Reserve the date – on October 4-6, 2013, Michael Hagedorn and Ryan Neil will celebrate the inaugural Artisans Cup of Portland Bonsai Exhibition, the most exciting bonsai event on the horizon for 2013. Here are some of the more salient details:
- The event will be held at the Portland Art Museum – an fantastic home for the event that promises to elevate the appreciation of bonsai far beyond the relatively parochial bonsai community
- 150 bonsai will be displayed at the exhibit
- Submission is open to anyone – both amateurs and professionals are invited to exhibit trees
- There are no restrictions on who may work – or have worked – on the trees in the exhibit
Knowing how much effort is required to stage relatively small bonsai exhibits, I cannot imagine how much time Michael and Ryan are investing to ensure the success of this ambitious event.
Bonsai in the museum (photo from Artisans Cup website)
One of their biggest accomplishments has been sharing details about everything – and everyone – that’s contributing to the event. They’ve set up a website that answers all of the basic questions, a blog that they’ve used to personalize each contributor, and an active Facebook page with additional details and up-to-the-minute news.
The exhibit promises some outstanding specimens as significant cash prizes will be awarded to winning trees – $10,000 for first prize, $5,000 for second prize, $3,000 for third prize, and $500 for the best companion plant.
What is required for entry? Four photographs (one shot from each side), a brief description of the tree and its container, and pertinent contact information.
- Submissions will be accepted May 1 – July 1, 2013 – see Submission Instructions for details
- Ryan and Michael will select the top 150 submissions two months before the exhibit – while both plan to display some of their own trees, these trees will not be eligible for awards
- The fee to exhibit trees selected by the jury will be $120 per display – either one large tree with companion plant, two medium trees with companion plant, or some assortment of shohin bonsai and companion plants; avant-garde displays will also be considered
- Five judges – David De Groot, Colin Lewis, Boon Manakitivipart, Peter Warren, Walter Pall – will select the prize-winning trees; judges may submit trees to the exhibit that will be eligible for judging, however special precautions will be in place to ensure fair voting
- Submissions of deciduous bonsai must include photographs of the trees in winter so the trees can be juried without leaves
For those who want to participate but don’t live near Portland, Ryan and Michael are arranging transportation from New York, Nashville, and Los Angeles to drive trees to and from the event. Any required permits along the way will be obtained by the drivers to ensure smooth transit.
Visitors to the event will not only be treated to an outstanding exhibit but to an impressive collection of bonsai vendors. Ryan and Michael are aiming to elevate bonsai in the Unites States and are doing what they can to support our local artisans. U.S. made pots and stands will be available, as well as an assortment of other bonsai-related wares.
Even those who may not be able to attend will be able to enjoy the exhibit through photographs. Bonsai Focus will be shooting the show and producing a book, and the judges comments will be posted online for educational purposes.
Although I’m not affiliated with the event, I’m a longtime friend of Michael’s, and a big fan of both Ryan and Michael’s work. I’m excited about attending the exhibit and have been pacing around my garden of late looking for suitable submissions. Even though the event is a year out, I’d like to thank Ryan and Michael for their work to date on the project and offer what encouragement I can. Thanks to both of you – I’m looking forward to it!
Ryan Neil (photo from Artisans Cup blog)
Finding the right soil mixes for my trees has proved surprisingly tricky – and not for lack of trying. I’ve experimented broadly over the years, and have benefitted from the advice of both American and Japanese bonsai professionals (more at Bonsai Boon and Crataegus Bonsai). Still, I find room for improvement.
In the past few years, I’ve moved to mixes that retain more moisture than previous mixes. The effect is subtle the first year after the repotting, but as soil particles break down, the moisture retention increases. I’m learning a lot now about soil I selected two, and sometimes 3 or 4, years ago, and I’m looking to experiment further.
The most basic variables – the properties of the particles themselves – are simple.
- Decomposed granite retains less moisture than other ingredients and weighs a lot
- Lava retains some moisture and is not light
- Pumice retains some moisture and is lightweight
- Akadama retains lots of moisture and breaks down over time
It’s also clear that smaller particles retain more moisture than larger particles. So far so good.
Then time comes into play. Some soil particles, like akadama, break down over time. This is actually a very well engineered feature. Newly repotted trees typically require great drainage to develop new roots – exactly what we get when soil mix is fresh. As time passes, akadama breaks down and retains more moisture. Whether this is good or bad depends on our goals for each tree.
