Simple Does Not Mean Easy (formal upright)

The next tree that Mr. Tanaka had me work on was a formal upright Five Needle Pine (Goyomatsu).  Now that the needles have hardened off, we can cut, wire, and style the tree.  In this post, I will talk about what I did with this tree, basic concepts of what a formal upright is, Mr. Tanaka’s adjustments and of course, what I learned from the whole experience.  There’s lots to talk about so lets get started.

Here is the picture before I started my work.  Last years needles were already cut off by the other Mr. Tanaka (helper) so I was able to get right to the wiring.

Before I started, Mr. Tanaka told me to try and use as much of the branches that I can.  He said that if I cut off too many branches, the needles will grow long the following year.  I always knew that only cutting off what was necessary was the key, but I never applied it to the concept of needle length.  I thought about it for a second and it all made sense.  If the tree is feeding 100 branches and I cut off 50 branches, the tree is still going to try and feed 100 branches meaning that the left over 50 branches will get double the food now and the following year which leads to longer needles.  (Did that make sense?)

I sat there for awhile and looked at the tree trying to come up with a game plan.  This was the first time that I’ve ever worked on a formal upright Five Needle Pine so I was a bit nervous.  I thought back to all the pictures of formal uprights that I’ve seen in the past and use that as a template to what I was going to do with this tree.  I laid out the copper wire and got to work.  Mr. Tanaka then said that I needed to wire every branch.  I looked at Mr. Tanaka and said, “no problem, I’ll have this tree done in no time.”  Mr. Tanaka laughed and said, “good,” with a grin on his face.  At the time, I thought he was just laughing at my joke, but as you will see as this post continues on, it was actually me that he was laughing at because this tree did not get done as fast as I thought it would.

Here is a shot of the trunk and nebari

The nebari (root spread) is pretty incredible and the tree had a nice fat trunk to go with it.  The nebari was the same 360 of the tree. Some roots could have been cut to improve the look of the nebari but we left them alone at this point because we didn’t want to stress the tree anymore then we had to.  I was going to wire and bend every branch on the tree, so I’m sure the tree wouldn’t be too happy if I started cutting some roots off at the same time.  Mr. Tanaka then added that in the past, the trunk was much skinner.  He says that Five Needle Pines can develop thick trunks even when they’re growing in a Bonsai pot.  He says that the reason why I’m working on this tree now is because the trunk looks better and the tree will fetch a better price now.

Here’s the tree after about 60 percent of the wiring was done.

I was 2 1/2 days into the tree and I only finished about 60 percent of it.  I couldn’t believe how long this tree was taking me.  I sat there staring at the tree at one point and Mr. Tanaka turned to me and said, “a lot of branches.”  I nodded back and laughed.  I felt kind of foolish because I thought I’d be done by now.  I then told Mr. Tanaka that in the past I wired a larger Five Needle Pine and it only took me 3 days and that I had to spend time cutting off the old needles too! This tree already had that done for me!  I couldn’t explain why this tree was taking me so long to complete.

Here is a picture of the Five Needle Pine that I worked on in the past back in California.  This tree took me about 2 and a half days from start to finish.

I showed this picture to Mr. Tanaka and described the size and he explained to me why the tree I’m working on now was taking me so long to finish.  Mr. Tanaka said that first off, the Five Needle Pine I’m working on now is a more fine growing tree meaning the branches are thinner and the needles are thinner. The pine I worked on in the past has a much denser thicker foliage and the branches are thicker too which makes it easier to wire.  The other reason he gave me is that on formal upright trees, there are much more branches then an informal upright tree.  Informal upright trees tend to have spaces here and there and branches are long and short.  A formal upright has trees from top to bottom, 360 of the trunk.  Mr. Tanaka says that all of these reasons is why this tree is taking me so long to finish.  The explanation put me at ease and I continued the work.

What is formal upright?

