Inspiring Winter Bonsai

Bonsai artists the world over look to nature’s more spectacular trees for inspiration. A tree variety is studied year-round to understand how quickly it grows in height and width as well as what changes occur on a seasonal basis. Especially important is to see the Autumn changes.

There are some exquisite displays among the maples, oaks and elms, just to mention a few. Coniferous and most other evergreen trees do not show such profound changes in the fall, but they are striking to witness nevertheless within the context of their natural surroundings.

The sharp contrast of their foliage, trunk and branches against an azure sky and the velvety softness of moss are attributes worthy of artistic emulation. Another factor that bears investigation when looking for a suitable variety of tree to “bonsai” is its exposure. From which direction is the sun coming, and how cool or warm, moist or dry must the air and soil be? Such things as leaf size and shape, as well as capacity for color are assessed. Armed with such knowledge, the bonsai artist knows what to do to manipulate the necessary factors to ensure a brilliant Autumn display in his own miniaturized collection.

Some dramatic examples of well-known trees which inspire bonsai artists are the Lone Cypress of Monterey Peninsula, the Major Oak of Sherwood Forest, and the General Sherman of Sequoia National Park.

The Lone Cypress, with its silvery gray trunk, and deep green boughs, is windswept, salt-sprayed and clings stolidly to bare rock. It is stunted due to the constant buffeting of the elements and the lack of sufficient soil nutrients for over 200 years. Poised solitarily on a cliff jutting into the bay, it is a poor example of a Monterey Cypress; its brothers, nestled further inland are much larger. The twisted limbs and sparse foliage are stark against the backdrop of the sometimes wild ocean. But it endures, testament to a marginal existence.

the-major-oak-sherwoodAnother magnificent example is The Major Oak of Sherwood Forest in England, an amazingly large and very old tree. The folklore surrounding it captures the imagination of people everywhere, not just bonsai artists. The tree that sheltered Robin Hood and his troupe of “merrie men” has an intensely gnarled trunk which is quite thick at ten meters in girth. It never fails to give an Autumn show, although some years it is more colorfully arrayed than in others. Rising from its massive trunk are many angular, finger-like branches that bear heavy masses of leaves. The bark is scaly and rough; its trunk is split open in a gaping maw. There is speculation that the tree is really comprised of several small oaks which grew together over centuries.

Lastly, the stately General Sherman, largest of all the Sequoias, continues its inexorable climb to the heavens. Its breath-taking tonnage and sheer height are awe-inspiring. The reddish-brown, deeply-seamed trunk appears to diminish in circumference as it ascends, almost to the point of infinity, as you gaze upwards. Its birth dates back twenty-three hundred years or more. The needled branches sprout thinly in relation to the immensity of this tree, as they compete for space to grow in this forest of giants.

These famous trees are just a few favorites, the characters of which are captured within the deft manicuring, delicate pruning and careful wrapping of their elfin counterparts. In a small way, the essential experience of beholding these and other revered trees can be perennially enjoyed, through the artistry of bonsai.

Photograph by Ken Thomas.

Twenty Winter Garden Tips

When winter gets serious – no more of those little squalls that send gardeners scurrying for shelter – but days of rain and numbing cold, it can seem that hibernation really is the best way to get through winter. But once all the seed and plant catalogues and the latest books have been read, what next? You can’t huddle by that fireside forever. Well, not for much longer anyway.

Gardeners know that regardless of the weather there’s always some sort of plant oriented activity to keep them occupied. There are certainly times, however, when it’s neither desirable nor advisable to be out in the garden. So, in the spirit of keeping idle hands away from more devilish tasks, here are twenty little jobs for winter. They’re a combination of indoor tasks for the really bad days and outdoor jobs for the fine spells.

1. Make a garden journal
Update the records of your planting, sowing and things to do over the next few months. Although it can be a chore to go to the trouble of writing everything down, it’s amazing how useful good records can be. How can you know when to make changes if you can’t accurately assess the results of your past efforts? Also, order or purchase any seeds that are needed and keep them in a cardboard box, filed in the order of sowing.

