My introduction to bonsai

by Calvin van Moerkerken

The East has always held a fascination for me, so naturally the eastern art of bonsai and its mystery intrigued me. I have always loved gardening, but bonsai seemed way above me. Yvonne and Willy Romyn first introduced me to bonsai and their collection of bonsai trees just blew me right out of the water, so to speak.

The first few bonsai workshops I attended had me totally intimidated. Pruning I could understand, but the root pruning put the fear of God into me. It also didn't help that the Romyns had a huge swamp cypress, which was decided would make a perfect bonsai. To my horror with chainsaws 8 men dug and hacked the poor tree out of the ground. The huge tree was then cut down by two-thirds, carved and sealed and then planted in a large flat wine barrel. It was very interesting to watch growth of the tree to see how it would develop. Swamp cypresses grow very quickly, so the development was quite fast. This process I was told teaches the bonsai grower patience, something a beginner doesn't want to hear about their newly claimed bonsai. Of course I was looking to owning a tree like the pictures you see in bonsai books in a few months, not having to wait for many years!

I then joined the Cape Bonsai Kai, where there was so much information made available and vital encouragement was given freely. At this stage my one little table was overflowing with cuttings and newly found species. I was privileged to be allowed to spend time with the Romyns helping with repotting and trimming their trees, a brave thing to unleash a starved beginner on their trees! One can read all the bonsai books on the market, but there is nothing to compare to hands-on practice.

In the beginning there were a few losses of trees, due to repotting at the wrong time of the year, impatience once again, or new and, to me, unknown diseases. One of my first and most enjoyed trees is a juniper grown in a driftwood style. I used an interesting piece of dead rosemary wood, treated with lime sulphur. A young juniper was placed at the back of the dead rosemary wood, which now became the trunk of my new tree. The juniper (procumbens nana) was screwed to the dead wood with 2 brass screws and the wounds have healed over completely now. It grew quickly and produced nice branches in a short time (3 to 4 years). With a little wiring and pinching the tree has developed quite nicely. I had to restrain myself from potting the tree into a bonsai pot too soon. Leaving it in a large plastic basin allowed it to grow and develop rapidly. This is one of the lessons I've learnt from experience, not to be in a rush to plant young, undeveloped trees in a bonsai pot; growth is much faster in larger containers.

Another of my trees, started at the same time, was planted in a bonsai pot and it has not developed as much and looks much younger that the deadwood juniper. This style was perfect for me, an impatient beginner, it gave me results quickly and the tree soon looked like an old tree. The deadwood is treated annually with lime sulphur painted on to help preserve the wood against decay.

A good tip I got from Viky was to start with smaller trees, 10-20cm. They develop much quicker and give you better results sooner than bigger trees. One of my first small trees is a pyracantha, which gives me great pleasure. It took three years to develop and is probably one of my better trees. It is under 10cm, but conveys the feeling of a larger tree in nature. I get very excited when it starts flowering and they eventually become berries. In the beginning it grew rapidly and needed pruning often, I sometimes wondered if I wasn't pruned it too much, but now the result speaks for itself.

One has to keep on reminding oneself that, even when thinking your creation is perfect and complete, it isn't - the living art of bonsai is always changing and this is what I find so intriguing I've now been doing bonsai for eight years and what I have learn't is only the tip of the iceberg, I wouldn't know everything about bonsai even if I lived many lifetimes. Bonsai can be as complicated or as simple as one makes it, to me it is not just small trees in pots, it is all the different types of trees, designs, pots, stones, mosses etc.

For all this I have the Cape Bonsai Kai and the Romyns to thank for their help given so freely, also thanks to Gail and Lionel for the effort they put into the club meetings, bringing many trees and sharing their knowledge. Then lastly there are the people behind the scenes who make it all happen, my thanks.

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Right at my feet -

and when did you get here,

snail? ~ Issa

Random Bonsai Tip

So much time is spent on striving towards perfection in the foliage area of trees but little contemplation goes into the area around the nebari. Consider planting your tree at different heights in the pot which might enhance the existing taper and roots. If your tree lacks roots use moss mounded in such a way to suggest underlying roots, or you can even use sticks of similar appearance to the wood of the tree as 'fake' roots until you are able to coerce roots to fill the void. Use appropriate gravel to complete the scene.