A 19-Year Journey of a Ficus Microcarpa – From Pre-bonsai to Winning Awards

Simply amazing transformation.

Bonsai Penjing & More

I purchased this Tiger Bark Ficus microcarpa as a pre-bonsai in 1997, and continued to train it for about 19 years. Over these years, I saw it transformed from an ordinary looking pre-bonsai to one winning a place among the 25 Exceptional Tress Award in the 2013 World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) Photo Contest. It also won the Best Tropical Category and Best of Show awards in the 2014 Lone Star State Bonsai Convention. I thought I would document its journey; sharing what I learned from working on this tree, the good and the bad, and what would I do in the future to improve it.

Tiger Bark Ficus Selected as one of the 25 Exceptional Trees Award in the 2013 World Bonsai Friendship Federation Photo Contest.

When I was shopping for a pre-bonsai in the nursery, this tree caught my attention because it had a rather big trunk, abut 3 ½” near the base, and it also…

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Summer Recap: Kierkegaard and Bonsai or Purity of Essence is to Wire One Tree

First, some preamble: I am not religious. I say that not to invite readers into the interminable debate between religion and atheism, but to give some context to my appreciation for one of my favorite thinkers, Kierkegaard (from now on K. As a side note, I will intersperse pictures of my summer, just so that this is not one long drawn out essay).

New benches!

I first encountered K. as a teenager, drunk on the heady writings of Nietzsche and Sartre, in love with Camus and eager to read more like them. I first read his contemplation of Abraham and did not realize the full weight it would have on my thinking and my life. I was turned off by his religiosity, but, really, unable to get past it. Because K.’s writings are not simply for the religious.

In college I started taking formal classes in philosophy – it is what led me to a career in science, finally an opportunity to enact put my philosophy to use in some way. I became obsessed with K., reading him continuously, obnoxiously discussing him with my beautiful girlfriend in cafes to the sneering dismay of other patrons. I must have appeared quite the pretentious shit bag. Eventually I even traveled to Denmark to study K. before writing a well received, if controversial, thesis about his relationship to Socrates.

Flowers, and some nutrient deficiency.

K.’s meditation on Abraham is important. To philosophy, to modern conceptions of Christianity and most importantly for our purposes, to me. A refresher: Abraham for some decades was unable to conceive a son, promised in the covenant made with God. Finally it is given to him when he is ninety nine years old. One wonders how this was possible without viagra.

Despite the deliverance of his son, Isaac, Abe is commanded by God to take him onto Mount Moriah, bind his wrists and sacrifice his son. It was a three day walk, with Isaac carrying the wood he would be sacrificed upon. For me this is a comfortable story when it is viewed through the lens of distance. Three thousand years and the amount of mythic stories in the Bible, talking snakes, worldwide floods, it’s easy to dismiss this as another outlandish story, especially given the elements of Isaac’s conception.

K. demands us to understand the story differently, he orders us to contemplate that walk, taking a beloved child up the mountain, knowing that God has ordered you to stab him in the chest and watch his blood trickle down a wooden stake, into the sandy earth. Really imagine that.

One recoils.

Far from being the staid patriarch of Christianity, when viewed in a contemporary lens, as a person who is hearing the voice of God(?) and taking his son up onto a mountain to stab him to death, Abraham appears to be a lunatic. Externally he has more in common with the nut jobs that flew those planes into the buildings.

Abraham has done away with everything, he is disintegrating his family, sacrificing all that was promised to him by God and becoming a monster. Abraham has done this all because he is answering the internal call of God. God does not appear to him as a burning bush, letters in the sky, etc., he is simply a voice. Abraham does not question if this is a djinni or Satan himself (seems like his bag really).

This was a huge problem for me. Why didn’t he test it? Why didn’t he ask for a sign? How could he throw everything away on one internal command?

