Bonsai-a-thon XXII

I attended the Bonsai-a-thon, held annually at the Huntington Gardens, this past Saturday. Not only as an observer, but a participant this time around. I arrived at the gardens quite early, around 7:30 AM or so. It was very brisk, as evidenced by the thick layer of frost coating my car. The past week of weather has been highly unusually for Southern California. Temperatures in December were uncharacteristically warm with highs in the mid 80s in contrast to the near freezing temperatures over the past several days.


I talked to the usual vendors there, Barry as well as Frank who always sells his cork jades at a steal of a price. Arriving at the early hours of the show, I was able to get first pick and nabbed some of the nicer ones on table.




I also had a chance to meet up with some of the members from the bonsainut forum. Colin who has been working at and apprenticing at California Bonsai Studio has been a vendor the past few years. Christian, who is a young enthusiast like myself, was also at the show and enjoyed talking to him.


After talking for a bit I headed out to the greenhouse where a Huntington sponsored beginners bonsai workshop was held. I’ve done quite of bit of teaching and mentoring in a diverse range of topics to different age demographics but never quite something like a bonsai workshop. I was contacted by Keith a few months back who coordinates many of the events and volunteering at the Huntington. I was a bit cautious in accepting as I wasn’t sure my current skills in bonsai were up to par, but I’m glad I did. The material provided was excellent, and the students very friendly and eager to learn.







After I was given a student I didn’t realize that they were supposed to go pick their tree. A large group crowded around the table and I’d thought it be slim pickings when we got there. To my surprise there was an excellent procumbens left with good nebari (root flare), a trunk line, and many possible branch options. As per usual I often get carried away in the work and development that I forget to take before pictures to track my progress.

*Found a before short courtesy of Keith Martin

I discussed with my student the criteria for styling a tree and the qualities we desire. To start, a wide root base lends stability and age to the tree. Secondly we need a good trunk line with nice movement. The front of the tree that expressed these 2 attributes best would be our starting point.


Here is a shot of the tree after the first stage of work:


Next any downward pointing growth, weak or dead foliage, as well as any branches that were too thick or too small to be used were removed. In the above photo you can see 2 jins (branch stubs) that show where 2 large branches were removed.

The cleaning stage in my opinion is the most important. It helps reveal the tree and can bring potential design options to clarity. Conversely if you were to try to style the tree right off the bat you’re liable to remove a branch that may have been critical to the design of the tree.

A second concept I discussed was depth and illusion. Sometimes it’d may be difficult or impossible to shorten or lengthen a given branch. But by changing the angle we position the tree the branch can be visually shortened. Imagine a ladder leaning against the wall. Looking at it head on the height of the ladder extends from the upper point of contact to the ground. In reality we know it’s much longer, but in bonsai its the visual length we care about.

With this in mind I suggested that we tilt the tree significantly forward. Doing so brings the apex forward while lengthening the lowest left branch and the drop branch on the right.

From here we wired the trees and tried to from distinctive pads with negative space.

Branch placement set


After further cleaning and potting. This tree ended up being the only tree in the entire workshop that was placed in an actual bonsai pot. Because the tree was tilted so significantly one side of the root system was considerably raised. The provided workshop pots were extremely shallow and small. Placing the root system in such a container would risk the health of the tree. I advised my student that she could leave it in there temporarily but to repot it in a deeper container of her choice as soon as possible. I mentioned that she could buy a pot at the show on the spot and she was completely on board. We picked a reasonably priced round that was met our criteria best and used it for the tree.


To have a very clean image and well executed design detail wiring every branch makes a huge difference. Unfortunately we were tight on time and had to stop here. All in all I think it turned out well and I hope I was able to effectively pass on knowledge to a new bonsai enthusiast. Ann, the student I worked with, picked on very fast and did a good job on cleaning as well as wiring for the very first time. Many bonsai enthusiasts quit after their first tree often from it dying or from the overwhelming amount of information involving bonsai care and development. Bonsai does have a steep learning curve, but it’s a very addictive and gratifying hobby. Perhaps some of the new students today will pulled in and become patrons of the art.



Lastly here are some photos of the trees on display. I missed the demos but there were many excellent trees local artists styled.







All in all it was a great show. Great group of people and made many new friends. Teaching a bonsai class was an interesting experience that I’d be open to doing again. Till next time.



Bonsai-a-thon XXI: New friends and stories

Last weekend I was able to attend the 21st Bonsai-a-thon hosted at the Huntington Gardens. It was a good opportunity to meet members of the bonsai community and to check out some rad trees! I was only able to stay for a few hours Saturday and for the first half on Sunday. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the event for the time I was able to attend.

Meeting new people is my weak suit, so it was great for me make some bonsai friends.

Day 1:

I had missed the demonstrations in the morning but still was able to check out the displayed trees and vendors. The display was hosted by the Viet Bonsai Society for this years show and the quality of the trees were superb. I saw many familiar faces and vendors including Frank Yee, who has been very nice to me since I joined up with Santa Anita Bonsai Society and Barry Altshule who I grabbed a nice live oak from 2 years ago. No shots of vendors unfortunately but here are the trees:


Jim Barrett elm donated to the Huntington Gardens
Al Nelson coast live oak donated to gardens

During the first day I went to Dick Ryerson’s table and talked to him and Phil Hogan (correct me if I got his last name wrong). Dick shared an interesting story about a glaze with me. The so called “million dollar yellow.”

A picture of the glaze I stole from the net

Glazes, or the finish put on pots, are a cumulation of chemistry, ingredients, and artistry. During the high firing process many metals or other components of the glaze oxidize changing in appearance and color. Variations are endless, but when done right you can make a pot of unrivaled character and beauty. For the same reason recipes for highly sought after glazes are often kept secret by the artist. For a particular pottist in China, that secrecy resulted in the recipe dying with him. To the Chinese government’s (or maybe a private company?) dismay, no one could reproduce the highly sought after yellow. Desperate to have the recipe again they offered $1,000,000 (yes, one million dollars) to anyone who could reproduce it. Potter Otto Heino and his wife would spend 15 years trying to reproduce the glaze, and was ultimately successful in doing so. Officials came to his home, confirmed that the glaze was indeed authentic, and paid him the 7 figure check. There was one caveat though–for as long as Heino was alive they could only buy the glaze from him, but would give the formula after his death.

The most amusing part comes next. Heino took that 7 figure sum, presumably an unheard of amount of money in the community he lived in, and deposited at this local bank. Word got around that Otto Heino had deposited a million dollars for “pot.” Yes…that kind of pot. Due to the misunderstanding the local police stormed into his home the following evening and tore up his place in search of the aforementioned “pot.” Goes to show how valuable “pot” can be.

I ended up buying a pot from Dick and put a nice small live oak in it. The tree in question is discussed in my previous post.


Coast Live Oak in Ryerson pot

Day 2:

I was recommended by Dick and Phil to watch the Al Nelson’s demonstration on Sunday. Al’s an expert on developing live oak bonsai and was advised to talk to him. I arrived to the Huntington Gardens early Sunday morning with just that intention but ended up doing something entirely different.

One of the demonstrators was Bob Pressler. Bob’s a well known person in the local bonsai scene and owns Kimura Nursery in Northridge. I had just arrived at the demonstration room when Bob asked the onlookers for a volunteer. Surely, among the audience (most of whom are at least twice my age) had more experience with bonsai and was better suited to help out–but no one volunteered. I thought, “heck why not, it should be fun” and walked over to Bob’s table. For the next 3 hours I applied raffia and wire on a medium sized kishu juniper. Bob on the other hand was working on a bottle-brush (callistemon) tree.

Bob was donating the bottle-brush to the raffle while the kishu would be kept, only brought as a demonstration. As we were finishing up he turned over to me and asked, “do you know what we’re going to do with the tree?” Semi-cascade would be the obvious answer but Bob had mentioned he’d like to do something more interesting if possible, so I replied, “I don’t know.” He said, “you’re going to take it home.”

Al Nelson, to be working on a group planting of pygmy cypress
Lets take a look…
“What have you done to my tree”

I never expected to participate in the demonstration, not to mention taking a tree home. Bob’s a pretty cool guy and I enjoyed talking to him. Working the tree as a “demonstrator” really enabled me to talk to other members of the bonsai community as well. I was approached by Helen Barrett and talked about cycling, bonsai, and her athletic feats. She later introduced me to her husband, Jim Barrett who makes awesome pots. All in all, it was a fun experience.


This is the best shot of the tree I have for now. I will be styling it later this month and will post it up on my blog so be sure keep a look out.

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