my last boss always said “It’s not the hours you put in but what you put in your hours”.
I was very lucky that when I started bonsai there was no internet. All I had was a few library books, two eyes, two hands and a big nose. With the exception of a few basics like wiring, everything I have learned about bonsai was learned from the trees I have owned. Anyone who knows me will be aware I consider myself to be a gardener first and foremost and I am proud to continue on this noble profession that has largely been forgotten in modern Britain in favour of ‘gardening’ which is something all-together different nowadays.
All of my earliest memories revolve around gardening, in part thanks to my grandparents who always worked hard at growing next years dinner. My mum’s parents had a large guest house in Great Yarmouth in the late fifties and sixties and they had a market garden in which they grew the produce for the family and guests, a far cry from today. My nan grew the food she cooked and served to her guests. My other grandfather grew his own vegetables for most of his ninety six years.
During the summer I would often stay with my mothers mother and we were always outside pulling weeds, planting, pruning and watering. She would take up handfuls of soil and hold it to her nose, smelling it’s earthly aroma and the look of joy that crossed her face has inspired me for life. She would pluck a leaf, crush it and again hold it to her nose. Flowers, fruit, foliage in fact everything in the garden has a tale to tell. In a garden the least important sense we have is sight. Sadly in this day of screens that fact has been entirely lost. Even today I get more from my bonsai at night in the dark than I ever do during the day.
My own parents always encouraged me to ‘try harder’ and ‘do better next time’. A noble idea but as an insecure and uncertain boy I always considered what I did was not good enough, I felt a continual failure. In life that has driven me hard. The reason I told the guy he would probably not reach my level of understanding after a given time was the fact I knew he simply would not put in the hours, he did not have the perfectionist gene. He also lacked the enquiring mindset and the courage to do what it would take. Besides if he possessed those characteristics he would not need to ask me for help.
For twenty years I worked eight hours a day in my job and i did nine hours a day bonsai work, seven days a week, EVERY single day. I have not been on holiday for twenty seven years and I did not own a television until I was over forty five years old. I have not missed more than thirty days work since I was thirteen years old. I love what I do and I will NOT let anything get in my way and, in my opinion, that is THE only way to learn something.
Looking at my bonsai I am infinitely critical, nothing I have ever done measured up to the standard I set myself. I have always said the day I do my best work, and know it, will be the day I walk away because there will be no more challenge. When it’s dark my bonsai are beautiful because there is no evidence of my inept fumbling. In the dark they are just small trees that share the majesty of their wild origins.
Trees give us life, they were here before us and they will be here after us when they will absorb our nutrients in order to cover over the fact we were ever here. The more evil and self serving a society becomes the more trees suffer and are destroyed, how many people cut down a tree because it ‘blocked their light’. In the old testament, invading armies would ‘lay waste’ to a land by destroying all it’s trees. A land without trees is tragic, hopeless and desolate. Whilst everyone seems to agree cutting down the rain forest is bad most seem quite happy to lay waste to their own gardens. Bonsai at least opens up our hearts to develop a love of trees even though a lot of folk do seem to kill a lot of them. In the long run there really is no hope for us is there?
Saying that reminds me of Mr Doubleday. He was the person that I first met in the bonsai world that inspired me to take up my life’s work. A third generation nurseryman who produced roses from his little nursery on Walnut Hill. He lived in a caravan without electricity, wore tweed and hobnail boots and had hands like ancient gnarled branches. His father had seen bonsai in the far east during the war and decades lated Mr D was still practicing the art. I remember he shared with me the utter joy and magic he experienced walking amongst his trees at night with his old paraffin storm lantern. A flickering flame is a much better light to view bonsai than the latest 4k UHD screen, the smell is better too. I have hundreds of paper photographs of my early attempts at bonsai taken by the flickering light of a candle or lamp. These were often taken in the quiet wee small hours of a freezing cold night in winter. All very emotive stuff that fuelled my imagination and passion.
Thirty years have passed since and it’s just not so easy to stay up until it gets light, splash some water on my face and go do a days work. The flip side is I am a little more skilled than I was and so I can do things faster with better outcomes than I did once upon a time. However I am still the student and not the master. It reminds me of the parable that Jesus told about the man that took a high seat at a feast and was asked, much to his embarrassment, to move to a lower place by the host in favour of a more important man. Yet another man that took a low seat was asked to take a higher seat more suited to his position. My mentor always said that the term ‘Bonsai Master’ is an acknowledgement bestowed upon us by others who respect and understand our work and not a moniker we apply to ourselves. Ultimately the only stars of the bonsai world are the trees themselves I see no room for celebrities in what we do.
