A bonsai
Recording date:

National Bonsai and Penjing Curator Leigh Taafe teaches the tools of the trade and the principles of the bonsai and penjing practice.

Transcript of ‘The Art of Penjing’

Speakers: Alex Philp (A), Leigh Taafe (L)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 14/05/16

A:            Good afternoon, everybody. My name’s Alex Philp, I’m the Director of Overseas Collection Management here at the National Library and it’s my very great pleasure to welcome you all here today. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home.

This weekend is the fifth, and our final, weekend for Experience China public programming associated with Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644. We’ve been exploring Chinese culture, cuisine, art, landscape, architecture and the Chinese diaspora. Celestial Empire and its public programs would not have been possible without the support of a tremendous group of partners. It’s been an extraordinary collaboration between government, commercial partners and individual donors. First and foremost I thank the National Library of China for sharing its extraordinary collection with us and with all of you and I definitely hope you’ll take this opportunity to go and see the amazing exhibition this afternoon which is open until May the 22nd. I’d also like to thank our partners, Shell in Australia, Seven Network, Wanda One, Optus Singtel, Huawei, Cathay Pacific, TFE Hotels and our event partners today, the ANU Centre for China in the World and Asia Society Australia for their generosity and thanks for bearing with me through that long list. I’d ... also need to thank our government partners through the Australian Government through the National Collecting Institutions Touring Outreach Program and the Australia China Council and the ACT Government through Visit Canberra. And finally of course I’d like to thank you all for coming to today ... coming here today to learn about penjing and bonsai with Leigh Taafe.

Leigh is the curator of the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection at the National Arboretum. This collection displays about 80 bonsai and penjing trees and forests at any given time in a variety of traditional and modern styles with both Australian native and exotic trees. The oldest trees in the collection are more than 60 years old but still comparatively young when you consider the oldest known bonsai and penjing in the world are over 800 years old. These are creations often so valuable and so treasured they get passed down from one generation to the next.

Leigh first developed his interest in bonsai in the mid-1980s and started his own nursery, the Ledanta Bonsai Nursery in 2000. As well as his responsibilities as a curator at the Arboretum, he’s a member of the Canberra Bonsai Society which offers local practitioners the opportunities to enhance their knowledge and skills. I understand that Leigh’s specialties including carving, heavy bending and restyling of bonsai and I’m sure that he’ll share with us what that entails this afternoon.

We will have time for questions at the end of Leigh’s presentation and then afterwards we’d like to invite you for refreshments in the foyer. So please welcome Leigh Taafe.


L:             Thanks Alex. Welcome, everybody. Hopefully I’ve put together a little bit of an exciting presentation for you here today. I’ve brought some friends along with me that we can have a look at. These two trees are penjing, actually, from the national collection, so I’ve borrowed them for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. I’m sure they’ve ... they’re enjoying their time out of the cage that we have up there. Like many young people in Australia similar age to myself who are involved in bonsai, we gained an interest by watching Karate Kid, the movie, so it was the ‘wax on, wax off’ and standing and fence ... the whole bit. It had such an impact on so many people of my age, particularly the ones that followed on and got involved in bonsai as a hobby. It was quite extraordinary, the impact it had around the world, not only here in Australia but you know throughout Europe and America as well. I understand that movie is in many different languages so it’s got a lot to answer for in terms of spreading the word about bonsai.

I need to take a little bit of a step back because penjing on the other hand actually precedes bonsai in terms of an art, and we talk about how I became involved in bonsai through the movie, The Karate Kid, but how could it have moved over so many centuries from one thing to another? So hopefully I’ll be able to shed a little bit more light on the history of bonsai and penjing. My focus mainly with this presentation is with penjing, just for the simple fact that most people who’ve heard of bonsai would understand that it’s a miniature tree but wouldn’t know that it’s actually stemmed as a result of different art altogether.

Okay, welcome. So we’ve had a lovely introduction, a little bit of background on myself. I wanted to highlight in the first instance this tree. To many it would simply look like a bonsai and to a certain extent yeah, bonsai literally translated means tree in a pot, and that’s ultimately what you can see in the image here, but there’s so much more to it. We actually refer to this tree as our welcome tree and my exposure to penjing has only been actually quite recent. I certainly was aware of it throughout my hobbies as a bonsai artist but it’s only recently that I’ve been exposed to penjing in the bark for want of a better way to describe it. Certainly I’ve seen many books with pictures of penjing and so forth and you know done a little bit of reading and things but it’s only until I got involved with the national collection that I was exposed to artists who were creating penjing in a way that had been passed down through generations from families that they’d been involved in.

