Saturday, 31 October 2009

Lee Verhorevoort at Solent Bonsai Society

Lee Verhorevoort has been coming down to bonsai clubs in this part of the UK for probably over a decade now and his talks are a mix of care/styling of trees interspersed with his dealings in Japan with growers and specialist nurseries over the years.

Last night's talk was on Junipers although the things that struck me most personally had less to do with the species itself as Lee's insights on the ethos that drives enthusiasts in Japan.

The first thing he started banging on was the health of the tree. Some club members had brought their junipers to be critiqued and he pointed out that all bar one of them had spider mites or juniper scale. One tree had both.

This may not be the best illustration in the world, but hopefully you'll see the yellowish discoloration indicative of a juniper that's being attacked by pests. The colour of a healthy juniper would be more like the bright green tips on the branches.

The owner of a well-infected tree got told to get the tree healthy first before even considering doing any styling work to it. I always thought that tough love never hurt anyone, to be honest. But maybe that's just me.

Touching on yamadori, one difference pointed out was that European collectors will tend to do 'heavy' work (e.g. major bending of big trunks & branches) within the limitations of the material they have collected, whereas the Japanese will just overcome these limitations by 'creatively' adding/grafting branches wherever they may want them. Fair enough. A quick explanation followed on various grafting procedures, with Lee saying that he knew of one grafting specialist nursery in Japan that had done over 200 grafts on a single tree, all at the same time. On the basis that if a certain percentage of grafts doesn't take, there'll still be a lot left to work with. Again, fair enough.

But what struck me was, he went on to say that - if you have trees that have started acquiring value, and you are already struggling to find time to devote to these trees' development, then don't mess around with stuff like grafting. Expend your energies on your better trees and don't spend time 'playing' if it's to the detriment of your higher-value bonsai.

A bit like the 80-20 rule, where you spend the bulk of your time and resources on the 20% that will bring in 80% of returns.

Another thing Lee pointed out was that Japanese bonsai enthusiasts tend to believe that, in 10 years' time, their trees should look 10 times better. They expend their time and effort in species that lend themselves to achieving this result. A contrast with many British enthusiasts who are less targeted in their approach and less precise in the choice of growing methods used to achieve this end.

Most important point of the evening for me was Lee's insistence on REFINING a tree. The work of styling can sometimes be instantaneous, but it is the day-to-day work - the endless routine of correct watering, feeding, pruning, caring for the health of the tree, etc - that matters more in the long run.

A lot of information was disclosed over the period of a 3-hour meeting, so I've had to condense into a few sentences what I gleaned over this time. I've tried not to misrepresent anything Lee has said in these paragraphs, so before you go flying off the handle over any perceived disconnect, do try and bear that in mind.

Other than that I preferred the cream-filled biccies to the chocolate chips.

And while this pic may look like acting out 'drilling for oil' in a game of Charades, it's actually Lee explaining about grafting on a yamadori.

Keep digging deep, guys :D

If you are interested in finding more about Lee and his nursery in Kent about a half-hour's drive out of London, this is the place to go.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Running your Bonsai Life on a Handshake

Chatting online yesterday with @bonsaibanter had brought up an interesting point where the hobby of bonsai in the UK is concerned.

Our discussion touched on big bonsai shows, and @bonsaibanter was of the view that these '...demand a good deal of labour and I wonder how sustainable that is in a volunteer based organisation'.

Now there's the rub.

Most bonsai clubs/associations are run by people who earn bugger-all from the work they put into it. In general, clubs and societies will have started out as a group of like-minded people wanting to share time and resources around their interest. Things tend to go upwards from there, especially if there is already a centralised body that's able to facilitate things for them like speakers, show insurance, resource directories and so on.

And this happy little group of people will continue meeting in a backyard and work on their trees, and their reputation will grow, and more people will come and join them. So they'll move to a larger venue where more people will hear about their happy little group which is now mushrooming like a monolithic blowfish. (Talk about mixed metaphors...)