Another story I heard was about a wealthy man proudly showing his friends around his impressive koi pond and boasting about the quality and value of his beautiful fish. The fish looked out and a new arrival said “Who is that up there”. The other fish replied “Oh that’s just the guy who cleans out the toilets”.
When I sat down here I intended writing an article about defoliation and maples but that has got away from me now and I will have to save that for another day. I have been reminded of the power of silence in bonsai. Sadly the world has become a cacophony of noise and we are losing our very souls in the clamour. Time to slow it down, shut up, turn off and go back to our origins. When was the last time you went out to smell the soil that made you and your bonsai trees?
Thanks to everyone who sponsored me. Our local group has raised around £18,000 and worldwide the Distinguished Gentlemans Ride is closing in on $6 million raised.
Okay Peeps. It’s that time of year again when I make an appeal for your money. Not for me of course, I earn every penny I have, but I need your money for a very good cause.
Once again this Sunday I will be joining The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride. I feel this event is important in raising awareness of issues that affect all of us men. The point is to raise money to help men that really need it so PLEASE go to my fund raising page and sponsor me dressing up like a twat and enduring a 200 mile trip on a bike designed in the 1930s, this year the Harley flathead will be my distinguished ride. Come on peeps put your hands in your pocket for this great cause.
Bonsai is largely populated by men, with a few notable exceptions, and I am proud to be numbered among those proud fellows. But, having been through the mill a few times in my life I am acutely aware we should never be too proud to ask for help if we need it no matter how hard that might be. I have had great help and support from the bonsai community over the years and I know what a great bunch of characters we all are. Now is the time to pay some of our good fortune back and help somebody in need. PLEASE follow this LINK and donate whatever you can afford. You can copy and paste this into your browser too https://www.gentlemansride.com/rider/GrahamPotter148253
Here in Dear Old Blighty we are in the midst of change on a scale not seen since WW2. In general we people hate change, it represents uncertainty and is a harbinger of things unknown. I have reached an age now that I have learned, without doubt, that only one thing in life is certain and that certainty is CHANGE. There really in no point in resisting change. History is littered with the remains of those who stood resolutely in the path of progress.
Having reached the venerable age I have, another thing I know is that not all change is good. As a species we are not talented at doing what is good for us. We have vengeance, destruction and death in our hearts and all it takes is the right set of circumstances for us to unleash our hatred and mayhem on the world. Granted, most of us would not unleash a cataclysm upon the world like the Nazi hordes. However when your neighbour has been running a chainsaw or angle grinder for days on end who wouldn’t want to go punch him in the ear? All I can say is thank God for good parents who instilled in most of us a sense of right and wrong.
So change is inevitable and many times it comes uninvited and takes us in directions we never planned. That’s exactly how I got here. I never intended to do what I do today. Thirty years ago I found myself too broke to continue with my pursuit of custom cars and fast motorbikes. By an unrelated series of events I ended up staring at a bonsai tree and over time I fell under the spell of it’s magic. The mix of horticulture and mechanics with a little imagination thrown in really did appeal to me.
Being potless I was limited in what I could achieve. That as it turns out was a good thing. I have always lived my life by the directive “Use what you’ve got to get what you want” I didn’t have any good trees back then but I had a lot of skip rats and stumps. After I had done enough of them they opened up the world to me and ultimately got me those valuable assets that had alluded me for so long.
Fast forward thirty years and things have changed. The fly in the ointment is that I now have no time to do the very thing that bought me here in the first place. We are about to employ our fifth member of staff and running a business like that, here in Blighty, is no mean feat. Every single year we have been in business our turnover (and corresponding workload) has increased, even through the recession of 2008/9. Today we do more in two weeks than Bonsai Mart did in a year. Today, if I am doing bonsai, it’s for the business and for our lovely customers. I have a world class scots pine sitting on my bench, it’s been there for twelve years now and apart from keeping it healthy I have never worked it. That makes me very sad.
