Growing a Good Nebari and Fat Trunk Base Ficus Bonsai

A  good nebari (exposed roots just above the soil surface) and a large trunk base are perhaps the two most desirable features we all wanted for our bonsai. However, they take a long time to develop. Many of us buy pre-bonsai. At the nursery, we may dig below the soil level, hold the tree up, turn it around and tilt it at various angles to choose the best possible material but it is rare to find one with both a good nebari and a large trunk.

In this post, I want to share my experience building a good nebari, at least to my eyes, and a large tapered trunk for a Ficus microcarpa pre-bonsai. I bought this ficus about 9 years ago from a gift shop of a local Chinese restaurant. As in all mass-produced pre-bonsai, they usually have messy or unattractive roots and a typical S-shape trunk. What attracted me to this tree was the large trunk base, however, it has a nagging thick root, about 2″ diameter, growing on the convex side of the trunk’s first curve, and plunging down into the soil like a large inverted J-hook. Nevertheless it was a good starting material.

When we begin to train our tree with a faulty root such as this one, uneven trunk movement or branch placement, it is imperative that we correct them as early as possible. If not, they will stay with the tree and may beome more troublesome to correct at a later date. We have to decide how we want our bonsai to look like in 5, 10 or more years down the line. There is no short cut unless you want to spend big bucks buying a “specimen” tree from bonsai professionals.

This is how this ficus looked in July this year after defoliation and wiring. The root spread is about 10″ at the soil level and the trunk diameter is about 4½” above the root base. DSCN6289

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Shohin Ficus Bonsai

Ficus thrives in our hot Texas Zone 9 weather. I have several large Ficus microcarpa, whenever I removed a thick branch, I tried to root it. Over the years, I have obtained a number of second generation ficus, some grew into large trees, some were trained as shohin in different styles: banyan, informal, sumo-style shohin and Lingnan penjing.

I recently defoliated some shohin and wired their main structures, they looked naked but some had put out new buds and leaflets.

A banyan style shohin:

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Sumo-style shohin:

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I am developing a new leader for this shohin.

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A 19-Year Journey of a Ficus Microcarpa – From Pre-bonsai to Winning Awards

I purchased this Tiger Bark Ficus microcarpa as a pre-bonsai in 1997, and had worked on it for about 19 years. Over these years, it transformed from an ordinary looking pre-bonsai to one which won a place among the 25 Exceptional Tress Award in the 2013 World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) Photo Contest. It also won the Best Tropical Bonsai and Best of Show awards in the 2014 Lone Star State Bonsai Convention. I thought I would document its journey; and shared what I had learned working on this tree, both the good and the bad, and what would I do in the future to improve it.

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Selected as one of the 25 Exceptional Trees Award in the 2013 World Bonsai Friendship Federation Photo Contest.

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Creating Large Ficus Bonsai by Fusing Seedlings – Gede Merta’s Demo Trees Five Years Later

In the 2009 Bonsai Focus magazine, Issue #122, there is an article by Peter Thali on how the Indonesia’s Bali bonsai master, Gede Merta, used fusion technique to create large impressive ficus with spreading nebari from young seedlings. He did it in two stages: (1) using nails and tapes, 25 1½-year old seedlings were fused together to form the main trunk; and (2) after the main trunk has formed, 50 more 6-month old 24- to 32-inch long seedlings were added to the lower section to create taper; several of these seedlings were bundled together, wrapped with tapes and bent to form future side branches. Using this fusion technique and with Bali’s year-round tropical growing climate, the fused ficus quickly developed into a beautiful large bonsai with impressive nebari and thick branches. Please see the article for detail descriptions and photos.

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Bonsai Focus Issue #122. Large ficus created by fusing together young seedlings.

Last October (2014) I visited Master Gede at his nursery, please see my earlier post: Gede Merta – A Multi-Talented Bali Bonsai Master. Besides having a wonderful time with this friendly and cheerful great artist and his family, I asked about the status of the fused ficus trees featured in the Bonsai Focus article; and here they are five years later:

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An amazing progress! Compare this with the fused tree in the 2009 Bonsai Focus article.

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Protecting Tropical Bonsai in Winter with Portable Greenhouse

We live in Southeast Texas, Zone 9, winter is relatively mild but we do have freezing weathers every now and then. All it takes is one hard freezing night, and the tropical bonsai will say good bye. As I am writing this post, weather forecast warns of “arctic assault” freezing temperatures for the next four nights.

I use portable greenhouse to over-winter my tropical bonsai such as ficus, fukien tea etc. I leave pine, juniper, elm, azalea etc. outdoor.

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Gede Merta – A Multi-Talented Bali Bonsai Master

I first came across Gede Merta’s name in Peter Thali’s article, entitled Bonsai in Bali, in 2008’s “Bonsai Focus“, issue #133. The article featured several very talented Bali bonsai artists and their beautiful trees. Another article followed in the 2009 issue #122, with Master Gede showing how to create a ficus with massive trunk and good nebari by fusing together young plants and seedlings. I was curious how this fused ficus looks now, and I had the good opportunity seeing the result when my wife and I were vacationing in Bali last month.  With the helps of Adhy Satya and Budi Sulistyo of the Indonesian Bonsai Society, we got in touch with Master Gede and he generously welcomed us to his nursery.

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Master Gede Merta with his shohin Premna microphylla.

In Indonesia, the honorific way of addressing a person of seniority is to use the word “Pak”, which literally means “Father or Uncle”. Everyone in Bali bonsai circle addresses Gede as Pak Gede.

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Grand Indonesian Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibition 2014

The Indonesian Bonsai Society (PPBI) celebrated its 35th anniversary with a grand bonsai and suiseki show, October 11-19, held simultaneously at two locations! One in Bandung city in West Java, the other in the resort island, Bali. Several international masters such as Kunio Kobayashi, Gede Merta, Ng Shing Fat, Min Hsuan Lo, were invited to give demos. Since my wife and I were going to Bali around that time, we scheduled our trip so that we could attend the show.

The PPBI has about 15,000 members and 135 chapters throughout the country. Such a large organization attests to the popularity of bonsai in this country, and no wonder, we see many outstanding trees and talented bonsai artists from Indonesia.

In Bali, the exhibition was held out door at the Badung city hall. Individual trees were displayed in rows on tables or pedestals, no companion plants nor Japanese style displays. There are two to three hundred trees, all are medium to large trees. This is an outstanding show of tropical bonsai at its best.

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