One week at Bonsai Mirai

Earlier this year I had the amazing opportunity to spend a week with Ryan Neil at his bonsai garden just outside Portland, OR.  The week consisted of being surrounded by some of the most awesome native material I’ve ever seen.  Each day was spent in the workshop with Ryan and his French apprentice JP, styling one ancient tree after another.  Here are just a few of the photos from my week.

Day 1: Amazing bonsai and rain, welcome to Portland.010A combination of jet lag and excitment led to this first photo taken at 4 a.m. The workshop was filled with tress with many others on-deck.

008012 A massive California Juniper (right) and Sierra Juniper (left) dominated the workshop. The Sierra Juniper became my main project tree for the week. 011The dead wood on the Ca Juniper was unreal.

Day 2. The Garden

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Day 3: Project tree

033Before we started working on our project tree, Ryan had JP and I  draw three different design options. Ryan’s apprentice, JP is a graphic artist by trade which showed in his sketches.

031 Once we decided on the design, JP began cleaning the dead wood.

047Once the wood had been cleaned, Ryan began setting the major branches in place.049Once the structural branches were set in place I continued wiring the smaller branches. This took the better part of several days.

099I can’t wait to see this tree in a pot.

Day 4: Snow048  This morning I awoke to the garden covered in several inches of snow. I quickly grabbed my camera and got the following pictures.

057This was one of my favorite trees in the garden.

058062060077 079 080082 083 086084I think this was my favorite tree in the garden. I kept coming back to it over and over through out the week. The dead wood curving over the lip of the pot was so cool. It reminded me of Capt. Hook.

085The back of the tree was just as impressive as the front.

Day 5: The Greenhouse

100The greenhouse contained trees that had recently repotted or wired. This tree was very special because it came from John Naka’s collection. Even though I get to work on the 6 Naka trees at the Museum, I still have goosebumps when seeing any tree from the Naka collection.

107It also contained less hardy trees like California Oaks and Redwoods.


111112113Just a few Redwoods for one gnarly forest planting.

109Ponderosa pine grafted with Japanese Black Pine


Watch Ryan’s grafting technique here.

Day 6: Here comes the sun.

119 Sunrise and Da Hood

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Day 7: Photoshoot

At the end of the week it was time to assess all that we got done.


sierra juniper 11_005 095  california juniper 06_004050This was another tree I wired during the week.

douglas fir 05_001I want to thank Ryan for his generosity and hospitality in inviting me to his place. I have been to numerous bonsai gardens but Bonsai Mirai is a truly magical place. If your  wanting to take you bonsai skills to the next level, plan a trip to spend a week at Bonsai Mirai.


Bonsai grafting- scion technique

The ability to cut a piece off of a plant and then reattach (graft) it back on to itself or another tree is nothing short of miraculous. Grafting is an invaluable technique in bonsai as it allows the artist to determine the location of each branch on the tree. It also allows the artist to replace the foliage as I talked about in an earlier post on approach grafting.

The success of a graft depends on two things, proper technique and proper aftercare. I’m always trying to understand both of these aspects better and had the opportunity to ask bonsai pro, Ryan Neil about his grafting technique.

Ryan Neil @ Nature’s Way 2.0

Earlier this year I wrote about a work shop with Ryan Neil at Nature’s Way Nursery in Harrisburg, PA. Recently Ryan was back for another round of classes and this time I came with a video recorder.  The first video contains, in Ryan’s words, a “crash course” in Japanese Black, Red, and White pine care. I’ll be posting another video of Ryan explaining his grafting techniques.

Ryan Neil visits the Museum

Bonsai artist Ryan Neil recently made his first visit to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. Ryan was in the area conducting workshops and spent one of the few days he has off touring the Museum.

Ryan got a chance to see the entire Museum, including a portion of our Viewing Stone Collection.

Whenever we have a bonsai professional visiting we want to get their input on how they care for certain types of trees. Ponderosa Pine is known to be Ryan’s favorite species for bonsai so I asked him to go over his approach.

According to Ryan, in order to get back budding never bud/candle prune Ponderosa. Also do not remove any needles except those on the bottom of branches. The reason for this is that the more photosynthetic surface area the tree has the more energy it can invest in creating more buds. If Ponderosa are treated like Japanese Black Pine they will eventually weaken and die.

Ryan uses a 1:1:1: mix of Akadama, Lava, and Pumice for his Ponderosa. I asked if lava or pumice could be substituted for something like granite. He said that the porous nature of lava and pumice provides more pore space for water and air near the roots. Old collected Ponderosa like this one only need to be repotted every 15 years so long as you use a hard baked Akadama.

