Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Art of Creative Pruning

Decorative tree pruning brings innovation and artistry to gardens. It has something for all tastes, including sophisticated sculptural trees, modernist bumpy hedges, boxwood balls and lollipops.

Author Jake Hobson outlines an approach to topiary that is more creative than traditional and positively encourages out-of-the box thinking. Instead of peacocks and rabbits, you will see boxwood shaped to reveal Russian dolls, trees snipped to resemble the top tiers of a wedding cake, and hedges carved with graffiti. All the practical considerations are here as well, including pruning to improve a view, remedial pruning to fix problems, and pruning fruit trees to increase yield.

Nothing brings a touch of artistry to the garden like ornamental pruning, and a series of deliberate cuts can create landscapes and evoke faraway places. All that’s needed to recreate the effect in the garden are a sharp pair of pruners, some imagination, and the instruction found in The Art of Creative Pruning. Drawing on both eastern and western styles, author Jake Hobson moves beyond the traditional, and teaches a whole new approach to ornamental pruning which will appeal to modern sensibilities.

Complete with spectacular photographs and well-illustrated step-by-step projects, this book will have everyone reaching for their secateurs!

Jake Hobson worked in a traditional Japanese nursery in the outskirts of Osaka, Japan, after completing a degree in Sculpture at London’s Slade School of Fine Arts. A keen observer of the artistry of gardens, Jake now runs his own pruning equipment and consultancy business, and experiments with mixing pruning styles from the East and the West.

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The Art of Creative Pruning

Inventive Ideas for Training and Shaping Trees and Shrubs

By Jake Hobson

ISBN: 978-1-60469-114-6

Published: November 2011, £25

Published by: Timber Press

Website: Timberpress.com

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Life and works of Dan Robinson

Two months ago I was asked to review a book ‘Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees’ about the life and works of a great American Bonsai pioneer, ‘Dan Robinson’. Normally I can write copy fairly quickly, but this book stumped me (excuse the pun).

Dan Robinson is not just a Bonsai master, he is in the world of Bonsai an icon. A man who introduced many new techniques in styling and collecting Yamadori. He is also known for moving from eastern natural styling to the artistic form of tree manipulation, to put it bluntly. It would not be my style of Bonsai as I am a tree hugger I prefer the natural flow of a tree gently pruned into a desired shape, but this review is not about my opinion of modern Bonsai art, it is about a man, a book, that paints a portrait of an artist.
With this book you will find styling techniques and a biography that leads you, the reader, on a journey as a man as a tree. It is clever, different and not like any other Bonsai book that I have read. Not that I read many books from page one to index. Normally I am the hands on dude who uses a book as a reference tool so reading this was initially difficult.
The book starts out with a forward by Walter Pall, that describes the man who is seen by some of his fellow growers, as just another bonsai stylist and not a bonsai artist. Pretty unfair. The lead image shows how close Walter Pall and Dan Robinson are and the forward describes this in detail.
“In my eyes, Dan Robinson is a truly American bonsai artist. … His art is authentic, coming from nature, American nature…” by Walter Pall
Elandan Gardens, Kitsop peninsula, Washington state. You know the place, Washington state  were ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ happened. I diverse! Elandan Gardens is the home of Don and Diana Robinson. It is described as a tranquil place beside a lake surrounded by embankments that create that perfect place were an artist can think without distraction. It is close to were Dan as a child saw this tree, “A tree I’ve never seen before”.
We have all seen that tree, our own tree that inspires and creates that spark as it did with Dan. This chapter tells the story of Dan from an early childhood were he was moulded, shaped into what he is now. It is a literary description that gives you an introduction to what is behind Dan Robinson, his childhood, his family and friends. From a kid in short pants back in 42′, describing his pondering touches, a sort of early love affair with trees. You could say a very early tree hugger.
Dan in some ways is anti-establishment (my kind of dude). In the ‘Demo Years’ he describes many techniques including, how Yamadori are collected. One such technique credited to him by George Heffilinger is the ‘Papoose Wrap’. This technique increased the survival rate of Yamadori by a large percentage. Dan, being the gentleman, says that this technique originates from Vickie and Bruce Valentine, who used plastic bags to store their fresh Yamadori, as in growing boxes they would surely die. Dan describes how he uses chicken wire and plastic sheeting to wrap the root structure. It is an interesting chapter that has many stories on famous names in Bonsai and the journey. GnarlyBranches
On one such journey, Dan found that now famous celebrity tree ‘Jackie’, a tree named after ‘Jackie’s Gleason Dancing’. It took Dan four years to train Jackie before ‘he’ was presented to the American National Forestry Service in 1980. Jackie is a Ponderosa Pine or Western Yellow Pine and he is approximately 150 years old. Jackie is now permanently dancing at the American National Bonsai Foundation.
This book goes through the many stages of Dan’s life written in some ways like a ‘Mills and Boon’ novel, describing the love affair with trees and how one man has dedicated his life to his art form. Their are many great Bonsai artists, but not many who have achieved so much as Dan. To these non-Bonsai artisthobbyist this book ‘Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees’ would make a great read and occasional book. Yes you can put it on your coffee table and all who read it will enjoy, but to the Bonsai budding artist it is inspirational, full of stories and technique. In someways it does tell you how one man has tried to break the mould and carve a ‘truly American bonsai’.
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Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees: The Life and Works of Dan Robinson – Bonsai Pioneer
by Will Hiltz
ISBN: 978-0-615-37850-3
Nara Press 2010, 292pp, Hardcover with dust jacket.
$49.59
Photographed published with kind permission from Jason Gamby.

