Friday, December 27, 2013

Did Mughals have dwarf trees grown in containers?

I was looking at the photos of the Rare Book Society of India Facebook page and came across this one. It is a detail of a gouache painting on paper, Bundi style, Rajasthan school, early 18th century (Copyright Trustees of the British Museum). The plant growing in a container with feet is surprisingly similar to bonsai. Did such plants really exist in Mughal India or this plant was simply imagined by the artist?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Evidence of bonsai in a 15th century Kyoto tearoom

I am reading A. L. Sadler’s “The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Cha-No-Yu”, published in 1933. The book has a description of the formal style tea room of Murata Shukō* (1423–1502) who is considered to be the founder of the Japanese tea ceremony. Here is the part of it, which got my attention:
On the walls of this room there are said to have been black-and-white sketches by Engo Zenji**, while in the Tokonoma either a single picture or a set of two was displayed. In front of this was a stand with an incense burner and a flower vase, either one of the ordinary sort or a small one with a single flower. Boxes of stationery and Tanzaku or poem slips, ink stone and bookstand, a tray-garden***, and jars for leaf-tea are also mentioned, so that it is evident that this Tearoom was much like an ordinary study in its furnishings and not specialized as afterwards.
For me, the significance of this passage is that the founder of Japanese tea ceremony had bonsai in his tearoom/study!

*    The ‘wabi-cha’ teachings of Murata Shukō were picked up by Takeno Jōō (1502-1555)  who in turn taught Sen no Rikyū (1522 -1591). Sen no Rikyū had an enormous impact on Japanese aesthetics and culture as a whole. Needless to say this impact extends to bonsai aesthetics as well.
**   as far as I know Engo Zenji was a Zen Master and a writer.
*** "tray-garden" is probably Sadler's literal translation of the word 'bonsai' or a similar term.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The last bonsai pot of 2013

I haven’t been making any new bonsai pots since August and when our wood-firing group decided to have one last firing this year, I had only one small pot made months ago (14 x 6 cm, round). After the firing it turned out to be very unpretentious and I happen to like that in pots (see leftmost image above). This kiln firing was the longest our group had so far. Usually our firings take anywhere between 12 and 17 hours, but this one took 22 hours. I also would like to point out an interesting observation. All three images shown above depict the same rutile glaze, applied on the same buff stoneware clay and fired in the same kiln. The difference is that these three pots were fired in different parts of the kiln and came from three different kiln firing events. The colour range is amazing – from black to beige!

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

On the Origin of Bonsai Appeal to Man

I wrote this article earlier this year and after a couple of unsuccessful
attempts to publish it in bonsai magazines it found its home here.
I wanted to explain my strong emotions towards bonsai
I hope that others may find my explanations acceptable.
Let me know what you think and leave a comment.

Have you ever wondered why people enjoy looking at bonsai? The joy we derive from viewing bonsai is the very essence of its existence. However, the reasons why certain features make bonsai appealing to us are inexplicit. For instance, just saying that a tree is balanced doesn’t explain why balance is a desirable quality. These thoughts led me to seek a better understanding of our perception of bonsai.

The answers came from my training as a biologist. As a matter of fact, I came up with four theories outlining the reasons for the visual appeal of bonsai. But first, I need to make a little disclaimer. Strictly speaking, my theories here are speculations. As a scientist, I view them as hypotheses, which ought to be tested. Some of my statements, though, may be supported by existing scientific literature, but the review of this literature is beyond the scope of this essay. Its aim is only to convey my ideas.   

Theory One: Arboreal refuge

Humans can quickly and accurately assess individual trees and favourably assessed trees are perceived by us as beautiful. Such assessments take us seconds, we do them subconsciously. It is simply our instinct. Modern humans don’t need to assess trees for their beauty, but we have this ability anyway. Why? I believe this ability is a leftover from our evolutionary past.

From around 85 million year ago till about 4 million years ago our distant ancestors lived on trees. During this long evolutionary period our ancestors’ ability to assess trees for their suitability as a refuge was ‘hardwired’ in their brains and became an instinct. Although, in the last 4 million years, our ancestors gradually discontinued their arboreal way of life and lost the need for this instinct, its remnants are still present in the workings of our mind. This leads to the question of what makes a tree beautiful? Well, I think the qualities which make us perceive trees as ‘beautiful’ are structural stability and complexity.

