“It’s About Time We in the Bonsai Community Caught Up”


This majestic old pomegranate (Punica granatum) was styled by John Naka. After John died, his wife Alice donated it to the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. Mr Naka was and is a major influence on Dave De Groot's view and practice of bonsai (more below on Dave).

Yesterday’s post resurrected an old debate that has been running on and off for years here on Bark and elsewhere. We’ve been calling it highly refined bonsai versus naturalistic bonsai. If you check the comments to yesterday’s post and earlier posts on the topic, you’ll get an idea of just how high passions run with this topic.

Which brings us to this post. Dave De Groot (bonsai artist, teacher and author of Principles of Bonsai Design) joined the discussion yesterday in the comments to one of the original posts on the topic, so I thought it might be a good idea to keep the discussion going and to include what Dave has to say in this post. Which, by the way, is an excellent treatise on bonsai and the history of art as it pertains to bonsai.

In Dave De Groot’s own words:
“I always enjoy the articles you post, and normally do so silently, as I rarely engage in online discussion. I do so this time only because you posted a subject comment from someone who shares my first name but not my point of view.

I am surprised and puzzled by the fact that the bonsai community is still chewing over a subject that the rest of the visual arts world put to rest almost a hundred years ago. The problem might be partially one of semantics, so I propose that instead of discussing whether a bonsai is “natural”  – whether produced in Japan, Taiwan, or the United States – we recognize that no bonsai is “natural”, no bonsai hides “the hand of man”. They are artificially dwarfed trees in pots, for Pete’s sake! It might be more useful to use the terms “realism” and “abstraction.” (continued below)…


A spread from Dave De Groot's Principles of Bonsai Design.

“All bonsai are suggestions of trees in nature, or most usually, of other bonsai. They are not perfect scale models, they are not photo-realistic images, they are all to some degree, abstracted images.

Bonsai such as Dan Robinson produces are certainly closer in many cases to realism in terms of the ancient trees he chooses to portray. The very beautiful and elegant Taiwanese bonsai at the head of your post is of a school that is more abstractedly sculptural, and unabashedly displays the technical skill of the artist in the precisely arranged dome of lush foliage that rests serenely (if rather incongruously) on the wildly contorted, stripped trunk.” (continued below)…


This is the Taiwanese juniper that Dave mentions above. It is one of many trees featured in his Principles of Bonsai Design. There's more on this tree here.

The point is that all bonsai are abstract, but they are abstract to different degrees, and in different ways. The degree or type of abstraction is not central to determining whether a given bonsai is effective as art; more to the point is whether it has something to say, whether it tells a story, whether it stirs emotions, whether it is admirable, whether it is beautiful.

The world of western painting moved from realism to impressionism in the 1870’s and into pure abstraction in the early decades of the 20th century. The days are long gone when the legitimacy or value as art of any of those styles is questioned. It’s about time we in the bonsai community caught up.”


Another spread from Dave's book, Principles of Bonsai Design.

Revisiting An Old & Still Relevant Bonsai Debate

B1GNARLYHINOKIHinoki cypress by Dan Robinson. From Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees. An excellent example of a naturalistic bonsai.

I think it’s time to revisit a discussion that seems to provoke plenty of interest each time we bring it up (there were 35 comments to this post back in 2011 and numerous comments to previous posts on topic). It’s also timely given that Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees is now back in print and Dan Robinson’s bonsai play a big part in the discussion.

A note about Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees that I neglected to mention last post: By agreement with the publisher, we are not discounting this book. No point waiting around for a lower price.

Judging from your comments, the discussion about the virtues of highly refined Japanese bonsai vs a more naturalistic western style (championed by Walter Pall among others) is a topic that many of you are interested in.

I won’t say much here, but if you want to read an impassioned comment on the topic by someone named David (and my reply), check the comments on a post titled ‘Nature, Picasso & the Hand of Man‘.

To whet your appetite, here’s an excerpt from David’s comment: “To be fair and honest I don’t believe in “extremely” naturalistic views from artists like Walter Pall, Dan Robinson and a thousand European artists who “sell” this naturalistic approach to Bonsai. In the end they just look like they love the art but they can’t be real bored of wiring again and again and styling their trees for 20 years in a row searching for true perfection like TRUE Japanese Artists have done for more then a 1000 years.”

juniperAn excellent example of a highly refined Shimpaku juniper. By an unidentified Japanese bonsai artist. From our Masters' Series Juniper book (due back in print in November, 2015).


PallSpruceThis rather famous Norway spruce by Walter Pall has appeared in several places, including Bonsai Today issue 106. Walter is a strong proponent of the naturalistic style.


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Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees is Back!


Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees: The Life and Works of Dan Robinson – Bonsai Pioneer is back in print!

We’ve been waiting for this wonderful, ground breaking book to come back into print for a long time.

Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees is surely one of the most important and beautiful bonsai books ever published. Will Hiltz, author and photographer elevates the art of book making, and Dan Robinson, bonsai artist and master, elevates the art of collecting, growing and styling bonsai.

Dan Robinson’s approach is uniquely his own and shows profound respect for trees, nature, art; the whole process that we call bonsai. Bonsai pioneer is a good choice of words to describe who Dan is. The Picasso of bonsai might be equally good.

I don’t know if you’ll ever see another bonsai book as wildly beautiful and unique as Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees.


Korean hornbeam. We could have picked any one of over a hundred trees as wild and beautiful as this one (the rich fall color doesn't hurt either).



Hinoki cypress. Another of a multitude of quality photos that you'll find in Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees. 

NOW Back in print and available at Stone Lantern. Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees. Hardcover. 9 1/8″ x 10 1/4″ (23 x 26 cm). 284 pages. Well over 300 quality photos.


The three trunks rising from the fat and robust roots of this Japanese maple bonsai fan out…

summerJapanese maple in the fullness of summer. From the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum.

The other day we posted a Japanese maple (Yamamomiji) that we found online. At the time we didn’t know who the tree belonged to, but it didn’t take long for Michael Bonsai to clue us in. It’s from the Omiya Bonsai  Art Museum. The original fall photo is below.

Here’s what the Museum has to say, in a rather poetic fashion, about this powerful old tree: “The three trunks rising from the fat and robust roots of this Japanese maple bonsai fan out in the shape of a fan. During the months between the start of summer and coming of fall the branches of the tree grow thick with leaves as if to cover a great swath of land with its shade. In the autumn the changing of the leaves leaves the bonsai looking like a great red hill, which is the meaning and source of the tree’s name, Kouryou.”








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Still Opulent, Outrageous & Outstanding

102 This Itoigawa Shimpaku (Juniperus chinensis 'itoigawa') by Dougie Smith qualifies as opulent for sure. Outrageous? Well there is that huge rock jutting up from the skinny little (but very handsome) pot. As for outstanding; that goes without saying. Note: I don't know what the smaller trees down low are. Maybe azaleas? Myrtle? This photo and the others in this post are by Philippe Massard, though I cropped them all to bring the trees closer.

A quick two day vacation and another dip into our archives. This one is from February 2014. I picked it to show a second time, primarily because of the tree above (not to downplay the other great trees). The size of the massive rock and the tree taken together relative to the size of the pot is unusual, to say the least. And it works.

All the photos in this post are from the Noelanders Trophy XV which was recently held last year in Belgium. The photos are all borrowed from Philippe Massard (cropped to bring the trees closer). The five chosen here are a drop in Philippe’s photographic bucket. I picked these five mostly because they are unusual. This is not to say that there weren’t numerous other unusual trees featured; Europeans seem to be on the cutting of edge of unusual bonsai these days.

Just in case anyone is ready to jump to any misunderstood conclusions, all three words in the title, Opulent, Outrageous and Outstanding, are meant in the positive sense. Opulent as rich rather than ostentatious. Outrageous as unconventional, surprising or even shocking, as opposed to very bad or wrong. Outstanding simply means outstanding, in every sense of the word.


A very uncommon, Common juniper (Juniperus communis) by C.Przybylski. Not very opulent, but outrageous for sure. And undeniably outstanding. Especially considering you almost never see good Common juniper bonsai (American bonsai artist, Nick Lenz provides some exceptions).


419This stubby Trident maple (Acer buergerianum) is by John Pitt. I'll guess that the excellent pot is also by John. The nebari most def qualifies as opulent, outrageous and outstanding, though such things are not uncommon on Tridents.


231Austrian pine (Pinus nigra) belongs to Mauro Stemberger. This one just might be my favorite. It and its wonderful pot qualify in every sense; particularly opulent and outstanding. We'll leave the outrageous up to you. BTW: great shadow, just in case you missed it.