In the Chinese Collection Ryan was really drawn to a few of the antique containers like this lotus shaped pot. Here are some of the other Chinese pots that Ryan appreciated.Antique Chinese pot with blue-green glaze.

I asked him what he liked about this antique pot. He identified the black coloring created during the firing process when this pot came in contact with the fire. You can see that some of the glaze has actually bubbled off the pot. Ryan said this would have originally been considered a mistake by the potter however now it is what gives it more value.

He also liked this literati pine that I feature in a previous post, “The Graduation Progression of a Literati pine bonsai” He suggested that the main branch could be longer to really emphasize the Chinese character of the tree.

Perhaps the most significant piece of information I got came up when we were discussing the principles of the Clip and Grow technique.

For most bonsai enthusiasts, myself included,  the Clip and Grow technique is one of the basic concepts first learned when studying bonsai.

The concept outlined in every book I have ever read is that new growth can be directed by pruning to a bud which is pointing in the direction you want. What I have never come across is that this only works if you leave a stub above the bud you want to grow. Ryan showed me an example of what he was talking about with this Sageretia theezans.

You can see on this branch that there is a stub above the new shoot that is growing to the left. The reason for leaving a stub is that it forces the new growth away from the branch. If no stub is left the new growth will grow along the path of least resistance .

On this branch you can see no stub was left and the new growth is not growing away from the branch but continuing to grow straight.

All of us at the Bonsai Museum really enjoyed having Ryan here and look forward to his return visits.

Ryan Neil @ Nature’s Way Nursery

I first became aware of Ryan Neil in 2006 through Lindsay Farr’s World of Bonsai video series. At that time he was 2 years into his apprentice with Masahiko Kimura. At the close of the video, Mr. Farr said he ” will be watching Ryan’s career with great interest.”

The interest in Ryan has grown considerably since he finished his apprenticeship in 2010. He has become a headliner at European and U.S. bonsai shows and has also started his own garden, International Bonsai Mirai, where he is developing some of the nicest collected material I’ve seen in a long time.

This interest has also created a demand for him as a teacher which is why a few bonsai buddies and I traveled from DC to Harrisburg, PA, to attend a design workshop with Ryan at Nature’s Way Nursery.

Nature’s Way Nursery is owned and operated by Jim Doyle and his wife Mary Kay. In my opinion Nature’s Way is one of the best bonsai nurseries in the Mid-Atlantic region.

There you can find a variety of quality collected material…

… as well as more refined trees, like this Japanese Black Pine…

and a great selection of imported and custom pots.

The all day workshop was a B.Y.O.T. (bring your own tree) with 10 participants and a handful of silent observers. When it is a B.Y.O.T. workshop there is always a chance the material won’t be that good. Thankfully everyone brought some great trees. There was Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, Japanese Black Pine, and three different species of Juniper

Having taught workshops myself,  I’m aware of the challenges when working with a large group like we had. Ryan did a great job of managing his time between everyone while including the group when he was working with each person.

I was amazed by the quantity of knowledge Ryan was able to communicate to the group.  For 8 hours he simultaneously worked on trees while also discussing almost any aspect of bonsai you could imagine.

For me, the most refreshing thing about working with Ryan was his humility. He worked with each student and did not present his ideas as ultimate.He also did something I’ve never seen from a bonsai professional and that was to asked for the owner’s permission before he did anything with the tree.  Here he is showing Ben two possible design’s for his Douglas Fir.

Ben decided to go with the more naturalistic style for his amazing Doug Fir which he collected himself.

The tree I brought was an Itoigawa Juniper. I felt like the design was okay but I wanted to see if I could take it to the next level. Sometimes when you look at one of your trees for a long time you need a fresh perspective to see the potential that’s already there.

Here is my tree after the workshop. The front was rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise and the tree was slightly angled toward the viewer. We connected some of the existing jin’s with a shari, then continued it up the trunk. Ryan said I should wait for the freshly exposed wood to dry a little before applying lime sulfur. The foliage was thinned and the branches were arranged into smaller pads.

I purchased a new pot for the tree while at the Nursery and repotted it when I got home.The pot is by Nick Lenz and is a little smaller than the previous pot which makes the tree appear larger. The oval shape also complements the soft curves in the trunk. I was very please with how the tree turned out.

That night the drive back to D.C. went quick as my friends and I talked about all we learned and how great an experience it was.

As Ryan’s reputation continues to grow, the demand to work with him will become even greater. I recommend that if you have the opportunity to work with him you should take it. This November Ryan will be returning to Nature’s Way for another series of workshops and I am already planning my return trip.