So whilst I said before that it was Karate Kid that kind of got me involved it wasn’t until I went to a bonsai nursery in Perth that I was ... a whole new world of bonsai opened up to me. So my interest in bonsai was kind of stemmed to the fact that there were no materials available for me to get started until I found bonsai nursery, I was able to go along and marvel in the creations for the artist in residence at that particular nursery. So all my learning around bonsai was in the traditional sense of the Japanese way and hopefully throughout the next part of the presentation I’ll be able to explain the differences between bonsai and penjing, because to the naked eye that simply looks like a bonsai so what makes it a penjing? And I’ll move through that as I come along.

So when I went to this particular artist’s backyard this was the tree at the front, okay? So walking through a back gate seeing this fabulous garden and the wood pagodas and a lily tea room that he had there and some benches and pedestals with lovely penjing and a wonderful waterfall feature that ran into a creek with a koi pond at the end, just absolutely stunning backyard. And this was the first tree that you saw. And it wasn’t until I said oh you know which ones can I borrow for the collection? And he said oh well you could you know have this one and this one and this one, okay, let’s do some paperwork. Now I need to have a story of course to tell the people who come and visit the collection you know what does this tree tell me? And he said well that’s the welcome tree. So this need to be at the front of the collection welcoming, welcome, come and enjoy my collection. So starting to get a little bit of an idea of what penjing’s about, it’s more than just a miniature tree.

So my presentation will have some kind of format like this. I tend to bounce around and you know remember things and go back and forth and there’ll be some things about trees that come up later that I’ll have to go back and show you a picture that you had already seen but it’s good that way because it’ll actually open you up to a different experience of appreciating the trees that you see before you.

So a definition, what is penjing? Okay, pen literally translated means pot or a container of some sort. Jing means scenery. Okay? So that really could be interpreted in many different ways. How does that differ to bonsai? Bonsai means pot and ... sorry, bon means pot and sai means tree, okay? So tree in a pot. I’ve got a weeping maple at home you know one of the ones with the grafted weeping maple? That’s a tree in a pot but it’s not a bonsai, okay? So we take it a little step further. The picture that you see there ... now if I ... oop, that’s the blackout, that’s the ... can every see my green dot? Okay so the structure of bonsai ultimately is ... what we’re trying to achieve in that art is the illusion of a large tree in miniature. This is quite old, actually, dates back to the ‘60s, this particular tree so it’s certainly by no means a new tree of any sort. It does have wire, can you see the wire on the branches? The reason for the wire is, what we’re trying to achieve is the illusion of a big old tree in miniature. Little trees, regardless of their age, don’t have the benefit of heavy foliage to weigh their branches down.

All the little trees grow up, they grow up toward the sun and it’s only when the weight of the foliage over time brings those branches down and gives you that aged look so we have to do that artificially. And we use wire, okay? So I’ve got ... I’ll pass these around. Two different types of wire here, aluminium and copper. This is using copper wire. This particular tree is a cedar, they’re very flexible. It takes ages to get the trees to grow into that style and as I mentioned before this dates back to the ‘60s and it’s still got wire on it. Okay, we didn’t put the wire on in the ‘60s and leave it there ‘cause the tree will continue to grow, okay, and the wire would end up cutting in so the wire goes off, comes back on, off, on, off, on continuously for this species of tree. Okay? Very difficult to get the branch to set in the place that you want it to be.

Other trees on the other hand, the two that we have here, they don’t actually get wire anymore, so the initial wiring may have been done, the branch has set, doesn’t need any more wire, okay? You can see a couple of other things on here. These white parts, here, there’s some here, little bit down here. That’s the artist getting a little bit creative, okay? So an understanding of the horticulture of trees, how they grow and what they can withstand, what kind of treatment they can have in terms of being able to achieve a style or artistically create something that looks like a bit tree in miniature, an understanding of your limitations is a good idea. This tree is actually hollow. Through that section there, underneath that is a hole that comes out the other side, okay? So if you understand how a tree grows and gets it rings, grows from the outside so you can actually hollow out the middle of it and it will still continue to grow. You’ve probably all heard of ringbarking, if you cut all the way around so that there were the nutrients and the things the tree requires from roots wasn’t getting up to the foliage, of course it would die. Okay? So you can see there that section has certainly been taken out, removed the bark and carve into the middle part of the wood, okay? But from this side and going ‘round the back and meeting up on the other side there is all nutrients being able to get transferred to the foliage.