To illustrate my point about structural stability I made a diagram shown below and asked ten random work colleagues: “Which tree has the most pleasing shape?” Nine out of ten chose option ‘b’, which happens to be the most structurally stable tree of the lot. It would also make the best bonsai in my opinion.

While shapes ‘a’, ‘c’ and ‘d’ are less stable than ‘b’, shape ‘e’ is quite stable, yet test participants didn’t find it pleasing, and I know why. Shape ‘e’ is a shrub. Shrubs don’t get you out of a predator’s reach. At the same time, they provide predators with a hiding place to ambush you. In the past, our ancestors survived by being wary of shrubs and today we still prefer the looks of a tree to that of a shrub. 

To clarify what I meant earlier by the complexity of a tree, I made another diagram, where the number of branches on a tree represents its complexity. The diagram is shown below. I asked the same ten colleagues the same question: “Which tree has the most pleasing shape?” Seven out of ten chose option ‘c’ and two people chose option ‘a’. The majority of people preferred trees with a more complex branch structure. If these trees were bonsai you would be foolish to choose anything but ‘c’.

Suddenly, all those rules for styling bonsai begin to take a new meaning. Features of bonsai such as buttress roots, thick trunk, trunk taper, golden ratio proportions, apex above the trunk base and balanced branching are characteristics of a stable structure. On the other hand, features such as dead branches, exposed wood, hollowed trunk, ruggedly textured bark, fruit, flowers, unusually coloured foliage and fine branching are characteristics which adorn bonsai with layers of complexity. When the trunk line of a bonsai is visible, we see all those characteristics clearly and it is easier for us to appreciate a bonsai. We strive to make our bonsai ‘beautiful’ and without realising it, create representations of arboreal refuges favored by our prehistoric ancestors. We like bonsai because they look like our primeval home.

Theory Two: Miracle of survival

The arguments I made so far explain the appeal of structurally stable trees or what we classify in bonsai as upright styles, but what about other tree shapes? Here, I would like to explain the appeal of bonsai that portray trees struggling against the elements of nature. This category includes such bonsai styles as literati, cascade, wind-blown, struck-by-lightning, drift-wood, root-over-rock, raft and sometimes other styles. 

A bizarre or improbable survival of a living thing often attracts our attention. We feel sympathy and compassion at witnessing survival against all odds. This is the emotion that compels us to protect nature. We marvel at an antelope’s escape from the lion’s claws and we wonder at a stunted tree clinging to a cliff face. Knowing the source of this emotion could explain the attraction held by bonsai implying such miraculous survival.

According to a widely acclaimed book titled “The Selfish Gene”, written by an evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the cause of such compassion towards other living things is our genetic relatedness to them. The more genes we share with another living organism the more compassionate we feel towards it. Genetically, we are most closely related to our parents, siblings and offspring and they are usually the ones we care about the most. We would care more about a pet dog than a pet fish, because we share more genes with a dog. I hear you asking: Are we really related to plants? The answer is yes. We share many genes with plants and all other living species on our planet, including bacteria. As we are only distantly related to plants our sympathy towards them is not very strong. Humans kill plants often enough, however we also protect rare species and grow plants for no practical use. Bonsai is one example of that.

Bonsai styles such as literati, cascade and a few others often represent somewhat extreme cases of survival, which evoke compassion more effectively. I should also note that my ‘miracle of survival’ and ‘arboreal refuge’ theories often work together. For example, a cascade bonsai with a thick trunk and balanced branches would create a stronger appeal. I hope you are beginning to see that the psychology of our perception of bonsai is quite complex and my next theory is going to add yet another layer of complexity.

Theory Three: Field of dreams

Here, I would like to explain the appeal of bonsai forests, rock plantings, saikei, bonkei, some suiseki and even certain types of Oriental gardens. All these art forms have one common denominator - they represent landscapes. Here we need to think beyond individual trees and ask ourselves a couple of questions. First: “Why do we enjoy looking at landscapes in general?” and second: “What landscape features hold stronger appeal to us and why?”

To answer these questions I used the power of Google to do a little survey. I entered search criterion ‘beautiful landscape’ in Google Images and examined the top one hundred results. The landscape images were very diverse and depicted deserts, sea, mountains, forests, cities and more. First, I tried to find something that was present in each and every one of those one hundred landscapes. It became immediately obvious that it wasn’t any particular physical feature of the landscape. The only common attribute they all shared was the abundance of open space. In 94% of the landscapes the viewer could see further than one kilometer and 91% of them featured a distant horizon.