This all became apparent to me late last week. I was watering, as I do a lot, and noticed a large pot full of weeds in the front yard. There was a bunch of deadwood and some juniper foliage sticking out of it. Upon closer inspection i remembered it was a very special yamadori sabina I bought at the end of last year. I felt bad and it seemed like a good idea to at least pull it out, remove the weeds and preserve the deadwood before winter.
Once out and on the trolley I remembered just how good this juniper was and I felt like a bit of a shit-head for having treated it so. Once in the workshop and free of weeds I was thrilled to see just how good this really was. I cleaned it up a bit and having brushed up the deadwood, gave it a good soak with Lime Sulphur.
This beautiful tree has a long way to go, it’s very early days. Thankfully my appreciation of good yamadori does not depend upon it being styled as bonsai. These days I get as much enjoyment out of having my garden littered with these venerable old trees as I do show quality bonsai. The long and the short of what I do is that I LOVE trees (unlike my neighbour with the chainsaw and the swollen earhole). I may never even get this tree styled but that in no way detracts from my appreciation of it. I’m going back out to the weed patch again to see what else I can uncover….
I am a simple fellow. Born into simpler times, the 1960’s, I have spent my life among simple working class folk who live simple lives. None of my compadre’s ever went to university and most of us couldn’t spell ‘semantics’ never mind explain it’s meaning. A clodhopper may be a derisive term for us uneducated country dwelling simple folk but we are, by and large, happy and content in our own little world and are rarely troubled by the machinations of the wider world. The internet and the media do their best to burst our contented peaceful bubble but, simple as we may be, we do know where the off button is. The fact that the electricity goes off after 10pm out here in the country helps too.
I can’t really remember what it was that drew me into the world of bonsai. I was keeping trees in pots long before I even knew what a bonsai tree was. Back when I was a toddler I was always trying to grow trees from seed, with little success. Most people trying to grow from seed are still enjoying the same experience by all accounts. At every opportunity I was putting conkers into pots of mud, planting date seeds, peach stones, apple pips, pine cone seeds etc’. The only real success I had was growing carrot tops and cress but I guess ‘the seed was sown’ so to speak. As an aside I have grown a couple of bonsai from seed, it’s taken for ever and the trees are crap so unless you are young and have very high levels of skill and insight I would suggest not bothering.
It came as something of a revelation to me that the best route to creating bonsai is to start with something large and make it smaller. I have infinite respect for those who go the seed or cutting route but in most respects it’s not for me. The issue is even if you can recognise that gnarly old stump in the back of your garden has bonsai potential, actually realising that potential has a knack of evading most people in the hobby. Assuming we can get the old clunker dug out and keep it alive the road to becoming a bonsai tree is a long one fraught with pitfalls, blind alleys and often literally a dead end. The whole issue has become much more difficult since the internet invaded our lives and bought an endless torrent of absurd hogwash through which we have to wade looking for nuggets of truth. I have to deal with the results of all this on a daily basis. The ignorance out there is simply beyond comprehension.
I am not anti-internet, far from it, it’s how I make my living and spend my spare time sitting writing this ol’ twaddle. However it frustrates me that ‘information overload’ is killing our hobby. As we take our first baby steps we have absolutely no way to discern the difference between what is right, what’s wrong and what is truly bonkers. The internet has created the possibility that any one of us can become a legend in our own lunch time. Becoming a celebrity has it’s attractions for many people, after all we all want to be loved.
Being a big fish in a small pond has always had it’s subscribers, once upon a time every bonsai club had one. I have written before about all this and how, back in the day, the only folk that really got a voice possessed some skill as a book publisher could recognise the difference between an artisan and a gob-shite. Today anyone who can use a keyboard has a voice and there are a lot of folk out there hungry for good advice. Sadly nowadays nobody needs to demonstrate their skill in order to publish their opinions and for the inexperienced this is creating a real and exasperating problem.
Part of the issue i have with ‘celebrity‘ is that we become conditioned to thinking that we can’t do this or that thing because we are not ‘gifted‘ or especially endowed with whatever it is we think we need. This brings me to the term ‘artist’. Today it’s very fashionable to be an artist, it implies we are special or privy to some esoteric philosophical wonderment that has evaded the mere mortal. The Oxford dictionary gives the following definition of the term.
- A person who creates paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby.
