Welcome to the Saruyama Blog, intermittent and generally off topic. Occasionally you might see some trees...and weird ones at that.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

The benefit of laziness

Or at least the advantage to doing nothing. Whilst on my recent sojourn in America, I had the pleasure of spending some time in the company of Marco Invernizzi. It was an interesting time as we shared battle stories of times past and more recent, recanting tales of apprentice abuse and the trials of being a wandering bonsai artist. We even managed to find some very common ground musically which was interesting to say the least. Finding the middle ground is an important aspect of life, and bonsai especially.

The middle ground between Marco and myself after a days work

During the course of the conversations we came up with many things, but one was the point that in general most people in Bonsai fall into two categories; those who work their trees too much, and those who don't work on them enough. Which are you? A constant fiddler with a bench full of highly stylised and under performing trees or a let it be type who has a row of (possibly)healthy, dirty bushy trees?

It wasn't until I first came back from Japan did I truly realise that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing (well relatively). My younger brother taught me this lesson with his outstanding care of the rosemary I had in my greenhouse at home. Having heard stories of how difficult they are to keep, he seemed to have no problems doing it and when I asked him what he did, he just shrugged and said "dunno, nuffin special really". I put it all down to me personally. It was clearly all my doing as my absence was the key to success.

Obviously this is a wide generalisation and the tree needs to be set up properly, this isn't an instruction to just do absolutely nothing, but once they are repotted properly in good soil and have the branches pruned properly then for some trees, they just need to be ignored for a while, watered and fed as required (a lot of attention needed here), but not necessarily messed around with, not picked up and moved, not brushed or combed, turned around and tipped up, moved across the garden, pruned or plucked because we are bored....just left alone to do what trees do naturally, grow.

A recent trip to an occasional clients house reminded me of this. Some of the trees I work on belong to those who don't really do it as a hobby but like having them in the garden, but they need tidying up once a year to keep them looking somewhat like when they purchased them. Invariably many of these untended trees can be some of the healthiest, including this Black Pine which was just ridiculousy vigorous for the UK spring/summer/autumn we have been having.

This was after the spruce up job, so many of the super long candles have been removed, but the needle length, colour, turgidity and density was incredible compared to some of the over worked and over plucked trees I have seen. The back buds were incredible, evidence enough that high needle density and no candle cutting = back budding.

Now sadly this is at the extreme of doing too little and whereas the health of the tree is great, the healthy growth is being misdirected and visually it is a little lacking in structure. Many of you are sat there visualising plucking the needles, wiring the branches and bending them all into nice neat pads I'm sure. I know I was thinking that I could enjoy turning the bush into a pretty pimp little formal upright.

The key is to find the middle ground where both your desires to see a pretty tree are fulfilled as are the trees requirements for being left alone to just get on with it. I swing from constant fiddler, picking needles here, cutting branches there to leaving them unattended for weeks on end. I think that makes me the worst example out there...why are you reading this again? Oh for the occasional tree I put up and a wonderful choice in youtube videos, thats why...

Onwards and upwards people to a world of pure imagination

I know it has nothing to do with the trees but it's a good tune...


Sunday 23 June 2013

A morning of work at home...

After a trying return back to the motherland, no thanks to British Airways cancelling flights on me, I managed to catch up with all the stuff I needed to and actually get some work done on some of my own tree. I spent half the day Thursday just cleaning up, and then Friday morning I actually sat down and got the tools out for a little while.  Some of it was just maintenance work but I set two bits of material off in the right direction as well....and guess what I bought a new camera! Well, I say new, but it is actually refurbished.

The first job was to correct a school boy error which had gone on unnoticed due to me never being around to see the flowers.  The Azalea below is actually the one which featured in Bonsai Focus last issue, with me working on it over the course of 4 years or so to take it from a stump to little tree.  Some people have said that I cut azaleas back too hard, criticised the video I made with Bonsai Basho and all sorts, to them I say tosh. Full of leaf and flower year after year. It is precisely because I cut back that the tree is so healthy.  Sadly I didn't check on the colour of the flowers...even though I have had the tree for so long, I have never seen the flowers until now...so to myself I say...unpublishable comments.