Because you cannot be wrong about the word of God, and, once hearing it you can either choose to take a leap of faith or not. It is likened to being in love, it is an internal state, inspired perhaps by external events, but entirely internal. K. wrote on love before: perhaps inspired by his broken off wedding, he penned The Seducer’s Diary, a story in which Cordelia confesses her love in language remarkably similar to that he describes Abraham with. In this story she has been moved to love, but has no external object to hook it onto; Johannes is a quite insufficient scoundrel.

By virtue of the absurd, Abraham has been moved to a new relationship with his son. He gets his son back, an angel stops the plunging dagger and Abraham gets everything back by virtue of the absurd. Whether it is in a romantic relationship or a paternal one, the absurdity of following irrational, blindingly stupid, contradictory and self defeating goals is improved and returned to the person who takes the leap and obeys their own internal edict.

I dropped out of my PhD program.

It wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t interested in the work particularly, I dreaded spending twelve hours and change in front of the lab bench on weekends, daily I contemplated driving my Honda accord into a telephone post at 20 mph, not to hurt myself, but just because dealing with an accident would be better than working.

When I am very quiet, when I look into myself, when I sit in my garden I only hear one command: Make beautiful trees.

It’s so simple. Blindingly so. I didn’t even dare to dream it, dare to talk about it, until two of my professors, my girlfriend and the radio show host Elvis Durand all suggested following my dreams, abandoning the career I’m happening in and listening to that voice. It doesn’t make any sense. There’s very little money in bonsai, it’s a niche market and a discipline that takes a tremendous amount of knowledge, hard work, manual labor and possibly a stint abroad studying with a master.

I quickly found work in a private bonsai collection and spend my days working with artists to maintain upwards of 1000 imported trees. I don’t know where this road leads. When I think rationally, I think that this is a very silly move, doomed to end in failure. But there’s still that little voice, persistent, always whispering, waiting for a pause in life that tells me what I’m really here to do is make beautiful trees.

I feel a singularity of purpose that I’ve not felt in a long time, and, at the same time a deep humility. Working with professional I recognize how much a gap exists between my praxis and their’s. There’s an incredible craft that goes into simply maintaining 1000 bonsai trees instead of 40 and, to my chagrin, I’ve found that I cannot even water properly.

If Abraham can stab his son, I can learn. I can figure out some way to satisfy that quiet, ever present voice. Let’s see how this goes.

The best tree for beginners.

The very best tree for a beginner to own, bar none, is one that she or he has researched extensively. I’ve always kept a small zoo of animals and if you look online this snake or that snake is always described as being a ‘beginner’ animal, but the truth is these creatures want to live and if you provide the appropriate environment they will. The same is true of trees. Critical to bonsai is correct effort at the correct time. If you know what those actions are, the time they are to be performed and can provide the correct environment for your tree you would have to be very unlucky indeed to kill it.

With that said, the reason that both trees and snakes are described as ‘beginner friendly’ is because they will tolerate your fuck ups.

Advanced artists can make a triple axel look easy, the cultivation of exotic and endangered Kihansi spray toads a simple task or the transformation of raw yamadori into exquisite bonsai an afternoon of relaxation. Beginners are not so lucky. Where the advanced artist can sculpt clouds with only the finest glaze of paint or form an apex with a simple twist of the foliage, beginners are stuck poking themselves with the tip of the wire, clumsily snapping a branch due to a lack of wire support, pruning and then thinking “Shit, I should have kept that one.” Watching the youthful efforts of nascent bonsai artists is like watching a foal learn how to walk. It is uninspiring, somewhat cute and instills in the veteran a dreadful urge to say “Here, let me do that for you…” Beginners should be wary of such assistance, it offers nothing in the long run.

So what tree do you get if you’re not sure if you’ll fuck up?  Well, I will share my early efforts with more than a trace of shame.


