This Pinus Mugo entry in the ‘Knowledge of Bonsai Progressive Styling Contest’ by Hans van Meer of the Netherlands, captured first place in the ‘Professional Collected Stock’ division with a score of 27 points out of a possible 30, and was also selected as the ‘Best Overall Bonsai’ by the contest judges.
By allowing us the opportunity to learn about the progress of this tree from collection to the present Mr. Hans has indeed set an example and a ‘benchmark’ for future contests which include an explanation of the ‘styling’ process. He not only thoroughly explained the ‘horticultural’ considerations involved in the ‘safety and health’ of the tree, but also allowed us into his thoughts on various styling options, and explained many of the techniques used to achieve the result of his efforts. If there had been an award for the best ‘explanation and illustration of the process’, this entry would have also been a ‘top’ contender.
Thank you Mr. Hans for a well written and pictorial documentation, that will remain an educational and inspirational article, to be studied for many years.
I discovered and collected this old Mugo Pine in May, 2004 in Austria where it was growing on the edge of the tree line on top of a very large boulder, at an elevation of around 2100 meters. This old survivor had managed to hold on and grow in only a small hollow in this inhospitable rock surface. There was not much soil for the tree to get any hold on to with its roots, so I only had to cut one big root on the left side of the tree (underneath my left hand in the photograph). I cut this root off about 2 centimeters to the point where there was a healthy side root growing. I did this, because I wanted to make sure that the life line of the tree wasn’t damaged too severely, and had more chance to recover and make new roots closer to the trunk base. I could always solve the problem of this root stump later, the quick recovery of the tree was of more importance at this point. After this large root was cut I was able to just lift the tree from the rock, and was left with a perfect flatiron shaped root ball, not more then 5 centimeters thick.
I chose to use this mugo pine yamadori for this competition because it is just the kind of raw material I love to work with. Mother nature provided this stunt little tree with all kinds of wonderful problems for me to solve and overcome, but also to incorporate and emphasize in my final bonsai design. Pine yamadori such as this are not only a real challenge for my imagination as a bonsai artist, they are also a nice and often lengthy technical challenge to get the new foliage to grow in closer to the trunk. I believe the long amount of time it often takes to prepare a tree towards the moment of first styling is an important and fun step in the long voyage from yamadori to bonsai. This is why I would like to share the whole story with you, right from the beginning. I hope you appreciate my beginning the story of the styling of this mugo from the day it was collected. I feel the recovery days are a very important and intricate part of the whole styling process.
This next photograph shows the left site of the tree. In the restricted environment it had lived for all those years, the roots had no room to grow and had turned into an impenetrable ‘brick like’ root ball. As soon as I got the tree home, I cut away the obvious dead roots and the outer 4 or 5 centimeters [2 inches] of the root mass. I planted the mugo in a plastic bonsai container, in the same position as I found it on that rock, to avoid stressing the tree any more than necessary. I used a soil mixture that is very loose but able to retain a bit of water. I found that these high mountain mugo pines recover better in this kind of soil mixture. In the next re-potting this soil mix will be changed to a mix of only akadama, kiryu and bims, for optimal water control [very important were I live].
In the left bottom of the picture you can see the thick root with the shari which I cut back on the mountain. The important smaller root I spoke of, grows downwards from this stump, right next to the pot rim. This is why the tree had to be planted in this position, and it is also why there are no pictures from the ‘back side’ in the current planting position. Later in the first season after the tree showed signs of good recovery, all the branches were cut back as far as possible into the old growth. This promoted heavy back budding next to the older needles from 1, 2 or even 3 seasons ago. This is why you should never remove all the needles from the branches during the first years of training. Removing older needles on freshly collected mugo diminish the chances of strong back budding considerably. If you do decide you must remove any needles, it is also possible to cut them off a few millimeters above the sheath that holds the needles in place. After the new buds have had the chance to grow from their bases the old needle ‘stubs’ will be shed in a few months. This first branch cutting is only done as a technique to force foliage to grow closer to the trunk. Branch cutting for styling is left for the future.