I was told when I got it that it was a Nikko, which is generally a pinky colour, but all one colour with slight variation in hue...So I figured, no need to worry about the flowers too much..  It has the leaves of Korin type which are virtually indistinguishable from Kozan types (to my eye anyway) and so I thought nothing of it and went away, making the tree.  It turns out that it wasn't Nikko after all, and is in fact Hakkurin, which is supposed to be all white, with the occasional shibori (striped/patterned) flower . As you can see there is a big nasty red branch in the way.  The red flowers are in fact Korin, which is one of the parent types...and they can have the tendency to pop out if not controlled.  For regular readers of the blog, this time last year I was struggling with my OCD when it came to Satsuki flowers, and this year it is/was/always the same.  Every year the same...the endless struggle. I should just give in.  Thankfully the contamination was confined to just one branch.

Anyway, the entire branch came off and left a gaping hole.  It was kind of an important branch as it hid the lack of taper in the upper trunk very well.  There are plenty of branches around to compensate and this will be wired in the autumn as October/November is the best time to wire azaleas.
I gave it a slightly more conservative than usual post flower pruning, leaving more leaves on than I normally would.  This is due to the poor growth in the spring due to bad weather.  The next step will be to pinch off any long new growth and then wire the new shoots and old in the autumn.

Next up was a trident maple that I picked up recently from Zac's Bonsai, a wholesaler down in Ashford.  He grew this from seed for five years. Pretty good for someone who claims to know very little about bonsai.  When I went down he was complaining that people were baulking at the price. Seems some people can't find a diamond in the rough or are unwilling to play the long game.  Tune in after 15 or 20 years and this will be awesome....
 It had been cut back once by Zac, he left the long sacrificial branch on at the top.

After five minutes, it looked a little lighter. I reduced the height down another notch and did some basic branch selection.  A couple of sacrificial branches are left on either side and one in the apex.  Nice home made nebari.  A keeper...but aren't they all? I wonder if this counts as a native/non-imported tree?

Speaking of keepers, I did some initial work on a small kifu sized Sabina that arrived a year ago.  Having established itself and showing signs of some serious healthy growth...look at those green tips....I decided that I should start styling up some of them. I had only an hour and a bit before I had to leave for an appointment but the major work, defining the live vein, choosing a style/front, initial branch selection and rough wiring were completed.

Light green tips all over the tree, almost every branch was growing.  This side was looking initially like the more suitable front. Ideal branch placement for the apex and for a variety of different possibilities. Interesting twisted feel to the live vein in the lower trunk, moving up into a bit of a mess up top. Strong jin at the base adds character.

The back side.  There is a potentially interesting twist featuring dead wood in the top section of the tree, but the lower trunk is boring and the base jin bit sticks in the eye. Foliage and apex are all perfectly usable from this side.   First job was to define the live vein and figure out where the living bits are.  Once you know that, then you can start to consider the actual design. The weird knuckle/twist on the back side turned out to be quite dull when the dead section was defined, the live vein movement was pretty poor, whereas from teh initial front, the twisted nature was actually accentuated.

After a few branches were wired. I think there are six wires on the whole tree.  About 40% of the foliage mass was reduced, so all of the remaining foliage was left to grow. None of the growing tips were cut back at this stage.   Working with Yamadori Junipers, especially those who send out multiple shoots from a single node, especially on the trunk, requires a totally different mindset to working with field or pot grown Itoigawa.  It basically comes down to a mental process of planning the future and understanding the process that are occurring and how to use them to maximise development without creating stress on the tree. I would say more but then I would find it difficult to sell a workshop on Junipers.

I will work on the dead wood when I can get the dremel wire brush out and fine wire if and when necessary. For now the next stage is to let it grow out a little. Not too much in certain areas, but try to not touch it for a while...let those growing tips grow.  This tree will reappear a little in the next couple of months I feel...assuming it doesn't die.

It was nice to work at home, get stuff done for once.  I think I may do it again next week...

Friday 14 June 2013

Hush now child...

After the previous blog post about thinking of a different way to approach teaching in the UK, which was stimulated by various conversations up at Rochester, I have discussed it with a few people and decided to set up some more intensive sessions designed to improve the level of those who want it.  I was told to pull my finger out of my ass and step up a little, something which I know I need to do.  Somebody told me something recently to do with fish as well which was advice well heeded.

The idea is that they will be a departure from the standard workshop format and cover one topic to a great degree. I want to keep away from the word "school" as that has some negative images for some, but there will, and needs to be both a combination of practical and theoretical concepts, some of which will be potentially quite dry.  The intention is to create self sufficiency rather than dependence, so there will be a lot of focus on understanding why things are done and then how concepts can be applied in a wider context.  It would involve a level of constructive criticism and potentially tedious practice with me on your back the whole time, so it would not be for the occasional hobbyist, rather someone who wants to achieve the highest level possible.  The most valuable knowledge is that which is earned rather than given...so perhaps it's time for no more Mr. Nice Guy.

