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On a recent trip to Japan I visited two specialist nurseries; one that is well known and has won many awards in Japan for their shohin, and the other is a bonsai professional that specialises in Satsuki Azalea.

In part two of this two part blog join me as we now visit the Satsuki specialist.

Image caption. A specialist satsuki azalea nursery in Saitama, Japan

Becoming a specialist

In Japan, due to the bonsai market being historically so large it has made it possible for some bonsai professionals at their nurseries to specialise in a certain species used for bonsai. Of course there are also specialist exhibitions; public showcases of a certain species only and many publications aimed at enthusiasts who are only keen on a certain species of bonsai tree.

When I first began bonsai, I pretty much thought anything and everything could be bonsai'ed. In fact it was almost a personal challenge to try growing something which people said did not make for good bonsai. Since then I have changed my views rather considerably.

Today I would like to claim that I have specialised in two needle pines (Black and red Japanese pines) and Chinese maples. These two species inspire and excite me the most. I find these species to be the most rewarding that I have worked with. They respond well to the techniques we are bonsai artists use such as pruning, defoliation, repotting, wiring, grafting and many others. Some species which I see some people using are simply not worth the time, however if working with them helps the artist to hone their skills and gain experience then more power to them.

There are of course many species which make wonderful bonsai, my choices are personal and should be almost irrelevant to you. However the point I would like to make is that there are advantages to becoming a specialist of one, two or perhaps even three species. It is hard enough to become knowledgeable of one species let alone a dozen or more. Watering and many other common tasks are made far simpler as you need not be so attentive to each individual species needs. 

Image caption. One of the azaleas at this nursery. Take note of the very powerful trunk.

Growing trunks

In my honest opinion, for the first 20 or more years we are not growing bonsai, we are growing trunks. Without a decent trunk to begin with, your tree will never amount to much no matter how long you keep it in a pot. There will no doubt be exceptions to this statement however I cannot overstate the importance of starting with a good trunk, or perhaps said in another way "good material."

Too often do I see a very enthusiastic beginner placing a pencil thick tree into a small bonsai pot. Such a tree may thicken slightly in this pot after many years but it will never become a substantial trunk. The trunk is such an important element to the design, but it is one of the elements which take the longest to develop well. This implies the need for patience.

Not all trees require powerful, masculine trunks. Trees like this bunjin styled black pine have thinner trunks. However what they lack in power they make up with expression and energy, such as in this japanese red pine.

Many times it is due to impatience that a bonsai tree which might have developed into something impressive has been denied this opportunity as it was confined too soon to the confines of a bonsai pot.

Instead of being in too much of a rush, rather grow a tree in an oversized container for some years or better yet grow it in the ground, using the techniques I have written about in these articles.

You will not for one moment be sorry for the investment of time and your tree will look so much more the better for it.

Image caption. An azalea styled to show off flowers

Emphasising good qualities

Too often I believe we make the mistake of forcing a tree to grow in a style which is actually not suited to it, nor does it emphasise that species good characteristics.

For example a creeping tree such as some of the junipers which are used locally to grow as bonsai, have a very horizontal and spreading habit. If grown in a style which could complement the trees natural growing habit you would make life so much easier for yourself. Instead these junipers are often styled in very upright styles and constantly require wiring in order to keep the branches elevated.

In the example above, the azalea has been styled in a manner which will emphasise the flowers. As there is so much surface area on the tops of the foliage pads more flowers will develop and the resulting show will be that much more spectacular. However this very stylized approach to canopy design does not suit something like a Japanese maple for instance. When styling such a species you want to emphasise the light, delicate branches forming a softly rounded silhouette around the entire tree. Although such a silhouette might be viewed as a single outline it is made up of individual branches. However this feeling is lost when the individual branches are stylized and clearly separated and refined as individual branches.

Image caption. Great nebari is a great start for any tree

Always look at improving nebari

Nebari or roots, are another element to bonsai which can take a long time. They can also detract from a tree, when poor or add great value and visual interest when developed well.

I always try to work a little on the nebari of my trees every time I repot them. This seems quite obvious a time to do such work as it is the only time when the roots are relatively exposed.

Although the different classical styles may place more or less emphasis on roots tree which appear solidly rooted in the ground immediately look more mature and sturdy. Bonsai trees with little to no nebari at all appear young or juvenile and visually unstable.

Image caption. A good example of great nebari and how it can add a point of interest to a tree.

Image caption. The same tree, but with a wider view. Right now, the roots might attract a little too much attention, but when the tree is in flower I think the roots might complement the tree very much.

Be careful of picking trees with faulty nebari. To many amateurs quirky twists, knots and other deformities might seem ideal bonsai subjects but nothing could be further from the truth. I would guess that in some years it will be this very feature which will result in you getting rid of the tree as such features are most often visually disturbing and extremely difficult to design around.

