Austin Bonsai Society


Water Quality in Bonsai Culture

by Bill Cody

During the lecture/demonstration delivered by Warren Hill this month, he discussed in some detail the problem of leaf burn in Japanese maples. Apparently in California, there is significant problem with an excess of sodium in the irrigation water. Naturally this excess of sodium eventually finds its way to the leaves. On hot, dry, and windy days, transpiration (evaporation) of water is more rapid from the narrow lobes of the leaves than from the broad interior of the leaf. As water leaves the leaf, the concentration of sodium ions in the lobes rises to the point that the cellular structure of the leaf is damaged, resulting in the characteristic browning and curling of the leaf tip.

I'm not sure that Warren has hit upon the real culprit here in Central Texas. My own water has a normal amount of sodium (less than 50 ppm). Normally my magnesium is quite low (8 ppm; normal = 30-50 ppm) and my calcium is okay (44 ppm; normal = 40-75 ppm) but the Ca/Mg ratio, which should be about 2:1, is 5:1. I add Epsom salts by way of my injector to maintain the 2:1 ratio.

Since you will not know what, if any, your water problems are without testing, I am including the address of the TAMU laboratory. My experience has been that the director of this lab has been less than readily available to answer questions about soil/water test results. A PDF sample submittal form may be downloaded at: Your county extension service agent may have forms. URLs for the other labs are included below for your further search for specific lab sampling instructions and mailers.

Texas Agricultural Extension Service Soil and Water Testing Laboratory Texas A & M University College Station, TX 77843 See below. Cost: $20.00 for routine test.

J. R. Peters Laboratory 6656 Grant Way Allentown, PA 18106 1-800-743-4769 Cost: $36.00 each sample.

Servi-Tech Laboratory 1816 E. Wyatt Earp Dodge City, Kansas 67801 1-800-557-7509 620-227-7123 Cost: $46.20 per sample

General instructions for collecting a water sample are below, but check with your lab first:

  1. Test all new sources and retest twice a year.
  2. Flush out all lines for several minutes prior to taking a sample.
  3. Send at least eight ounces of water (one cup).
  4. Use a clean, unbreakable, leak-proof container. Fill completely to the top (no air space) and seal tightly. Plastic soft drink bottles have done the job for me in the past.
  5. Identify each sample clearly using a stick-on label. Some may want a personal ID code.

Usually, the labs will send containers, instructions, and questionnaires, which you enclose with each sample, if you call and ask for them. The prices listed above are as 2/24/03, but it is best to call first.


Jack E. Billet

This type of tree is more of a feeling than a style. Most of the other styles, or even no style at all, can be used for Bunjin. It often deviates from the accepted guidelines. It must, however, have a sense of bonsai correctness and nature’s logic. It must also have a feeling of elegance and simplicity.


  • Roots: Surface roots are desirable but not as important as in the other styles.
  • Trunk: Usually tall and slender with little or no taper. Can be straight, curved, extremely curved and have dead wood.
  • Bark: Aged flaky appearance is desirable. If it is smooth, it shouldn’t have large scars.
  • Branches: Relatively sparse and few, usually only at the top of the tree. They can cross the trunk and other branches. They may have jin or shari. They usually have a light airy feeling.
  • Apex: Can be living, dead or a strong bend in the trunk.
  • Foliage: Should be very small an sparse or compact and clustered. Conifers are most often the material of choice.
  • Containers: Unglazed, shallow, informal, irregular, round or free formed pots are generally used. Stone slabs are another choice.

Growing Techniques:

  • Light: Full sun helps keep foliage small and compact.
  • Water: Use sparingly to promote minimal growth.
  • Fertilizer: Use only enough to keep tree healthy. Generally low in nitrogen.
  • Container: Keep small to limit growth and encourage small foliage and short internodes.
  • Potting mix: Should be coarse and fast draining.

Reprinted with author’s permission

The Japanese Influence

No style of gardening has generated so much fascinated attention in America as the Japanese, yet to create a truly authentic Japanese garden here is very difficult.

The Japanese garden is an statement of a culture and a landscape far different from ours. It "encompasses all of Nature' and conveys "strong spiritual and philosophical messages", says landscape architect Armistead Browning, Jr. in Japanese Gardens, Handbook 108 of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

This is one of the finest in the Garden's distinguished handbook series. More than a few of the articles delineating the philosophy and design principles are brilliant, and the handbook is highly useful to anyone intending to adopt or adapt the Japanese style.

Knowledge, skill and great patience are needed to find and arrange the rocks which are the main feature of the Japanese garden, and to select and train the trees an shrubs. Mosses , bamboo's and other classical plants must be chosen and placed not only for their beauty but for the emotional responses they evoke. Every element in the Japanese garden has multiple meanings.