So a little bit of history ... I don’t want to get too bogged down in it ... certainly penjing predated bonsai as I mentioned before and can be traced back as far as the Han and Qing dynasties, even before Christ. The first historical reference of penjing is this scroll which is on display at the Shanghai Botanic Gardens. Can you see a person there holding a little tray with some trees in it? We aren’t quite sure at which point in time that the message or the art of penjing was conveyed from the Chinese to the Japanese but it could be ... maybe ... there is history of Buddhist monks travelling over to Japan around the sixth century and then a further movement of Buddhist monks in a much larger way around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, I think so it was somewhere around that time so certainly at the very least penjing you know maybe predates bonsai by you know seven or eight hundred years, okay?

Oh that’s just what I told you, I'm getting ahead of myself. So the bottom one there, it wasn’t until really the 1800s that the term bonsai was adopted by the Japanese, it was ... they used to call it something else, Hachi no Ki, or something like that which kind of means the same thing as bonsai, tree in a pot. The refinement of the illusion of the tree in a pot to create something that appeared to be miniature is where the art really comes into it. There are two sides of bonsai and penjing, the artistic side and the horticulture.

So talk about a few of the different styles of penjing. Bonsai certainly has its own styles and generally they’re describing what you see. In bonsai you might have a formal upright tree where being formal it would be very straight in the trunk. Your branches tend to be ... tend to follow a kind of a pattern in bonsai so it’s ... certainly I don’t want to begin saying you know you can do bonsai by numbers but you can learn the aesthetics and ... of bonsai in terms of having an understanding of where branch placement will help you to achieve the illusion of a big tree in miniature and give you balance and aesthetics. Penjing is a little bit different, okay? What we have here, and unfortunately I haven’t got a picture of this tree without foliage, it’s another Chinese elm, so it’s deciduous, but this tree really takes on its own when it’s got no foliage on it. The trunk takes on a new persona of ... it just dances. You can kind of see that when it comes out. These are just roots here, exposed roots at the top, and the trunk comes up and it’s down a little bit smaller at the back then around. It’s moving up and down and around. Okay? What does this remind you of? A serpent, a dragon, something like that. Okay so the inspiration for the artist here might be something along those lines.

So tree penjing, shumu, hopefully I pronounced that right, I’m not entirely sure. I was on Google last night typing it in, how to pronounce .... Landscape penjing, shanshui. This particular piece is ... it’s an interesting one, it’s really heavy ‘cause it’s on a piece of stone and that setting might be ... a stone might be about that wide, okay? All of the trees in my presentation are up at the collection. Who’s been up to the collection? Yeah? Most of you? Those who haven’t you don’t know what you’re missing out on. It really is spectacular, I’m really proud of it and I love it, it’s a great place to work. This is another loan tree. Up at the collection we have ... our involvement with the bonsai community is looked upon as a partnership so a partnership between the ACT Government who funds the facility and the bonsai community who provide us with trees either by way of loan or donation. They also give us a whole bunch of really enthusiastic volunteers. I’ve got about 80 volunteers up there. Some are more active than others but they give me 110 hours of their time per week and really I couldn’t ... I couldn’t operate my facility without them.

So this is a loan tree. Another good part of the job is getting in a truck and travelling around the country going to see people’s collections, borrowing their trees and showing them off, returning them and getting something else so we’ve got a very dynamic collection. At the moment it’s about half-half, half loan and half donated, okay? So the story about this, and he told me to keep it secret so I’ll let you all know, this is a ... this piece of sandstone here he collected from a beach and he was kind of really wary of you know doing the wrong thing and there were some people walking around on the beach and he thought I really need this piece to show it off and to add to it and make art out of this piece of sandstone so he ... he was a young guy and he’s fairly fit and he said how’m I going to do this? My car’s at the top of the sand dunes, I’m way down here and I want to get this piece so he actually put it on his back and he pretended he was doing ... running up sand dunes. Put it down, ran back down, up again.