This was my very first bonsai. It has several things going for it that informed my decision to purchase it. Strong, unrefined growth, a thick trunk and interesting roots. I had gazed longingly for years at the ficus of Min Hsuan Lo, Amy Liang, Jim Smith and Jerry Meislik. I had done my research and knew the tree could live indoors. Then I decided to screw everything up.

First I chopped the tree nearly to death in cold December. My reasoning was that ‘Hey, it’s indoors, it should be fine!’ Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Then I decided to root prune it and repot it in January. I had read that cat litter could be used as bonsai soil, so I bought cat litter. Unfortunately for me, it was not the right kind of cat litter – in Europe they use diatomaceous earth for the feline presents, which makes fine, great bonsai soil. Here in the states we use clay that immediately clumps up into a wad, allowing no liquid to run through the tree. This is absolutely terrible for bonsai. Soil arguments may rage about which is the best mixture or component, but every single bonsai artist will say that this mixture has no virtue and no use for bonsai.


Fortunately for me and the tree, I repotted it into something more habitable and buried the root ball. I did everything wrong with this tree that someone could. Sloppy wiring, poor choices about pruning, repotting out of season, repotting into quite possibly the worst soil mixture known to man and it kept on kicking, pushing growth because it was healthy. More than that, it seemed like it was basically cooperating with me, putting out growth at the right areas and the branching out exactly how I wanted it to. The growth was predictable and reliable and I experienced basically 0 dieback.

And this is what you look for in a beginner tree. The ability to tolerate fuck ups, boneheaded mistakes, and ignorant choices, then, despite it all, survive. More than survive, develop, move forward and grow into something greater. Ficus will do this for you. They will bud where you want them to, regrow lost branches easily, survive bad care and still (STILL!) allow you to realize your vision.

It is with this ficus that I learned the two most important lessons of bonsai:

1) The tree wants to survive, wants to grow and, if you listen closely, it will tell you what it needs.

2) Bonsai is not about domination or control, but is about cooperation with your tree, guiding it into maturity.

I can think of no better species to learn these from. Unlike juniper and pine, these trees communicate readily, letting you know that they need water or fertilizer in turn. They have simple requirements needing to spend their summers outdoors and their winters indoors in all but the most tropical of climates. As you can see, their durability is nearly unmatched.

The tree is still with me today, four years later, much more refined, and remains one of my favorites for these very reasons.


My photography has, perhaps, also improved.

The Essence of Bonsai

Scale miniatures will always be more accurate at reproduction than bonsai.

For example, Michael Paul Smith’s cars.

I mean, really now. If they can do cars this well…

The articulation you can achieve, the deceptive qualities of paint, the resolution of plastic are all much better than you can achieve with a plant. If you were to ask me how to create the most convincing and accurate miniature tree I would tell you to work in plastic.

So what the hell is the point of bonsai?

Why do we even bother with these plants?

I’ve seen many arguments about how to define bonsai. Beginners will proudly display their ikea bought ficus or roadside juniper cutting and say “Well, yes, but it is a tree in a pot!” and more picky veterans will argue that it is about creating a scale miniature of a tree.

Yet exception, after exception abound!

When have you seen a tree like this?

No, bonsai is not simply miniaturization, that, like most of the rules of bonsai is a means to an end. We must consider the essence of bonsai. We must ask ourself, what is this thing? What is its first principle? Or, like a good molecular biologist, what bit absolutely cannot be removed without breaking it?

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a cutting, pre bonsai, yamadori or a masterpiece that has been passed down from bonsai artist to bonsai artist, they all have one thing in common: they are alive and as soon as they are not they have ceased to be bonsai. The transformation from a piece of driftwood to a bonsai through a phoenix graft or tanuki should be proof positive of this, it is only through the introduction of life, of living tissue that what is essentially fire wood can become a bonsai.

These thoughts were heavily on my mind at the most recent wood stock, an educational program led by Jim Doyle and Walter Pall at Nature’s Way Nursery. A very old Rocky Mountain Juniper that had once appeared healthy was in bad shape. Very little green foliage, mostly pale yellow, not the reassuring copper of a wintering RMJ. I can’t explain the heartache of looking at a tree like this. The tree was easily world class and, by everyone’s estimation it was likely to die.