Formal upright bonsais are one of the most difficult trees to grow and (I now know) are the most difficult to wire and style.  Reason being is the rules for making a good formal upright is so stringent that if the style deviates from the rules, the tree starts to look funny.  So what is a formal upright tree?  A formal upright tree is a tree that is when the trunk is perfectly straight from bottom to top. The trunk also needs to have consistant taper from bottom to top.  There should be branches all around the trunk and the spacing of the branches on the trunk is wide on the bottom and progressively gets closer as you move to the top of the tree.  The shape of the canopy is almost a perfect triangle.  There are other rules and acceptable deviations but those are the most basic rules.  Essentially, we  are trying to create a perfect tree.  WOW!  When was the last time anything was perfect?  Mr. Tanaka said that formal upright trees are very artificial because no tree grows that perfect.  Nevertheless, it is a style in Bonsai and that’s what I’m task to do on this tree… make it perfect or at least try to make it perfect.  Simple… just follow the rules… easy?  Not a chance….

I used some stainless steel wire to guide wire some of the lower large branches down.  Since I didn’t have anything to anchor the wire too, I actually ran the wire into the soil and through the drain hole to anchor the wire to a heavy piece of copper.

Sorry about the blurry picture but you get the point.  Using this method is nice because the guide wire looks really clean.  The only downside is if the bend is heavy, you may need one person to bend and one person to twist the wire.

Note on steel wire

Here at Aichien, we use both steel and stainless steel wire for guide wires.  For the light bends, we normally use copper but sometimes there are bends that are so heavy that we need to use steel.  If we don’t use steel, we would have to use a very large copper wire and there is a point where the copper is just too thick to use as a guide wire.

One thing I have noticed is that there is a big difference between the strengths of steel and stainless steel wire.  Stainless steel won’t rust and it’s more then double the strength of regular steel wire, but stainless steel cost about five times more then regular steel.  In this case, the bend wasn’t too bad but I used stainless steel anyways just because I wanted to get more practice with it.  Since stainless steel is much harder, all aspects of applying it as a guide wire are more difficult.  From looping it around a branch to twisting the two ends together, ever step is much harder to do.

If you do decided to try and use steel wire, be aware that if you apply enough pressure on the wire, the teeth on your pliers will start to flatten which will lead to premature wear of your tools.

Personally, I like stainless steel because it’s shiny… anyways…

Here is a shot of the tree from the underside after I finished working on the tree.  I posted a similar picture on Facebook and one person said I must have used about a mile of copper wire.  I think I might have!  The tree has already doubled in value because of all the copper on it!

Here is what the tree looked like after I finished

I looked at the tree and suggested that the tree needs to be tilted to the right a little bit because the line of the trunk seems to angle to the left.  Mr. Tanaka agreed and said that because the tree is pushing itself out of the pot, the line may have shifted since.  After I set up a small block on the left side, the angle looked much better.  This is one of the rare times where you actually want the trunk to have straight lines.

Mr. Tanaka then looked at the tree and said, “balance yoku-nai.”  I blankly looked at him and figured that I had a 50/50 chance that he said the balance was either good or bad.  Since I’m an apprentice I should have known better to think that I did it perfect on the first try.  “Yoku,” means good and “nai,” means no. Put them together and it means, “no good.”  Put that together with balance and it means the balance is no good.  DOH!

Mr. Tanaka got to work on the tree and started making some adjustments.  As he adjusted and I watched, I asked him some questions about what I did wrong and he explained them.  About 30 percent into it, he looked at me and said, “try again.”  Knowing some new info, I started to get to work to correct the wrongs I have done.

Here is what the tree looked like after Mr. Tanaka correct me on the problems and I readjusted the tree.  Can you see the difference?

Here is a before and after to get a better view of the changes

What I observed, learned and did

1. As you can see, there is a block of wood under the left side of the pot (right side for you doctors) in the after photo.  Just by adding that small piece of wood, the tree looks very straight.  I was surprised to see in the after picture how much more powerful the tree looked when the trunk is perfectly straight and how unstable the tree looked in the before picture.