As Dr. George S. Avery said ten years ago in his Guest Special Issue on Japanese gardens (Vol. 8 No. 11) gardeners are "discovering in Japanese gardens a dimension new to us that is likely to have a deeper influence on the future of American gardens that we can now foresee". Japanese gardens, even in the less-than-perfect forms and adaptations we can create here, can teach us a new level of appreciation of nature, and impart feelings of peacefulness, strength and enchantment.

The Avant Gardener

Reprinted from Texas Bonsai, Summer, 1986

The Art of Displaying Bonsai

by Cliff Chappell

While doing research for this paper, I was dismayed to fine, again and again, the "Paint-By-Numbers" mentality which seems so prevalent in bonsai. I will be the first to agree that there is an excellent reason behind every one of the things which the Japanese do when displaying bonsai. However, just because I agree with the principles, that does not mean that I agree with the implementations of these principles. The purpose of this paper is to explain some of the principles which need to be considered in the display of a work of art. The interplay of these principles will determine the degree of impact which your bonsai display has upon the viewer. Innovation, when implementing these principles, is to be encouraged. Simply reproducing a display which you have seen in a book, magazine or bonsai show is impossible, unless you are reproducing a reproduction. The display should be thought out to the same degree as the styling of the bonsai itself, and is no less important.

One of the first elements to be considered in the design of a bonsai display is the mood of the tree. The bonsai artist must examine his or her own feelings which are evoked by the tree. The tree will make its personality known by the way it grows and changes throughout the seasons. The tree's mood must be reflected and enhanced by the manner in which it is displayed.

The background to be used in the display is composed of three elements. Color, contrast and texture. All three of these elements are closely interconnected. If you should get one, or even two of these elements correct and fail to do so with the third, the background and the foreground will compete with each other.

All bonsai, regardless of size, should be displayed on some sort of stand, even if the stand is no more than a reed mat. The stand is as important to the bonsai as a frame is to a painting. The purpose of the stand primarily is to raise the bonsai to a proper viewing height and to give the bonsai a feeling of importance. According to tradition, the stand is made of wood, unless the bonsai is to be displayed on slab of rock. If the bonsai is styled formally, then the stand should be one of a formal design. If the bonsai is informal, then the stand should be informal in design, and so on. The stand should never be smaller or of the same size as the pot. Bamboo or reed mats should be used only with smaller and medium sized, delicate bonsai or accents and never with powerful, primary trees. The apex of the bonsai should b e above the center of the stand.

Once the major components have been decided upon, the task of properly accenting the bonsai must be addressed. This can be a complicated task and is of no less importance than any other item composing the display. These accents can be plants, driftwood, carvings, viewing stones or items meant to relate to the bonsai subject. The accent should blend in with, or gently contrast, the mood of the bonsai. The purpose of the accent is subtle and should not be a literal restatement or mirror the mood of the bonsai. Sometimes you might want to utilize a viewing stone so that an impression of the tree's distant surrounding are hinted at. Remember the mood of the tree as this will help you to determining the correct type of stone. If you are a beginner or intermediate bonsaiist, do not be afraid to show a tree which is not yet finished. No tree is ever finished, unless it is ready for the fireplace.

If your tree is not finished , then it is always as some stage of training or the other. I do not mean that you should show a tree which was in a nursery container yesterday, but if your tree has been in training six months, a year or two years, then by all means show it! You can pick out flaws in every tree. My opinion is that not enough "trees-in-training" are available for the public to view at these shows. Let's bring it down to earth and show what these bonsai look like at every stage of development.

Reprinted in part from Texas Bonsai, Summer, 1992

More Art

Lola Curtis

I believer the term art tends to spook most "non-artists". Art is often associated with the eccentric or the wealthy. Actually, if you think about it, we all start out as artists. Have you ever met a child that was totally uninterested in coloring, painting, working with Play-doh, etc. ?I haven't. Unfortunately, most of us give up art and finger paint at about the same time. We cease to make it an everyday part of our lives and it becomes unfamiliar.

 As we become less cozy with art we tend to venerate "artist" and deny our own innate artistic sense. As we are reminded, bonsai IS an art. So how can we rekindle OURSELVES as artists?One way is by spending time with art, become familiar with it again.

 All the visual arts (including bonsai) use proportion, balance, unity and harmony. The more you see these in any art, the more you will recognize them in the other arts. Can this help you design bonsai? You better believe it.

 I was attempting to design my first pine, doing a namby-pamby job, and was told to "draw what I saw in the tree" I did. It clarified by thinking and gave me a goal. I had used one visual art to fine tune another.

 I believe that looking at sketches, paintings and sculpture, in addition to other people's bonsai will help the artistic YOU!

