Article 29 – ‘Different Perspectives’

Arguably the largest faction containing the most experts and critics – politics and cuisine aside are the arts, which include music, dance, fashion, literature, film, painting and of course bonsai horticulture. The experts or critics have a field-day reviewing the work produced passing comments such as, there is no composition, no balance, depth, movement and is unnatural for example. This perspective was applied to the works of American painter Paul Jackson Pollock, (01/28/1912 – 11/08/1956) professionally known as Jackson Pollock, known for his unique style of drip painting.

The pundits, experts or critics did not know what to make of his work and usually their first question was ‘What does it say or mean‘? Pollack replied “The painting has a life of its own and I try to let it come through. The experts whom were not artists themselves so used to reviewing portraits, landscapes and marine scenes, unable to see the work for what it represented simply dismissed it giving poor reviews. Pollack retorted that “Painting is self-discovery, every good artist paints what he is.” His style and approach to painting made him into the leading force behind the abstract expressionist movement in the art world.


Breaking the rules

Arguably, this same perspective is applied to bonsai and there are those referred to as purists, who argue that we should adhere to the rules; but what are these rules? In short the definition of bonsai literally means ‘Bon’ a pot or shallow container and ‘Sai’ the tree or shrub, which are the only two components in bonsai. It does not include any other items such as rocks or miniature figurines. In addition, the purists perception of the rules also dictate the following. A bonsai composition should have balance, depth, movement and rhythm, emphasis, contrast, proportion, space and unity, that which is depicted in the original catalogue of styles. And if one wishes to remain a purist, he or she should adhere to this principle.

It is often stated in bonsai circles that what we are trying to achieve is to mimic what we see in nature, creating miniature adaptations of full sized trees. But like Pollack’s approach to painting, bonsai has also changed and this is where the rules get broken, because some bonsai styles have little in common with their wild counterparts. They are depicted as bizarre, twisted shapes, some with just a sliver of bark to keep them alive with the cambium bleached, burnt or painted. Such specimens although ‘living’ have a plastic aura about them, which arguably defies reality, yet they are considered attractive often depicting rare natural beauty as shown below.


Bizarre bonsai


Nonetheless, the purists or experts engage themselves in heated discussions concerning other designs that are not bonsai in the true sense of the word, that is if we adhere to the rules. For example, the styles ‘root over rock’ Sekijoju and Ishitsuki ‘root clinging to a rock’, a design that has caused much contention. Experts examine the composition and criticise the artists work. The rock is either too big, too small, the wrong shape, texture and colour, it lacks emphasis, is out of balance and has no proportion. Furthermore the composition does not match the pot. But Sekijoju and Ishitsuki are classed as Deshojo and do not appear in the original catalogue of styles. Neither do Ikadabuki, Netsunagari and the much frowned on Tanuki, these are designs that have gradually appeared through time.


Screen shot 2017-03-07 at 7.03.54 PM


A modern perspective

It is fair to say that bonsai design an art form, has changed over the decades and is now a concept in the mind of the individual designer and his/her perception of how it should appear, should be respected regardless of someone else’s viewpoint. In reality, a painter having completed his or her work will make any final adjustments, put it in a frame and consider it finished. But bonsai is completely different, because it is a ‘living’ sculpture requiring care and attention, constantly shaping by pruning or wiring and thus it is never finished. Even bonsai centuries old are not perfect (see the 1000 year old Ficus ginseng that resides at Crespi, Italy) posted in the article ‘New material for bonsai part II’.

Of course one can debate the issue of bonsai design indefinitely for example. Some have argued that the traditional 2D styles of the Japanese are unnatural, because the main emphasis or focal point should be the trunk. Branches that cross the trunk should either be removed or positioned away. Moreover, some practitioners contend that there should not be any scarring or imperfections as this is considered ugly, the tree must be perfect in every way. But this is a contradiction because, the techniques of sharimiki and jin (Scarring) are often incorporated into the tree to add character and are common in Japanese bonsai design.




When we look at trees in their natural state they all have branches radiating in all directions with many going across the trunk. Many trees will have natural scarring and other imperfections including broken branches, which indicate that the tree has been subjected to trauma at some point. The beauty of nature is that it is not only wild and untouched, it is real and if we are to maintain reality, then the following statement from bonsai master John Y. Naka is very appropriate. “Don’t make your tree look like a bonsai, make your bonsai look like a tree”. The following image depicts a group of Silver birch Betula pendula in their natural state.


