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