Austin Bonsai Society



Pine = long life
Bamboo = virtue
Japanese flowering apricot = Happiness

The New Year seasonal bonsai planting. Check out The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees and Landscapes by Yuji Yoshimura and G. M. Halford (p. 139). Literally translated it means pine, bamboo, plum and these three plants for the basis of a group planting which represents, to the Japanese people, evergreen stability (long life), upright behavior (virtue) and happiness. To these three basic plants are added miniature bamboo, the red berried ardisia, nandina, and the Japanese wild orchid, two rocks, white pebble and moss. 

The finished planting is not unlike a saikei, leading the viewer to feel the pebbles represent the sea, the rocks a seashore and the trees placed in order to give the visual effect of a mountain in the background. The leafless plum tree is in bud at this time of year, the orchid about to flower, the ardisia berries brilliant red against its dark green leaves, the nandina’s red winter leaves and the variegations of the miniature bamboo harmonize well with the green pine tree. All in all the Sho-chiku-bai is very pleasing visually. 

Potting Soils

by Stan Perkins 

Soil has a number of functions. First, it supports the plant by giving a medium for the roots to hold fast. Second, it stores moisture necessary for plant growth. Third, soil holds air required by plant roots to function properly. Finally, soil provides or retains the nutrients necessary for plant growth. In bonsai, plants are kept in shallow pots with very little soil present when compared with what exists in Nature. Therefore, the balance between too much and too little rests on a razor’s edge of difference. We must pay constant attention to the soil, water, fertilizer and drainage to be successful in bonsai.

Roots function to hold the plant in place in the soil and to absorb nutrients and water. Tough, thick, woody roots generally provide most of the support functions while only the smaller capillary roots absorb water and nutrients. Water is not absorbed but rather must be in the form of water vapor. 

This is why air must be present. Most plants will die if there is not enough air to aid in this absorption process. Excess water will also encourage fungus and bacterial growth which causes root rot. A loose soil mix helps this process by allowing enough spaces for capillary water and air to benefit plant growth. 

Particle size of the soil is very important in the above process. Soil particles too small tend to clog these capillary passages and water will not drain rapidly. Water will adhere to these finer particle and the soil will become water-logged. Air is displaced in this process, severely affecting the absorption process. We can prevent this process by careful attention to the particle size of our potting mixes. 

Japanese textbooks (and some American texts) recommend to layer the soil based on particle size. Current research seems to indicate that this is not necessary. In fact, there is some research which shows that layering in the soil may actually inhibit root pene- tration through the different zones. 

No one can really tell you what mix of soil is best for your plants. a lot depends on the microenvironment present where each plant is growing. Careful observations on what each plant seems to need is the only way to determine the “right” soil mix. 

Reprinted from Texas Bonsai, Winter, 1992

The Normal First Frost for our Area is November 25.

Protect from Cold



Aralia - all varieties

Bamboo - in pot

Jasmine - confederate

Barbados Cherry


Juniper - most


Blood Grass


Brush Cherry

Camellia (don’t let buds freeze)

Maples - all

Burcera Fagaroides

Hokkaido & Seiju & Catlin elms

Myrtle - all

Bucida Spinosa(Black Olive)



Bucida Burcera(Black Olive)

Olive - Olea Europs



Pyracantha - never below 25 F.


Calliandra (Powder Puff)

Yaupon Holly - never below 25 F.

Okinawa Holly (indoors)
Carissa (Natal/African Plum)


Cardboard Palm

Need 6-8 Week Cold Period


Ficus - all varieties



Fukien Tea (never below 45 F.)


Pyrus Kawakami/Calley

Ivies - all varieties






Indoor Oak (Nicodemia)

Azalea - Satsuki may be indoors

Podocarpus (indoors)


Bald Cypress


Jasmine - Duke





Raphiolepsis: Redbud

Malphighias - Cocigera & Glabra



Orange - all citrus








Sweet Gum

Sea Grape

Elms - Chinese & American





Serissa (Snow Rose)



Texas Ebony



Zamia Floridana

Holly - most


The above list courtesy of Edith Sorge, deceased, of The Bonsai Farm as printed in our October, 1996 Bonsai Notebook,

It was suggested, that as we have so many new members, this information may prove beneficial to them. Of course, it is possible that some of our older member might like the “refresher” too. Please advise if there is any other information worth repeating.

