Since any bonsai show is a moment in time, it has an element of the ephemerality and sense of time passing by that we love so much and is evoked in the bonsai themselves. The creators and founders of the Artisans Cup, Ryan and Chelsea Neil, however, have put a lot into making this show endure so its fruits may be absorbed in the future.


The Artisan Cup Retrospective is unique, to my knowledge, in the depth of information offered in an online audio platform to see (and hear) a show. It is a massive educational resource. The judges critiques were recorded, and are offered on the website where you can listen to all five judges talk about each tree. You learn why they scored the way they did, their appreciations of a tree, and their problems with a tree. It’s a ton of information, hours of listening. Kudos to the team that put this together, it’s pretty impressive.


There’s some free information on the new website, such as some movies, and then there’s a fee area where you can hear the judges critiques of each tree. This is not just for those curious to know why the judges scored the way they did. It’s also useful if you’re part of a team setting up a local show, or if you’re preparing a tree for a show. This is a front-row educational opportunity, whether you went to the show or if this is your last chance to finally get there…


Here’s a film of the final days leading up to the Cup:
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/153406937″>The Artisans Cup: Behind the Scenes</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/bonsaimirai”>Bonsai Mirai</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>”>
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/153406937″>The Artisans Cup: Behind the Scenes</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/bonsaimirai”>Bonsai Mirai</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

(Normally…when one of my Portland colleagues does something cool I’d post it on the Portland Bonsai Village blog (I had a problem embedding the video on Squarespace…but then you don’t need to know ALL my technical failings.) In the future, most posts like this will be on the Village blog, which, if you’ve not yet seen that, check it out, it’s where things like this will be found in the future: Village Blog)

This photo essay ends with a couple of movies…don’t miss those. They’re too short for popcorn, but long enough to sit down for.


Mountain Hemlock before branch removal or wiring. Here are some pre-work branch close-ups:

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Last week this Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) was styled with pruning and wiring. It’s an unusual front, as the apexes all flow 45 degrees to the back and to the right. For me it was a haunting tree to find the wild, as if felt like the wind was literally at my back, and so I was determined to keep a windy feeling in the styling. Given the surrounding trees, it was not a naturally wind-influenced tree, and the identical movement of the apexes was happenstance.


Bobby progressed from standing on a crate…


…to standing on a ladder.

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I loved the height of this Hemlock. Although it’s more than twice the height of most bonsai, it’s got a tall foresty feeling about it that seemed wrong to reduce. So we left it really tall and it will be more of a ‘garden tree’, placed on the ground, probably on a slab. 7’ 4” from the top of the box. I won’t let it get any taller, so the apexes will slowly round a bit and look older with time.

My apprentice Bobby Curttright, who is doing some very fine wiring these days, was joined with Matt Reel whose wiring is always exquisite, made a team of three (with me) and we finished it in hours rather than days.




From exhausting experience wrangling big trees through a normal sized doorway in the studio in Japan, I built mine to be 8’…never expecting I’d actually WORK on a tree that large. Bobby and Matt struggle the tree through the threshold while I helpfully utilize the camera.


7′ 4″ / 224 cm  This is all one tree, a natural, root-connected clump. For inspiration on how to handle this styling, I thought of the trees in that curious and expressive mountain zone just below the small and stunted krummholz zone, where the trees still have some height and make up small forest groups. The bottom branches of the trees in this zone often have environmental stability, while the apexes are sometimes windblown. So this tree was suggestively treated that way. This clump continues an exploration of our Northwestern forests in bonsai, the first being another Hemlock group designed some time back:

First Hemlock Clump

And! As promised, here are a couple videos of this Hemlock styling, sporting Daft Punk in the background. Occasionally you just have to dip into French house music at the end of a wiring day. Bobby and Matt wire the tree in the first one, the second gives a 3-D feeling to the clump and branching:

Bobby Curttright brought by the studio a recent shipment of Henk Fresen’s wonderful bronze miniatures, and we had a wonderful time inspecting them and dreaming up what we might display with them. These are exemplary works for innovative bonsai display, such as you might see at the Taikan Ten, and of comparable quality to the bronzes that Matt Reel and I used when setting up displays in Shinji Suzuki’s tokonoma when we were apprentices there.

I was particularly taken with the reclining elk and the tree frog, although all these pieces have a subtle charm that comes from masterful hands. The toad, heron, and scorpion are exquisite as well (never thought I’d say a scorpion was exquisite, but it just happened.) Here are a few photos of them:


For more of this Dutch artist’s work, visit his homepage:


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A couple years back I wrote a post which became one of most viewed posts I’ve ever written. It was about Turface and similar soil ingredients like Oil-Dri and Profile, and my skepticism about their qualities as a bonsai soil ingredient, following 30 years of experience with many different soil types. The post was meant to call into question the belief that Turface is the best soil ingredient. I don’t believe it is, having witnessed its performance for years, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow a tree in it, or that it may be one of the few options in your area due to availability issues.

In rough strokes, there have been three main evolutions in our soil usage in North America. Earliest was the potting soil/sharp sand period, decades ago. Then came the Turface era, which was definitely an improvement on the earlier mixes. Then came the volcanic mixes preferred by the Japanese, the pumice, lava, and akadama soils, one of which, akadama, needs to be imported.

