Here on my own…

Here on my own…

All on my own…How good it feels to be alone…Tonight. I haven’t felt so alive in years. Only click the link if you love the 80’s…which quite frankly, everyone does.

The reason for such indulgent reminiscing in the past is that I have just spent a very enjoyable night working alone, listening to Depeche Mode, The Cure and The Smiths whilst Candle Cutting the Chiefs most famous Black Pine, the infamous Seiryu, and then working on fixing a customers azalea which was in need of being sorted.

It was a very refreshing experience to actually sit and enjoy doing Bonsai again, something which has been missing from this and the last trip to the Chief’s…and I realise why. I was sat alone without having to worry about what the other apprentices were doing or not doing. The Chief popped out around 9 and poked his head through the door, smiled sheepishly and said “I’m off to bed…I’m knackered”. I smiled back and said “G’night”. Those are the times where nothing is said, but everything is understood. It is hard to explain the relaitionship between a master and apprentice, but I have spent more time with him than I have anyone else except my own parents.

That is pretty crazy when you actually sit down and consider it. It’s like being married…except you can’t get divorced.

Anyway, I had decided to push on with getting some important work done because frankly, nobody else is capable or willing to do it. The Chief leaves for four days in China tomorrow, then from the 22nd I am busy with another project, so all the important stuff needs to get down before then. Things have been stressed of late, mainly due to the entire lack of application, effort and common sense of the younger apprentices. I don’t want to sound like an old man but if the idiots that I am surrounded by are representative of the youth of today then I despair for the future of the human race. It’s not that they are bad people but they just have a complete lack of desire and difficulty following the simplest of instructions. I always check with them to see if they have understood what I said…making a point of getting them to repeat my request, but stlll it all goes wrong somewhere. The next day, the pont I tried to teach them the day before is forgotten and the same mistake is repeated.

It drives me to despair which is then made even worse when the Chief rips into all of us, especially me recently for some stupid mistake which could have been so easily avoided by either asking me, or thinking before acting. There is only so much you can do and I seem to spend all my time looking after three children aged 40, 29 and 22….none of whom seem to listen to a word I say. I ask myself if I am at fault.

One thing is for certain, it is putting me off ever having an apprentice of my own…if that ever arose.

Anyways…enough whinging, back to the Bonsai. At the moment we are finishing off the Satsuki pruning, working on the late flowering varieties and customers trees that are brought in. The general rule of thumb is to get it done by the end of June, then you will depinitely have a good set of flowers next year, leave the pruning into July and the if the weather turns bad, there is a chance not as many flowers will be set. We are also working on Candle cutting Pines.

I had to properly shout at the two youngest apprentices a couple of days ago for not coming to me before starting Candle cutting. Not only had one of the cut them candles of a tree I am in the process of styling and wanted to do myself, but they also started from the strongest trees. Both of which are signs of a lack of brain function. After shouting at them for a couple of minutes, during which they actually got a bit scared as it doesn’t happen that often, I sat them down and we had a twenty minute discussion on how to make Bonsai, particularly with regards to the seemingly dull aspects such as candle cutting, which they approach as some kind of horticultural necessity rather than an essential technique in the styling of a tree.

I asked the youngest lad to tell me how to make a Bonsai…he couldn’t come up with a decent answer. The other lad made an attempt to explain but was off the mark a little. It is a difficult to answer question because there is no one technique, no one area that is any more important than the other. As I tried to explain to them, it begins with something as seemingly unimportant as the little metal staples we make to keep the fertiliser cakes in place and ends with displaying the tree at the highest level possible.

If effort is found lacking at any of the steps along the way then the tree wil not improve. If the legs of the metal staples are too short and the wire is too thin, then the sparrows will flick the fertiliser cakes off the pot in search of insects, then the tree doesn’t get any food, doesn’t set strong buds, branches die and it needs to be restyled from scratch again.

Wiring, carving and bending big branches are not the be all and end all of making a tree, they are simply the starting point. The real creation of a tree comes through carefully applying the correct techniques, both horticultural and technical and paying attention to details. Everyday details make the difference between success and faliure, not wiring and finishing a tree in day.

Anyways, back on track…After finishing of the Blue Dragon, I began work on this Azalea. It is a Matsunami, an old variety which doesn’t thicken very much and has the tendency to grow thin, long branches. It has multi coloured flowers and is one I like. I bought one a couple of weeks that will feature soon. The problem with multicoloured varieties is the dominance of one parent or one colour. If the tree is allowed to grow au naturel, then within a few years it will all coe one colour…red. Red is the dominant colour and once it starts to grow, it spreads. Withina couple of years a white flower can become red, slowly working it’s way through speckled, striped and then full colour. It is a one way transition, once it has becom red it can’t go back.

Apologies for the poor pictures and makeshift back ground but I was trying to get finished. As you can see the main branch on the right has a lot of red, an awful lot of very strong red. A mistake was made when the tree was early in development and that branch was made from a red flowering branch…a school boy error. As the tree has developed. the red flowers have gotten redder and spread to other branches. there are entire branches on the tree which are red. If possible, the best ting to do is to prune out the red branches entirely as you find them.

Sometimes, the entire branches needs to be replaced, but that takes time if there is thickness to it. In the case of this tree, the character branch is entirely red, but in order to correct it, two branches of “normal” non read Matsunami have been grafted in. The grafts are of the normal multi coloured variety and so there will be variation in the flowers. Sadly it means removing large sections of the tree.

Once the red branches have been removes, the branch appears very bare and slightly lacking in volume and ramification. This will take three years to fill back in, unless the grated branches go gangbusters on us and grow like crazy. After a rough prune, then more detailed pruning, cutting out the hard, thick areas and unnecessary branches, The main branch was very carefully wired and set roughly in position. As it is a grafted branch, extra care needs to be taken so as not to tear it off at the base. Grafts are generally only attached by the cambum layers and there is a lack of structural integrity to the join, so they can often pull apart easily, even after several years of healthy growth.

The finished tree looks like this. A few years of development on the character branch and it will be quite a nice tree. As it stands, anybody who looks at it simply says, “too much red”. This is a particular characteristic to Satsuki enthusiasts and half the fun of growing them.There is an obssessive nature to getting the perfect mix of flowers, a perfect example of that variety. We are not to this level of concern at all in the west, which may be a good thing!

Anyway, it is past 1 am and I need to be up in the morning to drive the Chief to the airport. I have a week left in Japan and to be honest, I can’t wait to get back and away from the stress of looking after younger apprentices. That said, I will definitely miss working on trees, going through the different stages of creating a Bonsai. Especially enjoyable when done alone…

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