April and Beyond part 1



This blog has been a long time coming I know. But as one of my regular students pointed out to me, one of the problems of starting a blog is that you create a monster. Because people will expect regular posts from you. So I am sorry if I fall short of the mark where blogging is concerned but I have a life! I can really only blog when I have time. With work, family commitments and ill health, it can be difficult to find the time or the inclination. However I have put a few lines together which I hope will be of interest.
As you may recall we have had the very talented and very nice gentleman that is Taiga Urishibata here at the nursery conducting workshops which everyone really enjoyed.

Before Taiga left, after his four days here at the nursery in April, I asked him if he would be back in Europe in 2016. He said he hoped to be back but that it would not be possible to do the one month tours that he had this year and in 2014, and he would be going to fewer places in the future. First it was very tiring being moved from place to place, country to country. (Something I can attest to). And of course a month is a long time. And it is at a time of year when they are busy re potting in the nursery back in Japan, which puts Taiga’s father Nobuichi Urishibata under extra pressure, as obviously they are a man down.

When I asked if he would return, he said “Why do you ask”. I replied “Because I would like to have you back here at the nursery”.

I was pleased that I had been able to get Taiga here to the UK, and that we had been the first to introduce him to the UK bonsai scene. Even though people let me down by booking places and then not attending, his visit had still been a great success as far as the bonsai went.
Well I am pleased to say that despite halving his commitments for travel in Europe, Taiga will be back to do workshops at the nursery in April 2016. I am honoured that Taiga wants to return here for a second time and I look forward to welcoming him again.
Please contact me if you would like to participate in a workshop with Taiga in April next year. There are now only two places available! Price for the day is £150. Bring a packed  lunch, but tea, coffee and biscuits on tap throughout the day. I require 50% non refundable deposit to reserve you place.
After Taiga left to return to Japan, it was back to work in the nursery before yet another trip abroad for myself. I reflected on quite a few of the conversations that I had had with Taiga while I worked on trees in the nursery and his positive words gave me a boost.
And so in the last week of April I flew to George in South Africa to the Kat Rivierre Bonsai Kai Autumn Festival. This was my first time in this part of South Africa, as previously I had been to Jo’Burg and Pretoria and also to Cape Town. I have to say that George really is a beautiful place and not at all like what I expected. It is green, which was very different to the brown dryness of the Jo’Burg area, and the general atmosphere here was nice. More relaxed!

My hosts were Tobie and Sandi Kleynhans. Tobie is the President of the Kat Rivierre Bonsai Kei group, and as I was to find out, they are so lucky to have someone at the helm, who is so experienced, who has drive, and who is so forward thinking. Tobie would be a great asset to any bonsai group anywhere in the world.

Tobie’s wife Sandi met me at George Airport, which is tiny. She was friendly and welcoming and put me at ease after my 25 hour trip. Once we were back at their home, it was a cup of Rooibus tea and a look at Tobie’s trees while I waited for him to finish work at his surgery. By the way, I discovered Rooibus or Redbush tea on my first trip to South Africa 5 years ago. I’m not much of a coffee drinker, tea is my bag (pardon the pun)! However I find when I travel abroad, if you want tea it is usually this one certain brand, which I think everyone believes we English folk drink. So when faced with the prospect of a cup of “English tea”, (think a bale of damp straw), or trying Rooibus tea, I opted to try the Rooibus and I have been drinking it ever since.

Anyway I digress.

Tobie’s trees were a revelation. First of all, many were huge, he had hundreds of trees in his garden but the quality was superb. Definitely the best I have ever seen in South Africa in quality and quantity. I was really very pleasantly surprised. Tobie has been doing bonsai twice as long as I have, but that does not necessarily guarantee good trees.  But in Tobie’s case it did. His trees reflected his skill and knowledge over many years. Some people can do bonsai for 30 years and some can do year one, thirty times! A big difference, which I hope you can understand. Toby is a doctor, and those skills needed to succeed as a doctor he has applied to bonsai. He is dedicated, focused and has great vision.

This is a Bougainvillea in Tobie’s front garden, that greeted me as I stepped out of the car on my arrival. Note my iPhone in front left of the pot. As it later transpired as I visited other hobbyists, this was probably the equivalent of a South African Shohin!!

Just kidding, but you get the idea. They have BIG trees! In fact when I hear Tobie’s name, my back aches!