2. When Mr. Tanaka said that the balance was no good, he explained that all of the main branches coming out from the trunk needed to be the same angle  as the key branch on the lower right side of the tree.  He said that the angle of the key branch is the baseline for the angles of the other branches.  The first thing I needed to fix was get all of the angles the same. I was disappointed because I learned this concept before but didn’t apply it correctly to this tree.  I applied it to the last Black Pine I worked on but for some reason not on this tree.  I will not forget next time.

3. When I bent all the branch down more and readjusted the branches, the tree became more compact and the trunk looked bigger.

4. Mr. Tanaka said that my pads were getting a little tight again and needed to spread them out some more.  He then noted that if the pad is opened completely, the foliage can help hide some of the legginess of the branch when looking at the pads from the side. That’s new to me!  I might have done it accidentally in the past but this is the first time it was explained to me that way.  This was a big, “ah-ha,” moment for me.

5. If you looked at the before and after closely, you will find that some branches at the top of the tree are missing.  Missing because they were cut off.  Mr. Tanaka found an area at the top where there were five branches growing out of one level of the tree.  People will sometimes refer to it as a, “whirl or a wheel spoke.”  Mr. Tanaka says that if we use these branches, yes the tree will look fuller and nicer, but in the future, this area is just going to cause problems.  Problems like overcrowding or even a bulge starting to develop at that point of the tree.

If you couldn’t picture what I said in your head, here’s a picture to help explain.  Do you see the three cuts and the two leftover branches?  They were all growing at the same level. If you look closely you can even make out a slight bulge in that area.  If the problem isn’t addressed now, in the future it might be too late.

6. This tree re-enforced why I am here in Japan.  After I finished the tree and took the picture, I was quite please with my work.  Get the professional’s eye on the tree and the so called, good work, turned out to be no good at all or at least not as good as I thought it was.

7. I made it a point not to have any wires cross the front of the tree.  All of the wires that anchored one branch to another all run in the back of the trunk.  Sometimes I can get away with it and sometimes not.  This time, I did and the tree looks so much better for it.

Future of the tree

So is this tree ready to show?  If you said yes, you didn’t read my last post.  Haha!  Of course, the answer is no.  There is way too much wire on this tree to show.  Also, the tree needs to fill out some more.  The pads should be fuller and the top definitely needs more branches.  As the tree develops and the structure matures, the crown of the tree will become broader instead of pointy. Branches at the top of the tree that were bend down will start to lift themselves up as the tree grows.  Mr. Tanaka says that the next time this tree will be wired is 5 years.  The wire I put on it will probably stay on the tree for two or more years.  The tree is old and the soil is compacted so the tree is going to grow at a much slower rate.  I hope that I will be able to continue the work on this tree and develop it even more in the future, but who knows, it could be sold tomorrow.  That’s just how it is in the Bonsai business, or at least a successful Bonsai business.  Perhaps there’s something I can learn from that also…

This tree took me 5 days to finish…  The good thing is that I got one under my belt and the next one should be much smoother.

What’s next???

Thanks for reading

p.s. I’ve always appreciated the comments that readers make.  They usually lead to a discussion about the topic or a related topic and everybody learns a little bit more from it.  If you would like to comment, please comment below in the comment box.  Thanks

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30 thoughts on “Simple Does Not Mean Easy (formal upright)

  1. Phil Richardson says:

    Mr. Tanakas’ reference to the angle of the key branch reminds me of what Kathy Shaner said the other day when she was working on a white pine at Scotts’. The tree she was working on had quite a bit of dieback on the interior of the first branch and another branch had to be brought down over it. She referred to the first branch as the scaffolding upon which the other branches are built upon.

  2. Rebecca Thompson says:

    Thank you, Peter, for sharing your experience with us. I enjoy learning from you, whether it is here or direct from Japan. I am curious about the cutting of the branches to avoid the potential of a larger bulge if left with all five branches at the same level. It makes sense and I can see the bulge. However, I wonder if you can explain how to recognize this problem before the bulge begins to appear. It seems as though there are often several branches around the trunk of many trees all the way up and down the trunk. How can one know when and which branches to cut to avoid the bulge? If some are cut at one level (as on this tree), will that increase the chances of bulging at another level that has many branches?

    It is all very fascinating and I have much to learn. I look forward to your return to the states in the spring. Thank you again for your willingness to share and teach from afar! Stay well and continue to enjoy learning and teaching.


  3. Richard Dorfman says:

    “The essence of knowledge is, having it, to apply it; not having it, to confess your ignorance.” -Confucious

    Thank you for sharing this experience, Peter.

  4. Peter Tea says:

    A reader named Binh emailed me this questions and I thought everyone would get something out of my answer.

    Question: I had purchased a Japanese White Pine grafted onto a JBP stock some 6 years ago. Then it got weak due to the fact that I did not know what to do, so I planted in the ground. It has been in the ground for the last three years, and I notice that the trunk has increased in size significantly (from 2 in to at least 4 inches now). During this time, the only thing I did was to pinch the candles each spring without any knowledge of energy balancing. The tree is now full of green but with all the needles at the tip of the branches, and nothing inside, which are much needed for creating foliage pads. I plan on keeping the tree in the ground for another three years to thicken the trunk some more.

    My question is on what I can do to encourage back-budding on the inner branches, and what I should do to keep the root system compact for a safer transplant when the time comes to put it in the pot. Should I dig it up and replant it in the same spot each year?

    Answer: Getting the tree to back bud (requires pruning the whole tree) and getting the trunk to thicken is somewhat of a trade off between the two. If you want to focus 100 percent on one, the other will have to wait. But, if you want to spend more time developing the tree, you can have both trunk and better branches. Normally growers will focus mainly on the trunk and only do some cutting where they know they don’t need a branch. Once the tree is thick enough and out of the ground, then they focus on the branches. If you let everything grow without pinching, the trunk will grow the fastest. By pinching, the trunk grow will slow down but will still grow. The ability for a pine to back bud depends on the tree itself and the characteristics that it has. Some will back bud easier while others will not. Once bark starts to form on the white pine branches, it’s very unlikely that there will be any back budding in that area. In this situation, you may have to graft branches into the interior once you pull the tree out of the ground and get it into a pot. I would suggest that the next time you cut the tree, open it up a little bit more and allow more light inside and see what kind of back budding results you get. By cutting the tree more, you will slow the trunk development, but the trade off is worth it to see if the tree will back bud easily. You don’t really loose that much time though, since the tree is in the ground and strong.

    As for keep the roots compact, I would pull the tree out every 2-3 years and cut some of the big roots back and put it in the ground again. Once you plant it back in the ground, you can do a 180 turn so that a different side will get some sun. Cutting the roots will slow the trunk growth, but worth it to get better roots in the long run.

    So here is a break down of the 3 options you can do:

    1. Trunk focus = Good- Allow everything to grow unrestricted will give you the biggest trunk, Bad- you loose branch development.
    2. Branch focus = Good- Develop better branches by pruning, Bad- the trunk growth slows drastically.
    3. Both trunk and branch focus = Good – develop both trunk and branches, Bad- it takes longer to develop the tree as a whole.

    Here’s a tip on white pines in the future when you pull it out of the ground. Once they’re in a bonsai pot, be sure not to over water them. They do not like a lot of water and that might have been your problem at the beginning. Pot the tree and allow it to get root bound in the pot for 5 years. Once the soil is very hard, water will not penetrate very easily and the tree will actually grow better because of the dry condition. Here in Nagoya, we water the white pines so sparingly to keep them healthy. The ones that get overwater always loose branches and start to die. Watering is not as simple as it sounds and can greatly effect the health of the tree. In the future, I write a post about it.

    I hope this helps Binh. Good luck and thanks for reading the blog!