2. Take hardwood cuttings
Hardwood cutting of deciduous plants can be taken as soon as the last of the foliage has fallen. The cuttings are generally quite long — around 20–30 cm — inserted in beds of fine tilled soil outdoors, and simply left to develop roots on their own accord. Many conifers too can be grown from hardwood cuttings; tear them from the stem leaving a “heel” of stem wood attached. When new growth develops it’s usually a sign that the cuttings have struck. Some may develop quickly enough to be lifted in summer, otherwise transplant or pot up when dormant in the following winter. Of course, that’s tip 21: lift last year’s hardwood cuttings.

3. Clean away any fallen debris
If left to rot on the ground, fallen leaves and fruits are great breeding and overwintering sites for pests and diseases. Take the time to rake up them up and you’ll not only lessen that risk, you’ll also have some top class composting material.

4. Make compost bins
If you don’t already have compost bins, now is the time to make them — if only to take all those fallen leaves you’ve just raked up. Slatted timber bins with removable fronts allow good air circulation and are easily made. Remember to use treated timber; while H3 will do, h3 lasts far longer. A cover is a good idea in periods of heavy rain as the rain can make the conditions too cold and wet for the composting process to work properly.

5. Plant new deciduous trees and shrubs
Field grown deciduous trees and shrubs are lifted in late May or early June and arrive in the shops soon after. Roses, fruit trees, cane fruit and large specimen trees such as oaks and maples should all be available now or very soon. Remember to prepare your soil with plenty of compost well in advance of planting.

6. Know your onions
Onions, garlic and shallots are usually first planted around the shortest day. However if the soil stays wet and cold they may be slow to start into growth and could suffer from neck rots. To help prevent this, soak the seed bulbs for a couple of hours in a systemic fungicide then allow them to dry before planting.

7. Divide hardy perennials
The toughest of the herbaceous perennials can now be lifted and divided. Large clumps can be broken up with a spade or by using the time-honoured method of prising them apart with two forks back-to-back. Divide smaller clumps with a knife or by hand. Before replanting, trim any damaged roots or stems, dust them with sulphur to prevent fungal problems and work in plenty of compost. Rhubarb crowns can be lifted now. Tender perennials are best left until late winter or early spring before dividing.

8. Why wait for spring?
There are plenty of plants that will flower early if potted up and moved indoors. While it’s getting a little late now for spring bulbs, you can still lift and pot spring-flowering shrubs such as evergreen azaleas. Bringing them indoors will soon see them in bloom. Of course, you could always simply buy some potted bulbs or hardy annuals for quick indoor colour.

9. Pruning
Apples, pears, grapes, gooseberries and other bush fruits can be pruned soon after leaf fall. Stone fruit, however, should not be pruned in winter, as the cut branches will be susceptible to invasion by silverleaf disease.

10. Feed berries, currants and other soft fruit
There’s no need for anything fancy, just a general garden fertiliser. That should encourage good growth and fruiting in the coming summer, but if the crop was poor last season try some additional sulphate of potash. And don’t forget to top it off with a decent layer of mulch, which will not only improve the soil structure but should help stop the winter rains washing the fertiliser away.

(c) Geoff Bryant
(c) Geoff Bryant

11. Liming
If liming is necessary it should be done now. Lawns often benefit from a light winter lime dressing. Vegetables usually appreciate an annual 250g/m² dressing of dolomite lime. Use dolomite lime or sulphur fertilisers to influence the colour of next season’s hydrangeas: lime for pink flowers, sulphur for blue.

12. Spraying
Spraying in winter with a copper and oil mixture will kill any dormant fungal spores and overwintering insects and help to prevent any problems developing in the spring. Lime sulphur will control any lichen deposits, though I find lichen quite attractive and unless it’s really heavily coating a plant it’s unlikely to cause any problems. Don’t use lime sulphur on foliage; it’s for deciduous plants or the trunks and larger branches of evergreens.

13. Digging
If the soil is workable it’s a good time to dig over the vegetable garden and apply compost, fertiliser and mulches. However, avoid walking on or working over very wet soils in order to prevent compaction. If you’re in an area with heavy frosts dig with a spade and leave the large sods of earth exposed to allow the frost to break them up. This results in a fine soil that is easily raked at sowing time.