This is the first good photo from the planned front side of the tree. It was taken at the end of July, 2005, after I did some heavy branch pruning into the old growth. The tree had been allowed to grow freely for the whole season, and had developed lots of strong buds all along the branches. I could now safely cut back even further on those branches right up to the new buds. All the energy would then be forced into the new buds and into making more new buds further down the branches.
In the front of this picture [at the soil line], you can see the stump of a branch that was removed and sealed with cut paste to prevent too much bleeding from the wound. This branch was much to long and thick with only some unhealthy growth at the very end of the branch. No chance for back budding, and of no real use in my future design. It was removed so the tree could use this energy somewhere more useful. In this picture you can see what I mean when I speak of this tree being a nice challenge, it is a bit odd to say the least.
In early spring the mugo was doing really fine, so I decided it was safe to re-pot it into a Chinese pot with plenty room to grow. I used the afore mentioned soil mix, because this mixture assures me maximum root growth and maximum water control. The tree received regular doses of fertilizer and was free to grow until mid Summer when all strong candles were removed and some of the branches were shortened again to promote even more back budding.
In April, 2007, I determined that after some heavy pruning, there was just enough well placed foliage left to safely and successfully start the first real styling. In this photograph you can see a close up look of the tangled mass of branches that were growing in all directions. Most of them needed to be removed only leaving the ones that could be useful in my design.
In this photo big decisions were made, when some nice, but to long and therefore useless branches, had to be removed. I wanted to create the image of a compact tree with believable dimensions, so I could only use the foliage that grew closer to the trunk. I left long stubs of the cut of branches so I could possibly convert them into nice jin later on. You can always cut things off later, but putting them back on is a different matter.
After the branches not needed for the design were removed, the foliage in this photo of the selected front is what I am going to use in this first major styling. I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to go from here, and I wanted to reach that idea without to much movement of the branches. I always will try to avoid this in my bonsai designs, but to do so in this ‘short time styling project’ is going to be a challenging puzzle.
The pieces of wire you see on some of the branch tips are there to remind me of several cuttings ‘time tests’ I did in previous seasons.
As I explained earlier forcing this old Pine into producing new growth closer to the trunk was the first major step in preparing the tree for its’ first real styling. In this picture you can see the result that cutting into old growth has produced. You can also see the cut paste [lower left] where the branch was cut back last summer into 3 year old growth. As expected the tree reacted with an abundance of new healthy buds, so where there were only old needles now there is an abundance of new growth that is necessary to be able to successfully style this tree.
The next photo shows approximately the planned future front of my design. The beautiful deadwood [shari] that runs from the back, right over the top, will be the main attraction point of this tree. I made the decision [with pain in my heart] that the lovely ancient jin [that is still a part of the tree in this picture] had to be removed. There was simply no way to incorporate it into any believable design. These decisions are never easy to make, but regardless of how beautiful something is, if it does not add anything to the design, it has to go. You can also see that the foliage is still a bit to far away on most of the branches, but this just adds another nice challenge to the styling puzzle.
This photo is the right side view of the pine before the work started. You can see the tree is going to be styled with the only two remaining branches. If you look at the small piece of deadwood in the middle of the picture as a reference point, you can follow these two branches. The long branch that is running all the way down in the photo will be used as a cascading branch, and the branch growing out of the right side of this long branch [just below the deadwood] will be used to create the apex and other layers of foliage. I actually considered two separate options for this styling.
My first and favorite idea was to make a nice small compact tree. The small size of the bonsai would have laid all the emphasis on the stunning deadwood of the tree. The second option I considered was to create a natural looking cascading bonsai. After studying the possibilities I came to the conclusion that option one was not the best choice. This would have required the removal of the long cascading branch back to the only branch growing from it near the top, which would be the only branch remaining on the tree leaving just a small live vein running up from the soil on the back side of the tree. All of the beautiful and naturally created life lines around the base of this tree would die back and eventually disappear. This was of course not a good option, so the choice was already made for me. I was left with the cascading form, which would preserve the best features and incorporate them into the planed design.
