Two Half Heads are Better Than One!

Creating bonsai takes a really long time. It also takes a long time to figure out exactly how to do it so if you are starting out TODAY assume it will take twenty years to figure out the basics, and that assumes you are busy and not applying yourself in a ‘working from home‘, civil service, tired hands kind of a way.

Having been hammering away at bonsai now for the better part of forty years I might be so bold as to say I figured this all out a while back. I often say it takes ten years to figure out which end goes into the soil. Now that’s not strictly true in a Trumpian kind of a way, it’s not to be taken literally, it’s a figure of speech which illustrates that even after a decade in the saddle one can still be susceptible to chafing. That’s another figure of speech isn’t it but illustrates my point I hope.

Sadly todays society has, by and large, lost the appreciation of things that take time unless that time can be charged for of course. A bottle of Private Collection Glenlivet 1949 74 Year Old will set you back about £35,000 whilst a bottle of Whyte & Mackay Blended Scotch Whisky from Asda comes in at a very reasonable £17.00. I don’t drink Scotch but i know folk who do and they would be very keen to point out the difference of which I would be largely oblivious.

The basics of these two bottles are much the same (a distilled spirit) but the fact is one got left in the shed for a really long time and to a connoisseur who is blessed with a sensitive palate the difference is night and day and quite possibly worth every penny. The single malt had time to develop it’s special unique character alone whilst the blended one was engineered to taste a certain way and always the same way. Long ago I worked as a printer when the use of chemicals was acceptable workplace behaviour and I burned away whatever sensitive tissues I had in my head, my nose has not really worked since and so my ability to taste at all is minimal and as a result I have literally ZERO appreciation of these fine things.

For sure I wouldn’t drink that cheap blended s**t. On the very rare occasion I have Scotch in the house it’s going to be a 15 year old Glenlivet (donations gladly accepted). To be honest my preference is for a single barrel Jack Daniels, donations of which, again, I would be very glad to receive. Leave that blended stuff to the kids getting hammered on a Friday night.

So in this respect I feel I am like a lot of bonsai folk I encounter in daily life. I appreciate, at some level, the difference between good and bad, i know the basics but beyond that i literally know nothing and have no comprehension of the finer points. What I call a good whisky is unlikely to ever touch the lips of a true aficionado who might well look down on my choice as ‘window cleaner’ or some such.

After a lifetime spent immersed in something so deeply and so fanatically it’s impossible not to develop one’s palate and appreciation but it’s far from guaranteed. I know lovely folk that have spent twenty years travelling the world, attending every top bonsai exhibition year after year who see the very best our world has to offer and getting to know all the right people but don’t have a worthy bonsai to their name or a single clue how to make one.

I guess that’s like racing drivers, you don’t have to know how to engineer a car to drive one. If you want to be at the top of the game there’s a lot you need to know about how your machine works, why it does what it does or not. That way you can relay information back to the man that actually knows how it works so he can make it better for you. That’s why racing cars are largely managed and supported by a team. It brings all the best elements together that can never be embodied by a single person and the net result is better.

Seems to me many folk have money, opportunity or both and so have these nice things but can lack the apparatus to genuinely understand and appreciate their true value whilst a lowly person lacking in means but with highly developed senses, acquired through long application looks on in horror at the flagrant waste of true value and lack of appreciation and understanding beyond some notion of smug pride, that ‘look at what i’ve got’ nose in the air notion. Remember Stanley and Pammy……

These days I don’t tend to leave home, i did an insane amount of windscreen time back in the day and unless i am on two wheels I tend to avoid all travelling and stay off the roads. I don’t drag my trees all over the place showing them off and I’m very particular who I let visit my garden. I have no interest in impressing anyone with my work until I myself am impressed and trust me I am very far from that level so I continue to work hard and carefully to improve my results every single day and if I get the time perhaps one day i just might make a good bonsai in much the same way a blind squirrel might find a nut.

Going back to my analogy of a motor racing team it has always struck me that working together is best. However finding someone I can work with has not been easy. Most bonsai folk, certainly those I might choose to work with are a very long way from me. Just nipping over to Milan to work with Salvatore or Marco is not entirely practical. I’m also what one might call a ‘rummun‘. Hard to get along with, opinionated, largely oblivious to the feelings of others and determined to do it my way. Finding anyone to work with therefore was always going to be a challenge but lucky for me I know a guy….

Thankfully that guy lives not too far away, about 40 minutes on a well sorted Shovelhead. On paper Kevin Willson and I should not get on, we should fight like a cat and a dog but somehow, after 25 years, turns out we can actually work together fairly well. Mutual respect goes a long way and as they say ‘two heads are better than one’. Considering our advanced age and history of ‘substance abuse‘ I might say that two ‘half heads‘ make one properly functioning one but that might be unfair on my buddy. Whatever, between us we can knock up a half decent tree when we combine our skills despite our differing ideas on how that actually happens.

I guess we all have bonsai trees that have spent decades on our benches. Some become special to us whilst some are just bulk in our collection. This scots pine was one such for me. It came here from Norway perhaps fifteen years ago. Surprisingly it survived and I even styled it and made a video of the process though that was never released. Ultimately I got bored with it. I tried to sell without success and in time it started to suffer a little from neglect. I just could not bring myself to love it and having spent so long looking at it, as it was, I had absolutely NO inspiration to do anything with it at all.

Sound familiar? You got one on your bench?

Nowadays I stopped selling trees like we did at one time and am just rediscovering my love of bonsai work. I really don’t want anything in my garden that’s not special. So this pine stuck in my craw, can’t sell it, too much heart to dump it and no inspiration to reinvent it. As they say I could not see the wood for the trees. So what to do?

I’m a firm believer in letting folk do what they are good at. I don’t do any book keeping, banking or accounting because I have absolutely no head for numbers, absolutely NO clue whatsoever so I leave that stuff to professionals as I do web site stuff and lots of other things. Now when it comes to reinventing a bonsai tree there is only ONE place to be and that’s 40 minutes up the Norfolk coast and so it was I dropped this pine off on my unsuspecting mate last autumn.

I can’t imagine anything worse than having to create a bonsai tree from another artists work for that very same artist. Especially when you know it’s all going to end up online for the world to see in glorious Technicolour. That’s pressure right there but thankfully my raffish mate has a cast iron work ethic, a thick skin and’s not really that bothered what the hell I think. But then I did tell him to do whatever he wanted with my long suffering scotty.

As anyone who has had a tree worked by Kev’ will know, chances are when you get it back it’ll be tipped up on it’s side. No1 item on the agenda is finding the best trunk line and inclination. After that it’s just the technicalities of how to get the branches in the right place and with a good trunk line that’s usually pretty easy. But, this tree has a problem, one I failed to deal with decades ago and now I have no choice but to bite the bullet.

Norwegian scots pine 2017.

Norwegian scots pine 2017. To date lots of work has been completed in getting this established and ready to work.

2017 Same tree after Rammon and I worked on it. Nothing then happened until 2023, other than a few weak branches dropping.

Now when I first got this tree it was recently collected and I vaguely remember it was a planted in a long thin wooden box that was about a foot square and four feet long. It had been growing in a crack and had a long V shaped rootball with a good couple of feet folded back on itself. The growth was pretty much non existent. Come August Rammon helped me get it out of the box with the intention of sorting out the roots but that long hard V shaped root ‘ball’ was rock solid and mostly composed of wood in the form of big thick roots. The only live root ends I could find were insufficient to fill a teaspoon. I was entirely disgusted with the whole affair and intended dropping it in the bin but Rammon was insistent we give it a chance and so we broke up the rootball as best we could, cut away a load of dead suff, shortened it all as much as seemed safe and stuck it in a plastic pot with all that ugly wood just squeezed into the rectangular pot corner to corner. Miraculously it survived obvs.

So, as soon as I got the restyled tree back for Kevin my heart sank because I could see there was no chance of potting it at the appropriate inclination. Come last weekend and with buds extending i decided to bite the bullet. I would not normally repot a newly styled tree and I certainly would not recommend it but over the years I learned a few things that make a difference and create possibilities where there was none. Sometimes we just have to pull on the big boy pants and step up. Back in the day I would have done this without thinking but nowadays I don’t kill trees because I learned the finer points and have ‘developed my palate’ somewhat.

In conclusion working together, with someone of weight and experience really is the only way to create special bonsai trees worthy of the title. However finding that person’s not easy and if you are lucky and find one in you life hang onto them for all you are worth. Just last week my one and only bike riding mate of fairly recent acquaintance dropped dead on the way to a football match. Never even made it into an ambulance and I am totally heartbroken to have lost such a lovely positive and special friend.

Keep it real folks! Who knows what is just around the corner.

Scots pine bonsai.

Kevin had the tree tilted a little more. This is my compromise. Two Half Heads are Better Than One!

Scots pine bonsai tree

Masses of root and deadwood shoehorned into this pot. Beneath the surface is a solid block of wood literally hammered into the pot from corner to corner.

Scots pine bonsai

Corner to corner. There are several more like this directly beneath the surface and in both corners.

Scots pine bonsai

Those stumps were actually trunks as this grew in a small crack in a large flat expanse of granite.

Scots pine bonsai repotting

Long overdue a repot. When you see white root ends like this repotting can take place. Roots will regenerate in a few days.

It took 45 minutes just to get it out of the pot.

Scots pine bonsia.

And breathe ……. Sadly got the pot feet in the wrong place and it’s not the best of pots but this is one giant leap forward. There’s always next time.