Last Saturday, Daisaku Nomoto responded to questions posed via Ask Me Anything (AMA) at Ask Bonsai Tonight. Jeremiah Lee and I talked through the questions with Nomoto along the way and recorded his responses.
While many of the posted answers are pithy, a number of the questions generated a bit of discussion. In an effort to express more of what Nomoto conveyed – and to make the English more idiomatic – I’ve provided an expanded version of the AMA below. For those curious to hear the near-verbatim responses, see the original post.
A big thank you to everyone who participated! We had fun and hope that Nomoto’s responses were useful, or at least entertaining. More AMA’s are planned for the future – stay tuned.
Q: Please address watering black pine. How much to allow soil to dry out? How often watering in different seasons? Always flood the pot or sometimes just a light watering? I still don’t get it.
I have a bamboo chop stick in each pot. I pull them out to check the moisture from top to bottom of the pot. How dry, and I know it’s hard to describe, should it get before watering and not over watering causing root rot.
Where I live we can have 2 weeks where it rains every day in the spring. I have my pines and junipers on a bench with a clear plastic roof on it so I don’t have to deal with the trees getting flooded every day during rainy weather. I control how much water they get.
Any help with proper watering would be appreciated.
A: Bonsai develop roots to search for water. If a tree is standing in water, there’s less incentive for plants to develop roots. Plus, roots need air as much as they need water. The goal when watering bonsai is to strike a balance between wet and dry. Some varieties like more water, others less. Weather and soil have a huge effect on the watering needs of bonsai too.
In summer, trees might need watering several times a day, but in winter trees may only need watering once every other day. As Miyazaki summers are hot, Nomoto often mists his trees in the evening to cool them down.
When watering, apply lots of water. If it’s hot out and only a little bit of water is added to the pot, the water will warm up. If the pot is flooded and enough water is applied so it runs through the drainage holes, the water can cool down the roots.
Q: I have two questions about Japanese White Pine. First of all I live in Central Texas, USA (Zone 8b) so my luck with Japanese White Pine is not very good so far. We have intense sun and potentially 37+ deg Celsius days. I also believe our winters are possibly too mild as well with a total of maybe 4 – 5 nights a year that may be below freezing. Anyway, my first question and possibly overly general is if I wanted to have the best chances with White Pine what is most important? Afternoon shade, very dry and porous soil, etc? Or is it really not worth the hassle? My second question is in terms of White Pine to Black Pine stock grafts: is the graft better located closest to the ground or just below the first branch for a better possible concealment? Thanks for your time!
A: Nomoto notes he does not have direct experience with Texas weather but pointed out that Miyazaki too is hot in summer with relatively mild winters and white pines grow well there. White pines are high mountain trees and like it cool and dry. He uses shade cloth in summer but waters – until water runs out of the drainage holes – no more than once per day. He uses slightly larger soil particles for white pines as larger particles provide more air for the roots.
When grafting white pine, the lower the graft line, the better.
Q:What was it like working alongside Boon when you were both apprenticing with Mr. Kamiya?
It was a little difficult because Boon isn’t Japanese, but he’s smart so it wasn’t a problem. Boon was the junior apprentice so it was very hard work for him.
Daisaku Nomoto leading a recent BIB workshop
Q: What does oyakata mean to you? (Oyakata is the phrase that apprentices use to address the person with whom they apprentice. Literally “the way of the parent,” it often translates into “master” or “boss.”)
A: Oyakata is king while the apprentice is more of a slave. Apprentices may want alcohol or girlfriends, but if that doesn’t fit into oyakata’s plan, it typically doesn’t happen.
Nomoto notes that while oyakata is king, he was also like a second father. Nomoto loved Kamiya like a father which made him want to study more. If Nomoto didn’t like oyakata he would have headed straight home.
Over the years, Kamiya won many Kokufu prizes, and two Sakufu prizes.
Q: What soil mix or mixes do you use?
A: Nomoto uses Clay King – the conifer mix for conifers and the deciduous mix for deciduous trees. He adds 5% charcoal for all trees except for Red and white pines. For weak trees, he uses more yamazuma, a particle similar to decomposed granite that provides better drainage.
Q: What are your favorite species of trees for bonsai in Japan?
What native species have you worked on in the US? And What are your thoughts on them (the good, the bad, the ugly)?
A: Nomoto likes black pine and juniper.
In the US, the native species he’s worked on include California juniper, Sierra juniper, Western juniper and ponderosa pine. He likes Western juniper, but finds the foliage very sticky. Of California junipers, he notes the foliage is very coarse. It’s as if the foliage of Japanese junipers is lighter so the branches grow upwards and need to be wired down whereas California juniper foliage is heavy and is wired up as it naturally hangs down. He worked on ponderosa pine once and notes it’s hard to make the foliage compact.
If we sent US junipers to Japan he thinks it’d be better to graft itoigawa foliage but he recommends keeping native foliage on junipers as it’s important to preserve the natural character of a tree.
Q: Do you have any professional tips for developing Japanese White Beech (Fagus Crenata)?
A: When buds open in spring, new shoots elongate. Cut these in half as this reduces internode size. Beech don’t like strong sunshine, so use shade cloth.
Q: I also had a more general question for purposes of bonsai outreach: What would you advocate as a good five-year plan for a beginner to develop their interest and skills in bonsai assuming they are limited to maybe 12 trees plus 5 spots in the ground? I’m not necessarily asking your favorite species or shortcuts to a great tree, more like the best goals/steps for a beginner or a child in the first five years that would maintain their interest and help them develop as a bonsai artist.
A: Nomoto hasn’t visited East coast so he isn’t familiar with the local trees there.
About 20% of the bonsai at his nursery are collected. These are black pine, shimpaku and needle juniper only.
When it comes to learning bonsai, the most important thing is watering. After that, cutback. Wiring is a bit lower – it’s much less important that watering or cutting.
It’s very important to find a good teacher – find Boon!
Kamiya taught Nomoto to talk to his trees: Hello. How are you? Do you want water? Do you want pesticide? Do you want fertilizer? Because trees can’t reply, it’s necessary to learn how to get answers to these questions by getting to know one’s trees well.
Q: Why is it seemingly so rare to see Larix (karamatsu) bonsai in Japan? Is it climate? Availability of raw material? Or something else perhaps?
A: Larix was popular a long time ago but it isn’t popular now. Nomoto doesn’t have any so he doesn’t have additional insight on the topic.
Q: The younger generation does not seem very interested in bonsai or pottery like previous generations. Where do you see the future growth of bonsai in Japan coming from to sustain artists such as yourself?
If the market is down for excellent trees and ceramics who is buying these great works? International markets?
A: There aren’t many young bonsai customers in Japan, but many of Nomoto’s customers are young. There used to be more young bonsai customers but that’s changed as people have so many alternatives like pachinko, golf, shopping, hiking, movies, etc. It may also be that younger professionals have younger customers and older professionals have older customers.
Many of the international buyers come from China, Korea, Taiwan and Europe.
Q: I purchased a black pine last fall. It is in very old compact soil that does not absorb water properly (it needs to be submerged in water for over 10 minutes to wet the whole rootball) and takes a long time to dry out.
The tree is not strong with hardly any interior growth, but at least has set good buds. The previous owner did not decandle it last year.
How would you proceed in rehabilitating a tree in this situation?
A: It’s important to remove all of the old soil, but not all at once. First bare-root half of the rootball during the next repotting. When it’s next time to repot, maybe 1-3 years later, bare-root the other half. Be careful not to water too much when the soil is bad as the roots can become waterlogged.
Q: Could you elaborate on your fertilizing schedule?
Would you advise people to start with larger specimens before branching down in to the shohin category? If yes, what are the important aspects one should focus on?
What is key in developing and maintaining good shohin bonsai?
Do/would you advocate starting from seed or cuttings, besides specimen that are ready to be worked on? If yes, what is in your opinion the added value in such projects?
Can you elaborate on the use of wound sealant. Do you use it on all cuts you make (decidious trees)? Are there situations you don’t use wound sealant?
With regards to the nursery, do you have apprentices from the west? If yes, how did they end up at your nursery? How do you screen their potential, or do you adhere more weight to their willingness/eagerness to learn?
A: Nomoto fertilizers conifers and trees with leaves year-round, but only a little in winter. Deciduous trees aren’t fertilized in winter.
It’s fine to start with either big trees or shohin bonsai, but larger trees might offer more learning opportunities as styling shohin is fairly straight forward while there is more design flexibility and more techniques are in play with larger trees. Because shohin bonsai are so compact, working on them is difficult.
Nomoto is currently director of a shohin bonsai group in Japan. Display is very important in shohin bonsai. The first branch should be very low.
Growing bonsai from seed is important. Bonsai starts from seed in nature. If we don’t make bonsai from seed now, where will bonsai come from 100 or 200 years? Plus, growing trees from seed is great for young customers who don’t always have as much money as older customers who may be able to buy bonsai.
Nomoto always uses cut paste to seal wounds.
He has no apprentices but wants one. As there are very few famous trees in his garden, he recommends studying at a larger nursery to people who want to work on more famous trees.
Q: In my collection I have a 30-40 year old Japanese Maple. Good nebari, trunk size and movement, main branches……..smaller and finer branch development needed. When is the best time of the growing season to do the following:
1] Major Pruning [greater than 1 CM]
2] Minor Pruning
3] Pinching New Growth
4] Partial Defoliation
A: Spring is best for big cuts on maple as wounds heal faster when the tree is growing quickly. For small cuts, any time when tree has leaves is fine.
To keep internodes small, pry apart new leaves before they fully extend in spring and pluck out the shoot in the middle leaving only the first two leaves.
Nomoto’s style for partial defoliation: in May he removes one leaf from each pair and cuts the other in half. He leaves weak areas alone.
Q: Are there any English texts that you would highly recommend for an amateur bonsai enthusiast?
In your opinion what is the best brand of tools?
I am young and plan on long term growing of most of my subjects, do you have any tips or techniques for long term planning of the style of look of specimens?
Lastly, Do you think it is possible for someone without formal training to achieve the skills necessary to help nature create outstanding bonsai?
A: Nomoto reads Kinbon (Kindai Bonsai) and Bonsai Sekai (Bonsai World) only so no comment about English language texts.
He uses many brands of tools, but maybe 80% of them are Yoshimitsu.
To make good trees, Nomoto recommends finding a good bonsai friend and studying together. If no good teachers are available, making good trees is difficult. Having good bonsai teachers and good bonsai friend is important. Nomoto’s bonsai friends include Masahiro Sasaki and Taiga Urushibata.
Q: Thanks for all of the information you’ve taken the time to respond to so far. I would like to ask about 2 species.
First Silverberry, do you defoliate the whole tree ever, or do you only leaf cut the large leaves? How do you reduce leaf size?
Second Dwarf Gardenia is evergreen in my climate. Do you defoliate this species to give it a dormant period or do you let it keep it’s leaves and leaf cut it like silverberry?
A: For silverberry, remove large leaves whenever you see them. Nomoto removes them throughout the year, when he’s walking by, talking on the phone, etc. He removes all of the leaves in February. Keeping the large leaves in check reduces leaf size.
For gardenia, Nomoto removes the leaves 4 times a year, cutting in May, June, July and August. The tree keeps its leaves through winter.
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