Birch wood winter


Starting at the beginning

A question often asked especially from novice bonsai enthusiasts is ‘I have a young sapling, which I grew from seed and I am not sure of how to shape it.’ In actual fact this problem is not uncommon even for the more experienced, arguably the most important factor in design is to get the best potential out of the tree. With an untouched or virgin sapling you basically have a blank canvas on which to work, but in hindsight it would be prudent to do some research.

This can be achieved in two ways (a) if your plant is native to your region, then a trip to where full sized counterparts are growing is a good way to start. There you can study the trees formed by nature and a photograph or two, is a base on which to work. (b) If the tree is not in your region, then look on the world-wide-web for your species both as a full sized wild tree and as bonsai. In both (a) and (b) the images collected can be saved on computer. Using ‘Photoshop’ or a similar programme you can draw, cut, copy, paste and make alterations until you have a suitable design. Alternatively, bonsai styles showing various designs can be found here in ‘Bonsai Styles Parts I and II’. But the question is, will your bonsai look like a tree or some bizarre representation.
When considering a design there are a few factors to remember, that is if we adhere to the rules and these are:

  1. Taper – a fat trunk that gets thinner towards the apex.
  2. Movement – the trunk will either bend to the right or left or will incorporate a combination of both.
  3. Nebari – partially visible roots that radiate around the base of the trunk.
  4. Branch placement should alternate on both sides of the tree.
  5. Ramification – or the fine ‘twiggy’ bits at the end of the branches.

Of course all of this takes time to achieve and depends on the species and their particular growth rate. But before shaping begins, inspect the tree for any side shoots that may be developing as this will determine branch placement to the sides and rear. And where a trunk bend can be placed, because as we are always told a branch never appears on the inside of a bend only on the outside as shown below.


Trunk taper


This hand-drawn image a common design in bonsai referred to as Moyogi arguably contains most of the characteristics that may placate the purists and or critics. But does it look natural a true representation as would be found in nature, some would say yes, whilst others would probably disagree. The problem with any art form regardless of its genre is that it is prone to change and evidence of this can literally be found everywhere. It is the individual artists interpretation, we do not have to like it or partake in its culture just accept the fact that it exists. Nonetheless, the experts and or critics will crawl out of the woodwork and start pointing the finger. To conclude this discussion the following anecdote has been included.


The Bonsai exhibition – is it all worth it?

Nothing in this world is perfect no matter what the entity, perfection is something that we strive for, but rarely attained. Nonetheless, designing miniatures trees for shows or public display is another entity, that for my part simply has no appeal. Because the exhibits although attractive in their own right do not look natural, they have the appearance of a carefully shorn groomed poodle. However, my presence at such venues be they aquatic, bovine, equine, domestic and horticulture was one of the requirements of my profession.

Many years ago a commission to produce an article on a bonsai exhibition came into being, which required much consideration as to how it would be presented; revealing, quirky or serious. Arriving early before public admittance gave the opportunity to view the exhibits and the actions of their owners. Some had their specimens draped in black cloth to protect the flowers from the light, so they would be in their prime when viewed. Others were snipping here or there, trimming the moss on the pot to a fine carpet-like appearance akin to that of an 18th hole putting green.

Some were busy polishing the bonsai display stands, others spraying the trunks and leaves to give a fresh morning dew perspective. The whole activity in the display tent seemed rather intense reminiscent of worker bees in a hive, which gave a rather stressful, but comical atmosphere. Because the experts would soon be there to cast judgement and some would be elated, whilst others dejected. Having spent some considerable time documenting the theatrics and obtaining all that was needed, a trip to the beer tent to write the article was the next course of action. With the thoughts “is it really worth all the aggravation” going through my mind.


Swimming in the deep end or paddling in the shallows

Bonsai is not only an art form it is also a science meaning, that the enthusiast does require some horticultural ‘know-how’ in order to care for the health and welfare of a plant. Arguably such research can be considered a voyage of discovery; a learning curve as one gains the knowledge. But like any hobby one can become engrossed to the point where it tends to take precedence superseding other interests and can be expensive. This can be likened to constantly ‘swimming in the deep end’, whereas stepping back and taking control ‘paddling in the shallows’ is less stressful not only on the mind, but also on the wallet. Nonetheless, the degree of intensity to which a bonsai enthusiast will submerge his or herself is an individual choice.

