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Bonsai Design


Bonsai by Numbers

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By Howard Smith, USA


The term cookie cutter bonsai has stuck under my craw ever since it was first coined. Perhaps it is not the term itself that offends me, but the context in which it is used. It is often applied when referring to a Japanese Masterpiece. I would love to have a backyard full of these so called cookie cutter plants; they just don't look like cookie cutters to me. Perhaps if I stand fifty feet away from these Japanese artworks they start to blend together. But upon closer inspection, i.e. less than six feet away, they all are balanced, unique, healthy and exploding with artistry. They are not mimeographed replicas of some predecessor masterpiece, but rather a labor intensive, hand-crafted original piece of art, created via an artist standing on the virtual shoulders of his / her teacher expressing a summation of treeness in the mind's eye of arboreal experiences.

Having said that, how about one of us Joe Schmoes styling a raw piece of collected material, influenced not by nature, but by one of these cookie cutter bonsai. Would the result be a sub-bonsai? A cheap imitation of a masterpiece? A Japanese wannabe? Or is this a legitimate source of inspiration in the journey of bonsai creation?

Raw material: Ashe Juniper

Collected Ashe juniper, Fall 2002


The picture above is of an Ashe Juniper, a Texas native collected in the Hill Country of Central Texas in 1999. No work was done for four years. I was struck by the 360 degree turn midway up the trunk and the near soda straw sized single live vein that traversed said trunk. It presented great potential, but all the foliage extended considerably above the trunk in a very straight, boring fashion. This straight section was close to one inch in diameter and quite stiff. Grafting was thought to be risky due to the small size of the live vein where the scions would be placed. What is the solution for this tree's styling?

The inspiration: Juniper from Kokufu 67

The inspiration: Juniper from Kokufu 67


The above image is a rendition of a tree which appeared in Kokufu 67. Even though the trunk moves in the opposite direction of the collected Ashe's chosen front, they have remarkably similar trunk character. This was the needed inspiration to style this tree. The large, straight branch would be bent down, and from that, secondary branches could be used to form the canopy. Rebar and raffia would have to be used to bring down the main branch - a nerve racking process since if this branch broke, the tree would likely die.

Before doing any work on the tree, even though it was showing good signs of growth, repotting was first performed in the spring of 2003. The repotting technique used was as per my instruction with Boon Manakitivipart and is detailed nicely in Bonsai Today #90, pages 16-19 in an article by Mike Hagedorn.

Repotted: Spring 2003

The Ashe juniper repotted, Spring 2003


Many hours were spent cleaning the deadwood; there was an unbelievable amount of compressed wood within the 360 degree turn of the trunk. The bark was cleaned off the dead areas and lime sulfur applied.

By July of 2003, the tree was growing well in the new soil. It was time to make the major bend and begin doing "bonsai by numbers". The branch was brought down 90 degrees and secured with a guy wire. Wire was applied to what will now be the primary branches. No pinching is done at this stage. This would only weaken the tree.

Bending the trunk, June 2003

Bending the trunk, June 2003


The tree was again wired in the fall of 2004, and some pinching began. The roots had filled the pot and it was repotted in a slightly smaller pot in the spring of 2005.

The Ashe Juniper, Spring 2005

The Ashe juniper, Spring 2005


All that remains is refinement work to develop the foliage pads, some mild touch-ups to the deadwood and the pot may change again.

Inspiration and creation, December 2005

The inspiration (top) and the creation (bottom), December 2005


I am not sure what solution I would have come up with if not for the inspiration and guidance provided by the Kokufu tree. Do I have an imitation of a Japanese tree, a cookie cutter bonsai, an American bonsai, or is this just bonsai?

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