- 1.1 A person who practises or performs any of the creative arts, such as a sculptor, film-maker, actor, or dancer.
- 1.2 A person skilled at a particular task or occupation.
Obviously in this context we are concerning ourselves with point number 1.2. The art of bonsai is in the continual practice and application of simple techniques over many decades.
It appears to me that many folk have become concerned with being, or not as the case may be, an artist. The assumption being that if we are not artistic we cannot produce bonsai. Seeing as consummate artists in any field are few and far between this, perhaps gives us an excuse. For sure there are significantly skilled artists in bonsai, some folk appear to have infinite imagination which allows them to create above and beyond what most of us see. A sprinkling of fairy dust can truly bring magic to the endeavour. However I have long been of the opinion that art sits on top of a foundation of hard work. Whilst we may not be able to reach the elevated heights of the most talented bonsai artists I believe all of us can produce very impressive work with dedicated practice and the achievement of sufficient miserable failure.
The first step to mastering the art of bonsai is to become a gardener. You can be the most creative person on earth but if your bonsai tree is dead the world will consider you to be a dickhead. I have always considered myself a gardener first and foremost. Sadly todays lifestyle has removed a huge number of people from contact with horticulture. Lucky for me ALL of my early memories revolve around gardening. My grandparents took a guest house in Gt Yarmouth back in the 1950’s and they had a market garden on the outskirts of town where they raised produce for their kitchen. My parents were always keen gardeners and I had my own veg’ plot before I could even spell the word vegetables.
When I got into bonsai thirty years ago the horticulture of the whole affair was just second nature to me. Not to say I didn’t have failures because I did but most of those were me being led astray by what I was reading. I also had to discover the boundaries and limitations plants impose upon us. After all these years I believe we need to worry a lot less about being an artist and focus on being gardeners, that will produce some impressive results all on it’s own. I have seen a lot of ill fated artistic endeavours and attempts at creativity. However good horticulture is ALWAYS impressive and is never derided or open to the criticism of ignorant opinion.
It might be stating the obvious but bonsai need to grow. It matters little wether we have old mature Japanese bonsai or the aforementioned gnarly old stump. Growth is essential in all stages of bonsai. Our raw material will NEVER become bonsai without growth no matter how skilled we are with wiring and carving. Case in point is this sabina juniper. I bought this in 2015 and could immediately see it was going to be a good one. I guess that’s the artist in me, being able to recognise the inherent potential in a tree comes partly from decades of practice and partly from a fertile imagination. The trouble I often have is in convincing other people of the value of a particular plant. Sometimes all that is required is to quell the clamour of modern life, clear our minds and listen intently in order to see the magic. Distraction may be our worst enemy.
Keeping photographs of our trees is always valuable and their development is normally much more significant than we realise. That’s entirely the case here. I did in fact sell (or swap) the tree and it went to live with a good friend of ours for a couple of years. In that time the tree was potted and pruned correctly and towards the end of last year it came back to me in part exchange. By that time the tree had grown a lot in all the right places and seeing as nobody expressed an interest in taking the tree away I felt compelled to do a rough wire job. Fast forward to yesterday evening and have moved the tree from it’s oversize bonsai pot into something more appropriate for this stage in it’s development.
Nothing significantly creative has happened with this tree. All that was required was to allow the tree to present it’s inherent natural beauty to the world. The only magic here is that of nature. No carving tools and just a few feet of wire and some regular pruning. There is, as always with bonsai, a long way to go but regular disciplined and informed horticulture and simple bonsai technique is all that is required. So, is this bonsai art? Or, is the art of bonsai good horticulture?
I know very well that most folk have a great deal of difficulty in bonsai when it comes to sorting out the way forward for their raw material. A few people are seemingly blessed with a sixth sense when it comes to such issues. I have no answer for this but I do know that it’s often an excuse for inactivity. I have lost count of how many times I have heard something along the lines of, ‘Oh I could never do that, i’m no artist’. My retort would normally be a forthright “When was the last time you tried?” Way back in the beginning of my bonsai career I literally binned no end of piss poorly designed and badly executed examples of my fumbling bonsai attempts. I’m just too stubborn to give up and after about thirty years I started to get the hang of it. A wiser man than I has said you learn more in life from your failures that you do your successes. I am aware of the esteem within which some folk hold my skills, what does that tell you?