Ten Commandments of Bonsai

by Bill Will

  1. Thou shalt devise thine own potting mix Thou mayest seek advice and help from others but must formulate thine own mix according to thine own microenvironment and watering and fertilizing regiment.
  2. Thou shalt determine the ph of thine own water and adjust it to slightly acidic.
  3. Thou shalt immediately, or as soon as possible, remove any new plant from its original potting mix and place it in thine own.
  4. Thou shalt abhor, despise, detest and hate all such vermin as squirrels and mayest not go to the local feed store and buy the 50 lb. bags of corn to feed them because “they are so cute”.
  5. Thou shalt take care of thy bonsai as though they were thine own children - for indeed, they art Thou shalt water them, feed them, groom them, love them and keep them from all harm.
  6. Thou shalt do thine own repotting and trimming Thou mayest seek advice and assistance but must do the acual work thine own self.
  7. Thou shalt not bow down and worship “The Rules” of bonsai and shalt recognize that they are naught but “guidelines” - albeit excellent guidelines Thou shouldst learn them and abide by them - when applicable and possible.
  8. Thou shalt seek diligently for potential bonsai, they; being available whence and where found.
  9. Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s bonsai, nor his pots, nor his tools - lest ye be willing to pay him at least 10 times its maximum true value.
  10. Thou shalt do everything in they power to promote the Art of Bonsai.

Reprinted from Texas Bonsai, Summer, 1991

Editor’s note: This was the former editor of Texas Bonsai and in his editorial he added, “I realize that Americans are a law abiding people and MUST have a codified set of laws or a constitution by which to abide lest they become helpless and lost As bonsai has become a religion to most of us, I have given you something higher than mere laws They were given to me in a vision as I ascended Mount Fuji and are graven into a slab of Shimpaku wood with a jin graving tool. 

Blood Rush

by Glenn Lewis

It seems that if I’m having fun, I mean if the tingle is there, somebody’s law is being broken. I felt this as Dr. Folse’ skiff rounded the river’s bend as we skirted the sand bar. When we cast off at first light, the weather was perfect - cool with a lot of ground moisture and the air was crisp. 

We were looking for any plant that was not long and leggy. The type of plant that has my interest looks as if the I.R.S. has just done a number on it - a bit in shock, stunted and a little low to the ground. 

The Nueces River in South Texas produces Cedar Elms (Ulmus crassifloria), Jerusalem Thorn (Parkinsonia aculeata L.) and Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis L.) fitting it the criteria. Paranoia set in when I recognized Scott, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Warden, poling his skiff in our direction. I wasn’t too concerned about the cat and mouse game about to begin. The boat equipment and papers were in order. The confusion would be in who owns what - does private property end at the vegetation line or center flow? “Be nice, Jocko”, I whispered to Glenda’s black Lab while snapping is chain to the rail. The guard hairs on his back were standing on end. “Watcha doin’?” With a rush of blood, the difficult task of explaining bonsai began. I was mumbling about being Past President of a club, having shown miniature trees at the Flower Show and Museum of Oriental Cultures. I was getting nowhere with the question. Stunted trees - that’s it - we are looking for stun--”. He looked at his buddy and smiled. I felt like turning the dog loose. The two skiffs were now well in the current, slowly drifting in the center of the stream for the Gulf of Mexico. Looking up on the bank was a stand of Cedar Elms, perhaps 5 or 9, in winter silhouette. What a group! A strong center upright tree with the others growing out and away, grasping for their share of this good earth. Damn, I wish I could duplicate that in a tray. 

