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Bonsai DIY Projects

Get Arty with Some Bonsai related DIY projects

DIY Tree Design Drawings.

Sketches can be a tremendous aid in the initial design and the refining of your tree. You do not have to be particularly artistic to do these drawings successfully. You don’t need any expensive equipment either. A soft pencil, paper and eraser will suffice. Before beginning, explore the rootage of your tree to determine the best option for the front. Start by drawing "stick man" versions of the tree’s shape. i.e. leave out all of the detail and only draw the main elements as single lines. Draw the same tree several times quickly, concentrating on getting the overall dimensions roughly in proportion.

Draw a "stick man" version of the tree. Once you are happy with a version, flesh it out by drawing in preliminary detail such as the trunk and then the major branches. It is not necessary to include small detail such as bark or every twig. A very simple shading will suffice to give an impression of the smaller details of twigs and leaves.

Flesh it out roughly, drawing in minimal detail of trunk branch and foliage.

From this initial sketch, the future plan can be developed. As the tree is trained as bonsai, the root spread or nebari will be refined, the trunk will thicken and age, branches will be moved to ideal locations, finer twigginess or ramification developed and foliage pads will be shaped. Its height will naturally increase but in your sketch you may determine the planned height, which could even be shorter.

This visualisation of the future shape of a tree is a bit more difficult than the initial sketch. Trace the first sketch that you were happy with and then try drawing in each of the elements of the tree as you would like them to develop. Having a model to aim towards, your goal is clearer and progress can be made annually toward it.

Remove unnecessary branches to refine the design. Repeat the process annually or every couple of years to incorporate your developing ideas for the tree. Now you can try covering parts of the drawing to see what the tree would look like if you removed a major branch, jinned out a second trunk. Rotate the drawing to explore how a change in the angle of the tree in the pot would affect its design.

This is the tree sketched above, as it looked in stage 3 with some of the initial branch removal and training done- it’s a garden centre "find" - Juniperus chinensis "San Jose"

A little thinning and some wiring refinements done a year later. This chopping and changing of the drawing can also be done very satisfactorily using a suitable art package on a computer. Craig Coussins drew a rapid idea of how he would like this yamadori pine to be developed.

Computer aided tree design

There are as many different ways to utilise a computer as there are suitable programs. For most of us, ingenious use of art packages can be helpful. Every computer and art package has different ways of working, so I've included some general hints.

Use a hand held or preferably a flatbed scanner to get your drawing or photograph into the computer. Alternatively you could use a drawing package to draw the tree on the computer. I find this much more difficult to do well, as a mouse is not the best drawing tool. Adding a graphics tablet to your computer set-up makes direct drawing onto the computer screen a breeze. It works just like a normal pen but must be located over the desk-top pad supplied.

If you really are hopeless at drawing, all is not lost. Use a camera! Photograph the tree that you wish to design before starting. This is always a good move, as photo’s serve a dual purpose. Distancing yourself from the tree’s "presence" and its three dimensional quality often gives a new insight into its design flaws. The record is also invaluable later to illustrate the changes that brought the tree to your finished design. Try to photograph the tree against a plain background, as this simplifies things later. Scan the photo of your tree in. Import the file into an art package and then remove any unnecessary details such as the background, pot or soil with the (selecting) tool that allows you to pick up parts of the drawing.

Using a digital camera avoids the need to have prints and then scan them. You just save the images from the camera onto your hard drive and then load them up into the art package.

Use the cut and paste tools to remove or reposition elements such as branches. Rotate the image to determine the optimum planting angle. Try creating different shaped foliage pads and pasting these in the positions which seem most pleasing. The program should allow you to resize and flip these horizontally to get different shapes. Once you are happy with an image save it using a different file name. Different versions can then be printed out and compared before final decisions on the real modifications to your trees are made.

Some excellent examples of these uses may be found on the Internet Bonsai Club's Interactive Gallery

Brush painting and calligraphy

A bonsai displayed in a tokonoma is traditionally accompanied by a single viewing stone, miniature carving or accent plant and the back wall adorned with a scroll painting with Japanese or Chinese calligraphy. The impressive simplified scenes and the fluid brush painted calligraphy take a great deal of artistic ability to do well, but they are not beyond the scope of anyone with some ability and a willingness to learn and practice.

