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In Defense Of Solid Fertilizers

Bonsai Heresy illustration by the great Sergio Cuan. Sailor tattoos on bonsai should be commonplace.

We lifted this post from the inimitable Michael Hagedorn. Check out his books Bonsai Heresy and Post Dated as well as our fertilizer selection.

Fertilizer adventures are a given in most bonsai gardens. For years I used solid organic cakes, being the traditional solution, but found the birds unmanageable in their hunt for grubs underneath them. I wasn’t willing to use insecticide to control fly larvae, so birds, and lost fertilizer, were my fate for a while.

Now there’s a cat in the garden. It’s a quite well-fed one, with a dragging belly (and no piles of feathers anywhere), but she’s apparently a sufficient talisman of ‘Don’t you even THINK of flipping a cake off that pot!’ We’ve increased her pension plan.

Now I’m back to my preference, organic cakes.

If you’ve read Bonsai Heresy, you may remember one chapter where I write about fish emulsion being our primary fertilizer. But the most important sentence comes right after it: ‘If my situation were different, I’d likely use cakes for their multiple benefits and ease of use.’ Yet now all I get are questions about our fish emulsion schedule.

One of the fears of any technical book author is that the most important sentence will be missed, and the least important remembered. The fertilizing chapters of Bonsai Heresy are full of such awkward potential.

If possible, go with a slow release, solid fertilizer. Organic cakes if possible, maybe chemical pellets if not, or try fish emulsion or maybe a mild chemical liquid. We’ve all got different yard variables, and so our fertilizing choices will likely differ, too.

Slow release works great for our process. A little bit gets in every time we water. Equally cool, slow release fertilizers resist flushing out. We can flush liquid fertilizer out with watering, and rain can flush it out, but slow release solids keep fertilizer levels steady regardless. Infrequent use of mild liquids often ends in pale, weak looking bonsai. You can use liquids, just be aware it’s often a lot more work.

In general, I’d say if confused by anything you’re reading, don’t blame yourself, blame the author. It’s what I do.

Which Branches Go?

Starting point on an Ezo spruce that belongs to Michael Hagedorn. Can you improve this tree by selecting branches to remove?

Today’s post is borrowed from our friend Michael Hagedorn Crataegus Bonsai blog. We’ve offered a whole lot ‘which pot would you choose’ exercises over the years, but hardly any ‘which branch.’

We’d love to see your choices. If you’d like to share them and perhaps your reasons too, you’ll need to visit us on facebook. Give us a couple days after we post this before it goes up on facebook.

Choice A.

Choice B.

Choice C.

Choice D.

Choice E.

Here’s Michael’s caption for this one… “Just for kicks, here’s where we started with the Ezo in December, 2016.”

Here’s your link to Michael’s original Crataegus Bonsai post. And here’s one to an earlier styling of this tree by Michael.

Check out Michael's excellent books too!

Bonsai Heresy


Brilliant Bonsai by Kimura and Friends

This lovely Cotoneaster is from the34th Taikan-ten Bonsai Exhibitoin. No information on the artist or owner is given.

We’ve got a real treat for you today… some of Japan’s finest bonsai by some of the world’s most accomplished bonsai artists. Enjoy!

Japanese white pine from Masahiko Kimura’s collection. This and the other photos shown here were borrowed from Facebook. Scroll down for the link.

This Shimpaku planting is one of Mr Kimura’s famous artificial rock plantings. And yes, he made the rock too. 

Kimura’s famous Flying Dragon Shimpaku juniper. 

This magnificent monster Black pine with its ancient bark lives at Taisho-en Bonsai Garden. 

A little background action at sunset. It’s a Japanese black pine at Taisho-en.

This striking Needle juniper is at Taisho-en. 

Diospyros Kaki Japanese persimmon at Kunio Kobayashi’s Shunk-en Bonsai Museum.

Another masterpiece at Shunka-en. This time it’s a Shimpaku juniper with outstanding flowing deadwood, a single living vein and a powerfully strong and compact crown which was no doubt designed to hold its own in contrast with the sheer power of the deadwood.

Here’s your link for today’s source.

Walter’s Much Traveled Larch Bonsai

This is Walter Pall’s lead photo from a series he posted on FB. It’s a European Larch (Larix decidua) with guy wires and a checkered past. The pot by Derek Aspinall.