These are privet. It’s funny how you know there’s a lot of trees in my collection that people would refer to as weeds, noxious weeks, privet certainly being one of those. They tend to kind of grow wild by way of the berry being consumed by birds and the bird flying over the paddock and dropping the seed and a new tree grows. I’ve got a backyard that has powerlines around two of the main fences and they’re full of privet because the birds come down, eat the berry and then go and sit on the powerlines and right underneath you get more privet so ... they’re great for bonsai because you know who wants them in the garden? It’s a ... instant tree. You could cut the trunk and you can see just here that you can cut there, okay? So this is quite thick. Cut there, grow a new section here. Some of these have got–there’s another wound there, I can see this one would have been cut here. Okay? So the artist has gone along and collected some weeds and created art from it. So I’ll probably refer to this one a little later, we’ll come back to it but I just want you to get a sense of the way that the composition is being put together here and start thinking maybe there’s a story behind it.

Water and land penjing. This thing’s enormous, this takes up ... you can see there’s a guy ... this is my assistant here, over here, okay? So this is a cement fibro kind of sheet that’s been transformed into a tray for the penjing to be planted on. There’s no holes in it, everything’s just plonked on top, okay? So we borrowed this from a guy in Sydney, we hired a big 3 tonne Pantech to take up and get this setting in particular. To do it we had to get a few people to help us out. It took five of us to move it after we took the stones off. This stone here takes two men to lift it, very heavy. Take all the other stones here, took them all off, put them into the truck then the five of us moved the tray through this tiny little backyard with other penjing all around us into the truck and we said oh okay, thanks, got the form signed, we’ll bring it back in a couple of years’ time. He said no, don’t worry, I’ll jump in my car and I’ll follow you down so you know where to put the rocks back. So he’s in Sydney and we left at ... must have been like 4:00 here or something in the afternoon, we got back about 7, 7:30 and he followed us all the way down, helped us get it out of the truck, put all the rocks back in and said oh you know do you want to go out and get something to ... no, no, I’m done, I’ll see you later and jumped back in his car and drove to Sydney. Passionate guy, you know, and it’s reflected in his art as well. So this is actually a three tree setting, there’s a ... one trunk here, another over here. There’s one at the back so he comes from behind this trunk and grows up the back here. And we might revisit that one too.

The art of penjing, okay so now we’re getting into ... we’re starting to get a feel for it, you know? I was talking about bonsai being ... it’s kind of just a mini tree. Penjing has a lot more to it. So in contrast to bonsai where artists have a tendency to impose order on their creation so that real structured branch placement, penjing artists are often willing to embrace a measure of chaos. Some good ways to describe it that I found on the internet. While many trees would appear crude and imperfect to eyes of a bonsai artist, so now I’m reflecting on my journey through bonsai and my exposure to penjing, you know, I’d be looking in books and I’d go kind of don’t like it you know it’s a bit messy. The photograph of the penjing is ... as you can see here, this trunk goes up and down and back and forth and all over the place so there’s no real ... you look at that and you go oh I’m look ... I’m kind .. the way I learnt was to have my branches in this kind of fashion and my trunk didn’t do that craziness. Similar to what you see here, you know, a bit of movement in the trunk but branches are placed back and forward and left and right. Okay, it seems to have a bit more order to it. Does that make sense?

So in the art of penjing the artist seeks to capture and convey a sentiment, a mood in their work. The goal is to reveal an inner beauty in essence inherent in nature so they get their inspiration from somewhere else, they’re not just trying to make a tree look like a miniature tree. So this little landscape has got ... there’s actually a little pond at the front here in this ... it kind of looks white. It’s hard to tell in a picture but you know when we do our watering it fills up. There’s a little crack in it so the water actually drains out every time but what he’s trying to create there is a scenery, and the scenery may have a story to it. It may be a ref ... to illustrate something that he’s read, it could be a poem or something like that but certainly there’ll be a sense of ... there’ll be a feeling or emotion to it. And quite often it will be serenity, tranquilness so viewing this piece you kind of ... it’s almost like you’re floating away into a different space.