As you can see in this photo, the cascading branch turns sharply back away from the trunk, then grows straight again to turn back toward the front via the side branch which I saved to form the foliage layers. This odd turn will add some nice depth to the overall composition. I really appreciate and enjoy these surprises you must overcome and work with when styling yamadori material. It stretches and tickles your imagination, and often results in a better tree.
This photo shows the secondary branches of the cascading branch wired to bring them safely into their new position. Detail wiring will be accomplished later. The foliage on this branch will be formed into two layers, the bottom branch will make up the lowest layer and the smaller branches on the left will be used for the top layer.
I will style this part of the tree as a separate small tree, because it is far enough away from the base of the tree that it must be convincing and beautiful on its own. This ‘character branch’ is extremely important because it will be the first thing you see, and because the foliage of this branch is the final point your eyes will be drawn to when you are looking closer at the bonsai [your second look]. Detail is very important for the future success of your design, even in the early stages.
Here is a side view of the [for now] finished first styling of the cascading branch. Here you can see clearly the two different layers.
This is a top view of the same branch. The foliage tips are placed in such a way that all foliage receives as much light as possible. In the future when new buds appear in better places, some of the currently too heavy branches will be replaced with thinner ones. Working to get a nice taper in all branches is important work for the future, but this is the first styling and I must work with what there is at hand.
Next is the front view of the branch. Further adjustments may be necessary later when the rest of the tree is styled.
The back branch is wired and brought down and inward with the help of a copper ‘guy’ wire attached to a future jin.
This photo shows the back branch in place.
The remaining main branches are then wired and moved into place.
This view from the back of the tree shows branches that had to be bent more severely. Although most mugo pines are pretty flexible these were protected with household bandage and a layer of special tape to prevent breaking and cracking.
During this portion of the styling several more branches were removed.
Using a wire running trough the pot to anchor the guy wire, the cascading branch is brought more forward and closer to the trunk.
This is the final photograph of the lengthly first styling session. Although the tree looks a bit misplaced in this pot for now, I think that it will look nicely balanced in a smaller and more suitable [for the cascade form] pot. A smaller pot will also create a nice negative space between the left side of this branch and the pot, bringing more detail and balance to the whole tree.
Also visible in this photo, when I removed the large piece of dead wood from the front side, I discovered that the tree is hollow and you can see right in to it from this chosen front. Just one more exciting bonus from Mother nature.
The tree looks a bit to thin with the foliage now, but this will look better in the next photo session. For now the tree will receive only a lot of ‘TLC’ so it can recover from all the stress. And if all goes well, I can safely re-pot it later this summer into a better pot and create a more ‘detail orientated’ final styling.
By early August the mugo as expected was doing really well. The heavy cutting I did earlier rejuvenated the tree considerably, resulting in an abundance of new thick buds even on the older wood. This is a sure sign of health of the tree, so it was safe to start the next stage of styling.
I started by creating jin from the stumps that were left by removal of the thick branches. On these smaller stumps, when possible, I like to work with hand tools to create the deadwood. Not only is working in this way more controllable, it also will result in a more natural looking jin. And I think it is just more fun to do it in this way. Most of the dry bark was scraped and cut of with the help of a small hobby knife.
Then with a branch cutter the end off the stump was broken off, pulling downwards.
Then using the same hobby knife, more movement is created in the too strait jin. Finally, a hard steel brush is used to add more grooves and natural looking texture to the jin.
Next I began to remove all the dirt and soft rotted parts of the deadwood at the base of the tree, a hard steel brush was used, revealing a wonderful grain in the old dead wood.
All of the deadwood styling is completed for now, later it will be treated with jin seal for a more realistic color. The jin and shari are not overly styled for now, because I prefer to wait and see how ‘mother nature’ goes about drying, cracking and coloring the deadwood. She always does a far better job than I can do, and I’m not in a hurry.
Looking at the tree from this angle, you also have a clear look through the branches, revealing a hint of the deadwood in the background. They add a certain amount of mystery and a lot of depth to the overall picture of the bonsai.
In this next photograph you can see how the ‘Tokoname’ pot I selected for this pine was prepared before I started the re-pot procedure. The drainage holes were covered with screens and 3.5 mm aluminum wires are run through the holes to firmly secure the tree into its new home. The bottom was then filled with a mixture of akadama, kiryu and bims, for optimal water control.
