August 2019: Peter Tea on Junipers

Peter Tea joined us in August to talk about the work that is appropriate to do on junipers late in the summer. He brought three Kishu Shimpaku junipers with him, plus an olive for contrast, and to illustrate how different trees need different approaches.

Peter began with a quick recap of the importance of working on healthy trees, listing once again the six things we can manipulate to ensure that we get the most out of our trees and the changes we make to them: sun, water, soil, repot interval, fertilizer, and cutting.

The Kishu Shimpaku is, like most junipers, highly valued for how great it looks with foliage pads, those perfectly shaped bundles of foliage that are so iconic in bonsai. As he drew front and side diagrams of them on the whiteboard, Peter pointed out that creating those perfect pads always begins with branch division, lots of division. But it’s not enough to just create division, it must be planned carefully. For instance, you have to bear in mind that all that division will add girth to the tree. Depending on where you begin the division, that girth will either be close in to the center of the tree where it looks good, or it will be far out at the ends of the branches, where it will only look good in the most extreme of compositions.

With that in mind, Peter turned to the least developed of his junipers and asked the audience to imagine where we would want the outer edge of the final canopy for that tree. He held his hands open around the tree to help us envisage where its perfect silhouette would be. With that goal established, he told us to imagine how much further in we would have to start dividing the tree’s branches to allow enough division and subdivision to create the dense pads achieved on a mature tree. He moved his hands in to where that would be, and many of that tree’s young branches were already bare beyond that point. Clearly, some of those branches were going to have to be sacrificed. Peter’s ultimate point: you might have to cut deeper into the tree to get the ramification to peak where you want it. Additionally, he added that you can’t work on one isolated area without regard for other areas, or else you’ll waste your time perfecting something that might end up getting sacrificed in service to the larger design.

Returning to the importance of working on healthy trees, Peter sidetracked to a discussion of spider mites and how to deal with them. Various types of oil are effective. “Year Round” and “Neem” are two popular examples. Peter recommends using only 60% of the listed dosage and avoiding using oils under direct sunlight. Douse the tree thoroughly, but then wash it off an hour later, again to avoid sun exposure. It will have done its job of suffocating the mites within that hour. Be sure to repeat the process a week later to catch new hatchlings. According to Peter’s experience, miticides (Floramite, Sultan, Hexagon) are less successful in the long run, the problem being that mites build up resistance to them over time. Peter also says that Malathion doesn’t work at all.

Awesome Olive trunk

As he turned to a curvy Kishu that he had before us a year ago, Peter continued with advice on how to shape young junipers. One big help when it comes to wiring is how flexible juniper branches are at all ages, and particularly when they’re young. More specific to something he had done with this particular tree was a tip he gave for creating deadwood on younger trees: Peter recommended making separate isolated sharis (areas with the bark shaved off), in strategic places that accentuate twists in the trunk or branch, but that do not overly stress out the tree. Those create their own interesting effect, and when the tree is older you can strip off more if you like.

Peter made a point to highlight the importance of ramification for density. According to Peter, you can grow a lot of foliage, but that does not necessarily mean you have created density. A tree only becomes truly dense when it has a lot of ramification (division) in its branches.

Finally turning to the largest, but scrappiest, of the junipers, Peter started pulling out all the under-branch growth. “An obvious place to start,” he said, attacking the tree as if he were seeing it for the first time. Then he began to pull out thin, unnecessary bits of branches. Stuff that clearly served no purpose as he moved toward something with the beginnings of foliage pads. Getting in close, he pointed out that another good early decision is to trim the undersides of the branches’ secondary and lesser tips, parts that will later grow into useless material that will invade the negative space you’re creating between each pad and its neighbor.

Looks good from the back too.

An interesting closing point Peter made: a shallower pad (one cut closer to the branch) may be useful not just for show, but also because upward-pointing secondary branch tips will grow even faster than outward-pointing branch tips. Downward-pointing tips will grow the slowest. So by making a shallower cut to the entire pad, the upward-facing tips will be held back a bit so they ultimately match the main tip better when everything grows out.

– David Eichhorn

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June 2019: Bill Castellon on Pines

Our June presenter was Bill Castellon, a professional landscaper, aesthetic pruner, and shohin fanatic with extensive experience growing and pruning pines of all sizes and varieties. The topic of the evening was decandling black pines and Bill brought a vigorous young black pine for demonstration, which was raffled off at the end of the night.

