2006 – Lightning


by Louis Buckingham

Auckland Bonsai Club


My Vision to Reality “Lightning” started when I first read John Nakas’ “Bonsai Techniques” books 1 & 2. I was fascinated by the sketches of his work on Junipers, especially ones with deadwood. Hence, whenever I went to garden centres. I would look for trees I could work on to have something similar. Unfortunately, most trees I found were too expensive for me at the time. In late 1998 while searching at “Plantarama” in Massey I found an unkempt looking juniper in poor condition. The tree had sparse foliage, mostly at the tips of its branches, however it did have a nice root flare, a strong trunk line, and good placement of the primary branches, and the price was right, a bargain at $10. Once home, the tree was fed and watered well to start the process of strengthening its health in preparation for re-growing the foliage in the correct places.

In the spring of 1999 it was cut back very hard, down to the lowest viable foliage bud on each primary branch, and repotted into a very open, free draining soil mix. I then started the process of “super feeding” the tree. For three years it was heavily fertilised and watered in order to push maximum growth out of it while it remained in the planter bag.

The method of super feeding used consisted of fortnightly feeding, alternating between foliar feeding and liquid feeding with relatively high N fertilisers. The soil contained a balanced N-P-K slow release fertiliser and also approx. 5% of Zeolite for its cation exchange capabilities. The open soil mix allowed for frequent watering to leach unused fertiliser without becoming waterlogged and also promoted a very fibrous root system. Super feeding allowd the tree to get sufficient fertiliser, water, and oxygen to enable it to grow as fast as possible.

When looking at a number of NZ grown juniper bonsai, I often notice at least one of three things which has occurred with the branches and foliage.

These three common errors I wanted to avoid as much as possible with my tree were;
1) Minimal secondary branches, the foliage appears to be growing directly off the primary branches.

2) Secondary branches or foliage pads that start too far away from the trunk line, leaving the tree looking like a “pom-pom” tree.

3) Secondary branches that have been allowed to become too “leggy” and the tree has almost non-existent foliage pads

After three years on the super feeding programme the juniper had re-established significant amounts of foliage a lot closer to the main trunk line. This enabled me to form the foliage pads closer to the trunk line and give a better aspect of relative size to the design.



As it was not pinched or pruned in any way up to this point, I was able to choose suitable sized secondary branches and position these in appropriate places to form the base for some nice foliage pads.


The development of the foliage pads has continued with a 2 year cycle regime of pinching the pads for one year and then in the second year a “thinning out” process used to eliminate young foliage growing in the branch axis, any dead foliage, and replacing of any secondary branches that are either too thick, unhealthy, or have become too crowded. This enables the tree to remain in presentation condition the majority of the time, and as it is one of my favourite trees it is often one I like to put in any public displays.

The three year growing period also allowed me to have a greater scope with the deadwood of the tree. This was an important element in my design vision.

The growing on stage enabled me to;
1) Establish the main sap flow of the tree.

2) Select which branches would be incorporated into the “live wood” and “deadwood” design elements.

3) Thicken any living branches which I would later require as deadwood.

During the first two years of the growing on stage I was able to see which branches would survive the drastic pruning required to force foliage back to the trunk line. Only one lower branch which was already earmarked as part of the deadwood element did not bud back. Over this period I was able to establish which branches were growing vigorously and which ones were weaker. I did not want weak branches in the final design as this would indicate poor sap flow and a lesser chance of them surviving. As the design only called for a limited number of branches I could not afford to have any die back on me at a later stage.

There were a couple of branches in the lower portion of the tree as well as the apex which were destined to become part of the deadwood element of the tree, however I wanted these as thick as possible to give me plenty of deadwood to work with and also so they would take longer to decay over time. The growing on stage enabled these branches to thicken and remain strong until the initial restyling.

A pot was purchased specifically for this tree. It was chosen for its neutral brown colour as well as its rounded corners to reflect the informal nature of the tree. It is a bit too deep for the tree however the root ball required a pot of this depth, with this in mind the pot was chosen with a raised dividing line through the middle to lessen the visual impact of a pot of this depth.


In Spring 2002 the tree was given its initial styling and potted into its pot. Unfortunately photos of this period have been lost due to a computer hard drive failure.


Since the initial styling there has been some work done on shaping the deadwood and also on building the foliage pads to the appropriate size, density, and putting them in the correct position. It is mostly in these two areas that my efforts continue in my refining of this bonsai.






The foliage pads are shaping up nicely. Over the last three years I have made some adjustments to the length and width of some of the pads. However my focus is now on ensuring their visual positions on the tree are correct. This involves keeping some pinched very hard back while letting others grow higher so they appear on a different level. This is necessary in the middle and upper portions of the tree. Examples of this are below.

Within the deadwood element of the design, there are six Jins and three Sharis. I have currently shaped four of these Jins although I would only call two of them “finished”. I still need to complete the other two that have had initial work done on them and completely work the remaining two, one of which is the apex. I have had to hold myself back from working on these until I am completely sure what I will do with them. This will require more practise on sticks and other less important trees.

I initially started to try to shape the deadwood using a “Dremel” power tool with various sizes and shapes of bits, however I was not happy with the result. This was because the Jins are too small for my carving attempts to look effective. Instead I resorted to the method of pulling wood fibers off with a pair of Jinning pliers. This has resulted in a more natural looking finish to the Jin. This was a valuable lesson learnt for any future work on deadwood, especially when it is so tempting to get the power tools out. The deadwood is painted with “Lime Sulphur” on an annual basis and I have found that by adding one drop of white poster paint, one drop of black poster paint, and one drop of silver poster paint to 20 mls of Lime Sulphur it leaves a nice colour when it dries, an almost silvery white colour which is not too stark looking.

The last area of the bonsai which needed refinement is an area on the lower portion of the trunk which shows a slight inverse taper. Over the last three years I have used a small hammer to gently tap the two areas I want to thicken up. This has improved the thickness of the trunk in the areas a bit, but will still require a few more years of tapping.

During the development of this tree I have improved my knowledge of bonsai and my confidence in a number of areas. Some of these are;

A. The idea that sometimes it is better to cut a plant hard back to its basic elements if it is unsuitable in its original form.

B. The “super feeding” technique brings on tremendous results if you cannot plant the tree in the ground for a few years. Studying the theory of super feeding also increased my knowledge of fertilisers and fertilisation techniques, and while developing a suitable soil mix for super feeding it also assisted me in developing my own soil mix and my general knowledge of growing media.

C. My knowledge of handling junipers and their foliage has improved tremendously, and as I have a number of juniper bonsai this is important. As junipers would be one of the most prevalent species for bonsai in New Zealand, I feel this knowledge will also benefit the NZ bonsai community at large as I can now pass this knowledge on.

D. My experience in working with deadwood has improved and will continue to improve as I progress on this tree. As deadwood is often a feature in my designs this is also beneficial to me.


When I was sure that the tree was starting to reach its potential I thought it needed a name, like all the great bonsai have. After much consideration I decided on calling the tree “Lightning”. To me the tree conjures up two images. The first image is of an old tree that has had its peak hit by lightning. The second, and stronger, image to me is of a lightning bolt striking through darks storm clouds with the Jins and Sharis forming the bolt of lightning and the foliage pads being the dark storm clouds. As I could not decide between calling the tree “Lightning Strike” or “Lightning Bolt” I settled for just “Lightning”.