Mountain Hemlock On Levitated Nylon Board

Yes, that is the correct headline… bonsai on plastic. I wasn’t too sure of it myself.

In the late summer of 2010 I collected this Mountain Hemlock, Tsuga mertensiana, with my friend Anton Nijhuis in Canada, and potted it in a strange box that was sort of cantilevered up because the tree had been prostrate, growing through the mosses on bedrock. Digging through the moss uncovered a rather curious twin-trunk base that seemed like it would have to be styled in an unorthodox way, so naturally I wanted it. A year and a half later the box was full of roots, and the time seemed right to complete this weird idea of mine.

I’ve always wondered about alternatives to stone and prefab slabs. They tend to crack or break just when a show is just being set up; their timing is truly impeccable. Also, a bit ironic given that I used to be a potter, I’ve been drawn to the idea of making nearly invisible platforms, in place of a ceramic container. In other words, something supporting the tree that is really not an element in its presentation. So the idea of an inconspicuous, impervious, strong support had me pondering for a while.

Like many of my creative endeavors, I quiz everyone I know. ‘So, I have this idea… how would you do this if you wanted to do that?’ And you end up with a collage of ideas that you edit and orchestrate into a complete vision, sort of like an orchestra conductor or movie director must do I suppose. With an assortment of weird tools, bolts and ideas the March Seasonal students and I spent more than a day cobbling the thing together, and it was great fun—- Thanks Roger, Gary, John and Konnor!

Mountain Hemlock before styling.

Styled, but before the potting experiment…

Right side view—tree swoops far to the rear before coming forward.

A full box of roots in 100% pumice, one and a half years from collection.

Tree out of the box in position on the nylon board, with a sketch of the platform design in ink. The fragile rootball is held together with cheesecloth. Lots of moving around at this point with an unwrapped rootball would have destroyed it. Gary or Roger’s legs, I think… sorry guys, I am not attentive enough to identify your boots or belts. Thanks to both of you, though! There was a fair bit of holding things in position that day.

Konnor Jenson, my intrepid periodic apprentice, filing the edges of the board. Sporting a knit hat, he looks like a diehard Portlander-

The plan to hold the leaning muck wall in place. We did not take a shot of the twine that we wove between the chopsticks, offering a bit more support. The bolt heads you see are the top side of our levitation idea, with round end caps underneath serving as inset ‘legs’.

Mossing the surface; disembodied nose courtesy John Kahlie. He passed the mossing test with flying colors and will be relieved to move on to lichen in the next Seasonal… (Just kidding, John…)

The final design. The small accent plants near the base are heather and a curious evergreen penstemon, for those interested in the smaller elements. The moss may eventually grow over the edge of the platform, hiding it, at least that is the hope. This tree had an odd bend in the right smaller trunk, and I thought the addition of a cantilevered wall on the right side would marry well with that, sort of like a second bad note hit in a jazz piece that you think, ‘Huh, that guy must have intended that, so maybe it works.’ Opinions? Please let me know. In any event, this tree needs filling out a bit. The buds are swelling well in my greenhouse and it will be in there another month.

And an updated photo of the hemlock, after a few years’ growth.

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  1. Peter Krause says:

    Good idea, great work. Why buy expensive shallows? The plant itself must be in the center of interest. I hope it will thrive and prosper!
    Do not forget to keep us in the loop about how it proceeds.

    • crataegus says:

      Ok, I’ll repost this one in the future. The board was cheap compared to ceramic pots, yes, but still $25… it was the stainless steel bolts and heads that made me gasp— they were also about $25 total!

  2. bonsai eejit says:

    I have looked and looked at this and have come to the decision that I like it 🙂 It will certainly be a talking piece when seen. I think the leaning out to the right works well with the overall image. As the accent mature it will really make a convincing scene.

    • crataegus says:

      The heather and penstemon grow where the hemlock grows. Both have a small flower that might make it a bit different for a while, too. I’m looking forward to maturation as well, that changes things so much, the feel of a tree after it’s been grown as a bonsai for a while.

  3. Bruce Winter says:

    “the feel of a tree after it’s been grown as a bonsai for a while.”
    Inclining toward mochikomi perhaps?

    I love this hemlock, Michael…and the highly original and creative planting idea.


    • crataegus says:

      Yes, I prefer 15 English words to 1 Japanese… Mochikomi is an important concept in bonsai. A tree or companion must look like it’s been there a while, and that is the age and unity of mochikomi between pot and plant. Sometimes the term just means how old the tree is. But there is little hope in faking this, it has to happen over some years. Some discount the importance of this for accent or companion plants. Just as a bonsai must mature in it’s details so does a companion. I have a number of companions that are still years away from feeling old enough for a show. Or, mochikomi enough…

      Glad you enjoy the hemlock. Very low in mochikomi points, though!