14. Feed the flowers
Feed polyanthus and primroses with dried blood and liquid fertilisers. Other hardy winter- to early spring-flowering annuals, such as pansies, violas, bellis daises and calendula will also flower better with an occasional shot of a mild general garden fertiliser or liquid feed.

15. Plant strawberries
Prepare strawberry beds and set out new plants. Strawberries can rot if left sitting on wet ground. The best way to avoid this is to plant the strawberry crowns at the top of ridges around 20 cm high by 30–40 cm wide. Because rain and wind can erode the ridges it’s a good idea to cover the soil in weed matting before planting, if you can afford it. The old stand-by — straw — is alright, but it tends to get blown all over the garden.

16. Have an indoor clean-up
Winter is a good time to clean all those pots, seedling boxes and punnets that have been thrown away still encrusted with soil. If they’re to be used again they should be cleaned out with a bleach or disinfectant solution to prevent the transmission of diseases and to kill any overwintering pests.

17. Tool maintenance
Tools are obviously great labour-savers yet we often overlook even their most basic maintenance. When the weather’s too bad to work outdoors is an ideal time for stripping down tools for sharpening, lubricating, rust removing, replacing broken handles and all those other little touch-up and repair jobs that have been held-over from summer.

18. Clean out the greenhouse
As they’re used only for summer crops such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, many home greenhouses are empty in winter. Now, while the greenhouse is empty, get stuck in and clean the glass, replace any damaged panes or plastic sheeting and, if you’re serious about disease control, sterilise the soil. Apply fertilisers after sterilising. Over years of cultivation greenhouse soils become dry and dusty. Extra humus is required and that’s best obtained from compost. If you’re sure your compost has been thoroughly rotted at a high temperature it should be disease-free, otherwise work it in before sterilising the soil.

19. Prevent waterlogged pots
Plants grow only very slowly in winter and use far less water than in summer. Those outdoor pots you could barely keep moist in summer may now be thoroughly waterlogged. Check them after the first heavy rainfall and if necessary raise them up on bricks or small timber blocks to allow the drainage holes to work properly. If that doesn’t work try moving them to a sunnier or more sheltered position.

20. Sow early seedlings
Provided you have somewhere sheltered to harden off the seedlings, you can now make your first container sowings ready for planting out in spring. Any of the following will germinate in reasonably cool conditions, such as in an airing cupboard: alyssum, Antirrhinum, Calendula, Clarkia, cornflower, forget-me-not, larkspur, Linaria, lupins, poppies, scabious, stocks, sweet peas, sweet williams and wallflowers. The short winter days can make the seedlings drawn and lanky, so make sure they get plenty of light to prevent this happening.

So there you have it. Whatever the weather there’s always something to do gardenwise.

Styles of Bonsai

cedar-forestThere are many styles of Bonsai and all refer to natural styles in nature. Many have Japanese names such as Ikadabuki, Netsuranari, Nebari and Shari. These terms have become generic although originating in Japan and they work in the same way as Latin terminology works with garden plants. It allows everyone, no matter what country he or she is in to understand each other.

In China where the other great art of Penjing, the Chinese name for Bonsai, originated they have many styles reflecting the landscape in the many regions that these styles are commonly seen in nature. The five main regions of China have within these regions a number of forms.

My point is that while we grow Bonsai or Penjing outside Japan or China, we have to work with our own native trees and try and reflect the styles that we see around us in our own countries landscapes. This means that we should be taking the opportunity to create unique styles of American, Australian, African or Scottish Bonsai and not just Japanese or Chinese styles.

John Yoshio Naka, a great American Japanese teacher and authority on styles and size definitions, identified both the major styles and heights, which help us, determinate the style descriptions.  John is no longer with us and like many others having studied with him over the years, I was taught these styles by John and I have put his descriptions in the following chart. This is a good start to the understanding of the names in both Japanese and in English. Chinese styles have their own terminology. I teach in many different countries where English is not the prime language so the terminology is useful as everyone will understand Chokkan rather than Formal Upright. I prefer using the English terminology in English speaking countries though.


