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Pictures from our recent meeting, lots of material and the membership really did a great job buying up almost all it.

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Mike making a hard sell!

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Great auction material and Layne is tracking the dollars.

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Lavana talking about up coming events...

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I’m really not sure what’s going here?

May’s To Do List from Yama Ki's Bonsai Alamac


Looking Ahead

IT'S WINTER, and a hard one at that. Much of the country is so cold it's hard to find something useful to do. I know, wire your pines, clean and carve your deadwood, prepare your soils, and so on, but I'm sure you're also thinking about all the exciting bonsai events you're going to attend in spring and beyond - among them workshops of one sort or another.

Getting the best value from workshops

I've conducted more workshops than I dare to count in at least fifteen countries, dealing with people from widely different cultures, language barriers and with species that were entirely unknown to me. However in spite of this diversity, all workshops generally have one thing in common: they waste time. They waste your time, your fellow students' time and the workshop leader's time. Not that there is any intrinsic fault with workshops per se, but it seems a lot of folks fail to take full advantage of the opportunities workshops offer. So here are some pointers on how to pick the right workshops and how to properly prepare yourself and your tree, thus maximizing your chances of a satisfactory experience.

Most clubs and nurseries offer introductory workshops. These almost always include a small ficus or juniper that the student can take home afterwards. I personally believe this is misguided, it treats the students like first-graders and does a disservice to bonsai. When someone decides they want to take up bonsai as a hobby, they already have the concept that good bonsai are old and valuable, and are the result of many years' dedicated labor. So why pop that balloon at the outset? Straggly, unprepared plants like the juniper shown here are all too common in beginners' workshops and offer little or nothing in terms of learning opportunities or potential bonsai material.

When I have students with zero experience I turn them loose on a real bonsai, one that has been shaped, reshaped and refined for a few years. Maybe de-wiring, cleaning bark on junipers, pulling needles on pines or cleaning deadwood. These are all tasks that require no particular skill or knowledge, but give the student the feeling that they are actually doing something useful on a real bonsai. The students are excited, scared and awestruck. They bypass all the time-wasting tooling around with junk and leave with a clear vision of what bonsai really is and at least some confidence that they can achieve it. Over the years this shimpaku has been worked on by a dozen or more eager students, all of whom have gained more experience than they would have gained by working on the tacky juniper above.

In workshops where the material is supplied, investigate the source and try to get some photographs of it before committing. It's not unusual to find that the plants are so weak and ugly that even Walmart wouldn't give them bench space. Yet because they come from a bonsai nursery seventy-five bucks is supposed to be a bargain price.

On the other hand, if the material is supplied by someone who makes their living teaching and selling high quality bonsai, you can be more confident that the material will be worthy. These people have reputations to maintain so they are not going to provide junk, and they will be happy to send you pictures of the material in advance.


These are by far the most valuable and productive and I wish more organizations would include them and more professionals would offer them. Nobody's wiring is beyond improvement, and when I show students the correct way to approach wiring strategy, it's like a veil being lifted. Once grasped, the system lets them wire more efficiently and more quickly, using less wire.  Carving deadwood, repotting, developing pines, pruning deciduous trees, grafting... these are all areas where virtually everyone could benefit from detailed instruction.

Eventually, there should come a time when you no longer need workshops of any kind other than hanging with a group of  bonsai buddies and working on each other's trees from time to time. In the meantime, however, enlisting the help of a good teacher in solving styling problems is a great way to gain insight into the design thought process.

You should consider whether or not the workshop leader is suitable for your requirements. For example, there's no point in asking me to help you with a black olive or Brazilian rain tree. Sure, I could suggest some design options, but you'd be on your own as far as development and cultivation are concerned since I know nothing about either species. Similarly, I doubt if any of the talented native Floridian bonsai teachers would be much use leading a larch workshop in Michigan.