Anyone interested in ordering the book may do so through the Elandan Gardens web site.

Disclosure: I agreed to write this review and received the book free of charge. Anything I write is honest and upfront.

Bonsai Inspiration

When it comes to bonsai books I am a great fan of practicalities and inspiring ideas. Their is nothing as bad as buying a book that you don’t feel like lifting up, one that gathers dust and ends up in the collection of possible recyclables. Yes I have bought those books… and no I won’t name them, well not yet! As a bonsai freakcollector in these recessionary times money well spent is a must, so having come across Harry Harrington’s book ‘Bonsai Inspiration’ was refreshing at a practical level.

The book starts out as most books with an introduction to Bonsai, its history and growing challenges for the beginner. This section is only two pages and then it gets into the good stuff.

Developing your own Bonsai.

The book explains in a series of chapters called the ‘Progression Series’, how a tree is designed, cared for and styled into a finished product. This is different from most bonsai books in that it explains from day one ‘How to Bonsai’.

bonsai privet
(c) Harry Harrington

Take the example…’Using material from the garden for bonsai’. The elements of this section explain that over-time your garden shrubs or trees (if your a good gardener) have been pruned every year or so and now exist with the desired height that you require. So transforming these from the ground to a pot is easier to achieve. Yes their are challenges in this transformation, but these are well explained by Harry. Take the example of the Common Privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium) progression series. In this, Harry explains from day one in August 2004, how this garden hedge tree was plucked from the ground, trained in its staging area for a number of years, how the deadwood was treated and like the inevitable masterpiece you come to expect it was transformed into beautiful piece of art. This is explained in a stage by stage practical and is photo documented to make it easier to understand.

Another example of this practical application can be found in ‘Developing Bonsai from Airlayering’. Airlayering is a great technique for growing your collection. It is a technique that has been used for generations by gardeners. With Bonsai their is a degree of difficulty as you are dealing with not just propagation, but styling. Where is the best place to make your cut, what is the best type of tree to use and how to develop your little stump, eh tree. Harry gives an excellent instruction in the pre and post creation phases, thereby guiding you into great possibilities.

(c) Harry Harrington

Is this book aimed at the beginner, possibly not the absolute beginner, but more the advanced one. It does not go into detail for anyone starting out as most beginners can be afraid to touch their prized tree. It does offer great advice if you want to make that transition from advanced beginner to an inspiring artist.

Other sections:

  • Creating Bonsai from field grown material.
  • Developing ready grown or ‘Finished’ Bonsai.
  • Developing Bonsai from nursery stock.
  • Developing Bonsai from air-layering.
  • Creating Bonsai from trees collected in the wild

Book Name: Bonsai Inspiration

Author: Harry Harrington

ISBN: 978-953-56515-0-5

Number of Pages: 272 (Full Colour)

Price: £24.95

Link to purchase. Click here.

Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees

(c) Dan Robinson
(c) Dan Robinson

As you read this book you can feel the emotion of understanding, an understanding that bonds the ‘Author to the Artist‘.
From the moment that Will and Dan first met, when Dan explained to Will the true pronunciation of the word
Bonsai, as Bone-sigh and not Bonzai (The karate kid yelled voice with a chop to match), this friendship was moulded.

This book is more than a story of a life enriched by trees. It is a descriptive piece that leads you the reader into an understanding of this great American pioneer, a depiction that details the challenges in Dan’s life in more than just creating ’Gnarly’ masterpieces.

The main character, the artist, the champ as we used to say for our favourite western flicks is known to his peers as the ’Picasso of Bonsai’, a pioneer who coined the phrase ’Phoenix Grafts’. A ‘Phoenix Graft’ is a technique were you bond a dead tree with a younger tree using various techniques.

Dan is also known as the man who changed the traditional styling of Bonsai to new techniques back in 78’. Very much a western style, a controversial technique using power tools for designing and crafting his trees, it is a technique that has been adopted globally since.

The imaginary in this book is awe inspiring, it is an inspirational piece of work that will bring you through the journey of this great man’s life.

(c) Craig Coussins
(c) Craig Coussins
There was a Bonsai Master in Japan in the mid 20th century . His name was Kitamura. He had a small but important school and his philosophy was to buy Bonsai , deconstruct these and create a more natural tree image. Far too many wonderful and well know Bonsai are artifice. They are indeed beautiful but they do not look like trees.
What Dan Robinson does at one end of the spectrum is allow a tree to develop naturally with some controls as to the shape. However, what Dan does is collect very old Yamadori that he keeps alive and just allows these to continue in style along the lines from which it was growing naturally. Dan can crate a Bonsai in as accepted a style as any other experienced master but he tries to retain the natural image of the collected tree. Based on his methodology of the age of these Yamadori, some are in excess of 1000 years old. What in any ones name would you wish to do to a tree that was already a dwarfed by nature tree other than appreciate the image of the tree itself.
I have many Yamadori as do many growers, but many of the trees that we collected need forming , branches need to be grown, buds developed and at last we can see the tree in the wood. Just look at some of my books and you will see what I mean. Branches on great trunks may be long whippy things and I need to inarch and graft, bend and shape the branch into an acceptable (to me as the artist) shape of a tree in nature. Not a highly sculpted shape that bears little resemblance to what I am used to IN MY AREA. And that is the key. I create trees that I am comfortable with. Trees that I see around me.
When I teach in other countries I create trees that I see in that area. . I try to make the image into a tree. I use every technique available to me to get to that point but I always try to end up with a tree that I can see outside in the mountains, valets and even the fields. I should stipulate that what I mean is that I try to make trees that are nice trees in nature. Yes, I realise that many trees in nature are a mess but I am not talking about those. You have seen many trees that are lovely-again look at the trees in my books which I photograph in Nature and you will see and hopefully, agree with me.
That was what Kitamura was trying to do. He wanted to make small trees not ornamental shrubs with spectacular trunks and little else to say ’I am a tree’

Article by Craig Coussins on Dan Robinson.