Here are some more of Tobie’s trees.

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My first day in George was a rest day, and I spent the day in the pleasant company of Lampie Schoeman and his wife, site seeing and looking at some of the local trees.

Lampie like Tobie, also had hundreds of trees,and it was a privilege to be able to look around his collection. Lampie’s trees were all collected yamadori which he had brought with him when he moved down from the dry north to settle in a small town just outside of George. Some of his trees were huge, and so along with Tobie’s trees. A pattern seemed to be emerging, which as it later transpired, is common practice in these parts. What was really interesting for me is that Lampie has a passion for Baobab trees and he grows them really well. I mean really well! For decades he has collected and grown bonsai in isolation, with no help from anyone. He has through trial and error, found out how the species he keeps tick. He is a lateral thinker with skill and knowledge that you cannot find anywhere in books. Since moving down to the George area he has joined the Kat Rivierre Kei, which can only be good for his bonsai growing. But I also feel he is a great asset to the group because of the knowledge that he has accumulated over many years which he can share. He is an asset, for his knowledge of Baobab as bonsai alone! Never mind the other knowledge he has accumulated. I hope other members of the group realise this and access what he has to contribute.

Unfortunately, I did not take any photos while I was at his garden, which I now regret. But I had no idea of what was planned for the day and where I would be going.

My day sight seeing flew by.

Some of the big trees in nature were amazing, and it was nice to see some of the local bush. I love nature and so I was in my element. The coastline was dramatic, and the sea was impressive, and always in the back of my mind was the John Williams theme tune to the film “Jaws”.

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I must extend a big thank you to Lampie and his wife for entertaining a stranger from the UK, for making me feel very welcome and for showing me a good time. You really do meet some special people through bonsai.

The next day I was in concert!
It was Tobie’s idea for this conference, for everything to be informal and relaxed. I had a “largish” Procumbens Juniper to style for my demo tree, but mainly I was there to impart information. Tobie had put a schedule together highlighting areas he wanted me to cover, but which I could go through in any order that I wanted which meant that the format was flexible. It was designed so that attendees got the maximum information out of the two day conference as possible. It was about education and learning and sharing, and not so much about entertaining. Although I hope I managed to do that too.

How things progressed was that I worked for a few hours on the juniper, and then moved on to cover a different topic, and then back for more work on the juniper. This kept the program flowing and people hopefully did not get too bored with the demo. I was “wired up” for the whole of the convention so that everyone could here me and I had a young guy called Neil, on my shoulder with a video camera relaying everything in real time onto a big screen for the audience. He was doing such a great job that I just had to christen him “Spielberg” for the duration of the conference! So, a big thanks to Mr Spielberg for all his input in helping to make the convention flow.
There was a small display of trees present for the gathering, and the standard was excellent. I have to say that I was very impressed with the standard of the bonsai in George full stop!

Here are a few images of some trees in the exhibition.

One of my favourites. A Hluhluwe Creeper or Thorny Rope - Dalbergia armata.

One of my favourites. A Hluhluwe Creeper or Thorny Rope – Dalbergia armata.

False Olive - Buddleja saligna

False Olive – Buddleja saligna

Monkey Thorn - Acacia sieberiana

Monkey Thorn – Acacia sieberiana

 Chinese Banyan Tree - Ficus microcarpa

Chinese Banyan Tree – Ficus microcarpa

On the first evening there was a braai (barbecue) at the home of a larger than life character who proclaimed to be the world champion of the braai (barbecue). Earl (my name is Earl) Glynn Knox Jeffery’s is a force of nature, an in your face guy with a great sense of humour. Again the hospitality and welcome extended to me was amazing. This guy claimed he was only a novice bonsai grower, and yet he had literally hundreds of trees in his garden. There was no doubting his passion, that’s for sure. I can imagine returning to George in the future and Earl will have at least a thousand trees!

Without exception everyone I met was open to new ideas and concepts and wanted to learn. In fact I would say they were very keen to progress.

If I took anything away from this trip, it was the camaraderie. Everyone got on together. Information was willingly shared. There was no back biting or withholding of information unlike in the UK. Everyone just loved sharing their passion and simply wanted to go forward. A simple lesson to be learned!