I didn’t take any pictures. Doing so would seem… I don’t know. Obscene.

Walter would not oversee the operation. Instead he put the tree in the hands of a trusted student who directed a few of us to start removing the ‘duff.’ More than once a comparison to a coding patient was made, likely to die, but you still do CPR. One of the employees, Kyp, commented grimly “It’ll die if you repot it and it will definitely die if you don’t repot it.”

With chopsticks we combed through the roots, clipping away those that had already died and decomposed into grub like tubules of rot. Every so often someone would mumble “Damn I hope this makes it.” Walter would glance over anxiously, then concentrate on other trees.

For me this was the most educational aspect of the entire weekend. It was the transmission of the secret knowledge of bonsai, last ditch efforts to save a dying and beautiful tree. I spend my days watching how bonsai live, but very rarely have I ever learned how bonsai die and become something less than themselves. When it occurs it is over so quickly that I do not have time to understand it. This was a chance to observe the expert treatment of the soon to be lost.

I should be familiar with this though.

The bonsai stock I view as most magnificent, most beautiful and most ‘tree’ are those that have been kept on the edge of death for years, decades, sometimes centuries. Battered by time and the elements, these trees grow despite the adversity they face. It should be no surprise to us when one finally ceases and gives up its battle. We should not view it as a failure of horticulture, but the frame of our painting, the point at which all possibilities are exhausted. Bonsai, like all great art, is concerned with life and death. More than any other though, this art form demonstrates them in its essence. Because that is bonsai, the interplay of life and death, the living vein against bleached white driftwood. All trees will die. Very few will ever be bonsai.

Got a new tripod, decided to shoot some winter profiles!


European hornbeam. I purchased this tree from Nature’s Way Nursery and worked on it during Walter Pall’s winter study. It looks quite nice to me already, the trunks have a pleasant movement to them. Much of the branch structure needs to be ramified and developed still. This year I will repot it into a mica pot, in two more I will try to get it into a bonsai pot of some sort.


This is a smaller Chinese quince, styled by my lovely and talented girlfriend two years ago. She had never been exposed to bonsai training before and she zealously went after the tree and developed those hollows with a makita die grinder while I bit my nails to the quick.

Finally, here is a trident maple that was a gift from Marc Torpa at the Growing Grounds. I was traveling through North Carolina and he asked how another tree he had sold me was doing. Sheepishly, I told him I killed it and Marc insisted upon replacing it. I tried to argue with him, but my efforts were half-hearted to say the least. I took the tree to a Walter Pall workshop two years ago and learned how to carve a bit on it. Since then I’ve just sort of hedge trimmed the thing and cut down its root mass. Next will be some wiring and in another year perhaps a bonsai pot. It’s certainly an ugly little tree, and will never win a bonsai contest, but I find the little goblin tree has earned a special place in my heart.

Creating A Beech Forest Bonsai

A man, a plan, a canal, PANAMA. Gearing up for spring, 2015.

Valavanis Bonsai Blog


Beech are highly prized for bonsai because of their characteristic white bark, beautiful foliage, winter hardiness and easy training. There are several beech species native to Japan. The Japanese beech, Fagus crenata is the most commonly trained species for bonsai in Japan. Specimens near Mt. Fuji are especially valued because of their small thick foliage. The American beech, Fagus grandifolia, has rather large thin foliage and often collected specimens are grown for bonsai. The European beech, Fagus sylvatica, is trained for bonsai in Europe and spectacular bonsai are created from thick trunked collected trees.

In the United States European beech, and its numerous cultivars are commonly used in the landscape for different colored foliage or unusual growth patterns. These cultivars are usually grafted onto seedlings of European beech, so they are a widely grown nursery stock.