Japanese Name English Name
Chokkan Formal Upright No curves or bends in trunk
Moyogi Informal Upright –Trunk changing direction.
Shakan Slanted
Sho-Shakan Small Slant
Chu-Shakan Medium Slant
Dai-Shakan Extreme Slant
Hankan Very coiled trunk
Fukinagashi Windswept
Bankan Old coiled trunk
Saba kan Hollow trunk
Shari Kan Exposed deadwood on the trunk- Shari miki dead wood with dead branch stumps like fish bones
Neijikan Twisted in wind trunk and- or – branches
Kobukan Lumpy trunk, gnarled with age
Kengai Cascade.
Han Kengai Semi cascade
Dai Kengai Straight cascade, extreme or long.
Gaito Kengai A tree that is on the edge and cascades with a round Ju Shin, apex.
Taki Kengai A cascade changing direction
Ito Kengai Multiple thin cascades
Takan Kengai Twin or more trunks cascade
Netsuranari Raft style from roots
Ikada Raft style of trees from fallen trunk
Ikadabuki Raft style from a fallen tree, branches takes root.
Soju Twin trunks
Sokan Two trunks of differing size from single root
Yose-uye(pr. Yohsay-ooay) Forest / group style
Tako Zukuri Octopus style. Very twisted branches and trunk
Ishi-zuke Root over rock
Ne-agari Exposed root style-erosion exposed roots
Hoki dachi Broom style. Fan shape with even growth
Bunjin Literati. Similar to elegant Sumi paintings long trunk with slight growth at top. Not heavy
Some Trees in Japanese English Names. I have listed just a few here for general reference
Momji or Kaede Maple
Sugi Japanese Cedar
Keyaki Japanese Grey Bark Elm
Ichijiku Fig
Shide or Soro Hornbeam
Goyo-Matsu (mats) Five needle white pine (also Pinus pentaphylla)
Kuro-Matsu (mats) Japanese Black Pine, two needles
Shimpaku Juniper. The most popular Juniper grown as Bonsai
Kashu Shimpaku California Juniper. Also Utah and other similar species such as Western Juniper and Common Juniper (communis)
Benishitan Cotoneaster
Botangi Buttonwood. Silver Buttonwood. From warmer climes in America, Florida etc.
Kashi, Kunugi, Oak. Many varieties
Maki Podocarpus pine
Satsuki Flowering Azalea. Kurume Azaleas
Ezo-Matsu Spruce, Japanese. Jezo, Ezo or Yezo spruce
Ichii Yew. Japanese, American or English
Sarusuberi Crepe Myrtle
Tsuge Box. Stiff when old but great for Bonsai
Other Terms*
Ara-kawacho & Arakawa Rough bark
Mastu (Mats) Pine Bonsai
Ju –Shin Top of a Bonsai tree
Shoki Collected Bonsai that is  well established as a Bonsai
Yamadori* Collected Natural material for Bonsai or Natural Bonsai not yet refined into a Bonsai
Tangei Bonsai material or material good for making Bonsai
Bonsai A tree in a tray or container-From the Chinese Pentsai-later Sung Dynasty.
Bonkei Landscapes with other plants, animals figures, buildings etc. In China its Pentsai.
BonsekiBonsekei Landscape planting but no figures Only rocks, moss and trees.
Uro Hole in trunk with healed edges
Nebari * Surface Roots
Saba miki Split trunk
Shari kan Bark split from trunk
Shari, * & Shari Miki Exposed areas on trunkDead trunk areas with jinned twigs sticking out like spines
Jin,  & Jinn * Jinning Exposed areas on branches or tipsTo remove bark and create dead wood
Dai Table to display a Bonsai
Daiza Shaped Table or a base for a Suiseki


  • · common terms


Bonsai heights and names


Many years ago John taught us that we need to have a structure of size descriptions as well. Bonsai come in a variety of heights ranging from one inch up to six feet. Essentially the larger Bonsai are known as Garden Bonsai or Yard Trees while most Bonsai are of a reasonable size around a maximum of 40 inches. In some instances trees that require two persons to carry it are simply big trees in pots and not accepted (in some quarters) as true Bonsai. Nothing is fixed as to what is a Bonsai however and this size chart is a guideline.


Sizes are measured from soil level to the Apex of the Bonsai. The right size of pot to enhance the tree acts as a frame to a picture. It should be seen but not seen. A pot should not take over from the tree but have a quiet elegance in its own right. A pot should not be a distraction.

One inch = 2.5 Centimetres


Height Name English or other Name
1” Keishi Tsubo Thimble size –Within the Shohin category
1-3” Shito Mini size-very small-Within the Shohin category
Mini size –Within the Shohin category
Katade –Small Size also Gafu-Bonsai, or  Miyabi-Bonsai. (Gafu is a term for excellent small sized Bonsai)
8- 16”
Sho or Kifu – Small to medium size
Chuhin Medium Size
Also Oomono – Both terms mean Large Size but Oomono means a large size that can be carried by one man.
41—65” Very large sized Bonsai. Sometimes termed as Yard Bonsai. Needs two men to carry this size. Not always accepted as Bonsai in Competition (subjective)

Article by Craig Coussins©   





A Winter Eden

A winter garden in an alder swamp,
Where conies now come out to sun and romp,
As near a paradise as it can be
And not melt snow or start a dormant tree.
It lifts existence on a plane of snow
One level higher than the earth below,
One level nearer heaven overhead,
And last year’s berries shining scarlet red.
It lifts a gaunt luxuriating beast
Where he can stretch and hold his highest feat
On some wild apple tree’s young tender bark,
What well may prove the year’s high girdle mark.
So near to paradise all pairing ends:
Here loveless birds now flock as winter friends,
Content with bud-inspecting. They presume
To say which buds are leaf and which are bloom.
A feather-hammer gives a double knock.
This Eden day is done at two o’clock.
An hour of winter day might seem too short
To make it worth life’s while to wake and sport.
by Robert Frost

Winter Sweet

While gardeners in mild, frost-free parts of the country can look forward to an abundance of flowers in any month provided heavy rain doesn’t batter the blooms too much, those of us in the colder regions have learnt to really appreciate the hardy battlers that bloom on through the frosts. And it most certainly is the frosts that make the difference.