Bill went straight to a discussion of decandling timing strategies and never gave the down-and-dirty on what decandling is and why it’s important. A quick explanation for those newer bonsai enthusiasts reading this: Decandling a pine means cutting the new growth shoots of a vigorous pine, referred to as its candles, so that when the needles developing inside of them open up later, they are noticeably shorter. It is done because simply cutting the needles after they are fully developed will result in unsightly brown tips on the needles. The proper timing of this procedure is a topic of much debate, with as many opinions as there are microclimates in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the one agreed-upon constant is that the later you make the cut, so long as you don’t wait too long and miss the developmental window, the shorter the needles you will get. Decandling is also done to encourage division, being the pine equivalent of tip-pinching on deciduous trees.

Like many of our other favorite presenters, Bill does not like to state absolutes like, “You must decandle in June.” Rather, he likes to set general guidelines and emphasizes that you must consider the individual tree and its specific environment. As an illustrative example, he points out that shohin artists in Japan wait until as late as July 15th to decandle, to get exceptionally small needles. They can do that there because their climate supports it, but here in the Bay Area, Bill suggests we don’t push our pine candling past July 4th at the absolute latest. If you decandle your pines too late, you’ll get malformed or otherwise unhealthy needles, or even an entirely failed growth tip that eventually withers and dies. When in doubt, or if you absolutely must go by a specific date, Bill says that June 15th is a safe time to decandle pines in our area.

As he began to work on the demo tree, Bill gave a number of decandling pointers and answered questions, often using the demo tree to illustrate a point. He used one growth tip to show how, after decandling, you must thin the resulting buds to one new leader and a side branch–just two buds. Leave too many and you’ll get excessive swelling. A later example branch brought up a further clarification: be sure to remove the strongest growth, because strong, bulky growth should be removed and more refined growth left to develop. He also mentioned that in the first Fall after decandling, you must go back and thin the needles up to the base of the bud area, unless the tree is still in early development, in which case all those extra, unsightly needles along the stalk are actually helpful. On a mature tree, they serve no purpose and might induce unwanted budding and consequent swelling.

In response to a question regarding removing only part of each candle when decandling, which is suggested by some artists to be more appropriate in some situations, Bill declared that removing the entire candle is the tendency now, regardless of the situation. He also stated that he does not personally alter the timing of his decandling to balance the different areas of his trees (he simply has too many trees to do that), but quickly described the process, which tends to be a bit counter-intuitive. The weakest third of a tree should be decandled first, to give that area a head start in recovering and developing its candles into needles. 7 to 10 days later, the next strongest third should be decandled, with a similar delay for the strongest third of the tree. If your tree is already well balanced, then you can decandle everything all at once.

An important reminder: Japanese Black and Red pines are the only ones Bill was talking about. Others would respond too differently. Entire branches would die on a Ponderosa pine if it were to be decandled! How to tell Black and Red pines: every needle is actually two needles.

No, this isn’t the before shot of the demo tree! This gem belongs to Belinda Lee.

The question of fertilizer and its timing came up. According to Bill, for pines an acidic fertilizer with a good amount of nitrogen will work best. It’s important to feed them well as soon as they start taking off in February to early March. Then stop feeding after decandling so the new growth doesn’t explode out of control.

Before wrapping up and raffling the demo tree (won by Chris Ross, who promises to bring the tree back for periodic summaries on its progress), Bill worked on Peter Makepeace’s tree for a bit, making some occasionally dramatic decisions for him. Peter was startled at first, but ultimately glad to see the obvious good direction in which Bill had sent his tree.

– David Eichhorn

Photos by George Haas and Sharon Bone

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MBC 2020 Schedule of Programs

Here’s what we have planned for 2020. Eight new demonstrations, some returning favorite artists/instructors and some new faces. Topics will include Shohin bonsai, redwoods, olives, trident maple, tropical indoors/outdoors, Monterey cypress, and Princess persimmon. Peter Tea will return with a new program – an evaluation of 10 lucky members’ bonsai.

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September 2019: Jay McDonald rock planting

Marin Bonsai Club and guests were treated to an educational and entertaining presentation on bonsai rock planting by Jay McDonald at the September 2019 meeting. In the Japanese tradition this is called a saikei (sigh-kay) and in the Chinese tradition penjing. The volcanic stone Jay used had a dramatic arched shape and he chose a small, shohin-sized shimpaku juniper for the signature planting. Jay discussed the various positions he had considered for positioning the tree before deciding that a placement just off center showed the tree to the best advantage and flowed well with the lines of the stone.

Ever considerate of his audience’s limited attention span, Jay had done extensive preparation on the stone and tree before the meeting. Screen platforms or pockets for soil were created to provide growing material and stability for the tree, and drainage holes created to keep the roots healthy. Jay had purchased the tree in August, pruned and styled the branches and cleared the roots of old soil so it would be in prime condition for planting on the stone.

It was clear that Jay had done considerable thinking about his composition and the elements needed to create a composition that would be a real show stopper. He had purchased several accent plants that mimic larger plantings one might see in the woods, and had accumulated some prize silverback moss to fill in and secure some of the plants.