This brings us to the next variables – variety and stage of training. In general, soils that drain well require more frequent watering and are great for generating vigorous growth. Soils that drain slowly require less frequent watering and are great for reducing vigor. How each variety responds to different soils also comes into play, but that’s a topic unto itself.
Once the “perfect” soil has been selected and the tree carefully repotted to the most exacting of standards, we face two additional variables – watering habits and weather. There’s nothing – outside of moving – to do about the weather, so I’ll leave it at that. How we water ultimately determines the success of the soil we’ve selected.
For years I’ve used a simple mix that drains well. In short, it keeps my trees healthy as long as I water enough. So much so that some of my more mature trees are a bit more vigorous than I’d like them to be. That’s why I started using soils that retain more moisture. I’ve since learned that using different soil mixes is great for the trees, but it’s increasingly hard to make sure I’m giving each tree the appropriate amount of water. The young trees in coarse soils need lots of water, and the older trees dry out more slowly. A solvable problem when one’s around to water all of the time, but a bit of a puzzle otherwise.
I’m doing what I can with the hose this year, and I’m changing the soil mixes I plan to use next year. For starters, I’ll be using more decomposed granite.
Decomposed granite drying in the sun
Large, medium, and small particles of DG
Long a component of “Boon Mix,” decomposed granite, or DG, as folks say, retains less water than the other ingredients I use. Using more of it will help with several pines that are still early in their development.
A few of my deciduous trees have the opposite problem – they are drying out too quickly. For these trees, I’ll use smaller particles that retain more moisture. The example that comes to mind is a group of young Japanese maples that I picked up at a bonsai sale this spring. They are planted in coarse soil that would be great if I were around to water more often.
Where do I get the basic soil ingredients I use? From any number of places. I buy akadama from Deer Meadow Bonsai and other local vendors. I find the non-bonsai specific ingredients at local rock yards including American Soil & Stone and its neighbor Acapulco Rock & Soil. Both are worth a visit if you’re in the area.
American Soil & Stone
Acapulco Rock & Soil
More than a few friends and family members have asked what it was like living as a bonsai apprentice in Japan for 6 weeks. Some days were filled with mochi parties and antique shows. Other days involved lifting, carrying, and more lifting. There was a lot of sitting in the car as we drove as far as Tokyo and Takamatsu, and there was a lot of second hand smoke.
As much as I lived the day-to-day life of a bonsai apprentice, I was a short-timer, and this helped keep my spirits high throughout my visit. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like for Peter Tea or the other Americans studying bonsai abroad. Fortunately for us, they’re doing a great job writing about their experiences.
Peter started the Aichi-en Apprenticeship Program to expose more people to the bonsai life. So far at least four of us have stayed with the Tanakas in their Nagoya home.
Apprentice quarters at Aichi-en
The sum of my furniture: futon, comforter, storage unit, rubbish bin
You’ll notice that the sliding doors and walls offered very little privacy. At any time, the Tanaka’s boys would peek inside to say hi, see if I could play, or stop by for an impromptu computer lesson.
The industrious Hiyuu navigating Facebook
I was fortunate that Peter had been at Aichi-en for seven months when I arrived – plenty of time for him to learn the routine and improve his already considerable bonsai skills. His comfort at Aichi-en insured my comfort there.
Each morning we ate breakfast with the family and then headed out into the sea of bonsai surrounding the house.
Sea of bonsai
We spent much of our time in the workshop. Mr. Tanaka sat just inside the door – I sat to his right, then Peter, and finally the other Mr. Tanaka, a third-year apprentice, sat at the far end of the workshop. Some days were quiet, others were chatty. Snacks appeared around 10:30 and 3:30 each day, as did lunch and dinner at fairly predictable times. What was not predictable, however, was how much time we got to spend in the workshop.
I visited Aichi-en in Fall – show season. This meant that we spent a lot of time with show-related activities that included picking up trees from customers, preparing trees for exhibits, and setting up and later striking the actual exhibits.
At the Daiju-en sales area, part of the 11th Asia-Pacific Bonsai and Suiseki Convention and Exhibition held in Takamatsu
Fall is also pine season. When we weren’t doing exhibit-related work, pines filled the workshop.