Use of figures. There’s a couple of crane here, there’s a deer, there’s a ... see that red thing? That’s a deer. Round behind it ... and this is the other thing with penjing ... penjing really are created to be viewed from any angle, front, back, side, everything has a ... is ... everything in penjing is appealing from whichever way you look at it so you don’t create a back. Okay? Bonsai on the other hand does have a viewing point so the bonsai in my collection we have facing the front and they’re viewed at that point. If you turn it around the whole composition changes entirely. Okay, there are branches at the back which are placed there to give you depth from your viewing point. If you turn it around they’re in your face and you can’t actually see the rest of the tree. Penjing on the other hand wants to be viewed from all angles. And I’ll show you that with those two little ones there shortly.

So, frequently the designs appear bolder, livelier and more playful, sometimes even bizarre like the one in a previous slide where the trunk is going all over the place. Alright that’s actually a picture of the one that I’ve got there on the left so that’s good ‘cause the ... the ones down here, I ... certainly at the end would welcome you to come up and have a look and I can show you them but they’re a little bit low for you to see here at the moment so luckily I’ve got this one on a slide. Penjing will often ... artists will often take their inspiration from ancient writings, paintings, poetry, calligraphy you know mythical creatures you know there’s always a story to it.

So my interpretation ... unfortunately the artist has passed away for this little composition so I didn’t quite get the story properly from him before he passed away but my interpretation of it is this is all stone here, it’s all stone, there’s little Chinese yom growing here, there’s a cotoneaster growing along here, has a little ... berries and flowers. There’s another elm here at the back. There’s one behind here. There’s a ... elm growing out of the top of this rock. Okay? So I see this as the mythical dragon protecting the sacred stone. There’s something poetic about that. Okay? It could be interpreted a different way but that’s the way I like to look at it. Quite often with penjing you also have something ... it’s accompanied by a ... something that helps to add to the story and here we got a little guy, it’s a little figure, yeah? There’s a guy holding an apple which could have come from this cotoneaster apple kind of miniature apple-looking tree. I think I jumped two there. Let’s go back.

Often compositions may depict a relationship. And those two particular ones there do in fact do that. So what I have is ... this large tree is the mother, this is a mother daughter relationship, this is the daughter here, okay? This is a flowering plum, it’s really elegant and it looks really nice when it’s in flower just before the leaves come. There’s very strong roots here, exposed roots at the top. This tells me that mum is very grounded, very strong-willed. She’s a strong lady. Branches come down with strength. However she’s very feminine. There’s a little branch going up here in contrast to all of the other ones going down, there’s this little one here and that’s one of the most important parts of the composition. It’s elegance, she’s an elegant lady. Okay?

The little one here, the branches ... it’s hard to see in this 2D image but the branches actually come around the mother like most hanging onto the legs you know like little kids do? This branch here comes out over the top of the little one, protecting, sort of protecting arm. Okay? Similar in this composition, and once again it’s ... they don’t photograph well. You look at these trees in the bark, in flesh and you can really appreciate them for what they are and you’ll be able to see the difference with those that I’ve taken pictures of here. But this is the same type of thing. Okay, there’s exposed root here at the front, very strong, sturdy trunk. Little bit weathered at the top, she’s been around for a while, okay? She’s certainly not necessarily school of hard knocks but she's learnt a lot of lessons along the way. Very strong branches. This is the ... in this cluster of stuff here is actually that branch, it comes down to protect here, that’s the protecting one and the little, you can see her, the arm’s actually come ‘round at the front and back as well. Very close planting here means a close relationship.

She would be referred to as matriarch of the family. Now when I picked this up it was obvious to me it was a relationship, but one thing eluded me and I said I don’t understand from ... this is the artist that passed away so I asked his widow this, obviously it’s a mother daughter or father son-type setup, can you explain to me what this little tree here is at the back? And my suggestion was is it possibly the granddaughter? Without thinking too much, it was my suggestion and obviously I’m wrong if it were a granddaughter. The granddaughter would be over here underneath the protecting arm of the daughter. This one is set further back in the composition and she said no, that’s the artist. And as soon as she said that I realised. It made me reflect upon the first time I’d met the guy and this was my explosive entry into penjing appreciation. I had not seen penjing in the traditional way so this guy does the Lingnan Penjing from the southern area of China. So my exposure to penjing like I said was from books or from people who didn’t really know having a crack at it. Okay, it was the first time I saw a guy who actually knew all about it and moved to Melbourne not that long ago and started creating penjing over here.