Future articles are now put on hold for a short period, due to an influx of work nevertheless, those whom follow this web site will be kept informed of my return. Until next time BW, N.



Article 28 – ‘The pH Factor (Part II)’

Types of soil and their pH content

In the article ‘Bonsai soils’ there is a more descriptive analysis on the different types, but in short there are 6 basic soils:

Peat soils – are comprised of waterlogged partially-decomposed plant material including sphagnum moss, which is very high in organic matter and moisture with a pH starting approximately at 3.0

Sandy soils – contain the largest particles among the different soil types, that is dry, gritty and because there large are particles creating voids, water retention is not possible. However, sandy soil warms more quickly in the spring. Sandy soils have a pH starting at approximately 4.7

Clay soils – are the remnants of certain types of rocks eroded and weathered to form fine particles, that are high in nutrients, but they can be heavy, cold and wet in winter and very dry in summer. Clay soils have pH from 5.5 to 7.1

Chalky soils – are alkaline or lime-rich predominantly made up of calcium carbonate, they are indicative to particular landscapes including. The UK’s south downs and Wiltshire, Portugal, southern France and Spain. Chalk based soils can be either light or heavy and have a pH value from 7.1 to 8.0

Silt soils – are fertile, light and contain larger particles and are more moisture-retentive than sandy soils and drain more effectively than clay. But have a tendency to crack and crumble losing shape and structure; their pH range is approximately 6.5 to 7.

Loams – are mixtures that may include any of the above soil types depending on the needs of a particular species, albeit acidic, neutral or alkaline. For example, ericaceous plants including Azaleas genus Rhododendron family Ericaceae have a preference for higher acidity. Alternatively, Maples – genus Acer prefer a neutral soil composition, whereas the Burning Bush Euonymus alatus family Celastraceae require soil high in alkaline.

But, the acidic, neutral or alkaline content has great bearing on micro organism survival for example. Those found in acid and alkaline soils Acidophiles and Alkaliphiles respectively, are not as varied as the Neutrophiles found in neutral soil compositions. The pH range of 6.6 to 7.5 is more amenable to their needs in order to function. Generally speaking, there are four types of soil compositions including an all-purpose mixture for seeds, acidic, neutral and alkaline. Although they may vary according to the specific pH needs of a particular plant species.

Seed all-purpose mix – with this soil composition there are a lot of discussions as to which type is correct. Some will argue that the following mixture produces the best results:

3 parts organic matter, such as peat, humus or sawdust, 1 part sand, perlite, vermiculite or a combination of all three and 1 part sphagnum moss.
Others contend that seed soil mediums such as John Innes No1., Miracle-Gro, Levington or Thompson and Morgan, available ready mixed are perfectly capable of doing the job. But regardless of which type is preferred, all seeds require a form of stratification. (Described in the article The Stratification of seeds) Because this is the key to induce the embryo to germinate regardless of which soil composition is used albeit acid, neutral or alkaline. Moreover, it can be argued that seeds once stratified can germinate on a piece of damp kitchen paper, in a saucer of water or simply where they fall as shown below.

Scots Pine seedlings Pinus sylvestris

A good seed soil normally consists of heat-treated loam, sphagnum moss, peat, horticultural sand and fertilizers, which will last for approximately 30 days. After which the seedlings will need to be pricked out and transferred to a low nutrient soil mixture and left to develop. This soil composition slows down the growth rate allowing the plant to ‘put-on-weight’ meaning trunk and foliage development. It is also suitable for cuttings, which have taken root.

There are many types of seed soils available world-wide, in Finland a common mixture often used is ‘Musta Multa’, which roughly translated is ‘Black Mould’ a rich composition for most plant types. This product can be likened to the old but familiar ‘grow-bags’ where people who had no gardens or lived in apartments could grow vegetables in confined spaces. On its own this soil compost can be rather soggy if too much water is used, dissipating nutrients via water run off. To prevent this, a little sand, vermiculite, crushed clay or granite chips in the mix, which contain additional micro organisms usually solves this problem. It also allows air to flow through the medium permitting bacteria to function and although retains moisture does not become compact or waterlogged.