This indicates that open space is highly pleasing to human eye. The ability to see danger from afar was essential to our survival, so was the ability to see the choices for food and shelter. On the subconscious level, we feel safer when our line of sight is uninterrupted, but our conscious mind tells us that we see beautiful surroundings. One example that supports this theory is a seascape. The sea is not our habitat, but we love looking at it, just because our line of sight is uninterrupted. Another example is looking at a cityscape from a tall building. The landscape we see is completely artificial, yet it is pleasing to us because our line of sight is uninterrupted again.

The answer to my first question about landscapes is quite simple. We enjoy looking at vast expanses of open space, because we can see what’s out there, and it makes us feel safe. We like bonsai representing landscapes because they imply distance and open space. Such bonsai evoke subconscious emotions of safety, which are rationalised by our conscious mind as beauty.

Now, let’s examine specific landscape features to assess their appeal to us. We must keep in mind that a large stretch of open space is the most desirable landscape trait and no other feature can beat that 100 out of 100 score. I used the same one hundred images to score other landscape attributes. I counted how many images out of hundred contained a particular attribute. These counts are also percentages and they are shown in the table below.

The list of attributes that scored over fifty percent was surprisingly small. The percentages also prioritised the importance of these landscape attribute. The diagram below is a generalized representation an average landscape containing trees, grassland, water, mountains and lots of open space. Many images in that top one hundred looked similar to this.

Trees and grassland were the most desirable landscape attributes. They are also the only two components you need to create your basic bonsai forest. In fact, even single tree bonsai often suggest a lone tree on a hill or in a meadow. In a formal bonsai display such a suggestion is aided by the use of grasses as accent plants. From the scientific point of view, the importance of trees and grassland makes perfect sense. Humans, as a species, evolved in ecosystems which were a mixture of forest and grassland. When we see a combination of forest and grassland our instincts tell us that we are in the right place. These two habitats can provide us with a variety of food and shelter we need for survival.

The third most important landscape attribute was water and its importance is self-understood. However, the importance of mountains needs an explanation. I have talked at length about the uninterrupted line of sight. Well, very often you have to be on top of a mountain to have it. Hills and mountains provided early humans with vantage points necessary for hunting, gathering and security.

Mountains are also a source of a different kind of appeal. What do you think was the best shelter a prehistoric human could wish for? It was a cave, and caves are found in mountains. Think of our modern brick houses. They are nothing but artificial caves. Humans stopped using caves in prehistory because they learned how to custom-make them from a variety of materials. In fact, this was one of the key inventions which allowed humans to multiply and spread to less favourable environments.     

I hope you are beginning to understand why bonsai suggesting open space, trees, grass, water and rock are so appealing to us. They tap into our instincts and our mind embraces these elements as something attractive. In reality though, we enjoy looking at such bonsai because they portray places promising survival.

Theory Four: Tree in disguise

After providing a few different explanations for the visual appeal of bonsai, I could still see one more. It concerns the category of bonsai whose shape suggests something other than a tree. This category includes trees like the ‘welcome pine’ reminding us of a person with an open arm. It also includes trees which look like dragons, Chinese language characters and sometimes other objects.

Appreciation of such bonsai requires not instinct, but conscious and abstract thought. In the case of the ‘welcome pine’ we have to create an abstract idea of a particular shape through observing and analysing shapes of real life objects such as a person with an open arm, a specific famous tree in China and a bonsai tree resembling both. We like looking at the ‘welcome pine’ bonsai because making connections between these seemingly unrelated objects is enjoyable to us. To understand why we enjoy it, think of a prehistoric human capable of recognising a predator camouflaged as foliage or a prey camouflaged as a rock. Making such connections could be a matter of life and death to our distant ancestors. In our evolutionary past natural selection favoured individuals with better abilities for abstract thinking and our brain evolved to reward it with positive emotions. Such evolutionary adaptation allowed our species to discover and innovate, which in turn immensely increased our chances of survival.

Today, we enjoy solving puzzles even when there are no immediate rewards associated with them. Problem solving triggers positive emotions in our brain and recognising that a bonsai tree looks like something else makes us feel happy.
*  *  *  *
I have tried my best to explain why people enjoy looking at bonsai, but how can my theories help an average bonsai practitioner? I believe that bonsai traits identified in my theories can be used as a series of guidelines for creating, displaying and judging bonsai. Whenever you look at a bonsai and feel that something is missing - check it against the following criteria:

  • Does it convey a sense of stability?
  • Does it combine multiple points of interest to depict sufficient complexity?
  • Does it portray a struggle against nature?
  • Does it suggest an open landscape, perhaps with water or rocks?
  • Does its shape allude to anything other than a tree?