It would be over a weekend and based either up at Willowbog, Leeds, Derby or somewhere in the south (possibly Saruyama HQ) depending on the uptake and geography of students, who would be limited to four in order to maximise the time.

This will only work if there is demand for it, and for a format that people want, so in the interest of democracy (a terribly flawed concept), the options are

Species specific would cover one species in detail at three times a year, repotting, pruning and wiring.
In depth technique would cover one technique and how it can be applied to a range of species.

Now, I don't want this to be seen as me thinking I am too good for doing the standard workshops, or that I have no interest in the "occasional hobbyist", nothing could be further from the truth.  I just think that the current model needs a little expanding to take in those people who don't attend workshops for whatever reason.  Any ideas, criticisms or suggestions gratefully received.

If there is no interest then I will get my coat...

But...for those that are interested then...enter the steeple of beautiful people, for there is only one kind...

My thanks to Mr. Invernizzi for the aural inspiration today...I suggest listening to the full track for one of the greatest ever funk soul tunes ever.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Rain stops play...

In true American weather fashion, rain has very much stopped play for the immediate future...the workshop is dark, the trees are soaking and it is pitch black outside...at 9 am.

Sometimes nature is amazing, sometimes it is terrifying...sometimes it is a pain in the ass

At least the interweb still works...

Tuesday 11 June 2013

A learning experience

As I sit here in an airport, I can look back on the last few days which have been a learning experience for me. Somethings have been revelations, others simply what I already knew but spelled out in front of me for the first time. Techniques such as wiring are learnt by repetition and have become part of my physical memory as opposed to the conscious part of my easily distracted brain.
At the first Bonsai Colloquium (I had to look it up) in Rochester NY, organised by the half centurion Bill Valavanis, the artiste de jour and all round good egg Ryan Neil gave a very interesting lecture on wiring. Confessing to me that he hadn't prepared much for it, I told him that "if you can't talk for two hours off the cuff about pretty much any topic, then you can't call yourself a professional"...I think that I was trying to convince myself more than him, but he smiled and got on with it in the consummate way that he has. During the hour that he spoke on wiring I learnt that putting into words that which I knew innately as physical memory, gleaned over years of repetition; was actually very very difficult. It also highlights the fact that fundamental techniques such as wiring, repotting, and pruning can only be learnt properly through repetition, repetition and more of the above. It was the line
When wiring branches in pairs, one of the wires goes clockwise and the other counter clockwise
Followed by me air-wiring a pair of branches, that made me go....oh yeah. It seems so obvious but yet I had never actually said it myself.
My own talks consisted of a compressed hour of Japanese Aesthetics and a satsuki demonstration. I had a powerpoint and a sleepy audience for one and the ability to talk for ages on the other. I would have taken pictures of the demo tree but it didn't seem appropriate.
Being in the audience for other speakers gives a lot of food for thought, not only on the topic but also the delivery. Last night the inimitable David DeGroot gave a talk at the Upstate NY club evening that I was allowed to sit in on. For those who don't know David, shame on you. During the first half of his talk I took a great number of notes and some of the things he said were very interesting.
Art is something which creates emotional or intellectual satisfaction
I liked that description, admittedly it is very simple, but it does sum up many aspects of bonsai quite well, the intellectual challenge of creation and cultivation which can be appreciated by a knowledgable audience as well as the more emotive and artistic side of design which can be appreciated by anyone with aesthetic sense.

The best description he gave though really made me think hard.
We don't look at a painting to see paint on a canvas
So by extrapolation, we do not look at a bonsai to see a tree in a pot?
....and wait for it....BOOM! It may not be the deepest and most metaphysical thing I have ever thought, but damn that is true.
David "whacking off" a black pine.

It wasn't just intellectually stimulation that was to be had, one of the speakers, Dennis Makashima, managed to make a few of us silently cry with his repeated description of his pruning technique...see above for details.

Overall the experience and conversations have lead me to a re-think in terms of how education in bonsai could be approached. Seeing the level in the US rise so quickly for some, those dedicated few, it has to be replicated at home. For those in the UK, how would you like to be educated? Is there demand for the highest level intellectual and technical rigour? Are there people dedicated enough to practice, practice, practice? Who is willing to take on some new challenges and push the boundaries of what is possible in the UK?

