Saturday, December 31, 2011

Saihate-no-oka by Saburo Kato

After my last year’s trip to Japan, I posted a blog entry titled “Forest planting by Saburo Kato?” ( This forest setting was superb (see photo above), it was located in Mansei-en nursery in Omiya and I suggested that it was probably done by Saburo Kato. I wasn’t sure, but not anymore.

After reading Saburo Kato’s book ‘Forest, rock planting and Ezo Spruce bonsai’ I know that my guess was correct. In fact, the photo of this forest setting taken in 1988 is featuring on the book cover itself (see photo below). I also learned that the setting is much more special than I thought. This bonsai is one of Saburo Kato’s most well-known masterpieces called Saihate no oka (The Remotest Hill). All trees are Ezo Spruce (Piciea glehnii) collected by Saburo Kato 70 years ago from Kunashir Island, which is not a part of Japan anymore. The main trunk is about 250 years old! Saburo Kato worked on this forest for three years. When I saw the setting I thought it is on the rock slab, but the book says it’s on a custom made ceramic slab made in Tokoname. I must admit though, this setting looked better in 1988.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Plant choice for bonsai: Sentiment vs suitability

India is an ancient civilization and in the course of its long history many plants acquired deep cultural significance. Some of them are loved as food, some for their medicinal properties and some for their religious significance. In an individual this significance manifests as sentiments towards certain plants. To an Indian bonsai grower plant’s sentimental value often has a stronger appeal than its suitability for bonsai. A good outcome is possible only when sentiment and suitability coincide. Peepal Tree (Ficus religiosa) is a good example of that (top left picture). This tree is worshiped in temples, its seedlings grow on top of almost every builing in Chennai and it is a great tree for bonsai. In fact, bonsai trees which impressed me the most in Chennai were figs. Some of them are shown in photos above and below.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bonsai soil for Chennai climate

The soil used for bonsai in Chennai is very different from what we use in Australia. It is a mixture of red clay, sand and cow manure. Some growers add broken low-fired red brick for better drainage. The sand used in the mix is rather small grain, like the one used for mixing concrete. While we in Australia make our soil mix for drainage, they in India make their soil for water retention. The climate in Chennai can be very hot and dry. Never the less, bonsai growers in Chennai complain that their trees grow too fast! Needless to say, clay and manure provide their plants with ample nutrients. High temperatures all year round don’t allow the soil to be saturated with water for too long, especially in a shallow container. I also think that native plants of Tamil Nadu are adapted to waterlogged soil during monsoon and very dry soil in summer. The soil is too sticky when wet and for repotting they use dry soil mix (see image below).

Bonsai containers in Chennai, India

It seems that in India there is only one ceramic artist who makes bonsai pots. His name is B.R. Pandit and his studio is at Bhayandar, Maharashtra. In the bonsai community his pots are referred to as ‘Pandit pots’. These pots demonstrate sound craftsmanship and mostly inspired by more ornate Chinese examples. Chinese aesthetics probably appeal to the artist and bonsai growers due to cultural proximity to China. Some examples of Pandit pots are shown in the image below.

Another type of containers I saw used for bonsai is Jaipur Blue Pottery (see pictures below). They are low-fired pots made of white clay and decorated predominantly with cobalt and copper oxides. If someone made them in stoneware and added feet, they would make a beautiful native style of bonsai pots.

Most commonly bonsai and bonsai material are grown in terracotta pots. They are hand-made, unglazed, low-fired flower pots, which sometimes come as shallow planters without feet. They are very unpretentious and sometimes slightly crooked. Old terracotta pots develop a patina of dirt and algae and can look quite wabi sabi (see image below).

Of course, I should mention that a lot of bonsai in Chennai are grown in containers imported from China. Chennai, however, doesn’t have a shop where you can buy them. Bonsai pots are ordered from Bombay or Kerala and buyers have to bear the cost of brakeage during transportation. Apparently, they are transported on the roofs of passenger buses and the brakeage is quite high. As a result of all this, bonsai growers in Chennai have a limited choice of containers.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A go at saikei

Yesterday was my last bonsai class for this year. The structure of the class was a surprise to all students. The class was divided into two teams and each team was given the same materials to create a saikei landscape. It was compulsory to use a ceramic mountain and nine small-leaved box plants and the rest was optional. The outcome of these efforts is shown below. Apparently, these two miniature landscapes will be auctioned later for charity.