Monday, 25 April 2016

A Vigorous Olive Tree

In October 2013 my bonsai club hosted a convention attended by members of the bonsai community from all parts of South Africa. The headliners at this convention were three foreign guests, among them an American called Rob Kempinski.

In addition to hearing the speeches, I was fortunate enough to attend one of Rob Kempinski's workshops.

In the build-up to the convention I realised that most of my trees weren't worthy of a workshop of this calibre, and luckily I was able to buy an old olive tree which had been collected from the wild a year or two earlier. This is what it looked like just before the workshop:

October 2013 - before initial styling

At the workshop the best possible branches were selected and Rob Kempinski also did a bit of carving for me, as well as refining the jin at the top with a blowtorch. After the workshop it looked like this:

October 2013 - after initial styling

I then left it to grow for a while so that the lower branches could develop, but did the odd bit of tidying up work as this tree has a tendency to put out lots of buds on old wood.

New buds forming on trunk

I have to remove these regularly, otherwise the entire design of the tree will be lost.

By August 2015 those lower branches had thickened up a fair amount and had been trimmed back so that the tree was starting to resemble a proper bonsai. In addition, a little more carving had been done at my club's workshops.

August 2015

However the tree had one major issue which was really worrying me. As the tree had originally had very one-sided growth, the lowest branch on the left was actually a back branch which had been pulled to the side. It looks okay in the picture above, but from the back it looked really ugly:

Rear branch pulled to side

This is where the tree's tendency to produce lots of buds helped me out. Within weeks after this photo was taken, a new bud had appeared exactly where I wanted it.

New branch forming in front of old one

Once that branch had grown long and strong enough for me to be sure of its survival, I removed the old branch and wired the new one into position, with the tip pointed upwards to encourage it to grow vigorously and fatten up.

After removing old side branch

At the same time I repotted the tree, changing the angle slightly to make the top jin a more dominant apex.

December 2015, after repotting

In February I took it to a workshop where I was persuaded to remove the lowest branch, a decision I still sometimes question.

Lowest branch removed

Hopefully by the time the new branch has fattened up I'll be able to convince myself that it was the right decision.

Repotting the tree in fresh soil seems to have increased its vigour. Despite removing the new buds in both February and March, a month of neglect meant that the whole structure of the tree had disappeared behind a sea of new growth.

Olive tree, overgrown after one month of neglect

After a quick tidy up this week, it now looks like this:

April 2016

Aside from developing the new branch, there is still quite a lot of refining to do. Those pads look quite unbalanced to me, and I can't help feeling that the lower jin is too heavy. As I don't do my own carving it will need another workshop soon.

Updated photos can be found here.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

In Search of the Perfect Tree

My search began as the result of a visit to Reddit's bonsai group which recently announced that they would be holding a Nursery Stock Contest. During the course of the contest, a period of approximately six months, participants are required to transform an ordinary nursery tree into bonsai.

By rights I should have ignored this contest and got on with reading other discussions of interest. I'm by no means the most skilled in the art of bonsai, so I know that I stand no chance of winning. What's more, last year's winning tree was a Juniper and as a rule I try to avoid working with conifers. And perhaps worst of all, I live in the Southern hemisphere, so the contest runs over my winter - not the ideal time for developing the branch structure of a tree.

So, did good sense prevail? Not a bit. I want to be part of the fun, so I went out looking for a suitable tree.

I soon came across this guy:

Ficus Nitida as purchased, April 2016

It's a Ficus, one of my favourite species. That's a big plus. By my standards it's quite a big tree, one I'm barely able to lift. Unfortunately the low branches are very thin and that thicker upward-pointing branch half way up the trunk was dead. The taper's not great either, but hopefully thickening up those lower branches will help. That's certainly not going to happen within six months though, so this certainly isn't competition material. I bought it anyway.

The next candidate came from my bonsai club which recently held what is known as a New Talent Competition. To be eligible for this competition you must have been a member for less than ten years. I've been a member for just over eight. Each participant is randomly allocated a tiny Juniper Procumbens Nana and given about two and a half hours to style it. Instant bonsai isn't my thing and as I said, nor are Junipers, but I felt I should challenge myself.

This is the tree I received:

Juniper Procumbens Nana unstyled, April 2016

On such a small tree, the branches were rather thin and not very well positioned so I decided to go for a literati. I ended up with this:

Juniper Procumbens Nana after styling, April 2016

Rather late in the day I realised that I should have left more foliage higher up and made the tail a bit shorter, but I was scared to remove any more right now so it looks rather unbalanced. In time I hope to improve on that.

Before the competition I had considered using this tree for Reddit's contest. However it's far too small and insignificant.

I knew I needed to look elsewhere.

Monday I visited another nursery, where I saw a couple of trees that interested me but they didn't feel right for the contest either, mainly due to the fact that I felt I'd want to do air layers before I started styling them. Obviously that isn't possible during the time allowed. I left with nothing.

Tuesday I found a tree I liked somewhere else:

Feijoa Sellowiana as purchased, April 2016

This one's a Feijoa Sellowiana. Not a tree I've often seen as bonsai, but I already have a thicker one which I rather like and I'd been considering buying another for some time.

Once again I'm not really sure this is contest material. Although I'm prepared to cut back hard, I don't see the prospect of much new growth over winter. But I'll start work and see what happens.

After buying this tree I still felt the urge to go back for one of the trees I'd seen on Monday, so this afternoon I went and bought this guy:

Euonymus as purchased, April 2016

It's a rather slender Euonymus which could probably do with a couple of years' unrestricted growth before I start work on it, so I probably shouldn't even consider it for the contest. Thankfully it was really cheap, but it's yet another tree to take space in my overcrowded bonsai area.

And so, while I'm really trying to reduce the size of my collection of pre-bonsai, cuttings and seedlings, over the course of the last couple of weeks I've acquired four new trees. And I'm still not sure I'm even going to enter the contest.

Update: 17 July 2016

In the end I didn't enter the contest because I knew that none of my material was really suitable, but I enjoyed the hunt.

I've started work on the Ficus and the Feijoa, but if I don't lose patience I'm still hoping to fatten up the Euonymus before I even consider styling it.