April and beyond part 2

In October I had a visitor over from the States for two weeks. LeAnn Duling is President of the Potomac Bonsai Association. She works at a Bonsai/ garden design nursery during the week days but still finds time to put in a day or two’s work at the National Arboretum in Washington DC under the watchful eye of curator Jack Sustic, who is a super nice guy. LeAnn’s visit coincided with the “Bonsai Europa” event being held in Bury. An event, organised by Tony Tickle. Originally LeAnn was coming to study in February to coincide with a trip to the Noelanders Trophy which had been scheduled for February and not its usual January slot, but this had to be postponed due to my being ill. We took two trees up to the Bury event and LeAnn prepared both of the trees for the exhibition i.e. Pot, moss, trunks and deadwood. She made a wonderful job of presenting both trees.

Here is the cascade juniper as prepped for exhibition. You can see that with the last flush of growth in September it has filled in a little since the initial styling a few months before. (See last blog images).


Set up for the exhibitors and traders was on the Friday and the doors were open to the public Saturday and Sunday. Because LeAnn was over to get more experience, we only attended on the Sunday, which tied in with bringing the trees home after the event finished. It was interesting to see traders there, who I had not seen before. It was also nice to see trees in the exhibition that were not what you would call “old regulars”. As nice as a tree might be, it can get a bit tedious seeing the same old trees around the country year in and year out exhibited by the same folks. There were demonstrations on both days and over all I think the event was a success. So a well done to Tony for staging the event, and lets hope there is another.

(It has just been announced Bonsai Europa 2, will go ahead in 2017).

It is not easy to organise an event like this. And currently, the U.K. is short of topnotch events. That gives me an idea…….!

Check this link to see a gallery of the exhibition.

While she was over here, I took LeAnn down to Bristol to meet the “Boss”, Dan Barton. She was like a kid in a sweet shop looking over Dan’s pots, and of course she came away with a few pots too! But then so did I. It is fatal to visit Dan and Ci, when the kiln has just been emptied. We had a lovely meal with Dan and Ci and Jenny their Grand Daughter, and we left with lots to talk about. LeAnn also came away with a few gifts too. Thanks Dan and Ci for a lovely day!

That month I took delivery of some new bronzes that we can offer for sale. They would be ideal for displaying with small and mid size bonsai. Please follow the link here to see them.

These are a new Robin, a Wren and a Kingfisher and I was planning to be taking some of these with me in January to have for sale at the Noelander’s Trophy (See images below), but unfortunately due to ill health. I had to cancel. But check out the website as there are nearly 40 new limited edition bronzes as well as the ever popular miniatures.

Small Wren

Small Wren

Small Robin

Small Robin

Kingfisher on Bulrush

Kingfisher on Bulrush

I managed to steal some time to style up another tree in the nursery. It was an old Scottish Scots Pine that has been in the nursery for a couple of years now and one, which has not attracted much attention from visitors. I should add here that it’s no fault of the tree! It was a tree I took in part exchange for a bigger Scots Pine thinking it would fly out of the nursery. How wrong was I. So after watching Gok Wan on the TV the night before, I thought it was time it had a makeover.

Here is a before and after of the pine.

spbThis is the tree after the first branch placement.


This tree will be ready for exhibition in two growing seasons and by that time it will be ready to be moved into a better, proportioned pot. The current one is far too deep and both physically and visually heavy and does nothing for the elegance of the tree.

After the Scots styling there followed a big old grafted White Pine for a client. This pine is well known to me, having come through the nursery 8 or so years ago. I took the tree in part ex for a more expensive tree in the nursery and later sold it to a guy who at the time attended my bonsai academy. He wasn’t a big guy and found the tree too big to move. He later sold it to a lady who also attended the academy. It proved too big for her too in the end and so I took the tree back and it passed on to its current owner.

I followed the pine up, with an elegant Kishu Juniper, which had been in the nursery two years or more. My student Matt prepared the foliage and wired the tree up ready for me to do the branch placement.

This is the image after the first styling.


And before you all email me, yes I know the pot is not right for this tree. I think this may go into a Dan Barton primitive pot in the future.

We can now offer all our customers a great new quality product. We have one of the first off the production line from last year, here at the nursery, and since then, they have been improved by the addition of a model that offers more height. Please take time to read the flyer here;


For the first week of December we had Bjorn Bjorholm here at the nursery to conduct some workshops and we were proud to have been the first to introduce Bjorn to the UK bonsai scene. It was a great way to finish the end of the year and I think for some of the people who attended, Christmas came early.

Pictures speak louder than words they say, so here are just a few snapshots from the workshops in no particular order.


Bjorn and Dave Harrison discussing the possibilities of Dave’s yamadori Scots Pine. This was not an ‘obvious’ tree to style which got Bjorn thinking, but more importantly it allowed Dave to see how Bjorn’s thought processes worked when tackling the tree.


A few hours later and with a few branches on the studio floor. Dave’s Scots, starts to take shape.


And the final image………..For now!

Step one complete.

bb4Working along side Dave Harrison, was another one of my regulars, Carole Gregory. She also worked on a yamadori Scots Pine. Here she is listening intently to Bjorn’s ideas for the future of the tree.


After applying some raffia to the main branch, and a few hours spent wiring. A nice first image emerges.

One of the problems with workshops, is that some times someone will either turn up with a sick tree and expect it to be worked on, or else they turn up with a tree too big or too complex to style within the time limits imposed by the workshop situation. (We never work sick or weak trees at Steve Tolley bonsai).

Before people attend a workshop, they need to take a step back and be honest with themselves and recognize how fast they themselves work, and then remember that they are not the only one attending the workshop. If it is a group workshop there are others who also need the attention of the master, and dependent on the material and/or the experience of the other person, they may need just that little bit more help than you. Or if they are more experienced, they may not need as much attention from the master as you.


Here Phil Holroyd and Bjorn assess Phil’s yamadori Sabina Juniper.

This tree was originally a twin trunk. When Phil purchased it from me, it looked like two junipers growing together, but due to their trunk lines, not complementing each other. Phil asked if we could look at repotting and splitting the two junipers if the roots would permit i.e. if the roots were not too interconnected and compact. And so one evening at the academy, we decided to have a look at the two junipers. When taken out of the pot, it turned out that in fact it was a single tree but a twin trunk, and not two trees.

It was like a horseshoe, with roots along the bottom of the curve. One side was had more root development than the other. But I was confident that there was enough root to supply both sides if we cut the tree into two. So that is exactly what I did. And Phil ended up with two nice junipers. (Some of the guys at the academy joked that I should have charged him more as it was now two trees and not on tree).


And this is ‘The Twin’ juniper after the first styling. This tree is now in danger of turning into a good bonsai lol!

And yet another nice image from Bjorn.

There were quite a few Scots Pines present at Bjorn’s workshops, which was nice, as Bjorn loves Pinus sylvestris.

Here are two Scots that were worked on at the workshops.


bb9Andy Dolman here watching Bjorn working his magic on his pine.

It was great to see this pine being given a new lease of life. It has passed through several pairs of hands in the past. And every time, the number of live branches has diminished. So I was pleased when Andy, who is one of my regular’s decided to take the tree on. This tree now has a great future and under Andy’s care, will flourish.

Here Rod White is discussing plans for the future image of his tree with Bjorn.


This compact little pine will be a sweet little tree in the future. Bjorn got a nice first image out of the tree during this first styling.  And under Rods care, the tree should go from strength to strength. You may recognize Rod from the Taiga Urishibata workshop images. Rod is also one of my regulars at the academy, attending twice a month.

bb11And the finished image after the first styling!


Warren Radford worked like a Trojan to get the wiring done on this Itoigawa Juniper. And all the hard work paid off, as it produced one of the best results from the workshops as far as polished images go. There was quite a bit of detailed wiring needed on this juniper, and well done to Warren for sticking with it.


And the finished image. This tree could possibly be ready for exhibition after one growing season if handled correctly.

Despite administering general anaesthetic, we could not remove the hat.


This is Gavin Allan working on a Taxus cuspidata – Japanese Yew that he bought from me many years ago that came from Hokkaido.

The tree was styled and carved by myself and at that time, had a great future. But after a few years, for whatever reason, the tree became weak and went down hill to the point where it looked as if Gavin would lose the tree. Credit to Gavin though, because he did not give up on the tree, and after a long struggle, he managed to pull the tree around. It was then the tree was christened “Lazarus”, as in ‘risen from the dead’.

Again a tree gets a second chance.


“Everyone has a tree that would be the very last one they would ever sell or part with. Mine is my deadwood Taxus Cuspidata “Lazarus”, for those that know me, you will know that I have been on a roller coaster ride with Lazarus since he mysteriously started doing the Dying Swan on me in spring 2009. Steve had said to me many times over the years that I was one of only a handful of people that would have stuck with the tree and waited for him to come back from as good as dead, hence the Taxus was named Lazarus.

Thankfully after 6 years of nursing and TLC, he was well enough to have some work put into him. Enter Bjorn Bjorholm. He took one look at the tree and was just full of positivity about the tree’s future, as he was with everyone’s trees, he doesn’t seem to have a negative thought in his whole body. I set to wiring and making jin, as per Bjorn’s instruction, then every half hour or so he would come and sit with me, helping to wire, setting branches, making observations/suggestions about the tree’s potential. All the while, returning to the key factor of the tree being healthy and sustainable as a Bonsai. You can’t help but be inspired by someone who conducts themselve’s in such a positive manner. Everything you’re told is relevant, no mumbo-jumbo, it’s all stuff you can use at home on the rest of your trees. What more can you ask for?

As the day progressed, parts of the tree were set in place, then the following morning after the final bit of wiring, Bjorn finished styling the tree. Well, after he had finished producing the most beautiful image in Lazarus. I just sat there speechless. It was stunning!

I genuinely did not know what to say, “thanks Bjorn” just didn’t seem enough somehow. Bjorn was very matter of fact about it, very modestly accepting the praise being heaped upon him by everyone in the room.

What a privilege to sit and watch Bjorn working on other people’s trees, let alone to work alongside him on your own tree. Bjorn has creation in him in abundance and an eye for detail that I have never seen before, all this from an unassuming, modest man with good manners and who is without doubt very much a people person as much as a Bonsai person.    

I sincerely hope he comes back to Steve’s in the future. We had a brilliant couple of days. I, for one will be among the first to put my name down for another session with Bjorn”.  Gavin Allen.

And finally I will finish on this White Pine that I had recently sold to a client who asked for Bjorn to style it for him.

The pictures are enough.bb16bb17

Over the course of the last day, Bjorn got a really nice first image out of my clients White Pine. Now all it needs is a descent pot. But there is plenty of time for that.

So 2015 started off with Taiga Urishibata in April, and ended with Bjorn Bjorholm in December. Two, very different styles, but both excellent artists. My decision to ask these two young guys to kick off our “Joy Through Bonsai” programme was the right one. And it will continue as we bring you the best talent to further your learning experience! I am pleased to say that both Taiga and Bjorn will be back in 2016. Taiga will be here again on 6th & 7th April this year, and Bjorn should be back in October (dates to be finalized).

If you have not subscribed to my Newsletter, but wish to know more about our “Joy Through Bonsai” programme. Or you would like to reserve a place with Bjorn or Taiga, or with one of the new artists/teachers we have lined up. Give me a call or drop me an email.

Don’t forget to check out the new bronzes on the website, as Matt has been busy updating that page.

Please check out this link, to watch a beautiful documentary on suiseki. Even if you are not into suiseki, it is worth watching. ENJOY!

Congratulations to Warren Radford for placing joint first at the Noelanders Trophy last weekend with a superb Mountain Maple – Acer palmatum from FujiKawa Kouka En nursery, planted in a lovely pot supplied by Bjorn.

Bjorn carried the pot as hand luggage from Japan to my place to give to Warren at the workshops.

Well done again!

Footnote – Apparently Warren did not where his cap to the gala dinner in Belgium!

Just before Christmas, I got the chance to style a tree in the nursery.

You may remember this from the last blog:

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 ).

spSo these were some of the images I had shown Tobie on my iPad.


These Caledonian Scots Pines, bear no resemblance, to the very stylized pine images we see as bonsai.

You may remember from a blog post back in 2014 that I visited several areas in Scotland where there were still remnants of the old Caledonia forest. And how emotional and inspirational it was to see these true native pines.

Well I took the decision to try to create a more ‘real’ tree image when I had the chance. The chance came in the form of a Japanese White Pine var. Zuisho.

So, a Scottish image using a Japanese tree. And why not!

I might christen this one “ Mac Ninja”.


And here is the White Pine after the first styling. But did I capture the essence of a ‘real’ pine. Can you visualize this lone pine in a glen somewhere? This photo was hurried. (The tree needs inclining left a fraction more as per the two markers, which are not vertical. But you can see where I’m going).

And to end this post, and to brighten up these wet grey days we are experiencing. Here is some colour, courtesy of a friend and great South African bonsai grower, Tobie Kleynhans.




Something that may interest some other clubs around the UK, is an initiative taken by the North Staffs and Stoke Bonsai Society. Read on!

North Staffs & Stoke

North Staffs & Stoke Bonsai Group are delighted to announce that during 2016 Steve Tolley has agreed to act as their profes- sional coach, teacher and mentor. This will see him delivering 5 teaching sessions this year at the club as part of an ambitious improvement programme. The intention is that at the end of the year these arrangements will be reviewed, and we hope that it will be continued into 2017.

Steve Tolley is internationally recognised for his skill as both an artist and teacher, having received awards and recognition in the U.K. at national exhibitions and in Europe at the prestigious Ginkgo Award in Belgium and the Noelanders Trophy.

Nigel Manning, from the club said, “We’re absolutely delighted that Steve has agreed to work with us, possibly over the next two years, to help us move forwards and develop our members and of course our trees. Our club was almost on its knees just over a year ago, but we have seen membership increase significantly and there is a real buzz about the place again. We’re confident that engaging Steve to deliver a thoughtful and evolving programme of sessions for our members and club will be a ‘step change’ for us and we’re incredibly excited by the opportunities that this will bring.”

Steve Tolley also added, “It’s really positive news and I’m looking forward to working with the members of the group this coming year and hopefully beyond. It’s refreshing as a professional bonsai artist to have the opportunity to work with a club on a really strong programme across one or two years, rather than the single session format that can sometimes be limiting. This is great news for the club, for me, and also I think for our broader bonsai community as this could signal a change in approach “ .