So walking into his backyard I was thinking oh here we go, I’ve got to go and see this guy’s, you know, disorganised penjing. [I] opened his backyard and it just was like wow, this is unbelievable, opened a whole dimension of appreciation for me which is probably a good thing, being the curator of a national collection. And at that point my journey in bonsai and penjing just changed entirely so if you come on one of my tours up at the collection I certainly talk a little bit about bonsai but I talk more about penjing ‘cause it’s so much more fun to interpret, okay? Telling people about the stories and seeing their face and going yeah, you know what? I actually get what you’re saying.

So walking into this guy’s backyard it was very much ... remember the welcome tree? That’s actually his son-in-law who did that so our two big penjing artists are kind of related to a certain extent and he was the ... he had the welcome tree and for Hong Lin who’s passed away, very much please come, enjoy in my garden and you know enjoy, as he moves back and it is just a small component of his art. Certainly he’s the artist but for him please appreciate what I’ve done and I’ll stand back which is in contrast to what I was familiar with. All of the other bonsai artists I go to, they’re there. These are my trees, come and have a look at my trees. I got an award for this tree and you know this is the best tree whereas for him it was quite the opposite. So when I was told that’s the artist it all made sense. Insignificant, right at the back. Okay? Next one, couple more penjing and pretty much most of the penjing are from these two guys, the father and the son-in-law.

So principles of yin and yang often are incorporate into penjing design. The contrast might be something that signifies gentleness, in contrast to something that might be powerful, something wild and then something not so wild. So let me explain the yin and yang in these two. This is a ... English elm, very powerful tree, okay? Strong trunk moving in ... everything moving in this direction. I said to the artist tell me what’s going on here? Can you explain it to me? And he said this is to signify strength, optimism, looking forward. He said the tree takes this direction, the horse looks forward into that direction, everything looking into the future, strong, strength, positiveness, all the branches going this way. So what is that? Two steps forward, one step back. Nothing in life always goes your way. Okay? There’s a hurdle along the way, that’s the story he’s trying to convey. This one, down here’s a little figurine. There’s three men sitting around a little table drinking tea, having conversations, three wise men. They might be talking whimsically about the happenings of the world. Okay? In contrast big, strong sturdy tree stood the test of time, the roots sticking out. Okay? It’s in these rocky kind of hilltop, strong powerful branches, okay? So the wind might come along and it won’t blow the tree but the wind could certainly blow away the whimsical conversation.

Horticulture. Horticulture of penjing, okay? Artistic manipulation of ordinary trees and plants, they are just normal trees. They’re not a special bonsai seed or a dwarfed type of tree that is stunted or anything like that, they’re just normal trees. Having an understanding of the horticulture is imperative and I touched on that before. I mentioned before I was going to jump back and forth. I'm moving forward now ‘cause I think I’m running out of time. What do the trees need to survive? Okay so a tree in the ground obviously you know gets its sunlight and its air circulation. From the ground it gets its moisture and nutrients. What happens if you put a tree in a pot? Certainly it will get some light and if you put it in the right place you know you'll get enough sun and air circulation. What you pot it in might have a bit of nutrients for a certain extent of time but how can it get its own water unless it rained very once in a while? Okay so these things rely on us, okay? Lot of people I’ve heard ... and as Alex mentioned I own a bonsai nursery ... I get people come in, help, something’s happened to my tree. Did you water it? Yeah, last week. Okay? These things dry out really quickly so they require us to take care of them.

So this is actually just on a tray here and everything’s plonked on top. That may have been cemented on ‘cause it ... or you know somehow attached to the tray. The rest of it is just all placed on and this could certainly get a little bit of water in it here but ultimately we need to add water right above the base of the roots. The nutrients in the container would certainly leach out very quickly unless we added something, okay? So all the watering we do up at the collection on a hot day, maybe high 30s and windy, there are some trees up there will get watered three times. Winter you know the collection might get watered on a wholesale kind of way maybe twice a week okay so it does depend on the weather. It also depends on the tree, some trees use more water than others. If a tree is a little bit pot-bound it will certainly use the water more. If it’s got room to capture moisture without the roots grabbing it it won’t dry out so fast.

So all those things are required. The adding of water, the adding of food or nutrient. Generally up there we do it every two weeks. There is slow release in the soil but in addition to that we’ll add a liquid fertiliser every two weeks except for winter, the trees just don’t draw it through winter so we only do it through spring, summer and autumn. So root pruning, why would we do root pruning? Is this one way to keep it small? No, it’s quite the opposite. What we’re trying to achieve is a tree that is healthy and as you can see apart from the autumn colour that’s coming in, which may give the illusion of a tree that might be missing some nutrients or whatever, these trees are very healthy so they’re given everything that they need as I suggested before.