Perhaps my greatest asset in the early days was my impressive lack of funds. I had a lot of dreams but I didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. Therefore my bonsai dreams were built upon skip rats, shit I was given and stuff I got from the tip by hanging around the green waste bin. That’s some ugly stuff so I had nothing to loose by letting my imagination and power tools run riot. To this day I still get excited when I see green sticking out of a skip. I am still a sucker for a bargain as I suppose most of us are. However in my experience opportunity usually presents itself wearing overalls.
Being late summer it’s a good time to be messing with the roots of sabina juniper. Therefore I could not put this off any longer, I had to sort this mess out today. I bought this in Spain earlier in the year, only collected a year ago, it was a good price, I suppose nobody wanted to sort it out. Time to roll up those sleeves….
I left this out by the front gate and everyone who came here over the last few months walked right by it. Insane trees tend to have that effect. First thing to note is that there appear to be two junipers in here. I am happy with the growth rate considering it’s early days so time to jump in.
Once out of the pot the first thing to notice is just how much root there is considering the tree has probably not been in this massive pot for even twelve months. Secondly there are fresh new white root ends. This shown me the tree is actively making root and so my timing is good. If a tree is actively making root, after our intervention it’s just going to continue.
Next, from this angle it’s easy to see we have two trunks. Sadly these don’t go well together so this will need to be separated into two pieces. Thankfully juniper root wherever they touch the soil so roots should be no problem. An hour picking through masses of roots revealed a powerful Y shaped trunk with each arm forming a separate trunk. This was easily split along it’s length producing two root masses. Both parts of the tree were roughly potted up into an akadama, pumice, bark mix. These will be put in a shady part of the warm greenhouse for a couple of weeks before going outside in the full sun for a couple of years. Sometimes you have to roll the dice and just part with the cash whilst trusting your instincts. I have a feeling that in this case my gamble may well pay off which will make a change 😉
A lot of people tell me they like my regular rantings posted here. I like to keep them related to bonsai but this time not. I got very angry recently and as I am weird I just sat down and typed. I guess that’s better than going out and breaking heads. So here’s my cathartic diatribe for those with time on their hands.
Over the years a lot of life has passed me by largely unnoticed. I started life after leaving school on the back foot, largely because I was a prat, not because I had bad parents or anything like that. I just did’t understand how the world worked or how I could ‘work’ the world. Being largely overwhelmed I just got on my motorcycle are rode off into the distance every time I came upon something I couldn’t handle. That went on until I was about nineteen years old when I literally fell into a job by accident. I was raised to be polite, respectful and a hard worker and that got me down the road, but only so far. I have never been a people person, preferring the company of a bike or a bonsai tree. Everything to do with people gets complicated and even today I can’t cope because I simply do not understand and cannot read people and find social situations excruciating. A mail order business was always my dream job and here I am. ‘Lucky me’? Not likely, it took gut busting hard work and constantly risking the shirt on my back and relentless worrying. Over the last fifteen years I have lived my largely sleepless existence in a constant state of muted blind panic. Today the ‘world’ isn’t exactly helping me get any sleep….
Having more years behind me than in front I have seen a lot of change. I am guessing it’s a part of being the age I am that life and the world around us can get frustrating and confusing. It’s that old thing about coppers being kids. I remember a world without mobile phones, the internet, personal computers, a thousand TV channels, catalytic converters and don’t even get me started on ‘smart’ technology. I grew up in a ‘dumb’ world that was largely full of SMART people. Now I live in a smart world largely full of DUMB people. You’ve all seen the videos and heard the stories and sadly seen the devastation and chaos over reliance upon technology has caused so you really don’t need me to go there. Because I come from a simpler time I find this modern age extremely frustrating and very depressing. Life went along just fine in the seventies and eighties when the only reason to have a password was because you were some kind of secret agent or needed to get in to some dodgy underground sex club. Bank fraud was pretty much unheard of on a personal level, if you wanted to get money out of a bank you had to kick the door in but then you ran the risk of getting you head kicked in with no hope of compensation.