A workshop isn't an opportunity to challenge the teacher with impossible material, but a means to get the best result possible from good material. And you will get the best result from the workshop if you prepare your plant in advance. I've lost count of the times students have brought really good yamadori pine but spent most of the time pulling off old needles or cleaning out the dead twigs.  If you have a juniper, pinch out the weak inner shoots and eliminate all the dead foliage. Brush or peel the loose bark and spend as long as necessary locating the deadwood that may be hidden beneath. Proper preparation may take ten or twelve hours, but better do it at home than pay to do it in a workshop when you could be wiring the tree. Speaking of wire - make sure you have a full range of sizes. Lastly, please make sure your tree is strong enough to work and it is stable in the pot.

On the left is a fairly typical shimpaku sub branch that is an all-too-common sight at workshops. In the center is the same branch after removing all weak, inner foliage and dead stubs. You could even thin out a little more on a very healthy tree. On the right you can see how removing a section of old dead bark reveals a much more mature and clearly defined live vein. This is all something you should do before taking your tree to a workshop.

This white pine section has been cleaned of all needles older than the current season's (your instructor might ask you to reove even more!) This enables wiring right to the tips of every shoot and allows the precise manipulation of every bud. Better done at home than in a workshop.

A touchy subject. Remember that in a four-hour workshop with, say, eight students, each gets around half an hour attention from the teacher. Don't be greedy, and don't expect the teacher to do the work for you.

Don't be offended if you are last in line. A good teacher will start with the most complex tree and leave the least complex to last. That way there is more chance of everybody finishing in time. In fact, being last in line can be an advantage because you can learn as much from what is being discussed with other students as you can with your own tree.

There is one rule that I always enforce: One tree at a time. It's not uncommon to discuss the design and styling process with a student and then find a different tree on the table next time around.   
    "Where's the tree?"
    "Oh - I'll do it at home, I want to discuss this one now." 
Uh-uh, no way. First, the chances of you actually doing it properly at home are practically nil and, second, it's a workshop and you do the work! Finding design solutions to difficult material is not easy and it is unfair to the teacher and the other students to expect a design consultation on half a dozen trees. If you have that much difficult material, perhaps you would be better served examining your plant selection priorities!

Finally, keep your smartphone in your pocket and on vibrate.

Occasional series: Colin's Rules of Bonsai

Here follows a conversation with a student about a beautifully shaped and mature Japanese maple with excellent nebari and fine ramification. He had brought it into a school session for praise as much as comment, and praise was indeed due.

"Nice tree," I said straight away, "Good work, well done. Bit of a pity about these two branches that are opposite each other, but otherwise it's near perfect."
    "Bar branches! Oh heck, one has to go, right?" he gasped. He studied the tree for several minutes, holding his hand first over one branch and then over the other, squinting to try to eliminate perspective. "Shoot! I dunno, what do you think?"

I adopted my wise old sage face, took a draw on my home rolled cigarette and said;  "Well, lets study the options. For example, how would it look if we cut off this branch?"
   "Pretty crap, there'd be nothing left on that side. Nah, that wouldn't work"
   "I agree, and what if we cut off this one?"
   "Oh no, I don't like that, that's pretty crap too, look at the big gap it would leave, and nothing to replace it with!"
   "Hmm, okay. Well that's ruled out two of the four options already." I leaned back and watched him struggle with the suspicion that he was missing something obvious.  He was.
   "Four options, you said, what are the other two?"
I was walking a well trodden path. I've wrestled with these decisions so many times in the past but always arrived at the same conclusion, and I've led many, many students to arrive at the same place.
   "Well, for one thing you could cut them both off, couldn't you?"
   "What!! That would be ridiculous, I mean the tree would be ruined!"
   "Correct, which leaves just one option."
He frowned, still didn't see what I was driving at.
   "Okay, I give in, what's the fourth option?"
   "Leave both branches on."

The frown turned to surprise. 
   "Er - but that's against the rules, isn't it - bar branches?"
   "Whose rules?" I replied.  "There is one fundamental rule that overrules all others, it states that: 'Your tree must look the best it possibly can at all times' - period. If this means keeping an offending branch or two, then so be it. There's absolutely no justification for making this tree any less beautiful than it could be for the sake of complying with someone else's rules."

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