by Terry Erasmus March 03, 2016

Overview

In bonsai, many Japanese terms are used as the meanings of these words are often more descriptive than their English translations. It is also not surprising of course that as the Japanese have made bonsai what it is today, that many of their customs and even language has become synonymous with the art. One example is Shohin bonsai, the word "shohin" literally meaning tiny thing. Bonsai is generally perceived as the art of cultivating miniature trees, but shohin bonsai takes this one step further.

Image caption. A small leafed cotoneaster, root over rock shohin. One of my teachers trees at AichiEn.

Shohin sized bonsai appeal to many people, sometimes even the most burly of men! However if definitely has a lot of appeal to people who have no space to keep the usual sized bonsai trees. Then there are those people who cannot physically manage larger trees. The greatly reduced size and weight of shohin is really an attraction for them, and in case you like rules; shohin have a maximum height of 25cm and a minimum of 10cm however these dimensions might differ depending on who you speak to.

 Specialist bonsai nurseries

Image caption. In Japan there are many nurseries specialising in shohin trees such as Koju-en, owned by professional and well respected shohin master, Tomohiro Masumi.

The following blog post is certainly not intended to be a comprehensive guide to culturing shohin, I hope you will merely see it as tantalising you into wanting to know more. Shohin is also not my forte, as it is for some, however I have a few in my collection and I really enjoy them.

Shohin material

As shohin trees are much smaller than usual bonsai finding reasonably good material is not too hard and you are likely to find something you can work with at a local nursery in the form of a bag tree.

hackberry bonsai shohin

Image caption. This is a Hackberry I grew from seed, and which I am not styling as a shohin. I blogged on this tree recently, you can read the post here.

The other typical sources are of course yamadori; collecting from the wild, or even from the garden or your neighbours garden.

You can also grow your own from seed in seed trays and then into the ground for a couple years to thicken the trunk a little.

Shohin prices

Image caption. Although shohin might be small their prices are most certainly not. This little juniper is selling at a price of roughly R14,000.00 The price reflects the skill required to attain a certain quality or tree and also how rare the species or certain qualities are. In this case the highly developed jin and shari add a lot of value to the tree.

Cuttings are also a great way to start any bonsai, but whereas you might have a minimum of 5 years of further development if starting a normal bonsai from a cutting, you might be able to reach a convincing shohin within 5 years when designing a shohin. The advantage also of using cutting material from mature trees which are flowering or fruiting already is that these same characteristics will be embodied immediately by the shohin bonsai, something which is not the case when growing from seed.

Watering

Shohin are rather more demanding that normal sized bonsai as the size of their pots severely restrict root development and therefore have very little room for error where watering is concerned. However the same rule applies, that is to say that you should wait till the soil has slightly dried before watering the tree again. In especially hot or dry times of the year you might keep them over a humidity tray or perhaps embedded in some fine sand.

It's important that you use a very fine spray on these trees to avoid eroding the little soil that these containers hold to begin with. The Kaneshin watering wand is an example of the ideal watering tool.

Repotting

As they grow the root ball expands and rapidly fills the container so more frequent repotting is also required. I hate giving timeframes because there are so many factors which determine how frequently a tree is repotting however as a very general guide I would suggest once every 2 years. However it is usually quite obvious when a tree needs to be repotted as it will literally push itself out of its pot, and you will also note that water no longer drains quickly when the tree is watered.

Pot selection is no different to how you would select a pot for a normal bonsai, and in case you have not read my rather detailed article on this subject please read it here as I am sure you will find it helpful.

Image caption. Note the care and attention to detail given to the pairing of pot and tree with the Chinese maple. The use of colour, the soft corners, slight surface texture, the patina of age in the pot echo'ing that of the tree.

If you have a really special tree which deserves a special pot, I have some handmade Japanese Tokoname pots on offer here

Growing Media

Due to the size constraint of the pots shohin trees are cultivated in, the growing medium is very important as it will determine how frequently you need to water and how often you need to repot. Filling the container with stone is no good as this further reduces the available growing space for the feeder roots. However in contrast so called bonsai soil mixes high in organic media will very likely lead to root rot and at the very least, retarded growth as oxygen exchange will be limited.