The positioning of the main tree went smoothly and may have given the audience a false sense of these rock creations being easy to create. However, watching Jay carefully secure the tree into place with strategically placed wire and much thought about just the right angle hopefully illustrated the high level of experience and technique required to create a successful saikei. Jay emphasized the need to make a very tight connection with the stone so that the tree won’t be jarred loose and roots damaged, and pointed out that no ‘muck’ was needed in this case, only good soil and the right sized pocket.

Jay also insisted that the tree be rotated in the garden on a regular basis so that the tree grows evenly. This will necessitate looking at the back of the stone at times which is not as attractive as the front (although Jay thoughtfully hid some of the technical parts with more lush green moss), but is essential to keep the tree healthy.

Future care will involve regular fertilizing, like every week, and keeping the saikei out of direct afternoon sun – morning sun only! The stone drying out could be disastrous for these plantings because the rock ​heats up more than a pot will and roots will shrivel in soil that will dry out quickly.

Understandably there was much competition in the raffle for Jay’s saikei, but the lucky winner was Diane Matzen. We congratulate her and hope to see the planting in a future MBC show.

Candace Key

Photos by Candace Key and Cheryl Redmond

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MBC Auction and Sale

August 6, 2019,  7pm          San Rafael, California

Marin Bonsai Club will conduct their annual bonsai auction and sale Tuesday, August 6 from 7:00 to 9:30 pm at the Terra Linda Community Center, 670 Del Ganado Road, San Rafael, CA. Quality bonsai, bonsai-related items and pots, pots, pots… Preview at 7:00 pm and live auction starts at 7:30 pm. In addition, there will be silent auction and sale items. Public is invited.

TIP: Come early and have dinner at the many great restaurants across the street, featuring Thai, Mexican, Italian, and Japanese food, and deli selections at Scotty’s Market!

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Marin Bonsai Club 2019 Beginners’ Workshops Recap

On July 16 and 23, at the Terra Linda Community Center, San Rafael, California, Marin Bonsai Club (MBC) conducted its annual beginners’ workshops. This year there were two workshops, one with 10 students and the other with 11 students, all learning the living art form referred to as bonsai. Each student worked with a senior member of MBC on creating a bonsai from nursery stock. The trees were Prostrada junipers, roughly five years old and having been repotted by the Calaveras Nursery, Inc., located in Sunol, California. The junipers were repotted in five-gallon nursery containers about two and a half years ago and had well developed root systems.

The workshops were laid out in five tables with two and three students per table. A senior MBC member/instructor was assigned to each table. Many thanks to John Doig, Janice Dilbert, Dan Keller, Alan Voight, Michael Murtaugh, Chris Ross, and George Haas for volunteering their time and experience in teaching the workshops.

Beginners’ Workshop #1

John prepared the junipers in advance of the workshops by cutting the root ball in half, reducing the size of the nursery containers and wiring to secure the trees in the container. He also exposed the nebari by scraping away some of the surface soil from around the trunk base. This preparation saved a lot of time and avoided the mess of the students dealing with the same. It allowed for the instructor to begin the teaching of bonsai creation.

Prostrada juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) has a low horizontal growth pattern. The plant is used in landscapes. The numerous branches provide extreme movement and is quite suitable for bonsai.

Instructions basically started with cleaning the branches of unwanted foliage; dead foliage, downward growth, crotches. Once the heavy foliage was removed, unwanted branches were removed entirely or made into jin (deadwood) features. Some proceeded to select a front view, while others delayed identifying the front view and continued to work on structural and primary branches.  

Students had input into the bonsai design with some choosing cascade or informal upright styles. John brought two Prostrada juniper demonstration trees to aid the students in their creations. These were junipers that were created by John and Chris during demonstrations conducted in conjunction with the Marin County Fair earlier in the month.

Beginners’ Workshop #2

MBC provided aluminum wire for the workshops. Wiring was a critical part of creating the student’s bonsai. The instructors demonstrated the application of aluminum wire on the trunk and primary and secondary branches. The students then followed by wrapping the wire around the branches.

The students expressed great enthusiasm and enjoyment in their creations of bonsai. A number of them showed interest in joining the club. In fact, there were several students who joined MBC during the workshops. All of the students were invited to join MBC’s winter repotting workshops in 2020.

George Haas

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2019 MCF Bonsai Show Photos

We’ve just wrapped up another very successful show at the Marin County Fair!

Here are a few photos to enjoy and there are many more in the 2019 Marin County Fair gallery on our Visuals page. Check it out!

Photos courtesy of Craig Thompson, Dan Keller and Sharon Bone.

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