Walter’s sad news for Larches. Here’s what Walter Pall wrote about larches and climate change and about this particular larch: “European Larch #17 - The climate in Europe is definitely changing. In many parts European larches cannot be kept well where it was possible a few years ago. In Italy and even some parts of Germany bonsai folks are struggling with the summer heat which can be disastrous for our larch. Therefore a few really good larches are available for interested enthusiasts. I have the great luck that my garden is a bit cooler than most. So some larches recently found their way into my garden. This one has a great past - it was styled to look like a very good modern bonsai. I personally prefer it to look like a very good larch from the mountains.l So I started to naturalize the tree slightly after planting it into the new container by Derek Aspinall.”

More by Walter on the tree featured here. 65 centimeters is about 25 inches, BTW.

In an earlier stage and a different pot. You can tell it’s winter. Larches are one of a handful of deciduous conifers that grow on planet earth. We can only guess about other planets. 

Another shot from an earlier stage and in yet another pot. If you compare this shot with the more recent one at the top, you’ll see the apex migrated a tad to the left in the top photo so that it’s directly over the center of the tree and the pot, while the apex here is bit off center to the right (more about this below). 

Needing a haircut. Pot looks familiar.

Wired out to the tips.

A close up of a nebari that needs some help. If you look at the shot at the top of this post, you’ll see the improved nebari. Walter lowered the left side of the nebari and raised the right side. This changes the planting angle so the apex is just a little farther left. A definite improvement all around. 

This shot is very similar to the one at the top. Just a different background and the foliage is a little more filled out.

Here’s your link to this tree on Walter's Facebook.

Bill’s Bonsai Treasures & the 7th U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition

Unless you live in Vermont, or a similarly colorful place like Rochester NY, you might not know that spring color is almost as dramatic as full color. A little more subtle for sure, but stunningly beautiful nevertheless. This lovely Siegen Japanese maple with scroll and companion is pretty good example of spring splendor. It belongs to Bill Valavanis, as does everything shown in this post.

Time to visit Bill Valavanis, one of our favorites when it comes to all things bonsai. And when I say all things bonsai, I mean pretty much whatever you might imagine. I won’t mention them all here (you can do your own research by visiting his site, his blog and his FB pages - links are provided below), but you can get a petty good idea from the photos.

One thing I do want to mention and emphasize is Bill’s U.S. National Bonsai Exhibitions. The 7th is coming up this fall (September 11-12, we’ve got a link below for that too). A year late (thank you covid) but well worth the wait. Anyway, September will be here sooner than you think. Time to start making plans!

Meanwhile, here are a few photos I picked up off Bill fb pages.

Another one with scroll and companion. This time it’s an Oto hime Japanese maple.

Flashback to fall color. Another one of Bill’s famous maples.

An American larch that Bill collected in Canada 30 years ago.

The same larch in Bill’s tokonoma.

Bill’s online magazine.

From Bill’s print magazine now in its 100th year (just kidding, it’s really only been 30 some years).

What must it be like to have a collection like Bill’s. And this is only the tip of bonsaiberg.

Bill’s work space is often happily peopled. That’s Bill himself behind the forest.

Welcoming the spring!

Early spring maple buds.

Another Oto hime Japanese maple. I think Bill raised this one from a cutting. Once upon a time, we called them Koto hime. Now it’s Oto hime. 


TIME TO MAKE YOUR PLANS! Here’s you link.

And here’s your link to Bill’s website
Bill’s blog
Bill’s facebook pages
and to his magazine

There’s More Than One Harry in the UK. A Quick Backyard Bonsai Tour

Visited our old friend Harry Harrington today. Well, visited him on facebook (we’ll take what we can get). I’m always struck with how distinctive Harry’s bonsai are. I think it’s the earthy, wild uncontrived character that keeps me coming back. To illustrate what I mean, here are a bunch of seemingly random shots that Harry put up recently of bonsai in various stages of development and maturation.

I won’t bother to try to identify them, but if you really want to know, feel free to do your own research (link below). Be careful though, you just might be overwhelmed… Harry is one very prolific bonsai artist. Enjoy!

Harry’s famous Foundations of Bonsai. I think we’re the only source for the first edition.

Suthin’s Stupendous Sale and Your Invitation to the U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition

This lovely Japanese quince is for sale on Suthin’s website.

We can’t go too long without featuring Suthin Sukosolvisit’s bonsai. He’s a favorite of ours and pretty much everyone else’s too. All but one of the trees shown here are (were?) for sale on Suthin’s website. It’s worth a click for sure (your link is below).

Speaking of Suthin, he’ll be at the U.S. National this September. It’s in Rochester and though it’ll take more than a click to get there, you will have to start with one (see below).