The normal leaf size of European beech is a bit larger than Japanese beech…

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Bonsai, pattern recognition and developing taste

If you look up ‘beginner’s guide to bonsai’ on the internet, you will find a plethora of resources. Perhaps the best site I’ve ever seen on the subject was Harry Harrington’s bonsai4me.com. If you have not, I highly suggest that you read through every article in his bonsai basics section; the effort is well worth it. http://bonsai4me.com/bonsai_basics.html

I will not talk about bonsai techniques in this post, or bonsai horticulture. Those topics are well covered on the internet. What I would instead like to talk about is the cultivation of artistic taste in bonsai.

Taste can never be wrong. 

To argue otherwise is simply snobbery. Taste is an expression of a personal experience. Art moves us, compels us, delights, seduces, mesmerizes, whatever. It makes us feel something. My girlfriend has spoken many times of jewelry looking delectable, tasty.

Indeed, this bracelet looks like candy or cake. Every time I see paintings in the museum I want to touch them, feel the movement of the artist’s brushstrokes through the layers of paint. One of the most gratifying elements of painting for me is the feel of paint leaving my brush and trailing over the canvas.

I have not been arrested or escorted out of a museum… Yet. I can taste the saltwater running down my nose as my head submerges and my muscles ache for the surface in this painting. Can you not?

And don’t good bonsai do that to you? Don’t you want to delicately feel the bark, stroke the needles of an old white pine? Am I the only one who occasionally tastes the sap of his trees?

The point is that these trees call to us, they move us. My sensory exploration of bonsai or painting is not simply an odd appreciation of tree sap in my gin and tonic, it is an interrogation of the tree: Are you real? It is formed by an immediate disjoint between what my eyes see, the size and apparent age and the tree in front of us, and the reality of it, so small and fit into such a small pot.

Bonsai display forces that ocular contradiction further. Such an old tree in such a thin pot, hovering over the air. As if someone has simply summoned a slice of the planet into this small pot.

The question is then, what gives you this experience? What makes you yearn for a tree, to feel the shari that stripes its trunk? Inevitably our first bonsai efforts are crude, fumbling, technically insufficient and perpetrated on mallsai with no hope for achieving what we see in our dreams.

This, will likely never become this:

In an appreciable, human time scale. More importantly, it would take the care of an expert to achieve these results. Mallsai are simply funky plants, they do not grant access to that experience of bonsai.

Now you might say, “Hey Nimrod, they totally do!” Which I will use as a departure point to discuss the difference between an appreciator of art and an artist. The bonsai artist is not simply concerned with his personal experience, he is attempting to influence the experiences of others. To do that, we need honest criticism about what works vs. what doesn’t work. And, simply put, the elements of a mallsai don’t do any work.

So how do we figure out what works and what doesn’t work? 

Years ago my girlfriend put a book in my hands and twisted my arm until I read it. The book was “On Intelligence” by Jeff Hawkins. I cannot recommend it enough. Rather than get his hands dirty in the biology and neuronal firing rates and such, Hawkins attempted to set out to come up with a larger, overarching theory of intelligence. His claim was that the brain is essentially a very sophisticated pattern recognition system. It takes in patterns, understands them and then synthesizes them in reality.
I think of this as kind of a neo-platonism, with Plato’s forms describing more how we see the world rather than what the world itself is. Our brain relies upon limited amounts of information to very quickly come to conclusions about the world and what it is.

From the movement of ten points, we are able to see that it is a person walking. Now that’s really remarkable for three pounds of meat! This pattern works, in that we are able to recognize that it shows the movement of a person walking.

This one… sort of works? If you come to it already knowing what you’re looking at, perhaps you can still discern that it is a person walking, but, to the naive or uninitiated it does not appear to really be anything at all.

The same is true of bonsai; they either work or do not.