In our new world where pretty much anything is possible, predictably, stupid people are ruining it and it will bring about our demise. Back in the eighties i had to get on with the business of living, largely in a small local community of people. If I wanted ‘friends’ on the far side of the world I had to write a letter. Picking up the phone wasn’t easy because if I needed to find an international number I had to call someone to get it or go to the library to get an international directory. Not only that but long distance calls were extremely expensive and we all had less money to burn back then. Visiting a far flung country could easily cost a months wages just for the flight so mostly we stayed home which was actually nice and the environment breathed a sigh of relief. Technology may well have moved on but we people remain the same daft bumbling, stumbling, worrying, fearful farting meat sacks we have always been. Are we really any better off knowing all about everything, ever, everywhere? I think not.
Many folk would suggest that today at least we little folk do have a voice and, being old I have the chance to vent my frustrations to the world, you’re reading it now. That’s great right? We can get our opinions out there into the world and influence the way of things for the better? Join the conversation as they say. So, here I am venting the frustration of middle age upon you who have time to read my drivel and in an ideal world my opinion goes ‘viral’ and somewhere a plotician makes a choice to change things. Trouble is we are ALL looking to our elected leaders to make things better. The mantra of our age is ‘Somebody needs to DO something about this (that, or the other)”. Sadly those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. When did ANYTHING get better because a politician actually did something? These people could fuck up a cup of coffee and they are certainly doing that with pretty much every country in the world just now.
It’s no good expecting the government to do anything for YOU, they are NOT the answer, they ARE the problem. It’s US that have the power of change but sadly we cannot change the world, we can only change ourselves. All of the wars of history have come about because some idiot decided he wanted another idiot to be different or do different. We have absolutely NO influence over the actions and opinions of others, nor should we. Just last week I had to go to my dentist for an MOT. My lovely old guy retired and now there is some new young buck there. I actually used to love going to my old dentist where ever six months we would spend thirty minutes talking shit whilst I got my choppers cleaned. This new dumbass spun me around in ten minutes, spent that entire time preaching to me about interdental ‘devices’ and bollocking me. With his foot up my ass I shot out the door and just to give me a totally fulfilling experience I got charged twenty quid more that I did for a half hour with my old friend. My new plan is to let my fucking teeth all fall out before I go back there. I don’t like being hustled, i’m old, I still believe in respect and in order to get respect you do not need a university degree or letters after your name you need to GIVE respect. If my old dentist said he needed to cut my head off I would have agreed. After ten years we had mutual respect for each other, this new guy can go stick his interdental devices in his own crevices, he’s certainly not sticking them in mine. So, perhaps this new voice I have is good because now I don’t have to go punch my dentist in the mouth for being such a tosser because I have told you, dear reader, all about it and now I feel better.
I have now realised I am a long way from the point I intended to make at the beginning of this diatribe. To recap, being older gives one a sense of perspective and experience that informs a certain degree of wily intelligence in one’s own affairs. Technology has given us all a sense of having a voice and the illusion that that voice matters. Being older my cynicism tells me that voice is actually entirely irrelevant but it can at least offer us a channel for venting our frustrations thus helping us decompress, but actually expecting anything to change or for anyone to actually give a shit is fanciful.
Part of the problem of unrest in the modern first world is what we call the media. In this context I refer to the mainstream news media. In the UK that’s the likes of Sky and the BBC. These organisations have gone WAY beyond their remit of reporting the news and spend the lions share of their time promoting their VIEWS and in today’s noisy world, in order for something to become a ‘fact’ it just needs to be repeated enough times irrespective of wether there is any truth to undergird the point. As an Englishman of some advanced years now I am confident in my opinion that, at least of late, the BBC is the worst of the lot. I understand in the USA, CNN might be the BBC’s equivalent. Social comment is one thing but the agenda of this publicly funded broadcaster has gone way beyond that. On a slow news day the headlines are always populated by stories generated by a “BBC investigation”. Don’t get me wrong, we do need a strong media to defend us from the evil whims and machinations of politicians but when the net outcome is a sustained campaign to change society I question who is in charge. Let’s face it, nobody actually trusts politicians and their empty promises and blatant lies. Their proven track record of treachery over the last couple of hundred years simply drowns out their empty rhetoric. The media however are much more credible and much more intelligent and clever at getting their agenda of social change into motion. Much like my new dentist, politicians are perennially in danger of getting a smack in the mouth but my old dentist could simply wrap me around his little finger.