This is the one I wanted. Couldn’t wait to find the price and see if it fit my budget. But alas, when I made the quick journey from facebook to Suthin’s site, it was sold.

This one isn’t one the sale page, but no matter, it’s most def worth a look. I found it in a folder labeled ‘Suthin’ on my desktop and don’t remember if a variety was given, but the foliage is so tight it looks like it might be a Itoigawa juniper (very close cousin to shimpaku).

Chinese quince. Still for sale as of this moment (2:05 ET, March 18th, 20210).

Shohin Japanese black pine. Also still offered as of this moment.

The trees above are just to whet your appetite. There are more for sale on Suthin’s website.

And here's that link to the U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition we promised you.

When to Begin Fertilizing in Spring

Illustration by Sergio Cuan from Michael’s Bonsai Heresy

Today’s post is timely (it is spring after all, at least for some of you), and it’s by Michael Hagedorn, one of the best when it comes to bonsai know-how. Michael is, among other things, Mr. Crataegus Bonsai and the author of Post-Dated, the Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk, and the more recent ground breaking Bonsai Heresy. I could say a lot more about Michael, but rather than me prattling on, we’ll let Michael speak for himself (from his Crataegus Bonsai blog):

Some plants really do need fertilizer right out of the gates. If you plan on decandling black pines, just before they begin visibly growing is the prime start time. Chojubai could use some early in the growing season as well. But those are rare; for the most part, for developed bonsai, let them grow a beat of time before fertilizing. Maybe wait a month or two.

We have, though, many undeveloped, younger bonsai. Many of those can benefit from some fertilizer in spring as they begin growing. This translates into greater caliper, more buds, faster build. Very old collected trees don’t need lots of fertilizer; for these a mild push is all they need, later in the spring.

I’d encourage the use of a slow release of some sort. Organic fertilizer balls or cakes are excellent (or perhaps small amounts of osmocote or apex, synthetic slow release fertilizers). Liquids work, but are labor intensive to get the right dose to the right plant. Another advantage to solids: if you get frequent rains in the spring and fall, with wet soil for weeks, the bonsai still get fertilized. If the pot is sopping wet you’re less likely to want to water in fertilizer.

 Check out Michael's books while you're here:

How Did He Do That? A Mind Bending Before and After Bonsai

This very impressive before and after Juniper is by Gabriel Romero Aguade. I could find no mention of the type of juniper, nor how much time elapsed between the two shots.

It might take a few moments to figure out what happened here. At least that’s what it took me. It’s not that the basic concept is that difficult with a little imagination. A few twists and turns (body and mind) might help too. Some digging also. And of course the experience and skills to pull it all off.

I won’t say much more except hats off to Gabriel Romero Aguade. A bonsai artist who has been pulling off these kinds of things for about as long as we’ve been blogging. In fact, if you look through our archives, you’ll find more of Gabriel’s artistry on display.

Before. In repose.

After. Standing up.

I found these two photos on FB

Design Tweak for a Bunjin Bonsai

Lodgepole Bunjin, before and after.

We’ve got a ‘hot off the press’ new post from Michael Hagedorn today . It’s an excellent example how small changes can make big impressions. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

In Michael’s own words “When our trees get out of shape and gangly they give us the opportunity to see them again. When a client brought in this Lodgepole Pine that he'd collected, it looked ripe for a tweak.

“'Integration' is a word we throw around a lot in bonsai. And it's an important design word. Generally what we mean by it is we want the foliage to be connected with the trunk. Often if too far apart the two don't relate at all, and the visual story we're trying to tell about a tree weakens. That would be poor integration.

“This pine is a good example of when integration falls apart, which is common after a few seasons of growth or simply if the wire is taken off. The branches go wonky, spread out, and disconnect from the trunk line---looking not unlike a long overdue haircut. Any attractive visual tension evaporates. (And in the visual arts we like tension---it's in good painting, sculpture, even dance.)”

Michael’s caption for this ‘after’ photo: “After repositioning the branches. Only a small branch in the back was removed; otherwise all that you see has just been repositioned. Because of the strong lean of the trunk, the key branch was used to bring some weight back along the trunkline, toward the base. By sucking the foliage up close to the upper trunk, there is more of a conversation there with the negative space. Also, small foliage masses work best with a skinny trunk.”

Speaking of Michael check out his groundbreaking book if you somehow haven't already.

Bonsai Heresy
by Michael Hagedorn