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Review: The Secret Techniques of Bonsai, Masakuni Kawasumi

Book Report: The Secret Techniques of Bonsai
By Masakuni Kawasumi II and Masakuni Kawasumi III


This book was copyrighted in 2005; however, it was started by the father and finished posthumously by his son.  Thye father was a famous bonsai person in Japan as far back as the 1930’s.  His son became a   professional tree doctor, a title that requires certification in Japan.   The father started this book after traveling and observing bonsai in many other countries.  He also authored Bonsai with American Trees.  In the book the son’s additions to the book are set aside and noted with “From the Tree Doctor”.  While it is a 10.5”x8” book it is only 110 pages long and a majority of the pictures in it are black and white.  The book is organized into two parts; part one has three chapters and is titled “the Basics” and part 2 has 12 chapters under the title “Techniques”. 


The father notes in Chapter 1 that bonsai has a spiritual aspect on a higher level than can be found in most other leisure activities.  He feels this is why people the world over take such a zealous interest in the art.  This is taken almost word for word from the book.  He says when contemplating bonsai he says that bonsai evokes images of trees or shrubs in nature, or moves the hearts of viewers.  Therefore not all plants or trees in pots are bonsai. Trees and plants that emanate the aura of wabi (quiet refinement) or sabi (timeworn elegance) are bonsai in a deeper sense of the word. 


Chapter two shows the styles and provides the Japanese word for the style first.  Some were familiar to me, some not.  For example Kengai for cascade was familiar but Sankan for triple-trunk style was not.  Chapter 3 is about starting bonsai.  The son or Tree Doctor” provided comment aout “Adopting Natural Seedlings.”  He believes seeds that sprout naturally make better bonsai because they were the one seed that survived from thousands of seeds dropped by a tree.   However, he goes on to say that cuttings are the best way to cultivate new plants for bonsai.  He cautions cut with a sharp instrument as a blunt tool will reduce the likelihood to root.  Recutting underwater helps as does soaking it overnight and using a rooting hormone.  The chapter goes on to discuss collecting seedlings and buying plants from a nursery or bonsai garden.  The three criteria he says are important in selecting a plant are 1) good surface roots, 20 tapering trunk and branches and 3) abundant branches. 


Part Two of the book focuses on a variety of techniques including ; layering, grafting, bud trimming, defoliation and Jin and Sharikan.  In the chapter on layering there a photos showing the use of a “toriki scraper” a tool made just for air layering.  In the chapter on grafting he shows side grafting, top grafting and approach grafting.  Each type is photo illustrated and the tree doctor discusses the application of grafting.  Chapter 6 presents making a bonsai with multiple trunks or as we’d call it “Clump Style”.  He shows this technique using maples and Zelkova. 


In Chapter 7 and 8 he separtates preparation for repotting from repotting and actually discusses pruning as a preparation item.  His pruning instruction also show the use of the proper bonsai tool to use for a variety of types of pruning.  He shows that the resulting scar is smaller and heals quicker when the right tools are used.  In Chapter 8 he focuses on when to repot (when the trees are not leafed) and getting to know the soil.  He says there are two kinds of soil structure, single grained and clumping.  And he talks about soil chemistry, saying that most trees need a pH of 6.5-7.0. (slightly acidic to neutral).  He advises against using lime to raise the soil pH regularly.  He also advises to use one soil type for all your trees. 


Chapter 9 is about bud pruning.  He says in general deciduous trees should be kept to 2 leaves, so trum off what extends beyond them.  Similarly he points out that the buds on a pine are reduced to the two you want.  He show a variety of tools for these tasks but noted pine candles are usually pinched.  In chapter 10 he notes that defoliation increases ramification and is done after the leaves darken and harden.  Needle plucking of pines is also covered in Chapter 10. 


Chapter 11 shows several techniques related to reshaping through wiring.  He shows metal bars ans clamps used to bend heavy branches.  The final technique presented is the use of a Trunk Splitter.  He says trunks up to 2” in diameter can be split.  Trunks can be split in half, quarters or even 1/6ths.  A split trunk can then be bent into shape and wrapped to heal in its new shape. 


Chapter 12 is about creating Jin and Sharikan. (I thought it was Shari.)  He shows four sets of hand carving tools and 7 power tool attachments.  The next four pages show photos of using tools to create Jin of Sharikan.  In one series he shows that a trunk can be moreeasily bent after the Sharikan is created.  The tree doctor spends some time talking about taking time to trace the lifelines or water lines between the roots and the branches to prevent killing them when creating Sharikan.


Chapter 13 is devoted to the planting of bonsai on a slb or rock, called Ishitsuki. (Another new word for me.)

He notes that such plantings do NOT need to be repotted very often.  There are 20 photos used to show the planting of a slab with maples.  The tree doctor provides that te slab planting will need special care when it comes to watering. 


The book closes with a Chapter on daily care and then a chapter on bonsai tools.  Care covers location, turntables, watering, fertilizing, weeding, and protection from disease and the weather.  If you’re wondering how turntables got on this list; its so that you can more easily rotate your trees for even growth and ease of care.  In the chapter on tools he starts with the basics.  Selecting the right tool, and after care use which includes cleaning and sharpening. 


While I am not normally attracted to books using black and white photos, this one covered a number of techniques that we plan to be presenting during our 2013 calendar.  And some subjects though short are presented in more detail than I’ve seen in many other books.