OK. You have ALL asked for it. Design information for bonsai. So we are going to try and tackle this subject through specific examples. Each tree is different and requires a different approach. Even if you go to a workshop, where there are ten trees to choose from that are all mass produced together, there will be a tremendous variation in the style and individual qualities of each tree. Therefore, the more insight into design that you have, and the more technical skill, the greater ability you will have to make your trees better. And that all comes with being exposed to more trees and more situations.
Our first case involves a Lodgepole Pine that I collected sometime in the nineties, up on the backside of Hood, in a ditch somewhere on a side road off of Lolo Pass. Not being deceptive here - I really don’t recall much more than that. Ditches and road cuts seem to be the best place for me to find trees at lower elevations – places where all of the trees normally grow very straight. At one time, I had more lodgepole pines than any other single species in my collection. This specimen was somewhat of an upright tree when collected and initially planted. Somewhere along the lines, I decided to make it a semi-cascade style. These guys grow very slowly and don’t back bud reliably, so I needed to work with what I had, in terms of branching and trunk thickness. At this time the trunk had no deadwood on it. I stripped and carved the jin you see at the right from a live branch and was rather proud of the carving work. One of the only trees I have ever really finish carved for aesthetic purposes. At that time, I was studying with Boon Manakitivipart in his Intensive program. I brought the tree down to Boon’s club and the Bay Island Bonsai Club show in January 2006. This is the first photo you see of the tree. Take a look and see what you think.
What did you notice? The trunk is rather thin, but not really a bunjin. The needles are nice and short, but the pads are not all that dense. The trunk has some reverse taper. But more than that, the foliage mass is a long ways away from where the trunk emanates from the soil. That makes a big, unsightly hole in the visual composition. Lodgepoles didn’t seem to get much respect at the time, down in the bay area, it was being considered maybe a common tree. But I never saw one on display, so that thought bewildered me. I had a lot of fun showing this tree, along with a group of vine maples growing on a lava rock, which I also still have.
Fast forward to 2013. I had not been keeping up with my trees, and this one was no exception. I was already working on thinning my collection down and this tree was on the chopping block. It was going to have to become a better bonsai, or die trying. That may sound harsh. But lodgepoles really are a dime a dozen up in the woods, and this tree was purely my own investment in time and money. My goal is to make the most out of every tree, and if this tree was going keep using my resources, like watering every day and precious bench space, it was going to have to improve - drastically. Back in about 2010-11 I decided to change the container into something smaller and lighter in appearance. But the repotting happened to take place after the new shoots had started to elongate. Not a big problem, even if not ideal, as I had done this before. The problem here was that I had to reduce the root mass much more than expected to fit into the v-shaped pot. I should have just stopped – but that is not always on my radar. The result was that, even with my extra effort at aftercare, the tree barely survived. It lost some foliage, and most definitely it’s strength. Now I had to let it recover for a few years.
With all of the above in mind, I had a few intrepid folks help me and in the spring of 2014 we proceeded towards styling the tree. In the intervening years, a small portion of deadwood
had expanded to cover a much larger area on the trunk, mostly on the back side. The only way to feature that element was to change the front. Once the new front was decided upon, we proceeded to bend the trunk in two places. Then we stopped to let the tree recover. It did very well, and in the early spring of 2015 I was able to complete the restyling.
The process for bending the trunk was straightforward, but not for the faint of heart. For the first bend, we used a saw to separate the dead part of the trunk from the live part – dead and dry parts don’t bend, they just break. We probably could have just split it, but I wanted a little more control. We then used the rebar that you can see in the photo to anchor the wire as we bent the tree back on itself. This move was largely horizontal and meant to make the trunk shorter. The second bend then, was to move the crown back over top of the trunk. To get the trunk to bend, we hollowed it out, creating space for the wood to move lessening the force needed. We were able to anchor this second bend to the same rebar. Mission accomplished. This work is really much easier with more than one set of hands.
When I got ready to wire and style the rest of the tree this year, I was struck by the nature of the curves that we had created and how much I enjoyed them. But darn, I was planning to feature the deadwood. After a brief debate in my mind, I went back to the fundamental hierarchy for bonsai design – 1. Base, 2. Trunk Line, 3. Special Features, 4. Branching. A beautiful trunk line trumps special features, especially when they are not so special. So now we are back at the original front. But the larger mission has been accomplished – to compact the design. The open spaces are now smaller and less intrusive and are now within reach of the foliage, another mitigating factor. Lodgepoles are quite rewarding to wire – the needles are not sharp and there is a good amount of space between branching to get in and out of. The only caveat on this particular tree is that the foliage is rather wild. Hopefully that will settle down with a more consistent growing pattern. Since I rotated the angle of the tree during styling, I built a little stand so that the tree could grow at the new angle, keeping the needles upright, and until I can find an awesome new pot.
Compare the old and new silhouettes. You can see just how far that jin traveled. Notice where the crown sits in each version. It has moved considerably.
That’s my mission at the Artisan’s Cup come fall. Notice the dam of soil added to make sure the water permeates evenly through the soil column. Ready to show next year with a new pot? You decide.