  4. japanesepots says:

    Interesting concept Michael, and very pretty. It will look great once its fuller. But to play the Devils Advocate…where’s the “sai” in the composition? A little argument by definition.

    • crataegus says:

      Ah well, that bon ran off with another sai and so we have a lonely sai without a bon. Sigh.

      Maybe we don’t have a bonsai here. Or maybe the definition can use tweaking. I’m not sure, I’m just pushing around a bit and will let others decide if it’s been pushed too far.

      I’ve always liked those ‘moss mounded’ companion plants that don’t have any true base in the way of a pot, and am just translating that idea to the tree. The tree though is so big that you need something under it so it can be moved… and then I wondered about how to get the fingers under it…and then I wondered how a slightly levitated moss mound would look— well, I had no idea how it would look so I made one. How’s that for a loopy creative process? Anyhow it was fun. And I’ll explore it a bit more I’m sure.

  5. Ryan says:

    Just when I thought you couldn’t get any more nuts, you go and pull something like this! This thing is nuts! I love it, the movement, the cantilever, and even the sparsity of the foliage seems pleasing. Well done.

    • crataegus says:

      Macadamia or Brazil? Maybe hazelnut. Glad you like it, I think it needs to fill in a bit in the crown in particular, but plan to leave it looser in feeling because I enjoy that as well. I only fertilize mountain hemlock after the new needles have hardened so that I can contain the growth and not make it so thick. I also don’t want the long straggly runners that can form if you fertilize too much.

  6. I like the composition. It is artistic and has human values. I see a loving father or mother carrying a child.


    • crataegus says:

      Nice, thanks for that comment. The style of this tree is unusual and has a more subtle meaning, a parent/child composition is usually a protective situation with the parent hovering over the smaller trunk. Sometimes this is reversed, and the child ‘helps’ the parent when older, in addition to your comment of carrying.

  7. yenling29 says:

    Fantastic all around, great work by you and your students! I really love Hemlock and hope to see them more and more. Thanks for posting.

    • crataegus says:

      Ya, my students were terrific. This kind of work is nearly impossible to do alone, and they came up with some great ideas too. Mountain hemlock is one of our treasures and needs to be used more. It’s touchier on the roots, leave a lot of them and only repot when the buds are swelling and when you see root growth.

  8. Bob says:

    I love everything about this. Like you I always like things that are different. I would like to know where you got the nylon board you used.

    • Roger Case says:

      the plastic base is a kitchen cutting board which Michael purchased at a local restaurant supply firm. Its about 1/2 inch thick and was shaped with a sabre saw.

  9. Ken Krogholm says:

    Great job – I really really really like the design and what you managed to get out of this tree. You actually made the bonsai look like a tree and not the other way around.
    Regards from Denmark 🙂

  10. LSBonsai says:

    Love it. I also like the engelmann spruce composition that you made “sans pot”. Also love the fact that its a Canadian tree! 🙂

  11. Brian Orcutt says:

    Love the composition. Having the “pot” disappear is genius and allows a better feel for the natural environment of the trees. If you’ve never been to the mossy, rain-soaked pacific NW, this composition gives you that feel. I really need to get up to your place sometime.
    Thanks for sharing,

  12. Excellent composition. Thanks for pushing the envelope and thinking outside the box.

  13. Aaron Bowden says:

    I really like the approch to natural style bonsai work.
    Ive started customizing my own pots and slab pots as a bonsai prof./potter.
    Looks great!

  14. Graham says:

    Hi Michael, Like the others before me I really like the total compostion. You’ve captured the setting from whence it came, … would still be under 5-6meters of snow lol. Great work, Cheers graham

  15. Roman Andrushko says:

    how kept soil together, only sticks?

    • crataegus says:

      The right side where the soil slopes out is the only place where sticks were used. Other areas had a short wall of muck. If you get Bonsai Focus, look for the Sept. issue of this year where there will be an article about this tree with many more photos. I hope that will explain more by images what I did-

  16. Roman Andrushko says:

    thank you for answer. it’s interesting. i will look your blog

  17. Very creative poost

  1. […] variety. For more hemlock fun, check out Michael Hagedorn’s intriguingly titled post, “Mountain Hemlock on Levitated Nylon Board.“ Share this:ShareFacebookTwitterDiggStumbleUponRedditEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to […]

  2. […] trunk Mountain hemlock that was collected, styled and placed on a very thin piece of plastic by Michael Hagedorn and […]

  3. […] A couple years ago I tried a nylon cooking board as a slab for a twin-trunk Mountain Hemlock. […]

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