Which is all well and good until administrational demands kick in, involving the dreaded F-word 'finances' and the other dreaded 4-letter word 'work'.

In my experience, of the number of attendees/members in hobbyist societies, only a very small fraction will volunteer to go onto the steering committees and face the administrative grind that keeps said happy little group alive, functioning and out of trouble. And - again in my experience and especially in artsy-fartsy hobbies like bonsai - the majority of people involved in steering committees tend to be shite at real-world skills like administration. Or possibly they just won't have the experience to be 100% efficient. 'Tend to be' being the active qualifier here, of course.

What about the rest of the club members?

Well, the bulk will probably be people who are of the middle-of-the-road persuasion, willing to chip in if co-opted but preferring to stay out of doing any more work if they can help it. Their primary focus is getting on and developing the skills of their hobby. There's also a smaller group that's primarily in there to socialise. Acquisition of skills is less of a priority than the actual fun & fellowship package. Then there's the artsy-fartsy lot who like to shine. They'll be the ones who'll always want to front giving talks and schmoozing up to 'big names', because their nature is to look for the spotlight. They may accept a figurehead position, but heaven help you if they actually want to run something.

Because, let's face it - the good administrative talent will not be spending their free time doing more admin. They'll already be earning the big bucks at their day job, doing nitty gritty that a lot of people suck at. But for their free time? Very few will be willing to put in the same hours or effort for zero amount of remuneration while staying in the background. Admin is neither fun nor glamourous, peeps. It's just that the people who're good at it have figured out how to do it faster and more efficiently than the rest of mankind.

But the number of people who excel at anything, who are truly GIFTED and TALENTED at it - be it bonsai styling, horticulture, arts or admin - they are few and far between. They probably have the temperament to match their talent, but that's the risk you run with anything. There are also lots of people with monumental ego and bugger-all talent, which is all by the bye.

So if your club is lucky enough to have one or several of these suckers who are willing to give up their free time to do your admin, I'd really suggest you start thanking your lucky stars. And figure out how to drag more of the same in. Because the downside of volunteer work is they can give you the finger and sod off anytime they want to. The upside of course being that you get their time and effort for free (just in case you still haven't figured this out by now).

We are lucky in our little local bonsai club. Many of the members are retired professionals who no longer have the over-arching need to prove anything to anyone, several are very knowledgeable in niche areas like horticulture and styling, and there are also a lot of willing hands to go around. However, when we lost our Treasurer, a Committee member's wife had to be co-opted into doing the role even though she's not a bonsai enthusiast. But she is both faithful and efficient at what she does. Not all societies are as fortunate in having as much talent to hand within an active membership of possibly less than a dozen people.

Lots of people still associate bonsai with big money and cash cows. Wake up and smell the coffee, dudes. The hobby's heyday in the UK is about 10 years past and the market has since matured. The leisure market is full of competition, and in times of recession the average customer isn't going to be chucking his hard-earned cash left, right and centre. No matter how big your UK bonsai club is, it's still going to be dinky small fry in comparison with the gaming industry, for example, which is far better at being enticing. So running a club like a backyard operation will bring you backyard results, and if you aren't good at leveraging whatever freebie resources you have... well then, over time backyard starts turning into backward.

You get the picture.

The people that win in an overcrowded market are those with a lot of savvy... but I'm sure you've had enough of me banging on about marketing and savvy, haven't you? :D

Well if you haven't, and if I haven't posted on it in the next couple of weeks or so, you're just going to have to remind me. Hurrr.

What? Disagree? The Comments box is open...

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Autumn Colour, yet again

Looks like more autumnal pics are coming out of the garden after all.

We're still having this mixed sort of weather, with sun one day and rain the next. The temperatures are still rather mild, which means that a lot of trees are still green and growing while others are starting to let out the ZZZ's.

Here's a pic I took of this Toad Lily (Tricyrtis) in the summer. You can just see a bit of the maple in the edges.

