It's inspiring to see the amount of quality information that keeps popping up online about Bonsai and interesting to note the amount which has been shared only recently. In the last few years alone we've gained several blogs and videos from Bonsai folk who have apprenticed or are currently apprenticing under professionals in Japan.
I have really enjoyed reading the blogs of those who are currently apprenticing in Japan. While I sometimes wish I would have studied in Japan, these blogs have allowed me to somewhat live vicariously and learn through the authors without all the extreme difficulties that come along with the education. One of my favorite types of these blogs is from Peter Tea who is currently in his second year at Aichi-en Bonsai Nursery. Peter has shared a treasure trove of knowledge and several of his stories about his experiences so far.
I recently caught up with Peter and was able to ask him several more questions I had and he was kind enough to answer. I thought I would share these, so here are the 28 questions and answers below. Thank you Mr. Tea!
Above-Peter working on Black Pine at Aichi-en
1. What do you think you will learn or focus on in 2013 as opposed to what you’ve learned and focused on in 2012?
A. 2012 was a overload of new Bonsai information for me. It reinforced what I’ve learned in the past, yet also got me to rethink my approach and philosophy in Bonsai. For 2013, I plan to continue honing the skills I’ve learned in the past, and be more focused on more varieties and better recognizing the little things that make each species used in Bonsai interesting and unique.
2. What do you think Bonsai in the US will be like 20 years from now?
A. The US is such a large country and Bonsai levels vary greatly. I see a huge leap in quality and enthusiasm as I’m continuing my apprenticeship today. There are young and talented bonsai professionals hitting the bonsai scene and I can only see a up swing in Bonsai and a new higher standard in American Bonsai.
3. Name 1 or 2 non bonsai related lessons Mr. Tanaka has taught you during your apprenticeship?
A. It’s okay to have fun too.
4. After your apprenticeship, will you run a program similar to that of Boon’s Intensives or Michael Hagedorn’s Seasonals?
A. I’ve thought about doing something similar but not 100 percent sure yet. These types of programs seem to produce the best results in getting good Bonsai technique to highly enthused people. Personally attending Boon’s Intensives is the main reason why my transition to apprenticeship in Japan was so smooth.
5. Being a graduate of a program like this, what advice can you give on how to get the most out of these programs?
A. Keep an open mind to allow new information in. You are there to learn. Also practicing what you learn really does help!
6. What are some of your short term Bonsai related goals?
A. Finish my apprenticeship, build a nursery and continue to work with good people.
7. What are some of your long term Bonsai related goals?
A. Continue the spread of Bonsai and having my students grow and develop Bonsai better than I ever could.
8. If Akadama ran out in the US. What mixes would you start experimenting with?
A. Akadama is an interesting soil because it evolves with the root system. At first, it holds only so much water, then as the tree grows more roots and the akadama starts to break down, it holds even more water for all the new roots. I’m not sure what other types of material I can find that will do similar things other then firing some clay myself. If I couldn’t come up with a substitute, I would probably use porous type stones in the mix only such as lava, pumice, etc.
9. What brand of tools do you use at Aichien and how do you like them?
A. We use a wide variety of tools at the nursery and it’s only a matter of what works well for us. I use scissors, pliers and wire cutters from Masakuni, and many of the rest of tools are from Kaneshin.
10. What do you think of the Portland Cup Bonsai Show which is starting in October 2013?
A. I commend Ryan Neil and Michael Hagedorn for putting on a high caliber show together. That is what the US needs more of. It’s not just about putting a tree in a show for the potential to win, but the experience of bonsai enthusiasts coming together and supporting a show that is intended to build the Bonsai community. I know it’s going to be a lot of work for them and I hope that its successful and meets their goals. I should be in California during that time and would like to attend myself!
11. When you start your own Bonsai business up, what types of trees will you specialize in?
A. I always tell people that my favorite trees are Black Pines, Junipers and Trident Maples, but in honesty I have yet to not like a species used in Bonsai when they meet their true potential. I’ll definitely specialize in the common species used in Bonsai but would like to be experienced with as many different species as possible.
12. If any, what types of US natives would you like to work with or experiment with?
A. We are fortunate in the United States with all the great native species to choose from. I like the native junipers and pines, but what I would really love to experiment with are Coast live Oaks and Valley Oaks. Done well, they have such a good feeling to them.
