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.

Basically, you can take any raw juniper, and bend and twist it until you get a decent silhouette. But the lack of structure underneath that pretty exterior would ultimately detract from the beauty of the tree, and would make its future refinement more difficult. If you’ve got a powerful, impressive yamadori with spectacular character, it can compensate for this lack of structure. But if you’re working with simple, humble material, which has nothing going for it, your best bet for bringing beauty to the tree is by developing structure.

A case in point is this juniper from the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens‘ bonsai collection. This is actually one of the first trees I worked on when I was asked to take over the collection in January 2012. The tree was in pretty good shape health-wise, and like many of the junipers in the collection at that time, looked more like an overgrown schizophrenic octopus than a bonsai –

Juniper - raw material - Jan. 2012

Juniper – raw material – Jan. 2012

Yep. Not much to work with. Long branches with thin foliage, and a straight trunk where even the bends are rigid and lack grace.

Since this is a juniper, technically it was possible to take those long, sprawling branches and twist them into some sort of semi-pleasing shape. But that wouldn’t bring beauty to this tree. Bonsai is a transformative art form, and the only thing that could make this tree beautiful would be to work with it, together, over time. I remember, when I was just starting in bonsai, when a visiting artist told us that bonsai is not made from raw material, but from prepared material. Only now, years later, I am starting to realize just how true those words were. In fact, the first year or two of work on a tree I now consider prep work, and not styling.

So the first order of business was to prepare this tree. To devise a plan for its future design, and to lay the foundation for the tree to grow into that design. Unnecessary branches were removed, and the remaining branches put into place so that their future growth would support the design. Here’s the tree after being prepped in February of 2012 –

Preparation - Feb. 2012

Preparation – Feb. 2012

As you can see, the trunk was straightened up a bit to give the tree more presence, and the future design can be understood – a slanting tree with a character branch emphasizing the movement. It doesn’t look like much, but the foundation for the structure is there. If you are working with nursery material or really simple material such as this tree – this stage is absolutely critical.

So over the course of 2012, I switched the tree to proper substrate that would keep it super-healthy and allow it to develop quickly. I also fertilized heavily and let the tree grow out quite a bit. This made sure that the tree had plenty of energy to support aggressive growth. This excess energy is key in developing structure fast.

By the end of September of that same year, the tree was ready for its first proper styling session –

First styling - Sept. 2012

First styling – Sept. 2012

Analyzing the tree at this stage, the reason that it’s starting to look good is because it is developing structure. The complex, almost fractal shape of branches, the orderly lines working together to tell a visual story – these are now starting to create interest which distracts from the fact that the trunk is absolute crap.

But the tree is still immature. It still looks young and does not have visual weight or impact. So again – we need to work together with the tree to develop new growth that can then be used to develop the tree further. For the next eight months, I fertilized heavily and let the tree get really strong by letting it grow out much more than necessary before cutting back. In fact, I only cut it back once toward the end of spring, and then let it grow freely again. By the end of June 2013, the tree was developing nicely with dense, healthy foliage –

Overgrown and in need of pruning - July 2013

Overgrown and in need of pruning – July 2013

It was mid-summer, which is generally not a good time to hack away at junipers. But it was also clear that the tree was getting really overgrown and would soon start getting too long, compromising the structure. It was therefore necessary to cut back the growth and thin out the tree, making room for new, more ramified growth. Since junipers are still actively growing in these months in Israel, I would be able to get more branches to work with for the autumn styling session.

Thinning out and making room for more growth - Jul. 2013

Thinning out and making room for more growth – Jul. 2013

At the start of November 2013, almost two years after it had first been prepped, the tree was ready for its second styling session –

Second styling - Nov. 2013

Second styling – Nov. 2013

Comparing this picture to the first styling session from last year, the tree looks much ‘heavier’, much more mature. Almost too heavy for the simple trunk.

Looking from beneath, we can see the orderly, interesting structure that makes the tree interesting now, and will provide a solid foundation for it’s continued improvement in the future –

Juniper branch structure - view from below

Juniper branch structure – view from below

From here on out, the tree will move from ‘development’ to ‘refinement’, with everything from soil to fertilizer to pruning schedule being geared toward slower, finer growth.

It certainly has a way more to go, but looking at this tree now, it’s amazing to think that almost none of the branches and none of the foliage were there two years ago. Had I tried to force a styling session on it back then, I would now have an overgrown jumble of branches which would have forced me to go back to square one and rebuild the tree. By investing two years in development, we can now move forward instead of starting over. It is one of the great paradoxes of bonsai, that the fastest way to get good results, is to take it slowly.

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

  1. Nicely done work on the tree. A huge change from the start of the tree material.

    I know this tree didn’t have grafting, well I don’t think it did anyway, but if there was a grafted branch….How long do you wait until you feel it is right to wire a grafted branch?
    Related….Do you wire-wrap and secure the graft union point before you begin wiring for shapes and bends on the grafted branch?…so there is much less potential for a graft break.

    • Usually, I would reinforce the graft point with rafia and elastic tape, and even then, I wouldn’t try any major bending near that point.
      It’s not structurally secure enough to handle the loads involved in heavy bending.
      If you’ve got major bends to do, it’s sometimes better to bend the original branches, and then graft.
      Or graft in a way that eliminates the need for the bend.

  2. Pingback: Building a unique bonsai collection | Ofer Grunwald's Bonsai Blog

  3. Impressive how it developed. Keep up the great work. Although I have to say that even the styling in Sept. 2012 had something very nice and minimalistic.

    • Thanks Uli! I think the main difference between the Sept.2012 pic and this final pic is the quality of the lighting and photography 🙂

      • Thought about that. No question the lighting is better in the Sept.2012 pic. Maybe do another nice lighting pic of the current sitatuion? 😉

        But I looked at it again and the major left and right branches are much more compacted in the Sept.2012 pic and farer away from the trunk. Maybe that gave it some special feeling, although the foilage was quite sparse.
        Maybe especially the lower right branch’s closeness to the trunk supported the overall left direction of tree?

        • As I said – the current design is almost TOO heavy for the thin crap of a trunk, and the dark lighting only accentuates that problem. The next step in the tree’s development will therefore be to break up the uniform dome of foliage and introduce some play between the foliage pads. That should take some of the visual weight off the tree.
          In any case, you’re more than welcome to come see the tree in person 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *