A Bonsai Partnership

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Sunday, October 15, 2017 marked the opening of a very unique and special, permanent bonsai exhibit space. The Northern Virginia Bonsai Society and Meadowlark Botanical Gardens have partnered over the past months to plan and construct a bonsai pavilion on the Meadowlark grounds. 


This public-private partnership was celebrated at a grand opening event attended by the public, members of NVBS, Meadowlark staff, and even a representative from the Japanese embassy. 


Many thanks to Garden Manager, Keith Tomlinson, and NVBS President Gary Reese for sharing the story of how this all came about. And thanks to the NVBS members who loaned their trees to the pavilion display. I look forward to watching this partnership develop and grow. 

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NVBS With Larry Jackel

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Larry Jackel is a favorite expert among the members of the Northern Virginia Bonsai Society. He manages the bonsai collection at the Denver Botanic Gardens and collects fantastic bonsai material from the Colorado mountains. 


Larry provided a short program about horticultural mastery, design concepts, and management of new growth especially related to Picea pungens, Colorado Blue Spruce. 


He also provided a wonderful selection of CBS for the workshop participants to purchase. There wasn’t a bad tree in the bunch!


Just another great NVBS meeting and workshop!

Reopening the Japanese Pavilion

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It was a unique honor and a priveledge to be able to attend a very special event at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in Washington D.C. yesterday. 


Over forty years have passed since 53 Bonsai trees were gifted to the United States from Japan. The original Japanese Bonsai Pavilion — the first part of what has become the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum — was dedicated in 1976 to hold this collection, and good fortune brought me the opportunity to be there for the reopening ceremonies that revealed the gorgeous and much needed renovation of the Japanese Pavilion. 

Outside the Japanese Pavilion


An impressive guest list included a number of Japanese ambassadors and guests such as Mrs. Naemi Iwasaki who is the current chair of the Nippon Bonsai Association, the same organization that arranged the original gift of Bonsai over 40 years ago. There were also a number of influential American Bonsai experts in the crowd including Bill Valvanis who, as part of this event, was recognized for his contributions by receiving the Bonsai Hall of Fame Award. 

Bill Valvanis after receiving the Bonsai Hall of Fame Award


After a brief program, we moved down to the Pavilion for the ribbon cutting, and got to take a look around. 

The ribbon cutting


Beautiful garden paths lead from the entrance to the Bonsai displays


The bonsai were displayed on these beautiful stone and mahogany stands


I am extremely grateful to have been permitted to participate in this wonderful event and see the Pavilion with so many others just as it reopened. I know I will go back often, and you should too! My photos will never do it justice, and you just won’t appreciate it until you are there in person. 

In fact, there is one image I won’t share for this very reason. You will have to go see it for yourself… 

A famous Japanese White Pine greets you as the first Bonsai inside the Pavilion. This is the tree that was cared for by the Yamaki Family since 1625 and survived the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. If you have been to the museum over the last couple of years while the Japanese Pavilion was being renovated, you have seen this tree out in the main courtyard. Seeing it on its new display stand, at the perfect height for this tree, is a picture worth seeing for yourself!

I hope you get there to see it soon. 

Some Context on Collecting

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I sometimes collect trees for bonsai. For my bonsai-curious readers, this means I will sometimes find a perfectly healthy plant and dig it out of the ground so I can keep it in a pot. 

There are folks out there who really don’t like this idea. And on face value, I get it. Why would you take it out of the ground? We need more trees, not less! 

I get it, but I am here to tell you that if you are concerned about preservation of our woody friends, a few tree-loving bonsai enthusiasts are not your problem. Check out this horrific scene!


That hill use to be dotted with small trees including some that had potential for a future as bonsai. I have collected a few young Virginia pines from this site, in fact. In the spirit of protecting the power lines, the power company sent in some big, horrendous machinery which left this carnage in its wake. So many more trees that might have survived, if only I had put them in a pot!

So don’t worry about some bonsai folk digging a few trees. But do hold them to a high standard. There are ethics to digging bonsai material, after all. Just a  few rules I follow are :

  • Always get permission from the landowners!
  • Fill in holes and clean up the collection site. 
  • Collect with preservation in mind by leaving trees for the future. 
  • Leave trees that are sure not to survive collection.

A couple more I would add if you are interested in trying to collect for bonsai. Start small. Start low stakes because some will die. And if you can, start with a friend who has had some experience and some success. 

Prepping for the fall show

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The fall show for my bonsai club is coming up in a couple of weeks. Our fall show is open to any member who would like to bring trees to show, and it is not judged. It’s just a great opportunity to share bonsai with the public. 

I know several of our most experienced members will have trees unavailable for the show because of another exhibition, so I really would like to show at least two bonsai. Looking over my trees though, I felt like there was only one in “showable” condition. Maybe I could get this San Jose Juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘San Jose’) cleaned up and ready to show. 


It’s a bit sloppy at the moment. Let’s see what I can do. First, I need to get the moss off the trunk. I want to get as much moss off the bark as possible without damaging the bark texture, so it’s careful tweezers work. 


I’ve had a couple of branches held with guy wires for several months. New wire will go on today, so I am going to remove these first. If they are still needed, I can put them back on later. 


Then it’s really all about wiring the branches so I can position them and clean up the shape of the tree. I’d like to do this while removing as little foliage as possible. The tree is doing well, but I don’t want it to lose any strength for this. 

I wire the lowest branch first. 


And gradually work my way up developing horizontal pads of foliage. 


I find wiring and positioning the branches of the apex particularly difficult, but I was happy with the compact form I was able to achieve. 


Since my goal is to show this, I also want to moss the surface of the soil. Not all in my club think this is important, but I like the way it looks. 

For this Juniper, I went with a pale, bluish lichen and moss mix.  I think it looks nice. 


Ready for the money shot? First, here’s before…


…and after:


If you’d like to see it in person, come out to the Northern Virginia Bonsai Society (NVBS) fall show at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, September 16-17. 

Oh, the crazy sh– we do for our trees

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That, my friends, is a big-ass rain fly from a family-size tent, oddly arranged and anchored under my deck. 


Under the fly is a yew. (Why does it feel like there should be a good pun in there somewhere?)

The yew was removed from a neighbors yard about a year ago, and put in this large box to contain a healthy-sized, clay-covered root ball. Since then, a bonsai friend of mine suggested I should have bare rooted it, but the decision had already been made out of an abundance of caution for the survival of the plant.

It has done quite well, really. It put on a good amount of new growth and has been backbudding all over the place. It was doing well, that is, until we got into a very wet August. The clay in that box is waterlogged and the tree is showing signs that it is not happy. What’s worse, we have a bunch of rain coming over the next week. 

It just can’t take any more water! It needs to dry out and this was the only way I could figure out how to protect it. That box weighs about 300 pounds so I’m not really interested in trying to move it to a sheltered location. Tipping the box so the watermore easily drains off is another suggestion I have seen often, but I think I would have to build a support structure to hold the thing up and prevent the box from crumbling under its own weight. 

We will see if this does the trick. Meanwhile, I will work on deciding when it will be safe to get it repotted. 

Oh, the crazy sh– we do for our trees!

What to bring to a workshop

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What kind of trees do you bring to a workshop? I struggle with this frequently and usually opt not to stay for the “BYOT” (bring your own tree) portions of the local bonsai club meetings. 

My trees fall into three broad categories. 

  1. Many (MANY!) are not ready for styling. Most of these just need water and fertilizer to get big and strong. When they do need a little something done… well, I don’t need help from club members to repot, or make an occasional big cut on material I am developing for future work.  
  2. For most of the trees that are in development, I have a clear idea of what I am working toward. These don’t seem right to take to a work session or workshop either. (I love to work on my trees in my own back yard!)
  3. Very few trees are ready for developing or in a new phase of development that really throws me.  These trees — the ones I’m not really sure what to do with — are the ones I want to take to a workshop. 


When I got a last minute opportunity to attend a workshop with Adam Lavigne this week, I was very excited to realize I had a few trees in that last category. 


This Ficus Microcarpa (above) had lost any hint of a tree structure, and I wasn’t sure how to get it there. 


I was in a similar quandary for this Elaeagnus Umbellata (above), as well as a twisty, multitrunk azalea. Apparently I had never photographed this one, so here is the azalea (below) after its styling. 


When I first found this tree — quite literally in someone’s trash pile — it had maybe nine trunks. To finally have an idea of where it is going is a great feeling. 


The ficus has a new future in a banyan style with a new front, and the Elaeagnus has a new angle and a structure I can finally work with. 


Adam, thanks for all your help! It was a pleasure to spend the day with you and a small group of others from Northern Virginia Bonsai Society

Jack, thanks so much for hosting!

Readers, if you haven’t read Adam’s blog, I recommend it. Check him out at adamaskwhy as well as on Facebook and Instagram. 

August Pine Rescue

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Notice was left on a card hanging from the doorknob. 

Crews will be working in the easement to prune and remove trees that may interfere with the power lines. 

Time to get busy. There’s trees that need rescuin’!

To some, power lines can be an eyesore, but I-for-one am grateful to have this easement just beyond my backyard. The mature trees in my yard block the view of the power lines most of the year, and I am able to take advantage of a good bit of otherwise-undeveloped land right out my back gate including meadows, woods, and access to the reservoir. In fact I walk back there frequently and have become familiar with many of the plants and trees. That’s why I’m worried!

This isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed the tree pruning. Every three to four years they bring in heavy machinery including bush hogs, cherry picker trucks, and a crew of chainsaw-wielding butchers!

Maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh. They are doing what they have to do. I mean, I like electricity! So I shouldn’t complain too much, but I know what’s about to happen. The pruning on the mature trees that line the easement will not be pretty, but what concerns me even more is the countless young trees that will but cut or crushed under the machines that roll through as they do the work. 

Each time this happens, many young, flexible saplings survived the abuse and spend the next few years getting strong and thickening up their bent trunks and branches.

AH! Now you see what I’m gettting at! 

These are still young trees and far from fine and aged mountain yamadori, but a few of these have too much potential to just let them be mowed down, so today I collected two Virginia pines, and there are a couple more I hope I can get before they roll through.


Of the two collected today, this has the better outlook. It came up with more feeder roots close in to the base. In the picture above, it’s just a mass of needles, but you can get a slightly better idea of the trunk line below. 


This second one…


must have had most of its feeder roots out on the ends of long runners. Despite my best efforts to dig out a significant area, probably 36 inches in diameter, it came up with long segments without feeders like this one that is over 12 inches long.  


Nevertheless, it has a nice trunk thickness and some good bark texture developing. 


I will have to baby this one and hope for the best. 

Trying Baskets

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I have a fertilizer problem in my garden. The problem is my dog, Remi. She likes to eat solid organic fertilizer, which is what I’d really prefer to use. 


I have seen fertilizer baskets used, and thought I would give them a try. There is a real possibility she will eat the fertilizer anyway, basket-and-all, but I won’t know until I try. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to start with and ordered a hundred “medium” baskets for my experimentation. These were smaller than I imagined they would be and I am already planning to order some large baskets. 


In my collection of around 75 trees (don’t be impressed, they are nearly all at an early stage of development) the baskets I ordered were used up quickly. Even the smaller pots (6-9 inches) that make up the majority of my collection needed at least two baskets. 


There are a couple of key considerations I will be looking at to determine if this is a good solution to my fertilizer problem. 

First, I wonder if the baskets are going to prove to be durable over time. I had one basket that was broken in shipment which makes me wonder if others will break similarly with use. 


Second, I fear the time and labor involved in emptying and refilling baskets may seem overwhelming. We shall see. 

I will have to report back and let you know how things go. 

A Benjamina

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Ficus Benjamina. Not always considered outstanding material for bonsai, but it is readily available and will survive indoors, so I suspect it is used as bonsai more than many species — even if by the inexperienced and curious. 

Mine is not dissimilar as this is a tree I have had since my early years in the art. By my records, I’ve had this plant for a solid 20 years. 


I’m going to skip any root pruning this year and see if I can get a fairly refined canopy before it has to go back inside for the cold months. So first, today, is defoliating. 


I’ve been warned that F. Benjamina can die back if you don’t leave a leaf at each growing tip, but that creates an odd challenge. You see, I like to see the tree structure when I prune, and I don’t know which leaf will be at the tip until all of the decisions are made. So, here’s hoping for a strong growth response. 

After removing the leaves I do some initial pruning. 


And then wire to get the branches back into position. 


I will have to watch the wire carefully. If I get the strong growth response I want, it will bite in quickly.