While the debate hinges on what works better, it is compounded by issues of availability and price. On the east coast akadama is very expensive, needing to travel farther from its source in Japan. Pumice is rarely available in the east, and is only spottily available in the middle states.

Certainly if you hate the very idea of importing soil components, like akadama—an understandable position, I don’t like it either—try pumice if you can find it. It’s from our mountains here in the western US, and locally is dirt cheap, 17 cents a gallon in some places, and works well as a base soil ingredient to which other things may be added (such as akadama and lava if you have a bonsai, or composted bark/steer if you have young stock.) Naturally, trucking pumice east is going to be expensive.

If you prefer to use Turface, definitely sift out the small stuff. You may find that deciduous trees are happier in it than pines, as it tends to hold a lot of moisture and the particles are not very large.  Also, you may need to water very frequently in order to prevent the hydrophobic qualities of the fired clay product that happens on its surface on dry, windy days. These comments are for 100% Turface; adding other things may mitigate these issues.

I think we’re looking for a base ingredient that can be used all over North America (apologies to those readers in other continents/islands, although there may be a similar discussion worth having in your area.) I think pumice is a much better base ingredient than Turface, with much more dependable horticultural properties. If that is impossible to find in your area, I have no argument.

Some have had success using Turface. You will be able to find people who have had good luck with it, their trees are strong and healthy with good root systems. And then there are a lot people who can’t seem to replicate those successes.

At the end of the day, it’s really amazing how many different types of soils one can use to grow plants in. I’ve seen people use something close to concrete, a clayey thing that was terrifying to behold, and have a margin of success with it. In some places in China they use essentially pond muck. We can learn to use almost anything. But I really don’t think that’s the question, or at least, it’s not a question I’m interested in. I’m curious what is the best thing I can recommend to the broadest range of people wanting to grow bonsai, the broadest set of abilities and goals, and in answering that, I repeatedly come back to the volcanic soils the Japanese have used for a long time, and continue to use.

If volcanic soils are unavailable, keep experimenting, keep exploring, but don’t settle for Turface (and Oil-dri.) It’s not impossible to grow a tree in it, that’s not the point, it’s just not ideal.

Incidentally, James Hooper has just had a delivery on the east coast of some of our western pumice, and offered to have his name and number put here for anyone seeking it: 617-823-7154

(Finally, a disclaimer: It won’t matter much what soil we use if we’re using questionable horticultural practices like barerooting old trees each time we repot. Please don’t do this. Without leaving a solid mass of soil on the roots we won’t manage to create the dense, stable, dependable root systems that we should see in our pots each time we take them out. This disclaimer could go on for pages on multiple subjects. But soil choice is a primary decision.)

Further reading…or pre-reading, actually, as this was the first post on Turface:


This is an antique tree created by one of our great California bonsai masters Mas Ishii. His son Gary Ishii is now proprietor of their family nursery Chikugo-en in Los Angeles. A client of mine found this unusual Catlin elm, which had been grown from a cutting by Mas about 50 years ago. It’s a modest sized tree, a chuhin, 15″ high, 24″ wide.

Old deciduous that are well done are very rare. The lion’s share of credit always goes to the creator of the tree, when grown for a long time since it was young. This is how it looked the day it was purchased:

ishii elm


Because the tree was so well maintained we only did a couple of things, and those were subtle. A branch in front was removed, the tree was raised a bit to display the nebari, the front shifted just slightly, and also we found an old Chinese pot for it. The olive colored Chinese pot is about 150 years old and has been used in the Kokufu show a couple times.


It is fun to play with changing the pot, and see how that changes the tree. Sometimes the tree actually changes a lot—it can feel differently—with a new pot.

We liked this pot not just because it’s a bit sexier and has some softer lines for our elm, but also because the pot’s age is reflected in the patina, and that supports the true age of the tree. (If you blow up this photo a bit you can see light whitish-cream scratches…that’s actually the true color of the glaze. The grayish brown cast over that is the patina from years of use…that’s what a pot that is 150 years old will offer).

ishii elm pot

In the sun the depth in the glaze and the patina of the pot are more easily seen. Gorgeous old pot, makes potters like myself grin stupidly in admiration.

On New Year’s day it’s nice to look back and savor the past. The work the Ishii’s put into this tree is worth a bow of gratitude, decades of careful cultivation and training that we can enjoy today.



2015 Photo Bloopers…

As is now customary, here are the year’s most embarrassing photos offered for your jeering pleasure. There are no captions, as, unfortunately, the photos tell it all-

If you enjoy this ragtag portfolio, try the previous few years too:



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Holiday Bonsai Video-

…well, it’s not really about the holidays, but this video is in celebration of something…

It’s Bonsai Empire‘s 15th year anniversary, and they cooked up the idea of having bonsai experts answer your questions in videos…there are nearly 30 of them, and every day this month a new one is being posted on YouTube.

The question I received was from the United States:

What are the top ten things we used to do in bonsai, but have since learned better? Or, in a slightly different vein, what are the things that John Naka was wrong about?
Naturally, the last part of this is a contentious issue, but the first part frames a very good question. This was my answer:

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