Using an old kitchen knife along the sides of the old pot the tree is more or less cut free to loosen it so it can be lifted out more easily.
You can see in this photo how much roots of the tree has grown since it was collected.
Another indication of this tree’s good health was the entire root ball covered with mycorrhizae. I tried to save as much as possible to mix into the fresh soil mixture. This will help to create a healthier environment for the freshly potted tree, so it can overcome the initial period of re-potting stress much better and quicker.
Now using a chopstick to remove old soil, the outer layers of the root ball were carefully untangled and then trimmed with clean and very sharp shears.
This achieved a round shaped root ball that was just a bit smaller than the actual pot size, leaving enough room to add the fresh soil mixture all the way around.
The tree is now placed in the desired position in the pot and is firmly secured with the wires.
Fresh soil mixture is then added, and with the help of a chopstick the soil is carefully worked in between the roots, making sure no air pockets are left.
Some heavy and stubborn roots were then ‘pinned’ down with the help of some ‘hair pins’ made from old pieces of aluminum wire.
This photograph was taken showing the front of the tree in its new pot. It was then watered until the water coming from the drain holes was clear. Then it was placed in a spot in my garden with not too much bright sun and wind, so the tree can recover quickly.
The tree is still looking healthy, and will from this point only receive an abundance of ‘TLC’, so it has time to get comfortable in its new home and recover from all the work that has been accomplished these past few months.
Next year in the spring I will start feeding the tree again to help it regain strength, and because the new pot is large enough for the tree to grow lots of new roots, I expect no problems for its’ quick recovery. When the tree is vigorous again I will pinch or remove the new candles to promote back budding on older wood, but that is probably all the work I will do during the next season.
In this back view of the tree you can see on the right side, the strong root that is bent back into the pot. This root was left on because it feeds the all important live vein that runs around the front of the tree. I hope that the weaker roots close to the trunk will gain enough strength so that this root can eventually be removed. The tree would then fit into a smaller pot and I may decide to remove some of the deadwood at the base, making it more compact, however, I do like this deadwood root base and the story of struggle it tells, so it will always be an important part in the design of this bonsai.
I like this side of the tree very much, but the placement of the branches and the beautiful deadwood on the opposite side causes me to prefer that option for the front. I always work towards a defined front side of my bonsai, but like a beautiful lady, the backside should be pretty to look at also.
In this side view of the tree you can clearly see that a lot more foliage will be needed to fill out the separate layers on the tree, but the structure of those branches are already in place.
From this front photograph of the tree, you can see that the pot is too large for this design and the size of the tree, but that will be changed in the next re-potting session. The timing for this re-pot will depend on the growth of the tree in the next couple of seasons. In this stage of the development only the health of the tree should be important, so for the next couple of seasons my task will be using the proper techniques to promote as much back budding as possible so that eventually the foliage layers can be brought back closer to the trunk. The top needs to fill out with a lot more foliage and the branches in the middle of the tree needs to be brought in so the tree will become more compact. With new foliage closer to the trunk on the secondary branches, I will be able to bring much more detail into the separate foliage pads, opening up the negative spaces between them. This should allow more of the lines of the tree and the beautiful deadwood to be visible.
Because of the black tape I used in bending the top branch, the upper foliage pad now seems to ‘float’ against the dark background I used for the photograph. If you look closely you can still see it, but next time I will use the ‘proper’ raffia to bend a branch for a ‘photo contest’. LOL!
Although, there have been a lot of questions and comments on the advisability of styling a bonsai in the short time span of a contest, I would once again like to emphasize that the work I have done on this tree is quite the normal procedure for this species, as long as you have made all the correct preparations and know what you are doing. In my opinion this was a valid and very informative contest that showcased a lot of bonsai talent from all around the world. I would like to thank the organizers and the participants who devoted their time to make this contest so enjoyable and successful. I have enjoyed sharing this months long first styling session enormously, and I hope you all enjoyed it to.
Hans van Meer