And here it is again in the autumn, flanked by a fern and the same Japanese Mountain Maple. Whether the Toad Lily should still be in flower in October is anyone's guess.

And this little guy is a Field Maple (Acer campestre). The contrast between the yellow leaves and the little red Walsall pot is nothing if not charming, if I may say so myself. It's been in training for about 2 years now - still a long way to go in the ramification area, though. The planting is about 5 in /13 cm high from base of pot.

And this is a shohin Cotoneaster which hasn't got a lot of berries this year. It stands around 6 in /15.2 cm from the base of the pot. We've had this guy a long time. The pot was purchased at the 2007 EBA Convention in Belgium and is by a lady Danish potter whose name escapes me and whose website I forgot to bookmark. Slapped wrists!

I'm not one for naming my trees (sorry, just not my thing) but this guy is an exception - given that his pot looks vaguely like a Viking boat. So Bjorn he is, when I can be bothered to remember.

And although I don't give names to my bonsai, all my compost bins have names. Go figure.

But that is another post for another time. If you can twist my arm. I dare you.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Another day in the life of...

Or shall we say the continuing saga of the travails of a bonsai grower? Here's an update on all the plants and stuff you've seen so far.

The grapes in this post are still hanging in their bunches and aren't quite ripe yet. We are near the end of October, you guys. Hurry up and get a move on. If this rain continues, all I'll have are big bunches of mildew hanging on that pergola.

The rose in this pot got knocked over by the guy doing some work on the garden. Pot and bonsai are intact. Phew! A yamadori Scots Pine suffered the same fate and its Northern Chinese training pot is now Humpty Dumpty.

This buttercup and a couple of his cousins think it is spring (I told you this weather is screwed up). As they are now out in leaf - alright, they are sheltered in a cold frame - I suppose they are going to stay that way until the REAL spring arrives (that's 2010 to you).

As mentioned in the earlier post, the seven-lobed maple is now denuded. Billie the fat bonsai cat has been upstaged by a kitten and is establishing territory and the ground rules. Neither feline is mine.

The Cyclamen we use as accent plants self-seed every year in the strangest places - into the gravel inside the greenhouse, under the leaf litter on the bonsai staging, everywhere. This year it's between the patio paving slabs. I've dug up a couple (of Cyclamen, not the paving slabs - doh) and put them into thimble pots, a bit like these ones here.

The blackbirds are still uprooting all the moss and liverwort they can find. Between them and the cat crap all over the flower beds, it's enough to make one consider violence. Grrrr.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

More Bonsai Autumn Colour (among other things)

Like you could trust the great British weather.

It all started so good this Autumn, being cold & dry - as the seven-lobed maple will attest. Then a couple of days ago, it started to go downhill, with the rain coming in and the temperatures actually rising. So all I have in the garden are either bonsai that are still green & growing, or stuff that's decided to go brown, crispy and drop off.

The shohin and mame in the greenhouse are of course doing their own thing regardless. I've got a couple of shohin maples that have gone into wonderful colours, but their ramification looks like crap. So, no piccies of them for you. Live with it. :D

On the other hand, will these do?

This is a mame Japanese Bush Clover (Lespedeza), which stands about 6 in /15.2 cm) from the tiny feet of its dinky Tokoname pot. I've been growing a few Bush Clovers for a couple of years now and this one is the smallest. I think it's been in this pot for at least 5 years now. And the pot is a bloody bugger to clean. What you cannot see is the whopping thick wire (under the pot's base) which has been used to hold the fine anchoring wires that keep Mr Lespedeza from being blown out of his home. This is because the pot is so small, it only has one large drainage hole. Hence the fat wire running across the hole. Still confused? Tell me and I'll draw you a picture. Sheesh.

Now this guy is more recent; I probably acquired this shohin Crab Apple about 3 years ago. It stands about 11 in / 27.9 cm from the base of its pot (which BTW I think is an Erin but cannot say for sure. Have tried looking under the thing and nearly lost all the topsoil.) Anyways, it went into this pot last spring, and the ramification is not there at all yet. Its saving grace IMHO being three crab apples hanging there - but as I picked it up off the bench to take the photo, the one little bugger fell off. So I have stuck it in the photo as a prop. Waste not, want not; I've always said.

