Recently I paid a visit to April Grigsby’s (of April Grigsby Ceramics) pottery studio to learn about making bonsai pots and try my hand at making one of my own.
April has been working with clay since she was 6-years-old and majored in Ceramics at the Columbus College of Art & design. One of her pots even took second place at the 2nd National Juried Bonsai Pot Competition. She took a break from ceramics soon after that but eventually found her way back and now combines her lifetime of ceramics experience with her love of bonsai (she’s a former president of a Florida bonsai club) to create beautiful and functional pots which are especially suited to bonsai hobbyists and professionals alike.
We started the tour at the end of the pot-making process as I got to see her newest appliance, a high-tech electric kiln.
This kiln is large enough for pots a little over 20 inches and the firing schedule is all digitally controlled. This level of control allows for precise timing of each stage of the firing (temperature and length) so that moisture can be slowly driven out of the clay before the intense heat hits, reducing the chance for breakage. This particular kiln has heating elements on the sides and bottom to keep the heat consistent within the appliance.
She also has an older propane kiln but that one is on wheels and has to be wheeled outside for proper ventilation, which requires a close eye on the weather to avoid rain or snow!
April is able to use “furniture” to build custom-sized shelves within the kiln so it can be efficiently packed full of pots. A given firing can be in excess of 16 hours so it is important to get the most use out of every inch of space. Firing is often done in two stages, with the first firing (bisque firing) turning the clay into ceramic. If the pot is to be glazed, it is then cooled down, the glaze is applied, and the pot undergoes a second firing to melt the glaze onto the pot.
While the digital controls are very accurate, April still prefers to verify with pyrometric cones, aka “witness cones,” which are designed to melt at a specific temperature so that when the firing is done she has an indication that the proper temperature and length of time was reached. They also serve as an early warning if the temperature settings need to be adjusted for future firings.
One thing that is important for bonsai pots in particular is that they are vitrified, or heated to a state where the clay is nearly converted to glass so that there is very little moisture remaining in the finished product. Any superfluous moisture could crack under freezing conditions. In addition, April uses clay that has very low porosity so that water isn’t absorbed back into the finished pot which could later freeze and crack. Finally, she is careful in her designs so that most of her pots do not have an inward-turned lip. As the root ball of a bonsai freezes it expands and lifts up in the pot. A pot with an inward-turned lip can prevent the root ball from rising and crack the pot.
The tour continued into the studio where April showed me her two potters wheels used for “throwing clay”. In the picture on the right, the nearest wheel is her newer one while the smaller one closer to the wall she has had for decades. She frequently uses the smaller more familiar one for trimming and finishing a pot. An added benefit is that she’s able to save time by not needing to clean out the “splash pan” every time she starts to throw since the trimming process doesn’t require the wheel to be spinning at a high rate. The scraps also have more time to dry. This makes recycling easier because dry clay “slakes” (disintigrates) down more quickly when added to water.
Because it is spinning, pots made on the wheels are round, or nearly round. However, after being thrown the pot can be re-worked to oval, square, rounded-square, or other shapes. This necessitates that the bottom of the pot be cut off so that the sides of the pot can be re-shaped, since the bottom of the pot cannot change shape. More on that in a minute.
If she’s building a pot with clay slabs, she will use her rolling table to flatten the clay, which typically comes in 25lb blocks. Once the clay is flatted the slabs can be used to build a pot, become a pot bottom, or can be pressed and shaped over a mold to make intricate pot shapes. For pot bottoms, the bottomless pot is placed on an appropriately sized slab and the inside of the pot is traced into the slab. Marks are made on the slab and the pot to line it up and then the slap is cut, scored, and pressed into place. Slabs for pot bottoms are rolled out immediately after the pot is formed so that the clay for both parts dry at the same rate. If their moisture content isn’t similar then assembly may be impossible.
Pots can also be made by rolling clay into a coil and slowly building up the shape of the pot, or by making a “pinch-pot” where a ball of clay is worked by hand into shape.
April has a myriad of tools, molds, pattern stamps, etc. While she does occasionally buy commercial glazes she prefers to make her own and has a shelf full of the powdered ingredients she mixes according to precise recipes. For the pots that are getting a glaze, she can dip, paint it on, or use her custom spray booth.
A pinch-pot is what I made as part of my visit. You can see the pictures of the finished product below. Not perfect, for sure, but not too shabby for my first bonsai pot! Though, I did have in mind this pot being for a kusomono (grass & flower planting).
I started with a small ball of clay and slowly pinched the center of it down and away to make the bowl shape. This was refined by setting it on a small non-powered turn-table to allow for more easily shaping and smoothing the clay with my fingers, scraping tools, and sponges. The thickness of the walls and bottom can be tested with a small needle tool inserted into the clay. When I had the desired size and shape, April helped me to level the sides and punch drain holes. I opted for two fairly large drain holes and since it was for a kusomono planting I did not add wire holes to the pot. After that, April showed me how to make rolls of clay into feet and attach them to the pot by scoring the clay and applying water before pressing firmly into place. Finally, I signed and dated the pot. It will take several days to dry and will then be fired. I decided not to glaze this pot so it will be the natural color of the clay.
Overall it was a fun and educational trip. April is a master of her craft and her pots are in high demand and I enjoyed seeing the process of making pots. I also came away with a greater appreciation for the amount of work that goes into making every pot.
Air layering is a propagation method dating back over 2,000 years! Layering is often done when a portion of a branch or a trunk is desirable for bonsai but the rest of the plant may not be.
Layering shares some things in common with rooting cuttings but had a more complicated process. One advantage it has over a cutting, though, is that it continues to be supported by the parent plant while new roots are being created. This not only allows for a larger stem to be used but also gives the opportunity to “try again” if the first attempt doesn’t work (unless the layer is below the first branch).
There are primarily two types of layering: simple layering (also known as ground layering) and air layering.
With simple layering, a stem or branch is bent down and staked or partially buried. It can naturally occur when a branch touches the ground for a long period of time and can also be the result of excessive mulching. Once sufficient roots have formed, the stem or branch is separated from the parent plant.
For air layering, the stem (trunk) or branch is wounded and then protected from dying out so that new roots can form. Like a simple layer, once there are sufficient roots to support the new plant then it is separated. Layers generally take around 90 days but can take several years with some slow-to-root species.
One method of performing an air layer is known as the slit method.A long slit is made in the branch or stem and wedged open. It is then usually wrapped in sphagnum moss and plastic to keep it moist so new roots can grow. Without this moisture, as the plant sends out new roots they would quickly desiccate and die. This method is not generally used for bonsai because it tends to result in a one-sided root system that requires additional work to create pleasing nebari (above ground roots).
Another method is the tourniquet method where a wire is twisted into the branch or stem until it bites deeply.
The third method of air layering is the most commonly used and is known as the girdle or ring method.
With this method a ring of bank is removed from completely around the stem or branch. This is usually done by using a sharp knife to make a circular cut all the way around the branch. A second circular cut is made approximately 1″ below the first one. These two cuts are then joined by a vertical slit and then the bark is peeled away.
Sometimes a wire is added to the top of the wound in order to help prevent “bridging”. Some people will also cut upwards under the remaining bark at the top to flare it out a bit with the thought that it might help improve the taper.
To understand how this all works it helps to review a little bit of plant biology.
All woody plants have stems and branches composed of various type of cells arranged in layers. The outermost part is the bark that everyone is familiar with. The bark helps protect the tree from insects, disease, and desiccation.
Under the bark is the phloem, which carries the sugars and starches the foliage has produced via photosynthesis down the branch to the stem to the roots which feeds the plant.
The next layer below the phloem is the vascular cambium. This layer produces the phloem and the xylem cells.
The innermost portion of the tree is the xylem which is separated into the sapwood and the heartwood. The sapwood is the portion of the xylem that transports the sap containing water and nutrients up from the roots to feed and hydrate the plant. The inner layers of xylem are dead cells that support the tree like bones.
It is this upward and downward flow that we are most concerned with when it comes to air layering. We want to stop the downward flow but not the upward flow. This keeps the section above the air layer alive while it forms new roots.
So, we want to sever these layers as shown in the cross-section on the right. The tourniquet method crushes and cuts into the bark, phloem, and cambium to sever this downward path. However, the cambium is very good at repairing damage and can often heal around the wire without sending out roots. With the ring method, all three layers (bark, phloem, and cambium) are removed. Without cambium the other layers cannot regenerate. However, it can be difficult to remove all the cambium which, again, can cause enough healing to bridge the gap. Because of this it is advisable to really scrape the cut and be sure all of the cambium is removed. Some people advocate using rubbing alcohol to kill all the cambium, others will leave the would open for a couple of days to be sure all the cambium cells are dead before covering the wound.
It can be tricky to tell exactly where the cambium stops so you know where to stop cutting but in general it is difficult to cut too deeply (provided a reasonably large branch or stem is used). As you go deeper into the tree the layers will change color until becoming a very light brown that is almost white. The cambium is usually a greenish color (and is what you see when you do a “scratch test” to see if a tree or branch is still alive).
Air layers are best started in the spring or early summer and since plenty of sap is flowing the bark tends to be pretty easy to remove. Often you’ll be able to just peel it off and that makes it fairly easy to see where to stop. Later in the season it can require more work to get the bark removed but again, as long as the branch or trunk isn’t very small (usually 1/4″ is the smallest diameter you’d want to attempt an air layer but 1/2″ is more reasonable as a minimum) it is hard to mistakenly remove too much xylem (wood) to kill the tree. Beginners usually remove too little rather than too much!
The way all of this works is that once you sever the downward flow of nutrients those will start to build up at the top of the cut site. Auxins, a plant hormone responsible for growth, will also begin to accumulate in higher concentrations and trigger growth.
The tree will first create a callus (the bumpy growth you see in the picture on the right) and then roots will emerge from or above the callus.
Since the upward flow of water and nutrients is still intact the upper portion of the tree is usually not harmed at all. This is why some layers can survive for years while they slowly form new roots. An exception to this, though, is if you do the layer below the first branch (often incorrectly referred to as a ground layer when that term is more correctly applied to a simple layer).
If your layer is below the first branch then there is no foliage to feed the roots. It is now a race against time to create the new roots before the old roots die. If the old roots die before there are enough new roots to sustain the tree then the entire tree will die. Such drastic layering should only be attempted with deciduous as evergreen can rarely win this race.
As mentioned earlier, the new roots must be kept moist to keep them from drying out and dying.
This is usually done by wrapping the wound in sphagnum moss (not peat moss) and wrapping that with plastic. Some people prefer to wrap the plastic with aluminum foil to keep it dark and simulate below-ground conditions. Foil is used as opposed to dark plastic because dark plastic risks absorbing too much heat and cooking the new tender roots. Care must also be taken that the bottom is not wrapped too tightly as this would not drain properly and any new roots would drown. The plastic is left on until sufficient roots can be seen.
Another method sometimes used is the “pot method” where a container is fit around the branch or trunk and filled with bonsai soil. It is thought that this results in stronger roots that are less tangled than the “bag method” described above. This method doesn’t work quite as well on branches that are more horizontal but there are special containers specifically made for air layering that do not have an open top so can secure soil when horizontal.
Regardless of which method is used you will need to check on the progress of the layer periodically. Some plants can have sufficient roots in as little as two weeks but most take about a month an a half. You should plan on having the layer complete at least 8 weeks prior to the first frost so the roots have time to get established before winter. Interestingly, layered roots that are still attached to the mother plant tend to be more winter hardy while attached so most layers can easily survive harsh winters. So, if you don’t have sufficient roots by the 8 week mark it is best to leave the layer attached until spring.
With all layers the final step is separation! After verifying you have sufficient roots you’ll want to separate the layer as close to the new roots as possible. If grown in sphagnum moss some people like to plant the tree into pure sphagnum to give the new roots a chance to toughen up before being planted into a training pot or bonsai pot. Whichever you plant into you should be cautious handling the roots as they may be a little fragile until they mature.
You can now enjoy your new tree!
In the next few days most of the northern United States and Canada are expected to experience unseasonably cold weather. Here in the Cleveland, Ohio area, for example, it is predicted to drop to 27° tonight and 19° tomorrow night when the averages for those days are 38° and 37°.
Why should that matter for bonsai trees that are hardy to lower temperatures and do we need to provide extra protection to our trees?
I would advise that extra protection be given to trees, even if hardy to those temperatures, because there is a chance the trees have not yet acquired their full winter hardiness this early in the season.
Part of cold hardiness comes from the concentration of sugars in plant cells. This concentration increases starting in early September and reaches maximum in late November to early December. Then it holds steady until early April and begins decreasing as the plants wake up and begin to utilize that sugar for spring growth. Since plants reach their maximum concentration in late November that is when they have their maximum tolerance to cold temperatures.
The fact that it is early November means that it would be prudent to provide additional protection against the cold temperatures but care should be taken to avoid keeping the plants too warm which could delay cold hardiness.
Some good options for protection for the next couple of days include an unheated garage or shed, a cold house or cold frame, or setting on the ground and covering with mulch.
Your trees might not be ready yet for winter storage but would benefit from a little protection until temperatures return to normal in a few days.
The results of the People’s Choice voting from our 2019 Summer Show are in!
Congratulations to Alex H for his Hawaiian Schefflera which took First Place!
Second Place went to Steve Z and his Juniper Sea Green and Anne H’s Japanese Larch forest took third.
The nicest, most heartening aspect of the whole thing is that, except for a couple of trees out of the whole 60+ trees in the show, every tree appealed to at least one person enough to list it on a ballot. Tells us that each person’s efforts, even when the result isn’t a spectacular runaway winner, added a little memorable beauty that touched someone that day. What more reward could we ask for the work we put in?!
Spring is a time of renewal and our bonsai trees are waking up!
Not everyone realizes that most bonsai trees are outdoor plants. While there are a few tropical species that can live indoors, even most of them prefer to be outside when it is warm. For the majority of trees, if they aren’t allowed to go through their natural cycle of dormancy they will eventually weaken and die.
Here in Cleveland, spring is upon us and our trees are coming out of their winter dormancy. Buds are cracking open to reveal new leaves, new needles, and in some cases even blooms!
Take a look at these photos submitted by a few of our members and their trees enter spring glory.
The Cleveland Bonsai Club is very proud of club member Mel G who took home the President’s Award for his Shohin display, as well as Best Accent Plant, at the MidAtlantic Bonsai Society Spring Festival last month. Mel’s display consisted of: Top–Japanese Back Pine, Upper left–Star Jasmine, Upper Right–Japanese Chojubai Quince, Lower left:–Zelkova elm, Lower Right–Kumquat–Outside tree–Shimpaku Juniper. Note that each pot is a different color and shape which is one of the important criteria for a good shohin display.
Well done, Mel!
At our April 2019 meeting member David Bennett gave a presentation on utilizing Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) for bonsai.
David talked about some of the benefits of this tree, such as the fact that it is locally available and hardy to the area. It is shade tolerant (though prefers sun), fast healing, has good needle reduction, and tends to have compact growth when cultivated properly.
Because it is fast growing David prefers using guy wires instead of wiring branches and pointed out that hemlocks tend to have a lot of “memory” in them and bends don’t always hold. He also warned that they don’t usually backbud on old wood so that needs to be taken into consideration when styling the tree. They are also strongly apically dominant so need frequent pinching to maintain shape.
Bonsai trees come in many different sizes, styles and types but one thing that is common to a refined bonsai is the appearance of age. A bonsai should appear to be much older than it actually is (in general, some bonsai truly are hundreds of years old!).
It is often said that a bonsai is the artist’s interpretation or impression of a tree. While some bonsai are replicas of full grown trees in their glory that have been rendered in miniature, there are also many that are made to look like an ancient tree that was kept small by nature and the elements. Those natural trees are the true inspiration behind the bonsai art, originally found in harsh mountainous environments. Trees that are naturally stunted in this way can be worth tens of thousands of dollars and are known as yamadori.
To me, some of the best bonsai are recreations of these unique trees found in nature and should be able to tell a story of how they ended up in such a form (rather than simply be bent into a S shape like so many mass-produced “bonsai” you might find at a box store). I like to look at these twisted form and imagine how they might have ended up that way. When designing my own bonsai, I try to continue this element of realism into the composition. Let’s look at a few trees and guess their stories.
Take this tree, for example. It is easy to imagine that while it was still young another tree fell onto it, knocking it to the ground but not killing it. As the tree recovered, it grew around the fallen trunk and branches and back up towards the sky, ending up with the twisted base and trunk that you see pictured. Eventually, the dead tree that caused all of this rotted away leaving its tale of woe in the victim’s twisted form. The tree also had to fight soil erosion that exposed the roots and threatened desiccation in the harsh environment.
In this next example, perhaps this tree was nearly blown over. But I think it is more likely that it was growing on the side of a cliff, clutching the rock face for its very life and the elements and gravity pulled down against the upward growth. A rock outcropping above could have forced the strong lean as it reached out for light. In my own backyard I have a similar tree growing beside a creek. Early spring storms flood the creek and erode the bank as the tree slowly falls over the side, held in place only by strong support roots on the other side.
This poor, tortured soul looks as if it hasn’t had a pleasant day in its life. Try as it may to thrive, harsh desert winds beat upon it, blowing sand stripped the bark, falling rocks crushed and deformed, and animals grazed on its branches. You can see where the main trunk snapped, leaving a side branch to take over as the new trunk line. Another branch was not so lucky and remains as a lifeless, bleached appendage. Yet through it all a vein of live growth persevered and managed to survive. Eventually, enough growth was able to make it above animal grazing level to thrive, a head of healthy green to contrast with the gaunt skeleton below. A constant reminder of all that was endured.
Even this strong grower was no stranger to the elements. Fate deposited multiple seeds near to each other that took root and the brothers fought each other for decades while harsh storms bent and snapped branches. Eventually, a gale broke the larger of the two nearly in half but it wasn’t enough to kill it. Weakened, it still continued to grow and struggle against the world.
When you look at bonsai trees, whether your own trees or someone else’s, what stories do they tell?