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

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

Step by step – grafting a juniper at the JBG

One of the most powerful and versatile tools in bonsai is grafting. It gets a bit of a bad rap as an ‘advanced technique’, but it’s surprisingly simple! True, compared to the random process of back-budding, in grafting you are assuming full control over the placement of the future branch, so you really need to think ahead carefully of what and where you’ll be going with it. But grafting adds so much flexibility and options when styling a tree, that it really is a good technique to have under your belt. Continue reading

Extreme repotting – Rebuilding the collection from the ground up at the JBG

As I’ve mentioned before in the introductory video to this blog, one of the things that really fascinates me in working on the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens bonsai collection, is just how complex the project is, and how it really requires you to go back to the fundamentals of botany-before-bonsai. You can’t work a tree if it’s not in tip-top shape, and it’s our responsibility to make sure it stays there. As a wiser man than I has said before – we don’t want our trees ‘alive’. We want them ‘thriving’. Continue reading

The effects of proper soil in bonsai – example from the JBG collection

One of the greatest challenges in managing the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens’ bonsai collection, and in re-styling the trees, is the poor condition of the soil and the root mass in virtually all the trees in the collection. This literally affects all aspects of working with these trees, from watering and fertilizing routines, and through to options for re-growing and re-working the trees. If the foundations are shaky, the whole building will be affected.

Therefore, one of the first orders of business in the collection is slowly repotting all the trees into better, more aerated, substrate. A particularly striking case in point came from one of the trees in the collection, which was slowly (and then quickly) deteriorating, clearly due to root problems. When the leaves had turned from a pale yellow to white, branches were dying back, and washing out the soil with water and humic acid were having less and less effect each time, it was clear that a complete, bare-root repotting was necessary to save the tree.

The tree was bare-rooted and repotted into very well-draining soil at the end of August. This is the result less than six weeks later: