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Improving our Bonsai - Nebari


Author - Mark Higgins

Over the centuries there is one aspect of growing Bonsai that has changed very little and that is the styling of trees. Bonsai styles are a reflection of what can be seen growing in nature and while different styles will appeal to different people, there should always be a common thread between them - there should be age, beauty and maturity

A Bonsai must look old and a tree that has been well styled will leave you wondering exactly how old it really is because it just looks so old. A Bonsai must be beautiful and very pleasing to look at.A Bonsai must be mature, apart from being old it should be distinguished and also demand attention, they should stand out from the crowd and almost insist that you look at them. You could almost say that a Bonsai should have an attitude.

Next time you are looking at a group of Bonsai you will notice that there is usually one Bonsai in particular that draws your attention much more than the others. It is the combination of these characteristics and how well they are applied that will determine the quality of a Bonsai. Taking a much closer look at them, understanding them and applying them in our styling will lead to an improvement in our trees. Once we start to focus on these points, our trees can be taken to a new level, unfortunately, like everything in Bonsai, it will take time but if we don’t start now, the quality of our Bonsai will always be less than we really desire.

The subject of styling opens up a Pandora’s box full of topics for discussion that could go on forever and as a club we are only scratching the surface with what we know. While I can only comment and focus on the areas that I am familiar with, the door is certainly open for discussion, debate, friendly arguments or whatever on anything that follows or should be covered and is omitted.

When Hirotoshi Saito was in Perth he left us with a very valuable set of guidelines for an old tree and a beautiful tree. These guidelines are exactly what we need to follow but now that we have them, they should be looked at in more detail so that we understand how to apply them to our styling and more particularly why. I wonder how many of us have revisited the guidelines since he was in Perth.

Age is it an illusion or is it real ?

Age in a Bonsai can be achieved to some degree by just allowing the tree to grow in its pot from year to year or it can be advanced by training the tree in a specific manner so as to adopt the growing habits of a mature tree in nature. The most common part of a Bonsai that people associate with age, is the surface roots - the NEBARI.

First we need to understand that Nebari is not just the surface roots but also takes into account the way a tree flares out at the base and grips the soil. Nebari creates stability for the Bonsai and has a huge impact on the perceived age of a tree. Good Nebari only comes with time, when roots are grown too quickly they look young, seem to stick out from the trunk and at times can even appear artificial. The Nebari should radiate out from the base of the trunk at the same level and appear to grip the soil. There should be no gaps between the soil and the roots and there should be a general evenness in the thickness of the roots, by this I mean that you would not have two or three really thick roots and say 2 very thin roots. The roots must also have taper.

Correcting the Nebari may not be all that easy, especially if the tree has been allowed to grow with defects. There are many instances when people see roots that twist and cross over each other as being quite acceptable but they aren’t. Quite often a single thick root on the tree will also appeal to people and just like twisted or crossing roots, should be avoided. Nebari generally comprises several roots radiating from the base of the tree and one thick or twisted root does not make a fine Nebari, in fact it can become a focal point and detract from the whole tree. A root that is too thin can be improved over time as the tree grows but if you are in a bit of a hurry, allowing a low branch directly above the root to grow will help the thickening process. Sap tends to flow in a straight line up and down the trunk, the more sap flowing between the branch and the root, the larger the root needs to be to transport the sap. Just be careful that growing the branch too much doesn’t affect the taper of the trunk, branch or the root for that matter. The root can thicken very quickly and if you don’t keep an eye on it, you could end up with a root much larger than you want.

When root pruning, don’t prune the smaller roots, only the thicker ones and this will allow the smaller ones to catch up in sizee. This is similar to allowing a branch to grow unchecked in order to thicken it. On the other hand, a thick root can be pruned back to a point where it can still generate new roots and this can slow its rate of growth and bring it back into perspective with the rest of the roots. Of course, there is always the risk of damaging the tree by removing large or twisted roots and sometimes it is just not worth taking this risk. Therefore we have no option but to make the most of what we have and changing the front of a tree might be a much better and safer solution than cutting away half a root system.