Image caption. To develop and then maintain a highly ramified shohin such as this maple above in good health, you need to understand the complex balance between growing medium, watering and fertilizing.

Our Professional Mix is the ideal growing medium for growing shohin. It is a combination of white peat and LECA. However the proportions these two ingredients are mixed in is roughly 30|70 and for shohin it is advisable to use a mix which is a little more water retentive so I would suggest purchasing a bag of peat along with a bag of Professional Mix and add more peat to the mix until you are roughly at a 60|40 mix of peat to LECA. Alternatively you can purchase the peat and LECA separately and mix them to the correct proportion.

Aftercare

Aftercare of shohin is very much the same as normal bonsai however for the first while and perhaps again in the height of your dry season, I would place a mulch layer on top. You can use anything for this, so long as it keeps the surface moist without impeding oxygen exchange. This step is so important. If you do not do this, then the roots will grow straight down further limiting the amount of growth you are going to be able to get in the pot before repotting becomes necessary again. By using a mulch the roots will initially grow horizontally and then upon reaching the rim of the pot they will delve down into the soil. This means they will maximize the available pot space.

Fertilizing

As with all bonsai, a healthy tree is a prerequisite to being able to perform any typical bonsai training technique with a reliable outcome and a tree which survives it. Feeding is therefore something which you need to be on top of. The usual solutions including foliar feeding and even dipping (if your collection is of a manageable size) into a bucket of diluted fertilizer.

Image caption. To keep this needle juniper in top shape the Japanese equivalent of BonsaiBoost presents an easy to use, no-fuss solution to all the nutrient requirements of the tree.

Solid fertilizer cakes or pellets held in baskets are in my opinion more sustainable though. BonsaiBoost is the fertilizer I use on all my trees and the concept is simple; every time I water, some of the nutrients enter the soil.

Shaping shohin

Although most of the techniques used on larger bonsai are applicable to shohin they tend to be more difficult on shohin, unless you have really tiny hands! Sometimes it can be very frustrating to apply wire properly on these small trees, never mind getting it off.

However the styling challenge presented by a shohin is that the "canvas" is so much smaller. This means there is no room for superfluous growth, everything there must service a purpose. Sometimes a carefully placed branch is all it takes to complete the illusion of a majestic tree. The power of suggestion is no more evident in bonsai, in my opinion, than it is in shohin bonsai. This is often used for instance in fruiting shohin where you might find a crab apple with a tiny handful of fruit prompting thoughts of a giant fruit laden tree in an orchard or field somewhere.

Image caption. Here a shohin apple tree is displayed with apples removed for a potential customer (The apples can severely weaken and even kill the tree if allowed to remain on the tree too long)

I cannot go into detail on the subject of styling shohin and the differences between deciduous, junipers and other conifers. However much of what you already knows applies, however greater attention needs to be paid to the balance between fertilizer and watering as long internodes are to be avoided at all costs. There's more but that's perhaps a subject for a future blog.

Image caption. I just loved this coiled Japanese black pine belonging to well known Japanese shohin artist, Koji Hiramatsu. It served as the inspiration for the tree in the following photograph.

 Image caption. This is a Japanese red pine which I imported a year ago. The image on the left is how I bought it. On the right is the first styling. This winter I am going to compact the trunk a lot more, making it look more powerful and full of energy - sort of ready to pounce! You can read more about the process I used to restyle the tree here.

Tools

I do not mean to suggest that you need to rush out and buy a bunch of tools now, but if you are serious about shohin there are a couple tools I would strongly suggest you invest in as they will make your life when styling them so much easier and dare I say that your tree are likely to reflect this also, as sometimes we neglect a task that needs doing because it is so time consuming.