Referring back to my post about fractals, there are certainly patterns that determine if a bonsai screams “TREE” or does not. How do we learn about those patterns? How do we speak the language of “TREE”? How do we learn what screams and what mumbles? If the brain is a pattern recognition system, you must feed the machine. We have lived our lives watching people walk and inferring spatial relationships from two dimensional images. To effectively understand what works and what does not, we must look at thousands of bonsai, but critically. We must study trees in nature, such that a drive through the woods is an inspirational experience.

One caveat: you must learn what you are seeing and what your brain tells you that you are seeing. Your brain is a trickster, and will tell you “This is a square,” when, due to perspective, what your eye sees is a rhombus. The whole thing reminds me of pre-perspective art, where you can almost feel the artist’s pain as he attempts to carve space out of the picture plane.

The painter here simply did not know how to convincingly trick the eye into perceiving space.
We see this in bonsai as well, when a tree, for all its virtues, simply does not convince us that it is a tree! How many trident maples have you seen styled to look like a pine? They might be very nice bonsai, as this is a very nice painting (something of an understatement!!!), but they don’t let us know that they are trees effectively.
Go to shows, examine the trees in person (do not lick them though, that is too far), talk to the artists about their goals with each tree, silently assess whether those goals have been accomplished. But before all that, feed the beast. Consume bonsai and trees, dissect them with your eyes and look far afield for the exceptions, the departures and the radicalisms that nevertheless still work.
Most importantly, stay hungry. Feed that strange beast that is your brain.

Can a bonsai be a text?

When we say text, most of us think of typeface, individual letters. I’d like to broaden that definition to include messages that are encoded by abstract symbols. So, for example hieroglyphics are a text.

Even though these are a series of pictures, they still inform us as to what rites to perform for the dead, the identity of their kings, etc., etc. But let’s go even further!

Could the stained glass windows of a church be a text? Of course. As you walk through the galleries of a Gothic cathedral you see stained glass after stained glass picture, the light of god streaming through it, illustrating the lives of the saints, their works and histories.

More than that they give us a sequential order of prayer.

They form a cohesive narrative to follow, a hypertext of stories within stories. One acquainted with his or her religious stories and the history of the land would be able to read these, would know the significance of these images. Each would call to mind a particular story with moral instruction. Respect the ruler who built this place. Remember your ancestors. This is what happens if you aren’t Christ-like. Etc., etc.

But how abstracted can the nature of text be? Malevich was a Kiev born Russian artist who painted simply a black square as a new kind of artwork, the first painting that wasn’t a painting of anything at all. Simply color that was itself.

Malevich’s square, while underwhelming in terms of sheer technical accomplishment, was a creature of its time, a product of the Russian revolution and WW1, it is a Russian icon that does not iconize anyone, only nothingness. We are delivered, though not spoon fed, commentary through this one, singular, abstract symbol.

What I think that all of these examples of text illustrate is the fact that, for the signal to be transmitted successfully, one must understand how to extract that signal from the code. Without a Rosetta stone, the hieroglyphics are simply a series of pictures. Walk through Sainte Chapelle naive to Catholicism and you will simply see some pretty glass. Without a background in Russian history and modern art you might think Malevich was simply a precocious toddler.

So what do we say about trees and text? I’m not opposed to the idea of plants as text – Victorian flowers were so heavily codified that you could deliver a marriage proposal in a vase and reject it with another bouquet. But bonsai, in many cases, are a contextless art. They invoke no narrative, at least, not one that can be shared. A tree will tell the story of its growth, windswept trees will look like they blow in the wind, driftwood trees like they’ve been struck by lightning, but these are not coded. If such things were text, every mountain, every wave, every cloud would be text. We would spend our years continuously reading.

Our definition must be broad enough to include Malevich’s square and narrow enough to exclude rocks.

Simple naturalism in bonsai does not suffice. To be a text, they must channel a narrative and that’s where I see an opportunity to rescue bonsai from contextlessness. Some folks at this point might be asking, “Why does it need a context? Why do we need a narrative? Can’t bonsai be something more like a Rothko, where we simply have a feeling in response to the work?”