Once a root at the base of the tree is exposed to the air it hardens, starts to form bark and generally slows down in its rate of growth, so keeping roots covered in the soil also helps in thickening them. Of course there is also the grafting of roots and propagated cuttings to the base of the trunk to improve the Nebari but as I have never attempted this before I can’t really comment. Perhaps someone can share their experiences with this technique. I do know however that air layering is very affective with deciduous and Ficus. If the procedure is done correctly it provides plenty of roots to choose from and can be employed as a very useful tool to create a reasonable Nebari. If you haven’t tried the technique, it is certainly well worth giving it a go.

There are some great articles in Bonsai Today on improving the Nebari ( see volume 17 and 23 ) and a remedy can be as simple as wedging two roots apart that are growing close together in order to improve the spacing. Sometimes however it can be bit like trying to shut a gate after the horse has bolted but if we are able to get the Nebari right from the beginning, then we can concentrate on the rest of the design and not waste our time in the future trying to correct poor roots.

If you are growing trees from cuttings then you have the ideal opportunity to create a good Nebari from the beginning. Most of us start out with stacks of cuttings that we pot up but not all of them will be any good. While it is best to strike quite a few so that you have a selection to choose from, once they are underway, sort out the rubbish at an early stage so you are not wasting time and space. Select cuttings that have roots growing all around the base of the cutting and not just on one side as is often the case. The roots that grow from the base of a cutting are those that develop from adventurous buds found along the trunk or branch and it these that make the best Nebari. Growing trees in large training pots or in the ground will produce much better Nebari than in a Bonsai pot and I encourage members to give this a go as it will develop your trees at a much faster rate. The ideal time to work on the Nebari is when your are repotting the tree or when transplanting it from the ground or a training pot. In nature, Nebari is a result of the tree growing both vertically and in girth. The tree pushes upward and at the same time the roots around the base expand developing a flared platform. Over time, the soil around the base of the tree is gradually eroded away which exposes the surface roots so that we are able to see them. If there is no visible Nebari on our trees the same principals can be applied to our Bonsai except we can remove the top soil around the base of our trees to expose the roots close to the surface rather than waiting for it to be eroded away. Sometimes we can be quite surprised at what we find under the surface of the soil and an attractive Nebari will already be present. On the other hand there might only be a few fine surface roots which will need to be encouraged to grow. Whatever the case, we should be focusing on this area of a our trees in greater detail than we presently are.

The Nebari is one of the most important areas on a Bonsai that adds so much to the illusion of age. Good Nebari is developed over time but by just paying close attention to the detail now, we can achieve a vast improvement in our trees in a much shorter period of time. Sometimes this will require major work, or as I mentioned before, it can be as simple as wedging two roots apart that are growing too close together. Next time you are looking at a picture of a Bonsai look closely at the Nebari, use a magnifying glass if you want and have a closer look. When you are out walking, driving or whatever, look at the Nebari of trees growing around you and take note of the difference between the really old trees and the young ones. The thing to look for is the detail, for example if the tree is slanting usually the roots on the side the tree is leaning away from will be stretched and more exposed while on the opposite side the roots will be less evident and slightly bunched up or compressed. After you have looked at a few pictures of Bonsai and trees growing around you, try to imagine what you would like the Nebari to be like on one of your trees and develop a mental picture of this so that you have something to aim for. Then work out how you are going to achieve it.

Styling a Bonsai takes into account all areas of the tree from the Nebari through to the Apex and there is a strong need to balance out the good points with the not so good, although the Nebari comprises only one of these areas, it is considered to be a very important one for establishing age in our Bonsai. When it was suggested we introduce a series of improvement topics to our workshops, the idea was to help us look beyond what our trees are now and more towards the future design of our Bonsai. To achieve this we need to develop our imaginations or at least know what we want to achieve, but then if we don’t understand how to get there then it can be fairly difficult to see exactly what we want. By working our way through the guidelines left by Hiro, so that we can expand our knowledge of the basics of Bonsai and then apply these principles when designing our trees, in time, hopefully we will have a much better understanding of the way to achieve our goals.

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