These criteria are very well known to the bonsai community, but now you have possible explanations for how they interact with your mind and why it is important to incorporate them into your bonsai design.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Sydney Bonsai Spectacular 2013

I was really happy to learn that Sydney Bonsai Spectacular is happening again. So far, it took place only once in 2011 and it was much better than your average local bonsai club show. At this point, Australia can’t have a national exhibition because of quarantine restrictions between the states. An event like Sydney Bonsai Spectacular is the closest thing we have to the national exhibition. This time, I anticipated it to be just like the last one if not better. To my regret the standard of bonsai this year was less impressive, but the suiseki display was a little better. Images above show some of the trees I liked. All three of them have pleasing shapes, but require further refinement.
I know that bonsai enthusiasts in Sydney have some really good trees, but we don’t see them at our bonsai exhibitions. The only way to encourage people to come forward with their best trees is to make it a competition for an attractive price. It can be a prestigious trophy, cash or something else.
As for the suiseki, Sydney Bonsai Spectacular had a few interesting ones (see images below). Some of them featured fine daizas or suibans. Some had faults in their display, but suitable display accessories can be hard to find.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Pest of the month: Asian Woolly Hackberry Aphid

Several years ago, one of the members of my bonsai club showed me a bonsai infested with woolly aphids. I couldn’t investigate what species it was at that time, but last month I have come across some woolly aphids on Chinese Hackberry (Celtis sinensis) (images above). This time I had the opportunity to identify the species. Images below show microscope sild specimens of winged and wingless adults, which have to be prepared for species identification. It turned out to be the Asian Woolly Hackberry Aphid (Shivaphis celti), an exotic species recently introduced to Australia. Woolly aphids such as Asian Woolly Hackberry Aphid can be a real nuisance. They quickly multiply and draw large amounts of plant sap to secrete a sugary substance or honeydew and deposit it on the plant’s surface. It is intended as ant food in exchange for protection ants provide to the aphids. However, in the absence of ants honeydew gets infected with sooty mould fungus, which blackens the leaves. Don’t let it happen and kill woolly aphids with an insecticide as soon as you notice them on your bonsai.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Exhibition of Bonsai Society of Australia

Another year, another annual exhibition of Bonsai Society of Australia. Some of the better trees are shown in the images above. They are not perfect, but their owners made some effort to refine them. There were many trees with tremendous potential; however, without a period of frequent wiring, pruning and styling their potential seemed wasted.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Demonstration by Robert Steven

At the beginning of this month, I attended this year’s “Tops Weekend” (Weekend Workshops at Stanwell Tops organised by the Illawarra Bonsai Society). The main demonstrator this year was Robert Steven, a bonsai artist from Indonesia known internationally for his two books. He practices bonsai at his bonsai centre in Jakarta. I was there just for a day and saw his two workshops and a demonstration. Images below show some of the trees from the workshops. Images on the left depict each tree before the workshop and images on the right show them after the workshop.

During the workshops Robert kept on emphasising that ‘bonsai rules’ are only guidelines designed for beginners. Once you understand the rationale behind the rules, you should follow the rationale and not necessarily the rules. As an example he drew two trees. One was a typical bonsai while the other was a tree with the first branch very short and growing at mid-height of the tree (not 1/3). The lengths of other branches of this tree were drawn at random as well. To my surprise the tree that didn’t follow classic bonsai rules looked more interesting and natural.

Another interesting observation Robert made is that bonsai represent trees seen from close distance rather than from far away. This is why bonsai with the first branch located relatively high on the trunk are preserved by us as taller trees. To fit the look of a tree viewed from close quarters bonsai must have a sufficient amount of detail. Features such as irregularly shaped foliage pads can provide that level of detail.

He said that one of the common mistakes made by many bonsai practitioners is shaping the canopy of a deciduous or a tropical tree as if it is a conifer in a triangular shape. Bonsai design must always take into account natural growth habits of a species. That way the bonsai will look genuine and will tell a story of its native habitat.