Excerpted from Texas Bonsai, Summer 1992

Editor's Note: Keep this in mind and take the sketching workshop offered at the State Convention in November offered by our own Donna Dobberfuhl.

Bonsai - Psychology of Growing 

by Marty Klajnowski 

Practice psychology on both yourself and your bonsai trees. When you enter your bonsai area, the sight should be a delight to the senses. If you see well-groomed plants grown to perfection, you are more inclined to take good care of them. If you see a mess, it is easy to become discouraged and negative. 

Everyone of us is a goodwill ambassador for bonsai trees and each visitor is a potential convert. Show them clean foliage free of pests, fresh blossoms, clean containers and well trained trees in some semblance of order and you will hear gasps of amazement. Show them untidy branches, a hodge-podge of cuttings, stragglies and growing paraphernalia and the bonsai trees will take a step backward. 

Talk to your plants; you don't have to admit that you do. There will always be the non-believers who will think you are a candidate for the funny farm. Do I personally think plants respond to verbal communication? Of course, I do. Some plants are like some people, with the right direction, they give an outstanding performance. But you do have to admire them, applaud them, tell them they are beautiful and that they can do better if they try. 

You will also need to talk ABOUT your plants. There is a definite psychological advantage in belonging to a bonsai society/group. Just try to talk about your trees with a non-grower. Their eyes will glaze over and roll back in their head. We are surrounded by infidels and so we seek relief by joining horticultural friends in bonsai societies. There, we can find a room full of people who understand essentially how we feel when we get ecstatic over a new specimen or style. 

Keep your bonsai trees "psyched up" and you will have taken the first step toward growing healthy, lovely trees to be enjoyed and shown. Add yours to those on exhibit in local club and LSBF shows for the other club members and the public to view. 

Reprinted from Texas Bonsai, Summer 1991

Bonsai Wire

Wiring is generally part of the bonsai styling process. Here are some frequently asked questions.

What is the actual purpose of wire on a bonsai?

Wire is used to bend and shape trunks and branches into desired positions. Wire alters the original shape of a plant and by so doing creates the appearance of a small tree.

How long should the wire stay on?

Wire is NOT permanent. It is a temporary measure, much like braces on a child's teeth. When the branch (or trunk) holds the shape, the wire is removed The length of time this takes will depend on many factors. What kind of tree is it? How fast does it grow? Is it the growing season? Zone you are in? Wire left on a bonsai will disfigure it.

How can you tell if it's time to remove the wire?

Usually by the time wire has repositioned a branch, the wire is pressing into the bark. You can see it getting tight. Remove the wire at this time, before it cuts in. If the branch returns to its original position, re-wire the branch and start again.

Is there some magic in copper wire?

Copper wire was used originally because the color blended with trees and it was strong enough to bend them into shapes. Today many have switched to copper colored aluminum wire. It can be reused and never needs annealing. Although aluminum is not as strong as copper, a thicker size may be used to do the same job.

Is wire necessary to create a bonsai?

No. Many people use a "clip-and-grow" method. However, it would be difficult to create a well styled bonsai without at lest some wire for refinement.

How do you determine which size wire needed?

Take the end of a length of wire and press it against the branch to be bent. If the wire bends, go to the next size. If the branch bends, that size should work.

Are there substitutes for wiring?

Branches can be tied down with string, sandwiched between wire mesh, have weights hung on them and other seemingly strange techniques. It depends on the stylist and the individual tree.

Reprinted in part from Bonsai Business, December 1995, no longer in publication.

Chlorine, the Little-Known Plant Nutrient

Of course we’re all aware that many things we consume, even pure water, can be toxic when consumed in large enough quantities. We are not going to speak on the health aspects of consuming the small amounts of chlorine salts in our drinking water.

On the other hand, plant cytologists now recognize nine major nutrient elements and eight micronutrients as being necessary for the growth and maturation of all plants. In addition, there are six other minor nutrients that are essential for some plants but apparently aren’t necessary for others.

Of the eight essential micronutrients, the only one needed in greater quantities that chlorine is iron. Boron, cobalt, copper, manganese, molybdenum and zinc are all used in lesser quantities by most plants.

Interestingly enough, the chief source of soilborne chlorine is the salt dust picked up from ocean beaches and carried in the atmosphere until precipitated with rain and snow. An average of about 1/2 pound is dumped on your garden in this manner. That, plus what is added with any mineral fertilizers and city water, provides adequate chlorine for your plants.

Of course, outdoor container plants must depend on city water for most of their chlorine and indoor plants are entirely dependent on this source. So anyone who thinks they’re helping their container plants by eliminating city water and using only filtered or bottled water is sadly mistaken. They’re simply wasting time and money while depriving their plant of this important element.