So, to my point……. recently the BBC were running a story about the demise of cash in British society. Apparently only about 34% of ‘financial transactions’ are now conducted with the folding stuff (a broad, arbitrary number without any detail or clarification). Last week the story was about a hipster bar in Manchester where cash is no longer accepted as a means of payment because everyone is using new technology to stump up. Something called app’s apparently. Other stories are constantly being aired about cash machines being ripped out of walls and drug dealers having duffel bags stuffed with cash. Alternative weeks we hear stories of rogue traders, particularly builders (for some reason) doing work “for cash” and defrauding the VAT man. The net story is that physical cash costs business money and is synonymous with criminal activity. Using modern payment methods makes you a better person, it’s fashionable, convenient and secure and saves business money. These new things also enable you to “manage” your money better, are convenient and save you time because apparently we are ALL SO BUSY! So a cashless society is good for us all right? Particularly now the banks are closing all their branches and have put the management and administration of your account firmly in your court.
This is what might be called ‘fake news’. Where i was raised we call that a ‘lud of ol’ tosh’ or, in modern vernacular, BOLLOCKS. This story is being constantly repeated until it becomes entirely socially acceptable and ultimately a fact in our lives. In case you are not sure go out and try to spend a fifty pound note. In most places you get a look like you handed the assistant a dog turd. If you even own a fifty pound not you ARE a criminal in the estimation of many folk. BBC radio hosted an item recently concerning the story of who is to appear on the back of the new plastic bullseye. The presenter was very smug in stating they had never actually owned a fifty pound note, implying it was like having an embarrassing but well deserved sexually transmitted disease. Surely no upstanding citizen of a whiter than white moralistic society should be caught dead with such a symbol of dubious working class low level criminality.
When I was young the only way scum bags could get into your bank account was by nicking you cheque book, making a cheque out to cash and turning up at your local branch, standing in front of the window and waiting whilst the clerk counted out the money. Trouble was we all had a local bank and you went there every week to put your wages in and transact your business. Some spotty dickhead standing at the window with a hastily scribbled cheque and fake signature scrawled in crayon and covered in sticky sweet stains would raise an eyebrow, the bank manager would then give you a call at home to verify wether this ner-do-well was just that or in fact your legitimate offspring. Bank fraud at a personal level really did not exist back then. Sure it was a pain to have to pop into the bank once a week but in reality it didn’t take long, you had chance for a quick chat, the bank kept a paternal eye on your account and there was a genuine sense of community and safety garnered by the whole affair. If your account got into the red, next time you went in, the bank manager would call you into his office and check how things were going and wether you needed help or advice. They might have only been protecting their position but the net result was somebody cared enough to give you their time and that was nice. A casual word with the bank manager or a cuff around the ear from a copper was largely all that was needed to keep the lid on.
Just this week we had cause to contact our bank because some knucklehead in the USA had tried to make a transaction using the debit card allied to our personal account which Catherine uses to buy groceries. It took most of an hour to sort that out on the telephone. How exactly did that happen? We don’t use that card or account for online transactions in any way and we don’t travel. At least once a year we get issued with new credit cards because of attempted fraudulent transactions. My parents always had a set of encyclopedias on their bookshelf, we have something similar and almost as extensive just for passwords. All the modern ‘convenience’ of managing our account online is absolutely NOT convenient, it takes hours on end. As a business Catherine spends close to a day a week dealing with all this crap. Back in the day our bank did the bulk of this for us and I used to enjoy a trip out to the bank to pay in cheques and have a yarn. They sell this as customer convenience and reducing the administration burden on business
Here is the big issue, something you will NEVER hear the media reporting. The provision of clever and customer convenient payment methods, wether a Visa card, Paypal, debit cards or the plethora of phone apps are being touted as ‘convenient’ for customers, more secure than cash and better for business which is simply not true. It’s certainly not secure as most of us can testify, managing all these things is not at all convenient and it’s certainly NOT quick or convenient at the checkout. We have all been held up by someone struggling to get a card payment processed. Just last week I was out on the road and popped into a drive in to get coffee and sat there for a full five minutes whilst the guy in front tried to pay with a contactless card. For ages he just kept rubbing it on the terminal before after a good four minutes of rubbing he finally put the card in the machine and put in a pin. Turns out he only bought a drink so didn’t spend more than a couple of quid. Bearing in mind he was in a builders van I would assume he would be paying with a crisp fifty pound note fresh from a VAT dodging job, or is that just a media stereotype? Problem? These things are putting someone else in between you and the business you intend to patronise.