Robert reminded the participants to turn defects into features, but at the same time warned not have too many features: “The more you show, the less people see”.

He also pointed out the importance of negative spaces and ‘in-and-out’ spaces in the tree canopy. They make trees look more natural. Robert stressed that asymmetric balance is a very important concept in bonsai design. However, group plantings must have a focal point as well as asymmetric balance in overall composition.

Another thing I liked about Robert was that he was full of curious facts. Botanical terminology, plant anatomy, etymology of bonsai terms, etc. He said that he comes by such facts while doing research for his books.

In the evening, Robert did a demonstration. He decided not to do another conifer demonstration, which would produce an ‘instant bonsai’. Instead, he asked the audience to choose a couple of deciduous trees from a small batch of advanced bonsai stock. The first choice was the messiest tree in the batch with a seemingly confusing multitude of trunks (image 1 below). After a preliminary pruning of branches and roots, the number and shape of the trunks became more apparent. The position of the trunks in relation to each other was somewhat symmetrical (image 2 below). To overcome this, Robert changed the angle of the tree (image 3 below). This was followed by the removal of all unnecessary branches, which made the tree look unimpressive (image 4 below). For a finishing touch, however, Robert had a very impressive trick. He pulled out a bunch of artificial brunches made of wire and stated attaching them to the trunks to simulate the future development of the tree. The effect was very convincing indeed (image 5 below). The demonstration was quite entertaining.

The second tree chosen by the audience had a single trunk (image 1 below) and the demonstration involved a gradual removal of branches (image 2 below) with the final result shown in the image 3 below. This demonstration was more simple and straightforward.

As a whole, it was a fun day.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

More wood-fired bonsai pots

This winter was quite prolific in terms of making wood-fired bonsai pots. There has been yet another firing of the kiln this month. Everyone involved agreed that it was the hottest and the shortest firing anyone could remember. The photograph of the kiln shed here is the testament to that. The kiln chimney is about 4 m tall and it’s not in the image, but the flame coming out of it is hard to miss. Many pots in this kiln load were over-fired and got cracked, bloated or distorted. Their glazes ‘ran’ (see glaze tears on the bottom of the pot in the top image). I haven’t achieved anything spectacular this time except that the pots shown in the top two images are larger than what I have been making so far. Their dimensions are 26 x 8 and 27 x 6 cm. All three pots shown here bear the same rutile glaze, which wasn’t the plan, but just happened.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Grafting knife by Takeshi Saji

I never thought of any of my bonsai tools as elegant. Well-designed and well-made perhaps, but not elegant. Last week, I was window shopping in a Japanese kitchen knife shop and stumbled across a handmade grafting knife by Takeshi Saji (see images below). The shape of the blade and the Damascus pattern on it make it an elegant tool. Apparently, the steel is quite hard and durable too.

Takeshi Saji is a third generation master forge-smith from Takefu, a city in Fukui Prefecture famous for its traditional hammer forged knives. Master Saji is 65 years old and in recent years he has been devoting his time to making custom made knives (such as mine I hope).

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Annual exhibition of the Bonsai Society of Sydney

About two weeks ago I saw the annual exhibition of the Bonsai Society of Sydney. It was enjoyable. I love the ikebana component of their show. In fact, the standard of their ikebana arrangements is probably higher than the standard of their bonsai. Images above show a tree and a suiseki I liked the most.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Demonstration by Masashi Hirao

Last weekend, Bonsai Society of Sydney hosted two demonstrations by a Japanese bonsai artist Masashi Hirao. We were told that he is 32 years old and from 2003 till recently he had been an apprentice at Mansei-en in Omiya. Now, he is working in a company called Advance K & B Farms Corporation located in Omiya, which specialises in exporting koi and bonsai overseas. He is a recipient of a Japanese government grant given to young artists to promote Japanese culture abroad. Apparently, he has to visit ten countries in 120 days. Before the demonstration he showed us a short video about his apprenticeship under Saburo Kato and the preparation for the trip. Masashi also showed us a pair of stainless steel gold plated bonsai scissors given to him by Saburo Kato. They are his talisman. After this he proceeded to style a Procumbent Juniper shown in the image A. After two hours of pruning and wiring he presented us with the tree shown in the image B. On the previous day he conducted a similar demonstration where he styled a Sergeant’s Juniper shown in the image C. I felt that the tree in image B was a more interesting material than the tree in image C and that inspired grater expectations for the demonstration on the day. 