“Look, Scott, we’re collecting trees that are naturally, in nature, being abused and deprived. No one wants them, not even the Governor.” He took his push pole and eased the two boats apart and said, “I don’t know whatcha doin’ but have fun.” I was still trying to convince myself about doing plants a favor as he slowly pulled from sight. 

The trees on the Nueces do not have it easy, with people and industrial pollution. Both the river and plants have suffered. When a Texas “blue norther” blows in, dumping 4 inches of rain with high winds, the river can roar. The discarded roofing material and sleeper sofas scraping the banks do a lot of pruning. This condition interests me, for the trees have low branches and the ever changing river bank leaves some tap roots exposed. The digging is simple, since the clay contributes to a tight root ball. The old, exposed roots, when cut and treated with hormone and treated as a green stick cutting, sprout feeder roots right away. 

At the end of collecting in an area, notes should be taken of equipment, conditions and needs for future outings. Collecting is a real effort, so do it right. 

The next group of trees to be liberated are oaks growing on a sandy dune, worn from time and the ever present southeast bay wind. I feel the tingle and know Jocko is saying, “Let’s go, Boos.” As I throttle the whaler upon plane, I slowly look over my shoulder and watch the beautiful rays of the early morning sun. I’m just feeling good. 

Reprinted from Texas Bonsai, publication of LSBF, Summer, 1987 and February, 1987 newsletter of Corpus Christi Bonsai Club.

Designing Bonsai

by Richard E. Hayes (reprinted from LSBF Publication “Texas Bonsai” Fall 1992)

Have you had the experience of watching a bonsai artist create a jewel of a tree from what appeared to be a confusing mass of trunks, limbs and masses of foliage; getting inspired enough to run to our favorite nursery to find something that resembled the artist’s original material; and achieving frustration when you started, forgetting where to begin and what to do next - much less ending up with something resembling a bonsai?

Of course you have had this experience! We all have. It’s basic to the beginning bonsai experience. If, however, you are now marking your fourth, tenth or twelfth year in bonsai and still have extreme difficulty in finding a bonsai in a collected tree or nursery grow specimen, you might need to review the basics of bonsai design, while keeping in mind that there is not always a bonsai - at least what will look like a bonsai in a short time - to be pulled from every potted, healthy-looking tree.

John Naka and other Masters of bonsai have repeatedly pointed out the good bonsai can be made only from good starting material. In an IBC workshop a few years ago, a bonsai teacher was aghast at the prospect of using the poor plant material which had been selected by members of the host society. Very few bonsai artist allow their lecture/demonstration materials to be preselected by members of the host society. Nearly every Master chooses his material after close and thorough examination. For what does he look? Obviously, he seeks those elements of design inherent in natural material, which will combine to produce a near-instant bonsai.

If you were to follow the “Golden Girls of Texas Bonsai” - Fran Bruchmiller, Yvonne Padilla and Cathy Rehberg - as they go through a nursery, you would see them pushing aside foliage to examine trunks for character, taper and line. You would see them on their knees feeling in pots for root development. You might hear them ask about growing habits of unknown, interesting material.

These three local bonsai experts have so thoroughly integrated the basics of bonsai design that they can quickly “separate the sheep from the goats.” So much for rambling. Now, now to basics!

The trunk and surface root development are the two most important aspects of bonsai design. To create the image of an old tree, made small, there must be a trunk which has a buttressed base exhibiting the character and strength produced by age. The tree would taper upward from a firm, full base to the thinner top trunk gone to branches.

In bonsai the trunk is inclined toward the viewer. Roots radiate from the trunk; yet they do not grow straight to the front, not do they reach the edge of the container before disappearing into the soil. Major cuts are made, wherever possible, so as not to be visible from the front. In formal and informal upright styles, branch placement is begun, generally, one-third (1/3) up the trunk, either on the right or left, with the next branch opposite and higher up and with next higher-growing branch placed behind the trunk. Ideally, the side branches should be angled slightly forward in order that the leaning trunk and limbs embrace the viewer. As in Nature, the lower branches are the thickest, with the smallest growth at the top of the tree. Where to begin? Most bonsaiists work on the basic structure of the tree first and then do the refining. Wiring of secondary and tertiary branches, to produce foliage pads, comes as the last stage.