There was a Bonsai Master in Japan in the mid 20th century . His name was Kitamura. He had a small but important school and his philosophy was to buy Bonsai , deconstruct these and create a more natural tree image. Far too many wonderful and well know Bonsai are artifice. They are indeed beautiful but they do not look like trees.

What Dan Robinson does at one end of the spectrum is allow a tree to develop naturally with some controls as to the shape. However, what Dan does is collect very old Yamadori that he keeps alive and just allows these to continue in style along the lines from which it was growing naturally. Dan can crate a Bonsai in as accepted a style as any other experienced master but he tries to retain the natural image of the collected tree. Based on his methodology of the age of these Yamadori, some are in excess of 1000 years old. What in any ones name would you wish to do to a tree that was already a dwarfed by nature tree other than appreciate the image of the tree itself.

I have many Yamadori as do many growers, but many of the trees that we collected need forming , branches need to be grown, buds developed and at last we can see the tree in the wood. Just look at some of my books and you will see what I mean. Branches on great trunks may be long whippy things and I need to inarch and graft, bend and shape the branch into an acceptable (to me as the artist) shape of a tree in nature. Not a highly sculpted shape that bears little resemblance to what I am used to IN MY AREA. And that is the key. I create trees that I am comfortable with. Trees that I see around me.

When I teach in other countries I create trees that I see in that area. . I try to make the image into a tree. I use every technique available to me to get to that point but I always try to end up with a tree that I can see outside in the mountains, valets and even the fields. I should stipulate that what I mean is that I try to make trees that are nice trees in nature. Yes, I realise that many trees in nature are a mess but I am not talking about those. You have seen many trees that are lovely-again look at the trees in my books which I photograph in Nature and you will see and hopefully, agree with me.

That was what Kitamura was trying to do. He wanted to make small trees not ornamental shrubs with spectacular trunks and little else to say ’I am a tree’  (By Craig Coussins)

(c) Will Hiltz Nara Publishers
(c) Will Hiltz Nara Publishers

In Hawaii they call it “mana.” In Japan it is known as “ki.” This is the life force contained within man, animals and the plant world. It is the reason why the power of touch is healing. Those who possess such a touch along with an artistic bent and an innate respect for the natural world have the ability to create great beauty.

Dan Robinson is such a person. His gentle hands sculpt, nurture, caress and coax tiny and sometimes wizened bonsai trees into delicate works of art. His life force connects with the trees and they respond.  Now, with his new book “Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees” Dan is sharing his creations, and a good portion of his life, with the world. Follow the pages as the “Tree Guy” reminisces about his early days when his life force was new, but untrained. Discover the artist behind the art, the philosophies of a man arguably more in tune with trees than with fellow humans. Follow him as he searches for new trees in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest and brings them back to be part of his seven acre Elanden Gardens.

Dan views each of his bonsai trees as an independent spirit. He respects the mana of the tree and understands that by caring for and respecting that tree, it will return the favor by putting it best “trunk” forward. Proper bonsai form is sometimes trumped by a tree’s penchant to grow a certain way, creating something more beautiful than the artist might imagine. Sometimes the tree knows best.

Within the pages of “Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees” are stunning photographs of bonsai trees that have been nurtured to perfection. Some are older than the artist, but in a tree’s world, that is still young. At times it might be hard to tell whether Dan or the trees take center stage in the book. Since they have shared their life force to create such beauty, there really is no difference. This is not only a charmingly told tale about a man and his trees and the ancient art of bonsai, it is a love story. (Review by Monica Wachmann)

This above pre-release reviews were based on limited information received from the Publishers ‘Nara Press’. We have been invited to do a full review after the book is published in early October. We would like to thank Will Hiltz, The Author, Chief Photographer and Publisher of ‘Gnarley Branches, Ancient Trees’ for permission to use these images.

So as they say ‘Watch this space” for more book reviews.