When I was only a year or two into doing bonsai I learned of this guy named Boon who lived in the East Bay and was good at working with pines. I attended the BIB show and saw for myself that the show was filled with great trees that exhibited a level of work that I had not yet achieved. After seeing the show I purchased my little slant exposed root pine from an estate sale and thought I should take some workshops from Boon to see if he could make it look better.
Boon liked that little tree; we wired it, reduced the top and put it back on the bench to grow. I was starting to like pines quite a bit so I purchased a couple other black pines from various sales in the Bay Area….Boon didn’t like them though.
In the case of the tree that Boon didn’t like, there is almost no movement in the trunk, the nebari is a twisting mess with a couple of cut scars and the branching is not well-placed to hide any of these faults. (This photo was even taken a couple years after Boon saw it and I had improved it a bit.) In short, it’s a tree that you could work on for a very long time before arriving at the conclusion that you wasted your time.
Boon told me:
“In ten years you can grow a pine from seed that will be much better than this one. Ten years from now this tree will still be bad.”
I really liked the idea of starting things from seed so this sounded like good advice. He told me to go down the street and find the pine tree with really good bark and pick some pine cones to get quality seed. The selection of seeds will make no apparent difference in the first few years; but as the tree matures, the bark can be widely different. It’s critical for your long-term success to start with seeds from a tree that has great bark.
I’ve been studying with Boon for over a decade now, and we recently worked together on one of the Japanese Black Pines that I started based on his instructions. For a look at the prior life of this tree see my earlier post – “Exposed Root Pine #1.” The tree is probably the best in terms of girth to size ratio among my batch of pines, largely because the exposed roots have fused to form a large mass that tapers rapidly to the first branches.
We did some bud thinning, needle pulling and rough pruning prior to settling into a wiring session that lasted about half the day. I wired and did rough positioning of the branching, mostly by pulling them down to allow light to hit the smaller buds that were closer to the interior. Boon periodically came by to make adjustments to enhance the lines in each branch.
Boon and I discussed the timeline for the crown filling in and he thought it would be 3-4 years until it was full with the branching becoming more mature in 7-10 years. At the same time we will work to refine the lower branch structure by reducing the larger branches in favor of smaller ones.
While it can be frustrating for a beginner to buy a plant and have their teacher tell them it’s a poor plant to work with, this baseline serves an important purpose. Each tree that you own takes time for water, fertilizer and pest management. It takes about the same amount of effort to do those daily tasks for a tree that is worth $1,000 as it does for a tree that’s worth $10. The baseline is there to make sure that you’re not wasting your time on material that will never be worth owning.
I’m not sure what my collection would look like right now if I had not started studying with Boon more than 10 years ago, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t include a batch of seedling-grown Japanese Black Pine that are nearing show quality. Thanks for the advice Boon!