Apex alignment to the nth degree is usually done after potting. Frequently, the potting process will inadvertently misplace several limbs which can then be realigned.

Except for round, square or equiploygonal containers, bonsai are placed off center. Conifers, by tradition, are planted in unglazed containers. Trees for glazed containers should have a dominant color feature which harmonized with the glaze. Oops, I got off the topic!

To make the bonsai design work for us automatically, we must practice ad infinitum! Educational psychology tells us that we retain about 10% of what we hear, 15% of what we see, 25-30% for both and 40% of what we have learned by doing. Take workshops, help others with their trees and give lecture/demonstrations. We remember most what we teach. Grab those new members and TEACH THEM!

"De-Japanising" Bonsai

Fawzan Barrage
former Austin Member

The common bond between all masterpieces of art is sincerity. It is this sincerity that invokes in us a moment of epiphany; that moment of effortless discovery and joy, or what the Japanese call "Te" (unthinking, unconscious ingenuity and creative power of our spontaneous natural functioning - a power that is subdues when forces to conform to our logic). Without this sincerity, creativity is reduced to method, art to duplication and masterpieces to perfect replicas.

If we are to have a truly North American movement in Bonsai, OUR contribution to the art has to be, in every way possible, reflective of OUR reality and OUR understanding of the indigenous nature of OUR continent. Just like it is easy for the trained eye to distinguish between a bonsai trained in the Chinese method and one trained in the Japanese method, our bonsai has to be clearly identifiable by the way we adapt the classical "rules" to conform to our nature.

  It is the image of our indigenous trees that must inspire our art movement and not the photographs of bonsai from Japan. In contemplating Maples, for instance, it is more natural for us to envision a majestic Maple growing next to a farm house in New England than a Japanese grove with Mount Fuji in the background. The same holds true for our Bald Cypress, our Oaks, Elms, Figs, Junipers, Pines, etc...We all live among those trees and their shade at different time in our lives. The Japanese artists who create the bonsai at which we marvel in books and magazines take their inspiration for the indigenous nature of their islands - as we must take our's from the nature around us. I f all we do is copy the trees of Japanese artists, we would do no better than a painter dedicating his art to copying the great works of the Masters.

It is truly revealing how we will not give a second thought to endowing our bonsai displays with Japanese and Chinese figures, but scoff at the sight of a miniature tire hanging from a bonsai branch, reminiscent of many of our own backyards. Which is more sincere to our collective eye? Where in North America can you readily see a Japanese man dressed in his traditional kimono and reading a book in the shade of a Bald Cypress, Canadian Spruce or Cedar Elm?

  We musty begin to understand that the Art of Bonsai is no more exclusively Japanese or Chinese that theater and poetry are exclusively Greek. These cultures created the art forms and should always be honored for doing so. Yet, had we insisted on simply copying the Greek drams without adapting the art form to our own culture, theater would have remained stagnant and eventually disappeared. All of the masterpieces of drama and film - from Shakespeare to Scorsese - would not have come about.

  It is acceptable for a beginner to copy existing works of art in order to learn technique and method. Once we are over that stage however, Nature should be our inspiration instead of pictures in bonsai books and magazines. If you want to create a Cedar Elm bonsai, for example, visit the Hill Country of Texas and look at what Nature has done with those trees in their native setting. Barring an actual visit, have a friend photograph some of them for you. Learn the tree’s growth habits, distinctive looks and study its natural shape. Take notes - all artists do. Armed with that knowledge, let your creative genius take over. The result will be on YOUR sincere interpretation of Nature, OUR bonsai art and, hopefully, our North American Bonsai Masterpiece.

