Is this bonsai? Does it matter?

An interesting thing happened. Recently, I’ve been working with a group of urban eco artists on their installations for the Jerusalem Season of Culture arts festival, which will take place in September 2016.

One of their key pieces is a massive installation focusing on the emptying and decay of one of Jerusalem’s iconic town squares. Once the bustling center of the city’s urbanite culture, a thriving meeting place of Jerusalem’s extremely diverse populations, the changes of the past two decades have gradually gutted the square, emptied it, and rendered it a mere shadow of its past self. Continue reading

Building a unique bonsai collection

It’s been three years now since I started my curatorship of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens bonsai collection. Mostly three years of rebuilding root balls, cutting back branches, and grafting like there’s no tomorrow; but also three years of zero-to-hero, junk-to-hunk Cinderella make-overs such as have graced these pages before.

But now that the collection has been stabilized health-wise, and some of the trees are even starting to look half decent, it’s time to turn a shifty glance forward and start planning ahead.

Basically, the JBG collection is still very much a product of its amateur origins. The collection was donated by the two founding fathers of Israeli bonsai, and is still representative of its amateur (not in the derogatory sense!) and old-school-bonsai roots. Also, the original collections were kept in the hot and (ridiculously) humid climate of Israel’s southern coastal region. For example – keeping a collection comprised of 80% ficus in the almost tropical climate of the coast – cool! Keeping them in Jerusalem’s colder, 800m elevation climate – not so cool.  Especially if they don’t provide visitors to the Gardens with any wow-factor. Quite clearly, the collection needs to evolve. But how?

Botanical gardens around the world usually have their bonsai collections donated or bequeathed. Any subsequent additions are usually procured from outside the gardens. This leads to an interesting phenomenon where most botanical gardens’ bonsai collections tend to be quite similar, and reflect more the depth of each garden’s pockets and contacts list, than the gardens themselves. This isn’t to say that bonsai collections in botanical gardens aren’t absolutely, jaw-droppingly, awe-inspiringly beautiful. Quite the opposite! But still – with the JBG’s collection, I wanted to do something different. Not only because of budget considerations or the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to get bonsai trees into Israel. But also because I think it is possible to build a more interesting and unique collection. One which is singularly representative of its host garden.

Why not build the collection from within the gardens themselves? Why not tap the unique botanical diversity that a major botanical garden has to offer? Why not build a collection that, pardon the megalomania, could not be assembled in any other place in the world?

So, over the past year, I’ve been pilfering the JBG’s rich botanical larders – from unique oaks that sprout in almost maple-like reds every spring, to the wild predecessors of today’s apples and pears (hailing from obscure regions in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the likes), obscure maple varieties, and all kinds of trees that only people with a perverted fetish for botanical taxonomy can name. All have been finding their way, one way or another, into the JBG bonsai collection’s ‘In Development’ pile.

Are these your usual suspects when building a bonsai collection? Definitely not! But exactly for that reason, they can build a unique collection, with unique personality. Plus, there’s the added benefit that they are usually drop-dead gorgeous, and offer a seasonal variation that would be very difficult to find in our local Mediterranean flora.

So, as we move forward, the collection will certainly continue to respect its roots and heritage. But it will also increasingly push the boundaries of bonsai cultivation, and continue to build itself not as ‘the bonsai collection in the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens’, but as ‘the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens bonsai collection’.

Bonsai professionals should read this post

As the by-line below the title of my blog indicates, a major part of my work is with the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens’ bonsai collection. Over the past four years, what I’ve found is that we bonsai people are a unique phenomenon. We routinely perform procedures that are considered among the most complex and advanced in the botanical and horticultural world; we have intimate knowledge and unique hands-on experience of working with trees that is rarely found elsewhere; we are masterful technicians of applied botany. Continue reading

Cracking Mediterranean Red Pines!

I’ve recently had an article in Bonsai Focus about working with Aleppo pines. Basically, these pines were always considered unusable for bonsai, because of their long needles and reluctance to bud back. However, after seeing a single, super-dense pad in a colleague’s garden here in Israel, I started thinking that maybe these pines were just getting a bad rap. After all – there’s no reason that what can be done on one pad, can’t be replicated for the entire tree. Continue reading

The advantages of taking it slowly – 2 year progression on a juniper

As I’ve said in a previous post, there’s a huge difference between instant bonsai and bonsai developed over time. This might be most apparent when working with junipers – their flexibility, and the ability to do with them pretty much as you please with the right technique, make them particularly seductive for seeking an immediate, short-term result. Continue reading

Showing the process – innovations in bonsai display

There’s always a bit of injustice in a bonsai display. We always like to refer to bonsai as four-dimensional sculpture, but we can only see it in three. Whenever we see a bonsai, we’re seeing a snapshot of that tree – the tree as it is at that moment. We don’t see it’s history. We don’t see it’s development. We don’t get to engage in it’s story – only in the here and now. Continue reading

What 5 years can do to the simplest of material!

In this post I’d like to show the development of one of my earliest trees. Although the tree is far from perfect, it has accompanied me from the very start of my bonsai adventures, and in a lot of ways mirrors my own journey. It is also a great example of how consistent work can yield good results from even the simplest of material. Continue reading

Three grafts, two techniques, 100% success!

Three months ago, at the end of December 2012, I put up this post on grafting a juniper from the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens bonsai collection. In the two weeks after that post, I grafted another two junipers from the collection, one using the same channel technique as shown in the post, and another using a thread-wedge technique. In the previous post, I guessed that I would be able to give a progress report around mid-March, and boy was I right on the money!

Continue reading

The Big Instant Bonsai Demo Extravaganza!

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Gather round for the one, the only, the Big Instant Bonsai Demo Extravaganza!

Who among us hasn’t heard the term ‘instant bonsai’, or even been accused of it at one time or another? But what exactly is it, and why is it so bad? In this installment of the Bonsaipiece Theatre series, I enlist the aid of one of my lovely assistants – a juniper from the JBG, and try to find out. So without further ado, I give you – Instant Bonsai! Continue reading

Would YOU join the tour? – Poll

One of the most frequent comments I get when people hear that I’m from Israel, is how much they’d like to visit the country.

In the US, in Italy, in the UK, and most recently at the Noelanders show in Belgium, almost everyone I meet says “Oh, you’re from Israel! I’ve always wanted to visit!”, followed immediately by “What’s the bonsai scene like there?”. Even people who’ve visited in the past, say they want to visit again.

Always one to listen to the crowd, I’ve decided to explore the possibility of organizing a tour to Israel, custom-tailored to the bonsai community. Please imagine that such a tour really was available in 2013 and answer the following poll honestly. Please note that such a tour would probably cost a couple thousand dollars.

If a tour were to be organized of Israel in the next 12 months, specifically for bonsai enthusiasts - would you make the trip?

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