I live in Christchurch and when I visit coastal areas like Sumner or go up on the Port Hills, which are mostly frost-free due to cold air drainage and our infamous smog-trapping inversion layer, marguerites, gazanias, proteas and pelargoniums flower on seemingly unchecked, but go back to the plains and winter can be a flowerless wilderness. With a little forethought it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many plants that flower in winter. Some such as the ericas and nerines just continue their normal autumn-blooming well into winter, but others, like the hellebores, choose the harshest days as the time to start flowering.
While the frosty winter months will never be as bright and colourful as spring and early summer they don’t have to without flowers. And with fewer competitors the winter flowers, which tend to be rather simple, are more easily seen and appreciated. Mention winter flowers and for most people two come immediately to mind: wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) and the winter rose (Helleborus). While that may be because they both have winter in their names, which makes it easy to remember when they flower, it’s also convenient because they neatly define the two main types of winter flowers: winter-blooming shrubs and winter-blooming perennials, which can be further subdivided into those we value for their fragrance and those with colour. Regrettably, there are few plants that provide both scent and colour, which is sensible enough when you consider that those features are there to attract pollinators and there no point in wasting effort on providing both scent and colour when either will do.
Fragrant-flowered shrubs are the definite winter favourites. In addition to wintersweet there’s witch hazel in its various colours and sizes, the daphnes, Sarcococca and the viburnums.
Wintersweet is a twiggy 2–4m tall deciduous bush with waxy cream flowers that aren’t much to look at, but they have that scent. There are, however, two cultivars that offer a little extra colour. ‘Grandiflorus’ has larger flower, usually slight deeper in colour, and ‘Luteus’ has soft yellow flowers. None is going to attract a second glance in summer, but come midwinter and they’ll be among your garden stars.
Witch hazels too are pretty nondescript in summer, though their autumn colour can be spectacular, but come midwinter when their heavenly scented flowers begin to open and suddenly everybody wants one. They’re the sort of flowers that you can smell well before you see them. The flower colour ranges from very pale yellow of ‘Pallida’ through to a the burnt orange-brown of ‘Jelena’.
Daphnes have the advantage of being evergreen and while their individual flowers are small, they are clustered together, which means that they can be quite showy. The most widely grown is Daphne odora ‘Leucantha’, but it’s not really very frost hardy. Better for cool gardens is the taller, more erect Daphne bholua, which has very similarly coloured and scented flowers. Daphne laureola looks rather like Daphne odora in size and shape. As its tiny flowers are green you may never see them, but you will certainly smell them.
Viburnum x bodnantense and V. farreri are similar erect, twiggy, deciduous shrubs with rounded heads of small, strongly fragrant, white and pink flowers. ‘Dawn’ is a cultivar with deeper pink flowers but it’s not always easy to find in the shops.
The various Sarcococca species are spreading evergreen shrubs, the flowers of which, while often insignificant and largely hidden, are beautifully scented. Although they don’t all flower in winter, S. confusa and S. hookeriana usually do.
Some winter-flowering shrubs are not scented. My favourite is Sycopsis sinensis. It’s an evergreen witch hazel relative and while there’s no scent to its filamentous clusters tipped with pinkish-orange anthers they are very pretty when examined closely.
Garrya elliptica is like to attract far more attention as its cream flowers are held in long, pendulous, very distinctive pale grey tassels. It occurs in male and female forms and the male cultivar ‘James Roof’, which has especially long tassels, is the most sought after. Garrya starts to bloom from late autumn and can be in flower right through winter.
The Sasanqua camellias also start to bloom in autumn and will flower intermittently until spring, though from midwinter they tend to be overshadowed by the larger flowered Japonica and hybrid types. In terms of sheer showiness and variety, camellias have to be the best value among winter flowers, though they can suffer in really cold weather. A few, like the popular ‘Fairy Blush’, also offer some scent. The related genus Gordonia is also winter-flowering in mild areas, though it is less hardy.
Other than some of the cherries, such as Prunus subhirtella and the early forms of P. campanulata, hardy winter-flowering trees are rare. That’s why Magnolia campbellii is so desirable. It’s a very hardy tree-sized magnolia that can easily exceed 12m tall and which comes into flower just after the shortest day. Regrettably though, its flowers aren’t frost hardy and will turn to mush with a freeze of more than a degree or two. But that may be a chance that you’re prepared to take, because in a mild winter the effect of a 50 foot magnolia in full bloom is magnificent, even if it may only last a few days before being frosted.
Hardy winter-flowering climbers are also rare. Two species shine out here. Clematis cirrhosa has small cream flowers that are quite pretty, but they can’t match Clematis napaulensis with its graceful clusters of bell-shaped creamy white flowers with purple-pink anthers and stamens.
Now then, the winter-flowering perennials, as typified by the hellebores. Although the winter rose (Helleborus niger) has the best-known name, it’s actually Helleborus orientalis that is the most widely grown.
Helleborus niger has pink-tinted white flowers while its very popular cultivar ‘White Magic’ is an almost pure white. ‘Moonshine’ is hybrid between H. niger and and a green- and maroon-flowered species, resulting in an interesting yellow-green shade.
The flowers of Helleborus orientalis occur in a wide range of cream, pink and purple tones, can be double and will hybridise with H. niger. Other species also flower from midwinter, including the large, evergreen, early-blooming, green-flowered H. argutifolius, the smaller green-flowered H. foetidus and several species with small maroon flowers, such as H. atrorubens and H. lividus. As what we think of as the flowers of hellebores are really coloured sepals they will last long after the true flowers have died, often into spring.
Polyanthus and many of the other primulas will flower from autumn until well into spring, as do the pansies. In mild areas stocks will also flower from late winter. Some gardeners think of these highly developed bedders as perhaps just too “artificial” and baulk at the idea of instant colour. I’m not so proud. If polyanthus and pansies are what it takes to brighten the dull days then so be it.
That said I’m really much more in favour of the natural look and equally I prefer spring to winter, so the winter-flowering plants I most look forward to are those that say spring is on the way. Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), snowdrops (Galanthus), Adonis amurensis and the earliest crocuses are just the thing. Catch one of those peeping through the snow and you can just about imagine that winter is on the way out. The trouble is, that’s most often anything but true, as these little beauties can be in flower as early as a week or two after the shortest day.
So there you are; your garden doesn’t have to be dark and dull even if the days are. Nor do you have to devote much space to winter flowering plants. You need only dot a few of them around for it to become apparent that even on the coldest days nature keeps ticking over.

Image copyright – Rosemary