Acidic soil – The basic elements which cause acidity in soil are, the organic matter itself and the acidic mineral content within, which break down the matter through time making the soil acidic. Soil can also become acidic due to the loss of key minerals, potassium, magnesium, and calcium that have been leached out of the soil by excessive contact with water, thus the soil becomes acidic. This is a common phenomenon in peat bogs and pine forests and such soil is probably the best to use especially for conifers.

But before venturing out to obtain a sack full, which is going to upset the environmentalists and is also possibly illegal, there is a an easier method. Acid soil or Ericaceous soil to give the correct terminology is an entirely organic and peat-reduced compost, available at most horticultural establishments world-wide. Brands include, Thompson and Morgan, John Innes No 2., Bowers, Growise and Verve. Nonetheless, an ericaceous compost mix can lose its acidity over a period of time, depending on the amount used. For example, a large bonsai in a shallow pot will deplete the minerals more quickly than one in a deep pot.

Many horticulturists resort to using acidifying materials to counter this. For example such materials may include, pine needles or sphagnum moss placed on top of the soil allowing their acidic properties to penetrate to the roots. The use of Sulphur, Aluminium sulphate and Ferrous sulphate (sulphate of iron) are also used, but these may take some time to become effective, as they need to be broken down by the bacteria. Other methods are to use only rain water with white vinegar added (1 to 2 tablespoons in 4.5 litres or one gallon of water) as opposed to household tap water that has been treated with alkaline agents.


To make an ericaceous medium the following ingredients can be used;
Organic compost, sand, crushed clay or granite chips. The amount each of these components used depends on the acidic pH value one wants to achieve. Alternatively one can resort to using just Akadama, which many bonsai enthusiasts use for coniferous varieties, for example the Mugo pine Pinus mugo.


Neutral soil – is ready available from garden centres, department and hardware stores and can even be taken from your own garden. Of course the latter will need to be tested to ascertain the pH level, which may be in the region of 6.7 to 7.3 – slightly acid to slightly alkaline – a range that many species of plants can tolerate. But much depends on your particular region and temperate zone.


Arguably, there is no specific chart that states what type of ingredients should be used for this soil composition, as horticulturists world-wide have their own preference; what works for them. However, any neutral soil composition needs to be prepared to facilitate moisture retention, aeration and to allow the micro organisms to function, hence the use of grit, crushed baked clay pellets, sand, perlite or vermiculite and even bark chips can be used.

Alkaline soil – has a high saturation of soluble salts that are known as either sodic or saline with the former being dominated by sodium and the latter dominated by calcium and magnesium. Alkaline predominantly limestone is mixed with topsoil to produce a medium specifically for plants requiring a high pH level that can vary according to one’s particular needs. Manufacturers whom produce this product are for example, John Innes No3., Thompson and Morgan, Bowers and Rolawn. To make an alkaline soil composition, one can use the following ingredients.
Neutral top soil or prepared loam with a pH at approximately 7.0, clay or silt, washed grit and a lime additive. The amount of lime used will depend on the pH level one wishes to achieve. Tap water should be used as it is normally treated with alkaline agents.

The manufacturers instructions are wrong!“We did our research and followed the guidelines, all was fine in the beginning, but now the plant’s leaves are turning yellow and dropping.” Whether you purchased a ready-made soil composition or have mixed your own, it is doubtful that this is the cause for an unhealthy plant. Because reputable manufacturers even those mentioned above have been producing various soil mediums for generations that are tried and scientifically tested. Alternatively, if you have mixed your own soil composition, then you will probably know what ingredients to use and the proportional amount.

The possible causes for this down turn in the tree’s health is stress, which can be attributed to various factors. For example, inadequate drainage, no air circulation in the soil, damaged or compacted roots the latter known as ‘pot-bound’, the lack of nutrients, low light and an incorrect pH. These are the common causes why leaf tissue turns yellow referred to as chlorosis because, the essential green pigment chlorophyll is absent. Arguably the first course of action is to check the soil composition’s pH level, that can be found in the chart in part I of this discussion, which brings us on to the subject of soil pH testing methods.

Soil testing applications – for a true and accurate pH test of your particular soil medium one should opt for a laboratory test, but this can be expensive. Therefore, one resorts to purchasing various readily available test kits from the basic ‘2-test’ test kit (approximately 8€ to 13€ plus postage and packing) to the more expensive multi-test kits. (95€ to 350€+) Other devices for testing soil pH are in the form of meters both analogue and digital, some are purely for pH testing whilst other are multi-functional as shown below.