Mr. Tanaka and me appraising a white pine
Debatable wiring technique
The intrepid Mr. Tanaka – no relation to the boss
Workshop time doesn’t necessarily equate to bonsai time. Peter, apprentice-Tanaka, and I, cleaned the workshop every day and performed tasks that varied from packing boxes to painting display stands. The same was true for Mr. Tanaka. His work came to a halt whenever customers visited, and evenings were often filled with projects like the fabrication of root stands.
Mr. Tanaka at work on a root stand
One apprentice-related topic that deserves special attention is food. It’s one thing to have little control over one’s time. It’s another to have little control over what, and how quickly, one must eat.
I was fed very well and I missed the food the day I returned home. But because we had so little control over what, where, and when we ate, our free time often focused on food.
On those special occasions when we had time off – maybe one day per 10-20 days – we often headed across a busy street to a mall that had a great grocery store. Peter and I picked out everything that looked good and then spent the rest of the day snacking. Treats ranged from the healthy, including Japan’s outstanding – and expensive – produce, to all manner of things fried.
Fried treats at the local grocery
Amazing apples – only $7 for three!
Roasted cherry-flavored mochi with red bean paste
The meals rarely left me hungry – the Japanese develop great appetites at an early age.
What are you looking at?
Finding the bottom of the udon bowl
Peter vs the Taiyaki – waffle batter with red bean paste inside
Our precious days off gave us the opportunity to catch up with friends or with blog posts, explore the neighborhood, or simply sleep. Mundane activities included laundry. Peter and I used the Tanakas’ washing machine, but dried our clothes at a laundromat a few blocks away. In one of the more surreal moments of my visit to Japan, I found myself alone with a uniformed laundry attendant vacuuming beneath the dryers on her hands and knees while the Carpenters sang their greatest hits.
Days off also provided social time with the Tanaka family. One day we headed to the oldest Temple in Nagoya to participate in a service for young boys, of which the Tanakas have three.
The Aichi-en children
Afterwards, we visited an open house hosted by the man who built the Tanaka’s residence.
Traditional Japanese home – hinoki and sugi
We also had a little free time in the mornings before Mr. Tanaka came out to the workshop. I typically walked around appreciating the trees – and pots, of which Aichi-en had plenty.
Hmm, Japanese, 40 years old – maybe just the thing for that pine back home
Above all, I can say the time spent with Peter and the Tanakas was great fun. I learned a lot and had a wonderful time along the way. I sincerely appreciate the effort Peter and the Tanakas took to ensure I had a great trip – if any of you are reading this, thanks again!
On my last evening, Mr. Tanaka presented me with a certificate for completing 6 weeks of study at his nursery. To celebrate, we headed into town and visited a driving range!
Here’s the paper – now on with the party
Of course, it was early December in Nagoya – not the warmest time of the year, but as good a time as any for golf, a sport which all three of us – Mr. Tanaka, Peter and myself – have neglected in recent years due to our obsession with bonsai.
Mr. Tanaka armed against the cold with cigarette and coffee – me with hoodie and 5-iron
The driving range was pretty incredible. After striking a ball, the tee dipped below the artificial grass and arose with another ball in place – there was no bending over at this range. And the vending machine that provided us with the cards used to magically dispense balls proved to be the most thoughtful vending machine I’ve seen. The text reads, “CARD: This machine represents pleasant feeling with simple form and fresh color patterns. Glory producing machine by respecting convenience of users and others.”
“Glory producing machine”
Intense competition on the range – brrr!
After proving that we aren’t the golfers we once were, we lit out for a late night snack – ramen. The evening made for a great finish to an outstanding trip. I can’t wait to go back!
Thanks for reading :)
The USPS unveiled a new series of bonsai stamps last month. The artist, John D. Dawson of Hawaii, came out to Sacramento’s McKinley Park for the “first day issue” rollout. Had I known, I might have attended.
I first heard about the project 18 months ago when the USPS wanted to license the image of one of my trees. The artist had used a photo of my black pine from Bay Island Bonsai’s 2003 exhibit as a reference for the stamp. Upon seeing the design, I was immediately struck by the likeness.
Black pine stamp – January 2012
Black pine – January 2003
The USPS included a bit of a bonsai primer in their announcement of the series, and followed up with a nice piece about how the project took shape. The other stamps in the series feature a banyan, a trident maple, a Sierra juniper, and an azalea – a colorful mix!
This is the most fun I’ve had since my hinoki was featured in a cosmetics catalog.
Hinoki – “The Giving Tree”