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.

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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.

Century Old Japanese Bonsai Postcards

Simply amazing old photos of bonsai and bonsai nurseries. Many people seem to think of bonsai as a static and ageless art – I think these photos demonstrate that it is just as subject to the vagaries of fashion as any other media.

Bonsai Penjing & More

Many bonsai people have other hobbies.  Sometimes they combine those hobbies together such as collecting bonsai-related pins, phone cards etc.  I collected stamps since I was a kid, and am interested in bonsai-related stamps and postal items. I also collect old bonsai and penjing postcards, preferably postally used.

Below are my Japanese postcards with bonsai in the pictures; they are about 100 years old and were hand-tinted. Strictly speaking, most of these postcards show Japanese woman activities with bonsai in the background. I have not seen postcard of that period with just bonsai as the main theme.  Nevertheless, they allow us to see how Japanese bonsai looked like a hundred years ago.

EPSON MFP image 1905 postcard with a potted pine. The writing reads: “Characteristic room furniture, no ornaments except few flowers. Low writing table & box containing ink disk and brushes. Lady in the act of writing a letter.”

Besides the date on the postcard, one can…

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Joyous, joyous winter!

The bacchanalia of bonsai has past and all that’s left are the memories. What to talk about? The food, the people, the trees! It was humbling to be amongst so many great bonsai-ists. Unlike many classes I’ve attended, Jim Doyle and Walter Pall regularly attract folks with decades of experience, even owners of other nurseries in their own right. Even with that vast experience pool, a relative novice like me felt continuously engaged.

I arrived on Friday night and, would you believe it, my car didn’t start. I had to take a tiny compact that couldn’t carry any of the trees I had thought about working on. No matter, one called to me and demanded to come home with me.


I thought this little clump of european hornbeam was absolutely gorgeous. Very much a fairy tale tree, it speaks of haunted woods and long journeys to me. Something that Bilbo Baggins might have rested underneath before the spiders came for him and his crew! I had to have it, and managed to wedge it into my car before the long drive back.

Walter and Jim kindly let me work on some of their other trees as well, even taking a die grinder to carve out some funky deciduous trees!
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The first is another little european hornbeam, the second a grand old trident maple. Oh well, I think they came out ok, what about you folks?

One of the things I most appreciate about working with Jim and Walter is the attention paid to the aesthetics of bonsai. Many bonsai courses I’ve been to lectured on the craft of bonsai – the horticulture necessary to grow trees in pots, the method of wiring and pruning, etc., etc. Here, Walter and Jim started with the assumption that you knew all that, and instead chose to lead us in discussions about correct pot choice,


the feeling behind bonsai,


and we even had time for a little fun.


I might have even walked away with a tree that is far too nice for me…



Anyone looking for more information should refer to either:

Whether you’re new to bonsai or an old hand, I recommend checking out both sites and stopping by Nature’s Way! Shout out to all my great friends there, I can’t wait to see you this spring!

Getting ready for winter study 2015

I’m not really sure how to start this blog. I’ve been doing bonsai for four or five years seriously, but got my first tree when I was eight years old. Ever since then I’ve been sketching trees, studying them, quietly telling myself that someday I’d be able to have trees similar to those that I drooled over as a child. Now, after a substantial investment in my collection and many lessons with talented artists like Walter Pall, Jim Doyle, Sean Smith and Pedro Morales, my trees have started to look quite nice.

So there’s my dilemma, I’m not beginning at the beginning, but starting this blog midway into the project. In later updates I plan on talking about why I love bonsai, its connection to nature and my relationship to the art as a scientist, but for now, let me just get some words on the page. Let me type up a little to remove that blank space and get that fucking ugly first entry out of the way.


Last year I did my first winter study with Walter Pall and Jim Doyle at Nature’s Way Nursery. It was a great time. I learned to carve, to trim maples (really not that hard it turns out!), I made some great friends and I had a few beers with some great artists. All in all, I thoroughly recommend it. I think I may have been more star struck than Walter was.


A year later I feel more assured in my abilities, more willing to say screw it, I’ll style the damn tree myself. I’ve also gotten rid of my mullet. So some trees that I thought I would be bringing in this year will not be brought. I’m giving my maples a break, and leaving them to simply grow another year. Instead, this year I’m bringing in two quite large, quite old, Japanese white pine. I’d consider myself a beginner at bonsai, and it’s hard to work on such large, old material without feeling like you’re fucking it all up. Better to do it with a teacher like Walter or Jim, who have decades of experience. Although they’re artists, they also function as bonsai therapists, reassuring you that you’re not actually killing the tree. I can only imagine that this must get grating for them after a while.

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Quite beautiful, no? Well, I think so. These were bonsai purchased from the Kennett Collection sale, for quite reasonable prices. They were likely field grown in Japan and the development of their bark hints at their age: only 70 year old white pines develop the aging, gnarly bark you see on both trees.

So what is to be done with these? Both are wired quite nicely, show movement, visual interest and age. These trees were likely maintained by Japanese masters, flown in specifically to work on the Kennett Collection. What’s an upstart like me doing restyling them?

Well, bonsai is above all else a living art. It changes, year after year. You can’t commit to a specific vision for more than a few decades. Branches thicken, roots swell, twigs die back and disasters happen – I’ve heard of more than one masterpiece that had a tree branch fall on it, forcing a new design.

These trees show some flaws that, while they might be ignored in a large collection, force me to try to address them in some way. White pine #2 has an ugly graft mark. See it there? It runs directly perpendicular to the trunk. This is common in white pine – the white pine is grafted onto black pine root stock so that the less vigorous tree is fed by the more vigorous trees roots. No matter, we will choose a new front and all will be hidden. I also think it’s conical canopy is unsightly. The modern preference is for pines with well rounded apices, cloud like. Call me a slave to fashion, but I will be seeking that design.

White pine #1 has obviously had many branches shaded out. When a branch does not receive enough light, the tree simply gives up on it, allowing it to die and reinvesting its energy elsewhere. Makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, but plays hell with your design as an artist. I suspect that this is one reason that it was sold for so reasonable a price. It may never be a classical Japanese tree, but I think there is some fun to be had with it. I will jin all the dead branches and paint them with lime sulphur, whitening them like sun dried bones. I hope to bring more foliage forward over the front of the tree, disguising its trunk. For whatever reason, this is one of my all time favorite trees. It calls to mind something ancient and titanic, as if it could have towered over sauropods in the Jurassic. Nevermind. No more.

This weekend I will update with another entry, more photos of me and Walter, and more tree stories.