The following progression article was a Professional – Pre-Bonsai Stock entry in the “2007 Knowledge of Bonsai Progressive Styling Contest” and was entered by Walter Pall of Germany. This entry received a score of 21 out of a possible 30 points from the judges.
We feel that by featuring these progressions, which contain the thoughts behind the decisions made as well as a photo-journal of the various stages of design, a better understanding of not only the “how” but also the “why” of bonsai design can be shared.
Thank you Walter for deciding to enter the contest and for providing us with an inspirational article that will be read and learned from by many over the years to come.
The following article has been modified for clarity.
Walter Pall – Germany
Category: Professional – Pre-Bonsai Stock
Japanese Black Pine ‘Kotobuki’ (Pinus thunbergiana)
Starting height of the tree: 79cm (31.1 inches)
Pot source: regular Japanese
While I will style many trees this summer I chose this one because it shows a few things very well. As far as I can see it is a regular wild Japanese black pine onto which the dwarf variety ‘Kotobuki’ was grafted many decades ago. It looks like many years ago, probably around 20, the branches were wired and the tree styled in general. Then this tree stood in a Japanese nursery for many years and it was just pinched and maintained in general, but not styled anymore. Eventually it was sold and imported to Germany around five years ago.
I have seen this tree on an exhibit two years ago where I did a public tree critique. My comments went along the lines: ‘This is very exiting material. Mind you, I say material, because it is not really a styled bonsai in my eyes. After many years of just keeping it healthy it looks a bit like a topiary tree, the branches may look nicely groomed to some, to me they look like a hedge, like a poodle. While it is not cheap at all it is not a very good bonsai, but it has potential to be a great one. It needs thorough styling again. The nebari could be much better defined. The branches are too horizontal in a slightly old-fashioned way. The big poodles should be thinned out considerably and get a much finer structure. I think that the general potential is enormous and it begs the question why this was not kept in Japan. I came to the conclusion that it never was first choice there because of the deadwood. While it is hard to believe for a European bonsai practitioner, traditional Japanese stylists want no deadwood an a black pine whatsoever. The black pine in their eyes is like the great samurai, brave, powerful and invulnerable – without wounds. Very few of the very well known Japanese black pine masterpieces have any deadwood. So my guess is that it was just not considered very good material. Well, In Europe and probably also in America the general notion would be to treat it like we treat all other pines. In modern styling there can be more deadwood than live one. So this for us is great material.’
I was very surprised when a few weeks ago I was approached by a person who bought that tree finally and asked me to act where my mouth was. Wow, what a challenge.
So here is the original tree in the category ‘Pre-Bonsai Stock’. While it may well look like a very good finished bonsai to many I will try to prove that it actually is PRE-bonsai stock.
The tree is very healthy and vigorous. The Kotobuki variety is a very good grower and it ramifies tremendously.The color is dark green and looks very natural on this kind of old trunk. April is a very good time of the year to start working on such a tree.
In general we are taught to first analyze a tree, find the general form and find the best front. And only then you can start working towards that form and front. Anything else is very much against the general advice. Well, it is clear to probably everyone that the general form of this tree will not be changed much. It can be tilted slightly to the right and be more of a slanting form. Or it can be tilted slightly to the left and be more of an upright tree. One can always tilt, but too often one cannot place the tree in a good pot afterwards. This is because the roots will only allow a certain degree of tilting. The roots need to be worked on anyway. I speak of surface roots here which is called nebari often. So I start to work around the nebari first, before I have decided about the general front. Around 1 to 2 cm of soil was removed around the major roots, moss was scraped off and all very small roots were removed. Care was taken to not hurt the rugged bark. My secrete liquid that removes algae and moss from delicate bark and deadwood was painted all over the roots and trunk.
Only then I started to come back to the front issue. I do not believe that one absolutely has to decide about the front in the beginning. I believe that one has to have some clue from which side the tree will look good in the end. But one absolutely does not have to take the decision too early. If the tree ends up offering several good fronts finally that’s good news. Often one can plant it into a round pot and let the audience decide which front they like best. Anyway, whatever the front will be, one thing was for sure to me: the lowest branch has to be brought down considerably. Way out of the old-fashioned horizontal position. Strong wire was attached around the roots and the branch and the wire was twisted. It was not difficult at all. One has to be aware that a branch could possibly break while doing this. But the branch was quite cooperative and I wondered why nobody else has ‘dared’ to do this before.