Reprinted from Texas Bonsai, LSBF publication, Summer, 1991


Excerpts taken from Miniature Living Bonsai Landscapes, The Art of Saikei by Herb Gustafson (with his permission)

Saikei literally translates as "planted landscape" or it is the art of the living landscape. A classic form of bonsai, it uses miniature trees, rocks, soil, water, and related vegetation such as ground cover to form replicas of gardens, deserts, landscapes, and other beauties of the natural world, evoking the visual pleasure one finds in nature. Whereas size limitations are not part of the definitions, they are a very real part of the practicality of each art form. A mountain setting, for example, would have very small trees as compared to the rocks. However, being able to move the finished work may preclude trees taller than four inches high!

Whether it's the cool serenity of a hard-to-find cave, the warm, spicy colors of the desert, or the lush, green delights of a forest paradise, anyone can use saikei to capture the beauty and essence of their favorite spot on earth on a small scale. Saikei encourages the use of small, young, and developing trees. Since the youngest plant material is used, saikei is the least expensive bonsai art, and is perfect for beginners, who can construct landscapes in a matter of hours, take them apart, and start over again.

The illusion and scale of the plant is more important than the species itself. Select individual plants for their dwarf characteristics and avoid using fast-growing varieties. Generally speaking, most saikei material needs to be smaller, younger, and more delicately shaped than bonsai material. Sometimes it is helpful to sketch out the rough outline of a design on paper. The drawing should not be a work of art, it should just represent the scale of the rocks, plants, and container fairly accurately; then shop for the appropriate-sized materials. Always consider the weight of your completed planting.

Good miniature landscapes take advantage of the visual phenomenon of perception of depth.. The use of close, middle, and distant focal points adds interest

and personal involvement for the viewer of the planting. Depth may be provided by the most subtle of elements. It might be provided by a curving path going "out of sight", a single distant tree, or a bubbling stream source just out of view. It does not have to be as obvious as a distant snow-capped peak. Just the idea that some of the back trees are hard to see is sometimes all that is needed. It draws viewers into the planting. Viewers will want to move towards the saikei, and adjust their eyes back and forth a bit to see the distant trees in the back of the planting.

Rocks, stones, and gravel can be found in many places. The easiest and most available source tends to be masonry and landscape supple yards. These establishments offer the best source for most miniature landscape enthusiasts - especially for those who do not get out into the country often.

One further element that needs to be considered is the role of color in the concept and perception of depth. Artists have for centuries noticed how objects in the distance appear to be more blue than the same objects nearby. The lush greens of the foreground give way to increasing blue tones.

There are five elements of landscape style: harmony (if one aspect of a work of art "sticks out like a sore thumb," the art is not likely to be in harmony), consistency (agreement of all the parts of a complex thing with itself: same kind of rocks, colors similar, one tree slants - they all slant, etc.), balance (the mental act of comparing or estimating two or more elements against each other), scale (comparative sizes of trees to rocks, trees to moss, rocks to gravel), interest (to gain the attention or excite the viewer).

Remember: An optical illusion is what we are seeking to create.

Bonsai Display Benches

by Kevin Bailey, UK

A good display bench is essential for the outdoor display of bonsai. Once your trees have developed to the stage where you are proud of them, keeping them on a purpose built bench has many advantages.

Among these are:

  • Healthy growth.
  • Regular observation allows evaluation and prevents problems from escalating.
  • Ease of maintenance.
  • Improved ramification through equal amounts of UV radiation.

Before you begin to plan your bonsai bench, make certain that the site is the best one possible. Some of the crucial considerations are:

  • Where would you get the maximum benefit and viewing pleasure from a display of your trees?
  • Which area of the garden is best to view from the house?
  • The site must be suitable for healthy growth of your trees - would it receive sufficient light?
  • Is there enough protection from prevailing winds?
  • Would it be affected by the wind tunnel created between nearby buildings?
  • Is it a low lying frost trap?

Then there is the question of safety - in terms of potential for damage by children (frequent footballs from next door, etc.) pets or pests.

The spot chosen must be convenient for watering and routine maintenance.

Adequate thought must also be given to the security of your treasured possessions.