To which I say, I really don’t like Rothko that much. My personal feeling is that art, great art, creates a private world between the viewer and the object. It sustains in that world a space where, for just a moment, fantasy becomes reality. The unimaginable becomes possible. The emphasis on naturalism within bonsai is because that naturalism helps build that world, but narratives also do so!

We are a storytelling species, our most powerful messages are our stories. I couldn’t tell you how a Greek man built his house, but I could easily give you a summary of the Odyssey. We would be fools to not utilize this power in bonsai. I grant that there may be very many meanings behind bonsai in Japan, China, Indonesia, all of the countries in which bonsai began, but we have taken bonsai to America and we did not bring its context with us. We must invent our own stories for them. So how do you inhere meaning and textual symbolism in trees?

By invoking other stories, by creating a rosetta stone of features that a tree tells us. Look at trees from folks like Walter Pall or Nick Lenz.

The importance of fairy tale bonsai is not that it allows for the display and rehabilitation of ‘ugly’ trees, but that it gives purchase for a narrative. Here is where the trolls live. This is where the children hide from the witches. That is where Mrs. Mouse raises her family. These narratives and stories are shared, allowing us to read the tree as a text. We know well what stories these trees belong to because we have been hearing the stories since childhood.

But this is not the limit to bonsai. What other worlds can we create, stories can we tell? Can we have bonsai from another planet? Can we have root over crystal bonsai? The interaction between adventures in fantasy and naturalism will be delicate and each person must necessarily say where their cutoff is. Does the tree work for you? Does it tell you a story? Does it make you feel? These are the questions we should ask in a bonsai critique, not how well it adheres to this or that rule.

Maintenance Pruning a Classy Japanese Maple

I wanted to take this monster to be styled in Walter Pall’s class, unfortunately that just wasn’t possible this year. The tree is probably my largest bonsai, simply due to the fact that it is the only one that I simply cannot fit into my little accord. There’s no way that guy is going in the back seat! My wonderful girlfriend chose this bonsai about a year ago and gave it to me as a birthday present. I didn’t really do too much with it in that time besides appreciate it.

After spending a year with the big guy, I’m pretty confident that he will be displayed during the Spring, when he looks like this:


Very delicate yellow and red leaves make me a happy camper. So fine, you say, what else needs to be done with it? The tree looks finished! Well, there’s some problematic areas that need to be refined. The tree is in a quality state already, but places like this



Really need some attention if the tree is to stand up to close scrutiny. First though, some music.


This will get us in the mood for this spooky Halloween tree. So given the utter profusion of branches, how do we get started on a beast like this? I would first separate, if only in your mind, the branches that simply must go and those where you’ll need to make a decision.

The two pictures I just posted are a good illustration of each. In the first, the tumorous inverse taper needs to be taken out, unless you make an interesting feature out of it. For this tree, I don’t believe that would be effective so it is chopped.

In the second picture though, it’s better to take our time, and select which branches we keep after we’ve trimmed out what else must go. So what must go? Well, tumorous inverse taper of course, but also these:


See how the tree has a tendency to ‘run’ with its branches? These long leggy twigs do not look like tree branches. Pruning them back to buds that are closer to the trunk induces back budding and encourages ramification. I’ve got another Japanese maple that I haven’t been pruning on one side, to thicken its branches there, and it has put out meter long shoots with no branching whatsoever!

Then, we need to get rid of some of this interior branching. It’s a mess in there! Branches in trees search for the light, those that don’t find it die off so that the tree can shunt energy to other, more productive branches. Finally, although to my chagrin I don’t have any good photos of it, at any nodes that have three branches, one of these must be trimmed off. When there are more than two branches, the tree will produce ugly knots and knobs. These can be great features, but should not be encouraged at every twigging branch.