The media seem to suggest that all these new fangled payment providers are out there doing this just for us, for our convenience and security. Are folk really that stupid, perhaps we are beyond caring. Just last year our little business Kaizen Bonsai Ltd which we run from our own family home, and employs just four of us, had to pay out over eighteen thousand pounds (£18,000) in what is termed in accounting speak as ‘Bank charges’. In actual fact that was largely the cost of commission from payment providers like Visa and Paypal. Sure there were some minor bank charges for things like foreign exchange payments etc’ but most of it was our customers money being creamed off before we were given what was left (and usually a few days late). I do appreciate we run a largely online business and so security is important and paying for someone to provide that for us obviously has a cost. But we managed to survive for decades without all that expense and many of these new system providers are expensive and don’t even get me started on American Express. Commission on a company Visa card is about 5% of total transaction value. So called customer convenience means I cannot afford to employ the extra pair of hands I need and so Catherine and I have to work three hundred and fifty five days a year and on average about thirteen hours a day. These clever bastards have wedged themselves between us consumers and the businesses we use and are literally drowning in money whilst I, as a business owner suffer and you, as a customer of my business end up paying more because I have to cover that excess overhead and still maintain the need to make a viable profit. Without wishing to brag, seeing as my business account is very healthy wouldn’t you think i am entitled to at least a modicum of interest? Not a bit of it, the more I have in the bank the more they charge me to manage it. I think the phrase “organised crime” has been mis-appropriated and pointed at the wrong business sector don’t you?
We hear a lot about personal debt these days. Part of the trouble is the very easy access to credit. The sole purpose of many financial based businesses is to get us into debt. Without that debt they don’t get paid. I know personal debt can be crippling but for sure a lot of it can be avoided by going without. It’s nice to have nice things, for sure, but if having those things means racking up debt where’s the joy? The media push a lot of opinion on us here about what they call “poverty” and suggest the answer is a higher minimum wage, greater benefit payments, rent controls, minimum hours contracts and the like. Trouble is it’s human nature to push the envelope. We are all raised to believe we are entitled to the good things in life. In reality you are entitled to nothing you did not earn. If you don’t earn enough (I didn’t for years) it might be time to go without, go back to school, retrain, learn something new or take a risk. If there is too much month at the end of your money it’s time to do what businesses do from time to time, rationalise, consolidate, cut costs and retrench. Learn to use a calculator, one of the greatest inventions in human history.
As a parting shot here is another thought. Back when I started work, every Friday afternoon my boss came around and gave us all a little brown envelope stuffed with notes and coins (not many in my case). I always felt good riding home on a Friday afternoon with that little envelope safely zipped up in the breast pocket of my leather jacket. My first job was a paper round I did seven days a week starting at age twelve. For that I got one pound and fifty pence a week (£1.50) paid, of course, in cash on a Saturday morning. I remember one week cycling home feeling flush only to discover I had lost the pound note and only had a fifty pence piece. My dad, being a bit of a hard bastard, didn’t just give me the quid, he let me learn the value of money and to this day I have never, EVER lost a single penny. Once I got married and bought my own house (age 21 and a whole other story) Tina and I would pool our little brown envelopes, bank enough for bills and live off the rest and trust me, every time a single note came out of my envelope it pained my heart. Spending cash is much harder than spending on credit, a card or some stupid app’ that won’t work without battery or signal. The value of cash is much greater than the numbers stamped upon it. Cash creates huge amounts of quality employment, not just call centre jobs, as well as making financial crime less attractive* (who needs to hump tons of cash around in a truck) and prevents faceless organisations creaming off the profits earned by the hard labour of businesses and their customers. Cash was the backbone of a community and it’s benefits to society were far reaching and extremely valuable and we are all the poorer as it disappears from our pockets in so many and immeasurable ways.
*The Great Train Robbery was the robbery of £2.6 million (in cash) from a Royal Mail train in August 1963. At the time one of the largest financial crimes committed. Compare that to “unauthorised financial fraud losses across payment cards, remote banking and cheques totalled £844.8 million in 2018” That’s just the UK retail banking sector. Nick that in cash and you need pallets, a fork lift and a big truck.