Editor’s note: As bonsai are container plants, this seemed quite relevant. This was taken, in part, from the Austin Gardener by the Men’s Garden Club of Austin and The Green Thumb, June 1998

Juniper Dieback

Mildred Dil

Browsing thru back issues of the New Orleans Bonsai, under “Quick Snips” is an article on junipers. A member of GNOBS had pinched back his junipers following a particularly heavy lush growth of early Spring. Instead of the remaining foliage recovering with a good growth of new foliage, a very few new shoots were produced and the older growth failed to sprout again, and there was an alarming die-off of branches. The die-back was so severe that, in some instances, it amounted to the loss of a year’s growth. Studying the cause, and many other members of GNOBS shared the problem, the very wet Spring and lack of shade were two things discussed. These are not usual conditions, so when a visiting lecturer came for workshops, the problem was discussed with him. The feeding problem was immediately questioned - in review, an ambitious feeding program was brought to light:  blood and cottonseed meals in cake, fish emulsion in quantity, Osmocote 18-18-19 and, in some cases, chemical liquid fertilizer. The guest speaker immediately identified the problem: too much nitrogen. Blood meal was eliminated from the cake feeding, with less cottonseed and bonemeal used; fish emulsion and Osmocote were eliminated for high heat season.

Reprinted from October, 1986 Bonsai Notebook, Austin

Summering Bonsai In Texas

by Ted Guyge

Texas summers are long, hot and usually dry. This is a combination that is extremely hard on most bonsai. By careful experimentation on summer care, I have come up with a procedure that seems to minimize the problem of high temperature and low humidity.

My bonsai stay in several different situations. Some stay in full sun all the time; some are partially shaded during the day by nearby trees; others are under lath shelter in open shelves and some others are in a shade house protected on the west and north by reed fencing with shade cloth over the top.

Junipers, many large plants, and plants in early stages of training benefit by being in the full sun as this helps to retard their growth. Junipers particularly benefit since they have a tendency to grow wild under more comfortable conditions. Some of the plants in this group do receive some shade parts of the day from nearby trees.

Deciduous trees, trees that are sensitive to hot sun and small trees that would dry out too much, maintain their color better and stay in better health under the lath shelter. Ground cover plants (other than mosses) do well under the lath.

My smaller trees (including mame) and sun tender trees do well in the shade house. The trees are on tiered shelves on concrete blocks. The ground under these benches is always wet and maintains a high humidity around the trees. Moss does very well on trees fact I have to use care that some trees do not stay too wet.  Even my mame which are sitting on a tray of wet Turface rarely need watering more than once a day. I have several desert type trees in my collection and I have found that these do best under these conditions also. In the winter, the shade cloth is removed and the house is covered with plastic to provide necessary winter protection for my more tender plants.

Watering is the most important factor in care of bonsai. Lack of water kills more bonsai than any other thing. I do not made a fetish of watering, however. I water (with a few exceptions) once a day, usually around five o’clock regardless of the sun. The exceptions occur in extremely hot, dry weather when a few trees have a tendency to wilt. I water these twice a day at that time and also spray the foliage on all my trees. My regular watering also includes washing the foliage on all of the trees. When I water, I do not always water every tree every day. By observing the soil I can tell whether the particular tree needs water or not. If I do not think it
needs it, I do not water it that particular day. Junipers are allowed to dry completely if possible, between waterings. Too much water forces too much growth. Overwatering should be avoided on all tree for this reason. By knowing my trees I know how much water should be applied to each tree to insure adequate watering.

I fertilize my trees every month during growing season EXCEPT July and August. Many trees will burn if they are fertilized at this time since fertilizing forces tender new growth.

Insects are very active during this time of the year, but I have learned that spraying must be done at a time when the sun will not be on the leaves wet width insecticide. This means that the spraying must be done in the evening with the humidity low enough to be sure the leaves are dry before the sun gets on them the next morning. (There may be emergency situations when leaf damage would be secondary in which case I would spray immediately.)

The guidelines that I follow in summer car can be summed up as follows:

  1. Know your trees as individuals.
  2. Do not coddle your trees....let them have as much extreme conditions as they will safely take. They are healthier and maintain and/or gain improved stature as bonsai.
  3. Water with extreme care.....neither too much and not too little. If a stranger is caring for your trees for a short time, too much water is better than too little....but only for a brief period of two or three weeks.
  4. Maintain routine training practices consistent with the growth of the tree. Normally summer is a slow growth period and there is not much pruning to be done. Watch wires for they can cut into branches and trunks before you know it.

  These procedures are used with a collection of over one hundred fifty trees......many of them extremely
large. Even in the hottest weather they can be cared for with a minimum time of twenty minutes for watering.  Other procedures can be postponed but not watering.

Reprinted from Texas Bonsai, Fall, 1987