97English yew (Taxus baccata) from the fertile mind and sure hand of Tony Tickle. Outrageous! Outstanding! Not so opulent (well, maybe the books). And then there's that excellent bridge type slab that the tree is clinging to. It's by Erik Križovenský. We've featured his innovative pot art here on Bark.





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Two Beautiful Bonsai & Two Questions

acerI would love to know more about this this powerful Japanese maple, especially the artist's name. I recognize the logo in the corner, but there are no credits with the photo.
Thanks to Michael Bonsai we now know this tree is from the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum collection.

Both photos shown in this post are from Bonsai Empire’s online gallery. There’s a lot to like about Bonsai Empire and we’ve shown photos borrowed from them over the years. Still, there are a couple things they do that might provoke questions.

Attribution. Bonsai Empire does attribute the bonsai artists on facebook but I wonder why they don’t bother to attribute on their online gallery. It would be easy for them and save a lot of trouble for those of us who would like to know who the artists are.*

Logo placement. Bonsai Empire puts their logo on photos that do not belong to them. As far as I know, they are the only ones in our bonsai community who do this. This strikes me as strange at best and I have to wonder how they justify this practice.

pallmapleThis Japanese maple belongs to Walter Pall. This and other photos of this famous tree have appeared in many places including Walter's website. The question is; what is Bonsai Empire's logo doing on the photo?

* In their online gallery Bonsai Empire states the following: “For the photocredits, check the Bonsai of the Day albums at our Facebook Page!” I tried this with both photos shown here, but gave up after five minutes of scrolling down through both their feed and photo galleries.


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Tamarix Bonsai – An Unusual Tree


I can think of at least three reasons to be impressed by the tree. First, it's a Tamarix tenuissima* (a type of Salt cedar), an usual genus and a very unusual species, when it comes bonsai at least. Second, it's a beautiful, well-balanced, dynamic bonsai. And third, wiring every single little branch down, is a true labor of love. My only complaint is the fuzzy photo and that's on me (I blew it up to fit our format).

It’s Monday morning and I’m already way behind schedule, so we’ll keep it short and simple; one tree, a variety of Salt cedar,* and one bonsai artist Naoki Maeoka, a resident at Kouka-en nursery and teacher at the Fujikawa Bonsai School.



Before and after. I wonder how many hours Maeoka san spent wiring.

*Like so many other misnamed plants, the Salt cedar is not a cedar (it does thrive in akaline soil). The species, tenuissima is one of 50 to 60 Tamarix (Naoki calls it a Gyoryu). I could say more, but if you’re one of the two or three people who are interested, you won’t mind doing your own research (you might start here).

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Shaping Bonsai with Rebar, Turnbuckles, Stones, Wire – Everything but the Kitchen Sink


This is what you can do with a little daring and more than a little skill. The huge crack just up from the base of the trunk is intentional. Without it, there's no way this old tree is surrendering that first subtle bend and without the rebar and wooden peg there's no way the second larger bend is holding. This photo and the before photo below are from David Benavente's Estudio de Bonsai.

This post, which provides valuable tips on some relatively obscure bonsai techniques, is a mishmash from three previous posts.

benbefore4Before. What would you have done?



wiring1This simple and clear illustration (from the ABS website) shows how to use a turnbuckle to lower a branch. The turnbuckle is made up of a single strand of wire, a short stick (or short piece of heavy wire) and two rubber pads to protect the branches. Beyond that, it needs no explanation.



Another clear illustration from same ABS article that shows one way to wire two, using a section of trunk as anchor. This illustration originally appeared in Debra Koreshoff's Bonsai, Its Art, Science, History and Philosophy (out of print). It was modified by George Buehler (on the ABS website).



Another pine and another radical technique. This cut will serve two purposes: first, it will make it easier to lower the branch, and second, it will provide a place to insert stones (yes, stones) to keep the branch from popping back up. This photo is originally from a Bill Valavanis’ open house back in 2011. We posted it under the title, Restyling A Stubborn Old Tree. It provides an excellent lesson in dealing with an old tree with defects that require radical measures to correct.


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Powerful Pines & Bonsai Wire

BC1This powerful pine with its aged, heavily plated bark (reminiscent of our North American Ponderosa pines, especially the reddish section at the base of the trunk) is one of many spectacular trees displayed at the recent 2012 BCI convention in China. This and all the photos in this post are courtesy of Robert Steven.

Summer sun beckons, so we’ll take the easy way out once again. This post, with some text added today (in italics) originally appeared in April, 2013.