So in order of priority I would suggest the following:

  1. Kaneshin Mini Bonsai Scissors, 122mm. With handles carefully crafted for maximum comfort, these scissors were developed for working on shohin trees as their size and long cutting edge permits working up close with these small trees. These are of the top sellers on our website.
  2. Kaneshin Concave Branch Cutters, 165mm. These smaller sized branch cutters are perfect for removing branches on shohin sized trees. This tool's rounded blade makes it a combination of the standard branch cutter and the knob cutter, therefore this tool performs the functions of two tools in a single cut.
  3. Kaneshin Branch Cutters, 170mm. A very useful tool to have regardless of tree size, but it is especially suited to the shohin sized trees.
  4. Kaneshin Knob Cutters, 150mm Perfect for removing that last bit of material after a branch has been removed, ensuring the resulting wound is healed over properly and as smoothly as possible.
  5. Kaneshin Scissors & Wire Cutter Combination, 132mm This is a really good value for money tool. Not only is it very suitable for trimming work on shohin and smaller sized bonsai in general it has integrated wire cutting. This reduces the number of times you need to put one tool down, another up, then down again and then up again etc. 
  6. Kaneshin Bonsai Combination Tweezer and Trowel. A good pair of tweezers for bonsai is a very useful tool. They can be used to pinch our spring growing tips, remove weeds and pluck needle and scale foliage. The other side can be used when repotting to tamp down soil and moss.

Ideas for display

Image caption. Typical display of shohin bonsai. Notice how evergreen and deciduous are combined and take particular notice of the placement of trees and the way this contributes to the movement of your eyes through the composition.

No other sized bonsai lends itself to display indoors better than the shohin. Due to their size they can easily fit onto most mantles or coffee tables or even the dining room table. In these temporary positions they can attract a lot of attention and create a lot of conversation.

Shohin are often used to depict seasons, especially when used as an accent to a larger bonsai in a more formal tokonoma type display. Here fruiting, flowering and deciduous trees in general especially when in autumn leaf are attractive. Conifers provide a sense of continuity and timelessness to any display.

Regardless of where they are displayed they should be placed onto an appropriately sized wooden table or perhaps even a slice through a tree trunk. Failing this a mat of thin bamboo sticks or even a suitable placemat might work. We are the first online retailer to offer wonderful, handcrafted stands by a very talented individual in the Eastern Cape, Graham Leonard. Unfortunately he is unable to keep up with the demand so if you want one of his signed tables at ridiculously low prices you are more than likely going to need to pre-order them. You can do so very easily by visiting this page to choose which design appeals to you most.

Image caption. This pleasing pyracantha shohin is displayed on a thin slice of wood.

Summing up

Well that's a very brief intro into shohin bonsai, as promised. I hope this article has wet your appetite to know more about these small but intriguing trees and hopefully to make a few of your own. Unlike the more commonly sized bonsai, shohin can be styled in a shorter period of time so for people who find themselves lacking in patience, they can work on a few shohin while they wait for their larger trees to develop. Be careful though, you might find yourself becoming completely engrossed by them!

Most of the time I use images of international trees or my own trees in my blogs, however I really want to showcase some exceptional local shohin, 100% Made in South Africa. Enjoy!

Local Shohin Gallery

 

Image caption. An amazing fig root over rock. This composition really 'speaks.' It embodies so many qualities which make a bonsai great rather than only nice; maturity and a story. Artist: Unknown (possibly Isabel Hofmeyer)

Image caption. A rather deservedly famous fig at Cape Bonsai Kai, with numerous awards. Artist. Dorothy Franz.

Image caption. Yet another wonderful fig by well known shohin bonsai, Cape Town artist, Hennie Nel.

Image caption. Another wonderful tree from Dorothy Franz, a Juniper in Bunjingi style. This style demands great artistry; using the minimum for the maximum effect.

Image caption. Another shohin creation of Hennie Nel's. Great root base, wonderful branch structure, canopy and a very natural feel overall.

Image caption. This characterful olive by artist Viky Petermann has won numerous awards. It surprises me that we see so little shohin olives. There must be amazing material out in the veld being overlooked.





Terry Erasmus
Terry Erasmus

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