April 2018: Chris Ross & John Doig

The doldrums of this April’s showers were broken by the antics of our club’s own favorite bonsai duo, Chris Ross and John Doig. In their usual style where Chris does most of the talking and John does all the work, the pair brought form and energy to an otherwise common cotoneaster and smiles to the faces in the packed audience.

With his opening volley, Chris jumped right into his well-known banter about what makes a bonsai. He mentioned “emphasizing the vagaries of nature” and called the goal in bonsai “what a tree could be if it went to tree college.” Meanwhile, John, who had been in the background hungrily fondling tools, busted in at this last comment, eager to get chopping on the bushy cotoneaster before them.

A few notes about the subject matter: This cotoneaster came from John’s favorite, “secret” landscaping tree source, so it had been raised so far in its life to become a shrub, hedge, or some other large-scale plant. As is, it was a sturdy, bushy, even attractive little shrub, but a clear path to a bonsai it had not. But after caring for it for a few months on his property, and some prior consultation with Chris, John had a reasonable idea where he was going to take this tree’s bonsai potential. The trunk quickly split into two, and branches of various sizes, some appropriate and others not so much for their locations, were copious all over the tree.

John was so eager to cut some obvious inappropriately located branches off that he had to be interrupted by Morris Dailey, who asked, “What about choosing the front?” Although they explained that there is just so much that is crying for removal from this tree that it’s not important just yet, Chris and John nodded to tradition and stopped what they were doing to go about selecting the front for the tree. There was some disagreement in the audience, but one side was chosen as the front, with a nearly opposite location indicated for secondary consideration once some of the clear-cutting could be done.

With the formalities aside, John proceeded to lop off two substantial branches. The first was too twisty throughout the tree, the other was puny compared to branches above it and would never catch up, no matter how much the branches above it were to be pruned. Then a small branch was cut from among some larger ones and Dan Keller took issue with that decision. The gist of his argument was: why take that weak branch and leave so many strong branches that might contribute to a lump or “knuckle,” some early signs of which were already beginning to show? John was so intent Continue reading

Posted in Meeting Recap | Leave a comment

March 2018: Bill Castellon

Shohin bonsai was the topic in March when Bill Castellon, an accomplished bonsai artist who used to conduct shohin workshops for our club once upon a time, gave us a highly informative lecture and demonstration on the topic of these smallest of our small trees. Clearly an extremely knowledgeable artist and horticulturalist, Bill was able to discuss a wide variety of bonsai topics in addition to shohin as he introduced us to and proceeded to transform a Chinese quince, which was raffled off at the end of the night. As a bonus, he also discussed and raffled off a black pine.

Bill began the evening with some general guidelines for shohin, then spent 30 minutes discussing some of the key points to be considered when displaying them. He pointed out that while shohin are typically defined as small trees under 20 centimeters (approximately eight inches) in height, with smaller pots than regular bonsai, simple definitions are often inadequate — a common problem in bonsai, it seems. You cannot chop all but the bottom eight inches from a larger bonsai and call it a shohin any more than you can put a shrub in a pot and call it bonsai. In addition to the subtle qualities that define bonsai, there are certain stylistic nuances unique to shohin. And Bill was there to show us a few development techniques adapted specifically to coax our trees into convincing depictions of old trees that can fit in one of our hands.

The classic shohin setup for a Japanese bonsai show — Kokufu being the gold standard of shows — is to have a multi-compartment box-stand containing several trees, along with an accent plant and a companion or supporting tree that are placed off to one side of the box-stand. Applying the triangular ideal to plan the layout, one should place the strongest trees so that they occupy the corners of the triangle. Along with numerous trees he brought with him, Bill used his own stands, props, and photographs from Kokufu show books to illustrate these and several other points relevant to showing shohin trees.

Continue reading

Posted in Meeting Recap | Leave a comment

January 2018: Randall Lee

The Marin Bonsai Club started the new year off with an energetic and informative forest-on-a-slab demo from Randall Lee, the professional aesthetic tree pruner with a strong penchant for bonsai. Randall brought with him a whole bunch of young but distinctive Catlin Elms, a small collection of sample slabs in addition to the one meant for the elms, some mesh, and some buckets of muck, and set about creating a dramatic tabletop scene in just two hours.

Knowing he had a lot to do in a short amount of time, Randall was already prepping the slab meant for the elms before the demo officially began, and essentially never stopped working and talking until he was done. He did a very good job of keeping a conversation going without interrupting the project.

The prep work he was already doing as the demo began was the creation of an alternate wire tie-down method since his attempt to epoxy wires directly to the slab had failed. This is one of the biggest challenges whenever one attempts a bonsai style that uses something other than a regular container to showcase a tree–how to affix the bonsai material to the rock, slab, deadwood, or whatever else you may be using. Rock plantings have the advantage that you can sometimes find creative ways to wedge the wires into crevices, or even thread wire through the more complex rocks. No such luck with a solid slab. Randall did, however, encourage us to attempt to drill into our rocks and slabs, though it can take a while depending on the hardness of the material, and be sure to use a masonry drill bit! Other than for wire tie-downs, another reason to drill into a slab is to create drainage holes, otherwise slab plantings can get a little swampy with nowhere for the water to go.

Continue reading

Posted in Meeting Recap | Leave a comment

Spring has sprung!

Well, not quite. But it sure seems like it when you look at Jay McDonald’s Ume today.


Yes, Winter. Ume in January 2018

Posted in Member Trees | Leave a comment

November 2017: Jonas Dupuich

Jonas Dupuich joined us in November to help us better understand bonsai pots and the how-and-why of their importance to our trees. Echoing the last hour of our latest presentation from Peter Tea, Jonas started by pointing out that matching a pot to a tree alone is a huge topic, with a lot of variables to consider, and promised additional tidbits of information to round out the talk. For instance, it is important to know that the pots you see trees in at shows are most often different from the day-to-day pots for those trees. This is especially true in Japan, where the best shows occur during the winter, when transferring a dormant tree from one pot to another and then back again is no big deal.

In his signature engaging style, Jonas started asking the audience for their opinions regarding the important points when matching a tree to a pot well before he distributed his very informative summary page for the talk, which had all of the most popular answers on it. The important pot-choosing points named by the audience were glazed versus unglazed, oval versus rectangular, considerations of origins and styles, and keeping up with standards and trends, among others.

Jonas’ handout, which loosely served as an outline for his talk, had the following five major topics, with three to five points under each topic: “Bonsai pot basics,” “Some conventions,” “Match the container to the stage of development,” “Consider pot alternatives,” and “Preparing pots for exhibits.” If you were not there to get a copy of the handout, try asking an active member for a copy. I’m sure somebody can scan it and send it to you.

Continue reading

Posted in Meeting Recap | Leave a comment

Autumn colors

Jay McDonald has submitted these seasonal beauties for our viewing pleasure.

You can also find these photos and more in the Fall/Winter Bonsai gallery on our Visuals page.




Korean Hornbeam

Japanese Maple


Chinese Elm



Posted in Member Trees | Leave a comment

October 2017: Peter Tea

Our October meeting featured the final Peter Tea presentation of the year. For demonstration purposes, he brought two trident maples, a cascading cedar, and an Itoigawa juniper. The taller of the two tridents was the same one we’ve seen him work on a couple times before. The other was a shorter, stockier trident that we’ve only seen briefly in prior presentations. The conifers he brought to discuss overall style and pot-choice issues.

Having seen Peter work on the taller trident twice before over the past year really helped the assembled audience see Peter’s plan taking shape in the tree. The frequently trimmed top was beginning to look more ramified, with lots of division going on in the branches, and the untouched lower branches had grown very long with some obvious thickening occurring close to the trunk. Because he wants to continue to thicken the lower branches, Peter’s light trimming this evening was limited to the top of the tree.

Focusing on an area where he had done some prior pruning and wiring, some of it in front of us back in August, Peter pointed out that many of the littlest branches were new just since then. He had already done some trimming in the intervening months, and proceeded to do some more. His goal was to select promising branches and trim out the unnecessary ones. If the branches to be kept had nice short internodes already, they were left alone. Branches that were growing too quickly, with undesirably long internodes, were cut back to the point where they last had a nice short internode length. This method ensures division and ramification in the tree’s top and diverts the tree’s energy to other areas where more vigor is desired, like the lower branches that still need thickening. To review: an internode is the distance between sets of leaves on a branch, the points where the leaves come out being the leaf nodes. Peter was aiming for internode lengths on the order of half an inch in the top of the tree.

Continue reading

Posted in Meeting Recap | Leave a comment