Is this the joker to do it?
See what happens when a bonsai professional has too much free time on his hands? When will my plane leave? Cursed loose rivet.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Sun baked shopping...

One of the benefits of being a bonsai professional is buying trees...or rather investing in stock. It is perhaps one of my favourite hobbies...and one of my least favourite seems to be selling them as I have made very little effort to do so. Today was a day where I could indulge in a little retail therapy and invest in some material for the future. Finding good, reasonably priced yamadori material that is suitable for bonsai cultivation is difficult and there are plenty of charlatans out there as regular readers of this and other blogs will be aware of. Buying value for money trees which have roots and are then possible to either style or resell without the risk of damaging your own reputation is a challenge. Thankfully there are a few collectors out there who are trust worthy.

I have been a bit wary of investing heavily in Spanish Sabina's until I was happy that they would grow well and be capable of being styled in the UK. The current vogue for them in other parts of Europe has lead to a number of collectors hawking their wares as seen at this years Noelanders. After the improvement in all of the trees I purchased last year (after a slow start to the spring) and almost a year of thinking about and working on the growth habits of Sabina vs. Chinensis, it was time to start getting some material ready for future years...so I got up at 4 am and headed down to Gatwick for an early flight to Spain.

Easyjet, the preferred choice of the budget shopper. An uneventful sleep on the plane and I touched down to colder temperatures (just) than I had left behind in London. A short drive and it was time to start selecting material...a lot of the very good material was already cherry picked and will be finding it's way to the UK via a fellow professional. A number of times trees which I coveted were already taken and so I had to resort to a different type of cherry picking. Early birds and worms somehow sprung to mind...

Mmm...fruity. Still, there was plenty of new and old material available and due to the wide range of tastes in the bonsai church, I was able to find some material which I thought would make worthwhile trees.

This little bad boy was calling out to me. Will make a superb kifu sized compact tree one day...

I am thinking of making a cascade out of this...it lends itself to it don't you think?

I can't help myself where rosemary are concerned. Will it make a tree or just an expensive herb garden? Answers in five years...

It seems I have a thing for shohin olives...a barked up tree with potential...are you watching Mr. Armitage?

Some "beginner" yamadori material. It is important to build confidence, both for myself and for clients before embarking on larger more adventurous pieces. Trees such as this will give a good result but enable cultivation and foliage management techniques to be mastered easily. Collected Sabina require a totally different approach to styling, development and ramification than the container grown Chinensis most people are used to, and so there is a lot of fear of working on new species. In order for people to dip their toe in the water, I recommend getting trees like this...hence it went in the shopping cart.

This is just a few of the pieces that will be arriving over the course of the next year, some were freshly collected and so they will rest until certain that sufficient root growth and foliage development means that they are ready for the new benches I will have to build to accommodate them...or I could sell some trees I already have.

Am now heading back home to pack my bags for a trip to the US tomorrow...for more satsuki fun in the sun

I'm sure I have mentioned that Akiyama used to tell me that we sell people dreams...well I have been sold a few myself today...


Dream on...


Sunday 2 June 2013

The beauty of nature

One of the benefits of living in London is there is always something interesting going on, this is true for anywhere, but like Tokyo, London offers an overload to the senses. On a "research trip" to the hipster areas around Shoreditch and Whitechapel, Lady Saruyama and I went to the Whitechapel gallery.  One of the other benefits of living in London is the incredible amount of free art and museums that is available...something which we often over look in this country.

It was here that I saw in person some of the most incredible art I had ever seen...the photographs of the German photographer Karl Blossfeldt.  What made it so incredible was that it was simply close up photographs of nature, showing incredible structure and beautiful lines.  Even more incredible was the homemade techniques he used way back in the day. Some of the shots for you...

For more images follow this link...

What struck me was something I often think about when strolling in the park or more often than not driving along, is just how beautiful the natural world can be without our intervention.  As a bonsai artist, sometimes it strikes me as very arrogant to think I can improve on what is naturally incredibly interesting and aesthetically pleasing. Other times it strikes me as very reassuring to be in constant contact with the natural world, just being in the garden and looking at the day to day development of the trees is plenty to please the aesthete in me.

Makes you think doesn't it...and as some other German bloke once said...

"We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning"