Report from MABA 2008 Steve Moore

Report from MABA 2008
(Or, Some Things I Learned in Indianapolis) by Steve Moore, Fort Wayne Bonsai Club

I GOT MY MONEY'S WORTH at the MABA convention in June. The Indianapolis Bonsai Club, led by convention chairman Paul Weishaar and club president Donna Shirley, put on a fine symposium. There was a full slate of workshops and demonstrations, plenty of space for the candy store (OK, read "vendors,") and an exhibit featuring some very good trees.

Grand prize went to Dana Quattlebaum's pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens, a close cousin to the bald cypress.) But my personal favorite among the trees on exhibit was Andy Smith's Black Hills spruce. One of the tallest bunjin I've ever seen, it well portrayed a monarch of the mountains, towering high above its surroundings. And on one of the main branches, Andy put a little model of an eagle's nest! Who says you can't have fun while you're doing bonsai?

There was an inspiring list of teachers and masters on hand to lead the workshops and give demonstrations. The headliner for the event was Danny Use of Belgium, widely regarded as the best bonsai teacher in Europe at present. Danny's father owned a nursery, and Danny grew up helping his dad and learning proper care of plants as he did. That background shows in his horticultural knowledge and his emphasis on maintaining a tree's well-being. Besides having his own extensive (and impressive!) collection, Danny teaches bonsai and owns a bonsai nursery in Laarne, Belgium. You can visit his website at

Danny Use was not the only one giving demonstrations that weekend, of course. But his demonstrations were the only ones I was able to attend in full.

DANNY'S FIRST DEMONSTRATION, on Friday evening, used a massive Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum). The tree was collected in 2007 by Andy Smith, who estimated its age at 500-700 years. Danny would have liked for the tree to have been in a pot five to seven years; then, he said, "I could do whatever I liked." But since the tree was still adjusting to pot culture, he would be more circumspect and perhaps not do as much. The health of the tree had to be preserved.

The first step was to take the tree out of the pot (with the help of two other men) and examine the root system. In particular, Danny said, he needed to verify that the existing roots were in fact connected to the live veins, the areas of active bark that actually fed the upper part of the tree. Sometimes, he said, the roots connected to the live veins are lost during collection; in such a case, it can be as much as three years before the upper part of the tree dies. "Before you do anything, know your root system."

In this case, the tree did have one large healthy root, well-branched, that was connected to the above-ground portion, and was supplying water and nutrients adequately. Once this was verified, the tree was re-secured in the pot (again with the aid of his helpers) and the space around the rootball filled in with fresh akadama.

Danny then stopped to make an announcement. The root system was still in the process of re-establishing itself, he said. If he did everything in the demonstration that he originally expected to do, the shock would be too great; the tree would likely not survive. Therefore, he would do only what he felt was safe for the tree and leave the rest for later. The well-being of the tree had to take precedence.

When Danny finished saying that, I heard someone behind me, sotto voce: "There's the mark of a true bonsai master. He won't jeopardize the health of the tree just to finish his demonstration." I couldn't have agreed more!

Danny still did a great deal. His design, involving extensive use of deadwood, will show off the whorls and burls that Nature spent centuries working into that juniper. More than half the existing foliage will eventually be removed, but for now it is needed as the tree continues to recover. Full realization of Danny's design lies three to four years down the road.

Danny stressed the importance of giving a tree enough time to recover after the roots have been seriously distressed. Keep it in partial shade for up to a year, and maintain high ambient humidity around it. Sometimes, he said, keeping the ambient humidity up is more important for a recovering tree than watering the soil, and we need to know the difference. Use only liquid fertilizer, at half the recommended strength.

DANNY'S WIRING TECHNIQUE was explained during this demonstration. And for the first few seconds, I wondered if I had heard him correctly! (I wasn't alone.) Use wire half the diameter of the branch, he said. Apply the wire and position your branch. Then, leave the wire on until it sinks into the bark to half its own diameter. (That's right: let the wire cut in, until half its diameter is sunk into the bark.) Then remove the wire, and treat the wire wounds with cut paste.

The wire marks will take five to seven years to disappear, give or take. But, Danny said, the branch will be fixed; there will be no need for another wiring. And he plans on seven to ten years to develop a bonsai, from style-ready raw material to show-ready tree. By that time, the wire marks will be gone or greatly faded.

(To us Yanks, that sounds unnecessarily long. We want a tree onto the show table in three years! Danny plans on a longer period of development, but he also plans on a tree that will get "oohs" and "ahs" when it first goes on display. I think we could learn from his approach.)

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I suppose the proof of the bonsai technique is in the trees it produces. Danny's wiring method sounds controversial; one of the basic principles pounded into us Americans is that we must avoid wire scars on our bonsai! But, Danny's trees win prizes.

A Clarification.

Questions from other people, as well as some lingering questions of my own, led me to send an email to Danny Use, asking further about his approach to wiring. I also invited him to review these notes and give me any feedback he thought appropriate.

He was kind enough to respond at length, and his answers are worth passing on, particularly because, inadvertently and to my great chagrin, I had come close to misrepresenting his approach on one very important point!

That point is that his wiring technique - letting the wire remain on the branch until it has sunk in, or, in his words, "snapped in" - is only one part of an overall, integrated program. He said in part, "It is only one small step in building a bonsai. If the following steps are not done right, this technique would not be helpful." Danny uses that technique - "snapping in" - at a plant's first major wiring, to fix the branches permanently in place, and does not repeat it. Succeeding steps in the program, carried out later, ensure that the wire scars will be gone by the time the tree is ready to go on display. Using the one part of his program without following it with the rest would not be a good idea!

Danny added, "A finished tree – or better said, a tree at its top level, because no bonsai is ever finished - can have no scars. (Emphasis his.) But along the way it can have scars, as long as you know how to make them disappear afterward."

I hope this clarification helps any of my readers avoid ruining a tree by using only one part of Danny's approach, without the rest! - Steve Moore, 8/22/08.

DANNY'S SECOND DEMONSTRATION featured a large shimpaku juniper, field-grown in Japan for bonsai material, and easily five feet tall from the soil line. Danny's first step this time was to determine where the live veins were. For that he used a large brush to clean off dirt and dead bark. The brush also removes insects and their eggs; he gives all his junipers such a once-over early each spring. And, he pointed out with a grin, he used the brush vigorously only where back-budding wasn't needed. Elsewhere, where new buds were wanted, he was gentler.

Selecting the first branch is an important step, he said: this sets many of the parameters for the rest of the tree. He continued to work, commenting as he went along on what he was doing. (Along with teasing his helper rather unmercifully, but the man took it pretty well.) Some things he said:

When making jin on a juniper, go down to heartwood; it will last much longer.
Yellowing of inner foliage on a juniper means the tree has been kept too dry recently.
The first wiring, to shape a tree, is critical.

For tight turns on branches, use pliers to bend the wire. Be sure to support the branch at the bending point with your other hand.

When a branch is repositioned, foliage that had been shaded can be exposed to direct sun, resulting in sunburn. Two weeks in half-shade is usually enough to avoid this problem.

Take up to two years to prepare a tree for styling. (He didn't elaborate on this. But from all he said, I think he meant to make sure the tree is in good health, and that the root system is well-established, vigorous, and able to carry the tree thru recovery.)

When he finished his second demonstration, Danny had produced a beautiful, dramatic bonsai that combined elements of informal upright and bunjin (literati,) with one major branch in a cascade. And it is the first bonsai that I've ever seen with two fronts! It's a measure of Danny's skill that he was able to design a tree with two sides that will work equally well as the front.

The tree was still in a nursery pot, the root system obviously very congested. Danny outlined his recommendations for correcting that. First, as soon as possible, the tree should be moved to a slightly larger nursery pot, one large enough to leave one to two inches of space all around the rootball. That space should be filled with akadama, and the rootball should not be pruned. Second, in a year's time, the present soil should be removed as completely as possible, and replaced with fresh akadama. This should be done without depotting the tree, or disturbing the new outer roots. Finally, after two more years, the whole rootball could be reduced by 50%, which would leave it about the right size for a bonsai pot.

One member of the audience objected that Danny's schedule for the root system would take a long time. "Yes," he acknowledged, "but without risk [to the tree.]" Again, the tree's health comes first.

Carrying out that schedule, and deciding which front to make the front, was left to the new owner of the tree. That new owner is Sara Raynor, of Minnesota. At the closing banquet, all five trees from the teachers' demonstrations were raffled off. And Sara won both of Danny Use's demo trees, the Rocky Mountain juniper and the shimpaku!

There was poetic justice there. Sara had contributed some items of fairly high value to the daily raffles, including several of her hand-thrown pots. I like to think that the raffle results were just her generosity coming back to her.

Steve Moore, Fort Wayne Bonsai Club; July 2008