The tools of the trade are essential and can be purchased from good art supply shops:-
Rice paper
Copying illustrations from bonsai books is a useful preliminary exercise for anyone wishing to start but is no substitute for reading a good book on the subject. A simple one that I've found helpful for both painting and calligraphy is Chinese Brush Painting by Pauline Cherrett, Osmiroid Creative Leisure Series, ISBN1 871517 00 1

Tokonoma Display Area

A tokonoma is traditionally built near the entrance in Japanese homes to house treasured possessions and welcome guests. It is always laid out very artfully, following principles that have evolved over millennia. It may be a tiny alcove in a modern home but the same principles apply.

It is a place to temporarily display art objects such as bonsai, suiseki and fine calligraphy according to the seasonal changes. Don't be tempted to keep any outdoor tree inside for more than a day or two at most.

The location - traditionally in a position to welcome visitors to the home, must still be decided with the health of the tree uppermost in mind. Adequate light and a reasonable temperature are important. Centrally heated rooms, conservatories or porches that heat rapidly and uncontrollably when the sun shines are not suitable. Security may also be an issue to consider, if the display will be visible to unknown visitors or passers-by.

Pots & Dishes

If you have never tried pottery, it is easiest to enroll on a pottery nightclass. Most local education authorities run one, usually starting in September. If not, try asking local potters. Some of them run courses or may be willing to do some one-to-one sessions or perhaps just fire your pots for you. If you become really keen, buying or building your own kiln is another option. Gas fired kilns are generally preferred to electric as they are cheaper to run and allow for greater flexibility with the glazes. Wood fired kilns are the cheapest to run but these are generally self built. Some pottery books include designs but try also to investigate newer developments by chatting with experienced potters.

Root Shaping

Shaped root spreaders
These allow the production of several plants that will have root distribution suiting a particular shape of rock. This gives you a choice of material, so that you may be more selective when planting on a valued rock.

Thermo-setting plastic
These may be made using any plastic sheet that can be shaped when hot and becomes fixed in that position when cooled.

Heat the plastic by lowering it into water that is just off the boil. Once softened use tongs to drape it over the rock in the position where the roots will eventually sit. Allow it to settle and, if necessary press into shape with a scrap of wood, so that it conforms to the contours of the rock. If necessary pour more hot water over to maintain flexibility until you are happy with its shape. Then pour cold water over it and when it has cooled sufficiently to retain its shape, remove it. Repeat the process if you wish to develop several different plants as options for the final root over rock project.

The plastic pieces are then seated snugly under the base of the plants (seedlings or cuttings) in the compost, for a season or two, until the roots have adopted the shape of the plastic, thickened and hardened. This process can be speeded up considerably by planting in the ground or in a larger than usual training box. They may then be lifted, as the buds begin to swell in spring, washed off, the shaper removed, tried in turn on the rock and the best chosen.

Drilled tile root spreaders.
100mm (4") ceramic tiles or similar with a small hole drilled in the centre are used to ensure good root spread and encourage flare at the base. Drilling can be tricky. Support the tile on a flat piece of waste wood with battens nailed down to hold it in position. Stick masking tape over where you wish to drill. This stops the bit skidding. Use a sharp masonry bit and begin slowly. Sometimes it helps to press quite hard and rock the drill backward and forward before switching it on. This makes a small pilot hole which helps stop "wandering"

By drilling several holes relatively close together, seedlings or cuttings can be encouraged to fuse together and form a multiple trunk with broad and even rootage. Using species that rapidly develop good basal flare (such as Trident maple) will help.

Plants that will snugly fit inside the hole are planted so that there main root system lies just beneath the tile. The tree is then planted with the tile buried about 1" below soil level. As the trunk thickens, it is constricted and new roots will develop, usually in a good radial pattern, on top of the tile. Once these roots are thick enough, the whole thing is lifted, roots lower than the tile cut off and the tile carefully removed.

Flat Rootage In The Ground
Trees develop fastest when planted out in the ground. A problem that can occur is that the roots also develop very strongly. Some ways to ease the problem of eventually getting the tree into a pot, when it is lifted are:-

An annual or biennial lift and root prune. This gives good results as the nebari is being refined. It does slow down development a little.

Plant the tree on top of a concrete slab, tile or slate, buried in the ground. I have used plastic sheeting as a barrier to persistent weeds and planted many trees on top of this, with considerable success. Unless you are growing Willow, Alder or Swamp Cypress, the site must have some slope to allow natural drainage.

Watering of trees that are planted on top of a root spreader must be carefully monitored. The trees are in shallower soil than normal and dry out more rapidly than a usual garden bed.

Any planting out, root re-arrangement or lifting should be done either in the autumn or spring.

© Kevin Bailey 2002 - 2008

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All Text & Photographs © Kevin Bailey 1998 - 2008