Well, what can I say? Two hours is a very short time for a demonstration on a tree like this. Masashi sure can prune and wire very fast, but after nearly ten years as a bonsai apprentice it can be expected. He said that usually it would take him six hours to style a tree like this. In my opinion the ‘finished tree’ shown in the image B has no appealing form and shows no future promise of it. Masashi said it is a natural style. Sure one may encounter a tree of this shape in nature, but I don’t find it particularly elegant. On the other hand, the tree shown in the image C is styled in a more conventional way and it could become a graceful bonsai in the future. Looking at the two trees styled by Masashi I see extremes, one is usual and the other is odd. I should see more of his work before forming an opinion. Overall, the demonstration was quite entertaining and I enjoyed it.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Latest wood-fired bonsai pots

A couple of weeks ago, I fired another batch of bonsai pots in a wood-fired kiln. I actually had six pots ready, but only three were packed into the kiln. Although I used the same glazes as in the last firing, the results were different. One of the pots had to come home with its kiln shelf (image A), because its rutile glaze ran so much that it got welded to the self (image B). Once it was cut off the shelf, I decided not to remove remnants of clay attached to its feet (image C). It is a unique feature of the pot, which tells a story. Besides, it doesn’t affect the looks of the pot (image D).

The other two pots came out well too. The pot shown in the left image below was made of the same clay and coated with the same gaze as the pot in the images above, however these two pots look different. Also, the glaze on the pot shown below didn’t run and it didn’t get stuck to the kiln shelf. The reason for it is variation in temperature and kiln atmosphere across the kiln.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Tsubo niwa on a shoe string

Six years ago, I moved into a townhouse with a small backyard and that allowed me to take up bonsai. Now, I live elsewhere, but in this post I would like to pay a little tribute to that tiny piece of land.

Just months before the house was sold my daughter asked me to make a little Japanese garden. The available space was enough to create a tsubo niwa, a courtyard garden the size of one tsubo (3.3 m2). The idea grew on me and after a while I decided to do it as a challenge. I usually hoard found objects in hope of using them in the garden one day. If I could come up with a garden design incorporating all those found objects, the garden would be inexpensive. Soon I had a plan shown in the drawing below.

The design had to take in to account several considerations:

a) It had to fit into a 2 x 1.5 m plot (coincidently about one tsubo in area).
b) It had to use existing plants, preferably without transplanting them.
c) It had to make maximum use of found objects (which included artificial rock made of polyurethane).
d) It had to incorporate two existing posts supporting overhead irrigation system.
e) It had to have a barrier preventing my dog from entering it.

Now you understand why I considered this design a challenge. Below is a step-by-step rundown of how it all happened.

1 – The area before any work began.
2 – The ground is cleared and sprayed with a weedicide. Two existing plants a tree fern and a camellia are left as they were.
3 – The fence is lined with reed screen. The ground is covered with weed cloth. The artificial rocks are laid out to form garden boundary. The fronds of tree fern had to be removed because of the skin irritation they cause.
4 – Pieces of ceramic pipe, bricks and artificial rocks are arranged to form a retaining wall. This wall will form the boundary of a mossy island surrounded by white pebbles.
5 – The island is filled with soil mix.

6 – Stone lantern and a flat rock in front of it are set in place. The top part of the
lantern (spire, roof and firebox) was a found object, but the bottom (firebox platform and post) was carved by me out of hebel. I made it to resemble Oribe style lantern.
7 – The top of the retaining wall is raised higher and shaped with clay. The island is toped up with more soil mix.
8 – Moss is planted on the island surface. All moss was collected in my backyard.
9 – Unwanted rocks and ceramic pieces are laid out to reduce the amount of pebbles to be used in the garden.
10 – The garden is filled with white pebbles and another stepping stone is set in front of the lantern. Timber post at the back is wrapped with reed screen to blend with the background. The timber post at the front is replaced with a thin copper pipe to make it less noticeable. I inserted a steel rod inside the pipe to give it structural strength. This copper pipe is also a part of a fence formed by a very thin wire to prevent my dog from entering the garden.

11 – Artificial rocks forming the garden boundary are rearranged to reduce the area of the garden.
12 – The tree fern with its first new leaf.
13-14 – The tree fern with its first flush of new leaves. A ceramic mask (made by me) is hung to conceal the junction between the timber structure and the top end of the copper pipe.
15 – The base of the copper pipe post is concealed by a rock. A ceramic water basin (made by me) is set in front of the lantern. I meant to reduce the basin's height and place it closer to the lantern, but the house was sold by then.