Pines now, the rest later. Robert Steven just sent us a whole host of great photos from the recent 2012 BCI convention in China. We’ll start with some powerful pines here, and then show you some of the other trees in a few days.


BCI5If you think you've seen this forest recently you are right. We featured it less than two weeks ago as part of our series on forest plantings.This has to be one of the most impressive pine forests anywhere. Actually, you can scratch the pine part and we'll just leave it at one of the most impressive forests, period. Most of us would be more than delighted to have any one of these trees in our backyard, let alone the whole planting. Nice pot too. Looks a bit like an escarpment in the Rockies.


BCI21Another powerful trunk. This one is accented by two whirling circles.



Looking up at this angle it's easy to imagine you're looking at some massive old-growth Ponderosa pines in the Rocky or Sierra mountains. This effect is heightened by the heavy reddish-orange bark; a striking feature of Ponderosa.


BCI3I like the way this one doubles back on itself as though it has spent countless winters under a heavy snow load. Great taper on another powerful trunk too.

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Digging & Field Growing Bonsai in the Early Fall

satsuki-kennettThis sumptuous Satsuki is from Bill Valavanis' 2014 Japan Satsuki tour. Though I don't know for sure, based on the massive trunk it's easy to imagine that it was originally field grown. 

Early fall is good times to dig and transplant. For me, it’s mostly native larch (some cedar and spruce too) from a friend’s land here in northern Vermont. However, unless you live in the frozen north or blazing tropics, Satsuki azaleas just might work for you.

This post (from 2009) is taken from one of many field growing posts we’ve done over the years. I have edited (italics) based on what I’ve learned since 2009 and because it was originally written for spring transplanting.

In our last field growing post we mention planting directly into native soil without digging in amendments when you plant (Cornell University and others have researched and compared planting in native soil versus amended soil pockets, and native soil wins for size and health). A friend of my points out that she has no native soil; her house and yard were built on fill. In our usage of native soil, we mean whatever soil is already there. In other words, my friend’s fill would be her native soil.

What if your native soil isn’t very good? Too acidic, too alkaline, too heavy, too poor? How do you know if your native soil is good enough to simply plant as is?

The simple answer is; just look and see what’s growing there. If relatively vigorous plants are already growing in your native soil, then it should be okay for field growing. If not, you might want to consider building raised beds, or hills with enriched soil.

Here, even though the soil around the house is quite sandy, plenty of trees and other plants were growing just fine when I moved in five eleven years ago. So my lazy person’s method of enriching by top dressing and fertilizing after planting, has worked quite well (continued below the photo).

satsuki-bt40Here's another powerful Satsuki azalea that may have been field grown (it's from Bonsai Today issue 40, courtesy of Bonsai Focus magazine).

In some cases, I just plant directly into the ground (this works because the drainage is excellent). In other cases building little 1 t0 3 foot mountain ranges works for me, using soil from around my land and some fill from outside (also quite sandy). This way future future bonsai stock is incorporated right into the landscape (some will never be bonsai; they look too good right were they are).

Before planting I top prune (always top prune when you disturb the roots, especially if you rootprune) and rootprune if needed, and spread the roots and dip them in Roots, a rooting compound in solution, and then plant.

I’ve learned to back off on top pruning when transplanting. Some is often necessary, but anything beyond very selective pruning can further stress a freshly dug plant. And I now use Dyna-Gro K-L-N.

Next, I top dress with partially broken down cedar mulch about two inches deep. I used partially broken down mulch because wood robs nitrogen in the early stages of breaking down and then gives it back to the soil in the final stages. This mulch blanket helps protect the roots from the cold and the soil from drying out too fast.

Then, because the plants need help at first and because my soil is very sandy, I top water deeply (unless there’s a good soaking rain). Deep enough for the water to soak well below the roots. If the weather stays dry after transplanting you might need to deep soak several times during the fall.

Starting in the very early spring and three or four times a season I sprinkle on a local organic granular slow release fertilizer (I use Green Dream and other bonsai fertilizers for plants in containers, but they are a little expensive for field growing).

In the late summer and early fall it’s important to reduce the amount of nitrogen so energy is directed to the roots and nutrient storage and away from top growth, so I use a more highly diluted mix of fish/seaweed and instead of Dyna-gro 7-9-5, I switch to 3-12-6. Now I just stop fertilizing in the field around August first.

There’s much more to say for sure, but meanwhile, if you have any question or objections, or just want to share your field growing techniques, don’t hesitate to comment.

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