July 25, 2023

Case Study - First Styling of a "Naturalistic Deciduous" Yardadori Privet

             The 51st Columbus Bonsai Society is fast approaching! Alongside preparing for my first time vending at our local show, and moving my house and bonsai nursery last weekend, I had time to squeeze in a quick styling of this yardadori privet for my donation to the CBS Raffle. There's still much to do so today I will briefly share the backstory of this tree, nuances I associate with naturalistic deciduous bonsai, and show you the before and after. The reason I am sharing this tree, in particular, is that it is an excellent case study of what we will be doing in my "naturalistic deciduous privet yamadori styling" workshop on Sunday afternoon, 3-5pm at the show. If you'd like to sign up for that workshop, you can do so here. I'll also be teaching a beginner indoor bonsai workshop on Saturday, 3-5pm; final spots are available at here. You can also see the other available workshops and more details on the show here. If you purchase any workshop later than Tuesday, 7/25/23, be sure to bring proof of purchase (your email receipt) to the show for workshop check-in.

Final view. Even I was surprised with how much I liked it afterward. Compare below to the humble starting material.


*This tree was donated to me by Mike from the Akron-Canton Bonsai Society when a few of us CBS guys recently went up for their swap meet. Thanks Mike! I enjoyed working on it and hope the next owner appreciates your work rescuing it from the yard as much as my styling!

            Some of these before shots were accidentally taken with the fisheye lens filter. OOPS! Anyways, enjoy the view and you can see I corrected this in the final shots, but I had already done a bit of thinning by the time I corrected it. Regardless, before styling there was not a clear trunkline. The thick lower branch threatened to take over while the top with the deadwood had some weaker branches. I redirected and removed some branches at the base so the gnarly trunk could be better appreciated. I didn't have an exact idea of where the tree was going at first, I just started from the bottom and placed one branch at a time in the best position I could think of so each branch would have its own space for health and design reasons, and so the viewer could find visually interesting changes of direction or other traits from multiple viewing sides. If you have a more general idea of your direction, a final design is both a flexible moving target and can easily fall into place while you follow your intuition on a case-by-case basis for each branch.

Comments on Privet Bonsai:

            Privet are commonly found in landscape hedges as they easily become dense in response to pruning. However, The common privet (Ligustrum vulgare) also easily escapes cultivation due to its tendency to sprout from roots and its ability to spread by seedy berries. They are invasive in some parts of the world, especially in more southern areas of the US, but here in Ohio, they are about to be declared invasive as well in 2026. Despite the ecological concerns, privet are IDEAL bonsai candidates and respond readily to our techniques! As they naturally form dense internodes, they can develop into compelling deciduous bonsai quickly. Just make sure to keep them contained in your yard by avoiding planting in the ground and pruning spent flowers off before the berries develop. Below you can see the potential of privet bonsai using two examples from prominent European artists where the common privet is native. In my experience, privet is tolerant of carving and although the deadwood will eventually rot it will last a while without assistance. For finely detailed carving, a wood hardener may eventually be called for. Also, regarding flowering. Privet will flower only at the end of an elongating shoot. Therefore, to get flowering you will have to avoid pruning in spring-early summer until elongation is complete. This means that unless you have a pot-bound privet that is in a more refined state, the flowers will be a bit shaggy and outside of your desired silhouette.
A Harry Harrington-styled privet after several years of pruning, wiring, and carving.

A Nik Rozman-styled privet in flower.

Comments on "Naturalistic Deciduous Bonsai":

            Given my background as a student of "The Robinson" aka "Bonsai Man Dan" as I used to call him on this blog, I enjoy studying the branch structures of trees. Those which are especially captivating are those "gnarly" trees who may be ancient or who's branches tell a story of a tree who lived a difficult life. To create the gnarly design, branches can't be overly straight though as that tells a different life story. Straight branch segments are natural on a young tree or in an area without excessive winds or storms which cause branches to break off and redirect in nature. Thus, the definition of naturalistic bonsai can change based on what you are trying to convey! But if you are rooted in imagining the environment your tree is growing in, you can let that guide your styling decisions.

            Also, one more comment on naturalistic bonsai. I would argue that for naturalism to be truly emphasized, one has to embrace deadwood, even on deciduous trees. The above tree has a wonderful gnarly piece of deadwood that was partially rotted, giving it a more interesting texture. It does not harm the tree to leave this in place and it gives character! One opposite side of the spectrum from naturalistic would be an idealistic tree. If or when you want to design a tree with this style, then it would be appropriate to prune off deadwood on deciduous and apply your cut paste to the flat cut and wait and promote that callous to heal over and hide the wound. This does have one downside in being slower and why not play to a tree's strengths if it already has an interesting characteristic to make it naturalistic? Food for thought. 

Privet Workshop Candidates:

            Candidates are sorted below by price. The prices have been set by the quality of the shoots, natural deadwood, and size. All are abundantly healthy and have rebounded since my recovery of these plants last August when they were torn out from a hedge row. In the workshop, we will perform branch selection, pruning, wiring, and possibly some carving of the bark off of dead areas to preserve future deadwood. As there is no power at the workshop tent carving will have to be saved for a future date but participants are welcome to stay in touch for advice on that element! I will also bring some older privet yamadori I have styled to show various techniques for generating taper in the branches and to show ideas for naturalistic deadwood. Participants should bring their own wire and tools (which other vendors at the show will surely be selling if you are in need!). A limited amount may be available for loaning.

            Note, I have many more privet from that dig if anyone else is interested. Some I do not plan to bring to the show are in potting soil as they were part of an experiment, but I have the data I need from them so experienced bonsai practitioners who want discounted yamadori privets (20% off) should message me or visit my nursery to see those options. Those in potting soil which I still have next spring will be repotted into more traditional bonsai soil before I sell them widely as a precaution.
S price point
M price point

M price point

L price point (and one small one which had natural deadwood I was in love with!)

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