I had a score of ideas for improving and refining this garden, but it wasn't mine any more. It fulfilled its primary function though - it made my daughter happy. In fact, she could see the garden from her room without even getting out of bed. Image below left shows the intended angle for viewing the garden. Image below right shows the garden in the context of the backyard.

You might say this garden looks a little tacky, but can you do better for less than $200?

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Pest of the month: California Red Scale

Last month, I was pruning and wiring an African Olive tree and noticed a profusion of tiny scale insects on its leaves (image A). What you see on the leaves is not the actual insect, but the waxy secretion which serves as a protective shell (image B). You need to flip the scale over to expose the soft and vulnerable body of the insect (image C). To identify the species of a scale insect one must prepare a microscope slide, which usually takes a couple of days. Once the slide is prepared the insect looks as shown on image D. In this case, it turned out to be California Red Scale (Aonidiella aurantii). It is better known as an economically important pest of citrus. To control the infestation of such scale insects, I prefer to spray the pant with a systemic insecticide. If the problem persists spray it again according to instructions on the label.

I have noticed something curious about California Red Scale. Its rear end shown by the arrow in image D has peculiar structures, which look like windswept bonsai (see the image below).

Friday, July 12, 2013

"Kin-tsugi" to the rescue

I made the pot shown above last February. During the final firing one of its corners warped and lifted the foot attached to it off the ground. The effect was awful. I was about to throw the pot away when one of the potters in the studio said: “If you don’t want it, I’ll take it”. That made me pause, and then my ceramics teacher challenged me to come up with a solution to fix it. The solution came when I remembered a story about a Japanese tea master who adhered to wabi sabi aesthetics so sternly that he would smash tea bowls and then glue them back together to meet the criteria of "imperfect, impermanent and incomplete". I didn’t smash my pot though, just cut the crooked leg off (image below right).

The traditional Japanese technique of repairing ceramics called kin-tsugi is to glue broken parts with shellac and then apply gold powder while it is still wet. It makes repaired seams appear as gold lines. Some of the European bonsai pot makers took this tradition to the next level and repaired their pots with pure gold (see Well, I took it down a notch and glued my pot with a two-part epoxy glue and then applied gold nail polish while it was still wet. Both epoxy and nail polish are acetone solvable and combine really well. The nail polish I used contains some epoxy as well, which adds to their compatibility. Another upside is that epoxy is really strong and weather resistant. You can see different stages of my take on kin-tsugi below.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Spider Pot

The bonsai pot shown above was made by me earlier this year. Drying it slowly, bisque firing, glazing and finally stoneware firing took months to complete. Well, better late than never, and I think it was worth the wait. The design was inspired by jumping spiders (family Salticidae), so I called it the ‘Spider Pot’. To me the similarity is obvious (see images below).

Monday, June 10, 2013

Demonstration by Linh Khanh at ‘Bonsai by the Harbour’

Last Saturday, I went to ‘Bonsai by the Harbour’. It is an annual event organised by the Bonsai Federation of Australia in a delightful waterfront setting in Gladesville (image above). Most demonstrators throughout the day had my curiosity, but the last demonstration by Linh Khanh got my attention. In a little more than one hour, he used three Procumbent Junipers, five chunks of mallee root and a marble suiban to create a very believable miniature landscape. The composition was held together by the mortar consistency soil mix, which was 90% fine soil and 10% clay. The trees were in need of further shaping and I would have made them a little shorter, but the landscape was auctioned and sold at the reserve price of $400. Anyway, the photos below say it all.

At last! New wood-fired bonsai pots

It has been a whole year since my last wood-firing ( At last, it’s come along again and I was ready with a few bonsai pots! Some of them are shown below.

Images above show my favorite pot in this batch. Every side of this pot looks interesting. It is stoneware, wood-fired, yellow rutile glaze, round, 19 × 8 cm.

Images above:
Left – stoneware, wood-fired, yellow rutile glaze, round, 16 × 8.5 cm;
Center – a close up of crystalised glaze on one of the pots;
Right – stoneware, wood-fired, yellow rutile glaze, round, 17 × 7.5 cm.

Images above:
Left – stoneware, wood-fired, blue stoneware glaze, round, 21.5 × 7.5 cm;
Right – stoneware, wood-fired, blue stoneware glaze, round, 17 × 4.5 cm.