Once the site is determined, decide which materials you favour for the construction. There are a few different options. Strength, stability and a pleasing form would be your aim. Timber uprights should be minimum of 4" x 4".

The price that you can obtain your materials for is likely to be a factor, so look around carefully for the best supplier.

  • Railway ties can be used for a chunky, solid looking bench, if available.
  • If you want a "smoother" finish you will probably have to buy new timber.
  • The timber should be pressure treated, if possible.
  • Concrete block may not sound attractive, but benches supported on decorative screen blocks or even flue liners can be very successful. The top is usually built with sturdy timbers.
  • Another option is brick or breeze block. The initial outlay will be higher but there is the benefit of longevity. If the foundation is secure, these can be laid dry, i.e. with no mortar, but on a very windy site a mortared structure would be best. If there is no footing, such as a patio slab available, it would be best to dig out a footing trench and lay concrete. Stagger the courses just as a bricklayer would. The top can be of sturdy timber nailed to battens to hold them in position, paving slabs or specially cast concrete tops.
  • Once you have decided on materials, draw up a rough plan. This probably best done as perspective sketch if you can manage it. Keep altering the dimensions until you are happy with the image. When a final idea has been determined, the rough sketch can be translated into an elevation and plan so that timber cutting lists can be made out.
  • If you can learn to use a 3D rendering package on a computer you can generate an animated "walk around" view of the proposed bench from all angles. This helps greatly in determining the optimum timber sizes and highlights construction details that may otherwise not be obvious.
  • To extend the life of your bench it should be treated with a plant friendly preservative every other year.
  • Start with the uprights for one end and keep checking for verticality with a spirit level.
  • Temporary 45 degree stays, nailed to pegs driven in well, will stabilize the structure until everything has been finished.
  • A well proportioned display bench will do far more that just set off your trees. It will give character to the display area, contribute to tree health, and even assist in the development of quality specimens.

Bonsai Tips: Right Idea, Wrong Time

by Zachary Smith

At last count, there were 14,367 errors that can be made in bonsai training - well, that's how many I've made. Seriously, however, my experience in making errors (and seeing the results of others) has led me to conclude that a large portion of training mistakes can be related to poor timing by the artist. Most of us are familiar with the standard development techniques used to create the framework of our bonsai, but all too often we get in a rush to get the tree potted, thereby producing a less-than-exciting work of art.

For example, I have seen, in critique programs, bonsai-in-training in which there was an abrupt change in trunk taper. It was obvious that, during training, the artist removed the tree's leader with the goal of creating a new, tapering apex. This is a great way to improve your stock, a techniques all of us practice routinely. The only pitfall comes when you pot the tree too early. It is important to remember that, on potting, your tree's growth rate slows tremendously. That leader which was thickening nicely and promised to give you marvelous taper, has suddenly stopped thickening. The tree looks peculiar.

The solution to this problem is to back up a step, as much as it bothers you. Put the tree back into the ground or into a larger development pot. This will invigorate it, and your leader's growth rate will pick back up. You must be sure, however, that you restrain side-branch growth, as this will sap energy from your apex. Once this reaches the proper thickness, you can resume side-branch development.

Another problem I see (and have practiced myself) is the development of side-branch girth. In bonsai, a certain amount of mismatched side-branch thickness is all right, but we have all seen trees in which the number one branch (or another low branch) is of minuscule thickness compared to those occurring above it. It may be nicely ramified, which of course is one of your goals, but it looks peculiar. This is because the artist did not allow the branch to thicken sufficiently before reducing its length. Like me in times past, he/she could not bear to let that branch grow so long that it stuck way out and made the developing tree look strange. But you have to. Just as you don't pot a tree whose apex is underdeveloped, you don't ramify a branch which hasn't thickened sufficiently to be believable. Let it look funny for a while - you will be rewarded later.

Reprinted from TEXAS BONSAI (LSBF Publication) Summer 1990
Originally printed in Bonsai Society of Arcadiana newsletter May 1989