Soil pH test kits 5

But before venturing out to purchase a pH test kit, the question is – what type would be suitable and the factors to assist in this decision can be based on two simple questions:

1. The pH range for a particular plant species
2. Was the soil purchased from a horticulture outlet or a self-made composition

1. Most bonsai with the exception of some coniferous and deciduous species are able to tolerate a pH range from 6.7 to 7.3 and have the ability to prosper. For a more descriptive pH requirement for a particular species, refer to the chart in part I of this discussion.
But, any soil composition used in bonsai is an important concern, because this is where the plant receives the nutrients and moisture it needs to thrive.
2. If the soil used was purchased from a store or horticulture outlet, then information as to its composition and pH range will be written on the bag. Alternatively, if you mix your own soil composition/s using ingredients from various sources, then you will ultimately be changing the pH level, which needs to be checked. Therefore, the opening statement of ‘what soil pH test kit would be suitable’, boils down to two factors.

(a) Soil purchased from a reputable outlet will normally state its composition and pH level and even if we add grit, vermiculite, perlite, crushed baked clay etc, the pH level will not change that much. Therefore, investing in pH test kit is not really necessary nevertheless, it is an advantage to have a small one simply for peace of mind and to know what the pH level of a particular soil medium is.
(b) If mixing a particular soil composition using ingredients from various sources, then it is important to know the pH content of each component to ensure that the final medium is acceptable for the species; albeit acidic, neutral or alkaline. Therefore, investment in a testing kit is an advantage.

Soil test kits – Finding a suitable soil test kit does need some research as there are literally countless manufacturers all claiming their particular product/s produce/s the best results. They range from expensive laboratory equipment to analogue and digital probe meters, to relatively small cheap kits you can put in your pocket. The majority of these have been tried and tested with positive and negative results, that can be viewed via the world-wide-web. To give an indication as to the reviews, they have been condensed and listed as follows.

Litmus test – requires a small sample of soil mixed with distilled water in which, the paper is inserted for a few seconds. The paper’s colour change is then compared to those of a colour chart and an estimation of the soil’s pH is then determined. However, this method of testing is not very accurate, because it can only read a pH level in whole numbers for example 5.0, 6.0 and 7.0, which is an approximation. Therefore, as soil pH levels are measured in increments of both whole and half numbers for example 6.0, 6.5, 7.0 and 7.5 this litmus test approach is one to be avoided.


Chemical test – soil tests conducted by commercial laboratories are accurate in that they are able to determine mineral content and compound structures within a soil sample. For example, major nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Secondary nutrients sulphur, calcium, magnesium and minor nutrients; iron, manganese, copper, zinc, boron, molybdenum and chlorine. Such tests can be expensive, but for horticulturists wishing to use this method of testing there are products available. However, low cost ‘2 test’ test kits (top left image shown above) are only able to give an approximation of the pH level and that is the limit of their capability. Moving up the scale (top middle image shown above) are test kits able to determine the presence of major nutrients and are more accurate in reading the pH level. Alternatively, the test kit (top right image shown above) is able to search for both major and secondary nutrients, but has difficulty in ascertaining minor nutrients.


Analogue and digital meters – (shown in the above image) come in various forms from simple pH meters to multi functional probes able to test for moisture content, temperature, light quality and pH. Some manufacturers claim their meters are able to determine the presence of all nutrient categories, major, secondary and minor although this is debatable. Another argument concerning these multi functional meters is why test for moisture, humidity and light. Surely the horticulturist knows whether his or her bonsai has the right water content, knows the temperature/humidity at any given time and is aware of the plants position in relation to the light source.


For bonsai enthusiasts who use readily available soil mediums purchased from reputable outlets, a pH testing kit is not that essential. But for horticulturists making their own soil compositions, investing in a testing kit is advantageous as opposed to not. Because it allows for an accurate pH level to be determined correct for a particular species. If a pH testing kit is desirable then arguably preference should be given to those only dealing with soil pH levels as this is our primary concern. Not multi functional meters with reference to moisture, humidity and light content as these are unnecessary. But whatever test device you opt for, make sure it is suitable to your needs.

And finally, a message to O.T. known as ‘Tiger’ – I have some Maple (Acer) seedlings to give away if you are interested. Until next time BW, N.