Image caption. An azalea in a bonsai pot and one being strengthened in a wooden box

Wooden containers

I wrote earlier in this article that you should spend time on and be patient when developing a trunk to use in the future to create a bonsai with. I also mentioned that you could do this in the ground or an oversized container.

Most people locally seem to favour plastic tubs. However they would be far better off making simple wooden boxes and using these instead. Plastic tubs heat up and cool down quickly. They are especially flimsy when filled with heavy growing medium and if container and tree are moved, roots may be severed which will slow the trees growth or even kill it. Our sun is also extremely harsh and most containers will not last more than a couple seasons in full sun, at best.

Wood on the other hand is a material which can last for some time when used as a growing container. It is a better buffer for temperature and will therefore take longer to heat up in the day and cool slower at night. Thing I like most about them is that they are rigid (if built well) and they can be moved around as needed.

Wooden containers are often used in Japan when a tree is weak. The tree will be removed from its ceramic bonsai pot and planted into a free draining growing medium (Something like LECA would have a similar effect) in a wooden container for a few seasons.


Image caption. All branches should have a good foundation.

Don't rush the foundation stages

It's easy to lose patience and rush the development of a bonsai along. When creating the bones/skeleton/foundation of a bonsai, time spent doing it slowly and with appropriately long internodes will be something you will be grateful for in time.

With deciduous trees it is always very easy to see which ones have been rushed, they look bad when they don't have leaves on. Leaves cover a multitude of sins, but if you want to see the true skill of a bonsai artist, take a look at their trees when they are naked in winter.

Image caption. This tree shouts a high degree of skill by the various artists who worked on it. The powerful, tapering trunk firmly anchored to the ground with highly ramified branches built up from primary, secondary and then tertiary branches to ensure minimal to no dieback. The apex, which on azaleas is the weakest growth zone, is full and healthy.

Image caption. Another exquisite example of a bonsai azalea. Notice the absence of any visible scarring which would otherwise greatly reduce the value of the tree as it shows man's interference with the tree and therefore the illusion of a wild growing tree in miniature would become somewhat lost. 

The joy of grafting

Image caption. Grafting a shoot where it is needed.

There are many reasons why you might need to use a form of grafting technique on your bonsai. This might include changing the foliage type on a juniper where the trunk is amazing but the foliage is not. You might use approach grafting on a tree with poor surface roots. Sometimes a tree is missing a branch where it needs one and the only sure way to get one to grow there would be to thread graft a branch into position.

Grafting can be a lot of fun, and extremely rewarding. You can read more about it here in these articles I have written previously on the subject. If you need any of the tools used for grafting take a look at what I have to offer.

So thats it for this post, I hope you have enjoyed the two part series and hopefully you have learnt a couple things or at least I have gotten you thinking about something you would like to try in your collection.

If you would like to own an imported Japanese satsuki azalea, the species of tree featured in this article then take a look at these which I have on offer.

5 Responses

Jeanette Craukamp
Jeanette Craukamp

April 25, 2016

Hello Terry , Love all you articles, you write and enjoy them very much.


April 08, 2016

Thank you Les! You are very kind with your complements and thank you for indicating something specific that you enjoy, I will certainly see how I can improve on the cross-links even more.
Bill, nothing wrong with your current approach. As I wrote in the post, you can benefit hugely from the process of experimentation. However I guess I am writing from my current sentiments after many years of practicing bonsai and the realization I have arrived at. Every time I return from Japan I want to give up, feeling my abilities will never amount to much. However perhaps if I focus my energies on a limited number of species, perhaps I can accomplish something.
Christo, thank you for reading. If I know my articles are helpful my commitment to keep writing is renewed. Thank you and I hope to write much more, it’s a learning process for me too.

Les Lonsdale
Les Lonsdale

April 08, 2016

I love your blogs! They are very informative and the pics are high quality. I also love the cross-references that can be clicked on to explain something in more detail.
Keep up the good work.

Les Lonsdale
President of Tallahassee Bonsai Society
Tallahassee, Florida

Bill Rayner
Bill Rayner

April 08, 2016

Great article. As a beginner, I agree we want it all. A few bonsais for each season. I think the reason why I do this is to allow me to practice styling on less essential trees. How to wire, how to bend and how to keep the tree alive. Correct watering.
I know you are right about narrowing a collection down . Time and cost. When I recognize within myself, that I will focus on a specific style of species that gives me to greatest reward, then I know I am ready to move up to the next level.

Christo Schutte
Christo Schutte

April 08, 2016

It is a privilage to see these beautiful trees, even if only in photographs. Thank you for the article and as always, very good advice. Looking forward to any other articles penned by you.

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