As you can imagine, most of the trees these guys work with are South African species and most of them are yamadori. They have wonderful interesting species to work with, but a lot are only for masochists, as many of the species there, boast incredible thorns. One species I was familiar with is the Olive, and everywhere I went, these guys had wonderful collected Olives in various stages of training. The trunks shapes and forms were as good as anything you would find in say, Spain.

One of the great things about traveling is to see and experience the different growing conditions that other bonsai growers have to deal with whether good or difficult. George is like UK climate but when it’s warm there it’s warmer as you would imagine. However it is not dry like in Jo’burg. So trees grow really well here and much faster than the UK. Hence it is possible to develop trees faster, which sometimes you can’t help but envy.

I would loved to have spent more time in George with the bonsai people there, and also have time to try to document the species that these guys are working very successfully with. Maybe I will get another chance in the future if I am invited back.

I should mention that they also had some more familiar species. Obviously my demo tree, a Procumbens Juniper. But Tobie also had Hawthorn (Crataegus sp) and Field Maple (Acer campestre), English Yew and even Trident Maple Acer buergerianum. Pines were the one group of trees that they were struggling with a little due to the requirements of the species and their growing conditions. But I am sure with their dedication they will resolve this in the near future. These South Africans like a challenge!

Here are some more images of Tobie’s trees.

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From talking with several of the attendees at the conference, and after talking at length with Tobie, there are many with thoughts on how to develop bonsai in South Africa and on how bonsai can or may evolve in the future. Toby certainly feels that evolution is the way forward, and I agree! We had an interesting discussion on what form the future of bonsai could take. Tobie turned his attention to some photo’s I had shown to him of the Caledonia Scots Pines in Scotland. He thought this could be a possible evolution, making more tree like images and moving away from the more stylized images currently the norm. (Look out for the White Pine in part 2 ).
With someone so experienced, focused and committed like Toby at the helm, along with his vision. South African bonsai is in good hands.

After my stint at the Autumn Festival, Tobie and his lovely wife Sandi both kindly took me site seeing in the mountains and in the evening they treated me to a game drive. Please enjoy these images.

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If you get the chance, visit South Africa, DO! You will not regret it. Beautiful country, lovely people, you might get to see some nice bonsai. Oh and of course they have Earl, the World champion of the braii !
Back in the UK it was back into workshops and styling trees in the nursery.

This Han Kengai (semi cascade) juniper is one of the trees that I styled up before flying out to Australia. It was exhibited recently at “Bonsai Europa” in Bury, an event organised by Tony Tickle in October. (more on that later).

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My trip to Australia was exhausting. Gees it’s a long way. But it ranks as one of my most enjoyable engagements ever.

I was met at the airport by an old Midland Bonsai Society stalwart, Tony Allan and his wife Carol from the UK. Tony and Carol had kindly offered to host me and take me site seeing during my stay in Sydney. It is amazing that I have known Tony many years, but we have never been what you would call close. And yet, after travelling to the other side of the world and spending a week with him I made a new friend, no correction! I made two new friends, Carol was lovely!. It was uncanny how much we have in common, from bonsai, to a love of keeping reptiles to cooking, to walking in the countryside. You could not wish for better hosts, and I only wish I could have spent more time in their company, and exploring Australia with them. Waking up in the morning and going out onto the balcony to feed Rainbow Lorikeets by hand, is a great way to start the day. Especially for a bird lover like myself.

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I was invited to the Topps Convention held at the Topps Convention centre, within the national park outside Sydney, which is an annual event bringing together the clubs in NSW, and hosted by the Illawara Bonsai Society.

As a venue it was very different. It was situated out in the bush within the national park, with wildlife all around the complex. People stayed in little chalets within the complex, and all meals were taken together in the centre. For me, the informality and “togetherness” worked really well. The format here as it had been in George, South Africa was informal. In fact it was very relaxed and enjoyable. On the arrival day, there were welcome drinks in the evening and then Australia’s top guy Linsey Bebb accompanied by his wife Glenis, did a demo and repot on a slender tall juniper belonging to one of the attendees. Linsey is an old hand on the international demo scene and he has travelled the world teaching and demonstrating bonsai. (And also collecting suiseki, as he is a massive suiseki fanatic). As you would imagine from someone so experienced, the demo flowed and the banter with the audience was great. The Ozzie banter and humour is something else. You just have to experience it. When Linsey and I met up pre convention his greeting was “ow are ya short arse” ?  I wouldn’t have expected anything less.