Images above:
Left – stoneware, wood-fired, white stoneware glaze, round, 20 × 5 cm;
Right – stoneware, wood-fired, no glaze, round, 15.5 × 4 cm.

Images above:
Left – stoneware, wood-fired, naturally formed ash, round, 16 × 12 cm;
Center – stoneware, wood-fired, naturally formed ash, round, 12.5 × 10.5 cm;
Right – stoneware, wood-fired, yellow rutile glaze, round, 13 × 12 cm.

The pots shown in left and center images above didn't have any glaze, instead they were placed right in front of the fire box in the throat of the kiln. As a result, they were mercilessly beaten by fire, smothered with molten ash and buried in embers. Images below show these two pots before and after firing inside the kiln.     

In case you are wandering what is the throat of a kiln, see images below. All other pots shown in this post were fired in the main chamber of the kiln shown below as well.

P.S. For more info on wood-fired kilns see:

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bonsai in ten months

I hardly ever blog about bonsai I have done myself. In this post, I would like to talk about this particular Small-leaved Privet (Ligustrum sinense). What you see in the leftmost image was accomplished in ten months.

Although this tree requires further refinement, its basic shape is already in place. This plant was pulled out of the ground and given to me for free in August 2010. It was approximately 50 cm tall, with no fine roots and no leaves. During the following year I allowed one branch to grow freely to be the future upper trunk and kept all other brunches shorter. There was no styling of any sort at that stage. In October 2011, I chopped the trunk and wired two lowest brunches (see the trunk chop scar in the centre image). In the following months, I gradually wired the rest of the branches and pruned them to form the foliage pads. By August 2012 this tree looked pretty much as it looks in the images. So, the actual implementation of the basic design took only 10 months (Oct 2011 - Aug 2012). The tree was planted in the current training bonsai pot in March 2013 (left image). The height of the tree from apex to the rim of the pot is 17.5 cm. The rightmost image is not real. I used Photoshop to bring the pot into proportion with the tree. This is just to demonstrate the importance of planting your bonsai in a pot of appropriate size. In conclusion, the take home message here is: “For quick results use local weeds and make small trees”.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Grafting pine on thick trunk

I wanted to learn how to graft small pine scions on a thick trunk. Last October, I grafted seven Radiata Pine scions on a 6-cm-thick trunk. By the end of November 2012 two of them had new shoots. By January 2013 all scions were alive and six out of seven had new shoots. I removed the plastic protecting the grafts from drying in mid-March this year. Unfortunately, the plant died last month because I chopped off the upper trunk. I wanted to direct all the plant’s energy into the grafted branches, but my plan turned out to be deadly to the plant. Yes, I know. What was I thinking?! Anyway, below are a few images showing this plant’s progress.

A – The rootstock plant after repotting in August 2012;
B – The plant on completion of grafting in early October 2012;
C – Close-up of the grafted scions on the day of grafting in October 2012;
D – Close-up of grafted branches with new shoots in mid-December 2012.

Here are a few things I learned from this experience:
  • Advice from bonsai practitioners and the Internet was useful;
  • Peeling bark off the trunk, before making incisions, was helpful;
  • A grafting chisel is better for making incisions in the trunk;
  • Aligning cambium was easier because on a thicker trunk it is a wider band, which can be recognised by its dark orange colour;  
  • Enclosing the whole area with clear plastic with some moist sphagnum moss worked really well;
  • Once the grafts have new shoots, the plant needs more sun;
  • Don’t do anything drastic to the plant for at least a year.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Pest of the month: scale insects

Over the last two years I have been taking photos of scale insects parasitising my bonsai. Only this month, I became more certain about their identities. Unlike the Brown Soft Scale I talked about last month (see these species secrete wax, which formes a protective shell over their body.  All four species shown below are invasive pests introduced to Australia from various parts of the world. All four have a wide range of host plants. The size of these insects changes as they grow, but the bits of plants shown in the photos should provide you with a rough size scale. Anyway, here they are.

A – The Pink Wax Scale (Ceroplastes rubens) on Japanese Flowering Quince;
B – The Nigra Scale (Parasaissetia nigra) on Japanese Black Pine;
C – The Fly Speck Scale (Gymnaspis aechmeae) on Port Jackson Fig;
D – The Hemispherical Scale (Saissetia coffeae) on Japanese Box.