So, not a lot of good things among the bonsai & the kusamono to take pics of so far. And yes, where blame is attributable (especially onto something as nebulous as the weather), I will jump on the chance to do so. After all, the fine art of whinging can only be maintained by practice, right?


Sunday, 4 October 2009

Hiding a multitude of sins

Aside from the seven-lobed maple under the pergola, the first bits of autumn colour have shown themselves in the garden among the accent plants. Among the first to turn was this Thalictrum:
And then of course there's this Astilbe (one of my finds in the Alpine nurseries of Austria):

And the multitude of sins that are (hopefully) being hidden?

The pots (especially the first photo) are sh*tty dirty. So NOW you notice. Feh.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Bonsai vs Grapes: The Garden Wars

So what exactly did the summer bring me? Trouble & strife in the garden, is what. All under the leafy shade of the pergola where several bonsai maples, a couple of yews and rather a few Satsuki azaleas were quietly minding their own business.

Which of course the grape vine was doing as well.

Except, when the interests of the two groups collide, then we have - the vegetative Clash of the Titans. You got it.

After all, some would say the whole of Nature is just one big fight for territorial dominance. And as the photos taken a few weeks ago show, this corner of the garden was no exception.

The Kiyohime maple is visible in the top photo, and a few seven-lobed Japanese maple leaves (we are still trying to identify the variety) are barely visible in the foreground.

One of the yews is in the rear of the photo. And the big ole grape vine is just protecting these guys from the wind and the scorching sun. Not that that's stopped the Kiyohime from leaf burn this summer.

The grape vine was planted about five years ago, and it started seriously producing fruit in abundance last year. The second photo shows the other side of the pergola, where the grape bunches are a lot fuller, given the lack of competition for light, space or air.

Third photo along just goes to show what a little good weather can do for ripening fruit. Although, the Med we are not... yet.

The freakish sunny weather that hung around for most of September and into the first days of October has seen a lot of late spurts of growth in the bonsai and kusamono.

Most of the maples in the garden are still in full leaf. The seven-lobed maple was the first to go into glorious autumn colour and is now starting to lose its leaves. All the other maples have ignored it and are doing their own thing, i.e. growing like crazy. A few lazy sods like the chaenomeles and wisteria have just rolled over and are now doing the plant equivalent of snoring their heads off.

Bonsai shows have slowed down a bit in this part of the world. Our local societies have done a few appearances in conjunction with local craft & trade fairs - which I feel is a very good thing. Better to bring the word to the general public rather than preach to the converted.

Last photo shows the seven-lobed maple as it started to turn into its autumn colour. There's still a lot of work that needs to go into this tree before it's even remotely show-ready. The ramification is nondescript and the crown of the tree is blah. So all it has to recommend itself at this point is a few weeks of fiery display. Of course, it keeps getting bombarded by falling grapes, which sort of cuts the autumn display time down by quite a bit as well.

Nothing like getting clonked on the head by some rotting fruit to get your status in life in perspective, is what I say.

So what's in store for the grapes? Not wine, in any case. For nothing am I rolling out the oak barrels to tread on these suckers barefoot. But apparently they are quite good eating grapes, so there you go.

Oh, hai.

Yup, it's me again.

Back from a few weeks' blogging inactivity. Like, a lotta weeks :D

Which could be explained by a summer holiday, except that - as I mentioned to lilmissmaya on Twitter - in the UK, summer is something like 4 days in May, 8 days in June & 6 days in September. Except that our Indian Summer has seen fit to make a liar out of me.

September has given us almost 3 weeks of continual sunshine & warm-ish weather. October is here and the freak good weather is still on a roll. The forecast for the beginning of this week isn't fantastic, but... that's just par for the course.

Too much of a good thing and all that.

So, didja miss me? HARRRR.