Now is the time to look at fronts again. There are still several options here and I decided to work towards ALL of them. The trick is to work round and around the tree, not caring what exactly will be the final front. Make sure the tree looks credible from all sides. And in the end one can (but does not have to) decide about the best one for you. Of course, it was clear that the final front would be in a certain sector. Also the limited number of pictures allowed for this contest means that I cannot show all sides. I will eventually post all pictures on my blog.
Now also is the time to look at the existing deadwood. I found that it was quite a while ago that it was worked on. But one could still see the marks of man, witch is not good. And then I had the feeling that it cold have been designed better a long time ago and I could do this now. So I connected some shari and I extended some shari lines. I made sure that this was done in a rather subtle way for two reasons: First the health of the tree is most important. One has to understand the functions of sap flow very well to make a decision to take off live bark. And then for artistic reasons we do not want overkill here. While the tree will be a modern bonsai in the end (mind you, NOT a naturalistic one) and modern bonsai is a lot about deadwood it would be unwise to overdo this here.
Now the branch that is probably going to the back was lowered with a guy wire. It was not a big deal and should not hurt the tree at all. Then the secondary branches were wired. These are all the grafted Kotobuki variety. Here I learned to be very careful. Being used to all sorts of pines I wired and bent as always. But three branches snapped a little. I careful stabilized them and put some protectant on the open wound in the hope that at this time of the year it would heal. It had rained for a few days and the branches were full of moisture. This made them much more brittle than I expected. I then put the tree into the greenhouse for a day to let it dry and then continued the wiring.
Here the result of the second styling step.This is starting to look like the kind of shape that I had envisioned.
A lot of branches were cut out totally. The tree was way too dense. Also secondary branches had to go as well as numerous tertiary ones. After the secondary branches were wired and the main sketch looked OK, the rest was wired. On a tree like this which is very dense one does not wire every single branch like on most recently collected trees. But still almost 80 % of all small branchlets were wired. Again the variety Kotobuki proved to be tricky. A lot of the smaller branches broke off or almost. Later most of these died anyway. This tree has such a lot of foliage that this does not matter. It is only very different from normal pines.
Here the tree from three sides again on day three. Beware, these are NOT the final pictures.
The announcement of the contest makes it very clear that contestants are absolutely not encouraged to repot their trees to gain points. The judges are advised to ignore the pot should a tree still be repotted.
I have entered in the professional category and I have decided to do whatever I would do anyway with the pine, regardless of whether and how this would influence the contest.
I absolutely agree that everybody should be discouraged to seriously style and repot a tree at the same time. There are a few occasions when this is still possible without endangering the tree really. This should be reserved to folks who really know what they are doing, being professionals or amateurs. Basically it is about the exact right time and not disturbing the roots.
The pine was repotted the very next day. The new container by Derek Aspinall seems to have been made for exactly this tree. Really it was sitting around for more than ten years and nobody wanted it. As just a pot it looks kind of bad, ugly even. The crude surface with the huge knobs and especially the green and black color make it look like a potter’s mistake. Here it can be shown that a bonsai pot can really be judged when it is used with the right tree.
The picture shows the pine on day four in the new pot. On my blog I show a lot more pictures of the whole development. This is NOT the final picture.
During the summer the buds have opened and developed rather short needles; shorter than last year’s. This is due to re-potting and no reason for concern at all as long as they look healthy. Very important are the buds for next year which are nicely developed already in the middle of August. Some shoots have more than one new bud, which is always a good sign. Some of the little branchlets have turned brown right after styling and some during summer. This is most normal for such styling. And it is very much to be expected on the Kotobuki variety of Japanese black pine. The branches are so brittle that some will always suffer. No larger branch had problems though.
The deadwood on a Japanese black pine does not bother me at all. I think it clearly is looking good on this tree and gives it strong character.
The front for me is clearly picture number one. But quite a few people who have seen the tree in person think that it should be number two. I think this is great. It shows to me that the tree is credible all around.
As far as I am concerned this is a modern bonsai. Many would have expected me to produce a naturalistic tree. But this one wanted to look very much like a bonsai, abstract, powerful, very much extrovert – well all these are features of the modern style.
This kind of tree has to get good winter protection anyway. After styling and repotting in spring it is very advisable to make sure it does not get frost; or only very little in winter. But It certainly must be overwintered cool around freezing temperatures for several weeks.
Next spring the new growth should be longer than this year’s. At the end of next summer it will have many new buds. One could consider thinning out in winter of next year again. The crown should stay light and airy and transparent. It must not become a poodle again.