  5. […] might be a chore (see Peter Tea’s Simple does not mean easy). The foliage is on the yellow side, but what roots! Scanning the room I notice a wonderfully green […]

  6. Tung Tran says:

    Another Excellent post. It’s amazing to just learn so much from your post, can’t wait to put my hands on my tree to apply what I have learned. Thanks Peter.

  7. Janet Roth says:

    Lovely work Peter 🙂 The first time I went to Kokufu I saw what a formal upright tree should look like – and fell in love with the simplicity and profound elegance. To me, they don’t really look that artificial. If you go to the deep forest and see the great “patriarch” trees, that’s what they can sometimes look like.

    Good work! and ganbatte, ne?

    • Peter Tea says:

      Thanks Janet! I would love to go and seem them. Perhaps because they are the minority, people here assume they just don’t grow that way. LOL To many informal uprights around. ;o) Patriarch is such an appropriate name for those trees too. When I see formal upright trees, they always look like royalty to me. Take care

  8. 0soyoung says:

    I only recently discovered your blog and I am so happy that you are letting me learn some of what you learn. Your photo documentation is great.

    I have a quibble with your statement about the tree feeding the leaves however. This is all backwards; the leaves feed the tree! Taking away branches reduces the foliage area. The roots will stimulate the recreation of that foliage area by making larger leaves and back budding. Conversely, reduced (pruned) roots require less foliage area (less food production) to support the tree, so the leaves will become smaller and/or less in number.

    Again, love your blog.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Osoyoung,

      Thanks for reading the blog and the comment.
      I’m not sure what you’re trying to say in your comment though. I do agree that the foliage feeds the tree and that the roots feeds the foliage. I’m not sure what the quibble is? Perhaps you’re saying that the foliage is the main force behind a tree’s growth and everything is relient on that? Can you explain more?

      • 0soyoung says:

        These are your words:
        “If the tree is feeding 100 branches and I cut off 50 branches, the tree is still going to try and feed 100 branches meaning that the left over 50 branches will get double the food now and the following year which leads to longer needles. (Did that make sense?)”

        My quibble is that your description does not reflect how trees work. .

        • Peter Tea says:

          Hi Osoyoung,

          Thanks for the link and I think I understand what you mean. I looked at your links to Brent Walston’s articles.

          In Principle 2 of the second write up, Brent said,

          “Top pruning a plant at the end of the season (fall or winter) leaves all of the food intact to stimulate new growth in the spring. A full complement of food with no where to go will stimulate new buds and the new growth will be explosive and coarse, some deciduous plants may send out an eight foot sprout one inch thick in a single season (or more!).”

          I believe I over simplified the concept with my example but this is essentially what I was trying to say. Sorry about that, when I write these post, a lot of time, it’s all off the top of my head.

          Thanks you sharing those links. Brent is very knowledgeable and I suggest everybody should visit his site and read his articles.

  9. Your posts are very enjoyable to read, and always educational…about as close as you can get without getting there! As always, fantastic work.
    Thanks for sharing,

  10. Oscar Guzman says:

    I just wanted to comment on something you said, you said Mr. Tanaka told you to use all branches and cut off as little as possible to keep needle size down. I kinda agree that the tree would use up that energy on the needles but i also look at it like this…….If you cut any tree any branch it will have to utilize energy to heal that cut so wouldnt taking up energy to heal multiple cuts kinda neutalize the needle energy theory?

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Oscar,

      Thanks for reading the blog and the comment. From my experience, the cuts don’t seem to make much of a difference on how fast the tree will grow. I do agree that some of the tree’s energy will be used to heal the wound but don’t think that it’s the same amount of energy needed to support a branch and foliage. Every time I cut multiple branches off of a tree, the new growth is always longer. Having said that, if I were to cut too much off of a tree and over stress the tree, the new branch and foliage will grow small, if any comes out at all. For the most part, I’m talking about working on healthy trees and reasonable amounts of cutting.

