Itoigawa Workshop: Start to Finish


Itoigawa before photo

Itoigawa before photo

The workshop I chose to participate in this past weekend was the Itoigawa juniper workshop with Ryan Neil. In this post I hope to point out some of the things I learned, guiding us through the process of styling just as we did in the workshop. So get your notebooks out, this is going to be a long one.

The first step of the styling process (assuming you’ve already chosen the tree) is to identify the following, in order of importance:

1. Find the best base for your tree. By this I mean view your tree from every side, the idea is to find stability. Trees that have an unstable appearance (generally caused by a very thin trunk entering the ground) create an unstable feeling in the viewer. In most cases you’ll want to pick the view where your tree looks the widest at the point where the trunk enters the ground. There are certain exceptions, but this is the general idea. If you’re dealing with a nebari intensive species like maples, you’ll definitely want to consider which angle offers the best “flare”.

2. Find the best trunk line. Which angle makes the curves in the trunk look the most interesting? Sometimes this will require changing the planting angle. The general idea here is to find an angle that eliminates any straight lines on the trunk, especially those that are parallel or perpendicular to the lip of the pot (or the ground).

3. Take in to consideration what “special feature” your tree has. In this case we were dealing with juniper so the special feature will almost always be deadwood. Other examples would be nebari for maples, bark for black pine or arakawa varieties, and flowers or fruit for bonsai like chojubai. The idea here is to find a front that highlights any special features.

In general these are the first considerations when determining a style for your tree. Often finding the right front will involve a compromise between competing characteristics. Sometimes the decision will be hard, but you’d be best to follow the items I listed above in order of importance. There are a couple final consideration to make and then we can finish up cleaning the tree off.

4. Decide what overall branching pattern you want. I DO NOT mean that you should start choosing branches. Just take a moment to decide what the flow of your tree is going to look like. Which direction is your tree “moving”? As Ryan pointed out, this is one of those areas where the rest of the world is lagging behind Japan. So if you want to do your part to help improve bonsai, make sure you choose a direction for your tree’s movement! Go do it right now! And make sure your apex and first branch agree in direction as well.

5. Choose your Apex. Maybe you don’t have to pick the exact branch right now, but you need to choose general location and direction for your apex.

So there’s the basics. Print it out, write it down, take it one step at a time, and make sure you follow it on every tree from now on. There’s no magic here, making yourself better is all about being methodical, and the more you practice the better you’ll get.

IMG_2000reThe first task, even before you start making style decisions is to get the tree all cleaned up. Scrubbing the trunk with a toothbrush and water, cleaning out dead branches and foliage stuck in the tree, and sweeping away the surface soil to find good nebari.

After the tree is clean we can use the steps above to evaluate the overall design and choose which direction we want to go with the tree. After you’ve decided or are about 80% on the way to deciding the major factors of your overall design, you’ll want to start removing unnecessary branches and foliage.

On scale junipers, like this Itoigawa, there are likely going to be 2 types of foliage. The first type is juvenile foliage, which will appear as spiky green needles. If you’re lucky these will only appear in the inside of the tree, between the crotches of branches, and at the base of the overall foliage. The second type is mature foliage, which is the true scale foliage, and will appear like lots of little green sticks all growing in a cone shaped extension. On scale junipers this is the desirable type of foliage and what you want to strive for all over the tree.

Juvenile foliage circled on the bottom, mature foliage circled on the top.

Juvenile foliage circled on the bottom, mature foliage circled on the top.

So how do we ensure that our tree grows mature foliage and not juvenile foliage?

Well lets take a step back. Where do junipers get their strength? If you’ve watch Ryan’s videos as much as I have you’ve probably heard this same question posed over and over. The answer is simple. From their foliage! In fact, some collected junipers may be taken from the wild with only 10% of their total root mass, but if you remove over 50% of a juniper’s foliage mass, you’re toeing the line of its over all health. In fact, there’s a lesson inside a lesson, always stay of the safe side when you’re styling your junipers. You can always come back and cut more off if you know the tree is healthy.

So what does this have to do with foliage type? Let me pose an example. If you come home after work to find that there’s nothing in the fridge, do you just wait until tomorrow to eat or do you run out and grab something from the store? You’re hungry now, you’re not going to wait until tomorrow, you’re going to run out right now to get some food. The juniper is no different. Juvenile foliage grows fast, while mature foliage grows slow. When you cut off a junipers foliage, cut off its roots, give it too much water, or not enough water, or really just look at it the wrong way, its probably going to start growing juvenile foliage because it’s scared of dying and wants to get more energy as fast as possible.

The duration that this foliage grows is up to you. The only way to get back to mature foliage is to just let the tree grow and take good care of it. As the juvenile foliage starts to turn back into mature foliage, you can VERY GRADUALLY, start to remove it from the tree. Juvenile foliage is not an all or nothing kind of thing either, it may poke here or there on your tree in a particularly stressed spot. you won’t always know why it occurs, but after reading this article you should definitely know how to stop it.

Now back to the workshop! Before the initial styling its important to remove foliage and branches we know aren’t going to be used. Here’s the short list of what should be removed:

1. Foliage growing out of the branch crotches (location where 2 branches meet).

2. Weak foliage anywhere on the tree. Maybe this is the green “fluff” growing around an old cut site, or a little wisp growing from the trunk. This also includes the little one-strand sprouts growing from the bottom half of each branch. Remember, you’re about to wire the tree and you don’t want to waste your time dodging little bits of foliage that won’t impact the over all design.

3. Remove branches that are too thick, untapered, or have foliage that doesn’t begin to grow until so far out on the branch that it’ll be impossible to use.

Don’t forget that since we’re styling a juniper, it’s important to leave branch stumps that can be used for jin in the final design. Always keep a little bit more than you think you need, as you can always remove what you don’t end up wanting, but you can never put it back.

IMG_2003reIMG_2004reSo after choosing an apex and removing some branches we’re left with work in progress. Now for some more cutting…

So what’s the pruning strategy for junipers? This was a question that I thought I knew the answer to, and yet some how, I couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Bonsai logic, at least what has been drilled into out heads by books and videos and other hobbyists, would say that pruning is the process of cutting to get ramified branches. Which it is. You would say that cutting the tips of the branches as they grew out in the spring would force energy towards the middle of the tree, creating back budding on the branches and a fuller, more ramified canopy. And if we were talking about maples or hornbeams or quince or really anything else you’d be absolutely right! But Junipers are different.

As I noted before, junipers receive their strength from the foliage. Specifically the mature tips of the foliage. So if you prune a juniper like any other bonsai on your bench, all you’re going to do is weaken your tree… and here comes that spiky, fluffy, awful juvenile foliage. In order to properly prune junipers, and develop great ramification, here are a few pointers:

1. Never pinch your junipers

ok Ryan, what’s rule #2?

2. … never pinch your junipers

3. When you cut your juniper back, only cut into the non-lignified (still green, no bark) section of a branch.

4. Let your tree grow! Growth=health=mature foliage. Never prune your Juniper back hard. its always better to allow sections to grow and get very strong, gradually cutting branches back to achieve the overall silhouette.

5. When cutting back a juniper branch tip, always cut back to another, strong, mature tip on the same branch. This ensures that growth is not impeded too much and the tree is not weakened. See the picture below, the large arrow points to the branch to be cut, the smaller arrows show viable secondary tips.

IMG_2010reBalancing the vigor of your branches on a juniper can be difficult. The simple idea of growth and ramification being linked is something that is probably difficult for you to stomach. It’s just so opposite to what we’ve learned about deciduous and even other conifers thus far. So it will probably take a very conscious effort on your part, to force yourself to let the tips grow out. A very broad overview of development would follow a trajectory similar to this:

1. Choose branches that form the main structure of your trees, wire them into position (making sure of course that they’ve been cleaned of weak foliage). prune back to a strong tip in the non-lignified area of the branch tip.

2. If you are still looking to strengthen the tree or enlarge the trunk you can keep some sacrifice branches. The key with sacrifice branches on junipers is to leave them unwired and always keep them in check. Unfortunately this isn’t black and white. You’ll always be playing the balance game, if they grow too strong they can suck energy from the branches you like. So growing out certain areas for strength requires balancing (cutting back the tips) of the sacrifice branches and the structure branches (those you want to work on ramifying).

3. Once you’ve reached your growth goals, or are satisfied with the trees overall health, you can slowly work at eliminating any sacrifice branches you were growing. Remember, the tree can experience stress locally and globally. Its often safer to cut a few branches from different places on the tree than to cut a few branches from the same place on the tree. At least, this is the best way to prevent juvenile growth.

At the end of the day, training a juniper is more about controlling your tree’s health than anything else. It’s a little ironic because of all the trees out there, junipers can take a beating better than almost anything else, but at the same time it will often lead to juvenile growth which ultimately ruins the value of the tree.


Now that your tree is clean, design locked in, jins made, and deadwood cleaned up, you can get to wiring. It’s always important to start wiring the primary branches (those extending from the trunk) first. If you have to do any difficult bends, it will likely involve the major branches, and it’s much easier to complete if you haven’t already placed other branches. Remember that wiring is always going to be a balance between aesthetics and function. How ugly does the tree look covered in wire? vs. do our branches stay where we want them to? Some times a little strategy can go a long way.

For example, what is the purpose of wiring a branch? Mainly to put interesting curves in it while also allowing us to position it. If we already like our branch’s shape but just need to change its placement, maybe we can accomplish the same feat with a guy wire.

IMG_2078If you need to pull a guy wire from the crotch of a branch, one tip is to loop the guy wire through the branch wire from above, and then pull it through the crotch of the branch. I don’t think I’d be wrong in assuming most people would have looped it through the wire on the underside of the branch. Ultimately though, all that approach would do is loosen the branch wire, and put more pressure on the wire to bite into the top side of the branch.

I don’t want to get too involved in talking about wiring, it probably deserves a more general post all to it’s self. Plus I think its more of one of those practice makes perfect type of things. I’m not really sure how much my descriptions would help.

One final tip from Ryan before we put the wire to bed. Sometimes you can complete the same task with less wire than you’d think. Ultimately, smart wiring will help your tree’s overall aesthetic considering they could wear this wire for years.

IMG_2016In this particular scenario, Ryan created a hook shape before placing the wire on the tree. The opposite twisting force was enough to hold the wire firmly without having to wrap the entire jin in wire. The absolute most important aspect of wiring is to make sure the wire holds its shape and allows you to create the bends you want.

IMG_2027reWe wrapped up styling by placing the branches. The main idea was to get the main branches to reach the places they needed to be. We left a little more foliage than was stylistically desirable, to help ensure health and recovery over the coming year. Once the new foliage grows in and the tree shows signs of vigor, we can go back in and clean up all the branches. In junipers especially, as I’ve said before, it’s critical to take our time. It’s always possible to remove what we don’t like later down the road.

As for aftercare, Ryan recommends misting 2-3 times daily, being careful not to get the soil too wet. Be VERY careful when watering. The tree has lost 50% of its foliage meaning that it will require 50% less water than before. As the roots slowly go into shock over the next week, too much water could allow rot to set in and quickly create irreversible damage. Keeping the tree in the shade and slowly acclimating it back into full sun over the next month will also be required. And Fertilize, fertilize, fertilize. Make sure to use organic fertilizer to avoid the risk of over doing it.

I hope this overview of junipers has been helpful. I certainly learned a lot from Ryan, maybe with a little luck I can keep this one alive for Ryan to style again one day.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more to come!





Posted in Bonsai Topics, My Stories, Uncategorized | 23 Comments

Rendezvous 2014

Hinoki Cypress. Completely rewired by Marco a day before the Rendezvous.

Hinoki Cypress. Completely rewired by Marco a day before the Rendezvous.

It’s been an exciting/exhausting long weekend and I know it must have been doubly so for all the amazing guest artists at Brussel’s Bonsai Annual Rendezvous. So first of all I’d like to really commend all the artists for their stamina, and their time this past weekend. I’m really thankful for how willing all the bonsai professionals have been to share their knowledge and skills in every encounter I’ve had with them.

Secondly it was great to meet some of the members of our bonsai community, and see a few great people again that I remember from last time. It was awesome to meet Ryan Bell, who’s bonsai pot blog has really been the single driving force behind my own appreciation for bonsai pots, and who’s been incredibly helpful in answering all my questions on the subject.


Ryan Styling an imported Itoigawa Juniper from Friday’s all day workshop.

It was really an honor to meet Ryan Neil in person. Ryan has really been an inspiration since I started bonsai; a deep well of knowledge from all those recordings on YouTube. having been an apprentice myself (as a chef) I’ve always respected and understood the way Ryan learned and his attitude towards bonsai in general. The Rendezvous it’s self was an amazing experience, but I would have paid the same amount just to be Ryan’s shadow for a few days (which is what I basically did anyways, meaning that I somehow always ended up between Ryan and the wire or whatever tool he needed… sorry buddy).

And last among many things, it was a privilege to meet Marco Invernizzi. There are so many names floating around the bonsai community, especially when you look globally. I have to admit that sometimes I’ll overlook certain important people. Marco is definitely a new found inspiration and source of knowledge. I hope to post more about him very soon!

Marco compacting an "air-bonsai" in his White Pine workshop.

Marco compacting an “air-bonsai” in his White Pine workshop.

Really the point of the this post was first to say thank you to everyone involved, but it was also to kick-off what I hope to be some great following posts about all that I learned this weekend. Stay tuned!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Artist Spotlight: A Bonsai Prelude Exclusive Interview With Ryan Neil

Courtesy Bonsai Mirai

Courtesy Bonsai Mirai

Thanks for tuning in to a very special Artist Spotlight with Ryan Neil. First of all a huge thanks goes to Ryan for finding some time between caring for his 800+ babies (trees) and his 1 new baby (son), to answer all my questions. If you’re in the area you can catch Ryan (or me for that matter) next weekend at the Rendezvous. If not, head over to Bonsai Mirai and see all his amazing garden has to offer.


How did you get started with bonsai?

I was involved with martial arts from a very young age. In an indirect way, I
became exposed to Asian culture through that, including bonsai. I didn’t start
doing bonsai until I’d already stopped martial arts. In fact, my pursuit of bonsai
started when I could no longer do sports at all, due to a serious leg injury. Bonsai
was where I directed all of the energy I could no longer put into athletics. It was
probably a significant saving grace for me personally at the time.

How did you decide/ how did you come to the opportunity of working with bonsai in Japan?

I decided when I was 14 that I wanted to study with Mr. Kimura, and after that
point, everything I did was geared toward making my way to Japan. I studied
horticulture in college in California so I could work with several bonsai
professionals. I drove to Los Angeles and San Francisco nearly every weekend to
try and meet someone who could help me get an apprenticeship. Eventually, Ben
Oki took pity on me and took me to Japan to meet Mr. Kimura and arranged my
study in his garden.

How did you decide who you wanted to apprentice under?

Like anyone else who’s developed a passion for bonsai, there weren’t enough
magazines, books, websites to fill my viral hunger. Through all of the reading,
searching and self study, I continued to see the inspirational works of Mr. Kimura.
I quickly realized his talent for maximizing a tree’s character and ability to give it
personality. I wanted to create that kind of bonsai myself. From that point, it was
simply a matter of finding a way into his garden.

What was the most challenging thing you had to do during your apprenticeship or bonsai career in general?

It feels like every year that I do bonsai is harder than the last. I remember during
my apprenticeship feeling the same way, and wondering if bonsai was ever going
to be fun or enjoyable for me again. Bonsai, in a lot of ways, is simply an
illustration of life on a smaller scale. The struggles that I experienced as an
apprentice also seem to be paralleling and reflecting the struggles I am
experiencing as an independent bonsai professional now. Basically, this is a long-
winded way of saying that the most challenging thing that I had to do and have to
do every day is keep doing.

What was the most rewarding experience you’ve had so far?

Marrying my wife and having our son together trumps any bonsai accomplishment I’ve ever experienced. It’s given new meaning to why I do bonsai and what it means to me. If we’re speaking simply about bonsai, however, the creation of Bonsai Mirai, my garden, and it’s 800+ inhabitants (bonsai trees), has been the most challenging and rewarding bonsai-related endeavor I’ve applied myself to.

I know that you work primarily with evergreen species; Pines and Junipers. Is that a personal preference, geographically driven, or a continuation of your experience at Mr. Kimura’s? (maybe a blend)

Conifers offer so much flexibility in terms of creation. I went to Mr. Kimura to
learn how to work on coniferous species. I grew up around coniferous species;
they make up my vision of nature. But, maybe more important than any of these
aspects, conifers have the potential to outlive their creators by hundreds if not
thousands of years. This independent aspect is possibly the most captivating part
of bonsai for me personally.

I noticed you’ll be teaching this summer at the Brussel’s Bonsai Rendezvous, are there any other “tour dates” you have planned in the coming year?

Travel these days is at a minimum. I have a new baby, a wonderful family, a
wonderful garden, a wonderful home. To date, my efforts in bonsai have been
mainly geared towards building a place where a higher level of bonsai pursuit can
be achieved. And now I have that place. Instead of traveling, I’ll be working with
students who come to Mirai to learn the way we do bonsai here.

Are there any particular topics of focus during your teaching in the U.S.? Perhaps subjects that you feel the American bonsai culture is weak on?

Technique, technique, and more technique. Everybody wants to skip learning the
fundamental techniques and talk about the more interesting aspects of design. Of
course design is more enjoyable. But, how can you design well, when you are
limited by lack of technique. I wish designing bonsai was illegal until someone
shows their proficiency in wiring, pruning, repotting, watering, fertilizing, and all
the other basic skills that are so significant to what we do. Most people would
probably breathe a sigh of relief that it’s not up to me, but I definitely feel like
this is a focus of my instruction as I teach.

I think we’ve all been following the progression of planning for the Artisan’s Cup and Portland Bonsai Village, any updates or info you’d like to share about your work on those projects?

The Artisan’s Cup is such a double-edged sword. As a professional, I know we
need it. As hobbyists, everyone knows we need it. But, to know we need an event
such as the Artisan’s Cup and to actually contribute to make that event possible
are two very different things. Right now, we’re hoping and working to find people
that will contribute.

What is your favorite species? Either to work with or just to view?

This is a very liquid situation. I pretty much fall in love with any tree I’m
currently working on. Right now, as this article is being composed, I have a true
to form upright redwood of amazingly accurate proportion and scale, and I’ve
maybe never loved redwoods more. But, on a daily basis, I’ve always found the
most identifiable affection for bonsai when I’m working on a ponderosa pine.
It’s the species that I grew up with; it decorated the landscape where I fished
with my dad. They smell the best, feel the best, sound the best, and have a
tremendous sense of “home.” They make pretty good bonsai, too.

Is there a species you dislike?

I’m really not a fan of red pine. They always need just a little bit more of a bend.
And then they break.

 Is there something or maybe a few typical things that you find people in general have the wrong instruction on?

In general, it seems like a lot of bonsai knowledge has come from a perspective
of gardening, rather than from actual, bonsai-specific instruction. Having earned
a degree in horticulture, the techniques and thought process involved in bonsai
for me are significantly different than those practiced in gardening. As a result,
we often mishandle our trees and material for reasons we’re largely unaware of.

Are there any particularly helpful techniques that you think most people in the U.S. don’t practice, but would be especially beneficial?

Proper watering, proper repotting, proper wiring. These are just a few.

Is there anything about yourself or bonsai in general we haven’t touched on that you’d like to talk about?

Lately, it seems like the necessity to define a taste, a belief, a loyalty or an
approach has significantly clouded people’s ability to objectively view bonsai or
the work of individual bonsai artists. I hope, at some point, we can all realize that
there is no one way, there is no right way, there are only different ways to pursue
bonsai. As opposed to finding different as frustrating, hopefully, we can find
different as interesting. We would really be starting to get somewhere as a bonsai
community, if that were the case.

~Thank you again Ryan and family!

Posted in Artist Spotlight, Uncategorized | 5 Comments


Credit: Dylan Fawcett taken at Brussel's Bonsai

Credit: Dylan Fawcett taken at Brussel’s Bonsai

The countdown has started. 10 days until Rendezvous 2014 at Brussel’s. Hope to see you there!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ancient. Alive.

Oldest Living Things In The World, By Rachel Sussman

Oldest Living Things In The World, By Rachel Sussman

Very cool new book, detailed on one of my favorite visual art blogs. I couldn’t figure out how to reblog it, so the link will have to suffice. Enjoy :)


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New Weekend, New Pots

Added some new pots to the store, fresh from the kiln. None have my Hanko yet, we’re still a couple weeks from having any of those completed.

IMG_6370 IMG_6383 IMG_6385 IMG_6394 IMG_6401


Posted in Bonsai Pots, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

More Pots…

cropped-img_6364re.jpgI’ve had a chance to update the store. Take a look at a few of the new pots up on Etsy!

Also, be sure to favorite my shop on Etsy. I should be able to add new ware every weekend, make sure you don’t miss them!

Posted in Bonsai Pots, Uncategorized | Tagged | 4 Comments

Open for Business

cropped-img_6320re.jpgHello friends and followers! As you may have noticed in my last post, I’ve taken up a new hobby to occupy my (already packed) time. At least this will occupy me until bonsai season gets into full swing. I’m just starting out making pots, but it’s a lot fun!

I’ve decided to sell some of my ware on Etsy, with the hope that I can at least partially cover the cost of my new-found hobby :) I only had time to add a couple of the pots last night, but there should be a couple more up tonight. Also, with the way the kiln cycle works hopefully I’ll have new ware every weekend to put up online.

Here’s the shop link:

I’ll also post it permanently on the blog.

Hopefully I can spread a little joy during the upcoming potting season!

Happy potting!

Posted in Bonsai Pots, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

New Pots!

Just picked-up some new pots. Any guess as to who the maker is?

IMG_6309re IMG_6318re IMG_6320re IMG_6324re IMG_6325re IMG_6328re IMG_6330re

It’s me! Hope you like them. Maybe at some point when I get around to it I’ll setup an Etsy site for anyone interested in trying out my (slightly lopsided) pots.

Posted in Bonsai Pots, Uncategorized | Leave a comment


IMG_6291What’s this? A package from Japan? In the words of my girlfriend, “did you buy another pot?”

… maybe.

IMG_6294This one comes courtesy of my new found friend in Japan, Yukiko. I’m always excited to get a new pot, but I especially appreciated the hand written note inside with best wishes for what she said was one of her favorite pots. You can check out Yukiko’s Instagram @yuki_mono to see some great pictures. Thanks Yukimono!

IMG_6300If you’re familiar with this potter’s work (especially the recent work) then you’ll know immediately who it is. Satomi Terahata. Really a lesser known contemporary potter, but definitely an up and comer. The solid color with a single, double, or triple lighter colored drip is signature for the current work. Check out some more Satomi work courtesy of Ryan.

IMG_6304Just a quick post for now.

Next up, some photos of this pot’s brother!

Posted in Bonsai Pots, Uncategorized | Leave a comment