13. What’s the hardest part for you about your apprenticeship?
A. Everybody always talks about the long hours of labor involved in an apprenticeship, but that’s actually the easiest part. The most difficult part is the mental aspects of an apprenticeship. Not only do I have to deal with the mental stress of the day to day work, the different personalities/moods of my boss, other professionals/apprentices/ customers, but my own mental state adjusting to a new home, customs, language and lifestyle. With all that on my shoulders, a little mindless labor is actually relaxing. ;o)
14. What will happen to your blog once you finish your apprenticeship?
A. I plan on continuing my blog after my apprenticeship and share with the folks my life and work being a professional. I’ll be sure to head back to Aichien for many years into the future so there will always be posts of the nursery and things I do there.
15. Give us one tip about working with Black Pine?
A. Black Pines are the most difficult tree to make into great bonsai. We have to learn so much just to develop and style them well. My one tip would be for each of us to step up to the challenge of making a great Black Pine Bonsai because it will teach us so much about Bonsai in general that no other tree can do alone. Trunk development, branch structure, foliage balance, tree balance and uniformity, fertilizing, work timetable, wiring, age are some of the things that Black Pines can teach us.
16. What’s the best way for people in the US to obtain top notch material?
A. I believe that learning from a skilled and qualified professional will help us all in first recognizing what good material is. Then at that point, it’s a matter of growing, collecting or importing trees. Personally I think growing and collecting are the best way to get nice material. Importing works for me as well but is much more limited with all the restrictions.
17. Tell us one way in which a thought or idea about Bonsai has changed since starting your apprenticeship?
A. My beliefs on soil has changed dramatically because it heavily affects how the tree will grow.
18. What is your favorite type of foliage on our Native Junipers?
A. I actually like California Juniper the most. My second favorite is western junipers though they are a bit sticky.
19. When would you graft a native juniper and with what?
A. I would graft native junipers in the early Spring or early Fall. If I ever wanted to change the foliage of a native juniper, it would most likely be to tighten up the foliage. Either the same foliage but higher quality or Shimpaku foliages such as Kishu or Itoigawa.
20. With $6,000 dollars can you buy a better conifer in Japan or the US?
A. It would be cheaper in Japan purely because there is so much more material there causing the price to go down.
21. How often will you spray your own trees for pest?
A. In California, I rarely had to spray my trees. Usually when I notice a problem is when I spray them with insecticidal soap, oils or a type of systemic.
22. How should you prevent fungal issues on your trees?
A. If I was in an area where fungus is prevalent, I would spray my trees every month with daconil.
23. Will you use systemic insecticide on your trees?
A. Yes and have.
24. Do any Japanese professionals you know of use an RO system and why or why not?
A. I don’t know of any professionals in Japan that uses RO water. The reason why is because water is Japan is very clean so they don’t really have issues with that. They get so much rain every year that there’s never really a drought to lower the water quality. The US is such a large country with so many different climates, so we have issues with varying water qualities. Personally I had to use RO water in my area of California and my trees responded very well to it.
25. After your apprenticeship do you plan to offer any imports through your business?
A. I plan on importing bonsai supplies and such but not sure about trees. Lots of obstacles and I’m not sure if it’s viable because of all the restrictions we have now. Plus, I’ll be in California where plant restrictions are even more strict, but I plan to look into it.
26. What type of liquid fertilizer if any is used at Aichien and how often is it applied?
A. We don’t use liquid fertilizer at Aichien. We use ground up rapeseed and put them in tea bags. We apply them to different trees during different times of the year.
27. On a live juniper vein, what do you use to remove the outer bark?
A. I have a thin and slightly dull blade tool that I use to remove the bark. The tool was actually made for that type of work. The dullness of the tool is nice because its sharp enough to remove the bark, but not quite sharp enough to constantly cut into the vein.
28. What type of lime sulfur does Mr. Tanaka use on juniper deadwood?
A. I’m not sure of different types of lime sulfur, but the lime sulfur concentrate that we use is 29 percent. When apply on juniper deadwood, we use 100 percent at first application. After that, it’s about 50-50 water and lime sulfur.