      I hope this helps answer your question. Thanks and take care :o)

  11. Mike Pollock says:

    If there’s one thing we need to hear again and again as hobbyists is how long good bonsai takes to do correctly. Its great to see a five-day tree. Not too many of them here in the US.

    Thanks for posting these analyses.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Thanks Mike!
      I remember reading a sign in a mexican restaurant and I thought it fit well with a lot of things.

      “We don’t use microwaves because quality food takes time to make, thanks for your patients.”

      It turns out that it’s true for many things in life. Plus it’s always a good idea to keep the Bonsai out of the Microwave. Copper wire and all… LOL

      Take care!

  12. Boy, have I been able to begin to realize a small glimps of what you mean. I’ve been asked why I don’t show trees anymore. My response is they are not so pretty when they are in the process of getting better! I think our ideal here in the states was to duplicate the process of a demo. We thought we needed a completed bonsai in 2 hours… not several years. Peter, keep on truckin’. The world needs to hear this stuff. Thanks.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Thanks Sandy! I’ve been really trying to push the fact that bonsai takes time and there is no such thing as instant. I believe many professionals know that and that the majority of people deep down know that. But sometimes that instant gratification and the, “wow,” factor can be a very powerful force and gets people to do things that they know is not the best way. Demonstrations are not necessarily bad because many of those things can be done to a tree at one time. The bad part about it is sometimes incorrect things are done for the sake of show. Having said that, I do believe that the new Bonsai artist of today are showing much more restraint in doing those things and taking the time to tell the audience that he or she is leaving something alone for future development or for the overall health of the tree. That explanation is more valuable then any tree is worth.

      I was talking to Mr. Tanaka about demonstrations one day and I brought up the fact that some of the trees die after the demonstration. He said, “what’s the point if the techniques used on the tree no matter how interesting or great it is, kills the tree? It all becomes meaningless.” Very straightforward stuff but true.

      Thanks for the comment Sandy. Take care.

  13. Kenny says:

    Well done Peter!

  14. londogbonsai says:

    Excellent post again! I love to see you learning so much and being challenged. The tree is amazing. So why is it not repotted by now, is it to keep the growth slow since it is at a more refined stage? When do you think it will be repotted next?

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Lonnie,

      That is a very good question. I’m learning a lot of different things about soil mediums here and it can be very complex in regards to how the tree will respond to it. For white pines do not like a lot of water so the soil needs to be more on the dry side. When the soil is hard and compacted like this, it’s actually very desirable because it doesn’t allow a lot of water to penetrate the soil very much so the roots stay on the dryer side. The dense soil will also slow down the root growth of the tree so the foliage will tend to grow tighter and smaller which works out great when a tree is refined.

      There’s more to it and I plan on writing a post about it in the future. I’m currently gathering more data before putting it all out there. We can talk more about it too when I visit in March. Thanks and take care.

  15. John Kirby says:

    Nice work Peter, 5 days, not surprised. It was worth the effort.

  16. Sam Edge says:

    How are your fingers? They have to be tired after that much wiring!

  17. bonsai eejit says:

    Great post as usual Peter.
    Out of interest, with so many radial roots as this tree has, was it ever an air layer in the distant past? I know Pines don’t layer easily which is why I’m asking. It reminds me of a layered tree. Bet you see this tree in your sleep 🙂

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Bonsai Eejit,

      Looking at the roots I wondered the same thing. It turns out that in the past, moss started to grow around the trunk and stayed there for many years. When Mr Tanaka cleaned it out, all of these roots were growing right out of the trunk. It seems like if the conditions are right for moss to grow, the roots on white pines seem to grow too. So it turns out theses roots are all developed in the pot naturally. Thanks for the comment. Take care!

  18. cherylas2009 says:

    Hi Peter,
    very interesting post. no wonder I have no formal upright trees! It sounds like you are learning a lot.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Thanks for reading the blog Cheryl!
      I think formal uprights should be one of these trees that everybody should have at least one. When I say, one, I mean one. LOL They take a lot of time to work on. ;o) Thanks again and hope all is well.

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