Now if we left them in the pot and the roots continued to grow it would become pot-bound and over time they’d be so dense in the pot with roots that moisture wouldn’t be able to get in properly, the soil would certainly be spent and it’d be hard to get fertiliser in so what we do is we take it up, untangle the roots, trim some off, add fresh soil and we do this every two or three years, okay? It’s not something we do all the time and it’s by no means to slow the tree down, in fact we’re doing it to keep the tree moving, keep the tree happy and healthy, okay? So ultimately the health of the tree is promoted as much as possible as a result. For something in a pot we certainly get a lot of growth. Not quite the same as a tree being in the ground and growing you know to its own devices but we do push our trees quite hard. What do we do with the resultant growth? We just trim it off and that’s what keeps it small so we use our scissors to trim. Our cutters to cut back. That’s how bonsai and penjing are kept small. Okay? Lots of growth, artistically trimming to maintain the shape that we want.

Some are easy so this particular one was on a ... just a flat tray, there’s no holes, it’s not held down in any way, we can just simply get the whole thing and tip it back, work underneath, use a ... some of the tools that we have. You’re welcome to come and have a look at these at the end as well. So we tip it back and we use this rake here to untangle the roots, okay? We move some of the old soil and then just with our scissors here we just cut the roots back, add fresh soil in then tip it back up the other way. Some are easy. Some aren’t so these big ... these two ... I was talking about ... big ones a little bit earlier, these two little ones here on the side, they’re some of the smallest ones, by no means the smallest. The smallest in our collection would probably be about that big. The biggest is around about oh maybe a bit shorter than me.

This particular one would stand probably about from the ground up to about here if I was standing next to it. This is a ... one full piece of rock here. Down the bottom there’s some rock cemented in to give a flat base. The green stuff here is just a little accompanying planting like a baby tears-type, little bit of greenery down the bottom. Up the top there’s a couple of rocks placed near the top to create a cavity for the tree to sit in. The tree sits atop the stone. If I spin it sideways which I can’t actually do here the roots grow down the side of the rock down here and are just covered in moss. So the artist has basically taken the tree out of a pot that he’d grown it in for a number of years, cemented this stone together beforehand and untangled the roots like this, sat it in top and draped the roots over the side and placed moss and stuff around the roots to keep the moisture in. That one similarly so he’s put a few rocks. This base is one, this rock is placed in here and this tall rock here are placed on top of this base and probably cemented in and the tree sits atop. The roots actually have quite ... the roots are quite woody and the smaller roots are in this section. So for us to root-prune that we’d have to take the whole composition apart, okay? So we don’t. Simple. What we do is we excavate. So leaving all this on here we would dig holes in this area here, remove some of the old roots and add fresh soil. Similarly up here we do the same thing. Too difficult to take apart. We’ll do questions in a sec.

Couple of other things I wanted to point out ... oh and I don’t recall seeing a picture of the ... I don’t know what … will it work on that?. Can you all hear me if I walk around like this? This is one of my favourite trees in the collection. I spoke of the artist that passed away, Hong Lin. Well his widow, she wanted to give us one, said I want to donate something that meant a lot to me, and I said yeah, sure, no problems. She said what ... I want to give you this one because it’s really important for me and the relationship is fantastic, can you tell me the story? She said well I went out bushwalking one day, I found this stone—can you see the large stone here? She said oh I found this stone, please, take it and do something so off she went. So he said this stone means a lot to me ‘cause my wife gave it to me so what I’m going to do is I’m going to represent the relationship I have with my wife. Now when I tell people he’s the large stone and she’s the small stone they often think, oh, he’s more important than she is, but the most important part of it is is that it looks right, they fit together. You can see this stone looks like it’s part of the other one, it fits in. It fits in so it’s a representation of their love. I love telling the story about [it].

So I guess we’re at a point where you’ve kind of got a feeling for the difference between bonsai and penjing. Would I be right in saying that? Yeah? Certainly miniature horticultural art from a you know broad perspective but it’s important to me for you to be able to understand that they are entirely different, okay ...

[End of recording]