Here are some images from Linsey’s demo.

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The following two days for Linsey and myself, was leading workshops during the day, for those people who had paid for workshops. People brought along trees to work on under the guidance of both of us. Linsey worked in one room, and myself working in another.


While all of this was going on, other people who did not want to pay to participate in the workshops worked on trees together outside sharing their experiences. So therefore there was still bonsai activity going on as well as the organised workshops. Others participated in daiza carving for suiseki. And there was a nice guy there (whose name I completely forgot) who sharpened people’s tools, and he was busy for the two days non stop. Sterling work!

There were things going on throughout the convention over the two days so people could not get bored. It was a successful format, which they have used for many years. Not everything had to be paid for and this encouraged participation. From within the societies attending, there were members selling their wares, including two ladies who were very accomplished potters. A big thank you to Janet Selby for the beautiful pot she presented me with.
It was obvious to see that within the NSW area of Australia, there was a lot of talent on tap for the benefit of the members e.g. Potters, daiza carvers, stand makers, etc, which can only be good for Australian bonsai in general. The whole event was very relaxed and catered for everyone. Brenda Parker who is the president of the host society, the Illawara Bonsai Society, worked so hard over the three days to make the event flow, to make sure that everyone had a good time and to make the event a success. She is the heart of not only Illawara bonsai but the Tops event too. She is simply priceless! And yes, she possesses that great Ozzy humour.
As in South Africa, indigenous trees proliferated in Australia. This is always good to see when you visit another country. I personally feel that people should embrace and work with their native species. And so although we think of species like Mountain Maple, White Pine, Black Pine, Chinese Juniper etc, as the classic species of Japanese bonsai. There is no reason why we should only work with these species. Or in fact why we should work with them at all. Nothing grows better in OUR conditions than our own native species. And likewise some times the Japanese trees don’t always suit our climate. Personally I like a mix! A blend of Classical Japanese bonsai species and European yamadori.

Ficus and native gum trees were popular, and after talking with some of the enthusiasts attending, it was both interesting and amazing to hear how fast the trees grow, and how much growth they can put on in a year. I am never in a rush to develop my trees, bonsai is about time and patience, but sometimes when you see what can be achieved in a season, you can’t help but be a little envious. There is certainly no way we could get anywhere near the growth achieved in Australia, here in the UK.

A talented bonsai grower Chris Di Nola brought along trees he had grown from cuttings in maybe 6-8 years, which were superb material. Here is Chris with a field grown Quercus suber.

Although when I attend different events around the world I am the ‘expert’, I do get to see the challenges facing bonsai growers with different growing conditions around the globe, which is both fascinating and educational.

On the Saturday evening I gave a quick demo on a Procumbens Juniper. Both Linsey and myself only had a few hours for our demos. For my demo I concentrated on getting the branch structure and style of the tree set in this first work, and to answer questions and generally share knowledge. The audience, as I had hoped were great, and there were lots of questions and some great banter coming from the floor and the evening just flew by.
When Sunday afternoon came, I was quite sad it was all over.

After the event I was in concert at a local bonsai nursery, Bonsai South, owned and operated by Hoy Leong Kwong. The material there was superb, and I kid you not. Most of it was field grown over many years. It was a revelation to see so much good material available and at stupidly cheap prices too. Leong’s material was some of the best field grown material I have ever seen and a credit to his vision and investment over time. It was sad to hear that people do not recognize and appreciate the quality material that Leong has generated.

Here I am with Tony Allan, and some of Leong’s field grown Procumbens Junipers.

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The event was a great success, I had had a really great time there, and been made to feel so welcome yet again. When you think of how the Australians are when we play them at sport like rugby or cricket (getting our arse’s kicked) we could be forgiven for thinking that you might get a hard time there. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are wonderful people, and if I never get the chance to go back to Australia, I will treasure the memories I have brought away with me from this event.

I must thank Brenda Parker for inviting me to the “Topps” convention and for being a very special lady.

After the Topps event ended, I was collected by Tony and Carol and we did some site seeing on the way back to their home in Sydney.

Here are just a few images to give you a feel of the trip.

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To Tony and Carol Allan, a massive thank you for hosting me, keeping me fed and watered and for taking me to some really great places.

Australia rocks!