The great thing about doing this during the tree’s dormancy is that you can see the branch structure as a whole, unobscured by any leaves. So let’s get hacking!

Time for more music.

Hell yeah. Ok, so we go through and cut out all the bits that don’t look like a tree. What’s left?


Alright! Doesn’t look bad. It might not look like I took off too much, but well…


That’s all twigs! As one of my teachers told me, “If you wind up thinking ‘Ah shit, I’ve taken off too much’ then you’ve taken off just enough.”

This spring will see the tree in a new pot as well as with some design decisions. I like this front better. It has some interesting ugly crooks and hollows to it. You won’t find deadwood on a traditional Japanese maple, but this is not a traditional Japanese tree. I fear that trying to make it into such would rob the tree of any character it has and leave me with a bare stump. The central ‘tall trunk’ is giving me a bit of trouble. I’m not sure I like it as high up as it is. I’m contemplating grafting some scions lower down on the trunk and regrowing the apex. That might take quite some time, but maybe it would result in a better tree. Honestly, I think that wiring the whole thing up in March or so will make all the difference.

Bonsai pot (5)

I think something like this would do fine. Deadwood features will be carved, and I’m going to need to create some cuttings to graft to the trunk and create a better nebari. Oh well, much to do, much to do! Often people tell me that bonsai must be meditative, relaxing and zen. I find that I’m constantly reminding myself to enjoy the tree in the moment, rather than thinking of what it will become far into the future. Onwards and upwards!
– Joe

Why bonsai?

I really dread that question.

Whenever someone asks me that, it’s generally after I’ve talked their heads off about my tiny trees. Generally I’ll shrug and mention “The Dinner Game,” an excellent movie in which the protagonist invites obsessive idiots to a dinner party. The antagonist has binders of photos of miniature landmarks that he’s recreated using only glue and toothpick sticks.

I mention that I would be an excellent idiot.

That’s usually the end of it, but I’ve decided it’s an important question to answer. To do that I’m going to need to discuss some math. Don’t worry, we’ll be focussing on the big picture rather than any equations. The relevance will make sense soon.

Fractals are mathematical sets that exhibit a repeating pattern that is visible at every scale. Like this:


This is Sierpinski’s triangle. Looks complex right? Well, it can be built pretty simply.

Build a Pascal’s triangle, shade the even numbers and there you go. All of a sudden a very complex pattern has emerged from simple ‘rules.’ Fine then, what do these triangles have to do with bonsai? I’m glad you asked. Let’s look at some more simple fractals, some that might be more relevant.

Ehh? Ehhhhhh!? All of a sudden you can see that these shapes might look relevant to very boring trees. Change the ‘rules’ that generate your tree and you start to see some more interesting shapes.

Fractals are natural shapes. The more you look into nature, the more you find them.


In the hippocampus,

a coastline,


the anatomy of the lungs,


the veins of a leaf,


or the branches of the trunk and trees itself. Whatever language life has, whatever logic or description of it as a whole is found in this sort of math. They have a curious kind of beauty in natural systems absent from the garish posters found in pretty much every dorm room. You know.


Ungh. Whatever.

It’s easy to start to see these sorts of patterns in bonsai, particularly great bonsai.

meifuten-trees-53Ume - Kokufu prize DSC0405-SA_2_tn

If you notice though, none of these trees resemble the perfect mathematical trees that we depicted above. Instead they depict disturbed patterns, the trees’ internal logic bent by whatever adversities or unique situations that nature inflicted upon them. Even still, despite this adversity the tree pushes on, reproducing, flowering, growing, insisting upon its internal logic, its own rightness.

The fractal pattern of good bonsai means that the bonsai artist does not simply tell a story, they tell a story using that internal mathematic language of life, articulated in a living organism. Bonsai then is not simply visual art, it is performance art, spoken between the tree and the artist in the same language that guides all manner of natural system.

That is why I bonsai.