A cypress for Arcobonsai.
I don’t think I’ve ever bought a tree in all these years simply by choosing from a picture. I just can’t do it!
I need to see it, touch it, walk around it to fall in love and decide whether to welcome it into my collection. Then, in 2019, a dear friend put this cypress up for sale on a social media and instantly I was so curious to get to know it properly.
After a little while I was standing in front of the cypress tree, which immediately won me over with some lovely details: a beautifully sized nebari and the dark bark on the trunk, enhanced by the already old dry wood. The lack of movement was counterbalanced by some features that would ensure a composition with a significant sensation of old age. The straight trunk, distinguished by an old shari, ends in a manageable way. The strong and vigorous vegetation attests the excellent health of the cypress.
In two seconds flat, the tree was at home!
I never make hasty decisions and all newly arrived trees are simply cultivated for a year, at least. This cypress is no exception, so it will stay put for a while to grow and settle in. Every time I walk past it, I take a quick look for a suggestion or inspiration. Once, I found it could have been perfect for a demo…maybe for Arcobonsai!
I will never get tired to highlight the importance of planning and cultivation.
For the first two years, in view of the first work on it, the aim is basically to enhance the vigour, the natural growth and thickening of the vegetation. It is in this phase that fertilisation is crucial to maximize the growth.
By the April of 2021, the cypress was thick and extremely vigorous.
One of the most frequent problems with collected trees is the soil, which is often made up of two distinct parts: a central clod consisting in the collection soil (often clayey and compact), and a new substrate on the outside (often pumice or perlite). As the two soils are extremely different from each other, two completely distinct environments are created inside the pot:
A central part that dries very slowly (which contains the collected roots) and a part that dries much faster (specifically where the new roots will have to grow). In order to ensure a properly hydrated environment for the new roots, the central clay soil will always be soggy, often giving rise to fungal diseases with harmful consequences for the root system. If in a cultivation pot this problem is fairly manageable, then in a bonsai pot this problem is definitely pronounced.
The most appropriate solution is the total removal of the old soil.
In order to avoid the elimination of this part of the soil during repotting alone, I have been using, for years, a vacuum. The method is simple and well known: you dry the clay so that you can crumble it with a stick and then remove it simply by vacuuming it.
Not too many roots normally grow in the clay area, and dry clay helps to avoid the uncontrolled damage of the existing roots. This is done until some or all of the old topsoil has been removed. At this point it will be enough to replace it with the substrate that we consider most appropriate.
It is quite surprising how much soil (and stones) can be removed in this operation, which also lightens the weight of the pot.
There are many advantages to this process: first and foremost, the progressive reduction of the collected clod, secondly, the replacement with new, draining soil, where the roots can grow. It is interesting to note how much the tree is now definitely not subject to any stress, unlike normal re-potting where the handling of the roots makes the operation considerably more stressful. You can also change the soil several times a year. Personally, I prefer to do this twice a year, in March and September when the root activity is most reactive, but I could safely say that it is an operation that can be carried out practically at any time.
The tree is now ready to be worked…and as planned, I will do it at Arcobonsai 2021, which was postponed, due to the pandemic, to September of the same year.
Viewed from all four sides, the cypress has a thick, lush and compact vegetation. September is also a good time to work on a cypress tree as it is quite far (about a month and a half) from the cold season.
The natural shari already has some interesting texture, e.g. the existence of various cracks, a sign the wood has been dry for some time. Next to it is there’s some detached bark, indicating a new part of dry wood (younger and not cracked) that I will highlight during the work.
Then there’s that lovely patch of dry wood at the base. It was perhaps what intrigued me from the very beginning. When I saw it, I thought of the “tail of a comet”. I definitely had to dig in deeper into this inspiration and work on all the length of it.
For this reason, I always thought that the nature of this cypress was with a rightward leaning habit with the long woody appendage at the base acting as a “tail”.
However, in my detailed study of the cypress I found evidence to rebut this impression. The position of the branches, the structure of the trunk and the nebari, and other elements, led me to choose a more harmonious and traditional design.
In the creation of a beautiful bonsai, it is paramount to find the perfect balance between a well thought-out study of its potential and the instinctive feelings the tree is offering us. If we only take the former into account, we will have a bonsai that is perhaps perfect but without a soul. If we only take into account the latter, we will have a tree that is not very credible.
Every bonsai grower will find that trade-off and create “his” bonsai. There can obviously be several different solutions without any of them being wrong.
This project shows the solution I found.
25 September 2021 – Arcobonsai: Instructors’ competition in comparison
Here we are at last at the appointment.
The team is now made up of friends who have been supporting and assisting me for years: Giacomo and Gimmi.
There is another person who never appears in the photos but has never failed to help us throughout each demonstration! Thank you Rossana!
We quickly assign up the tasks: Giacomo has to uncover and widen the natural shari by removing the dry bark with gouges and cutting tools, while Gimmi takes care of protecting the branches to be bent with jute and rubber.
We have to focus on the time management and mindfulness, moreover we have to be able to teamwork properly.
While the others are busy with their tasks, I focus on reducing the large portion of dry wood at the base, using chisels and a splitting machine.
We use a blowtorch to smooth and burn the wood.
Once these steps are finished, it’s the right moment to the wire all the branches, an activity that takes a few hours. This is obviously the most tedious part for us and for the viewer.
You always think that styling and shaping is a quick operation, but it’s not! We are in front of a big puzzle where every piece has to be properly placed. Having the design in mind and being quick in positioning can help, but it still takes time.
Starting with the lower branches. As the branches find their position, Gimmi and Giacomo help me with the finishing touches: wiring the peripheral branches and cleaning the profiles.
As the tree takes shape, it’s good to share ideas with your teammates, who may notice something you’ve overlooked.
In shaping, the main objective is to create the vegetative masses (the pads). In doing so, it is important to expose the vegetation properly to the light and air. That is why shaping is not just about giving shape, but also about creating the conditions for the new vegetation to grow healthy.
Aesthetic and functional requirements therefore come together.
When styling and shaping it is crucial to recognize when to stop: it’s when we understand that whatever changes we make, the result does not improve. That is the moment to declare the work finished, simply because what we were able to do, we have done.
One last look from afar, a good cleaning of the work table and we are ready for the final photo!
I am always very critical of my work, but I have to say that on this tree the final result exceeded even the design.
The cypress seen from all sides shows a good conicality and a foliage that dresses the whole trunk.
The dry wood at the base is now conical and lost that tubular shape, blending better with the nebari.
The vegetation is well balanced to the trunk without being either too full or too empty.
The foliage also has sufficiently asymmetrical profiles and spacing, and the apex closes quite well for a first styling.
In the shaping process, the branches are placed in a fan shape with the tips pointing upwards. All vegetation growing downwards is then removed.
The shaping of this cypress won the 19th Arcobonsai trophy for instructors.
In this regard, I would like to thank Gimmi, Giacomo, and all my fellow instructors and share this important award with them.